Friday, July 03, 2009

The Wire, Season 2, Episode 6: "All Prologue" (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 six, "All Prologue," coming up just as soon as I light a $100 bill on fire...
"He's saying the past is always with us. Where we come from, what we go through, how we go through it -- all this s--t matters." -D'Angelo Barksdale
Designed as a novel for television, each season of "The Wire" is usually greater than the sum of its weekly parts, but every now and then you get a particularly extraordinary part of the whole. Season one gave us "Cleaning Up," with the death of Wallace, Avon's arrest and Daniels standing up to Burrell and Clay Davis. And midway through season two, we get the brilliant "All Prologue."

"All Prologue" moves the plot along a fair amount: the detail figures out what the checkers are doing and how to track it, Nick gets deeper into bed with Vondas (and prepares to embark on a third career as a drug dealer), and Stringer makes a bold move of his own in hiring a hitman to murder D'Angelo. But it's also as character and theme-driven as any episode of the season so far, densely packed with one hilarious, or moving, or outright tragic moment after another.

It gets much of its power from focusing on McNulty and D'Angelo, who were the defacto co-leads of season one, and who have been intentionally marginalized to this point in season two. After trying to think outside the box of their respective institutions, each was severely punished: D'Angelo by having to take the biggest fall of anyone in the Barksdale crew, Jimmy with his exile to the boat. And "All Prologue" -- which is actually something of an epilogue to season one -- sees both men approaching what could or should be the end to their respective stories.

D more or less severs ties with his family and the larger Barksdale organization. The tragic irony of his death is that, while this decision is the last straw for Stringer, it plays out to us as evidence that Stringer had nothing to fear from D'Angelo. When you see D telling his mother to leave him alone -- in a moment as wonderfully played by Larry Gilliard Jr. as the famous "Where's Wallace?" scene -- you see that he is stronger, and better, than the family that raised him. He doesn't need them, not even to get out of prison sooner, and had Stringer not hired his hitman, D very likely would have spent the decade leading up to his parole hearing being a model prisoner, not worrying about selling out his family for a deal. This is the bed he made, and he was going to lie in it for 10-20 years. But because Stringer was so paranoid, D'Angelo is dead. And, as it does whenever a good person (as good as anyone can be, especially someone we met when he was skating on a murder charge) dies on "The Wire," it hurts, deeply, even though we know it's a fictional character.

It took some bravery on the part of David Simon, Ed Burns and company to bump off one of their two original leading men -- most showrunners would have seen how white-hot flaming incredible Gilliard was and contrived an excuse to keep him around -- just as it's brave to have McNulty be such a non-factor to this point of season two. Even Jimmy recognizes how useless he's become as a cop (the only thing he's ever really cared about being), so after failing to identify his Jane Doe and seeing Omar through the Bird trial, Jimmy prepares for "retirement." He'll still wear the badge, but he knows he has no hope of getting off the boat so long as Rawls has power, so he's just going to put his head down and slog through the days until he gets his 20-year pension. This would, appropriately, take about as much time as D would have needed to serve before being eligible for parole.

And where D'Angelo tries to separate himself from his kin and is killed for it, Jimmy desperately wants back in with his own family -- if he can't be a cop, maybe he can be a husband and father, and better than he was the first time around -- and is cast out by Elena (after one for the road, of course). No one trusts either man's motivations, even though D seems resolute about carrying his burden, and even though a Jimmy who isn't working murders might be capable of being a more functional human being.

Simon often compares "The Wire" to Greek tragedy (and has offered us a remorseless criminal organization whose head man is known as The Greek). He talks about how the characters are all set on a specific path -- by their families, by their socio-economic circumstances, by the institution they belong to, and by their own past actions -- that is all but impossible to get off of. The characters are only occasionally aware of how their lives are governed that way, but as D'Angelo discusses "The Great Gatsby" with the prison English class, he gets it -- even though he doesn't recognize how soon fate and his own past deeds are going to catch up to him.

But before we get the tragedy of D'Angelo, and the continued purgatory for McNutly, we get the comic masterpiece that is Omar Devone Little (who is himself a fan of Greek mythology) versus Maury Levy, JD.

Every other time we watch Maury at work, we have to cringe at his complete amorality even as we admire his tenacity and gift for turning pathetic-looking hands into winning ones. But damn, it's so nice to see him go up against a man who's not only just as smart, but beholden to no one and nothing but his own conscience. Maury can't outwit Omar, can't apply any sort of institutional pressure on him, and is left utterly speechless when Omar turns Maury's accusation of being a parasite of the drug game around on him: "I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. It's all in The Game, though, right?"

But that moment is only as fun to watch because we're aware of what an anomaly it is -- that the Omars of this world are few and far between, and that it'll likely be a long, cold time before we see Maury go down in utter defeat like this. The criminal justice system, for all its good intentions, is ideally set up for opportunistic parasites like Maury to make a meal of it, all while being treated as a respected (and feared) upright citizen of the community, where Omar is a loathed outlaw (albeit one who knows how to buy a snazzy track suit while still sticking to the letter of Ilene Nathan's "Anything with a tie" request).

I have so much more to say about "All Prologue," but I'm trying to get this done in advance of a holiday weekend (and I sincerely hope most of you have more exciting outdoor activities to do today and are reading this post on Monday), so we're going to go to the bullet points.

Some other thoughts on "All Prologue":

• Kima and Cheryl's relationship, and Cheryl's frustration at Kima's decision to return to active detective-work, comes to the forefront again beautifully as she insists on tagging along for Kima and Prez's strip club scouting mission. I particularly like the scene where Kima shows Cheryl a can like the one the girls died in to explain why she cares so much about these cases, because of the complicated way Melanie Nicholls-King plays Cheryl's response to the gesture. Cheryl does understand the importance of the case, but she also fears for her lover's safety, doesn't want to go through another shooting (or worse) like she did in season one, and would be much more comfortable if Kima's job didn't lead her to hanging around strip clubs. And, as Shardene's friend points out, can you blame her?

• On the Sobotka side of things, we see Sergei intervene with Prop Joe (who turns out to be Cheese's boss). And as Nick explains to Vondas why he doesn't just want to have Cheese taken out, Vondas' respect for the intelligence of Frank's nephew grows -- enough that he offers to pay Nick, Ziggy and Johnny 50 (who wants no part of it) in dope for the chemicals used to make it, since he knows Nick is smart enough to make a bigger profit on the drugs. Frank is a means to an end for Vondas, but he sees other possibilities for young Nico, no?

• Having yelled at and/or smacked Ziggy around for most of the first five episodes, Frank finally has a real conversation with his son here, and we get a much better understandings of the origins of the resentment that fuels so much of how Ziggy behaves. Though we've seen that Ziggy is good with computers, he didn't get to go to community college like his brother, but was instead drafted into the family business -- for which he was so ill-equipped, and for which he received virtually no benefit from being the son of the mighty Frank Sobotka. Most of the time, Frank seems like a noble villain -- he's working with The Greek for the good of the union, not himself -- but a scene like their conversation at the docks makes you wish he had been a little less selfless at some point, or at least willing to extend his beneficence to his real family at least as much as to his union brothers.

• Beadie continues to show growth as a smart detective, as she's the first member of the detail to recognize the criminal value of what the checkers do.

• Between Vondas (Greek), Sergei (Ukrainian) and now Etan (Israeli) -- not to mention Prop Joe (East Baltimore) -- The Greek has himself quite the international crime cartel, doesn't he? No concern about national or tribal loyalty -- just a shared love of profit.

• Dominic West has a lot of fun in the scene where McNulty is undressing the mannequin to distract Elena.

• Given how much of this episode functions as a season one coda, it feels appropriate -- and funny -- to have Judge Phelan back to tear into Bird during the sentencing. ("Are you Jesus Christ come back to Earth?")

• The ceremonial eyef--k that McNulty and Omar give Bird is a detail from David Simon's "Homicide" book, and was mentioned once on the "Homicide" series, though there it was referred to as "the ceremonial eyescrew" by Beau Felton.

• The prison English teacher is played by Richard Price, whose Dempsey novels are thematically very similar to what "The Wire" is doing -- and who will begin writing for the series starting in season three.

• I love Prop Joe's gift for turning a phrase, like when he tells Nick that, if not for Sergei, he and Ziggy would be "cadaverous motherf--kers."

Coming up next: "Backwash," in which Bodie goes flower-shopping, Joe has a proposition for Stringer and Rawls tries to dump the Jane Doe cases on the Sobotka detail.

I have jury duty early next week, and depending on how long it lasts, the next review may be pushed back a few days. Based on my past experience, I'm probably not going to get paneled, but if I do, I hope we get a witness one-tenth as colorful as Omar.

What did everybody else think?


Norfolk Dumpling said...

As you say, a standout episode in an amazing series. D's death was a complete surprise -- and the impact of that surprise means that I'm trying hard to remain spoiler-free through the next three seasons. It pays not to know what happens.

Lauren said...

I've been thinking about this episode a lot since I saw it two weeks ago, and anxiously awaiting your writeup. D's death was a complete surprise to me, and hit me hard. I also found myself saying, "poor McNulty. Too bad he's such a f---up."

Anonymous said...

Realy like your newvbie edtions even if i finsihed s2 a week or two ago.

Feelt abit sorry for d after listing to avon when he was about to spike the drougs and then get killed on stringers call.

Dont have much else to say that you havent already mentioned but omar on the stand was awesome.

Anne said...

My mom still has not forgiven David Simon for killing off Dee. Amazing how much the actor and Simon made us like this murderer. Where did that actor come from and why the heck am I not seeing him everywhere?

john said...

Hey alan thanks for the analysis man, lost some important points,but now i got em. keep up the good job.

justjoan123 said...

It was such an amazing grace note for me to see Richard Price as the teacher in that wonderful Gatsby scene with Dee. More than 30 years ago I worked for a literary agency when Richard's first book, "The Wanderers," was brought to market. Durng these early years he was a good client and an even better friend, and while I always regret that our paths took us away from that connection, I always kept up with his work. I think he had only one line in this scene, yet the look of gratification on his face as Dee validated his character's efforts was lovely. It made me regret that he acts so seldom.

TC said...

I love Prop Joe's gift for turning a phrase, like when he tells Nick that, if not for Sergei, he and Ziggy would be "cadaverous motherf--kers."

Such a great line! So much so that I actually had it running through my head when I woke up this morning.

Jordan said...

I agree on the cadaverous motherf*ckers line; especially given that the scene cut to a shot of Jane Doe's dead body at the morgue.

Karen said...

Man, this episode really takes you on a roller coaster ride, doesn't it? From Omar's trial appearance (I honestly do not know when I have laughed that hard at a TV show) to Dee's murder. I came here, hoping against hope that he'd turn out only to be unconscious, but you've confirmed for me what I didn't want to believe. Damn.

The scene with Brianna was a killer, too. Some kind of mothering, eh? And that memory from Dee mirrored all the memories that Ziggy poured out in his walk with Frank. Kids never forget anything, you know.

Anonymous said...

I finally feel that the series has come alive with this episode, for the mightly slow start as was with the first series, you get the feeling that you are going to experience a similar rollercoaster as before. One of the best episodes of all the episodes up to this point.
Levy's reaction to Omar's "parasite" comeback was hysterical!!

Anna said...

I just FELT something nasty was going to happen to poor D, Goddamnit...

The "cadaverous motherf--kers" scene was good. But didn't you also love Beadie and Lester trying to tactfully look the other way while Bunk almost throws up at Daniels' desk? And Daniels giving him a big badass stare-down but still mercifully passing the wastepaper basket?

Anna said...

Oh, and Omar at court, I can just applaud in admiration.

ethaninseattle said...

The writing is genius. D'Angelo is killed as he's repairing a book (the book is an anolgy of his own story - ie, his life).

He's killed just as he's repairing his own story/life.

Unknown said...

Thanks for doing these write ups. They make an excellent dessert after the entree of an episode of The Wire. I always deepen my appreciation by thunking about the themes and connections you point out. And it's always nice to see others' reactions to favorite scenes and bits of dialog. (I can't believe I'm coming to this great, great show so late in the game).

I loved the prison scene with the class discussing the Great Gatsby. D'Angelo's analysis delivered in convincing terms was really quite sophisticated. But what a perfect choice of novel to discuss in the context of this series. Not only is Gatsby a gangster fronting as a solid citizen, but the last lines of the book that D'Angelo comments on are about boats beating unsuccessfully against the tides of the past. What a perfect metaphor for the Stevedores and their likely futile quest to bring the boats of the past back to Baltimore harbor against the remorseless tide of progress.

belinda said...

For some reason, I started worrying about D right after noticing that (hitman) guy look at D in a particular way after his mother came by. Even though I was half expecting it (from the setup with The Great Gatsby comparison and because D finally let go of his family and was on his way to redemption in prison (and maybe even life outside afterwards), and was able to hold his head up high with Avon, that I felt something very, very wrong was going to happen. And it did), that didn't take away from actually seeing it happen. SAD. Like Wallace's death, that image would be etched in my brain too.

And now, a happy bit. I too was floored by Omar's court appearance, and I love that of course everyone on the jury (and the judge) totally love Omar too. It's just so Omar.

Beth said...

The tragedy of the series really comes out here with D's death. On the one hand we know that the rule is if you're in the game, you can't escape it (like Gatsby and his past). And yet with D's speech to his mom, and then flushing down the drugs, the writers set us up to believe D might be the exception. I swear I did not believe he was really dead until the start of the next episode (maybe he just passed out? Maybe it was a warning?) I sometimes think that the murder charge that opened season one was an anomaly--D over-reacted out of fear or something because he has proved to not be hard.

And more tragedy, watching what happened to D: you just know Nick is doomed. Frank and Ziggy might escape, Frank with his regrets and perhaps shame, and Ziggy I don't understand at all, but Nick will go down one way or another--if D knew how the game was played and couldn't negotiate it, what chance does Nick have?

Andrew said...

Love watching McNulty's sly grin whenever we the viewer find something funny. It really adds to the scene.

Thanks for these reviews, Alan. I'm just going through The Wire for the first time, and I always come here after I finish an episode.

Devin Mitchell said...

As many before me have said, this is the place to come after seeing an episode, and these reviews have become invaluable.

Omar forever endeared himself to me when he exposed Levy for what he really is. The look on his face is great.

Really sorry to see D'Angelo go, but he was in the line of fire from that final moment of the pilot when he sees Gant's dead body and feels remorse.

Stefani said...

I just recently started watching The Wire via Netflix, and I have read all of your "newbie" reviews to this point. I have to say they really do give more depth to my understanding of each episode, so thanks for that.

I have never felt compelled to post a comment before, but this episode really got me. The first season episode with Wallace's death still sticks with me (and is the episode which made me realize what a gem this show is), but this episode will stick with me more than that because it's D. D is (I guess now was) my favorite character on the show, and even though I could tell something was going to happen (there were signs all throughout the episode, but I was clued in before even watching because on the DVD, this episode had the option for commentary, so I knew it was an important ep), I was hoping against hope that D would survive through it. I even was wondering if maybe next episode we would find out he really wasn't dead, he just "faked it" to get his would-be murderer to leave him thinking he had done the job. Of course that's not the case and now I have to watch The Wire with the knowledge that D won't physically be a part of it.

That said, it is a testament to the show itself that it can kill off one of its main characters so early in its run. Other shows you know that certain people can't be killed because the show couldn't exist without them -- I have the feeling that's not the case with The Wire.

emerald772 said...

Again, another late-comer to the show driven here solely by your love of it. Not many shows on TV (past or current) would have the hilarity of Omar's court scenes in the same episode as the murder of a reformed murder that we the viewers have come to root for. D's summation of Gatsby was so poetic, you knew something was going to happen, be it redemption, or, sadly, defeat.

Cecily Cardew said...

Mr. Sepinwall, thanks a million for doing these reviews - just started watching The Wire for the first time and I was thrilled to find a spoiler-free discussion zone! I think another perfect example of how you say The Wire teaches you to watch it is the fact that they never explicitly show the jury's decision in the Bird trial. Any other show would have had a drawn out dramatic moment of 'on the charge of murder in the first degree, we find the defendant...GUILTY' with audible gasps in the courtroom. It trusts the viewer's intelligence enough to consider the decision obvious, especially after Omar's unforgettable testimony (oh the joy of watching Levy squirm - finally!)

I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach about D, which was confirmed by this episode. Sigh. I see similarities between him and Wallace in the way the show built up to their death, the little signs. In both cases, they had the characters express what they were about, so to speak, as the epitaph on their lives - in Wallace's case, his affirmation that he belonged there, with his people, and in D's case, the heartbreaking speech to Brianna and the Gatsby discussion. Maybe any stirring dialogue or seemingly innocuous metaphor like Wallace's 'last meal' with his boys is a warning sign for impending doom :(

mridley2 said...

Alan, Great recap (as always!) And what another spectacular episode!!

I am new to the series (watched season 1 last summer) and I'm now just getting to Season 2. After this I expect I will keep things moving at a more measured pace.

Very much looking forward to what the aftermath of D's murder/fake suicide will be.
So sad to see Gillard Jr go but at least we got 19 episodes of this great character & acting.

Bravo, The Wire team, Bravo!!

Salo said...

I watched the end of "All Prologue" right before bed last night, what a mistake! I couldnt stop thinking about D's murder and how things could have been different for him; so sad but brilliantly written and acted.

Season 2 started a bit slow but I'm hooked now and giddy to watch more. Best Drama ever? Bold claim, but very possible.

Salo said...

I watched the end of "All Prologue" right before bed last night, what a mistake! I couldnt stop thinking about D's murder and how things could have been different for him; so sad but brilliantly written and acted.

Season 2 started a bit slow but I'm hooked now and giddy to watch more. Best Drama ever? Bold claim, but very possible.

Anonymous said...

Just starting to watch the wire and i'm loving your reviews. Must read after every episode. While this season have been slow, its starting to pick up now.
While Stringer Bell is among my favorite characters, Dee have always been my absolute favorite and now i'm really pissed off at what happened, Dee's death was heartbreaking and i really hope Stringer goes down soon cause i simply hate him now.

Anonymous said...

Ah, R.I.P. D.
My chap & I are watching Season 2 because we really loved Season 1.
My chap thought D would be faking unconsciousness and come back alive.
I guessed he would sadly be a gonna watching him being watched in prison.
Frustrating to watch such potential we see in people like Wallace last season and now D in this episode wasted.
Interesting to me is how both characters talked previously to the police in the past with candour. Is talking punishable in writers worlds ?
Hoping in the future Stringer gets his just desserts and at least some folk find out his hand in the death of D.
Omar in court, just brilliant.
Also worry about retaliation coming his way in the future, betting now he will be facing Stringer at some point in some way.
Thinking Frank is a bit of a lost cause in this world and situation. Not sure what to think about Ziggy/Nick surviving the season.
Thinking The Greek and his connections is a formidable foe for the team to go up against.
I’m very late but glad to have found The Wire.