Friday, July 10, 2009

The Wire, Season 2, Episode 7: "Backwash" (Newbies edition)

We're now into the second half of our trip through season two of "The Wire." As always, we're doing this 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 seven, "Backwash" -- including some thoughts from the episode's author, Rafael Alvarez -- coming up just as soon as I enter the modern urban crime environment...
"What do you think they grew up to be? Stevedores. What the f--k you think?" -Frank
The drug characters who were so important to season one of "The Wire" have mostly been sideshow players in season two. And even in "Backwash," they're only slightly more prominent than they were in the season's first half. But before we get to talking about the stevedores, and Daniels putting his career (and marriage) at risk, I have to start with Stringer Bell.

How cold is Stringer? He moves through this episode, visiting the loved ones of D'Angelo Barksdale, the man whose death he ordered, and he's as calm and smooth as if he were waiting on a customer at his copy shop. He puts into motion a deal with Prop Joe -- some of their superior real estate in exchange for the superior package Joe is getting from Vondas -- and even though Avon clearly wants no part of it, you can see that Stringer is going to go ahead with it, anyway. Hey, he killed off D'Angelo without anyone the wiser; what else can he get away with?

Because Stringer so rarely shows emotion -- and when he does, it's anger -- it would be very easy for him to come across every bit as robotic as the Rotterdam equipment Frank Sobotka is so afraid of. But Idris Elba shows Stringer always thinking, always calculating the angles in any encounter, whether he's seducing D's girl to get more information on him or offering a comforting hand to Brianna Barksdale while she suffers a tragedy that he knows he caused. Though Avon was technically the boss of the organization, there's a reason the first season focused more on Stringer, and it's the same reason I suspect Stringer was left free at the end of that season while Avon went to jail: he's the more original, compelling character, and Elba's is one of the show's most electrifying, if subtle, performances. (Which isn't a knock on the terrific Wood Harris, by the way.)

Great as Elba is, though, the episode still belongs to the stevedores -- particularly to Frank, whose motives begin to seem a bit less pure, and Nick, whose actions begin to seem a bit less clever.

While Frank's actions with The Greek have always been questionable, there wasn't previously much chance to argue with the goal he was trying to achieve with those actions. He wasn't buying anything for himself, was using Vondas's money either to pay for Bruce the lobbyist or to help out union men down on their luck. But two sequences in "Backwash" suggest that he's not only a criminal, but a tunnel-visioned one.

When Frank gets a look at the documentary about the robot-equipped Rotterdam port, it's like the worst horror movie he's ever seen. The speaker ducks his question about stevedore hours, because both men know that these robots will be putting men like Frank and Nick out of business. But at the same time, the man's comment about the increased safety of these machines is driven home at the episode's end, when New Charles loses a leg during a night off-load. Robots aren't at risk like that -- and, for that matter, they can't steal cans and aid smugglers the way that Frank and Horseface can.

As Frank notes, "Can't get hurt if you ain't working," and the robots would certainly put more of Frank's union brothers out of a job. But as we see in his argument with Bruce, what Frank should have been concerned about -- and a long time ago, at that -- wasn't the fate of himself and Horse, but that of younger guys like Nick and Ziggy and Johnny 50. As I've written before, these guys were raised in an environment where they were taught that this was the only possible lifestyle for them, when other men in similar situations made sure their kids were prepared to do something different, and better, than his old man. Maybe the kids with the stolen Tang couldn't have grown up to become astronauts, but they surely could have grown up to be something with more of a future than a stevedore. But Frank doesn't want to see that. He thinks his way is the only way, and he's become so obsessed with his plan that he's willing to violate the long-standing black/white turn-taking arrangement so he can run for a second term as union treasurer.

(Rafael Alvarez will have many more thoughts on the subject of Frank's goals in a bit.)

Whatever you think about Frank, there's no question Nick isn't thinking smart with his foray into the world of drug dealing. Sure, he's better-qualified and more competent than Ziggy -- frankly, I think I'd have a better chance of moving a package than Zig -- but there's too much risk for this reward. We see Nick already starting to develop a big head as he sits on the stoop lecturing Frog (even if he's briefly shamed by the disapproving look from the woman next door), and then he has to go and ignore Frank's advice -- not to mention the warnings Nick himself gave to Ziggy -- about not flashing around money. It's one thing to help Aimee get a nicer apartment, and another to be driving around in a brand-new truck for all the world -- including two knuckle-headed cops by the name of Herc and Carver -- to see.

And if Herc and Carver are going to have trouble explaining how they found out about Nick's business relationship with Frog, let alone how he connects with the murdered girls in the can, at least the detail has started to make enough progress that Daniels can let Lester guilt him into taking the 14 Jane Doe murders off of Rawls' hands.

The inner battle between Cedric Daniels, politically-ambitious ladder climber and Cedric Daniels, natural police, was a running theme in season one. From the moment Valchek rescued him from evidence room purgatory, it seemed like Daniels had struck some kind of balance between the two. He declined Burrell's offer of a district command post in favor of turning the detail into a Major Crimes Unit, but he also refused to make the murders part of the Sobotka case because he suspected it would ruin his MCU plan before it started.

But as we saw last season after Brandon's death, Daniels will, in the end, always choose the right path over the politically-expedient one, even if it hurts his career, and even if it puts a massive strain on his marriage to Marla, who loved that other Daniels more than this one.

Before we get to the bullet points, we're going to do something a little different this week. This episode was written by Rafael Alvarez, who was one of David Simon's old colleagues at the Baltimore Sun (and who has authored the short story collection "Orlo & Leini," and "A People's History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore," which you can read more about, along with Alvarez's own story, by clicking on his name). Alvarez also write "The Wire: Truth Be Told," the only official companion book the series ever got, and after some readers last week asked me about rumors that Alvarez would be doing an updated version covering all five seasons, I e-mailed him for confirmation. He explained that an updated "Truth Be Told" would, in fact, come out by Christmas -- albeit only in the UK, through Canongate Books, but there are easy ways to order that here through the series of tubes -- and then we got to talking about "Backwash."

Alvarez grew up in a family with connections to the Baltimore ports, and had worked there himself, which made his expertise invaluable to the writing of this season. I asked for his own take on the nobility of Frank's goals -- particularly in light of New Charles' injury and the argument with the lobbyist -- and if he had any other memories of the making of the episode. Here's what he wrote:
Frank Sobotka was a very smart man who often mistook his heart for his brain.

A problem with technology is that it now moves faster than the span of a single human lifetime.

One of my first assignments as a 19-year-old reporter in Baltimore was a longshoreman's strike (1977) over complete implementation of containerization on ports that had been worked by muscle for 200 years.

An old union man named Gilbert Lukowski (told me) that no matter how convenient and affordable new technology made life for management "you can't just take a man in the middle of his working life and throw him on the junk pile."

I never forgot that and I tried to instill as much of that philosophy as possible into Frank Sobotka as we built that character. Frank was prescient enough to know that the future was coming no matter what he did but soft-hearted (some might say soft-headed) enough to see a dependent family in the face of each of the men he was responsible for.

(The bigger irony to me is how much of a "dutch uncle" or father figure he was to the union men while his blood son went awry because - in part - frank was so distracted by union business.)

There were two main themes of my childhood as the grandson of a seafarer turned union shipyard worker and the son of a seafarer turned union tugboat engineer: hard work and education.

My own experience was much more Bruce the lobbyist than Frank the union man. My father always held education above everything because he knew it was the only way a man could respond to changes in the economy beyond your control. He never wanted my brothers or I to work on the waterfront with him. And when my one brother (a natural mechanic) truly desired that work, my old man made him get there through a respected maritime academy instead of just following him down to the waterfront the way Ziggy followed his father.

So my argument would be that if the waterfront (or any industry) is a pie, technology is going to change the way that pie is made, sold and distributed. If union men are willing to put some of their hard earned salaries and whatever influence a father can have with their children toward education, the next generation can have a piece of that pie even if it doesn't resemble anything the old man would recognize.

They may not be running the show, but at least they'll be able to get in the door.

It might be noted (by me if not Simon) that Frank Sobotka had a little bit of a Messiah complex, even to the point of laughing when the polish priest asked if he had been to confession lately.

The most memorable story I would tell about writing "Backwash" are two things that please me greatly.

No. 1 - I was able to get Robert Irsay's face in the middle of the union shack dartboard (it flashes on the screen for half a second when Bruce leaves Frank's office). Maybe six people in the country got that when it first aired and I promise you that all of them are scholars of pro football Baltimore.

No. 2 - The story that Bruce the lobbyist tells frank (I liked that the lobbyist was Italian-American and not a WASP because it proved my point about education serving a working class eager enough to get a degree any way they can) about his grandfather pushing the knife sharpening wheel, that was taken directly from a story Frank Zappa (born in Baltimore Dec. 21, 1940) told me in a 1986 interview about his early Baltimore roots.

When Zappa's grandfather (Charlie Colimore) died in 1941, Frank and his family moved to a rowhouse apartment in the 4600 block of Park Heights Avenue. Zappa remembered there was "an alley in the back and down the alley used to come the knife sharpener man-you know, a guy with the wheel. And everybody used to come down off their back porch to the alley to get their knives and scissors done."
Some other thoughts on "Backwash":

• Getting back to the idea of season one characters taking a backseat so far in season two, McNulty makes his first appearance of the episode at the 55-minute mark. And as much as we all love Dominic West in the role, and as crucial as he was to the first season, it's a testament to how strong the ensemble is -- and how well Simon and Burns and company have already established the city as the real star of "The Wire" -- that I didn't even notice his absence until he turned up in Elena's backyard.

• Herc and Carver provide particularly strong comic relief in this one with their misadventures in "the modern urban crime environment," and Carver's fake British accent as he declares Herc to be "Head. Dick Head." Also, Herc raving about the wonders of technology is nicely intercut with Frank's reaction to the Rotterdam film.

• Bodie's visit to the florist was more in the "so sad it's funny" category, but I have no doubt that there are many inner-city florists that have a back room featuring Uzi-shaped arrangements made up of flowers with "strong colors."

• Wee-Bey's line about how D'Angelo killed himself in a way he knew his loved ones would have to carry is very similar to a line from both "Homicide" book and show about cops who commit suicide knowing that colleagues will have to deal with the crime scene.

• Ziggy gets punked by Maui with the fake paternity suit papers, whose obsession with playing "Love Child" on the jukebox over and over and over should have been a bit of a tipoff, no?

• Joe says his philosophy is "Buy for a dollar, sell for two," which makes him an ideal business associate of Vondas and The Greek, who say it as "Buy for a nickel, sell for a dime."

Coming up next: "Duck and Cover," in which McNulty practices a new driving technique, Frank pays his bills, and Ziggy gets a lift.

As to when you'll see this review? That's an open question. Like I mentioned earlier in the week in the "Sports Night" review, I'm on vacation next week, and late the following week I'll be heading to California for Comic-Con and then the Television Critics Association summer press tour. So these reviews are going to be published on a very irregular schedule from now until at least early August, if not for the rest of the summer. You may not get any reviews in a given week (and I wouldn't be holding my breath next week), or you might get two in one week, at any day or time when they're done. It's unfortunately the best I can do given all the time I'll either be off or occupied with other business. But we'll get it done, fret not.

What did everybody else think?


Calvin Cleary said...

I really enjoyed this episode - Sobotka is turning out, to me, to be a much more compelling criminal to watch than Avon or Stringer, even if he's clearly less competent. As excellent as the Barksdale crew all were, as much as I cared about them by the end of the season, Sobotka manages to make similar points with an added touch of melancholy and self-awareness that just makes him so sad. It was the same reason I really felt for D'Angelo by the end of season 1 - he didn't WANT to be where he was, but there was literally nowhere else he COULD be.

It's interesting to look back, this early in the series, on the different ways they've looked at what the Game means to these people, why they do it. Where Avon knows the Game and likes the opportunities it can provide, Stringer wants to make the Game work for him, and D'Angelo just can't reconcile the Game with the cost, but feels trapped in it. Omar almost seems to see it as a joke. Frank sees it as a necessary evil to preserving the past, while Nico sees it as the only/the easiest way of escaping his.

Really enjoyed this episode.

3333/afa said...

Alan, I love your reviews. I watched the first season at the beginning of this summer -- and read your corresponding review after each episode -- and then I took a break after its conclusion so I could digest all that I've seen. I started watching again the other day, and already I'm up to episode 7; I saw that there were no comments for this episode, and I wanted to ensure that you didn't think no one appreciated it. The one thing I wanted to mention was the humorous scene in which one of the Stevedores puts the cigarette in New Charles' mouth as he lay on the ground, almost echoing the scene in the first season in which one of the drunkard cops put a cigarette in his recently-assaulted buddy's mouth.

Unknown said...

This is my first comment, but not the first time I have visited this site. I saw you for the first time on the the season 5 pre-shows and decided to look you up. I am a HUGE Wire fan, during the five seasons some friends of mine would throw parties on Sunday nights like we were watching a football game. When season 4 introduced the option to view an episode a week in advance I took off a day from work when the season started. To take it further my friends realized the shows would air @ 12am so we would stay up sometimes till 2 in the morning to watch the episode, go to work come home and then watch it with my wife! I know it sounds crazy but you have to understand the world never seen something so real before, let's be honest the African American gangster has always been portrayed as a big jewelry wearing buffoon, the Wire puts the game in perspective. I lived through the crack era of the eighties in The Bronx and seen 80-95 homicides in my community a year so the depiction is real.

As far as the episode, this season grew on me and I feel after the second viewing it has become respected more. I actually have watched this season at least 4 times and it seems to get better and better, and I have to ask Alan please give us a season 3 wrap next year to complete this wonderful series. Hopefully the Truth Be Told will be released as well!

blizza said...

1st time submitting a comment, I saw you on the season 5 pre-shows and have always been a huge fan of the show. I love what you're doing here and hope you finish the series next summer. In this episode you started to see the coldness of Stringer to the point you wanted his death to come. I always felt he resented D'Angelo from the first episode.

Andy Hutchins said...

A testament to the skill of the writing: Stringer's rational explanation for D's suicide as something Avon couldn't stop even if he was D's shadow is also a quiet confession that Stringer was going to deal with D no matter what Avon said or did to stay on him. Stringer seems to know this. Avon may not. The writers sure did.

Unknown said...

Just got round to watching this series, thankfully its complexity has shielded me from anyone giving spoilers away. Reading your analysis after each ep, much appreciated.

karenology said...

How gross is Marla Daniels. "I liked you better when you were a social climber!"

Cecily Cardew said...

It broke my heart to see people be so clueless about D before and during his funeral. I wanted to shake everyone (especially Bodie and Avon) when they were calling him weak and yell that D was the braver than all their selfish sheep asses put together! Bodie and his unforgettable floral homage would be laugh out loud hilarious if it wasn't so despairing how clueless he was: the projects and the grisly game they represented were exactly what D did NOT stand for. No one really got or appreciated the personal sacrifice and struggle that entailed till the end. It kills me that he is helpless to escape the roots and past that were not of his choosing, even in death. And his son will grow up hearing about his father was a suicidal weakling, no small thanks to the callous and opportunistic Donette. Arrgh! All them dumb motherf****rs need to realize how awesome D was and what a cold calculating snake String is already!

Frankie811 said...

Wait, the writers ask us to accept that people are buying the idea that D could hang himself on a doorknob? hahahaha. Has anyone ever done that? A person actually trying that would start to choke and instinctively stand up. You have to jump off something and break your neck. Talk about willing suspension of disbelief! And an investigation would not disclose signs of a struggle?