Friday, June 20, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 4, "Old Cases" (Newbies edition)

Once again, we're going to talk about season one of "The Wire" in two different versions: one safe for people who are brand-new to the show (or who haven't watched all the way through to the end), one where we can talk about anything from first episode to last. This is the former; scroll up for the veterans edition if you want to discuss things that are still to come, both this season and in later seasons.

Spoilers for episode four, "Old Cases" -- and a word of warning that due to the episode's nature, this post will feature extensive discussion (and, on occasion, reproduction) of a certain four-letter word -- coming up just as soon as I try to prove a negative...


Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

The fuck?

Fuck it. Motherfuck!

In the seemingly neverending debate about "The Wire" vs. "Deadwood" (in which I took part at one point), one of the arguments in favor of "Deadwood" is the idea that David Milch's use of language is so beautiful and so exact that it elevates his show to a level that "The Wire" (or "The Sopranos," or any other great TV drama) can't quite reach. I would certainly never speak ill of the amazing "Deadwood" dialogue, but I think it's only fair to point out that "The Wire" had its own moments of gorgeous, precise employment of nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives. And nowhere is that more obvious than in the justly-celebrated scene where McNulty and Bunk go over the Diedre Kresson crime scene, uttering nothing but variations on the F-word.

It's a goddamn symphony of profanity, is what that scene is, at once shockingly funny (as you realize just how many times the F-word is being uttered, to the exclusion of all else) and unexpectedly brilliant (as you realize that the two cops are quickly getting to the bottom of what happened here). It's almost a parody of the idea of doing a cop show on HBO, and yet it conveys so much about how smart Jimmy and The Bunk are -- and how well they work together -- that they can figure out so much about Kresson's murder and communicate it to each other using only that word.

What, of course, sets it up so beautifully is the earlier scene where D'Angelo, irritated with Bodie's bravado about escaping from juvie, walks Bodie, Wallace and Poot through every detail of the crime. That scene serves other purposes -- notably in continuing the tension between D'Angelo, who questions the way they do business, and Bodie, who blindly follows the rules of The Game -- but its primary function is to act as a road map so that we don't need any kind of expository dialogue -- or any dialogue of the non-F-word variety -- when Bunk and McNulty go into that apartment. We know exactly how this murder went down, and so we can just appreciate watching these true professionals at work.

(Getting back to the notion of "The Wire" as a show that teaches you how to watch it, by later seasons Simon won't even need to resort to that level of hand-holding. There's a sequence in season four where we watch a Homicide cop silently work through a murder scene and slowly put all the pieces together, and by that point, a preamble isn't even necessary. The show's visual language, and our own understanding of how a good detective studies a scene, will be all we need to fill in what's left unsaid.)

But if the legendary "fuck" scene teaches us what a natural police McNulty is, the bulk of "Old Cases" is devoted to illustrating the ways in which his personality flaws -- his addiction to himself, as Sgt. Jay Landsman puts it -- constantly get in the way of people noticing just how good he is.

Sure, his knowledge of Baltimore street crime is so encyclopedic that he can cite No-Heart Anthony's home address without prompting, and he and Bunk are like magicians when they work together, but McNulty is constantly getting in his own way. We already know that he cheated (with Ronnie Pearlman) on his soon-to-be-ex-wife Elena, which no doubt explains her hostile demeanor towards him, and we've seen countless examples in just these four episodes about how Jimmy's need to prove himself the smartest guy in the room causes him to violate protocol, common sense and even (in the case of refusing to take a sick day for the raid last week) basic decency.

Jimmy may not always be the smartest guy in the room, but he's self-aware enough to recognize this. You can see he's already starting to regret his tight bond with Judge Phelan, who's just digging Jimmy's grave by pushing Burrell to continue the Barksdale detail. (Landsman charming Rawls into giving Jimmy two weeks to wrap up the detail and come home clean won't do him much good if they're going to start writing wiretap affidavits, will it?) And when Lester Freamon -- who, in the story of how he wound up in the pawn shop unit for 13 years (and four months), proves that our cuddly housecat is really just an older, possibly smarter, but just as stubborn version of McNulty -- warns him about not letting the bosses know where he doesn't want to be transferred, you can see Jimmy immediately flashing on that conversation from "The Target" where he told Landsman that he'd never want to ride a boat for the marine unit.

When Bubbs, the wisest fool in all of Baltimore, gets a glimpse of the clean and bright neighborhood where Jimmy's kids play soccer, only to return to another burnt-out street in West Baltimore, he notes that there's a "thin line 'tween heaven and here." This is one of the core statements of "The Wire" (and the inspiration for the title of an outstanding "Wire" site), as the show is about all the people who fall over to the wrong side of that line, and how impossible it is to get back across. For the most part, the line represents the barrier between ordinary citizens like Elena or even the late Ms. Kresson and players and hustlers like D'Angelo and Bubbs, but the Baltimore PD has its own versions of both Heaven (elite units like Homicide) and Here (do-nothing squads like the pawn shop unit). Lester was already tossed over that line for valuing pride over common sense (as Jimmy notes, he could have easily made his case without the fence) and only made his way back by a fluke and some determination (he kept coming to work long enough that anyone who remembered his punishment were gone when the call for humps arose), and Jimmy can see that he's in very real danger of being cast out of heaven if this goes much further.

And yet, as we continue to see here, the Barksdale crew is both a worthy and challenging target, a tough, disciplined bunch who can't be got by ordinary methods -- see Marvin taking a mandatory five years in prison versus risking the wrath of Avon -- and who have more than one civilian body on their side of the ledger. If Jimmy's going to jeopardize his career in order to go after a bad guy, Avon seems as good as any.

Herc and Carver once again don't get it. Even if Bodie hadn't escaped from Boys Village (Here) and headed back to the Pit (for him, Heaven) through the simple luck of being left unattended in his civilian clothes with a mop bucket nearby, we know there's no way that Carver's proposed scare tactics would have put a dent in his gangster armor. As Herc learns from Bodie's grandmother -- a bit of information I confess I had forgotten all these years later, and one which makes me look at young master Broadus very differently now -- Bodie was orphaned at age 4, and had spent the years leading up to his mother's death being dragged around the fringes of The Game by her. (In that way, he's no different from the baby that Omar coos over before hooking up the mother with some dope. That kid will be very lucky to grow up to be anything other than another Bodie.) Bodie may be a knucklehead himself, the Herc or Carver to D'Angelo's Kima, but he grew up hard and remains hard, and if those two morons had shown up at Boys Village before he walked away, he would have either stared them down or simply laughed in their cop faces.

No, traditional methods have no real way of working with Avon's crew, which is why Jimmy and Kima and now Lester are going to have to employ every bit of creativity at their disposal in order to get them. And if it takes more than two weeks -- as we almost certainly know it will -- then what happens to McNulty?


Some other thoughts on "Old Cases":
  • "Who uses pagers anymore?" As I've mentioned, this season's arc was inspired by work Ed Burns did on several drug crews in the '80s, and so we get the Barksdales using outmoded technology. (Possibly purchased from Dennis the Beeper King on "30 Rock"?) But because the cops comment on this, it works, and because Lester points out the counter-surveillance advantages of pagers versus cell phones, it makes Avon, Stringer and company seem that much more impressive.
  • The show's visual style, as laid down by Clark Johnson and Bob Colesberry, rarely called attention to itself, but there are a couple of stand-out images in this one. The most obvious is Bodie throwing rocks at the stationary surveillance camera in the Pit, which would become a memorable part of the opening titles for years to come, but there's also the transition between the dirty water in the mop bucket Bodie used for his escape to the coffee in Herc's cup as he and Carver drive down to juvie to scare him. Also, there's a nice moment at the end of D'Angelo telling the story of Diedre Kresson's murder when the camera takes a skyward view of the Pit, then pans over to the more prosperous skyline of downtown Baltimore, illustrating Bubbs' "heaven and here" remark.
  • Note that, at the gym, Stringer (despite his clothes) isn't really there to play basketball but to talk shop, and the one thing we see him do on the court is to set up Avon for an alley-oop dunk, as befits his role as Avon's number two.
  • We get another of the show's small handful of "Homicide" alums as Callie Thorne makes her first appearance as Elena. I never much liked her on "Homicide," but I think that was more a matter of her character, Det. Ballard, being poorly-conceived than anything to do with Thorne. She's fine here as the woman who has to play the bad guy because Jimmy's too busy playing Peter Pan.
  • After exploding on the scene last week with his hijack of the Pit stash, Omar becomes a much more unusual and interesting character this week. We find out not only about his brother No-Heart Anthony, but that he fancies himself a bit of a ghetto Robin Hood, doling out free dope to the truly wretched cases. And we find out that, to the horror of Avon -- who immediately ups his bounty upon hearing the news -- Omar is openly, proudly, defiantly gay, and that his young partner Brandon is also his lover.
  • The reveal of Omar's sexuality comes in the same episode where we get our first extended look at Kima's relationship with upwardly-mobile girlfriend Cheryl. It's interesting how being gay is viewed in the two different worlds. Omar is reviled for it -- even his other partner, Bailey, tries to make himself scarce as soon as Omar and Brandon get affectionate -- while Kima is able to thrive professionally, even though she has to deal with the usual innuendo (and occasional insults) from the likes of Herc and Carver. But the decision to include two prominent gay characters, neither of them defined solely by their sexuality, is part of the series' commitment to showing a panorama of modern American life, even if it's through the lens of a show about cops and dope dealers in West Baltimore.
  • The detail loses a body, albeit a useless one, when Pat Mahon (not Mahone, as I'd been previously spelling it) takes advantage of Bodie's assault to take a disability pension. Augie Polk, too scared (or smart, depending on your POV) to take Pat's advice about throwing himself down the steps to the detail office, is still on the job, but at the moment he, the mysterious disappearing Santangelo and word jumble-solving Prez seem to be neck-and-neck for title of biggest hump on the detail. Herc and Carver may be stupid, but at least they went along with Kima's plan to prove they couldn't follow D'Angelo.
  • Is it wrong that I was as charmed as Rawls by Landsman's masturbation story? Delaney Williams makes Jay's utter lack of shame seem like an admirable trait.
  • I should, I suppose, mention the pre-credits scene with the desk wedged into the door. But even though it's very funny -- particularly if you watch it knowing that Lester's smarter than these other guys put together, and therefore knows what's wrong -- and a commentary on inefficient bureaucracy, the scene kind of speaks for itself, no?
Up next Friday: "The Pager," in which the detail puts Jimmy's plan into action, while Wallace and Poot go to the arcade.

What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

Still not convinced of the "Best Show Ever" designation, but it's growing on us (my wife and I) after just 4 episodes.

Loved the use of the famous "Vertigo" shot as D tells the murder story.

Anonymous said...

I've blasted through Season 1 and am 4 episodes into Season 2 and I've got to say that this show is a fucking blast. I just love how layered and detailed this show is.

As for the link in the column, is it safe to visit, even though I'm only partway through Season 2, or should I save it for after I finish the whole series?

Anonymous said...

The "fuck" scene was one of the funniest things I've seen in a long time, and such a refreshing change from the over-expository dialogue you'd get from any other cop show in a similar situation. Really, really well done, although I was wondering why the landlord didn't object to them marking and cutting up the apartment.

I disagree that it's a symphony of profanity - "Deadwood" is a symphony of profanity. That scene was a three-man jazz combo of profanity: simple yet swingin'.

The only thing that bugged about this plotline (or, indeed, this episode) was the varying pronounciation of the victim's name. "Deidre" and "Deirdre" are not interchangeable; the "r" in "Deirdre" is not silent. You'd think Deirdre Lovejoy could have given them some pointers on that.

Thanks for pointing out what Bubbs said to McNulty as he was dropped off, Alan. I rewound that scene three times and still couldn't make it out.

Anonymous said...

Zac - Probably best not to go clicking on the links as any discussion of the show at this stage will no doubt ruin it.

I also advise you to steer clear of all the dvd commentaries until you've watched at least up to season 4.

Matthew said...

It is so tempting to go over to the Veterans edition, since it seems that is where all the conversation is taking, place, but I will be strong.

Still not convinced of the "Best Show Ever" designation, but it's growing on us (my wife and I) after just 4 episodes.

I will confess to finding comments like this a little hard to understand. It's the fourth episode of a 60 episode series. You shouldn't expect to be convinced that "this is the greatest show ever" at this point - it would be like reading the first 40 pages of a book and making that announcement. What you could hopefully be finding (or at least, what I am finding) is a show that is intelligent and thought-provoking, that doesn't babysit you, that has compelling characters and an interesting storyline. At this point in the story, while everything is being established, it's just a really good show. The greatness (or otherwise) of a story is not determined just by the quality of each individual episode, but by the way they build on each other, the way plot elements are established and pay off, the development of characters and so on. And that's not something you see immediately. In earlier columns, I've heard people talk about seasons 3 and 4 as being the point where the show really hits its height and establishes itself as "the greatest drama ever", which makes sense. I'm looking forward to that.

The only thing that bugged about this plotline (or, indeed, this episode) was the varying pronounciation of the victim's name. "Deidre" and "Deirdre" are not interchangeable; the "r" in "Deirdre" is not silent. You'd think Deirdre Lovejoy could have given them some pointers on that.

I'll be honest, and say I didn't notice it, but that doesn't really matter. People mispronounce names all the time, some people pronounce it one way, others another, and while there may be a correct or preferred way of pronouncing it, not everyone is going to get it right. That people get Deirdre wrong is actually quite realistic.

My only disappointment was that the murder was connected at all. Like McNulty said, it was actually pretty unlikely that the murder would have been commited by D'Angelo, so I just accepted the initial scene as one where we see the resentment of McNulty's old unit to the fact that he's off on his own little project and not doing the work he should be doing. So when D'Angelo started telling the murder story, and you realised that this was the same girl, it felt a little too convenient, like McNulty had lucked into the case. Still it was worth the contrivance for a great acting performance by Larry Gilliard Jr delivering the monologue, and for the investigation scene, which really was exceptional.

Anonymous said...

People mispronounce names all the time, some people pronounce it one way, others another, and while there may be a correct or preferred way of pronouncing it, not everyone is going to get it right.

True, but my point was that it's not the same name being pronounced two different ways, it's in fact two different names being used interchangeably. It's not "Avon" being pronounced "Ahvon" by one person and "Ayvon" by another, it's like the difference between Julie and Julia. And the excuse of realism, while true, doesn't really wash, since there are any number of names on this show that could be pronounced in different ways and aren't. I think the actress playing Deidre's friend probably had it right and Dominic West had it wrong, as far as the script went.

Rob said...

I know no one will probably see this, as I'm just starting rewatching the series preparing for my season 5 DVDs(no HBO here, so I can't wait to see them for the first time, even though I've accidentally found out some spoilers), but anyway, when Lester calls D'Angelo's pager, why does D'Angelo's callback work? Shouldn't he have tried to call another incorrect number, based on the code deciphered later in the season?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Rob, I thought about that, too, but the impression I got is that these guys occasionally get paged by people not in the organization (like girlfriends), and that therefore they're used to seeing normal phone numbers show up on the pager.

Rob said...

Thanks Alan, for the response. I'm watching Pres now explain the code to McNulty and Kima and I guess part of my confusion is never having used a pager before. So you have to input the callback number that shows up on the pager yourself? That would make sense for your theory, if it looks like a normal number, they call it back, something odd, you use the code.

Thanks again for the Wire reviews, I'm loving them, even though it's killing me not to peak into the veterans.

alexr said...

I've no doubt that this is a deeply dissenting opinion and - given that I'm only now (several years after its original broadcast) undertaking the project of watching a show that's been repeatedly called "the greatest in TV history" and have, as yet, only the first four of sixty episodes behind me - it may well be a premature and fundamentally mistaken one. But I find that the nigh-universal hyperbolic praise specifically of the MacNulty/Burns "fuck" scene evidenced in this particular blog entry and in the responses to it really crystallizes all the nagging reservations I have about this show, and I speak them out here, for what they're worth.

I don't suppose that any of you, however positively impressed you may have been by the scene in question, will find it very hard to imagine how it might impress other viewers as irksomely mannered. The sudden wedging of such an ostentatiously formalistic scene into a show that aspires, in the main, to impeccable naturalism prompts in me, at least, one thought above all others: namely, how ultimately vain and self-regarding the writers of this scene, and the creative supervisors who allowed it to pass, must be. The presence of this piece of cheap "look-at-we-can-do" bravura in the midst of an otherwise modestly engaging series of episodes served to clarify for me how much else there is in the show - well, let's be fair and say: "in the tiny fragment I've so far seen of it" - that smacks of delusions of artistic grandeur right from the get-go.

Take the intensely annoying use of written "epigraphs" at the start of each episode, for example. Given the creators' and writers' deliberate efforts to situate themselves in some sort of Balzacian or Dickensian descendancy, I suppose there might have been some legitimacy in this if the quotes had been painstakingly sought out from the long Western literary tradition and cleverly matched up with the themes of each episode. The practice, though, of actually pasting chunks of ONE'S OWN SCREENPLAY in at the head of the script itself, as if the whole thing were so self-evidently and insuperably deep that it, and it alone, can function as the adequate commentary on itself, is surely the epitome of tautological illegitimacy.

Conceivably, these much-touted "novelistic" qualities of "The Wire" - the tireless comparisons and self-comparisons with all the thousand-page "heavyweights" of the literary 19th Century - cuts right to the heart and root of the show's inadequacies. There is indeed no doubt that the show has its virtues in terms of narrative, character, and so on. But the point is precisely that these virtues are pretty much the same virtues as one might find in Dickens, Balzac, or Tolstoy - and that it displays all the corresponding limitations as well. As in a Dickens novel, everything "dovetails" in a superficially satisfying way - D'Angelo is provided with a motivation of offended gangsta pride to narrate to his homies (and to the watching 'Wire' audience) those details of his murder of a "shorty" without which the later MacNulty/Burns scene in the apartment would not have made any sense - but it is precisely this "good narrative workmanship" that actually frustrates the promise of an engagement with contemporary - 21st-, as opposed to 19th-Century - reality that seems to be offered by such details as, for example, the strikingly raw and unadorned locations in the "Projects" scenes. MacNulty - let's be honest - is, for all the hints of such personal shortcomings as occasional arrogance, for all the well-publicized refusal to cast a star, in the last analysis as morally UNambiguous a figure as any Dickens protagonist: a "hero" for the huge TV audience out there who really couldn't handle a show without such a hero - a little "troubled", indeed, a little "maverick", but, much more importantly and essentially, young, sexually attractive and effectively self-asserting - as a point of emotional and moral identification.

Karen said...

Another standout image: the cut from little Mikey McNulty running on a soccer field in the sun to dark night in the projects, and three seemingly unattended kids running rings around what was probably a junkie. That one cut like a knife, even if it was an easy cut.

Henry said...

My brother and I are moving through the series after reading numerous recommendations from you and Bill Simmons and others.

I have to say that I enjoyed this episode because of the scene with McNulty and Bunk figuring out the murder using just the F-word and how it connects to D'Angelo's chilling story of how the murder went down.