Friday, August 22, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 12, "Cleaning Up" (Veterans 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 latter; scroll down for the newbie-safe 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.

And now let's talk about how events in this episode foreshadow things coming down the road:

• Simon has said that he introduced the file on Daniels' days in the Eastern knowing (or, rather, hoping) he would one day get to have Burrell actually put into play, which he does by giving it to Nerese Campbell in season five.

• Jimmy's confession about his motives for the Barksdale case will be echoed again in his justification to Bunk for the Marlo/serial killer scam: "He does not get to win! We get to win!" For Jimmy, it's always less about justice than it is about being the smartest guy in the room.

• Bodie will, ironically, be killed for the same reasons as Wallace (albeit in a very different manner, as he goes down fighting). Yet even shortly before his death, he continues to justify Wallace's death in arguments with Poot.

• Just as Santangelo shouldn't be so confident about his job security, Herc shouldn't be counting those sergeant's stripes just yet. It's a good thing he doesn't actually get the promotion until season four; when you see how much damage he did then, imagine how much more he could have caused with two additional years of rank.

• In hindsight, Carver's absence for in-service training -- and Daniels' comment about Burrell not knowing about the bug in Avon's club -- should have been an obvious tip-off about the identity of Burrell's mole. Ah, well. It wasn't the first time I didn't see a "Wire" development coming, nor would it be the last.

• This is the first real interaction between Stringer and Bodie, and the first time Stringer sees some potential in the young man from the Pit. In coming seasons, Bodie will become something of a protege to Stringer, often misunderstanding or disagreeing with the lessons, but paying closer attention than anybody else in the crew.

• Not only is Prez a good code-breaker, he can do somewhat complex math in his head, which will come in handy when he winds up teaching eighth grade math.

• This is the last we'll see of Sydnor for a while, as he's the only surviving season one character of any significance to not appear in season two. (No doubt the racial makeup of the stevedores union made his presence less imperative than when Daniels needed someone to do hand-to-hands on the Barksdale case.)

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

What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

Last month the Washington Post ran a great, albeit lengthy, profile of Pelacanos. Only small bits of it are about the Wire, but there's a telling comment about the death of Wallace that goes to a writer's decision process. The way it went down, we spend the rest of the series looking a Bodie, knowing he's not the stone-cold killer he thinks he is/wants to be. We spend the rest of the series looking at Poot, knowing he's not the goofy kid sidekick we thought he was. Or that both of them have now become deeper and more complex than we thought, in a single moment.



Anonymous said...

er, add an "h" onto the front of that link.


Anonymous said...

"It's never just one action, but a series of little tragedies along the way that lead up to the big ones."

It's not just the tragedies. Cutty turned his life around by not shooting Fruit in S3. However, that allowed Lex to kill Fruit in S4 which led to Little Kevin asking Randy to send Lex to his death, which eventually led to Randy going back to living in group home.

If Cutty kills Fruit, does Randy ever return to the group home?

(On the other hand, if Cutty kills Fruit, there's no bridge between Bunny Colvin & Wee Bay, meaning that Naymond would still be with his mother. And Randy's information on where he sent Lex doesn't help Lester to find the bodies in the abandoned houses, so Chris & Snoop might still be running loose.)

Dan Jameson said...

Honestly, I can still get choked up just thinking about the Wallace scene and D'Angelo's "Where's Wallace?" scene in prison. Heartbreaking....

Fantastic episode and great recap Alan. Are we looking at next summer for Season 2...or will you try to mix it in earlier?

Anonymous said...

I totally agree that Gilliard's career since then has been disappointing. The Wire showed how many amazing but underemployed black actors there are on the east coast. I can't for Michael K Williams in Miracle at St. Anna.

And yeah, "Where's Wallace" is one of my top five scenes in the whole series. Those who want a quick fix, click here:

Anonymous said...

One other thing: I was never particularly impressed by Michael Hyatt in this season. I figured they just hired her because she had the same nose as Larry Gilliard Jr.

But it all paid off two seasons later when she confronted McNulty about D'Angelo's death. It's my favorite scene in the entire run of the show. (skip ahead to 5:14)

Heather K said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heather K said...


I think that part of the casts' problems with parlaying some of these brilliant performances into more work is that they are too good. They are too seamless.

I am an actor in the fringe theatre scene in Chicago. I don't do film or tv, it just isn't my passion, but the work so many of these artists do in the Wire is magical. They literally disappear into the character.

Being so good you disappear is where Hollywood misses them. They can't see Larry Gilliard Jr in D'Angelo, so they assume he just is D'Angelo, like he was a player they brought in off the Baltimore streets (which is true of several cast members) and not a genuine artist. So it wouldn't occur to him he could do any of that work without playing D'Angelo all over again.

What I love from him is that you never ever see the work. True of many (most) Wire players. Not true of a lot of the "good" actors in Hollywood. They get beloved for letting us see the work or showing their own personalities. That is what makes a Hollywood actor. Larry Gilliard Jr doesn't do that kind of work. He does better work.

My theory on why The Wire actors keep getting passed over.

Michael Cowgill said...

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.

McNulty's contradictions make his relationship with the audience complex. When he says things like this or behaves the way he does in season 5 or self-destructively, it makes him hard to like...except that we know he does care about the bodies and the justice of it all, he does want to speak for the dead. Yet it seems like the caring is what makes him self-destructive or the caring running up against the bureaucracy that doesn't care.

On top of that, he's often at his most entertaining when he's being petulant and selfish. Of my countless favorite scenes, I have to include the classic from season 2 where he listens to country music, gets out the charts, and sends the faxes. He's absolutely being a selfish jerk, even screwing over friends, but it's wonderful. And of course, the bodies in the can do haunt him.

Anonymous said...

Two scenes in "The Wire" I find unbearable to watch. The first vacant killing in season 4, where Chris and Snoop worry about running low on quicklime while the boy begs for his life. The concept of that level of inhumanity is too disturbing. (I even have to turn away from the silhouette of the boy on his knees in the opening credit sequence of season 4.) And then there's Wallace. I don't know what's worse or more incomprehensible, two sadists unable to feel anything for their victim or two boys killing their friend following orders whose rationale they're not even convinced of.

Respecting McNulty's acknowledgement of his selfish motivation for his crusades, there are a couple of other echoes. In season 2, he admits dumping the deaths of the young women in the cargo container on homocide not because he wants justice for them but to screw with Rawls. In season 3, McNulty is heartbroken over the death of Stringer Bell because, he says, Stringer will never know he caught him on the wire.

Anonymous said...

The arcs of Seasons One and Five have some notable similarities. In the penultimate episode, an ultimately unsatisfying drug bust leads the targeted dealers to try to kill a child thought to be a snitch -- in Season 5, the suspected snitch is Michael. Michael's plotline also has parallels to D'Angelo's, the dealer with a conscience who won't be able to remain in the institution he questions. Though Michael faces such similar situations to Wallace and D'Angelo, his character is much stronger and more resourceful than them, so he ends up becoming like Omar instead.

Other parallels that would probably be more appropriate for next week's thread: McNulty and Daniels are both forced out of police work as the hacks win out. Omar goes to war with the dealers but is removed from the story before the season's climax (he goes in NYC in Season 1 and is killed in 5 -- I find this parallel particularly interesting, since Omar's arcs in 1 and 5 were so similar).

Anonymous said...

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.

I'm surprised that you never noticed this. I can only assume that you've never listened to the Simon/Pelecanos DVD commentary on the episode.

The thing I found most interesting about this episode upon rewatch was Sydnor's final scene. He expresses regret that he won't get to finish the case and calls it the best work he has ever done. When I think about that statement, and then think about how he bounced around like a pinball in subsequent seasons never really being able do his own bidding, his final character beat in the series finale suddenly doesn't seem so out of the blue for me. His decision to pick up the mantle that Jimmy & Lester, the men responsible for the best work he has ever done, makes so much more sense. That small character moment in this episode really pays off down the line.

Anonymous said...

In Season 4, recall that Sydnor was very hesitant to serve the subpoena to Clay Davis, but chose to do it anyway. But the real precursor to the "Sydnor becomes McNulty" ending was in Season 5, when Lester tells him about the illegal wiretap and he chooses to join in.

Anonymous said...

I recently watched SE01 for the third time in a little slower pace, one ep per day. One thing about the whole D/Wallace thing that bothers me a little is why doesn't D just tell Wallace he gonna get got if he comes back, I mean did he really believe Avon and Stringer was gonna let the boy go because he said so? I love the Wire but at third watch I had some problems believing this.

Anonymous said...

"One of his books, "Drama City," might as well be a "Wire" spin-off,"

I believe it's actually the other way around. He was working on that book for a while, and they wound up incorporating certain ideas into the further development of Cutty.

Also, 'Right As Rain' has a major subplot about a white cop who accidentally shoots an undercover black cop.

nadi74 said...

Good observation Alan. I've always blamed and atributed Wallace's death to Levy directly suggesting they "clean up" to Avon and Stringer.

He's infuriated me ever since this episode - this season. Struggling to see his redeeming value.

Anonymous said...


Loved that Brianna scene. I followed the "related videos" link to the scene where she cuts off De'Londa and Namond. One little bit of circular storytelling/dialogue I never noticed was her saying "nothing lasts forever," in reference to the Barksdale money drying up.

This is, of course, in contrast to Stringer telling D in S1 that the drug game "is forever."

Anonymous said...

I definitely am of the camp that there are definitely at least a few 'all bad' characters in the Wire. Clay Davis certainly rings a bell, as does Maury Levy, and possibly the most morally repugnant of all, Michael Steintorf. Those three are pretty much 100% loathsome.

Michael said...

Is anyone, like me, couldn't recall who Michael Steintorf is then, to save you googling, he's Tommy Carcetti's very unpleasant chief of staff in S05 once Tommy is mayor.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was interesting to see Daniels and D take the same path in this season. In the beginning, being very deferential to power. While at the end openly defying their superiors.

kamg213 said...

Watching The Wire for the second time now and there's one thing that I'm curious about: who killed Nakeesha Lyles (the security lady who testified against D).

All the Barksdale muscle that we've been introduced to are no longer present. Stinkum and Little Man are dead, Bird and Savinno are in jail and Wee-Bey is in hiding.

The only reason I ask this is because in season 2, it becomes apparent that Stringer has next to no muscle to work with.

One possibility that i've thought of is that the shooter could have been Slim Charles. Although we only start to see him in season 3, we are never given any back story as to whether he's new to the crew or just a member that we haven't seen earlier.

Or, obviously I could just be wasting my time thinking of such things :)