Friday, August 15, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 11, "The Hunt" (Newbies edition)

We're in the home stretch now of our summer plan to look back at season one of "The Wire." Once again, two versions: one for the people who have seen and want to talk about every episode from every season, and one for relative newcomers who don't want to be spoiled about things down the road. This is the latter; scroll up for the veteran-friendly edition.

Spoilers for episode 11, "The Hunt," coming up just as soon as I recycle this can of Slice...

"Today, a message has been sent." -Commissioner Frazier

We have all seen some version of that press conference dozens, maybe hundreds, of times on the evening news. (Or on other cop shows, for that matter.) "The Hunt" exposes them for the glorified, meaningless photo ops that they usually are. Messages have been sent, sure, but they roughly translate as this: 1)Hey drug dealers, be more cautious with how you do business so it becomes harder for us to catch you; and 2)Hey Barksdale detail, prepare for any and all of your hard work to be sacrificed for the sake of public appearances whenever is necessary.

In fairness, the men behind the decision to raid the main stash house and put some dope on the table are depicted as human. You can see how much it pains Burrell and Foerster and even Frazier to listen to the tape of Kima being ambushed, and you can understand their desire to do something to make up for that impotent feeling. But this is a time when caution is called for, not hasty showboating -- the Lester Freamon philosophy instead of the Ervin Burrell approach -- and we all know who has the decision-making power here, don't we?

In a strange way, Kima getting shot screws both Avon and the detail about equally. Yes, it gives the Barksdale crew a much-needed kick in the ass to tighten up, but it's still too much attention and it costs them the services of Savino (in jail), Little Man (dead) and Wee-Bey (in hiding in Philly). The detail loses Kima (though at least she's still alive, if in a lot of trouble) and though they allegedly get the full resources of the department at their disposal, it comes at the cost of more attention and more pressure to do something ASAP. Look how much they were able to accomplish while they were forgotten in their little City Hall dungeon, and look how much of that progress got wiped away as soon as Commissioner Frazier learned Daniels' name. (And, after some confusion, figured out that he wasn't a white guy like Norris.)

The one exception to the uselessness of the department brass is a real surprise, as Major Rawls shows what happens when he chooses to use his powers for good instead of evil. He's the only one who can chase all the useless bodies away from the crime scene, the first one to realize how the street signs got turned around, the only one to notice McNulty sitting in a corner, covered in blood. And he shows an amazing level of compassion, considering that he is, in fact, Bill Rawls. His speech in the hospital to McNulty is one of the most inspiring bits of oratory I've ever heard to include a line like "You, McNulty, are a gaping a--hole. We both know this." Rawls can be mean and petty and vindictive, but he is not stupid and he is not a monster. He sees his archnemesis hurting, and rather than pour salt in the wound, he tries to help him. (Jimmy has too much of a martyr complex to listen, but at least Rawls tries.) Every character on this show is allowed some level of humanity, even something as small as cold killer Wee-Bey having named and attributed personalities to all of his fish. Rawls is a bastard, but even a bastard has limits.

Though Kima and Orlando (and Little Man, I suppose) are the obvious victims of the shooting, Bubbs suffers from some serious collateral damage. He had hung his entire sober future(*) on Kima, and on the day he expects to get money for a new place, he instead gets a beating from Det. Holley and, even worse, gets handed a 20 by an oblivious McNulty. Where Kima knows junkies in general and Bubbs in particular well enough to quickly suss out that Bubbs is trying to stay clean, it never occurs to Jimmy, who sees Bubbs only as a source of information. (As Ronnie puts it, he'll use anybody.) "The Wire" shows that everyone has some level of humanity, but most of the characters rarely see that in each other -- especially in characters from other social strata. Bubbs still has that crumpled-up 20 by episode's end, but you can see on his face that it's only a matter of time before he spends it, and Jimmy has no idea what he's done.

(*) In talking with Simon and Burns about this storyline years later, they noted that it's common for junkies to come up with "a very thin plan" that relies on a whole lot of unlikely if/then's to work, and which is quickly abandoned whenever one of those unlikelihoods inevitably falls through. It takes a lot of willpower as well as good circumstances to get clean and stay clean.

The episode closes with a pair of scenes tied together by similar-looking computer read-outs: the detail's computer recording Wallace's call to Poot, which Prez doesn't understand the gravity of; and the heart monitor in Kima's hospital room. Though Wallace is ambulatory and alert and healthy, his decision to leave the cricket-infested farm country and go back to West Baltimore places him in just as much danger as Kima currently faces.

Some other thoughts on "The Hunt":

• Jimmy's "What the f--k did I do?" catchphrase is usually used as a joke, but when he whispers it to Rawls at the crime scene, it's anything but funny.

• Cheryl, like the other spouses and significant others, hasn't appeared that much, but we've seen enough of her for her devastation in this episode to really hit home. Every scene with her was just about perfect, from her denial when Carver turns up at her door to the shame and hurt when none of the cops would talk to her (and Burrell got his own human moment when he picked up the ball that Frazier dropped) to the moment when she touches the blue marker stain Kima made on the couch in "Old Cases" and finally lets out all the tears. Really nice work by Melanie Nicholls-King.

• Also the usual brilliance from Larry Gilliard in the sequence where D is convinced Wee-Bey is going to kill him, even though he hadn't done anything particularly mistake-worthy of late. (Maybe he thought Stringer and Avon found out about D giving Cass and Sterling a pass for dipping from the stash?)

• Like Rawls, Maury Levy is such a loathsome creature that it's easy to miss how good he is at what he does, but he responded to McNulty's threats by talking and working rings around the cops in the Savino proffer.

• Also good at what he does, and far more likable? Cool Lester Smooth, who for a while is the only member of the detail (other than maybe Daniels, but he's understandably detained) to understand how they might be able to use their resources to catch the shooters, and who pulls off another investigative miracle with his "pull" of the Slice can.

Coming up next Friday: "Cleaning Up," the season's penultimate episode and one that many fans consider to be one of the best "Wire"s ever.

What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

Oh, Wallace. I know it's probably pretty boring at Grandma's, but there's nothing good in Balmer for you, sweetie. Dang. I was sort of hoping we'd never see him again, so I could fanwank that he got back into school and lived happily every after.

And Bubbs ... man, this show is going to kill me.

Well, this episode is as far as I've gotten in the series, and I'm on vacation for the next 10 days, so I'll be out of the loop for the next discussion. I catch up with you guys on the next one.

Anonymous said...

My brother and I just started watching The Wire, and I just happened across a link from Tomato Nation about your write-ups...serendipity!
I just wanted to say these are wonderful - thanks for doing them, and keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

The scene in the hospital where they're all listening to the tape is absolutely devastating. Love that Jimmy also realizes that if he hadn't gone showboating around the judge's chambers in the first place, Kima wouldn't be in this dire situation. And the bit at the end with Cheryl listening to Nina Simone brought me to tears.

Who plays Levy? It strikes me that he's one of many familiar faces from the Law & Order franchises that have also showed up here, but I don't know where else I might have seen him. In any case, he's great.

I'd also like to say that I'm currently on disc 3 of Season 3 and... now I get it. In a battle royale between seasons 1 & 2 of The West Wing or Deadwood vs. The Wire the latter would lose, but even this early into the third season I agree - it's frickin' brilliant.

Anonymous said...


don't forget that you are giving your opinion.

I my humble OPINION Deadwood is the ONLY show that can even enter into the discussion with The Wire.

Anonymous said...

don't forget that you are giving your opinion.

Yeah. Kind of like what everybody else is doing here, right? But thanks for the reminder "anonymous". *eye-roll*

Anonymous said...

...I was just saying...

you just seem to have very high self esteem. good for you!

Anonymous said...

Absolutely fantastic reviews. I enjoy your writing immensely. Please continue into series 2 & 3!

Anonymous said...

I *loved* Lester's delivery of what detail he actually worked after giving the homicide detectives the lead on the orange Slice can--and Bunk's face, showing he clearly knew Lester's history. Very funny, and also a sad commentary on what a fine detective the squad is missing.

ZeppJets said...

This episode has some of my favorite moments of season one: McNulty's tragic spin on "what the fuck did I do?", Rawls' tough-as-nails pep talk to him in the hospital, even loved Landsman in this one; when he takes a break from food and porn long enough to demonstrate that he was once a decent police, teaming with Bunk to follow the trail of the shooters.

Unknown said...

Alan - watching through now, loving the recaps. One question - are the later season DVDs in widescreen?? Easily the only negative about watching this show, the box just makes me die a little inside. thanks!

Paul said...

I'm just watching The Wire for the first time and found your reviews online. I've read your reviews after each episode and they are extremely helpful. Its helped me grasp onto the branching storylines and solidify all of the names and characters. Thanks for the great work! Can't wait to finish Season 1!

Unknown said...

In episode 1 McNulty offers the same "nicely done" to Stringer Bell for flipping D's murder case as he does in this episode to Levy for his Savino work. Like Stringer, Levy is complicit in perpetuating the crimes of Avon's crew. Stringer makes the same comment to McNulty after the trials in the season's last episode.