Friday, August 22, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 12, "Cleaning Up" (Newbies edition)

Almost to the finish line, and you should know the deal by now: we're going to talk about season one of "The Wire" in two versions: one for viewers new to the show who don't want later events spoiled for them, and one for people who have seen and can talk about everything from first episode to last. This is the former; scroll up for the veteran-friendly version.

Spoilers for the penultimate, Pelecanos-ian episode of season one, "Cleaning Up," coming up just as soon as I find out who makes the best chili dogs in Newark...

"Where's Wallace? Where's the boy at, String?" -D'Angelo Barksdale

This is "The Wire," right here.

"Cleaning Up" is considered by many "Wire" fans to be the series' best -- and most painful -- episode ever, but its genius illustrates why even asking the Best Ever question is besides the point with this series. So much of what makes it great comes from everything we've seen before: our knowledge of the Bodie/Poot/Wallace friendship; of how much work the detail has put into getting Avon and Stringer, of how far Daniels has come from being a company man to being someone who cares about doing good policework, politics be damned; of how much D'Angelo sees of himself in Wallace, and of how he tried desperately to nudge Wallace out of a life he knows himself to be trapped in by circumstance and blood. There are many isolated moments of brilliance, but it's the cumulative effect of having seen every chapter of this novel for television that makes them really powerful.

"Where's Wallace? That's all I want to know."

There are many great tragedies throughout the run of "The Wire," but the death of Wallace is the first and still the one that probably cuts deepest. Yes, this is the life he chose -- and the life he chose to come back to after Lt. Daniels had provided him his escape -- but he was a sweet kid pushed into this life practically from birth (check out how little his mother cares about him), given such a limited understanding of the world that he couldn't fathom any other way to be. Forget being freaked out by living in the country; he's never been out of the West side of town! Yet even within this life, he found ways to rise above, to not grow up too fast and too hard like Bodie (who also got a raw deal from childhood) so eagerly chooses to. Wallace looked after those kids, looked after his friends in The Pit, felt genuine remorse for the role he (somewhat) unwittingly played in Brandon's murder, held onto his childhood as long as he could.

He's not without sin, but this? To be coldly executed by your two best friends while you sob, wet your pants and beg for your life? Just imagine I'm quoting the McNulty/Bunk apartment scene from "Old Cases" right now, because even after all these years, that's how I respond to it. What makes it especially haunting is the interplay between Bodie and Poot. Bodie is acting hard, more than eager to go kill his friend on Stringer's order. He's the one who stands at the top of the stairs and has to urge the reluctant Poot to follow, but when the actual moment comes, he freezes, and it's Poot who has to order him to do it, and who then takes the gun from Bodie's trembling hand and finishes the job. (This is the first of all the many times I've watched the scene, by the way, that I see that Poot's doing it out of compassion for Wallace.)

And then... and then... and then we come to D'Angelo screaming and cussing and demanding that Stringer tell him where Wallace is. As with the famous Bunk/McNulty scene, it's an example of "The Wire" using simple, repeated language to say so many things so well. We've seen D'Angelo struggle all season with his growing guilt about the pointless cycle of violence in the drug game, and the death of this kid, whom D'Angelo believed (wrongly, as it turned out) would never pose a threat to Avon and Stringer, is the straw breaking the camel's back. When he asks, over and over, where Wallace is, what he's really asking is, "Why have I sold out of my future for a couple of remorseless psychopaths like you and my uncle?," "How do you not get that it's the bodies that keep attracting the cops' attention?," "Why does The Game have to play out this way?," "Why should I be loyal to bosses who have no loyalty to their employees?," "Why didn't I just come right out and tell Wallace he was probably going to die if he didn't leave town?," etc., etc. While some "Wire" actors have parlayed their great showcases here into more mainstream work (Tristan Wilds is not only in the new "90210," but canoodling with Dakota Fanning in "The Secret Life of Bees"), it's beyond ridiculous that no one in Hollywood watched the "Where's Wallace?" scene and thought to give Larry Gilliard Jr. an interesting role off of it.

Just as we've watched the journeys of Wallace and D'Angelo, which led one of them to death and the other to jail, we've also watched Cedric Daniels grow from Burrell loyalist to dedicated cop. The motives for the change may on some level be self-serving -- he feels guilt over Brandon's murder, and now for Kima getting shot -- but there's no questioning that his loyalty is now 100 percent to doing this case right, no matter how much it costs him in his quest to climb the ladder. It was pure pleasure to watch him give it to both Burrell and Clay Davis in a way that wasn't insubordinate, or profane, or literally disrespectful, but was so frank and unswerving that it alarmed these two born liars.

And yet, in that "Wire" way, Daniels' triumphant moment (of character, if not of career) has to come in the same episode where we find out that, yes, he was dirty once upon a time and stole money off of drug dealers to help finance the swank lifestyle he has now, with the well-appointed brownstone, the expensive political fundraisers, etc. No one on "The Wire" is ever all good or all bad. (Though some would argue the latter point.) They're just people.

Note how McNulty, our ostensible hero, shows his true colors in the opening scene, when he admits to Daniels that he only cared about Barksdale as an excuse to prove how smart he was. Of course, anyone who's been paying attention all these weeks -- and that includes Daniels himself -- probably figured that out by now, but it's still admirable that the show would be willing to have its main character make such a confession. We've been watching long enough to know that the case does, in fact, matter, but to Jimmy it's just as much of a power trip as it is to Burrell, and Rawls and Avon and Stringer.

Though "Cleaning Up" is the culmination of several months (in real and show time) of investigation by the detail, with the arrests of D'Angelo and Avon, it's also something of an intentional anti-climax. Thanks to the deaths of Wallace and Stinkum, Wee-Bey's escape to Philadelphia and Avon and Stringer constantly changing up, what does the detail have to show for all this work? A murder charge on Bird (that relies on Omar coming back to town and being a credible witness), murder charges for a fugitive (Wee-Bey) and a man they don't know is dead (Little Man), a mid-level drug charge on Avon, and a potentially larger one on D'Angelo. For all the lives this crew has taken, that's it? Really?

Obviously, there's still some string to be played out in the finale, particularly with Lester following the money so closely that he scares the snot out of Clay, Burrell and Ronnie's boss (not to mention Ronnie herself), but I love how even an episode that's this powerful, and that brings together so many storylines from the previous eleven episodes, can be designed in a way that's still vaguely unsatisfying. As McNulty puts it to Daniels before they raid Orlando's, "This isn't as much fun as I thought it would be."

Some other thoughts on "Cleaning Up":

• As he will do in every subsequent season, sometimes as a freelancer, sometimes as a staff writer/producer, novelist George Pelecanos gets the honors of writing the next-to-last episode and playing hatchet man for David Simon. These penultimate chapters tend to be the best part of each season, primarily because the worst things happen in them. Like fellow authors Richard Price and Dennis Lehane, who would join the writing staff in later seasons, Pelecanos is a natural fit with the world of "The Wire." His Washington, D.C.-based crime novels cover much of the same thematic ground about the pointless culture of drug-related violence, the cyclical nature of family relationships, the decay and neglect of American cities, etc. One of his books, "Drama City," might as well be a "Wire" spin-off, and his latest novel, "The Turnaround," is terrific. What are you doing spending all this time watching TV when you can just read a book?

• Whenever a "Wire" character I like gets killed (or suffers a fate that's almost as bad), I like to look back at the elaborate chain of circumstances that has to take place for that to occur. In this case, Omar and Brandon have to rob the Pit stash at a time when Poot's in the room; Poot and Wallace have to be at the Greek's arcade at the same time as Brandon; Poot has to be too afraid to make the call himself (and to talk to Stringer later); Wee-Bey and Bird have to dump the body right in Wallace's backyard; Herc and Carver have to be listening to Poot have phone sex long enough for them to hear him give up the info about Wallace's guilt over Brandon; the Baltimore PD has to have no money for witness protection; Kima has to get shot and distract Daniels from going to pick up Wallace before Wallace goes stir crazy at his grandma's; Burrell has to demand that Daniels raid the main stash, making Stringer and Avon paranoid enough to have Wallace killed, etc. It's never just one action, but a series of little tragedies along the way that lead up to the big ones.

• Though he appeared briefly at the political fundraiser party in "One Arrest," this is the first real showcase for Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Clay Davis. He makes the most of it, demonstrating how quickly Clay can shift from smooth politican to profane street hustler.

• Last week, Maury Levy showed himself to be a great legal attack dog for the Barskdale crew. This week, he reveals himself to be an active co-conspirator in Avon and Stringer's crimes. He may stick to the letter of the law by excusing himself before those two actively begin discussing whom they need to kill, but Maury's the one strongly suggesting they have that conversation in the first place.

• A couple of episodes back, we saw that Shardene wasn't immune to Lester's charms, and here we see that he's more than happy to reciprocate her interest. He bigfoots Sydnor on Shardene's request for coffee (and knows how she takes it!), is the one to comfort her when she freaks out about wearing a wire, and eagerly volunteers to, um, room with her for the duration of the case. Again, Lt. Daniels is an observant man, so he knows what time it is with this.

• More Daniels cleverness: even as he's openly defying Burrell, he still knows how to play the political game when it suits his purposes. When Burrell asks whom Daniels doesn't want to lose from the detail, Daniels knows the best answer is none at all -- that Burrell would no doubt cast away anyone Daniels expressed an interest in protecting -- and is rewarded when Burrell cuts loose the useless Santangelo and the mostly useful Sydnor while "punishing" Daniels by making him keep Lester and Prez, who are by now the heart of the detail.

• Lots of Herc-related hilarity: Herc and Sydnor driving Lester nuts with their chili dog argument, Herc and Sydnor trying really hard not to leer as Ronnie watches them watch Shardene walk with the string around her ankles, and especially Herc's victory dance at finding out his score on the sergeant's exam.

• This episode features the first appearance of Michael Hyatt as D'Angelo's mom, Brianna, and their interaction (and relatively close ages) does create the brief impression, expressed by Wallace, that this is some girlfriend of D's we haven't met yet. Note that their closeness only goes so far: Mama Barksdale will bring her boy some nice take-out fish, but when Avon suggests that D'Angelo will have to go to prison so Brianna can maintain her lifestyle, she seems ready to go along with that.

• Yet another thing that I noticed for the first time watching the episode again this week (it's at least the 10th time I've seen it over the years): Bodie and Poot's moment on the staircase is later mirrored by McNulty and Daniels after the arrest of Avon. This time, it's the man at the bottom of the stairs (Daniels) nodding for the man at the top (McNulty) to join him. And like Poot doesn't want to let go of his friendship with Wallace, McNulty doesn't want to take that step and let go of a chance to take down Stringer.

Coming up next Friday: "Sentencing," the end of season one and the end of this summer flashback.

What did everybody else think?


ant said...

I really am still haunted by this episode, even a year or so after I originally saw it. Also, I have high hopes for The Beast, in part because of Larry Gilliard Jr.

Theresa said...

I loved this episode. It broke my heart, but I loved it.

Also, although we haven't met Tristan Wilds yet, I'll take your word for it that he does stellar work on his Wire episodes.

Randy Lander said...

This one killed me, not because of the surprise but because (as always with The Wire) you can see it coming, and know that nothing is going to stop it.

The scene with Poot, Bodie and Wallace is one of the cruelest, darkest moments on a show filled with them. And it definitely stuck with me.

Thanks for doing these recaps, Alan. It finally pushed me to rent and watch The Wire, which I should have done *years* ago, and now I'm well into season three. And wishing you had recaps for all of them, because reading your analysis of the episodes after watching them always enhances my enjoyment of the show.

Anonymous said...

Something my husband caught that I missed: when Bodie, Poot, & Wallace go to lunch, Poot's food remains untouched, because he knows what's coming.

I knew almost from the start that Wallace wouldn't make it, but I found his line, "We boys," repeated over and over--not just slang for "friends," but reality--particularly heart-wrenching.

More humor: Before Avon & Stringer are arrested, the typically badass tac teams are mocked by both Barksdale & Bell and Daniels & McNulty, who then steal the team's thunder by simply walking up and knocking on the door. Another brilliant way this show turns cop show cliches upside down & inside out.

Anna said...

Just wanted to say thanks for posting these. I have just started watching "The Wire", and after each episode I come here to check on whatever is still perplexing. Your analyses are so helpful -- and so well written.

Anonymous said...

I just want to chime in (a year and a half late, it appears) as well and say thanks for doing (and keeping around) these newbie Wire recaps - they are thought provoking (so much it hurts my a good way), informative (pointing out on some certain scenes or the way they're shot that I've totally missed), and really adds to the whole experience of The Wire, when after watching, all I want to do is to talk (or hear someone talk) about it.

I've only finished S1 just now, and it's probably because I'm not really particular to cop shows (since they are generally procedurals, and there are just so many of them (people love watching murders and solving mysteries!)) And other than it's a cop show and it's great, I know nothing about The Wire. So, it took me a while to finally start watch this. And I'm so glad I did.

At the end of S1, I'm feel spent (in a really good way) and just awed, amazed at how great the writing was and how tight the structure of the season was -

- its ability to juggle a pretty large cast yet give us something as personal and as heart and utterly gut wrenching as Wallace's death (the major, major one. I'm still feeling the effects and I think I'd be feeling them for a long while), or D's reaction to it and his inability to get out at the end, or when Kima was shot, or when Brendan was tortured and Omar's (and Wallace's) reaction to that, or when Bubbles went back to drugs, etc, etc, etc. Just fantastic character arcs that make you want to invest in them wholeheartedly.

- the humor and seriousness in the writing that can blend so well with each other, sometimes in the same scene.

- When I look back on the season, the theme (and main plot line of a makeshift police group trying to crack down on one particular druglord) feels startling clear and straightforward (no different than any other cop show), and yet each episode is so dense with so many things and people and information to process. I really do feel like I'm watching tv differently, which is a little spooky but also, quite amazing. It's just kind of incredible to see how the writers have so meticulously set up each and every step along the way. I'm pretty awed, and I hear this isn't even the best season of The Wire.

Which, wow. In a way I'm kind of glad I haven't watched this yet, as I now have FOUR seasons of what is feeling like a really amazing show to catch up on. Glad there's nothing on this holiday month, that's for sure.

(I know the recap post is a year and a half ago, but I just had to unburden myself(so don't mind me!))

Anonymous said...

Whoops, I posted something here a minute ago, but it's in the wrong thread (was supposed to be S1 finale thread - was reading the recaps in bulk after watching the show).

buddhafrog said...

I just saw this show for the first time. It killed me. I'm still broken. I've worked with kids like this, in housing blocks like this, and seen kids like this die... The hardest part was watching Wallace as he knew he would die.

it just hurts.

Anonymous said...

I know this blog is long-dormant, but another huge thank you for these reviews.

That episode was fantastic. I can't believe how connected I've become to the bewildering world of the first few episodes. I was surprised to find myself on the verge of tears during the Wallace scene.

Jennifer said...

So now I know I'm really late to this thread but I still want to give a huge "thank you" for these reviews/recaps. I'm a television fanatic and am really late to The Wire party and yours has been the most insightful and honest Wire writing I've come across in my search for exactly that. I'm currently starting season 3 and will keep reading your posts until I finish The Wire. And then I'll probably go back and start them all over again.

myrcellasear said...

I can't believe it's taken me this long to start watching The Wire - it's embarrassing, really - but your posts on it have been invaluable. So thank you so so much for keeping them up after all these years.

I've known about Wallace's death from the get-go, but man, I had no idea it would happen this way. Poor kid. And his poor friends, too, who are gonna have to live with what they did.

SophR said...

Bobie putting on his executioner's hood before going in to murder his friend, like a mockery of justice...
Brianna's "I raised my boy right" line, with its two layers of irony - to her, it means 'keeping mum to protect the people above him', but we see that he does have, bubbling underneath his street attitudes, a sense of right and wrong, of real justice.
The cops' muted (compared to the melodrama other shows might have given us) response to Wallace's death, that surprised me at first, until I realised it reflected my own - we'd both seen too much of The Game, and all the violent waste it entailed...
Going right from the terrible end of Wallace's life to an indirect glimpse at its terrible beginning...
There's a lot to like about this episode.