Friday, August 08, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 10, "The Cost" (Veterans 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 former; scroll down for the newbie-safe 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.

And now let's talk about how some of this episode's developments will play out down the road:

• Herc is absent from this episode as he's away from the detail doing in-service training. I'm assuming this was a cost-saving measure to keep all the cop actors from appearing in every episode, but it also becomes a plot point when Carver's own stint in in-service training finally clues Daniels into how Burrell is so knowledgable so quickly about the detail's activity.

• Again, we know that Bubbs' attempt to clean up won't work out this time, but his conversation with Walon plants the seeds for everything that's going to happen in season five, from Walon being HIV+ (a fate Bubbs will be stunned to learn he avoided) to Walon telling Bubbs that the only way this will work is if he finds a way to forgive himself for all the bad stuff he's done.

• Wallace's reaction to the crickets will echo near the end of season five when Michael brings Bug to his aunt in Howard County. I can only hope that Bug managed to make a go of it in suburbia instead of running from it the way Wallace will in a few episodes.

• Thank goodness this wasn't Omar's final appearance on the show, nor the last time that Michael K. Williams and Idris Elba would play a scene together. (In addition to Stringer's final scene, the two parley in season two when Stringer is pitting Omar against Brother Mouzone.)

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?


Jarvis and Anita said...

This was a great episode - I always hear the police helicopter when I think about it. One of the reasons I love season 1 as much as if not more than any other season is the action. "Game Day" and "The Hunt" finish with cliffhanger finishes I don't think we really saw in any other Wire episodes. The single-minded focus on the drug investigation in season 1 gave the show a certain type of intensity and excitement that wasn't there in other seasons with the partial exception of S3 and the final episodes of S5.

One other point, which you alluded to Alan: In Bubbs' testimony in the second last episode of season 5, he talks about sitting in a park both as a young man get high, and after he got clean, feeling the temptation to get high. It's a nice shoutback to his experience in this episode.

Anonymous said...

I remember watching Episodes 9-11 (they're all on the same DVD) in one night last winter. Just amazing. I've never been as tense watching a TV or movie as during the end of this episode. There were three main reasons for that:

-They spent 9.5 episodes building up Kima as a phenomenally likable character.
-The increasing dread/tension among the other detectives, who clearly like Kima a whole lot.
-The realism of the show convinced me that they wouldn't hesitate to kill her. With most shows, you can be pretty confident the female lead isn't going to get killed.

I feel like I need to go watch "The Hunt" now and I didn't even watch this episode.

Anonymous said...

I think what makes the botched undercover scene so effective is the noise. It really sounds like the world is ending around them, and kicks an already confused, frantic scene over the top.

Anonymous said...

I think a big part of what makes the scene work is that fact that people who've been watching the show by now absolutely do know something terrible is going to happen - regardless of if they know what - and so the whole scene, drawn out as it is, feels like an excruciating waiting game.

Anonymous said...

I had been enjoying the show in the episodes previous to this one, and was certainly impressed by it, but "The Cost" is when I realized how invested I was in the show. I was absolutely convinced that they had just killed off Kima, and was none too happy about it.

Prior to this episode, it was possible to view The Wire as a bit of an intellectual exercise, but after the emotional impact of the episode (highlighted not only by the potential loss of a sympathetic character, but also by the geniunely adrenaline-inducing nature of the final sequence), you realize that the show also function as entertainment. Sadly, a few of the people I've tried to turn on to the show had already given up before this episode rolls around, but there's not much you can do when people are unwilling to put in the work necessary to achieve such a legitimate pay-off.

Anonymous said...

I got into the series very late and actually watched 3 or 4 episodes of S3 before I went back and bought all the seasons. But even though I had seen Kima in S3 I was still genuinely afriad that she was dead. You knew Avon already thought Orlando was a chump and was going to "take care" of the problem. Having a girlfriend there wouldn't protect him and just that look on everyone's faces when the car's stereo was turned up said things were going to go really bad in a hurry.

Alan: The release of S5 on Tuesday makes me wonder, is there going to be some sort of super deluxe mega 5 season set with all sorts of bells and whistles that I can wait for or do I just buy it solo? I saw it live during the first run and have been watching/saving them on DVR from the 11 pm Sat on HBO2 airings so I'm in no rush to get a fix.

Anonymous said...

As one of those rare souls who started watching the Wire without having seen S1 (I started with S2 and later bought S1 on its first day of DVD release), I knew that Kima had been shot and lived but still found the end of this episode exciting. For me, the tension comes from the quicker-than-normal cuts during the sequence, the noise which almost drowns out the cops barking into their radios, and the fact that there is an intense sense of helplessness because the rest of the detail was too far away to be of any direct assistance. The cold, detached shot from Foxtrot which ends the episode is a perfect capper as well.

Anonymous said...

Re: Anonymous

There was a news item posted on not too long ago which said HBO would do a 5-season set sometime around the end of the year.

Abbie said...

I understand what you're saying about Wallace v Bug, but Howard County is way more populated than the Eastern Shore where Wallace was sent. Howard County is real suburbia; the Eastern Shore area is pretty rural. I know that they'd both be pretty foreign to a couple of kids from Baltimore City though.

Anonymous said...

It's not really important in the grand scheme, but rewatching this episode I liked Carver's pig-out on junk food foreshadowing his command-inspired weight gain come season five.

I guess rip and runs are pretty good exercise.

Anonymous said...

The series scenes with Omar and Stringer are standout (as are those with Omar and Bunk). As for the Season 2 scene where Stringer is setting Omar up with Brother Mouzone, it's easy to overlook that the whole thing is Prop. Joe's brainchild.

Anonymous said...

I remember being skeptical about Omar's reluctance to go to the hospital for treatment of his gunshot wound, fearing word would get back to Barksdale and they would be lying in wait for him when he left. Snoop's canvassing Baltimore hospitals to find out if her brother who fell out of a window was there convinced me otherwise.

dronkmunk said...

To anonymous @ 1036 and the one directly above me, really insightful observations. The depth of this show continues to reveal itself

Anonymous said...

Alan, have you seen the season 5 DVD set of "The Wire"? If so, would the extras be worth the purchase for those of us who recorded the episodes and already have them burned to DVDs?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Eliz, I have it but haven't had time to look at it. My friend Rick Porter has a review here. Short version is that there are six commentaries, plus the two documentaries ("Wire Odyssey" and "the Wire: The Last Word") that aired before the season, but no other features (including none of the three prequels).

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Alan. Based on that review, I'll wait to be convinced that I need the bonus features.

Anonymous said...

First time poster here.

1st of all, great write up on this episode. I just finished rewatching this episode, and I had to go online to see what someone/anyone had written on it. Blessed to stumble upon this post.

I must say, the thing that captivates me the most when Kima gets shot is the look in McNulty, Sydnor, Carver, and Daniel's eyes - they all (McNulty especially) have this gleam - a gleam of regret, alarm, and surprise when they hear the gunshots and are driving frantically to find the location of the shooting. Amazing acting on their parts.

Yall hit it on the dot already: we've got so much invested in Kima's character that this was a blow to the chest. Luckily I watched the Wire episodes in order so I had no idea how this would turn out.

This episode was definately the nail in the coffin for me - no turning back from this series. I had struggled through the 1st few episodes not used to this kind of television/art and this is when it finally began to pay dividends. Before I realized it, this show had subconsciously grabbed a hold of me.

One last note - that scene with Bubs and Kima was amazing. You have a picture of it at the top of the post and with good reason: it has this subtlety to it that The Wire has mastered. I especially loved when Kima says "What the ____ am I going to do with a clean informant? Did you think about that?"

Bubs, full of fiending and fleeting thoughts racing through his head, leans back on the bench not realizing the full depth of Kima's comment. Then he lets out a small chuckle. Brilliant.

Dylan said...

I know I'm like a year past time on this one, but I wanted to mention that I think the reason the Kima Undercover scene works so well is because, up to this point in the show, the actual policework has been filmed in such a way that it's showing us how they do it. Sometimes it goes wrong, sometimes it goes right, but the cinematic language has been mostly instructional.

And, through all of this, Kima has been a thouroughly competent cop so you don't really expect it to go wrong.

So, while we're being taken on this undercover ride for the first time, we expect the show to do what it's done up to this point: Show us how an undercover job works. Because of that, we dont' really realize things are off until Kima does.

My two cents.