Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Wire, "Know Your Place": Childhood's end

Spoilers for "The Wire" episode nine, "Know Your Place," just as soon as I throw away my cell phone...
"Maybe it's changing. The city, the way things work, or don't. Maybe we're turning a corner here, and it's not going to be so unbelievably fucked up anymore." -Cedric Daniels
Oh, Colonel. Have you watched this show before? Haven't you realized by now that "unbelievably fucked up" is your universe's default operating mode, and that small changes like a new mayor or a new CID commander can't really change that?

For all the progress that's happened in last episodes, we can see how hopeless the situation remains. We can see it in Herc screwing over both Bubbs and Randy and being too dumb and self-interested to care. We can see it in Prez having to abandon all the progress he's made with his class in favor of "teaching the test." And most of all, we can see it in Michael deciding that the only person who can help him save his brother is Marlo, the devil his own self.

From our universal point of view, where we know how bad Marlo is and how relatively good people like Prez and Cutty are, we know that Michael's about to sell his soul without having to. But when you're Michael Lee and you live an existence where your mom's boyfriend molested you with impugnity, where your close friend Randy bears the scars of being "helped" by social services, where you see how dysfunctional and useless The System is, and where being molested has conditioned you to be afraid of any man who gets too friendly, where else are you going to turn?

As we've heard and seen all along, Michael's smart. He knows he's damning himself here. You can see it in those looks he keeps throwing Dukie as he walks away from him and towards Marlo. When Omar, taking the God's-eye view from a vacant apartment, sees Michael, he tells Renaldo, "He just a kid." Not anymore. Not anymore.

Really, the only way that Michael's situation could be worse was if he was in some way connected to bull in a china shop Herc, who gives up Randy's identity to Little Kevin in a pathetically futile interrogation, then goes back on his word to Bubbs, leading to his worst beating yet from the bullying fiend. (A pipe? Damn.) And poor Randy doesn't even realize how badly he's been screwed over, basking in his applied math homework at the dice game and getting Prez to buy him candy at cheap prices. Watching the episode again, knowing that the Little Kevin scene was coming up, Randy's oblivious smile at Prez just killed me.

Prez, meanwhile, is starting to understand the futility of the school system. I know some people have accused the scenes where the teachers gather to be too blatantly didactic, but I don't think they're any more obvious than, say, Bunk tearing into Omar last season for his influence on the kids or Bunny delivering Ed Burns' paper bag theory to the troops. I particularly liked Prez beginning to apply police and corner concepts (points on the package, juking the stats) to the situations confronting him in school. (Note also that the 10-point bump the school board wants is the same as the crime rate reduction the DNC people asked Tommy to get.) That teaching the test scene was just brutal, especially the moment when Dukie sums up the story correctly but Prez feels like he has to keep going until someone phrases it exactly as it's written in the answer key.

And while Prez tries to drill meaningless answers into his kids' heads, Bunny and Prop Joe both get some schooling in how limited life on the west side can be, Bunny with his disastrous field trip to the steak house, Joe in his dealings with Old-Face Andre.

I felt awful for Namond, Darnell and Zenobia; Bunny might as well have taken them to a place where no one spoke English, for all they could understand of what was happening in that place. (In hindsight, there's probably a stepping-stone between McDonald's and Ruth's Chris where the kids would have been impressed but not completely intimidated.) The kids began the night on their best behavior, down to Namond grooving to Billie Holliday, but by the time that dinner was finished, they were so worn down that they all retreated to their familiar troublemaking patterns. Of course, it's perfectly in keeping with corner culture in general and Namond's personality in particular that the next morning, their shell-shocked trip had been transformed into an amazing night to make the other kids jealous.

Prop Joe, meanwhile, tries to school Andre, both on the fungibility of mid-level drug operators and the need to get the hell out of town. But as we saw in the past with Wallace, if West Baltimore is the only place you've ever known, the outside world -- even another nearby city like Philly -- is, again, like a foreign country. Andre's not even a likable character and I felt terrible for him as he begged Chris and Snoop to kill him at home instead of the vacants.

Speaking of men who don't want to leave Baltimore (even though he did just that between seasons one and two), a few weeks ago, Omar showed how well he understood Bunk when he guilted him into looking into Andre's story. Tonight, Bunk returned the favor by forcing Omar -- the only character on this show whose belief in keeping his word is absolute -- to promise to stop killing. A non-lethal Omar is a very different fellow, though so long as only he, Bunk and Renaldo know about the promise, he can still put the fear into the corners.

And getting back to the futility of effecting change, Tommy starts to run into the realities of trying to reform an entrenched city government. In one corner, he has Burrell, who may be a bad cop but is one hell of a survivor. In another, he has the president of the city council and her jealousy over Tommy and Tony cutting in front of her to replace Royce. But the question, as it always seems to be for our resident politician, is how much he even cares about effecting reform versus effecting the advancement of Tommy Carcetti. The line about running for governor could have just been to mollify his new opponent, but that meeting with the DNC last week has given Tommy eyes bigger than his stomach. Exactly how much can Daniels' new hero accomplish if he intends to be out of office in two years?

Some other random thoughts:
  • One of the most telling bits of throwaway dialogue: when Carcetti is meeting with the real-estate developer to find a project he can slap his name on, the guy mentions that the marine terminal "unfortunately is still a working enterprise." Of course he would say "unfortunately." In his worldview, places of blue-collar employment exist only to be converted into expensive homes and playgrounds for white-collar people.
  • Some nice "everything's connected" edits this episode: the female teacher realizes her car was stolen, followed by an immediate shot of her parking sticker on the bumper, Donut getting out of the car and walking past Bodie and Namond; or Omar and Renaldo driving away from Old-Face Andre's, and as the van recedes into the background, Randy and Dukie walk past, brain-storming about how to raise the money for the on-line candy buy.
  • Poor Kima. Tries to finally do right by Cheryl and the kid she never wanted, only to find out that she's been completely replaced and the kid reacts to her like she's a total stranger. A deal's a deal, but unlike Omar, Kima's been known to break her word a time or two; how long do you suspect she keeps paying?
  • The return of Poot didn't come with a lot of fanfare, did it? It's amazing how he and Bodie seemed like kids themselves only four seasons ago and now look like grizzled veterans compared to the likes of Namond, Donut and, especially, little Kennard. ("He don't think I can jail? Sheeeeeit!") Of course, J.D. Williams (Bodie) is close to 30, so the more impressive feat was him seeming so young in the early days; don't know how old Tray Chaney is in real life.
  • Anyone recognize that cover of "Don't Leave Me This Way" playing in Prop Joe's shop when he meets with Andre?
  • It wasn't until Cutty mentioned it to Carver that I made the Wee-Bey to Namond to Cutty connection. D'oh! And here I had just been thinking that Cutty tolerated Namond's presence because he was friends with Michael. I'm really not that bright, sorry.
Maybe my note-taking wasn't as thorough this week, but there weren't a ton of great stand-alone Line of the Week candidates, so instead I present this dark but funny exchange between Andre and Slim Charles:
"I thought you was my escort out."
"In a manner of speaking, that be true."
What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

My favorite line this week came from Daniels: "To Carcetti!" It's sad to see how politically naive the cops are, despite the fact that they see all kinds of human behavior in their jobs and their department. Similarly for Rawls asking why Carcetti doesn't just get rid of Burrell.

And while Hauc's goofy incompetence was mostly a source of comic relief in earlier seasons, now that he's been promoted and is no longer partnered with someone of equal rank and greater sense, he's become outright dangerous. If, or rather when, word of Randy's snitching gets back to Chris or Marlo, I don't think they'll say "he's just a kid". Bubbles, on the other hand, is a survivor, but it's not clear if he'll be able to take another beating or trust the cops again.

Anonymous said...

Re: Herc, who'd have thunk a politician getting a blowjob would have such serious repercussions?

Not I.

Anonymous said...

One thing I've been wondering a lot: What will happen if anyone outside Tilghman Middle hears that kids have been learning in school "about" gambling, selling drugs, etc.? This would be just the right political script to provoke (misguided) outrage, along the familiar lines of "look how those morally ambivalent intellectuals have failed to teach kids what's Good And Proper". This would be a great opportunity to dissect the misguided media coverage in the mid 1990s concerning the Oakland school board's Ebonics decision.

You may not recall this, because it was rarely accurately reported in the media: that board decided to reach out to kids who grew up with African American vernacular ("Ebonics") as their primary dialect and who performed poorly in Standard English. The idea was simple: start from what the kids already know, then teach them how their dialect is different from Standard English, so as to help them become more proficient at writing in the latter. This was a pedagogically very sensible thing to do, but recall the public reaction to the misperception that the school was trying to teach the kids Ebonics. The school, of course, did no such thing, as the kids already knew Ebonics perfectly well, they just didn't know how to translate what they would say into acceptable written Standard English.

We might see something very similar in the fictional Baltimore school system: I'm sure you can easily imagine that someone would express outrage upon hearing that some academic tried to teach kids how to be good corner boys. Which, as we know, would be a distortion of reality, but then again that hasn't ever stopped anyone from being outraged nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Adam said...

Re: Herc, who'd have thunk a politician getting a blowjob would have such serious repercussions?

Not I.

Wouldn't that be "The Peter Principle"? :)

Alan Sepinwall said...

Black Thought, you're right. This is what happens when I don't read my notes thoroughly enough. Fixed.

Matty said...

re: Cutty

It's funny that we see Cutty as one of the relatively good people on this show, since just a season ago he was trying to get back into the street life. Thinking back on it, that should be a difficult adjustment for viewers to accept. The writers and Chad Coleman make us believe it without a second thought. Great character.

Anonymous said...

Black Thought and Alan,

I've also been wondering will it ever come out the the students and staff about what Prez did to that boy in season 1 - hitting him with the butt of his gun rendering him blind in one eye - ? Prez has built up a certain amount of credibility in the school, particularly with certain students, that that revelation would obviously be very damaging.

Also, I'm a teacher and I've also wondered about what a previous anon had mentioned about playing craps in the classroom. How would that fly if it got out of the school walls?

Anonymous said...

Favorite line. . .

Re: Namond.

"Him? From Webay?"

Anonymous said...

I'm waiting for Prez's teaching methods to come back and bite him in the ass, too. Or rather, I'm fearing it will happen because I like Prez and I like his interaction with the kids.

Friggin' Herc is such a friggin' tool :(

Anonymous said...

Is Michael's assessment of Cutty accurate?

After Michael tells Dookie what he thinks of Cutty, Cutty is shown holding a boxing bag for another boy, but his gaze up and down the boy's body is downright creepy.

Bill K

Anonymous said...

I think his "gaze up and down the boy's body" is just that of a coach checking his student for proper form and footwork. I don't think Cutty is a pedophile. I'm pretty sure the whole point of Michael getting creeped out by Cutty and Prez is to show how he has been so traumatized by past abuse that he can no longer distinguish between helpful, well-intentioned adults and predatory pedophiles. It's tragic.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Yeah, Cutty's not a pedophile. He just has the crazy eyes, so when he's interacting with young men, it can create that illusion.

Anonymous said...

Tray Chaney that plays POOT on the show is 26 years old.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering the same thing about Cutty. He does make mention about how cute Michael is in one scene--taking special interest in him and also laying hands on him from time to time. I do think Cutty's basically well-intentioned at this point, but I definitely think Michael's sense is not just from his past. Cutty could creep a person out--not just with his eyes.

The funny thing is that Michael is very affectionate himself--with Bug, of course, but also with Dukie. It's very sweet, paradoxical.

Anonymous said...

"Where did you learn your game?" dice game escort.
Randy, "Edward Tilghman Middle."

"You going to do as he say?" Namond.
"f*** no. As soon as I get this sh** off, I'll be running his a*** all over town," Donut.

Some of my favorite lines from the vicinity of this episode.

Anonymous said...

Having just watched the episode I would say the only conceit was the police car hanging around with its lights flaring long enough for Bubbs to arrange his little set up before coming shooting past as if on queue.

Anonymous said...

Is Snoop's little sister in Prez's class? There is definetely someone in the class that looks a lot like her and I think Namond says something about it to Snoop in an earlier episode?

Anonymous said...

It hurts so bad to see Herc's stupidity in action.

Unknown said...

My favorite exchange of the episode-

Poot - Society say I deserve a second chance.
Herc - Oh yeah? which one of these guys is Little Kevin?
Poot - I don't know no one named Kevin.
Herc - Society can bite my dick.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm way late on this, by my fav line of the episode:

Kima: I'm working Homicides.
Bubbs: So if the bad boy happen to kill me, you can help me out then right?

Anonymous said...

This show is definitely the greatest of all time but how is Burrell leaving Carcetti "to play nine" at the same time of year that Omar and Bunk are leaving the prison with snow on the ground?

Unknown said...

Also extremely late here, but one of my favorite lines was Chris Partlow as he's walking Old Face Andre to the vacant:

"I got your back."

Oh, the audacity.

Ahmedkhan said...

Omar - "You my ride?"
Bunk - "I'm your m*****f****** savior, is what I am."

That's the opening exchange in this, the latest of the four conversations between Bunk and Omar over the course of the series, and I have to say I rank their conversations among the highest of the very highest of the all the great memorable moments of The Wire. Omar makes Bunk's life as murder police miserable by being so very active with his shotgun and is to Bunk the embodiment of so many of the forces behind the decline of far too many communities in Baltimore. Bunk has let him know this ever since Season 1 with his "A man must have a code" sarcastic quip. Yet there has developed an improbable bond between these two. Bunk senses that Omar will honor his word while Omar has come to respect Bunk - not many people, particularly not police, could find the words to get under Omar's skin and make him reflect the way Bunk did in their street meeting in Season 3. Their relationship is different from that developed between McNulty and Stringer. McNulty was obsessed with sparring with Stringer, who provided him with an intellectual challenge he found exhilarating. Exasperation describes Bunk's attitude toward Omar. It's not inconceivable that either Bunk or Omar would now, after all this time, feel a profound sense of loss at the other's departure. Neither would make a sloppy, maudlin display of sadness nor shift into a somber mood like McNulty's immediate reaction to Stringer's death, but both would definitely experience a sense of loss. For someone whose code shunned any form of cooperation with the police, Omar has cultivated a healthy measure of professional respect for some of them, i.e. Bunk, Kima, and McNulty.

Bill Ed said...

Best Line: Bodie--
"Now look, this is what is wrong with the criminal justice system right here! (players) get locked up but don't stay that way!"
To Poot: "What, you snitching and s***?"

Anonymous said...

Funniest line of the episode for me came from Zenobia, after Darnell tucks his napkin into his shirt at Ruth's Chris:
Put that on your lap fool. You see anybody else up in here looking all Fred Flintstone and shit?

Coretta said...

So much in this episode, but as an extremely proud Tuskegee University graduate and active duty Air Force officer I took great pleasure in spotting Michael in a Tuskegee Airmen T-Shirt while at home with Bug and his step dad. Same pleasure I took in the couple of George Washington Carver/"62" ways with a Peanut references from Bunk and the other Homicide Detective in this and a previous episode. Shout out to those Tuskegee legacies!

In real life, actor Tristan Wilds made the press tour rounds at Tuskegee University with other members of the Tuskegee Airmen George Lucas movie when he appeared in it after The Wire. There are some clips on youtube.

Once again fantastic analysis and comments.