Friday, August 29, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 13, "Sentencing" (Newbies edition)

Since we're up to the final episode of "The Wire" season one, you really don't need me to tell you that this is the version of the review where you don't have to be worried about spoilers from later seasons. Scroll up for the veteran-friendly version.

Spoilers for episode 13, "Sentencing," coming up just as soon as I take this blog federal...

"You grow up in this s--t. My grandfather was Butch Stamford. You know who Butch Stamford was in this town? All my people, man -- my father, my uncles, my cousins -- it's just what we do. You just live with this s--t until you can't breathe no more. I swear to God, I was courtside for eight months, and I was freer in jail than I was at home." -D'Angelo Barksdale

Why do we watch this show? Seriously, why do we subject ourselves to a drama that spends 13-plus hours of television building towards an ending this bleak, that offers such little hope for the future of both its characters and the system we all live in? What masochistic impulse could lead me to obsess so much on this world, to go back and watch Bodie kill Wallace, or Brianna change D'Angelo's mind, or Bubbs fall off the wagon, six years after these things upset me the first time? Forget McNulty's line from season five asking what the (bleep) is wrong with this city. What the (bleep) is wrong with all of us who keep sticking around?

Nothing's wrong with us -- not related to our love of this show, anyway. We watch it because, even though it makes us despair, it's brilliant. We watch it because, even though it's awful to see D'Angelo throw away his future after Brianna packs his bags for a guilt trip, Larry Gilliard Jr. delivers such a scorching performance throughout. We watch it because, even though it's stomach-churning to see Maury Levy on the other end of Ronnie's phone call instead of the public defender, the moment is set up so expertly. We watch it because, even though many characters we like suffer many fates we don't, we realize in the end how much the show has been trying to warn us about this from the jump.

David Simon and Ed Burns have always modeled "The Wire" after Greek tragedy, and the concept of predestination is as strong here as it was in the time of Sophocles. Landmsan warned Jimmy in the very first episode that he'd wind up riding the boat, and Lester warned him again a few episodes later, and where does Jimmy wind up? (And it is, as usual, Jimmy's uncontrollable need to lecture others on their moral inferiority that screws him over; if he walks politely out of the meeting with the U.S. Attorney instead of insulting the guy, Rawls almost certainly never gets a call about it.)

"Sentencing" is packed with callbacks or payoffs to moments from throughout the season. Poot repeats D'Angelo's lesson about the danger of one man selling and then serving the same customer, as he takes D'Angelo's role as leader of the Pit. (Characters filling other characters' shoes will be a popular theme on the full-circle "Wire," particularly as the series moves forward.) When asked whether he talked business with Wee-Bey on the ride to Philly, D tells Bunk and Jimmy that they have a rule against it -- a rule Wee-Bey had to remind him of in the first episode. When the two detectives hear D refer to Diedre Kresson wanting to put the 8-ball on ice, they immediately understand why the refrigerator door was open. (D's recounting of that murder and how Wee-Bey really did it also reconciles D's aversion to violence, particularly against civilians, with him taking credit for the deed. For more on that, look to the bullet points.) Daniels gives Prez his gun back and makes a wry joke about its infamously light trigger pull. Herc tries to pass on the brains-over-muscle lessons of the detail, even though you can tell he doesn't really believe in them. On his way out of court, Stringer throws Jimmy's "Nicely done" line from the premiere right back at him. And after all of that, after the closing montage shows that the partial takedown of the Barksdale crew has in no way slowed the spread of drugs throughout Baltimore, we hear Omar whistle "Farmer in the Dell" one last time and remind us that it's "all in The Game, yo." The players may change, may (like Bodie or Lester) get promoted to bigger roles, but The Game will always be here.

One of the series' key themes is the folly of placing your faith in institutions, because they're designed to protect themselves and not you the individual. D'Angelo placed his faith in both The Game and his family, and they combined to drag him down and send his ass to prison for 20 years. McNulty put his faith in law-enforcement and found out that no one on either the local or federal level really cares about stopping the likes of Avon and Stringer. D goes to prison, Jimmy to the boat, and their institutions grind on with them on the margins.

Bubbs put his faith in Kima and had his thin recovery plan undone not because she was unreliable, but because the system placed her in a situation that made her unable to help him when he absolutely needed her. (Though, again, it was a shaky idea to begin with.) Daniels put his faith into the idea of climbing the ladder and staying tight with Burrell, and in the end gets burned and passed over for promotion because he tried to do his job the right way. Carver instead becomes Burrell's new pet and gets his own promotion, but Daniels' come-to-Jesus lecture makes him start wondering if it was such a good idea.

There are happy endings on the margins, like Lester escaping pawn shop purgatory (and winning the affections of Shardene, to boot), or Prez proving himself to be a useful detective, or even the return of a smiling Omar to the streets of West Baltimore (NOTE: several readers have pointed out evidence within and without the episode that Omar's operating out of the South Bronx at this moment in time), but they're overwhelmed by all the tragedies at the center. Yes, the detail gets Avon locked up on a minor charge, and several of his lieutenants are either dead or locked up for a long time, but at what cost? Wallace is dead. Nakeesha Lyles is dead. Orlando. Kima caught a bullet and is lucky to be stumbling around a hospital corridor on a walker. Jimmy's on the boat, Santangelo back in uniform, Daniels' promotion prospects are iffy at best, Kevin Johnson is half-blind, D'Angelo is taking the fall for his uncle, and Stringer and the organization as a whole don't seem to have missed a beat.

By the end, even Jimmy recognizes how much damage he's caused for so little noticeable gain. His "What the f--k did I do?" catchphrase again is used to connote tragedy, not comedy, as is Bunk repeating his "Happy now, b---h?" put-down from earlier in the season.

The wheel keeps turning, the players keep playing, and as hard as it was to re-experience most of what happened towards the end of this season, there's a part of me that wants to blow off all my professional responsibilities and proceed immediately to watching all the awful events of season two. And I don't believe there's a thing wrong with me to want that.

Some other thoughts on "Sentencing":

• Getting back to the pain of seeing D take the fall for Avon, it's a mark of how well D was written and played that we mourn a 20-year prison sentence for a character whom we first met as he was beating a murder charge through witness tampering.

• In the veteran-friendly review of "Old Cases," I talked at length about how D'Angelo lied to Bodie and the others about killing Diedre Kresson, and how it was virtually the only time in the run of the series that Simon and Burns would deliberately lie to the audience about something that big, for that long. I went on at length about my discomfort with the choice (specificially as it changed my perception about D'Angelo going from then until this episode) and then invited David Simon to offer up his own explanation for the choice. If you've been following the newbie versions of these reviews, I'd advise you to click on the above link to read it; so long as you bail out before the comments start, you won't get spoiled on anything that happens in later seasons.

• I could probably isolate and sing the praises of virtually every scene in this episode if I had the time, but one in particular I want to highlight is Jimmy finally finding the stones to visit Kima in the hospital. Every beat was just right, from Cheryl bolting in disgust as they discussed the case to Jimmy crying over his white guilt to Kima pragmatically stating that her only regret was not using more tape to secure the gun.

• As I said when I first started talking about the show's music rules, the one concrete exception made each season is with the montage at season's end that sums up where the characters, and The Game, are headed. This one's scored to "Step By Step" by Jesse Winchester

• I thought it was a very nice background detail to have D's public defender be so obviously horrified by the crime scene photos of Deirdre, Wallace, and company, and the realization that her new client was involved in some bad, bad stuff down in Baltimore. Like Jimmy and Bunk and D'Angelo, we've been so hardened to all these murders by now (save Wallace, of course) that it was good to have an outside reminder of just how brutal the Barksdale crew is.

• If you've ever seen or heard a David Simon interview or commentary track, you might have recognized his voice as the bailiff announcing the entrance of the judge for the sentencing hearing. It was a last-minute bit of audio looping, and Simon was the only guy in the room who hadn't already contributed a voice elsewhere in the episode.

• Jimmy's comportment in the relationship department has never been what you would call admirable. But Ronnie -- who claimed to be done with his drunken, manipulative ass several episodes back -- jumping his bones in the parking garage after he handed her what looked like a career case was a reminder that it takes two to have an ugly affair sometimes.

• Rawls punishing Jimmy is in some way on Jimmy, who could never leave well enough alone even as he knew his boss was gunning for him, but Rawls absolutely does not play fair with Santangelo. Santy kept up his end of the deal by closing an open case, and Rawls still puts him on a foot post in the Western district.

• Another nice touch involving a throwaway character new to the storyline: Lester's retired buddy at the phone company who invokes the cliche of cops giving speeches about how "all-fired important" their case is, followed by the guy's genuine pleasure at realizing he can help Lester catch a guy who shot a cop.

• Carver's a knucklehead and a rat, and yet there are these moments of incredible clarity like his "Wars end" line from the pilot or, here, him watching Bodie and his crew beat on Onion and observing that this is why the cops can't win: "They f--k up, they get beat. We f--k up, they give us pensions." Somewhere, Det. Mahone (retired) is hoisting a glass in Bodie's honor.

• Blink and you may have missed Toni Lewis, who played Det. Teri Stivers in the last few years of "Homicide," as one of the feds in the second meeting with McNulty, Daniels and Lester. She'll pop up a few more times in season two.

Coming up next: Nothing. Summer's just about over, new TV shows start debuting as of Monday, and I unfortunately won't have time to move on to season two until at least next summer. (And I still have to do those "Sports Night" reviews I've been promising for forever; maybe that'll be a circa-Christmas/Chanukah/New Year's thing, but don't hold me to it.) It's been really gratifying to read comments in both versions of these reviews from people who said they finally started watching the series because of me and quickly raced through the later seasons.

As a reminder, you can find my reviews of season four here, and of season five here. Eventually, I'll get around to chronicling the adventures of Frank Sobotka, Ziggy, Fruit and company.

What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

How safe are the comments sections in the reviews of seasons four for someone who's watched seasons one through three, but is just now getting to season four? Should I stick to the review and bail at the comments?
Have really enjoyed getting commentary on season one and glad that I get to read thoughts on seasons four and five.

Theresa said...

Thanks to you, I'm entering the home stretch on season 2 and, when my father was just here visiting, I sent him home with season 1. He emailed me today to let me know he watched the first disc in one sitting and found it "extremely engrossing." Well done, Alan, on spreading the brilliance of The Wire.

As far as the episode goes, I thought the penultimate one was better, but I still really enjoyed all the callbacks to things that had happened earlier in the season. Good stuff.

Alan Sepinwall said...

How safe are the comments sections in the reviews of seasons four for someone who's watched seasons one through three, but is just now getting to season four? Should I stick to the review and bail at the comments?

I wrote the season four reviews having watched the entire season in advance, but I targeted them at regular viewers who were seeing them one at a time. I can't speak to the comments -- sometimes, people go back and comment on a post a year or two later when they get around to watch a specific episode -- but the season four reviews should be safe for you to read as you go.

Jason Snell said...

Not sure "McNulty's line from season 5" should be in this version of the piece, Alan....

Alan Sepinwall said...

That McNulty appears in season 5 and that he utters a line of dialogue asking what's wrong with Baltimore isn't something I would consider any kind of spoiler, any more than saying that season 5 took place in Baltimore and featured cops in conflict with drug dealers.

Jason Snell said...

Alan, thanks for doing this. It prompted us to finally get off our butts and rent "The Wire" from Netflix, and we have been rewarded. We watched the last episode two days ago, marking the first time we've been ahead of your recap. Thanks for making it so inviting for newbies!

(As for spoilers, your reference to season 5 just read as incongruous to me. Frankly, I wouldn't have known if McNulty gets killed in season 3. I mean, I know that there are elements of the education system and journalism in forthcoming years, but I don't actually know how much of it is that versus Baltimore PD stuff. But as an editor it just read as incongruous, more than anything else... Also, the girl in "The Crying Game" is a guy. :-) )

Anonymous said...

OK, now I'm really sad. First because of how relentlessly depressing the show (albeit brilliant) the show is. Second because now I'm going to have to start season 2 without the accompaniment of Alan's brilliant commentaries. Well, I'll be here next summer for the season 2 analysis. On the bright side, by then, I'll be able to participate in the veteran's thread.

Thanks so much for this, Alan!

Matthew said...

I have been forcing myself not to race ahead with the show, and watch it with each review, but I fell behind in recent weeks - first with the local two-week film festival, then the Olympics, but I finally caught up just in time for the end of the season.

I do want to join with everyone else in thanking you for writing about the show, and thus prompting me to watch it. I'd heard of the show, but always spoken of as a second-tier HBO show, lacking the reputation of The Sopranos or Sex And The City. So I was surprised to hear you call it "the greatest TV drama ever", but now, having seen the first season, I'm completely sold.

It's not an enjoyable show - the death of Wallace was one of the most devastating moments I've seen in a long time, and this entire episode was pretty damned close to that - but it's a fascinating, weel-made, challenging and compelling show. I think it says something of the show's quality that when I finish an episode, I find myself looking forward to revisiting the episode in six months after I finish the entire run.

Disappointed I won't get to enjoy the second and third season with your comments - I especially found them useful as I was starting the season and learning how to watch the show, as you would point out the odd little details that had completely bypassed me. Still, I look forward to reading your commentary on those episodes when you do get to write them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this thread! Loved the first season, and am eagerly awaiting the second. My own political instincts are nil (as verified by occupational testing; can you believe it?) and my knowledge not much better. Could someone please tap out how the real estate development plans for the neighborhood that Lester notices in the Sun ... what that all means? OK, I figure Stringer wants to buy up 2-bit property and see it appreciate big time. How does that happen? Does he have to get with politicians to ensure that it's zoned for lucrative housing or commercial buildings? Or that government money is allocated? If the pols can do that, why don't they buy it up themselves? What if they can't get the zoning/money? Would Stringer sell it before development? Or would he form part of a real estate development company? Wouldn't it be in the politian's and city's interest to have cleaner money than the Barksdales owning that land? How does all this work?

Matthew said...

Someone else correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it's basically a case of corruption, pure and simple. They pay the politicians for the inside information and to swing the development into their region. Why don't the politicians do it? Well, for a start, it would look a little fishy if a politician drove through a development in an area where they own significant properties. Plus, even buying low-cost properties, we are talking a lot of money there - a lot more than your typical politician can really get together for a private investment. And, while it may be in the public interest to keep someone like Barksdale from profiting from a development, if Barksdale offered you a bag of money to swing things his way, would you be tempted?

Anonymous said...

Carver instead becomes Burrell's new pet and gets his own promotion, but Daniels' come-to-Jesus lecture makes him start wondering if it was such a good idea.

I know that speech is significant because Daniels is admitting he was once dirty and makes Carver question his actions, but thinking about it more I'm wondering if Daniels was also, in a way, apologizing for subconsciously nudging Carver in the direction of a company man.

If Daniels would've had his in-it-to-win-it attitude at the start of the case, maybe Carver would've taken the cues that being a cop means doing good police work, not making choices that'll push you up the chain of command.

As for the theme of institutions will fail the individual, it’s interesting that all the characters subscribing to one institution or another do it because they are inherently weak. But characters like Omar who have a very clear vision of who they are and how they live their lives chose to operate outside of it and even use the institutions against each other for personal gain. For now, this might change (judging from the 1-2 already dealt with almost all of the other characters), but I view him as a modern day, albeit twisted, Robin Hood…and who doesn’t love Robin Hood.

I do know for sure, I love, love this show and REALLY enjoy reading these posts. I'm going ahead and watching Season 2, but I'm going to miss the someone else wrote, reading these helps me appreciate and process the show.

Riddler said...

Tell me Poot that is sitting on a different colored couch. The gift of the regiment change? This series is slowing wrapping its tentacles around me. I'm finding myself thinking, "This HAS to get better for them." And slowly all of that erodes with each episode.

This newbie is hitting Season 2. . . . and hitting it hard.

Karen said...

I think McNulty needs to be cut a little slack for the way he treated Bubbles, unfortunate though it was. Kima had worked with Bubbles for a long time, and knew him well--it speaks well of her that she picked up on Bubbs being clean so fast, but it also makes sense.

Jimmy, on the other hand, not only didn't have as much time logged with Bubbs, but was also distraught from Kima's shooting and his own sense of guilt. He was not, perhaps, as alert as he might have been. It sucks, but it's not really his fault.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review.
How safe is the 'season 1 review (veterans)' considering i've only seen season 1? Do you recommend me checking it out or will there be loads of spoilers?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Like the intro says at the top, if you haven't watched the whole series, stick with the newbie reviews.

karenology said...

One of the things that made jaw drop this episode was watching Brianna assuring Avon of D'Angelo's loyalty: "I raised him right," she says with this sanctimonious tone.

Really, lady?! You raised him to push drugs and kill people!

Amanda P. said...

If anyone is still reading this, can anyone clarify something I thought I caught, but haven't seen mentioned?

The retired cop at the phone company - I believe that Lester called him by name and the name he used was also the name of the cop who "dropped the bracelets" to Kima in her story in the previous episode. Am I imagining things? If not, it's just another example of a call back that I haven't seen mentioned.

Christopher Tassava said...

I just started watching "The Wire," and found these newbie reviews to be wonderful resources. Thanks for putting the time into them. When I finally finish watching the whole series, I'll loop back to the veterans' reviews for the full overview. Great, great analyses.

Anonymous said...

Alan, just wanted to thank you for these reviews. i just finished season one and your reviews are now an integral part of my watching of the wire. well done, and i cant wait for my four hour bus ride home to start up season two

Anonymous said...

Well over two years later and your reviews are still helping out this newbie. Thanks so much for the work put into these. What an amazing show.

dah_sab said...

Alan -- like others, I only started watching thanks to you. I was put off by the "cult" of The Wire, but finally put that aside to watch. And having watched the 1st season, I then found your reviews. Thanks for doing this for newbies.

I didn't want to believe this show was all that, and there were some ham-fisted moments (the chess scene, for one,) but overall it's hard to argue that's it not. I felt like I'd been gut-punched when Kima was shot, and though I knew they were going to kill Wallace, the senselessness & brutality of it still shocked me. Great stuff, and thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I'm really late coming to The Wire, just finished season one (better late than never!). Alan, your summaries are excellent, and always make me see something I missed or give me a new perspective. I know it must take a lot of time and thought to write these summaries, and just wanted to say thank you! (Love your summaries of Breaking Bad too!!) Now, on to season 2.....

Carl Walker said...

Geez... until I read this post, I thought that D'Angelo was lying to the cops, not to his soldiers! I guess I keep to step my watching game up, as a West Baltimore character might say (or not). And I just finished Season 2, so clearly I was never going to figure it out on my own. Yikes. Thanks for clearing it up for me here, anyway. On to Season 3!

SophR said...

Another parallel to Episode 1: one cop relaying the last line of the cold open to another. This time it's Bunk to McNulty, not vice versa. There's an alleyway dominoes game, too.

And the murder photos in this show seem very realistic (at least, compared to what I saw on the web when I was twelve and filled with morbid curiosity. I can't remember if I was listening to Stand By Me at the time). Very unsettling, especially compared to CSI and the like, where corpses are fairly clean.