Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Wire, "Soft Eyes": Parallel lines

Spoilers for episode two of "The Wire" immediately following (UPDATE: I fixed the bad HTML coding I used on Sunday night, so the post should all be readable now)...

David Simon is fond of parallels on this show, whether it's Bunny Colvin and Stringer Bell reciting the same last words at their respective firing/execution or the sequence last week where the cops and teachers both had to suffer through completely pointless motivational speeches. But I've rarely seen an episode (written by David Mills and directed by Christine Moore) where so many incidents echoed each other, including:
  • Herc and Carcetti both catch Royce with his pants down (Herc both figuratively and, unfortunately for us at home, literally), and get some guidance from the ol' Prince of Darkness himself, Stan Valchek, on how best to exploit this;
  • Cutty's landscaping boss and Bubbles both express a desire to branch out and cover more territory, if only their respective associates were willing (in Cutty's case) or able (in Sherrod's case);
  • Marlo and Cutty both take an interest in Michael after seeing something unexpected in him (for Marlo, the fearless stare; for Cutty, the fast hands); and, my favorite
  • Namond and Clay Davis express the exact same opinion about taking anybody's money if they're giving it away.

It's not just a cute storytelling device, but a means of illustrating how everyone in this city is connected. No matter what their socio-political status -- a blue-collar worker or a dope fiend, a state senator or a corner kid -- everyone is dealing with the same problems and concerns, just on different scales, and actions taken on all levels have a way of reaching out and affecting all other levels. Over the course of this season, decisions will be made in City Hall and police headquarters that will trickle all the way down to people like Bubbs or Namond, while random street events in turn alter the fate of the entire city.

What interests me most is something that the episode purposely glosses over. As Carcetti is making mincemeat of Royce in the debate, poor Tony Gray is off to the side, not even a factor anymore. In the final scene, Namond flips on the debate just long enough to hear Tony talk about how Carcetti's anti-crime approach is nice, but if they don't do something about the schools and keeping kids off corners, that won't matter. Namond, of course, quickly switches this off to play a first-person shooter game that feeds into the same glorification of violence that he gets from his father and the entire corner culture. The sad thing is that -- at least in the show's worldview, which we'll get more of once the school year starts in episode three -- Tony Gray is 100% right. The best, maybe only way to turn the tide on the inner-city drug problem is to keep future generations from getting involved with it at all and wait for the Marlos and Prop Joes to die off.

But that's not happening. Instead, you have Marlo taking a triumphant circuit through his kingdom, handing out cash to all the young'uns, which makes him a more popular figure with them than the cops and furthers the legend he cares so much about creating. As one of his sidekicks says, "Your name gonna ring out, man."

We learned more about the kids this week, especially Namond, Michael and Dukie. (And that's the correct spelling of Dukie, per HBO; I had assumed it was Dookie because kids made fun of the way he smelled.) Namond may have Wee-Bey's genes but not an ounce of his toughness or drive, judging by how happily he turned his corner job over to Michael and how his role at Cutty's gym is simply to spot Michael on the bag. But with a mom and dad both pushing him into the family business, what's a young'un to do? Michael, meanwhile, impresses Marlo and Cutty. There's a lot he's holding in, a glimpse of which you get when he stares down Marlo. And while Dukie's junkie family was mentioned last week, it's one thing to hear about his living situation and another altogether to see it, even one awful glimpse; that scene where Crystal dropped off the clothes from school was a heart-breaker.

In addition to Wee-Bey, episode two brought back several other notable supporting characters. Clay Davis is once again stretching out "Sheeeeit" with style; he's one of the most despicable figures this show has ever featured, and yet the way Isiah Whitlock Jr. plays him makes me glad to see the corrupt bastard again. Cutty's still running his gym (complete with benefactor Avon's Gold Gloves photo on the wall) and discovering that he can get more out of it than the warm fuzzies of helping kids. As a strapping, law-abiding adult male in this neighborhood, is it any wonder all the single moms are lining up to seduce him with their bodies and their cooking (not necessarily in that order)?

And it did my heart good to see Bubbs again, serving, like Prez and Cutty and Marlo and even Lester, as a youth mentor. Andre Royo just fills Bubbs with so much enthusiasm and good cheer, then slays you with the way he plays the getting high scene in Bubbs' ratty little squat-hole. And the looks Bubbs and Prez trade at the middle school office were priceless.

We also got expanded looks at two other notable new characters: Donut, the junior car thief who's sort of like the fifth Beatle to Randy, Michael, Namond and Dukie's fabulous foursome; and Officer Walker, the nasty uniform cop who lifts Randy's $200.

In my magnum opus about the genius of the show from August, I referred to Lester as the only character in the show's history who remains completely pure. Having rewatched his scene with Rhonda Pearlman, I may have to reassess. Lester can couch what he's doing all he likes in his "I'm just a po-lice" line, but he's absolutely pulling a McNulty here, fucking with people as much because he knows he can get away with it as because he thinks it needs to be done. And he's potentially setting up Ronnie to be sent to the State Attorney's office equivalent of the pawn shop detail. Definitely not the nicest thing he's ever done, even if it was right to do it.

(And in describing Lester that way in the column, I feel I may have short-changed Sydnor. I can't remember him ever doing anything especially shady or even self-interested. Then again, that could just be because he generally gets the least screen time of the MCU members, save coupon-clipping Caroline. Still, I liked his willingness to deliver the subpoenas with Lester and Kima, and the bit about the Sphinx Club in Clay Davis' office.)

Other random thoughts:

  • Nice bit in the debate prep where Tommy, having just blown off Norman and Theresa to take a call from his wife, gets off the phone and recites every detail of their debate strategy. If race weren't a factor, Tommy would be wiping the floor with Royce.
  • Prez's Johnny Cash collection gets another workout. In season two, we got a montage of the MCU advancing the port case as Prez listened to "Walk the Line," while he cleans gums off the desks here to "Ring of Fire." That sequence also reminded me of the bits from early in seasons one and two where Daniels, Prez and the rest had to turn the MCU's makeshift lodgings into useful workspaces.
  • Is that bedroom scene with Rhonda the most light-hearted we've ever seen Daniels? He tells jokes, he does impressions, he laughs, pillow-fights, etc. Amazing. I barely knew Lance Reddick had teeth before this.
  • Speaking of people enjoying themselves, I have to wonder how much of Carver's reaction to Herc's story was scripted and directed that way and how much was Seth Gilliam's inability to keep a straight face. Either way, it worked; I know that I wouldn't have been able to avoid a massive cackling fit at hearing the story, especially after Herc's suggestion of what he should have said. Just a hilarious scene all around.
  • Also another strong episode for establishing the grown-up Carver, who's about to recreate that awful "Shaft" chase scene from the season three premiere until he remembers that he knows all the kids.
  • Of course Snoop owns a Tony Montana t-shirt. Of course she does. For those of you who know anything about pistol marksmanship, whose form impressed you the most: Snoop, Chris or Marlo himself?
  • The scene with Detectives Norris and Holley arguing over who should answer the phone was, if not word-for-word from the first Beau Felton/Kay Howard scene in the "Homicide" pilot, then a damn close approximation, and I'm pretty sure the uniform cop's crime scene retort -- "Yeah, I asked who shot him. He said it was the guy with the gun." -- also appeared in some form on that show. The guy who wrote the "Homicide" book oughta sue... Oh, wait...
  • Have we ever not seen Landsman reading a skin mag when he's in his office? And if the fictional Landsman (the chubby Homicide sergeant) ever met the real Landsman (the skinny guy with the mustache who's the Western's second-in-command, as well as the inspiration for John Munch), would the space-time continuum fold in on itself?
  • Did you catch that one of Prez's new colleagues is Cutty's girlfriend from his pre-prison days? I guess she decided the suburbs weren't enough of a challenge for her.
  • In the interests of full disclosure, this episode was written by David Mills, who's been a friend of mine going back to his days on "NYPD Blue," not to mention Simon's partner on their first "Homicide" script (the great "Bop Gun") and in writing and producing the HBO version of "The Corner." Doesn't make the script any less great.
Lines of the week:
  • Herc to Carver: "I said, 'Mr. Mayor, that's a good strong dick you got there, and I see you know how to use it!'"
  • Bubbs apologizing to a customer for Sherrod's math skills: "Thank you very much. Intern, I'm workin' with him."
  • Clay Davis, multiple times: "Sheeeeit!"
  • Clay Davis: "I take any motherfucker's money if he giving it away!"

As of now, I think I'm going to stick with the current publishing schedule: full reviews posted immediately after the episode airs on HBO, followed by an open thread for comments on the On Demand episode the next day for the folks who can't wait to talk. But I don't want that to turn these longer posts into a ghost town, comments-wise. Keep the chatter coming; much like the return of Bubbs, seeing so much enthusiastic discussion of the show does my heart good.


Anonymous said...

Great recap, Alan. Love that you provide so much detail and insight.

Quick question - who is Andre, and why is he bugging Monk/Marlo? I missed the point of that scene (besides setting up the surveillance scene later).

Alan Sepinwall said...

Andre works in the Marlo Stanfield organization. Beyond that, wait till next week. Trying not to say too much, too soon.

A.H. said...

As regards the 'awful' chase scene in season 3, are you suggesting it was awful because it demonstrated the misguided, yee-haw, warlike thinking of police enforcement in the western district or just that it was awful in itself? I thought it was an excellent piece of first episode analogy (not to mention that Carver's angry bellowing of empty threats into empty bushes echoes as a less eloquent summation of Carcetti's end-season monologue, with both of them advocating hardline stances in the War on Drugs, and neither recognising the futility of such stances, when even Slim Charles can acknowledge we might be fighting on a lie).

Alan Sepinwall said...

The former, alastair. The scene was hilarious, but a perfect illustration of how futile the department's current approach to the War on Drugs was.

thekeez said...

You mentioned a shift in Lester's character - pulling a "McNulty." The Wire has exhibited a knowledge of family systems before. The basic idea comes out of psychology and was developed dealing with kids with drug problems.

Therapists noticed that when they removed the drug user from the family and cleaned him up - one of two things would happen when returned to the family: either the kid would start using again, or more interestingly, if the kid stayed straight, then someone else in the family would start using.

The drugs were not the underlying problem - the hidden problems of the family pressured certain family members to act out - usually as a distraction to the real problems.

We've seen this on The Wire. As McNulty cleaned up last season, Kima started acting out drinking and carousing. And now that McNulty has taken himself totally out of the MCU's family unit, Lester is starting to pull the McNultys.

Daniels is relaxing, because he's out of that screwy family system as least for the moment...thekeez

John Coulter said...

excellent recap.

Herc is an idiot, so possibly I could see him not understanding that he was in the cat-bird seat, but for Carver not be able to tell him the same exact advice that Valchek gave him, stretches it a bit. They must be setting it up for later, that Valchek needs to know about the bj as well...

A.H. said...

One of the other things I like about that car chase, of course, is its strict adherence to the show's insistence on incidental music (barring the traditional end of season montage), with Herc's tape heard only when the viewer should hear it

And well-spotted on the callback to that moment, which I missed. 'Just like old times,' says Herc, but it's not. Carver this year has become something of a super-cop, having learnt loyalty from Daniels, repaid Colvin with that lesson, and picked up proper community policing from the latter in turn. That development from the smart but sloppy weasel character we meet in season one is striking, and yet another testament to the superlative writing on this show.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Speaking of characters growing dramatically since the first season, I neglected to mention Bodie's scene with Carver and Bunk. He knows Lex is dead, and he also knows that he has to stay on Carver's good side, so he gives a specific answer to their questions. He's another guy who didn't know his ass from a hole in the ground while working the low-rises with Wallace, Poot and D, and while he hasn't exactly become a king on the chess board, he's doing a good imitation of, say, a rook.

RoxieVelma said...

I absolutely love reading your recaps, Alan. Seems like each time I discover something I never noticed in the episode. It's always good having another set of eyes watching to see what I've missed. LOL

I decided to rewatch the Freamon/Pearlman scene and it's more than obvious to me now, that Freamon found McNulty's old personality that he left in the desk drawer when he left. Although, I think Pearlman learned something from her old bed mate too. "Fuck procedure, Lester", ahh I wonder who she could have picked that up from.

I was glad to see that Daniels had a personality after all. Rhonda must be treating him good. Somewhere, I'm sure Marla's pissed off though. The whole scene with them in bed reminded me of Davenport and Furillo on "Hill Street Blues". I loved that show, even if it started airing the year I was born.

Anonymous said...

Wow. That's one comprehensive review. I really don't have anything to add, but there's so much to respond to:

Didn't we know Cutty's old girlfriend worked at the school? I thought he caught up with her in the school parking lot.

For a man who didn't want to deliver subpoenas, Sydnor sure seemed at ease in Clay Davis' office.

I don't have Season 3 on hand, but during that season doesn't Daniels always loosen up a little bit when he and Rhonda are alone together? The scene last night was much more dramatic, of course, and I agree it was fun to see him laughing -- Reddick didn't even get to do that when he was on _Oz_.

I know you're playing it cagey about the rest of the season, but it's quite clear Lester's being set up for a fall. As thekeez already noted above, Lester's displaying the cockiness that McNulty showed in Season One, and he will end up paying for it. It's easy to forget that as clever and McNulty and Freamon can be, Rawls is no slouch, either.

What's really interesting is that McNulty's indignation was part of the character from the beginning, whereas we've seen Lester's frustration grow over the past three seasons. In particular, Lester was supposed to be the meditative one, at peace with his lot on the force. He was supposed to be sidelined good police, but not a cocky crusader (anymore). I'm not sure I completely believe the way he's slipped into McNulty's shoes, but I will say this -- he played Rhonda very shrewdly, much more tactically than McNulty ever could. In this way he's very similar to Carcetti -- both men know they're in the right, and both men have the tactical skills to cause some trouble, but they cannot succeed on their own. Men like Rawls and Royce are always in the better position, and the past few seasons have communicated just how much that fact can eat away at men like Carcetti, Freamon, and (in retrospect) McNulty. Maybe if McNulty starts carving little doll furniture the circle will be complete.

I also know you're being cagey about Tony Gray, but I have assumed he will take greater prominence as the season progresses. It has been made eminently clear that Carcetti has no hope of winning unless Gray takes a bite out of Royce's base. This means we'll either visit the Gray camp or that they'll be some information sharing between Carcetti and Gray (maybe they'll make up). Now I don't necessarily expect either Gray or Carcetti to win, but if Gray doesn't land a punch on Royce there will be no drama in the political storyline.

Finally, one of the few points you didn't address -- What's up with the title of the episode, the "soft eyes" that the one teacher mentions to Prez? Is it supposed to be a cryptic comment? Is it a reference to something? I can find some references to Buddhism (contrasting viewing the world with hard eyes versus soft eyes), but most of the quotes are indirect.

The meeting betwen Prez and Bubs was priceless. The way we see Bubs' reaction before Prez enters the frame was brilliant.


Anonymous said...

To further your theory on the most "pure" characters on the show, how about Rawls? Sure, it's pure self-serving malevolence, but it's pure nonetheless. The only time I can think when he wasn't as such was at the scene of Kima's shooting, and consoling McNulty afterward, back in Season One.

I have had the privilege of being able to view the first five episodes of this season, I'll advise everyone to remember the phone call from "Old Face" Andre. He will show up in the next couple of episodes.

Gotta go with Marlo for the most impressive marksmanship, if only because it was two guns, two hands, and everything was falling off the branch.

Cinemania said...

Soft eyes is nothing more than rather standard edu-speak for being sensitive to your students. Becoming sensitive to people rather than systems is something that is new to Prez.

Anonymous said...

Alan- your work (and the comments from your posse) is excellent. Everybody's insight really enhance the enjoyment of this deep, fascinating program.

Re: the show itself- I can't say I've heard a false word yet. Especially from Carcetti- he is spot-on accurate as a political candidate struggling with a tiring campaign while trying to maintain touch with his family, and serving his constituents. Have any of the writers served in any campaigns?

Unknown said...

On Herc -- he may not be the brightest star in the sky, but he's no dummy either. He clearly knows that being the Mayor's bodyguard to the path to detective. And he knows, you can bet others in the dept. know too. Which means that there has to be a lot of competition for those spots. So he must have something going for him in order to get it. I am curious about something though: when Royce is considering firing him, his aide tells him that Herc's "rabbi" is: ___? Did anyone catch who it was?

Anonymous said...

He said it was Hoskins/Hopkins, the lieutenant on the mayor's security detail, being the one who brought him in, from what I could tell. Of course the point is that they're understandably unaware of his lines to higher brass, ie Valchek.

As for marksmanship, Marlo, when he put one "in each tit" as it were, demonstrating a fair degree of precision, assuming that was his intention. Snoop on the other hand missed Poot completely, but to be fair she was standing up on the back of a motorcycle.

Anonymous said...

Isn't Dukie's full name "Duquesne" (sp?)? I thought his nick functioned both as a comment on his smell and as just a nickname.

I sure hope Cutty's influence wins out over Marlo's where Michael is concerned, but I'm not hopeful, given everything we've seen the past few seasons.

Herc & Carver are better together than apart. And I do wonder when Valchek is going to fill someone else in on Royce's extra-mayoral activities because I just can't see Valchek keeping that secret forever. I'm sure a scenario will crop up where it will be politically expedient for him to blab all about it.

Anonymous said...

I just LOVED the smile on Herc's face when Carver started to chase the kids. And then a moment after that he's like "It's just like old times!" How cute! I love Herc, even though he's all brawn and not a lot of brains.

Devin Mitchell said...

Surprised no one mentioned how Valchek told Carcetti about the murdered state's witness but neglected to reveal the huge bombshell in Royce's affair with the staffer. He'll support Carcetti's campaign to a point, but not if it endangers another cop.