Monday, July 28, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 8: "Lessons" (Newbies edition)

Okay, in an attempt to get these season one review of "The Wire" back on schedule and hopefully finished before Labor Day, I'm going to try to double up here and there. So we'll get one review today, and another one in the regularly-scheduled Friday morning timeslot. Not sure yet if I'll double up again next week or a little down the road, as I also intend to take a vacation at some point in August, but we'll get this done close to on time or your money back.

As usual, we're going to do this in two versions: one for people who are new to the series, one for folks who have seen every episode from first to last. This is the former; scroll up for a version where you can talk about everything that's coming in the future.

Spoilers for episode eight, "Lessons," coming up just as soon as I teach my daughter how to front-and-follow...

One of the dominant themes of "The Wire" is the tremendous waste that the drug culture has created in inner-city America. Men and women who might have otherwise gone on to great things -- or, at least, to something resembling the middle-class lifestyle familiar to the majority of the show's audience -- are either deprived of opportunity, or else seduced away from those opportunities, by life on the corner.

Look at the moment where one of the abandoned kids in Wallace and Poot's care asks Wallace for help with his math homework. It's a fairly simple, culturally-relevant word problem about the number of passengers on a city bus, and yet the kid has no idea in how to solve it, or much interest in trying. Yet when Wallace translates the problem in terms of keeping the count on the stash, the kid gets it quickly. Math as a concept is an abstraction that has no real place in his world, but getting the count right? Do it or risk a beating.

And in this episode, Simon and Burns establish Stringer Bell as either the greatest example of this wasted potential, or perhaps the greatest counter-example. Maybe both.

Where Wallace's young charge can only relate to the world at large when it's placed in a drug context, we discover in "Lessons" that Stringer is trying to master the drug world by using knowledge gleaned from the real world. We already had a sense from earlier chapters (notably when Stringer and Avon discussed their plans to take over the Edmonson corner, where Omar kills Stinkum near the end of this episode) that Stringer had more business savvy than your average TV druglord. But the idea that he takes macroeconomics courses at the local community college, or that he insists on running his copy business as a real business and not simply as a front? That's the genius of Stringer Bell, and of the show. In another life, Stringer could have gotten a job on Wall Street, but in this one, he applies principles like elastic vs. inelastic products to catering to West Baltimore's dope fiend population.

There's a very interesting moment late in the episode, after Stinkum's death, where Stringer tries to caution Avon about seeking immediate retribution on Omar. Avon's head is in The Game, where you don't let something like this slide, or even appear to slide, or risk losing face. Stringer's approaching the problem from a more calculated point of view -- his plan still ends with Omar being killed -- but you can also see on his face that he's done a mental cost-benefit analysis of the entire Omar affair and is starting to wonder whether the stick-up man is worth all the trouble.

"Lessons" also establishes that there's more of a connection between the real world and the drug world than Stringer's college classes, as the detail picks up Day-Day Price -- driver for state senator Clay Davis -- with a trash bag full of cash handed to him by one of Avon's soldiers. We don't know yet why a state senator is accepting cash from a local drug lord, and thanks to Deputy Ops Burrell, we may never know. It's worth noting that Burrell's reaction to this development in the case doesn't automatically suggest that Burrell himself is corrupt, just that he's politically astute enough to know that no good can likely come to the department from messing with the business of an influential politician. Regardless of his motivation, Daniels appears to be just as screwed with Burrell as McNulty is with Rawls; if the two of them could stand each other's company, maybe they could hoist a beer over the irony of that.

Of course, Jimmy gets plenty of drinking in with The Bunk in this episode, and Bunk sums up his partner and friend in one devastating sentence: "You're no good for people, man." McNulty has been set up as our protagonist, and is played by the exceedingly likable Dominic West, but by the end of this episode -- by the end of this run of episodes -- it's obvious that The Bunk ain't wrong. Jimmy asking his sons to tail Stringer is the sort of thing that seems practical and amusing to him but is an even bigger parental breach than bringing the boys with Omar to the morgue a few episodes back. And he screws over Ray Cole in order to protect both the wire and Bunk's own murder case, big picture decisions that might be more palatable if he had the guts to be honest with Cole about it. I know Jimmy's afraid of the wrath of Rawls, but own your actions, man. Please.

I'll give Jimmy credit for this, at least: when Omar leaves the detail office free and clear, having made it quite obvious (without ever coming out and saying it) that he killed Stinkum and intends to keep hunting Barksdale people, Jimmy at least has the awareness to ask Lester if they're still cops at this point. It's a mark of the series' measured pace that we're eight episodes in, and the detail only has significant charges against two mid-level Barksdale people -- one of which gets taken away when Omar kills Stinkum. Omar is, like McNulty, a tremendously colorful and charming figure -- and a hell of an investigator, to boot -- but an episode like this, with the murder of Stinkum and Kima's realization that Omar probably didn't directly witness the Gant killing, is a reminder of the shady moral territory the cops enter when they deal with someone like him. Omar puts his life in simple terms for the cops -- "The Game is out there, and it's either play or get played." -- and how are upholders of a strict legal code supposed to operate around that?

Some other thoughts on "Lessons"

-Again illustrating the depth that the show tries to give all its characters, this episode shows two very different sides to Wee-Bey. Early on, we get him out with D'Angelo and the guys at the crab shack, having a good time, cracking jokes and getting made fun of for his affection for the too-hot hot sauce. It's a very humanizing scene -- and then we see him drunk (or high, or both) at Stinkum's party, dragging the barely-conscious Keisha into a bedroom and not even noticing that she died later in the evening.

-Earlier in this season, while discussing the opening titles, I pointed you towards Andrew Dignan's essay at The House Next Door about the series' various credit sequences. Andrew, Matt Seitz and Kevin B. Lee have now turned the idea into a five-part (one for each season) video essay for the Museum of the Moving Image, and you can see it at the Museum's website. As I write this, entries for season one and two are up. The season one entry is fairly newbie-safe, but I would avoid anything after that; the season two entry gives away major developments for both that season and season three.

-At one point in the episode, you can see Bunk reading a mystery novel by Laura Lippman, a Baltimore fixture who also happens to be Mrs. David Simon. This will become a running inside joke on the series, as later seasons will show characters perusing books by members of the extended "Wire" family, whether it's a George Pelecanos thriller or a first edition of "Generation Kill."

-If you haven't made the name connection by now, Det. Ray Cole is played by the late Bob Colesberry, executive producer of the show and the man responsible for much of the series' visual style. Though Jimmy notes hear that Ray's clearance rate this year is good enough that he can absorb the Stinkum whodunnit, for much of the series he's treated like just as much of a clown as Santangelo. In one of the prequel short films that were produced to tease the final season, we see McNulty, new to Homicide, explaining to Bunk that he got assigned to this elite unit, despite minimal training and service time, because he solved a case that a Homicide veteran was screwing up. That Homicide detective? Ray Cole.

-By this point, I probably should be keeping my copy of "Homicide" the book handy for reference. I can't swear that a drunken, guilt-ridden Bunk burning his clothes to get rid of the trace evidence is an incident from the book, but I feel reasonably confident that the book is the first place I encountered the idea.

Coming up on Friday: "Game Day," in which the detail finally gets a good look at Avon (sort of), while the audience gets its first look, period, at a fella by the name of Proposition Joe.

What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

I'm getting a Michael Corleone ("We'll get there, Pop") feeling from Stringer, like he has a dream, for far in the future, that one day the whole Barksdale enterprise will be legit.

Nevertheless, McNulty getting his kids to follow Bell is pretty appalling, and he's only slightly redeemed by the panic he shows in the security office. (I'm impressed by the McNulty Juniors' mad investigative skillz, though.)

Anonymous said...

Wow, Jimmy, it's hard to believe that Elena doesn't want you to have much contact with the boys.

I don't know what to make of the scene with Stringer and his legitimate business. At first it seemed like maybe it was just a bit of comic relief with Stringer lecturing the corner boys on economics, but it seems like too big of a thing to be just thrown in. Why would he care about that? Is it just an intellectual exercise to see if he can do it? Maybe you're right, Filmcricket, but I don't remember seeing him have any qualms about the biz as it is. Certainly not like D. OTOH, maybe if you're the one standing around wringing your hands about it, you aren't suited to take action to change it. Or maybe that's just BS. It will be interesting to see if that goes anywhere.

Oh, Bunk, you hound dog. I'm not sure that being so easily led around by Little Bunk is your most prudent course.

Anonymous said...

Those interested in Stringer's proclivity economic theory, should check out "Freakonomics", in particular the chapter focusing on the studies of Sudhir Venkatesh, and his studies of New York dealers who also took inspiration from established business models.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, quipu, I immediately thought of "Freakonomics" when I saw Stringer in class.

Ellie, I don't see qualms or regret in Stringer either, not like D'Angelo (or like Michael Corleone at the start of Godfather I). I don't sense sympathy in him for the people that get murdered on his orders, and definitely not for the people he kills more slowly with drugs.

I think Stringer's the embodiment of pure capitalism. I get the sense he's accepted that this is one of the few ways an African American man who grew up with the double stigmas of race and class can make a buck. But I also think he'd happily dispense with all the subterfuge and paying off shady lawyers and whatever else is required to keep him & Avon out of prison, if only he could make the same kind of cash in a legit business that he can from slinging dope.

Anonymous said...

The depictions of the characters’ double sides in this episode was, for me, both flooring and frustrating. The Wee-Bey scenes turn your thoughts of him on a dime. Seeing his disgusting actions at that party reminded me of the evilness. And when I see Stringer as the model college student, I start to respect his character...forgetting how he orders murders on a whim. Then there’s McNulty, whose actions as a father are completely unacceptable and utterly stupid, even though he’s a brilliant cop.

Filmcricket- love your thoughts on Stringer. As I was reading Alan’s comments about how Stringer in another life would’ve been on Wall Street, I thought to myself, “Yeah, but honestly what are the chances of that?” In NO way am I saying that Stringer on W.S. can’t or shouldn’t happen, but as someone who’s taught students from the Chicago projects (or what’s left of them), it’s very, very, very hard. I get the feeling that Stringer would like the business to be legit, but still accepts it’s an underground economy and takes advantage of that set of tools.

I think it was in this episode where I had my first Wire-awakening.