Spoilers for episode six, "All Prologue," coming up just as soon as I light a $100 bill on fire...
"He's saying the past is always with us. Where we come from, what we go through, how we go through it -- all this s--t matters." -D'Angelo BarksdaleDesigned as a novel for television, each season of "The Wire" is usually greater than the sum of its weekly parts, but every now and then you get a particularly extraordinary part of the whole. Season one gave us "Cleaning Up," with the death of Wallace, Avon's arrest and Daniels standing up to Burrell and Clay Davis. And midway through season two, we get the brilliant "All Prologue."
"All Prologue" moves the plot along a fair amount: the detail figures out what the checkers are doing and how to track it, Nick gets deeper into bed with Vondas (and prepares to embark on a third career as a drug dealer), and Stringer makes a bold move of his own in hiring a hitman to murder D'Angelo. But it's also as character and theme-driven as any episode of the season so far, densely packed with one hilarious, or moving, or outright tragic moment after another.
It gets much of its power from focusing on McNulty and D'Angelo, who were the defacto co-leads of season one, and who have been intentionally marginalized to this point in season two. After trying to think outside the box of their respective institutions, each was severely punished: D'Angelo by having to take the biggest fall of anyone in the Barksdale crew, Jimmy with his exile to the boat. And "All Prologue" -- which is actually something of an epilogue to season one -- sees both men approaching what could or should be the end to their respective stories.
D more or less severs ties with his family and the larger Barksdale organization. The tragic irony of his death is that, while this decision is the last straw for Stringer, it plays out to us as evidence that Stringer had nothing to fear from D'Angelo. When you see D telling his mother to leave him alone -- in a moment as wonderfully played by Larry Gilliard Jr. as the famous "Where's Wallace?" scene -- you see that he is stronger, and better, than the family that raised him. He doesn't need them, not even to get out of prison sooner, and had Stringer not hired his hitman, D very likely would have spent the decade leading up to his parole hearing being a model prisoner, not worrying about selling out his family for a deal. This is the bed he made, and he was going to lie in it for 10-20 years. But because Stringer was so paranoid, D'Angelo is dead. And, as it does whenever a good person (as good as anyone can be, especially someone we met when he was skating on a murder charge) dies on "The Wire," it hurts, deeply, even though we know it's a fictional character.
It took some bravery on the part of David Simon, Ed Burns and company to bump off one of their two original leading men -- most showrunners would have seen how white-hot flaming incredible Gilliard was and contrived an excuse to keep him around -- just as it's brave to have McNulty be such a non-factor to this point of season two. Even Jimmy recognizes how useless he's become as a cop (the only thing he's ever really cared about being), so after failing to identify his Jane Doe and seeing Omar through the Bird trial, Jimmy prepares for "retirement." He'll still wear the badge, but he knows he has no hope of getting off the boat so long as Rawls has power, so he's just going to put his head down and slog through the days until he gets his 20-year pension. This would, appropriately, take about as much time as D would have needed to serve before being eligible for parole.
And where D'Angelo tries to separate himself from his kin and is killed for it, Jimmy desperately wants back in with his own family -- if he can't be a cop, maybe he can be a husband and father, and better than he was the first time around -- and is cast out by Elena (after one for the road, of course). No one trusts either man's motivations, even though D seems resolute about carrying his burden, and even though a Jimmy who isn't working murders might be capable of being a more functional human being.
Simon often compares "The Wire" to Greek tragedy (and has offered us a remorseless criminal organization whose head man is known as The Greek). He talks about how the characters are all set on a specific path -- by their families, by their socio-economic circumstances, by the institution they belong to, and by their own past actions -- that is all but impossible to get off of. The characters are only occasionally aware of how their lives are governed that way, but as D'Angelo discusses "The Great Gatsby" with the prison English class, he gets it -- even though he doesn't recognize how soon fate and his own past deeds are going to catch up to him.
But before we get the tragedy of D'Angelo, and the continued purgatory for McNutly, we get the comic masterpiece that is Omar Devone Little (who is himself a fan of Greek mythology) versus Maury Levy, JD.
Every other time we watch Maury at work, we have to cringe at his complete amorality even as we admire his tenacity and gift for turning pathetic-looking hands into winning ones. But damn, it's so nice to see him go up against a man who's not only just as smart, but beholden to no one and nothing but his own conscience. Maury can't outwit Omar, can't apply any sort of institutional pressure on him, and is left utterly speechless when Omar turns Maury's accusation of being a parasite of the drug game around on him: "I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. It's all in The Game, though, right?"
But that moment is only as fun to watch because we're aware of what an anomaly it is -- that the Omars of this world are few and far between, and that it'll likely be a long, cold time before we see Maury go down in utter defeat like this. The criminal justice system, for all its good intentions, is ideally set up for opportunistic parasites like Maury to make a meal of it, all while being treated as a respected (and feared) upright citizen of the community, where Omar is a loathed outlaw (albeit one who knows how to buy a snazzy track suit while still sticking to the letter of Ilene Nathan's "Anything with a tie" request).
I have so much more to say about "All Prologue," but I'm trying to get this done in advance of a holiday weekend (and I sincerely hope most of you have more exciting outdoor activities to do today and are reading this post on Monday), so we're going to go to the bullet points.
Some other thoughts on "All Prologue":
• Kima and Cheryl's relationship, and Cheryl's frustration at Kima's decision to return to active detective-work, comes to the forefront again beautifully as she insists on tagging along for Kima and Prez's strip club scouting mission. I particularly like the scene where Kima shows Cheryl a can like the one the girls died in to explain why she cares so much about these cases, because of the complicated way Melanie Nicholls-King plays Cheryl's response to the gesture. Cheryl does understand the importance of the case, but she also fears for her lover's safety, doesn't want to go through another shooting (or worse) like she did in season one, and would be much more comfortable if Kima's job didn't lead her to hanging around strip clubs. And, as Shardene's friend points out, can you blame her?
• On the Sobotka side of things, we see Sergei intervene with Prop Joe (who turns out to be Cheese's boss). And as Nick explains to Vondas why he doesn't just want to have Cheese taken out, Vondas' respect for the intelligence of Frank's nephew grows -- enough that he offers to pay Nick, Ziggy and Johnny 50 (who wants no part of it) in dope for the chemicals used to make it, since he knows Nick is smart enough to make a bigger profit on the drugs. Frank is a means to an end for Vondas, but he sees other possibilities for young Nico, no?
• Having yelled at and/or smacked Ziggy around for most of the first five episodes, Frank finally has a real conversation with his son here, and we get a much better understandings of the origins of the resentment that fuels so much of how Ziggy behaves. Though we've seen that Ziggy is good with computers, he didn't get to go to community college like his brother, but was instead drafted into the family business -- for which he was so ill-equipped, and for which he received virtually no benefit from being the son of the mighty Frank Sobotka. Most of the time, Frank seems like a noble villain -- he's working with The Greek for the good of the union, not himself -- but a scene like their conversation at the docks makes you wish he had been a little less selfless at some point, or at least willing to extend his beneficence to his real family at least as much as to his union brothers.
• Beadie continues to show growth as a smart detective, as she's the first member of the detail to recognize the criminal value of what the checkers do.
• Between Vondas (Greek), Sergei (Ukrainian) and now Etan (Israeli) -- not to mention Prop Joe (East Baltimore) -- The Greek has himself quite the international crime cartel, doesn't he? No concern about national or tribal loyalty -- just a shared love of profit.
• Dominic West has a lot of fun in the scene where McNulty is undressing the mannequin to distract Elena.
• Given how much of this episode functions as a season one coda, it feels appropriate -- and funny -- to have Judge Phelan back to tear into Bird during the sentencing. ("Are you Jesus Christ come back to Earth?")
• The ceremonial eyef--k that McNulty and Omar give Bird is a detail from David Simon's "Homicide" book, and was mentioned once on the "Homicide" series, though there it was referred to as "the ceremonial eyescrew" by Beau Felton.
• The prison English teacher is played by Richard Price, whose Dempsey novels are thematically very similar to what "The Wire" is doing -- and who will begin writing for the series starting in season three.
• I love Prop Joe's gift for turning a phrase, like when he tells Nick that, if not for Sergei, he and Ziggy would be "cadaverous motherf--kers."
And now it's time for the veterans-only section, where we talk about how things in this episode will play out later in the season, and the series:
• Stringer arranging D'Angelo's murder is the beginning of the end for him. That he gets away with it emboldens him to cut the deal with Prop Joe behind Avon's back, which leads to him pitting Omar against Brother Mouzone, etc. And while Avon eventually accepts the logic of Stringer's position after he finds out what happened to D, I don't know that he so easily rolls on his best friend if Stringer hadn't killed his nephew.
• At the time of this story, Kima is still faithful to Cheryl, but Cheryl will be proven right in the end about her partner's wandering eye.
• Here's a question: given how we saw Jimmy behaving with Beadie and her kids after he went back in uniform, might things have worked out for him and Elena had she taken him back here? He'll go on an alcoholic bender a few episodes from now, but that's only after she gives him the boot again and he feels completely hopeless. We see at the end of season three, and throughout season five, that his drinking and bad behavior are inextricably tied to him working as a detective. Had he and Elena reconciled here, he would have stayed in the stress-free life of a marine unit cop, would never have needed Bunk and Lester to plead for Daniels to rescue him from that purgatory, would never have been in a position to go after Marlo, etc., etc. I know with "The Wire" I'm always asking "What if?" even as David Simon tells me that the characters can't escape their destinies, but... what if?
• There was some debate in later seasons about whether Cheese was always written as Prop Joe's nephew, since early in season three there's talk of a mid-level dealer named Drac being Joe's nephew. But here, Joe complains about having multiple nephews in the game, all of them bumbling in some way, which allows for both Cheese and Drac to be kin.
• D'Angelo's killer is clever enough to fool the disinterested state cops, who'd rather not add an unsolved homicide to their stats, but not clever enough for McNulty, who'll figure out what really happened within minutes of entering that prison library next season.
• Omar will make use of the Get Out Of Jail Free card Ilene Nathan gives him in season four, and for a much greater charge than aggravated assault, after Chris Partlow frames him for murder.
• Nick's decision to take half the payment in dope is yet another brick in the path that will lead to Ziggy's ruin. Had Nick not chosen to sell drugs -- and proved to be so much better at it than Ziggy -- Ziggy would have one less resentment brewing inside himself when Double-G insults him for the final time.
• This is the last we'll see of Shardene until the series finale, I believe. Not a lot of room in "The Wire" to tell continuing stories of the characters who get a happy ending.
• Both Joe and Shardene's stripper friend say "Sheeeeeeeeit," which won't become Clay Davis's catchphrase until season 3.
Coming up next: "Backwash," in which Bodie goes flower-shopping, Joe has a proposition for Stringer and Rawls tries to dump the Jane Doe cases on the Sobotka detail.
I have jury duty early next week, and depending on how long it lasts, the next review may be pushed back a few days. Based on my past experience, I'm probably not going to get paneled, but if I do, I hope we get a witness one-tenth as colorful as Omar.
What did everybody else think?