Friday, June 19, 2009

The Wire, Season 2, Episode 4: "Hard Cases" (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 four, "Hard Cases," coming up just as soon as I buy a leather coat...
"You ever miss it, Pop?" -Nick Sobotka
"Wouldn't do no good." -Louis Sobotka
I want to start by continuing last week's discussion of the parallels between Nick and D'Angelo, which only feel more overt in "Hard Cases," even though their situations here are in some ways opposite. Where Nick is plunging even deeper into this criminal business than his uncle wants, D'Angelo is rebelling against his uncle's entire way of life. In both cases, we have the young men rebelling against what their uncles want, though for Nick that means getting more involved in dirty business, while D'Angelo is trying to live cleaner.

Beyond that, what's interesting is that each man has been raised in a very insular community where he's been taught by family and friends that there is one and only one way to live (picking up shifts at the port for Nick, slinging dope for D'Angelo), and that there's no point in even trying anything else.

D'Angelo learned last year that the world doesn't have to work that way, and that lesson is driven home as he realizes that Avon arranged the deaths of a bunch of inmates who meant nothing to him (more collateral damage) so he could scam some years off their sentences.

Nick, meanwhile, is realizing that his uncle's way of life (and his father's, for that matter) is dying, and because no one wanted to see that coming, no one prepared young guys like Nick and Ziggy to do anything else. And while Nick's options in life are probably greater than D'Angelo's (he's uneducated and unskilled, but a white guy with no criminal record still gets through more doors), he can't fathom what they are, and instead has to glom onto his uncle's side business with Vondas and The Greek.

And in rebelling against their respective uncles, albeit in different directions, both young men are placing themselves in dangerous situations: D'Angelo because Avon and Stringer (particularly Stringer) are already wary about his loyalty, and Nick because he's getting more into bed with The Greek and company at the exact moment that police investigation into the port is about to intensify.

(A bit lost in the shuffle of all this family drama is that Frank treats Nick more like a son than he does Ziggy -- or, at least, that he treats Nick more like a man than he does Ziggy. He's mad at Nick, but they have a conversation about it, albeit a heated one. Ziggy he just slaps and scolds.)

Now, the danger isn't that great for Nick just yet, because both the Bunk/Lester/Beadie team and the reconstituted version of the Sobotka detail have a couple of hard (as in difficult) cases in front of them.

Having let the Atlantic Light sail away from Philly (even though they really had no choice), Bunk and Lester have set themselves up to be scapegoated by Rawls, and neither man realizes that Lester's about to be reassigned to the detail -- nor that Lester will wind up investigating the same case from a different angle. (And, again, you either have to admire the patience of "The Wire" or grow frustrated with it. How many other series would be a third of the way through their season without having all the good guys realize they're essentially chasing the same bad guys?)

Daniels, meanwhile, takes advantage of the leverage he realizes he has with Burrell, arranging not only to have his own people (instead of some Rawls-handpicked humps) work the case, but to turn the detail into a permanent Major Crimes Unit should they make any kind of case here. But they have no idea what Frank is up to, or what kind of cases are available for them to make. By this point in season one, the detail had at least made a little bit of progress with the Barksdale crew, where here we're basically starting at square one.

But one thing we learned from the first season is that, just as it seems like nothing is happening, many things start happening at once. Daniels knows what he's doing this time, doesn't have deadweight like Polk and Mahone, and when Lester shows up, he's going to realize there's a lot more to the case than he thought.

Buckle up, folks.

Some other thoughts on "Hard Cases":

• McNulty's quest for his Jane Doe's identity doesn't seem to be getting anywhere, but his search for Omar at least brings Bubbs and Johnny back into the picture. Who doesn't love Bubbs? (And who wouldn't want to see a CBS sitcom with that title, starring Andre Royo as a charming homeless dope fiend?)

• I haven't had a chance yet to really sing the praises of Chris Bauer as Frank Sobotka, but this is an especially strong episode for him, between the opening scene where he tells off Nick (and again reiterates that he's not doing any of this for personal gain) and then the closing where he studies his reflection in the grubby bar mirror and realizes what he's becoming and what he's invited into his world. Bauer tends to get cast as two-dimensional jerks who yell a lot (see "Third Watch"), and while Frank certainly raises his voice from time to time (several times in "Hard Cases," in fact), he's a much more nuanced character, and Bauer finds every single layer of him at the same time he's holding the screen by just standing (or sitting) still. A great, great performance.

• Lester and Bunk together make a rare-for-TV partnership between two black cops. Back when I watched this episode the first time, I suggested to David Simon that some of the stevedores' discomfort (Horseface in particular) with having them in the bar stemmed from that fact, but Simon more or less reiterated Beadie's theory that the stevedores are enough of a melting pot that their only issue was with the badges, not the skin color. All these years later, I see that interpretation more than I did at the time, but I'm curious if anyone else had my initial reaction, if only because it's still kind of startling, unfortunately, for a show to feature an African-American duo.

• A nice moment that the show doesn't feel the need to underline: as Ziggy is explaining about how the digital camera works, Nick realizes that they're going to make photo developing shops obsolete, just as advancements in technology are endangering so many other traditional businesses, including the port here, and newspapers in season five.

• Speaking of forced obsolescence, this episode introduces Nick's father, Louis, who was a shipbuilder forced out of work when that industry died in Baltimore. Note that despite spending his "retirement" working on a gambling system, Louis never actually places wagers; his wins and losses are all hypothetically recorded in his notebook.

• Can any Baltimoreans identify that giant wall at the end of Nick's block?

• Two bits of "It's not TV. It's HBO"-style humor in this one, first with Nick indelicately copping a feel off baby mama Aimee (not Amy, as I spelled it last week) because, quote, "They were staring right at me!," and then with Ziggy getting revenge on Maui (the beefy checker who sits next to Johnny 50 and resents Ziggy for stealing stuff and making life harder on the honest guys) by leaving a digital photo of Not-So-Little Ziggy as Maui's computer wallpaper.

• While struggling to work their case, Bunk and Lester also get Beadie to give up some background on herself, and discover they're working with someone who has neither the training nor, apparently, the desire to be a real investigative cop. She's nice, and she means well, but at this point, she seems in it for the bigger paycheck than she got as a toll-taker.

• While Avon is busy cutting a deal to shorten his prison stint, we get a brief glimpse of how desperate things are growing for his operation out in the real world, as the quantity and quality of the package Stringer has been getting from Atlanta keeps getting worse.

• I love that Prez, a character considered a joke by the rest of the detail for most of season one, gets to have his big moment where he stands in a corner of the new detail HQ and asks everyone, "What kept you?"

• This episode also features the hilarious montage of Daniels and Kima telling their wives about the detail, as the camera keeps swirling around each table to make it look like they could all be at the same dinner party. The candles, the wine and the use of classical music neatly illustrate how Marla Daniels and Cheryl both have different tastes and ambitions from their respective partners. They want them to be lawyers, but as Cedric and Kima show by signing up for the detail -- and as Kima shows by slapping bracelets on the d-bag at the traffic light -- these two are natural police who don't want to be anything else.

• I always forget that Jimmy gives Bubbs' stolen Walkman to Elena, and it always makes laugh.

• Also worth some chuckles in a particularly funny episode: Lester and Bunk's reaction to Beadie asking who Omar is. How exactly do you explain Omar to someone like Beadie?

• Maury Levy again shows that, while he's a disgusting sleaze, he's an incredibly talented sleaze, getting Avon's seven-year sentence reduced to only one. Even the prosecutor seems to acknowledge the state cop's theory that Avon is responsible for the hot shots, but Maury recognizes that, in the system, the charge you can make is sometimes more important than the charge that's right.

Coming up next: "Undertow," in which the detail's roster expands, Stringer tries to work around his inferior product, and Ziggy again tries to get into The Game.

What did everybody else think?


tony libido said...

FWIW, I started with you on these episodes but have since jumped ahead in my viewing so I'm now halfway through S3. Took my chances on checking out the 'vet's' version and while I may have gleamed a few tidbits, nothing was ruined for me, esp if all the potential spoiler info is bunched at the end.

I only mention this as there are no comments here and 20 on the other.... In any case, it's fun to loop back in this complicated world a full season.

Ellie said...

I think Blogger ate my post. I hope this isn't a double post.

Oh, the dinner montage! The first time I watched this, I was on the treadmill, and I nearly fell off because I was laughing so hard. I think this is the funniest dialogue-free and nearly movement-free scene I've ever seen.

I second your high praise of Chris Bauer. I find him to be very compelling.

I love that Rawls/Daniels scene. Lance Reddick is great in that scene as he shows his understanding of the situation through subtle facial movements. He can do no wrong IMO.

Jen said...

Oh, the scene where Cheryl and Kima are stuck in traffic, and Kima can't take it any more and grabs the frat guy...I was like "Kima rocks! She's hot!" and thinking, "Isn't a scene like this probably what Cheryl found attractive in the first place?" Both Cheryl and Marla pissed me off with their strong desire to change their spouses into something else. Not that I didn't love the depiction of the spousal reactions!

Sonya said...

Just wanted to encourage you to keep posting these. I'm addicted to The Wire, watching season two at the moment, and your posts are the first thing I go to after each episode. Please keep it up!

Calvin Cleary said...

Man, I'm loving these reviews. I started the show on Sunday, and the library/Netflix can't keep 'em comin' fast enough. I'm just about caught up, but these have been absolutely invaluable to me.

I know a few friends who are thinking of starting the show, and so I suggested the site to them, too. I really helped me get past the first few episodes of season one - I don't think the show really grabbed me at all until 'Old Cases', and it didn't really hold on until around 'Lessons' or 'The Cost' but it's held on damn tight since then. I'm in for the long haul.

And I'll try and comment more often, too, now that I'm kind of catching up!

Karen said...

Alan, I had the same reaction as you at first when Bunk and Lester walked into the union guys' bar, but then I remembered the multiracial scene in the bar from the first episode, and figured it would be more about their being cops. Horse's incredibly astute avoidance of a trip downtown ("he's pretty smart for a fat guy") demonstrated just how much contempt the union guys have for the police, if Beadie's description of her job didn't make that clear already.

About the rarity of an all-black cop team on TV, all I have to say is that this show has brought to my attention an astonishing richness of African-American acting talent, and it really makes me wonder why I hadn't seen more of these folks before, not more of them since. It's a sin. The depth every actor on this show brings to his or her role is breathtaking.

Anna said...

I just loved the scene with Kima and Daniels both sheepishly facing their respective wives!

Other than that, I must say I beginning to get seriously worried about D'Angelo, the same way I was getting worried about Wallace in the 1st season... Is anybody sharing the sentiment?

TK said...

I hate to be the only curmudgeon here, but I really disliked the dinner scene(s) with Greggs and Daniels. I thought it was one of those rare and unfortunate moments where the Wire acts like a normal TV show instead of meeting its own high standards. First, the scene is a montage; but that's a minor complaint. My bigger problem was this: to the extent the scene was funny, it's a joke for the viewers only. The respective families are not aware that identical scenes are playing out across town. Most of the Wire's jokes are jokes that the characters share between themselves; yeah, we're laughing too, but that's because we're immersed in this world and understand exactly why something is so funny. (Just like the music we hear is the music they hear within the scene itself, not a movie soundtrack for viewers' ears only, unheard by the characters.) So it felt weird to suddenly be "outside" of the characters. The jumps between these two scenes were for our eyes only, and the whole thing was clearly staged for us, in a way that broke (for me) the show's illusion of reality. In addition, the dinner tables were too similar (candles, music, wine) to feel real. The whole thing felt staged in a way that the Wire almost never does.

karenology said...

I am just going through the Wire now (and just at this point in the season), so I am chiming in late to say how grateful I am that this exists! The Wire is one of those shows that makes me immediately want to go read about the episode and chat with it afterwards...but I don't want spoilers so this is perfect! Thank you!

karenology said...

One question I have at this point (though maybe the Veteran's post addresses that) - how exactly does McNulty know that Omar's back in town?

Unknown said...

I'm surprised no one mentioned the scene in the drug den where Bubbs asks where he can find Omar. The old man says something to the effect of " If you just stand outside with a package, he'll show up soon enough." That cracked me up. I love that crazy Omar.