Friday, August 08, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 10, "The Cost" (Newbies edition)

Time once again to hop in the wayback machine and revisit episodes from "The Wire" season one. As usual, we'll be doing this in two editions: one for folks who have seen the whole series and want to talk about how season one stories tie into things down the road, and one for people new to the show who don't want to be spoiled. This is the latter; scroll up for the veteran-friendly version.

Spoilers for episode 10, "The Cost," coming up just as soon as I load up on junk food...

"Buy busts, lieutenant. It's what I asked you for, months ago. It's what we do, successfully, time and again, to make these cases." -Burrell

And here is Ervin Burrell, and the Baltimore PD, and every other institution on "The Wire," in a nutshell. His protege, Lt. Daniels, has done his best to convince Burrell that they need to think outside the box in their dealings with the Barksdale crew, that doing what they've done, time and again, won't work with these guys. And Burrell doesn't want to hear it. He wants this case to go away, fast, and he genuinely believes that business as usual will get him what he wants. Instead, he orders an undercover operation that's as futile as Daniel knows it will be -- and, worse, it gets Kima and Orlando shot.

Because "The Wire" deals with so many lofty sociological issues, critics (and I put myself in this company in the early seasons) sometimes did a poor job conveying just how well the show could work as pure entertainment. But I defy anyone to look at a sequence like the botched undercover and not leave deep claw marks on either the nearest upholstery or the forearm of their significant other.

This kind of sequence is such a staple of cop shows that I'm struggling to put my finger on what it is in either David Simon's script or Brad Anderson's direction that makes this one feel particularly tense. Is it that Kima had been established as such a three-dimensional, likable character through the season in general and this episode in particular? Is it that, as "The Wire" tends to do, we spent so much time setting up how this was supposed to go that it was doubly chilling when the plan went awry? Our knowledge of how Avon operates casting a pall over things? Savino's ice-cold, nearly-silent demeanor throughout? The darkness and the bleak, unfamiliar neighborhood? Or, again, our knowledge that all this risk was basically for nothing?

No matter the reason for it, the sequence works like gangbusters -- even though I know what's coming next, this is the first time in the rewatch process where I got frustrated that I didn't have time to immediately watch the next episode -- and caps off one of the busiest episodes so far. Each season of "The Wire" is structured in such a way that nothing seems to be happening for a very long time, and then all of a sudden lots of things are happening all at once as you realize how much of those slow-moving episodes were paving the ground for all this action.

After several months (in both real time and show time) of little progress, the detail now has a line on the main Barksdale stash house, which in turn could give them a line on every major drug player in West Baltimore. They have Stringer, Wee-Bey and Bird all implicated in Brandon's murder, courtesy of Wallace. They have a line into Avon's various real estate holdings, and if complacent boobs like Burrell don't get in their way, they could actually make one hell of a case here.

The show had spent so much time following Wallace's guilt over the Brandon killing that the episode actually skips over McNulty's initial interrogation of the kid, and it's okay. We know what Wallace knows, and we know how guilt-ridden he is about it, and in some ways it's more dramatically satisfying to come in the next morning with an exhausted Jimmy telling Bunk what went down. Besides, we get to rehash most of the material -- including Wallace's refusal to rat out D'Angelo, the only player with anything close to Wallace's own levels of compassion -- a second time when Daniels meets with him, so any blanks we haven't already filled in our heads get filled here.

Even at this late date in the season, though, Simon and Burns are willing to take their time on the stories that need it. Bubbles essentially spends the entire episode sitting on the same park bench, day after day, soaking in the sights, sounds and smells of the straight life and fighting the urge to get high. He has conversations with Walon and with Kima (who, to her credit as both detective and human being, quickly figures out what Bubbs is doing without having to be told), but mostly it's about watching Andre Royo sit on that bench, looking around, trying not to give in to temptation. The moment when we finally see him leave the bench and tell one of the touts that "I ain't up" is all the more powerful because we've seen so much of his journey already this season, and then because we spend so much time just watching him sit there. And our knowledge that he's placed so much of his future in Kima's hands only makes the botched undercover operation seem that much worse.

"The Cost" features three different characters attempting to get out of The Game. Wallace winds up with his grandmother, Bubbs is on his bench, and Omar gets on the bus, having realized he pushed his vendetta as far as it can go. Admittedly, Omar doesn't seem in a hurry to switch professions, but even his willingness to leave Baltimore seems revolutionary on a show where so many of the players seem uncomfortable if they wind up on the other side of town, or, in Wallace's case, in a rural neighborhood where the sounds at night aren't of breaking glass and rough language, but good old-fashioned crickets.

Some other thoughts on "The Cost":

• Though Daniels is right in his argument with Burrell, we've seen throughout the season that he can be just as guilty of business-as-usual thinking. Note that his insistence on trying to follow Avon in "Game Day" because that's how things were done in Narcotics -- despite Jimmy's warnings that this would be pointless -- only encourages Avon and Stringer to be more careful than ever before. This viewing was also the first time I ever noticed Avon's line about where that cat-and-mouse chase would have led the cops had they kept up with him: to the barbershop.

• I know David Simon went to U of Maryland, so when Kima's girlfriend Cheryl began boasting about what bad-ass drinkers Northwestern journalism students were, my eyebrows raised. Then I spent 30 seconds on Google and discovered that Laura Lippman (aka Mrs. Simon, and a former Baltimore Sun reporter herself) studied at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.

• I should also say about that scene that, in retrospect, I should have been prepared for Kima to get shot, given that she had just been shown in this moment of pure happiness, delivering an anecdote from her earliest days on the force and then making out with her special lady friend. Between that and her promising Bubbs that she'd help him out starting tomorrow, I should have been able to spot the neon "DANGER!" arrow pointing straight at her, but I was thunderstruck at the time.

• Note that, among Carver's snack binge in the surveillance van is a bag of Utz potato chips, something of a regional junk food delicacy, particularly in the Pennsylvania-Maryland corridor. On "Homicide," Stan Bolander would occasionally pledge his alliegance to Utz.

• My one beef with the episode: Bubbles looks around the neighborhood and sees kids playing with actual bubbles. A little too on the nose, even if they looked purdy.

• Have I mentioned how much I love Prop Joe? That's some shameless shit he pulls off in this episode. Having set up Omar's failed attempt to kill Avon, he now gets Stringer to pay him to guarantee Omar's safety, while pretending to have never met Omar before. If it seems obvious to us, it's only because we know things Stringer doesn't.

Coming up next Friday: "The Hunt," in which the department puts all of its muscle, for good or for ill, into finding the shooters.

What did everybody else think?


Theresa said...

This episode broke my heart, as much for Kima as for Bubbs. This was the episode that made me finish the rest of the season that night; I couldn't stop watching. You're right: when stuff starts happening, it really starts happening.

Anonymous said...

I predicted Kima getting shot as soon as she got in the car and was mildly annoyed by the heavy-handedness of the "this is when I knew I was a cop" scene. There's other things going on there, of course; it's reinforcing the fact that Cheryl's not thrilled with Kima's career choice. But having someone else on the detail give that speech and then having Kima get shot would have been a really nice piece of misdirection.

That said, the shooting sequence itself is excellent. The tension between seeing things from Kima's point of view and hearing things from the back-up's point of view is exquisite. And I think it is the knowledge that Kima's not only a good person, but a good cop - anointed as such by no less than our hero, McNulty - that makes it devastating. If it had happened to Herc, we'd feel bad, but not like this.

The scene with Bubbs at the beginning is just gorgeous. I've read a few accounts of it that focus on his fighting the addiction, which of course he is. But I also think he's sitting there appreciating how beautiful life can be when you're not chasing, when you have other things to think about besides your next fix.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I was spoiled for the shooting. I accidentally saw something about Kima having been shot at some point. I didn't know this was when it was going to happen, but I was expecting it.

I thought the scene in the bar was Simonesque (Simonian?) counterpoint to an earlier one where one of the cops (Herc?) asked her when she knew she was a lesbian. So now we have the lesbians asking when she knew she wanted to be a cop.

Apropos of nothing really, the contrast between the imperious Barnfather of Homicide and the hapless Orlando never fails to crack me up.

Oh, Bubbs. Hang in there, buddy.

Anonymous said...

Kima getting hot had me misty eyed(I probably would have totally balled if my boyfriend wasn't in the room. It's hard to justify shedding real tears over a fictional person). You knew it was coming but there was nothing you could do about it; it really was heartbreaking. I was cursing Daniels for the rest of the night. I totally forgot that Bubbs is counting on her and now I'm even more upset and distressed about the whole thing. Thanks for reminding me, Alan.

Jobin said...

After hearing Simmons and Whitlock praise The Wire, I watched all 60 episodes in about 3 months, banging them out quickly so I could then go back and listen to podcasts and read articles about this great show.

Season 1 is back On Demand on HBO, so I've been re-watching them and taking my sweet time, checking out Alan's "newbies" posts after every one.

Despite the fact that I knew Kima was going to get ambushed (and the subsequent result), I was holding onto the couch with tears in my eyes after she got shot. I loved the helicopter angles they used and the urgent voices being drowned out added to the intensity. Seeing Daniels screaming into his walkie and Carver kicking things out of anger and shock just really hit home for me. Despite the gruesome nature of the scene, it was just spine-chilling and beautifully done all around, from production to direction to acting.

On a related note, I don't think there's another actor that does the combo of a staredown and a verbal dressing-down like Cedric Daniels/Matthew Abbadon. I love his style, mostly because I'm terrified of him.

SaraK said...

Not even sure if anyone will see this comment, but just in case...
I just started watching The Wire a few weeks ago. It's been slow-going because I get 1 disc at a time from NetFlix, but this episode convinced me to buy the DVD set. I know I will want to watch it over again. Alan, your recaps help make this terrific show even better.

LindaB said...

Hey SaraK, I'm just a couple of weeks behind you. I was going crazy doing the one disc at a time from Netflix. I dropped the Blu Ray option, and upgraded my subscription to two at a time, and now to three at a time until I complete the series. What a great way to view a series! I would hate to have to wait a week between episodes. That is the one advantage to starting to watch a series after its completion.

Anonymous said...

Not only were they Utz chips, they were Crab Chips (Old Bay flavor potato chips), which is totally appropriate for Balmore.

uptheorg said...

Notice the irony between Herc's stakeout and the stakeout set up by McNulty to get Wallace: Herc got crab chips and the cops on the Wallace detail got real crab!