Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Wire, Season 2, Episode 8: "Duck and Cover" (Newbies edition)

Vacation's done with, so let's get back to 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 eight, "Duck and Cover," coming up just as soon as I get some scrapple with that...
"But on a good case, running front of the pack? That's as close as the men comes to being right." -The Bunk
If we accept, as we should, that Baltimore is the true star of "The Wire," then Jimmy McNulty was the city's leading co-star in season one, which is why it was so jarring to see him be sidelined for so much of this season. Oh, he set some things in motion by sticking Rawls with the Jane Doe murders, but mostly he's been directionless, and drunk, and irrelevant. In the episode before "Duck and Cover," he was virtually absent, and it was only when he appeared near the end that I realized he was missing.

But McNulty returns to the center of the narrative in a big way in "Duck and Cover," an hour that showcases the many negatives and positives of our favorite drunken Irish bimbo.

I've been accused in past "Wire" reviews of being too hard on McNulty, so I should say upfront that I don't dislike the guy. As impeccably played by Dominic West -- one of those actors with a gift for becoming more appealing, not less, the worse his behavior gets -- how could you not find Jimmy likable on some level? And in the grand scheme of "The Wire," Jimmy's sins are far lighter than those committed by an Avon Barksdale, or even an Ervin Burrell.

But fairly or not, I find myself holding McNulty to a higher standard than almost any other character on the show. Part of that comes from the way that he is, in fact, held out as the closest thing "The Wire" has to a true lead, but more of it comes from Jimmy's position in the show's universe, from his awareness of that position, from his abundant intelligence and talent, and from the way he presents himself to the world versus the way he actually is. While there's hypocrisy throughout the show's characters, I guess I expect more from McNulty than I do from the likes of Avon or Burrell -- and, like all the characters on the show who continually give him second and third chances because he's so smart, and so damned charming, I feel far more disappointed when he fails to meet those expectations(*).

(*)Now, some of this is obviously being considered with 20-20 hindsight over what Jimmy will do, and what other characters around him will do under similar circumstances, over the course of the series, which we'll save for discussion in the veterans comments if you like. My recollection is that, the first time through the series, I was completely on McNulty's side in all his early disputes with Lt. Daniels, where going back over that first season, I found myself sympathizing with Daniels more often than not.

"Duck and Cover" presents McNulty at his worst, and at close to his best, all in the course of an hour that manages to be more character-driven than usual even as it's significantly moving the plot forward. The pre-credits sequence is astonishing, horrifying, and hilarious: "The Lost Weekend" in four minutes, as we see just how low Jimmy can sink without either work or family to ground him. Exiled by Rawls, rejected by Elena, he is staggeringly drunk, even by standards of past Jimmy/Bunk alcoholic escapades. He can compose himself enough to convincingly lie to his favorite bartender about calling a cab, but is so sloshed that he gets into a hellacious car wreck -- and so stubborn, drunk or sober, in his belief in his own abilities, that he then recreates the car wreck in an attempt to prove he could have avoided it(**) -- then passes out in an all-night diner and is lucky enough to find a waitress desperate/dumb enough to take him home for a quickie.

(**) Jimmy's pantomiming of the angles required to hit/miss the bridge supports was like a parody of any scene -- notably the legendary all-F-word sequence from "Old Cases" -- where Jimmy or Bunk or another cop will silently recreate a crime scene, try to figure out the bullet trajectory, etc.

McNulty in those circumstances is no good to himself or anyone around him (I still try to fill in the blanks on how the waitress reacted when she got a look at Jimmy's car), and even The Bunk admits he's not always much better when entrenched in a case. But it's a step in the right direction, and from the moment Lt. Daniels liberates him from the boat, we see a Jimmy who's making an effort, and who's particularly self-aware (if, at times, self-loathing).

Yes, it's funny that he happens to enter the detail office at the exact moment when they're trying to pick the ideal undercover operative to infiltrate the condo/whorehouse. But as his comments to Kima in the surveillance car about the marital status of the aptly-named Robert Johnson make clear, it's funny because Jimmy's so very much like these pathetic jerks. He knows about lying to yourself, and your wife, and your kids -- about pursuing your own selfish needs at the expense of the people you care about -- and in his behavior at Beadie Russell's house, he suggests he's not a total lost cause.

Beadie and Jimmy both go back to her place fully aware that they're going to have sex, but when Jimmy gets a look at her place -- with the abundant evidence of Beadie's role as a single mom doing what she can for her kids -- he backs out. In many circumstances, a man bailing over kid-related imagery would seem cowardly, but it's the most morally upright thing Jimmy does all episode. He knows he's bad news -- as Bunk told him last season, "You're no good for people, man" -- and that even vaguely sober, he'll bring Beadie and her kids nothing but pain, so he backs out before it can go anywhere serious. When he's on the phone with the whorehouse madame, she asks him what kind of girl he wants, and we see him looking at the exact kind of girl he wants: Beadie Russell. But he knows, deep down, that he's not the kind of guy she would want if she got to know the real him -- at least, the real him at this moment.

Because the rest of the ensemble is so rich, the other actors so talented in their own right, I can't say I was disappointed to have McNulty out of action for so much of this season, but it's still nice to have him back, and at a relatively high-functioning level.

Some other thoughts on "Duck and Cover":

• As Jimmy's putting himself together, Ziggy is falling apart. He's humiliated by Maui and all the stevedores who goaded him into the fight -- And how funny is James Ransone as he stands on top of the can and spews "BAD ADVICE!" like it's the toughest insult he can think of at the moment? -- and now Nick is trying to turn him into a glorified mascot in the drug operation that Ziggy wanted so desperately to run. Everyone in Ziggy's world, it seems, is better than Ziggy at just about everything -- except, that is, clowning himself. Because Ziggy is one of the few characters on the show able to recognize that the game he's been asked to play is rigged -- that he and all the guys he knows have had their wings clipped like the pigeons -- he reaches a point in "Duck and Cover" where he understands that the guys all view him as comic relief, so the only way to survive is to take control of the joke, which he does with his bizarre bit with the diamond necklace-wearing, beer-sipping duck.

• This episode introduces McNulty's deep and abiding love for the music of The Pogues, which the series shares. Jimmy's rocking out to "Transmetropolitan" as he gets into his fender re-bender.

• After writing season one's brilliant "Cleaning Up," George Pelecanos became a full-time "Wire" producer in the second season, and "Duck and Cover" is the first of his two scripts for this year. (He also, as he does every season, whether a producer or just a writer, handles the penultimate episode.)

• Because the writers spent so much time in season one explaining how the detail goes about its business, season two can pick up the pace and assume we understand how things work. Case in point: the discussion with Ronnie about needing to meet the legal standard of exhaustion before a judge will authorize a wiretap.

• And that judge offers one of those great small moments that you know was drawn from real life, as we discover the guy is much more amenable to authorizing a warrant if he can get some free housework -- done, of course, by low men on the totem pole Herc and Carver, who get some early karmic punishment for their ongoing Fuzzy Dunlop scam -- in exchange.

• As with the Barksdale case, where a simple drug assignment eventually involved real estate, state senators, etc., the detail is finding that this new assignment goes a lot deeper than Stan Valchek's grudge against Frank Sobotka. It's a really interesting contrast to see them go against a non-street target, and to see that Vondas and The Greek have weaknesses that Avon didn't (they don't expect to be wiretapped), but also strengths he doesn't (they can afford to waste lots of time and money dumping clean cans to try to shake the detail loose).

• One of the things "The Wire" does so well, and that's so rare in the rest of popular entertainment, is spending time simply showing characters thinking. Here, we dwell for a long time on Frank as he starts to put the pieces together about the police surveillance -- aided, in large part, by the fact that the port police and the phone company are both large bureaucracies where the left hand doesn't know what the right is doing and therefore secrets aren't properly kept. It's also cool to see both sides of the case think they're outwitting each other, when in fact it's about 50-50 (the detail doesn't know Frank is on to them and dumped a clean can on purpose, while Vondas and Double-G don't know that the detail has a tap on Sergei's phone).

• Where was Jay Landsman to offer up a fashion critique when Bunk traded in his usual pinstriped lawyerly affectations for his Edmonson Lacrosse sweats?

• Getting back to last week's discussion of Sobotka's blind spots, note that he'll grease a job for his brother (albeit one that would give the guy walking-around money at best), but not for his son.

• Note that the dolls Double-G winds up with are Bobbie, not Barbie, as I suspect the Mattel people wouldn't want their product associated with this show.

• The Bodie/Poot subplot about a neighboring drug crew stealing all their business with a superior product not only reinforces Prop Joe's argument from the previous episode about product trumping real estate, it features more comedy of traditional business thinking being applied to the drug world, as the two slingers whom Bodie fires (and who wind up working for the rival crew) demand "separation pay."

• The Emmy voters ignored her for her brilliant work as Holly on "The Office," so I want to briefly sing the praises of the wonderful Amy Ryan in her role as Beadie. Just check out how many emotions wash over her face as she realizes Jimmy is about to walk out the door: disappointment that she's not going to have sex with this man she's very attracted to, guilt that perhaps getting a look at her cluttered, kid-friendly house was a turn-off (even though he knows Jimmy has kids), but also a bit of relief that her new job isn't going to be complicated by an office romance, as well as the stiff upper lip attitude that's carried her as far as it has raising two kids on her own. Great, great actress.

Coming up next: "Stray Rounds," in which Bodie's feud reaches another level, The Greek gets careful, and Jimmy has problems remembering a magic word. Can't promise when I'll be able to do the review, but it'll get done sooner or later.

What did everybody else think?


Kalman said...

I found Dom West's portrayal of the drunk Irishman a bit too caricatured. Strike that: waaaay too caricatured. Hate to disagree with you, Alan, but I think West's work is overrated. As the series proceeds, I'm finding him, actually, to be the least believable actor in the ensemble and as a result, I'm not loving the character either, which West has made into an archetype. Trying way to hard to be the lovable sinning scamp with the cutie-pie smile. Just sayin'.

yo momma! said...

The exception that proves the rule!

Anonymous said...

I don't think McNulty's ethnicity has anything to do with his drinking.

Jennifer said...

I think you're right that Mattel wouldn't want Barbie to be associated with the show, but also the knock-off name "Bobby dolls" implied some horribly cheap off-brand goods, as if to emphasize that there was absolutely nothing of value being stolen.

Karen said...

I get that the port police and the phone company are large bureaucracies without a sense of left-hand/right-hand activity, but I did find it odd that, while the flag on Frank's account would specifically say, "Do not disconnect for non-payment," it wouldn't also say, "As result of police activity" or some kind of code that indicated that this info should not be given to the actual customer. That's just bad procedure. Surely it's a situation the phone company runs into more than one or two times.

I'm not surprised that Frank would grease the wheels for his brother but not for Ziggy--Ziggy IS a goof, while Nick's dad seems like a grounded fellow--but I can't think Ziggy would ever accept it. It only makes things worse for him, really. I'd feel a lot sorrier for him if he wasn't such a thorough idiot, but I do feel a little sorry for him.

Anna said...

I just love fishing out these tiny delightful scenes. In this episode, I obviously loved Bunk proudly parading in his sweatpants. And two moments between Ronnie & Carver are great. First, when Ronnie stops Carver's rocking (and maddeningly squeaking) chair without even looking at him. And second, when she innocently notes that he doesn't look as if he had to pay for, hmm, certain services ;)

Peter Lynn said...

Having previously seen Amy Ryan as Holly on The Office, I find myself feeling very protective of Beadie. I like both characters, but I was dreading her impending hookup with McNulty because it was just an obvious bad idea. (Not only would Jimmy be bad for her, but we'd just seen her sitting in the same room as Rhonda Pearlman, and I dreaded something uncomfortable happening the next time all three characters were in the same room.) What a relief it was when Jimmy smartened up and excused himself.

David said...

Greetings from the future! I just started watching the Wire a few weeks ago. I thought there was no way it could be as good as everyone said it was, but it's actually better. One thing about Amy Ryan - she's the only one who has successfully pulled off an authentic sounding Baltimore accent on this show. There have been a few good accents, but mostly from locals (the guy who plays Ziggy is from Baltimore, so he's got it down; the other guy on the boat with Jimmy has a good accent, but I'm pretty sure he's local). I suspect that Simon et al. told the actors not to attempt it unless they could really pull it off, and Amy Ryan does a great job of it.