Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 6, "The Wire" (Veterans edition)

As I mentioned on Friday, I had to postpone the latest review of "The Wire" due to some personal stuff. While that's still ongoing, I had some time over the weekend and needed the distraction, so I finished my write-up of episode six, also titled "The Wire." It's a little shorter than the others have been, but it should be enough to get the conversation going. Due to uncertainty about my situation, and whether I'll still be going to press tour (which in turn might make it tough to do these reviews for a bit), I don't know exactly when I'll be doing episode seven and on, but I promise to keep you posted.

Same rules as always. 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 latter; scroll down for the newbies edition if you want to be protected from discussion of things that are still to come, both this season and in later seasons.

Spoilers for episode six coming up just as soon as I clean some eggs off the sidewalk...

"It cost you?"

There's an episode coming up called "The Cost," but in some ways, that title applies better to this one, as the murder of Brandon illustrates the emotional cost of living in this police/drug world. The episode opens and closes with the image of Brandon, no longer beautiful after being tortured to death by Wee-Bey, and through the course of the episode, we see how much seeing that image -- and being aware of the role they played in creating it -- costs Wallace, Omar and Daniels.

We'd had hints before now that Wallace was just a kid playing at a deadly, grown-up game, but the episode's opening sequence simultaneously shows off his childlike and adult sides. He and Poot live together in an abandoned, boarded-up rowhouse, siphoning off electricity from a nearby house through an extension cord (as much a titular wire as the tap on the courtyard pay phone), as they take care of a group of younger, similarly parentless neighborhood children. Wallace makes sure they get up on time, get their snacks, and get to school every day so the social workers don't get suspicious. (In "The Wire" world, the west side kids have good reason to fear social services.) Wallace is too young to be playing this role -- he still plays with toys, and unlike the sexually-obsessed Poot, hasn't moved onto girls yet -- but he's all these kids have. And just as we've seen him successfully get them off to school, he walks past the public tableau of Brandon's corpse, and his childhood innocence overwhelms the jaded would-be adult, and wrecks him. Yes, as D'Angelo points out, Wallace works in The Game and knows how violent it can get, but he's still just enough of a kid that he never imagined someone might die because he made a phone call, let alone that that death would be so brutal, or that the evidence of his sin would be deposited so close to his own doorstep. Wallace should be in a real home with real parents who send him to school, instead of playing parent to other abandoned corner kids and slinging dope in the Pit, but this is him, right here, and he can't handle it.

(Interestingly, while Poot was the one who was afraid to make the call about Brandon's whereabouts, he has no problem dealing with the body outside the window, and can be seen laughing at McNulty after Jimmy spills his coffee approaching the crime scene.)

If Wallace is the one who called in Brandon's executioners, Omar is the one who put him in a position where someone might want to kill him. The cast of "The Wire" is so uniformly wonderful that I could fill up each and every one of these reviews with nothing but praise for the various actors, and so instead I've mostly taken their greatness as a given, but hot damn is Michael K. Williams brilliant. There's no truth to the rumor that Omar originally had a small role that expanded once David Simon saw how great Williams was -- the series in general, and each season in particular, is too meticulously planned out for that -- but when you watch a scene like Omar howling in the morgue, and then follow it with Omar being slightly more relaxed, even a little funny ("Bad time for y'all?") but still incredibly dangerous in his visit to the detail office, you can understand why people might have wanted to believe that. As the man outside the system, and the show's lone character drawn slightly larger than life, Omar would stand out with almost any competent actor playing him, but Williams is, indeed, superb.

As for Daniels, he didn't cause Brandon's death, and even his inaction on pushing Burrell for a wiretap sooner likely wouldn't have saved him. But there's no way to know that for sure, and so when McNulty shoves those pictures in Cedric's face, the lieutenant finally recognizes that he can't half-ass the case anymore. Either he needs to go all the way, or not at all. When Lester asks Daniels if going up against Rawls cost him, he's talking about the political ramifications, but one look at Daniels' face as he studies those photos makes it clear that any potential cost to his career doesn't remotely approach the cost his soul has suffered in realizing what he may have failed to do.

And for now, it seems as if Daniels' passionate argument against Rawls will hurt McNulty more than himself. Not that Jimmy -- who finally got past his own arrogant prejudices to realize his new boss is good police -- would have wanted Daniels to go in firing anything less than both barrels, but by naming McNulty as the one who pointed out the truth behind Rawls' quest for paper clearances, he put Jimmy squarely back into Rawls' crosshairs.

The detail as whole, on the other hand, is trying to take at least one step forward for every step it takes back. Rawls tries to screw them by wanting a paper charge on D'Angelo, but Daniels manages to fight him off for now. They miss all the calls related to Brandon's murder, but at least they have a wire up now and are gathering good intel for a conspiracy charge. Polk bails rather than doing actual police work, but he wasn't contributing anything, anyway. But there's nothing in the episode to compensate for Santangelo taking an extremely long piss at the exact moment when Avon, Stringer and Stinkum march through the Pit and have a chat with D'Angelo. Would be nice to have a more current photo of the target, and to have one of him and his chief underlings appearing to talk business with another chief suspect, no?

Still, Lester gets to utter another of the series' mission statements with his speech to Prez about building something from scratch, and how "all the pieces matter." Much like the chess game in episode three, the detail itself functions as something of a metaphor for the series. Both are half-forgotten, half-unwanted members of a larger institution (the Baltimore PD, the television business), ridiculed or flat-out ignored for choosing to approach the old profession in a more thoughtful and thorough way (one where, indeed, all the pieces matter), and yet, when it's least expected of them, both are capable of performing absolute miracles in their field. Many of the detail's miracles are yet to come, but evidence of the series' miraculous powers have already been apparent in just six episodes.

Some other thoughts on "The Wire":
  • I understand Rawls' argument about Jimmy being out of the rotation system and therefore overworking the other Homicide detectives. It's the same one that was made against Ed Burns, and Harry Edgerton, in "Homicide" the book, and I can see being frustrated if I'm the commander of a unit -- or member of a unit -- charged with bringing down the clearance rate if one guy goes off on a mission that seemingly has nothing to do with that and leaves everybody else picking up his slack. But I'd have a lot more sympathy for his argument if he didn't make it in the same episode where he proves how ephemeral the idea of clearances can be. Charging D'Angelo with those murders might have turned three names on the board from red (unsolved) to black (solved), but those charges would almost certainly not lead to convictions.
  • So after we see Jimmy try to do the right thing for his kids in the previous episode and get screwed over by an mistrustful ex-wife, here we see exactly why Elena's wary of him, as he takes the boys to the morgue on a school night to listen to a grieving stick-up boy howl at the top of his lungs. I can see Jimmy's dilemma -- he's trying to turn Omar into an informant, and maybe Kima couldn't be reached just then -- but there had to be some way to put the guy off until morning without losing him, right?
  • Note the black and white gangster movie playing in the background of the sequence where D'Angelo takes forever and a day to get himself decked out in a style of which Jimmy Cagney likely wouldn't approve, but which typifies many modern-day gangsters. On the other hand, his confrontation of Cass the thief, where he threw her eggs one by one onto the sidewalk until she confessed, was very old-school, as was D'Angelo's refusal to sell out Cass and Sterling for committing a crime that was only caused by Stringer's plan to smoke out a non-existent mole. A modern gangster like Stringer or Avon would have had those two beaten or killed for daring to skim off the stash, but vintage '30s gangsters (in the movies, anyway) still had some kind of standards about whom to hurt and why.
  • So when I talked about the show's music rules -- outside of the season-ending montages, there's supposed to be no background music that doesn't have some kind of practical source, like the portable stereo in Daniels' office or the radio in Herc's car -- several people reminded me of the one time in the series' history where Simon and company violated that rule, with Avon's jazzy, slo-mo walk through the Pit. It seemed less out of place at the time -- six episodes in, it wasn't so obvious to me that the show was doing without a traditional score -- but now it's really jarring.
  • The two Homicide detectives working Brandon's murder will become very familiar faces throughout the run of the series. In particular, keep an eye on the white guy, Ed Norris, played by... Ed Norris, who at the time this episode was filmed was still working as the commissioner of the real Baltimore PD. As he does here, Simon and Burns will often use Norris as their mouthpiece to complain about the state of the department in the bluntest terms possible.
  • Bubbs and Johnny's scam with the copper pipes will be familiar to anyone who read/watched "The Corner" and remembers all of Gary McCullough's escapades involving the scrounging or outright theft of copper pipes and fixtures to pay for his habit. True story: when I was in Montreal last weekend for a family wedding, a cousin who lives in Baltimore, who's a fan of "The Wire," told me that she recently discovered that the copper pipes in her apartment had been stripped. While she was upset at the inconvenience and the expense, she was glad that "The Wire" at least made her understand why it had happened, and she tried to make herself feel better by imagining that it was Bubbles himself who robbed her.
And now let's talk about how the episode relates to events down the road in the season and the series:
  • Norris' joke about being willing to give up half his overtime if it would fix the department seems especially funny in light of season five's story about the department gutting overtime pay in the budget crisis.
  • Getting back to our discussion from episode 4 about whether we should have known that D was lying about killing Kresson, his reaction -- or lack thereof -- when Wallace first brings up "that girl" is, in retrospect, a blinking neon sign that D didn't do it. Knowing the man that D is, and the guilt that he carries, if he had actually committed that murder, he would have immediately gotten the reference when Wallace made it. But because Wee-Bey killed her, D'Angelo needs Wallace to elaborate.
  • What's that saying about tragedy plus time equaling comedy? It's amusing to see how Carver gets so torqued about Bodie's constant escapes (both legal and illegal) from the law, yet by season four it's something he'll be able to crack jokes about.
  • Question for the legal scholars: in light of how the rest of the season goes down, would the missed Santangelo photo have really made a difference? They get Avon on drug conspiracy anyway, but would the picture have somehow netted them Stringer?
  • So what exactly does Polk choose to do? Obviously, he's out of the detail, and we know he's still on the force four seasons later -- he's the property room clerk Cedric and Ronnie go to see in the penultimate episode to check out Marlo's cell phone -- but he just doesn't strike me as the type who would have been willing to report to Medical and sober up on the spot like that. Daniels didn't seem to leave him a third option, though, and he seemed tired but not necessarily drunk when he showed up for his final season encore, so maybe he did take the Medical option.
Coming up next:"One Arrest," in which Bubbs and Johnny explore the world of 12-step programs, Omar meets Bunk, and Rawls keeps pressing Santangelo to get dirt on McNulty. Again, I don't know exactly when that review will appear, but it'll come at some point, and hopefully soon.

What did everybody else think?


kat said...

Hey Alan, I really like your blog. And thanks for the in-depth reviews of "The Wire." I've been marching through the various seasons on DVD, just now somewhere in the middle of season 4. Just finished the episode where Carcetti is the democratic nominee for mayor and Kima has realized the informant was killed by a stray bullet and had nothing to do with the city not adequately protecting its witnesses. (As a side note, is it just me, or is McNulty practically invisible in season 4?) At any rate, I'm already at the point where I realize that I'm going to have to re-watch quite a bit of this as many events take on greater significance in retrospect and, frankly, the cast is almost too gargantuan to keep track of.

I do enjoy this show quite a bit. I'm not sure if I'm on the same bandwagon that many others seem to be in that it's the greatest thing since sliced bread or even the best tv show of all time, but it is an excellent change of pace and pretty sadly (pathetically) overlooked by the major awards.

Unknown said...

Another interesting tidbit about Norris is that he was indicted on the exact "head shot" crime that Lester threatens Clay Davis with, i.e. lying on a mortgage application saying a loan from a parent was really a gift. I doubt that it was a coincidence that Simon used that.

Norris ultimately pleaded guilty to a different count of corruption (involving skimming money from the city to pay for extravagant spending on women) and served 6 months in prison.

Anonymous said...

kat: I'm pretty sure that McNulty was underused in season because Simon needed him to be for other stories to be told (also, IIRC, didn't DW make a few movies during the time season 4 was shooting? I could be wrong there). It is a credit to how strong the show is that its (arguably) star can take a back seat and let the rest of the stories do hat they need to do in order to be told. Granted, DW isn't really the star of the show, but certainly way up in it!

Yeah, if you don't think the show is the greatest ever after you finish season 4, well...

On a related note: Anyone read the NYT piece on Ed Burns this morning? Good stuff. Looking forward to that miniseries.

Alan Sepinwall said...

West also asked to be able to take a step back for a season, I believe, so it worked out well for both parties.

J. Pitts said...

Polk is also shown in Season 2 as one of the humps that initially gets signed to the Sobotka detail before Prez complains and Valcheck pressures Burrell to get him some real police.

I think his one line in that episode is "who signs the overtime slips?" So it's like the guy didn't even learn his lesson from the previous season.

Anonymous said...

Polk appeared in three episodes following his departure this season. Two brief appearances in season 2 and his season 5 curtain call. He didn't appear to be drunk in any of them. I like to think that Daniels actually managed to help this guy out by giving him a stern talking to and telling him to get help. Daniels describing him as having landed on his feet in season 5 makes me think he really did sober up, making him, while still a useless hump, no longer a reck.

Anonymous said...

I generally view the violation of the music rules (re: Avon in the Pit) as being akin to the HBO-recommended flashback in the pilot. It may not have been necessary, but given how understated the music playing over the scene actually is, it works as an effective lure or sop for those who still may not have grasped how different this show's take on drug organizations was relative to its contemporaries.

Anonymous said...

Alan, it was interesting that you mentioned Simon's Homicide book. I'm finally getting around to re-reading it. I read it 10 or 12 years ago after watching the NBC series, but now that I've seen The Wire (again and again), I'm noticing a bunch of stuff in the book that episodes of The Wire use almost word for word. For example, the exchange between a drunk Bunk and McNulty about how Bunk made that "shit special" since it was McNulty's first time.

Anonymous said...

It's easy to see in Omar's scene in the morgue an allusion to Achilles' famous grief on the death of Patroclus ("Shedding hot tears, as on his friend he gaz'd, Laid on the bier, and pierc'd with deadly wounds"), resulting from Achilles' own heroic anger and stubbornness. And what destruction that grief brought to the Trojans when it turned to vengeance.

Anonymous said...

How many other people are reading Homicide and/or the Corner this summer? May I suggest an Alan Sepinwall book club? We could read the Dexter books, too.

Anonymous said...

This didn't occur to me until after having seen it several times, but doesn't it seem unrealistic that Burrell would back Daniels over Rawls in this episode, when it seems like the perfect time for his "buy-bust" philosophy to re-emerge and put an end to the detail? Seems to me like Burrell and Rawls should def. be on the same page here.

Anonymous said...

Re. the Avon entrance to the Pit.

I haven't seen that episode for quite a while, but isn't the music supposed to be coming from his SUV?

Anonymous said...

Michael K Williams really shines in the first season. I think if any other actor had played that role, I would have found it ridiculous and unbelievable. But MKW sells it to me every time. He is just mesmerizing on screen.

Brandon's murder was so disturbing on many levels. It was essentially a "hate crime" and "gay-bashing" in addition to retribution for Omar's robbery in this dangerous "Game". Avon Barksdale doubled the bounty when he learned Omar and Brandon were gay. I believe this contributed to the brutality inflicted on Brandon. Weebay burned cigarettes on Brandon's body, gouged out his eyes, ripped open his stomach, stabbed him repeatedly. Weebay derived extra enjoyment from his torture-fest because his victim was gay. Brandon was punished for being gay as much as for stealing. Then his corpse was tied to a car hood - like a deer - as a warning to the neighborhood. Watching it again, I'm reminded of Matthew Shepard and his being displayed like a scarecrow.

This is also the second time that Avon has ordered a murder - the first being William Gant - to send a message to his community. Unlike Marlo who hid his bodies in row houses, Avon flaunts his murders. William Gant and Brandon were nothing more than "trophies" to him.

Anonymous said...

Institutions work best when the resources are efficiently allocated. Having Polk in the pawn shop unit is a perfect fit for him, and the PD. Letting Valchek be police commissioner, on the other hand...

Anonymous said...

Seems to me like Burrell and Rawls should def. be on the same page here.
But as Daniels says, if Rawls is wrong about developing better evidence after D'Angelo is charged (and everyone knows he is wrong), they've blown the wire for nothing. And thus they'll have nothing to give to "that goddamned judge" to shut him up.

Anonymous said...

re: Norris

It's interesting that the fictional Baltimore could not accept a white police commissioner, except on an acting basis. But the real Baltimore could and did.

Anonymous said...

This is me, right here yo. Nice reference to the epigraph in Episode 11

Anonymous said...

I'm a little late to the party, but thanks so much for these recaps, by far my favorite analyses of the show. As for Santangelo missing the opportunity to catch Stringer, Avon and D together, I don't think it would matter that much in the long run. Avon and D are related and Stringer is there friend, no way to prove they were doing anything other than hanging out without a wire or something to catch what they were saying. And remember, in the end they have Stringer and Avon together for hours on camera but since only Avon mentions anything about drugs, Stringer is safe. I don't think evidence that two or three people often occupy the same physical location is evidence that they are engaged in a criminal conspiracy together.

GiantIain said...

Replying 16years later, Dominic West asked to leave after season three, I think he had young kids or at least a partner back in the UK so didn’t want to spend another long shoot in Baltimore. Him being barely in season 4 was a compromise and I think he saw sense it what he was asking to leave from by season 5.