Friday, July 18, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 7: "One Arrest" (Newbies edition)

Okay, it's a Friday morning and I actually have a review of "The Wire" for you. Can't promise the same for next week (I usually take a few days off at the end of press tour), but right now we're back to business as usual, in which we 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 of the series to last. This is the former; scroll up for the veterans edition if you want to talk about things that are still to come, both this season and in later seasons.

Spoilers for episode seven, "One Arrest," coming up just as soon as I explain to Fienberg that I'm Batman and he's Robin...

"A man must have a code." -Bunk

There are several types of codes at work in "One Arrest." One is Omar's code, spelled out more explicitly in his conversation with Bunk than it was in previous episodes, in which he declares that he would never put his gun on an ordinary citizen who wasn't a player in The Game. There's the code that the Barksdale crew uses to communicate, and which Lester and Prez are proving so adept at cracking. And then there's the unwritten code of conduct that players on both sides of the drug war are expected to follow -- and the consequences that befall those who don't.

Rawls is out to get Jimmy for starting the Barksdale ball rolling in the first place (thereby depriving Homicide of a detective for the rotation system) and for giving Daniels ammunition to defeat Rawls in an argument before Burrell (thereby violating chain of command and the notion that Rawls can strike fear into the hearts of all his subordinates).

The detail tries to go around the usual code of conduct by not arresting Stinkum with the package; it's such a stark departure from how things are usually done that Lester has to repeatedly explain it to Herc. But Lester proves too clever for his own good, because Avon and Stringer are smart enough to know there has to be a reason why the cops didn't track Stinkum down later to arrest him. And that in turn starts revolving the wheels in Stringer's head, which leads to him ordering the destruction of the courtyard payphones at the low-rises. As things are going, it's probably the lesser of two evils -- giving Avon's lawyer a look at the charging document would have blown the entire case -- but in retrospect, there was probably a better way to handle their tracking of the re-up.

Again and again and again, "The Wire" shows us people in long-standing institutions who try to think outside the box, and who get mocked or outright attacked for doing so. The Game is The Game, and you're only supposed to play it one way, right?

Look at what happens when Lt. Daniels tries to reach out to Kevin Johnson, the kid Prez half-blinded back in episode two. Kevin listens to Daniels' pitch for a minute, but the pressure to behave in a culturally-correct way is too much for him, and so he turns to Carver and mocks Daniels' entire offer and belief that there's another way out for a kid like him. Maybe if Prez isn't hiding in an adjacent windowed office at the moment, he considers it a little more, but I doubt it.

(While Kevin just happening to be the runner in Stinkum's car could have seemed contrived, it fit into the show's philosophy that everything is connected, and it also served as a reminder that past actions will not be forgotten. Other shows would happily stick with the more likable, puzzle-solving geek that Prez has been the last few episodes and try to forget his original sin. Not "The Wire.")

On the other hand, when you expect everyone to play The Game by your rules, you occasionally become vulnerable. Just look at how dangerous Omar has become to the Barksdale crew. They get over by instilling fear into the citizenry and punishing anyone who might speak out against them, but they would never count on someone like Omar -- someone brave and tough enough not to fear them, and well-connected enough to have intel to offer up when someone like Bunk asks -- cooperating with the cops. Omar's beef with Bird isn't specifically about Bird killing a citizen -- it's about Bird as representative of the crew who tortured and killed Brandon -- but you can tell that sort of standard 'yo behavior disgusts him just the same.

With Polk now drying out or on vacation or whatever, our focus shifts to the lowest man on the detail totem pole: Michael "Santy" Santangelo, who fits the classic hump mold of many of the original detail members. In Baltimore Homicide parlance, a "dunker" is a case that any idiot should be able to close with minimal effort, and yet Rawls notes that Santy, at best, nails 6 to 7 out of every 10 dunkers, and is all but useless on the more difficult cases.

But if Santy isn't that bright (see also him missing a chance to photograph Avon in the previous episode), he's not that bad a guy. (It's interesting to see the bit where Jimmy calls him an a-hole when he has to cover for Santy, when we know that Santy is specifically ducking out to try to save Jimmy. It's a small moment, but one of those vintage "Wire" bits where our knowledge of everyone's perspective deepens our understanding of what's really going on.) He busts his hump, by Santangelo standards, to close one of his open whodunnits, and when luck -- and Bunk and Omar -- bail him out, he recognizes that the time has come to warn Jimmy, no matter the blowback from Rawls.

Getting back to the notion of how The Game is expected to be played, behold what happens when Bubbs accompanies Johnny to his court-mandated 12-step meeting. While Johnny thinks the whole thing is a joke, something to be endured until the judge forgets about him, Bubbs' eyes are open by the sight of all the ex-junkies he hasn't seen in so long, he assumed they were dead. Even though he gets high later that night, you can see that the group speaker Walon (Steve Earle, who will sing the theme song in season five) makes a connection with Bubbs. Johnny cares about nothing but getting high, but Bubbs sees, even for a moment, a possible way out.

But whatever progress Bubbs may briefly make is canceled out by the incredibly sad sight of Wallace getting high, doing anything he can to block out his memory of Brandon's corpse and the role he played in his death. As I've said many times over the course of these reviews, Wallace is just a boy. He shouldn't have to carry this kind of emotional weight (even though he made a conscious choice to place that call), shouldn't be in an environment where the only comfort he can find is in a bag of dope. God, that kid breaks my heart.

Some other thoughts on "One Arrest":
  • I like how the beating of the unrepentant, loathsome Bird is led by supervisors Daniels and Landsman, where you'd usually expect to see the rank and file doing it and the boss coming in to break things up.
  • Daniels' trip to the expensive fundraiser shows that, while he's a good enough politician to be tight with Burrell -- so tight that Burrell thinks nothing of uttering a line like "In this state, there's a thin line between campaign photos and photo arrays" in front of him -- he's not really of this world, and is much more comfortable watching a ballgame with the blue-collar limo drivers.
  • Speaking of which, note that thieving limo driver Day-Day Price is played by Donnell Rawlings, who would go on to greater comic fame a few years later as one of the supporting players (he was Ashy Larry, among other characters) on "Chappelle's Show."
  • Jimmy and Bunk's scene at the bar reminds me of how much I love how the show depicts drunkenness, as the two of them always reach a level of sloshed that you almost never see in movies and on television. Also, Jimmy's line about how Bunk, um, made love to him gently is a verbatim quote from "Homicide" the book, with Jimmy saying Terry McLarney's lines and Bunk saying Bob McAllister's.
  • Man, Omar gets all the best lines. Love the bit where he's telling them where Bird might be scoring dope: "That's if I happen to be constabulating like y'all."
Up next: "Lessons," in which Jimmy takes advantage of his kids, D'Angelo considers Orlando's offer, and Day-Day takes a drive. My guess is that one will be two weeks away, as I'll be wrapping up press tour, then flying home, then taking some time off to reconnect with my family.

What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

I'm trying to figure out what it is about Isiah Whitlock, Jr., that makes him seem instantly sinister. On the surface, he's far less menacing than Lance Reddick is, for example, but yet one look at that beatific face and somehow I instantly think: there's a bad dude.

Bubbs at AA was heart-breaking. He so obviously longs for that kind of support and applause and will take it however he can get it, even if it's faking being sober.

Judge Phelan makes the second middle-aged guy on an HBO show who has a thing for red hair and freckles (as I recall, Melfi's ex on The Sopranos loved "the Colleens" as well). Why can't any young, cute guys have that particular fetish?

Also, not having watched a lot of the HBO product, is this the first (or only) show to start with a teaser rather than going directly into the credits (or, in the case of Larry Sanders eventually dispensing with credits altogether)?

Finally, how did Bird know Kima is a lesbian? I'd believe she had a rep with the drug-dealing crowd except that in the pilot it's established that she's unfamiliar with the Barksdale crew. Unless that's just Bird assuming all female cops are gay... which is totally possible, now that I think of it.

Anonymous said...

Yay, a new Wire post. I wasn't expecting a new one today, so this is a nice surprise.

"I usually go by 'lieutenant.'" Hee. Daniels' facial muscles can actually arrange themselves into a smile? Who knew? I do, however, find it a little hard to believe that he's quite as politically naive as that scene would indicate.

I never expected that there would be this much humor in the show. I love how they weave in humorous moments, large and small. Ones you mentioned, Alan, "constabulatin'" and reminiscing about McNulty's "first time." Also "Yer doin' gooood, Walon."

"God, that kid breaks my heart." That's one of my main comments after every single episode. Oh, Wallace. Sniff.

Filmcricket, I was wondering the same thing re: the Bird and Kima exchange. Your theory seems the most likely, I guess.

Theresa said...

I couldn't limit myself to the once-a-week watching schedule, and I finished the first season a few days ago. I love it. I spent about an hour the other night boring my boyfriend by singing its praises. I can't wait to see your comments on the upcoming episodes, Alan.

Also, ditto to the Wallace = heartbreaking comments. That kid is awesome.

Anonymous said...

Re: Bird/Kima exchange. I believe this comment is directed towards Kima not necessarily because Bird knows that Kima is a lesbian, but Bird is playing on the fact that she's a female police officer and the simplest way he can hope to get a rise out of her and to offend her is to call her a dyke. I don't think it goes any deeper than that.

With regards to your question about cold opens, filmcricket, as far as I know "The Wire" was the only HBO series that I know of that used these. I think it has something to do with the fact that the majority of HBO's output is overtly cinematic, or at least ignoring the conventions of television. "The Sopranos" I believe used a cold open in one of its early episodes in Season 1 (the exchange where Silvio does his Michael Coreleone impression for the first time - "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!") but that was purely a one-off.

Karen said...

You've hit all the points that grabbed me on this one, Alan, but I just have to say that, despite Prez's "original sin," it was beautiful to watch his goofy pride in cracking the Pit's code, and Freamon's avuncular pride in his doing so. "It's fun figuring shit out" is probably the first time Prez ever found joy in actually doing this job, and Freamon is able to mentor him to the point where, who knows, Prez might even become a decent cop.

@filmcricket, I don't think Bubbs was faking being sober: the chain was for those who "have 24 hours or a sincere desire to live," and I think Bubbs has the latter a-plenty.

I was wondering the same thing about Bird and Kima as the others, but the notion that Bird would use that line on any female officer does make sense.


Some trivia:

In this episode, Omar says "never get high on your own supply" when discussing the rules that Avon and Stringer set for their employees. This is an ingenious reference to a hilarious tune by the Notorious B.I.G. called "10 Crack Commandments". The latter song is literally a 10-rule handbook for how to sell crack effectively. The relevant lyrics are:

"[Rule] number four
I know you've heard this before
Never get high on your own supply"