Friday, May 30, 2008

The Wire, season 1, episode 1: "The Target" (Veterans edition)

As discussed frequently, it's time to start revisiting the first season of the best drama in TV history, "The Wire." Because I know some readers will be starting the series for the first time, while others will be "Wire" die-hards not ready to let the show go just yet, I'm going to post two slightly different versions of each review: one for the newbies, with minimal discussion of what happens in later episodes (and seasons); one for the veterans, with a section at the end discussing ways that each episode ties into things that happened further down the line. The newbie edition will always be posted about a minute before the veteran one. Please confine any comments that would spoil later developments to the veteran post; anything too spoiler-y in the newbies comments will be deleted by me.

Veteran-friendly spoilers for episode 1, "The Target," coming up just as soon as I haggle over the price of wood...

David Simon likes to say that the first scene of each season of "The Wire" encapsulates the themes of that season. In the case of Detective Jimmy McNulty investigating the murder of one Omar Isiah Betts, known to friends and family as Snot Boogie, Simon gets to explain what the entire series will be about.

As a surprisingly helpful witness (by "Wire" standards) explains, Snot Boogie played in the local craps game every week, and every week after a few rolls, Snot would grab all the money in the pot and try to make a run for it, and someone would chase him down and beat his ass and take the money back. McNulty, being the inquisitive sort that he is -- and the series' symbol of what happens when you start asking the right questions of people who think they're the wrong questions -- has to interrupt his witness' narrative to ask what is, to him and to us, but not the witness, the obvious question: if they knew Snot would rob the pot every time out, why did they keep letting him play? And the witness, confused by the very premise of the question, lays out the basic message of the series:

"Got to. This America, man."

The America of "The Wire" is broken, in a fundamental, probably irreparable way. It is an interconnected network of ossified institutions, all of them so committed to perpetuating their own business-as-usual approach, that they keep letting their own equivalents of Snot Boogie into the game, simply because that's how it's always been done. It doesn't matter that it makes no sense. Only a rugged individualist/cocky narcissist like McNulty would even think to suggest that things could and should be run differently.

Without giving away too much about what's to come, the first season of "The Wire" is the story of two men on opposite sides of the drug war -- McNulty with the cops, D'Angelo Barksdale with the dope slingers -- and what happens when each one starts to notice that his bosses and co-workers are following a rigid and often nonsensical set of rules. When McNulty needles his partner, Bunk Moreland, for taking a Homicide call when it was someone else's turn in the rotation and, therefore, "giving a fuck when it ain't your turn to give a fuck," it's the last time he'll speak up for established department protocol. (Bunk takes no end of pleasure in turning the phrase back on Jimmy later in the episode.) The entire series, essentially, is about people who decide to give a fuck when it isn't their turn.

And the chilling thing about the show is that, when someone like McNulty decides to care out of turn, he's not confronted by corrupt or otherwise evil people. Bill Rawls, the middle finger-raising Homicide chief, isn't a bad guy, though he seems like one when he bitches out McNulty. He's just a guardian of the system. His job is to keep the murder rate down and the clearance rate up, which in turn helps the department get funding to keep doing its job, keeps cops on the streets, etc. You'll note that the thing that angers Rawls most is the fact that Jimmy dragged in the Gerard Bogue case, which happened in the previous year and therefore has no bearing on this year's stats. Bogue may have had family and friends who loved and miss him, but he is of no use to Bill Rawls in his quest to make the numbers look good, and therefore he doesn't matter. That's not evil, not "one bad cop ruining the system for everybody else." It's just cold, cruel pragmatism, the best way Rawls knows to do the job he's been given.

Even more ambiguous is our introduction to McNulty's temporary new boss, Lt. Cedric Daniels from Narcotics. Because we first get to know him through his relationship with Detective Kima Greggs -- who herself was introduced as a good and sympathetic cop, and who clearly likes and respects Daniels -- we take it that he's a decent guy. But we also see that he's a company men, one willing to take explicit and limiting orders from Ervin Burrell, the department's "deputy ops" (the number two man on the organizational flowchart) and loudly try to impress those orders on a renegade like McNulty. There's no obvious black-and-white, good-vs-bad conflict here. "The Wire" is all shades of gray.

Now, if you're brand-new to the series, you can be forgiven for not getting much, if any, of that from the experience of actually watching "The Wire" pilot. Though it has some roots in previous TV shows -- most specifically NBC's "Homicide," which was based on Simon's non-fiction book (and which Simon himself wrote for in its later years) -- for the most part, "The Wire" took a very different approach to narrative from any series in American history, so much so that it essentially had to teach you how to watch it. The cast is huge -- and the season one cast is tiny in comparison to later seasons, which would bring in new characters from the Baltimore docks, City Hall, schools, newspapers, homeless community, etc. -- and almost everyone you meet will play a key role in the unfolding storylines.

Back in 2002, I would say it took me at least three or four episodes to get even a tenuous grasp of who all these people are, what they're about, to whom they owe their loyalty, etc. (If you are, in fact, watching the series for the first time -- or even for the first time in a long time -- I'd strongly suggest watching at least that many in a concentrated burst before attempting to move to a weekly schedule, even though that's the rate at which I'll be doing these reviews.)

In the DVD commentary for this episode, in the official "Wire" companion book, and elsewhere, Simon has complained about the flashback at the end of the pilot, the glimpse of William Gant testifying against D'Angelo. HBO made him insert it, he said, because they were afraid that people wouldn't understand the significance of the dead body and why it upset D'Angelo so much. While I appreciate Simon's desire to respect his audience's intelligence and hope that they would get it, this was, again, the first hour of a series attempting a denser, more complex form of longform narrative than any drama that preceeded it, and one that, again, had to teach you how to watch it. The end of hour one wasn't the time to risk the audience not understanding the climax because they weren't able to keep track of the 50 or so characters wandering in and out of the narrative, you know?

Beyond the clumsy and/or necessary flashback, "The Target" doesn't do a lot of audience hand-holding. McNulty's there in the first scene and prominent throughout, so it's obvious he's important. Ditto D'Angelo, who gets to close the episode. After those two, the episode's a bit like a kid's game of memory match. You see a face and have to try to remember it as other faces are introduced, wondering who belongs with whom. But if you focus long enough, the picture starts to make sense. When we meet veteran junkie Bubbles (aka Bubbs) and his rookie partner in scamming Johnny, it's not clear what they have to do with anything that's happened before, and then Johnny gets beat up by D'Angelo's underlings (which sparks D's first questioning of the way things are done), and then we find out that Bubbs has worked as an informant for Kima Greggs, who's just been reluctantly assigned to the joint Homicide/Narcotics task force put together after McNulty started mouthing off to Judge Phelan, etc...

Still, you can be forgiven if you weren't clear on who was giving D'Angelo the lecture about talking in the car (that would be Wee-Bey Brice, lead enforcer for the Barksdale/Bell crew), or who outranks whom in the police and crime hierarchies.

(Interestingly, but on point, both the pilot and the series as a whole tend to give more screen time to each organization's number two man -- Rawls for the cops, profane cartoon-doodling Stringer Bell for the drug players -- than to the actual bosses, Burrell and drug kingpin Avon Barksdale, D'Angelo's uncle. It's a nice comment on who actually does all the dirty work in an organization, and "the Wire" features a whole lot of dirty work.)

Though Simon, writing partner Ed Burns (the real-world inspiration for McNulty), director Clark Johnson and the late producer Robert Colesberry for the most part hit the ground running as much as they could with something this sprawling and unusual, there are some definite growing pains evident in the pilot. D'Angelo's growing unease with the violence of the drug game -- specifically, his objection to the savage beating of Johnny after he got caught passing off the fake $10 bills -- doesn't really track with the guy who was laughing off beating a murder rap earlier in the episode. (It, and other complaints he'll voice, works better after this episode's end, when he realizes Gant was murdered simply for testifying against him, but I suppose there was a desire to establish D as an unorthodox thinker as early as possible.)

Meanwhile, when Rawls chews out McNulty, he complains that Jimmy is talking to Phelan about "some project nigger," which is phrasing that's too loaded for our introduction to a character who's supposed to be more nuanced (and smarter) than that. We hear politically incorrect and flat-out racist language from characters in all walks of life as the series moves along, but in that scene, this early in the series, it stacks the deck too much against Rawls.

Overall, though, "The Target" succeeds at the ambitious task it sets for itself in trying to introduce a huge cast of characters, a new model of narrative, and a more complex moral compass than viewers had any right to expect from a cop show.

But then, as anyone who watches the show for even a handful of additional episodes can tell you, "The Wire" is much, much more than a cop show.

Some additional thoughts on "The Target":
  • In addition to Ed Burns as the inspiration for McNulty, the Barksdale/Bell crew is modeled on a number of Baltimore drug crews of the 1980s, most notably that of Melvin Williams, who would himself become one of the show's recurring players (as a church deacon) starting in season 3. The high-rises where Williams' crew worked were demolished before the series began filming, which is one of the real-world reasons why D'Angelo gets reassigned to the courtyard of the nearby low-rise housing project (aka "The Pit"). Whenever we see characters hanging around what are supposed to be the actual high-rise towers, you'll note that the scenes are shot in a way that keeps you from seeing how big the buildings actually are.
  • A stylistic conceit introduced here by Johnson, and not really used again until the Johnson-directed series finale: scenes are frequently shot from the point of view of a mirror, or a window's reflection, or security camera footage, which suggests not only the number of ways people can be observed in Baltimore (and, therefore, modern America) but also the number of perspectives you can take on any person or situation.
  • One of the mysteries of the show that I never quite cracked -- or, if I did, Simon never told me that I did -- is the symbolism of the train tracks where McNulty and Bunk frequently gather (as they do near the end of the pilot) to get drunk and complain about their jobs, their wives, etc. Just keep the tracks in mind as the season unfolds and we can make some more guesses again at the end of this project.
  • Some fans complained that the fifth season featured dialogue that was too didactic and on-the-nose. To those people, I give you, from this first episode alone, Detective Carver's line about how the War on Drugs is misnamed because "wars end," or McNulty's line to FBI Agent Fitzhugh about how the War on Terror has superceded the War on Drugs: "What, we don't have enough love in our heart for two wars? Jokes on us, huh?"
  • Though Carver and his partner, Herc, are introduced as complete lunkheads who can't even do a proper search of a vehicle for a weapon (which, in turn, quickly establishes Kima Greggs' bonafides as a natural police), they're great sources of comic relief. Here, I especially enjoy their debate about whether piss can flow downhill.
  • Also very funny: Bunk cursing under his breath and threatening his corpse to not come back a murder, lest he get stuck with an unsolveable case. That moment is the first of many quintessential Bunk-isms that puts him near the top of every fan's list of favorite "wire" characters.
  • Another questionable early element: Dominic West's American accent. It would get (slightly) better over the years, but it's especially shaky in the Snot Boogie scene.
  • Though D'Angelo is presented as the leader and (relatively) wise old head of the Pit crew, you'll note that it's young Wallace who's the only one to know that Alexander Hamilton's the guy on the $10 bill, and that Hamilton wasn't a president, while D insists that only presidents get their faces on money. That scene is the first of many in the series to show just what a limited worldview the players on the west side of Baltimore really have.
And now, just a few thoughts on how things in "The Target" tie into things to come for all our fictional friends in Baltimore:
  • The location of Gant's murder is the same parking lot where Kima and Bunk will be seen examining a dead body as part of the everything-comes-full-circle sequence from the series finale.
  • Jimmy makes his first mention of the Baltimore PD's marine unit and how little he'd like to work there, information Jay Landsman will file away for future gambling purposes.
  • D'Angelo's advice to Wallace about having separate people take the money and hand out the product will come up again in the season one finale.
  • Given what we learn late in season three about Rawls' private life, isn't it interesting how often his tirades are filled with homophobic insults?
  • While Kima's struggling with a typewriter and White-Out, Herc notes that the department has been promising to get them computers for years. Though the series' version of the Baltimore PD is for the most part FUBAR, you'll note that by season five all the Homicide detectives have been issued snazzy Toughbooks.
  • When Stringer is telling Avon about McNulty's appearance in court, he says Jimmy tried to pin the Bogue case on Little Kevin. That couldn't possibly be the same Little Kevin who was working on Bodie's off-brand corner -- and became one of Chris and Snoop's many victims -- in season four, could it?
Up next: "The Detail," in which Lt. Daniels discovers just what a terrible hand he's been dealt with this Barksdale task force, while McNulty and Bunk look into Gant's murder.

What did everybody else think?


Boones19 said...

There is also another scene in this episode that shows how all things are connected. When McNulty visits Fitz, Fitz mentions that the drug investigation that they are doing is on a bunch of Dominicans. This is also going to be the last of the Feds drug investigations for a while. While there is never another mention of this particulat drug case by Fitz, we learn in the beginning of season 2 that the Barksdale crew gets their supplies from Dominicans and that the Dominicans are having some legal troubles with the Feds. The Dominicans then don't trust Barksdale because they think he may have flipped and become an informant even though they were already being investigated prior to Barksdale. So McNulty giving Fitz an informant to work the Dominicans leads to them getting busted, which in turn leads to Barksdale needing alternative suppliers, which leads to the co-op and so on, but it is all setup in a 10 second throwaway line in the pilot.

Mrglass said...

I remember how confused I was at the time about different police departments and their hierarchy. Also, I didn't figure out who really was the gang boss until the last few episodes of the season. Good times.

Alan, I remember you wrote something as good as 'The Wire' was bound to happen on TV soon enough, but I just don't believe it. It has now been 6 years, and nothing even close has emerged.

Sure, some genre shows like 'House' or 'Battlestar Galactica' are great, but nowhere near as ambitious as 'The Wire'. And let's not forget that series was a commercial failure despite the critical praise, so it is not like networks or cable channels are dying to copy and expand on its premise. 'The Wire' has no legacy so far, unlike 'The Sopranos' for example, a much lesser show.

Mrglass said...

As for the pilot first scene and foreshadowing, this really sums up the whole 5 seasons:

- Doesn't seem fair.
- Life just be that way I guess.

Anonymous said...

Great review. I remember it took me about 3 episodes to get into the show, but once I did, I was hooked.

re: the typewriters: I sort of had the sense that, despite the year being nominally 2002, the first season was really illustrating Baltimore in the 80's when the drug trade was starting to get really violent. Another thing to note about the first season is that you seldom see anyone using a cell phone---even the cops use pagers and pay phones. My sense is that the five seasons of the show spanned about 20 years of Baltimore city history, and compressing that into the 6 or so years that it took place over was more metaphorical (and practical, to have the same characters throughout) than anything else.

Anonymous said...

Is that Marlo in the crowd in the last scene?

Anonymous said...

Great post, been waiting for The Wire Review for a minute. I must disagree with the idea that Rawls using the n-bomb in the pilot stacked the deck that much more against him. To me, thats just the way Rawls talks behind closed doors (much the way Nick uses it season 2 when talking to Ziggy about drug dealing), I didnt think, O this guys a racist, I thought O this guys an asshole.

Anonymous said...

It's always been my pretty narrow interpretation but I always thought of the train tracks as a sign of inevitability. They could discuss, rant and drink all they wanted but once they stepped foot on the ride, they couldn't get off or have an effect on the world around them. They would just stay on the track and follow the course while watching society crumble from outside the window. They wanted things to change but didn't know how they could make it happen.

Agnes B said...

I recently began rewatching season one with my dad and I'm glad to read that this is a show that needs to teach the viewer how to watch it. There is so much happening in the first episode, it's as dense as any good novel.

Bikes in Trees said...

Question: I have just finished season 4 am rather impatiently waiting for Season 5 to come out on DVD. Is anything going to be ruined for me reading these "veteran" versions?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Question: I have just finished season 4 am rather impatiently waiting for Season 5 to come out on DVD. Is anything going to be ruined for me reading these "veteran" versions?


Anonymous said...

One thing that occurred to me again after reading this review is how similar one of the main themes in The Sopranos and The Wire are. In the Sopranos, one of the points beaten into us regularly was how difficult it was for individuals to change their basic nature. No matter how hard Chris or Tony or Carmela or Vito tried to change themselves, the always either slipped back into their prior behavior or were punished for making the attempt.

In The Wire, the impossibility of reform was an institutional failing (though, occasionally, also a personal one ala McNulty). No matter how hard Stringer or Bunny or Daniels tried to change their institutions, the institutions always remained impervious to change and the reformers were punished for making the attempt.

These are thoroughly depressing, though resonant, themes, and I wonder whether they signal something about our view of our culture or humanity as a whole. It's as if these shows are pushing our cultural self-perception into the 5th stage of Kuebler-Ross.

Anonymous said...

Rawls using that perjorative in the pilot doesn't speak to his actual political saavy and ambition. I posted once on UBM's blog that usage of that word on the show varies from character to character. On the street, it is used very casually while the dock workers and even Brother Mouzone use it in a very different context. I don't recall any of the cops saying this word apart from Rawls.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I don't recall any of the cops saying this word apart from Rawls.

I couldn't remember whether Valchek or one of the recurring uniform cops (maybe evil Officer Walker, or lunkheaded Officer Brown) used it at some point.

Alan Sepinwall said...

When McNulty visits Fitz, Fitz mentions that the drug investigation that they are doing is on a bunch of Dominicans.

Good catch on that. I remembered the problems Avon and String were having with their connect at the start of season two, but I never made the link with Fitz's investigation -- and, in turn, with McNulty.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Alan! I love this show dearly, and thoroughly enjoy catching the little details in the re-watchings.

I pimp this show to anyone who will listen to me (kinda weird for a show that has ended). I have always had a difficult time explain to someone what the show is about. Your blog will a great supplemental for people just being introduced to the show.

And, my verification word was "phghn" which I found similar to phlegm, which of course reminded me of Snot Boogie. :)

Carmichael Harold said...

Anonymous at 11:16,

That's pretty close to my understanding of the train track metaphor as well. The only things I would add are:

* The tracks are linear and unswerving, and the trains (institutions) have no option but to follow that path.

* There are only two ways to affect the train. The first is to stand in front of it, which will either slow it down a bit or have no affect. It surely will, however, destroy whoever stands in its way. The second is to tear it down and rebuild the track, which requires more than just the odd one or two reformers.

* Amtrak sucks.

Kirk said...

I don't recall any of the cops saying this word apart from Rawls.

I'm pretty sure Bunk uses it when talking to D and Bodie about the Gant murder. He may also use it when he has his "sit down" with Omar.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the train tracks, I would like to add the significance that trains had in the industrialization of this country. They played a key role in the Industrial Revolution. One of The Wire's running criticisms has been how the post-industrial economy is unconcerned with the problems facing individuals. In short, I think the tracks represent the status-quo of post-industrial capitalism.

By pissing on the tracks as the train is bearing down on him, McNulty is saying, "Fuck it. I'm going up against it." The scenes at the tracks would often reflect McNulty's current relation with the post-inustrial capitalism behemoth. In season 2 when McNulty is still stuck on the boat, he's on the tracks but no train is in sight. Even though McNulty is still picking a fight, he's out of the picture so the behemoth no longer feels a need to come at him. At the end season 3, McNulty is standing on the tracks, and a train car can be seen on the tracks in the background, not moving. The behemoth has come to peace with him and decided that he's not worth taking out. McNulty, realizing that nothing is going to happen to him after all of the shit he's done, tells Bunk that he's tired of fighting and gets the hell out. In season 4, McNulty goes drinking with Bunk but keeps himself a very healthy distance away from the tracks.

Also Alan, I think you might've missed the nuances within the Herc/Carver Piss-or-Shit Debate of 2002. You see, it wasn't the actual downhill aspect that they were arguing about. That's just a simple matter of physics that even they presumably understand. The debate was over whether or not it is in fact piss or shit that is going downhill, and if so, whether or not it rolls or trickles. I think you owe Herc & Carver an apology for understating their ability towards nuanced debate.

Mattt Enss said...

When I first started watching the show, I had a lot of trouble sorting out who everyone was in the Barskdale crew. In particular, I didn't understand that Avon was the head of the gang, and thought that maybe Stringer's really was Avon Barskdale and Stringer was a nickname for Avon Barksdale. The amount of screen time Stringer has, his calm and assured demeanor, plus his nice clothes, glasses, and tidy hair, all make him seem like the boss of the organization.

When we see McNulty standing on the train tracks with the train bearing down on him, I think it's an obvious metaphor for what will happen to McNulty goes against the system. Not only does the system squish individuals beneath its wheels, but doing so barely even slows it down.

On a larger scale, the train tracks strike me as a sign of American decline. It used to be that railways brought prosperity to every settlement they connected to, and were an essential part of the American manufacturing sector. Now rail use is in decline, along with manufacturing/factory jobs, which are what support the middle class.

chiefbroad said...

Alan said "Another questionable early element: Dominic West's American accent. It would get (slightly) better over the years, but it's especially shaky in the Snot Boogie scene."

Totally! I sometimes just say "Stringer Bell" out loud the way West did in the first season. He way over-enunciated the name in his effort to sound American. He did indeed improve, though!

Victor said...

Hey! Thanks for choosing to do this NOW. I just finished a massive marathon over the past few weeks of finally watching The Wire from start to end, and I'm not remotely done wanting to talk about this show. It's the best series I've ever seen, and it makes all other TV shows feel like they aren't even really trying that hard.

Best. Drama. EVAR. (okay, I think it's time to retire that phrasing...)

Victor said...

I went into this episode a few weeks back knowing next to nothing about "The Wire" except that many trusted online personalities (Alan among them) raved about this show. But I held off. How good could yet ANOTHER cop show be? (and I generally despise cop shows). But a random trip to Blockbuster and not being able to find anything else, my eyes landed on Disk One of "The Wire". Something told me "NOW is the time."

And I was hooked from the very first frame. Something about it just said "I'm different." I love how you put it that the show had to teach us how to watch it. How the narrative worked. So true. Outside of a few awkward, Standard-TV-ish moments, the pilot was a masterpiece in establishing the everything the series would become.

That first disk had three episodes on it, and that was all it took. It then became a constant quest a HUNGER to find more episodes, as my local Blockbuster was woefully deficient in The Wire.

For those of you familiar with the "Watchmen" graphic novel/comic book, you'll relate to how that masterpiece (I don't throw that word around lightly) completely changed everything you thought a comic could be. It showed you just how (comparatively) little effort obviously went into the creation of every other comic book on the market. For me, "The Wire" has done that for TV (or any filmed narrative, for that matter). Anything I see now, I can say to myself "Well, clearly the creative team on this show didn't try THAT hard to make this script work, because as The Wire showed, it IS possible to make it all come together brilliantly."

I'm losing my patience with regular TV (hence my frustration with an otherwise-okay season finale of Lost).

Anonymous said...

Was I the only one who was kind of hoping there'd be some sort of callback to the Snot Boogie scene in the season five finale?

Matter-Eater Lad said...


This is as good a place as any to ask about something that's always struck me as odd about the BPD: Is it normal to have people with ranks like Major and Colonel in a police department, or is that local to Baltimore? Most of what I know about police departments I know from TV, but I can't remember hearing these titles on other shows.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Homicide, for obvious reasons, used the same ranks, which was the first time I had heard them used in a police context. Don't know how many, if any, other cities in America use them, but Baltimore clearly does.

SJ said...

Btw iTunes has the first season for sale now for $1.99/episode, or $26 for the whole season. Not a bad deal.

I remember how it took me 4-5 episodes to get into the show. It was just so different.

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent idea and I'm really looking forward to reading this every week.

However, how about doing the same for "The Sopranos"?

I just read this piece about the show and I have to say it's the most thorough and meaningful analysis I have ever seen of the show. This guy is a real "Sopranos" watcher. What's amazing is that be backs up everything with words from Chase himself. However, it is really "Part II" that I found most interesting. This guy ties the very beginning of the show into the final scene of the finale in a way that I have never read before and yet make perfect sense. The attention to detail is startling. Am I the only one who has read this???

Anonymous said...

I started watching the Wire after all the critical raves about Season 4. I rented the first DVD of Season 1, was utterly confused and mildly interested throughout the first episode, but sat up when they revealed Gant at the end of the episode and D'Angelo's reaction to seeing him dead. That was enough to get me to watch the next episode and by the end of the first disc i was utterly addicted. Whenever I lend my DVDs or otherwise recommend the show, I always say 'get youself through the first three episodes because you won't regret it'. Nobody ever does. I don't think I'll ever love a show as much as I love the Wire. I'm so excited to start watching again (my third time now..) with these reviews. Thanks Alan!

Pandyora said...

I am glad the series dropped the "stylistic conceit" of using security camera footage and the like. Back when the show premiered, I remember HBO advertised it as primarily about "surveillance" with tag lines like "listen carefully." Before I had seen an episode, I assumed this was going to be some formulaic cop show about an elite unit of techno-wiretapping experts who refuse to play by the rules.

When I watched the first episode, which had no wiretapping, no nerdy sidekicks talking about having to "calibrate the parabolic mics", and no cops on the edge, I was happily confused.

I think this is why the Johnson's stylistic conceit just doesn't work for me. It feels like something one would find in another, much more obvious show. More CSI: Baltimore, than The Wire.

Not to mention, no one needs to see Rawls ugly mug from all those various angles...

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say that the security camera viewpoint was used only by Johnson. It was pretty prevalent throughout the entire first season, even in non-Johnson directed episodes. I actually kind of liked it as an introductory device. It was a good way of conveying the tone of the show.

Anonymous said...

In addition to the Little Kevin and Dominican observations, here's one more for careful re-watchers:

The Western cop who throws a fit at Carver about overdue paychecks in season 5 can be first seen here at Gant's murder site.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for doing these reviews. Just a quick thought on Larry Gilliard Jr. I had forgotten how well he played D'angelo. The character makes some "irreconcilable" statements, but he does a nice job of making each stance feel authentic. The show also provided a small, transitional moment when D noticed the war coverage on the TV at the strip club. It foreshadows well the realization he'll have at Gant's murder scene.

DJ said...

I am trying to spread the word of this show at every possible instant. Any friendly 5+ minutes conversation with a stranger involves me hinting about The Wire. I don't know, I just cannot help it. It tears my heart that the show is no where getting the credit it deserves and I want to do something about it. I give the season 4 DVD(bsbse-best season of the best series ever) and literally plead people to watch time, I sat through 1st three episodes of the wire((for 8th or 9th time) with a newbie, making sure he gives his undivided attention(David Simon can thank me later for 4 new converts). Anyways just wanted to say my piece out there. And I am really glad, Alan is starting to review from episode 1.

Brian Harrison said...

Grant, that officer is Officer Brown, who recurs throughout the series, but is more heavily featured in Season 1 and Season 5. He is also the white uniform cop that McNulty gives the crab cakes and beers to for sitting on Wallace’s house, waiting for him to come back so he can bring him in as a witness in Season 1.

monkeys said...

i'm pretty sure that Carver says something like "fuckin' project niggers" in the second episode when Daniels is questioning them about why the hell they were conducting field interviews, in the high rises, at two in the morning?

herc -- "...but none sustained."

Dan Jameson said...

Is anyone else finding it terribly difficult to watch only 1 episode? I'm already on episode 6 of season 1. This isn't good. At this rate I'll be done with the entire series before Alan finishes the re-cap for Season 1!

But that isn't necessarily a bad thing....god, I miss this show....

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad to see that the reviews have started again! Yay! Just like comment above me, I have a very hard time watching just one episode at a time. Especially in the middle of the season when I know that some really, really good stuff is coming in the next episode :) Oh, dope fiends...:)

Anonymous said...

Wow!! I appreciate such thoughtful analysis. I was just thinking how it seemed a bit incongruous to have D'Angelo beating a murder charge that came off of him acting impulsively and then frivolously (in his reaction to it) when the whole point later becomes how this gangster life really isn't for him. How he has a soul that yearns for "fresh air." I'm not sure if he could have ended up in court in the same way and have the family arrange for such measure to be taken for him publicly any other way . . . but it didn't quite add up after some thought.

You mentioned McNulty's accent. What do you think of Stringer Bell's? I'm impressed.

Anonymous said...

I think the train tracks symbolize Baltimore's railroad history.

What I'm saying is it I think there are diminishing returns in trying to figure out a symbol that may or may not be overt. I think you should savor that you can't quite put your finger on what it is about the tracks that makes you feel like something more's there. I'd be surprised if the writers' were that calculating, although it's obviously something that grabs the viewers.

Ralph Wiggum had a view of this (in "The DeBarted"): "The rat symbolizes obviousness."

There's also a Vicki Hearne poem:

Q.What are all those horses doing in your poems? I mean, what do they stand for?
A. Horses. They stand for horses. The way I stand for you.

Anonymous said...

"That couldn't possibly be the same Little Kevin who was working on Bodie's off-brand corner -- and became one of Chris and Snoop's many victims -- in season four, could it?"

If that Little Kevin were older, maybe. I find it hard to believe that 3-4 years before we met him, he was a player in the Barksdale organization worthy of discussion by Avon and Stringer.

I think it's just a case of Simon using names of real people in his fiction, and this time it was such a minor mention that it was okay to re-use the name on a character later. I'm about halfway through the Homicide book now and I chuckle every time I see a name that I recognize from the Wire.

Anonymous said...

Is this the episode where Gbenga Akinnagbe (Chris) appears as an extra in the courtroom? It was mentioned in the commentary for season 5, but I didn't see him.

Anonymous said...

I'm not really sure whether I count as a "newbie" or a "veteran." I started watching The Wire at the start of season 4, and watched it all through the finale, but the first three seasons are new to me. So thank you, Alan, for giving me something to look forward to as I start the series this summer.

I don't know what made me laugh more: the entire Snot-Boogie discussion or Herc and Carver's debate about rolling vs. trickling. I always forget how funny the show can be. But at the same time, it's painful watching them goof around knowing how much harm that's going to eventually cause in Season 4. And my heart broke for Bubbs all over again watching his friend in the hospital; it puts Sherrod's death in a whole new perspective.

I can't wait until the next episode - just brilliant.

Ben Guest said...

I always felt that the train tracks were a dual metaphor.

They work, on one level, as a metaphor for the various institutions that The Wire depicts. Any individual attempting to stop, or derail, those institutions will surely be crushed.

Second, the trains are a metaphor for unintended consequence. Once you set something in motion, it can have far-reaching, and unintended, consequences. Specifically, in Season One, this would be McNulty's instigation of the Barksdale/Bell detail (which explains his famous line: "What the fuck did I do?") Note that in the Season Three finale, which wraps up the Barksdale/Bell investigation, the montage song is titled "Fast Train."

Unknown said...

Great post. As soon as I finished the series I started all over again, too, and there were several things in episode 1 that knocked me over. They've all been mentioned here but one:

You can't keep from noticing Kima's repetitive mention of the "two guns" that Herc & Carver missed in the opening bust. And what was it that Herc missed in Snoop & Chris' ride much later on?

Jay said...

Re: Little Kevin,

I think it could be explained away as a commentary on how often nicknames are re-used. Remember in Season 2 when there is confusion over "Big Roy" (vs. "Little Big Roy")? I think, realistically, nicknames are re-used all the time in this Baltimore's universe.

Anonymous said...

Just getting to re-watching the first season this other thing I found interesting/surprising from the first episode that I had forgotten: Marla Daniels is the first character on the show to utter the words, "The game is rigged."

As for Herc and Carver, you can see how their characters will develop from the way they interact with Kima in the scene on the roof. Herc is 100% knucklehead, concerned only with himself after stepping on a rusty nail. Meanwhile Carver is genuinely interested in what Kima's doing. He doesn't understand it, but he knows he's seeing real police work.

It will take Carver a little while to get his act together, but he eventually will. Herc...not so much.

Anonymous said...

Whoops...I think I was talking about episode 2!

Anonymous said...


The writers were that calculating. Simon hints in the commentary for one of the seasons (can't remember which) that the train is a long-running metaphor, but he never gives the details as to what it is.

Unknown said...

RE: "(Interestingly, but on point, both the pilot and the series as a whole tend to give more screen time to each organization's number two man -- Rawls for the cops, profane cartoon-doodling Stringer Bell for the drug players -- than to the actual bosses, Burrell and drug kingpin Avon Barksdale, D'Angelo's uncle. It's a nice comment on who actually does all the dirty work in an organization, and "the Wire" features a whole lot of dirty work.)"

Absolutely, throughout the whole series.

"The King stay The King. But the Queen ain't no bitch. She got all the moves."

Anonymous said...

Just a quick kudos not only to you Alan, but also the readers who leave such insightful comments.

Thanks everyone.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone else notice the wedding band on Rawls finger when he's talking to Mcnulty in the beginning of the episode?

Anna said...

I haven't noticed the wedding band on Rawls' finger, but sgt Landsman is definitely sporting one! Can you imagine Landsman with a WIFE?

Anonymous said...

I believe this is also the episode where his office has a picture of his kids (though that may be the later one, when Landsman comes in and talks about masturbating).

"Grant, that officer is Officer Brown, who recurs throughout the series, but is more heavily featured in Season 1 and Season 5."

Is that the real Officer Bobby Brown or the actor playing a character called Bobby Brown?

Anonymous said...

Also, regarding racism by cops... it's been a while, what did Coliccio say in season 5?

Anonymous said...

When McNulty is walking through the courthouse right before he's called into chambers there is a white prisoner in an orange jumpsuit behind him. This guy looks familiar, I almost want to say he's a Russian or Greek drug contact. Maybe he's played that in another show, but I swear he's seen again.

Devin Mitchell said...

Well, I just finished The Wire in six months yesterday reading Alan's newbie versions, but I couldn't get enough, so I'm starting with veterans versions.

I remember the first time around I didn't really know what was going on, but having gotten to know the characters, it was pretty easy to follow.

That first Daniels/Burrell scene seems so different now knowing what would happen later in the season and series with their relationship. Two very different future police commissioners.

Regarding Rawls, I guess I had just forgotten what a total asshole he was and in general how vindictive he was toward McNulty (no saint himself, to be sure). His actions in "The Hunt," the gay bar scene, recognizing Hamsterdam to a degree, and his general rise made him bearable for me in the series.

Another thing, maybe it's just me, but the BPD in general seems to be a lot more efficient by Season 5. Part of this probably comes with the rise of the somewhat reformist Carcetti and Daniels, and the advancement of technology, but in later years the higher-ups seems to acknowledge that a lot can be accomplished (actually and politically) using the Freamon-esque wiretap and money trail methods.

But enough of that ramble for now.

Anonymous said...

I think the train tracks symbolize the parallels we will continue seeing throught the series.

Michael1885 said...

Hi, just a quick note to say thanks for such great analysis and comments on this magnificent show.

I stumbled on this site via a Google search trying to clear up a minor point about one piece of dialogue, and can't wait to read through all the reviews.

I appreciate that the posts are now some years old, but still, thanks.

Maximum Jack said...

Late to the party, but I'm here now. My wife and I just spent the last three weeks blowing through all five seasons of The Wire. While we aren't TV Junkies, we both agree that this is probably the best series we've ever watched.

The day after we finished season five, I watched the first episode again. I'll be honest, I have never re-watched a dramatic series from start to finish. Never really been inclined to-- until now.

I look forward to taking my time going back through each episode and letting them soak in a bit. Your commentary and all of your reader's comments helping me fill in the nuances I might miss.

One quick observation. One of your readers mentions the "King stay the King, but the Queen ain't no Bithch" quote in regard to your analysis that the #2 getting more screen time. Kind of an "aha" moment for me, but what about Marlo Stanfield? He's sort of the King and Queen wrapped into one.

WAM said...

Thanks for keeping these up. I watched the first four seasons of The Wire and never went back to the fifth season. Not that I didn't like the series; on the contrary, I liked it so much that I wanted to keep a season I'd never seen in my future. Now, several years later (in the pandemic) I'm starting to rewatch and eventually finish the series.

I was finally motivated to do so by the death of Michael K. Williams, who isn't in this episode, but is (of course) a memorable character. I'm looking forward to rediscovering the series.

smooth lester smooth said...

15 years after this review posted and 20 years after the episode aired, it’s fun to rewatch the pilot (and show!) not just because it’s a masterwork, but also for the early 2000’s nostalgia. The world of the wire feels oh-so lived in and real, and with each passing rewatch (each spaced about 5-7 years apart) I appreciate more and more how much work they put into making this show feel so damn authentic. I’m not looking at a TV show set in the early 2000’s; I’m looking through a window into the past.

Truly, is there a better TV pilot out there? Plenty of the other greats have such strong and memorable openers (it’s hard to forget Walter’s khakis in BB, Bran & Jaime in GoT, Don going home in Mad Men, the ducks in the sopranos…), but the wire’s so neatly and concisely sets up a full blown 32-character chess match in an hour. Every time a new show comes out that I think might trump it, Mcnutty talking about Snot Boogie pulls me back in.

Alan, please never take these down, you’re a genius.