Friday, June 05, 2009

The Wire, Season 2, Episode 2: "Collateral Damage" (Newbies edition)

Once again, we're revisiting season two of "The Wire" in two versions: one for people who have watched the entire series and want to be able to discuss it from beginning to end, and those who aren't all the way there yet and don't want to be spoiled about later developments. This is the newbie post (click here for the veteran version).

Spoilers for episode two, "Collateral Damage," coming up just as soon as I set up a field sobriety checkpoint...
"Anyway, there'll be other girls." -The Greek
There was some discussion last week among the veterans that, out of all five "Wire" seasons, this one has the slowest build. I'm not sure that's true -- have we already forgotten how long it took before the Barksdale task force accomplished anything of note? -- but if it is, it feels appropriate that it was in a season featuring The Greek (Bill Raymond), who's definitively identified as the old guy at the counter of the diner.

The Greek is slow. He is meticulous. He has little to no sentiment -- he has Vondas kill the shepherd not out of some need for vengeance, but because this is simply how business needs to be done, and then he shrugs off the death of the 14 girls as an accounting issue that's easily rectified -- and he takes his time because he does not want to make a mistake. And in ordering Vondas to kill the shepherd, The Greek has apparently rendered Bunk and Lester's investigation into the dead girls pointless, as the man responsible has now been murdered and will soon be butchered by Sergei.

In that way, Bunk, Lester and Beadie Russell are going to be swimming against an unwavering tide in the same way that Frank Sobotka is. While Frank's busy getting into bed with The Greek -- and lying to himself about what might be in the cans -- in an effort to rebuild the port and save his union, we see Valchek's buddy Andy Krawczyk preparing to turn the grain pier into the exact kind of condos that Nat Coxson warned Frank about last week. These people aren't just fighting a battle they can't win -- they're fighting a battle they lost a long time ago, even if they can't realize that.

At this stage, of course, no one recognizes that all is probably hopeless, so plans are being made, and pieces moved (slowly) into place. This episode would be the point in a more traditional serialized show where Lt. Daniels would be sprung from evidence room purgatory to look into the dead girls with the help of Jimmy, Kima and company. Instead, nobody wants anything to do with the case, and eventually Bunk and Lester get stuck with it. Daniels is preparing to quit, McNulty is still on the boat -- and more on Rawls' hit list than ever before -- and the detail that Burrell and Rawls put together for Valchek is both too narrow in scope (Valchek just wants dirt on Sobotka) and filled, as the first detail was, with obvious humps. (Rawls even recycled Augie Polk's drunk ass for this one, which is a joke only Prez can appreciate.)

What's amazing about this season is how so many big things are driven by such a small thing as a stained glass window at a church. With Barksdale, Jimmy was trying to show how smart he was, but there was a sense that this was a bad guy and something needed to be done. Here, this is just Valchek working out a petty grudge about the window, and about Frank belittling him in front of the other checkers. I love the scene where Valchek briefs the task force (not knowing they're humps), sitting in the middle of that decrepit old building, trying to be so dramatic, like he's been watching too many '70s cop movies(*) and has convinced himself they're going after a much bigger target than some piss-ant union leader who bought a window and made a few cracks about CYO dances. It makes me laugh every time I watch it.

(*) As Valchek, Al Brown sure looks like somebody who could have been a supporting character in "Serpico," doesn't he?

The irony is that Frank really is a big fish -- or, at least is connected to big fish like The Greek -- but that has nothing to do with Valchek's vendetta.

Sobotka is one of the few characters in "Wire" history who isn't in any way motivated by self-interest. He's not pocketing the money from The Greek, and even scolds Horseface for stealing the vodka. His attempts to save the union aren't about Frank; he's old enough, and senior enough, that he doesn't have to worry about running out of work before he's ready to stop working, even as the stream of ships coming into the port continues to slow to a trickle. He's doing this for the guys in the union -- not just kin like Nick and Ziggy, but LaLa and Johnny 50 and the rest who have the same background but a far dicier future.

But while Frank's goals may be noble, his methods are not. Before Beadie went into the can with the crushed air pipe, Frank could maybe assume that The Greek was just asking him to smuggle in cigarettes, or booze, or even drugs, and those were answers he could live with. But this is human trafficking he's involved with, and despite a brief moment of bluster with Vondas -- who implies that there might be even worse things in other cans that didn't get opened -- he backs down and agrees to keep the arrangement going. Whatever illusions Frank had about what he's doing are gone now, but he feels like he has no choice but to keep doing it.

And as Frank is busy trying to save the union, he doesn't have time to notice that his son is trying to follow his old man into the crime business -- a business that we quickly see, through his conversation with White Mike, Ziggy's as badly-suited to as he is to being a checker.

Ziggy's one of the more polarizing characters "The Wire" ever gave us. He's so pitiful, so obnoxious, that he can be easy to hate. But Ziggy's problem is less of character than of time and place. This is a kid who is terribly suited to either of his father's current professions, but it's the world he was born into. As commenter Eyeball Wit put it last week (before noting actor James Ransone's resemblance to John Cazale, and how perfectly that makes Ziggy the Fredo Corleone of the Sobotka family):
If he grew up in Towson as the son of an accountant, he'd be a senior in college, planning pranks, passing out at frat parties and chasing co-eds, with nothing expected of him and no real consequences attached to his behavior.
But he's not a college kid, and his mistakes are going to have real consequences, assuming he can ever figure out how to get a package to sell.

And speaking of packages, we get more concentrated time in the prison with Avon and Wee-Bey as they deal with the harassment of a guard who doesn't particularly appreciate Wee-Bey having murdered his cousin -- and who happens to be dealing drugs on the side to the prisoners. (Note that D'Angelo, in our brief glimpse of him, has turned to dope to deal with the weight of his 20-year sentence.)

Here's my question: if Tillman weren't dealing, would Wee-Bey and Avon be as willing to get back at the guy? Yes, he overturns Wee-Bey's tank full of (fake) fish, and he disrespects Avon to his face, but he does have a legitimate beef with Wee-Bey, which even Wee-Bey seems to recognize. If he were just a straight-arrow looking to settle a family score in a non-lethal way, would they let the harassment go on? One of the things that seems to distinguish Avon from some drug dealers we'll meet in later seasons -- or, for that matter, from The Greek and his crew -- is that he still seems to acknowledge certain parts of the social compact, but is that just a matter of convenience for him?

Or is Avon, like The Greek, and like Frank Sobotka, just about getting his, no matter the cost or consequences to others?

Some other thoughts on "Collateral Damage":

• This episode marks the first appearance of Valchek's real estate developer buddy Andy Krawczyk. Like a number of "Wire" actors, he had a recurring role on "Homicide" as defense lawyer Russom, who was sort of a prototype for Maury Levy. (Albeit not nearly as corrupt, from what we saw, as Maury.)

• I like that the "villains" on "The Wire" are at least as smart as the "heroes," and that there's often a muddy line about which side is which. Burrell is clever enough to recognize that Valchek is pursuing a grudge, but since it's politically expedient to him, he gives the guy his task force. And where Jimmy has always hated Rawls, we see here that the other Homicide detectives -- including Bunk and Lester -- have more than a bit of hero worship for the guy after seeing him (for the moment) dump the dead girls off on the state cops. Beadie, meanwhile, is horrified to realize that Jimmy is only interested in the dead girls to get revenge on his old boss, which means both avenues of investigation into the port are coming as the result of petty feuds.

• Somebody want to explain the beer with egg yolk to me? I've seen it elsewhere, and it never fails to make me queasy.

• Carver returns, now working as a sergeant in Valchek's district, and he gets one of the funniest lines of the episode: after Frank complains that "you work for a gaping a--hole," Carver pauses a beat (as if deciding how frank to be with this civilian), then says, "More than one, actually."

• Also making her season two debut: Ronnie Pearlman, getting the worst of all possible Jimmmy McNulty booty call worlds.

Coming up next: "Hot Shots," in which Sobotka and Valchek both go out to fancy dinners, Nick gets a haircut, Stringer does Avon's bidding and someone's back in town.

What did everybody else think?


Shiv said...

Alan, while I ultimately enjoyed season two, my issue with it (other than the slow build) was largely because Sobotka isn't aware that he is being investigated. The fun part of season one (other than the dialogue, which is what really hooked me) was the cat and mouse aspect. Avon et al. may not have known for sure that the task force was on them, but they knew it was a possibility and they had to be careful. Frank is completely oblivious which makes things far less dramatic.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Adam, if you're talking about the season as a whole, you may want to take it over to the veteran edition (assuming you've watched the series all the way through). If not, please keep your comments limited to the episodes we've discussed so far.

Shiv said...

I guess I may be a bit confused about the veterans versus newbies concept then - I've watched this whole season, but have not watched seasons four and five yet. I glanced at veterans last week and saw references to things I have not seen yet, so I assumed that newbies would be more appropriate.

Regarding my earlier comment, Season One grabbed me from the first episode (I guess I just loved the way these cops and dealers talk), but these first two episodes of Season Two left me a bit cold - I think for the reason I mentioned above. The dock workers see themselves in a shoving match with Valchek, but Valchek brings in a team to look into him. Avon always knew what level he was playing at.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I guess I may be a bit confused about the veterans versus newbies concept then

Very simply:

-Veterans: Everything is fair game, from very first episode of the series to very last.

-Newbies: Stick to discussing only the episodes I've reviewed so far.

I know that some people have watched through season 2 (or maybe even through season 3) without finishing the series, and there's no ideal situation for them, but I can't start making 16 different versions of these reviews. This was the best solution.

Shiv said...

Okay, thanks Alan. Sorry if I introduced some confusion here. I didn't mean to be difficult, and I understand how my comment may have sounded broader than I intended it. Feel free to wipe out this discussion if it seems appropriate to you. Doesn't look like I can do it myself.

Savvy Veteran said...

I like your question about Avon. I tend to think that Avon's really a (comparably, especially for his position) good guy at heart, which is why Stringer is often left doing his dirty work. In my mind, perhaps Stringer sees The Game as business and rationalizes his behavior by detaching himself from it in regards to the negative aspects, but Avon has more of a heart, and all aspects (be they family, friends, business) are connected to him. I think that maybe in this case, Avon recognized a potential weakness that he could exploit for his own benefit while also helping out a friend. If the guard wasn't dealing, would he be going after him? I can't say for sure. I think maybe not; he probably would have simply found another loophole to allow him to get in the good graces of those who will make the big parole decision in the future.

I guess it all goes back to what you've said in the past, how "The Wire" paints all of these characters in shades of gray, making it impossible to pigeonhole any of them.

fgmerchant said...

Alan, I've just finished viewing Season 4, and I will probably have Season 5 finished in a few days. Is Season 5 spoiled in the Veterans edition, or should I just hold off until I am done with the series?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Hold off till you're done. I don't think we've talked about season 5 yet, but we will at some point, I imagine.

Anthony Strand said...

I'm in a similar place to other commenters here. I'm in the middle of season four right now. Anyway, it's great to be able to read your reviews without spoilers, Alan.

mridley2 said...

just started watching season 2 of the wire. I guess you could say I am behind... Alan your comments are great. I have realized the best way to watch each wire episode is in the following order:

1) watch the episode
2) read Alan's column
3) watch the same episode again. And the second viewing it all comes into perspective!

In this episode for example. I would have never noticed the Greek was the guy behind the diner in the early scene. After your comments and a second viewing. wow.

That's just one example of how your comments just pull everything together.

Also, I appreciate your separate newbies vs veterans edition. I've long read about this show but I'm finally getting the chance to check it out.!

Great show. Great great great!

Emily said...

Just want to let you know 5 years later these are being read - THANK you!!! your insights help me enjoy the Wire so much more.