Friday, August 14, 2009

The Wire, Season 2, Episode 10: "Storm Warnings" (Newbies edition)

Okay, press tour's over, and we've got three episodes of "The Wire" season two left to re-visit. As always, we're doing this in two versions: one for people who have watched the whole series from beginning to end and want to talk about this episode in the context of what's to come, and one for people who don't want later episodes/seasons spoiled for them. This is the newbie edition; click here for the veteran version.

Spoilers for episode ten, "Storm Warnings," coming up just as soon as you get me my copy of Harper's...
"He wasn't saying 'Please don't shoot me.' He was more... begging." -Ziggy
"The Wire" season two aired back when I was still teamed up on the TV beat with the great Matt Zoller Seitz, and I remember him coming into work the morning after he had watched "Storm Warnings" raving about the sequence where Ziggy murders Double-G and stumbles back to his car.

"That," he said, "was like a Springsteen song come to life."

For all the grief that Ziggy takes from "Wire" viewers, new and old, for being so pathetic, that sequence wouldn't be half as powerful without all the past humiliations we'd witnessed. If Ziggy wasn't terrible at everything - if he wasn't constantly being laughed at, and dismissed, and shouted down - then it doesn't make sense that he would snap like this, killing one man, wounding another, and throwing his own life down the drain. But because Ziggy has been the lifelong butt of a cosmic joke, because we've seen his frustrations mount as he's failed at living up to his father and his cousin, we understand how he gets to this breaking point when Double-G shorts him on the money and then laughs at (and gut punches) him. Ziggy has always bottled up his anger, and has always been prone to rash decisions (fighting Maui, buying the duck), and with a gun in his hand(*), he makes another one that he can't undo. The duck's not coming back, but nobody really cares about the duck. George Glekas, on the other hand? Ziggy has to answer for that, and he knows it, and in one final understandably screwed-up decision, Ziggy embraces the deed, so long as the official record makes it sound like Glekas was the coward begging for his life, and Ziggy was the bad, bad man who put him down.

(*) A gun that, as I pointed out in the previous veterans edition, he was only in a position to buy because Double-G wouldn't front him some cash for the theft and Ziggy had to go pawn the duck's necklace.

I don't know that James Ransone ever got the credit he deserved for being so convincing as such a deliberately irritating character(**). But watch a scene like Ziggy struggling to light his cigarette, or an empty Ziggy giving a disbelieving Jay Landsman exactly what he needs because there's no point in fighting the tide, and you can see that this is one of the most indelible performances of the season, if not the series.

(**) Though his work in "Generation Kill" as chatterbox Ray Person seemed to help. I remember reading a lot of "I had no idea this guy was a good actor" comments last summer.

Ziggy's rampage is the most noteworthy event in "Storm Warnings," but the episode as a whole is incredibly busy, moving the plot along more than in the previous weeks combined. It's so busy, in fact, that it opens with a quasi-break from the show's usual rules about music and editing, as we see the detail's investigation take several leaps forward in a montage scored to Johnny Cash's "Walk the Line." Because Prez puts that song on his portable stereo at the start of the montage, and because the montage is depicting the various developments that Prez is logging on the case board, it's more bending the rules than breaking them. But as with most seasons of the show, you get the sense that David Simon and Ed Burns are more interested in setting up the plot than in actually showing the plot -- that it's more important to them, from a character and a thematic perspective, to show the growing pains of a project than to dwell on the period when things are working smoothly -- which is why we get an episode like this nearly every season. And at times, so much is happening that a montage is the only way to show it all.

Yet "Storm Warnings" never feels especially rushed. We still linger on Ziggy's dazed point of view as he stumbles out of Double-G's shop, still get the long pause as Lester and Bunk jokingly stare down the feds, still get to hear Brother Mouzone deliver his whole Dirty Harry monologue to Cheese, still get to see Nick and Prissy Catlow getting drunk at the playground and crying as they swap Ziggy stories.

To fit all of this in - in terms of both time and tone - Burns and director Rob Bailey take more stylistic liberties than we usually get on a series where each episode more or less looks and feels like every other. In addition to the Johnny Cash montage, Ziggy's stumble back to his car is shot in an impressionist style where the series usually strives for documentary realism, and the playground scene feels oddly stage-bound, as if Nick and Prissy had briefly wandered into a Tennessee Williams play. I'm enough of a "Wire" purist to note the departures from the usual form, but not enough of one to be irked that this episode features so many of them.

After all, what show other than "The Wire" could end an episode with the good guys furiously typing even as we see the bad guys destroying most of the evidence our heroes are trying to obtain?

Some other thoughts on "Storm Warnings":

• Because "The Wire" loves its parallel structures, "Storm Warnings" offers us a second surprise explosion from a dorky supporting character, as Prez clocks Valchek in front of Daniels, Lester and half the Baltimore FBI field office. As with Ziggy, Prez's outburst has been a long time in coming - we've seen from the second scene of the season premiere that Valchek has no interest in listening to what his son-in-law thinks about policework - and while the result of this one isn't quite as permanent as what Ziggy does to Double-G, we know from this season that Stan Valchek is a man who knows how to hold - and pursue - a grudge.

• And how hilarious is that shot of Lance Reddick's eyes bugging out at the sight of Prez's punch? For that matter, is there a phrase on this show, other than McNulty's "What the f--k did I do?," that comes up as often, and in so many different and amusing circumstances, as hearing Daniels seething as he utters the words "Detective, my office"?

• There were some complaints in the last review that Brother Mouzone's arrival gave the series one larger-than-life character too many, and his assault on Cheese - which, again, is an homage to the most iconic scene of Clint Eastwood's career - certainly keeps him operating on a different frequency of reality than anyone on the show other than Omar.

• And speaking of Omar, we not only learn that he's tight with Blind Butchie, who operates as Omar's bank, but that Prop Joe is aware of this relationship and wants to use it to deal with the Brother Mouzone problem.

• Brother Mouzone is played by Michael Potts, one of many "Wire" actors who's so memorable in the role (and was so unknown to me beforehand) that it becomes impossible for me to see him in another role (say, on "Flight of the Conchords" as Joseph Saladou, the one Nigerian on the Internet whose request for money isn't a scam) without immediately flashing on him lecturing Cheese about the "copper-jacketed hollow point 120 grain hot streak load of my own creation." Also, Mouzone's sidekick Lamar is played by DeAndre McCullough, who was one of the main characters of Simon and Burns' non-fiction epic "The Corner." (Sean Nelson played him in "The Corner" miniseries.)

• Prissy is played by Merritt Wever, currently one of the funniest people on television as nurse-in-training Zoey on Showtime's "Nurse Jackie."

Coming up next: "Bad Dreams," the penultimate episode of season two, which means two things: George Pelecanos on script, and a whole lotta tragedy. Hopefully, we can stay on the Friday schedule for these final few weeks.

What did everybody else think?


Unknown said...

I think of this episode as "the end of Ziggy." For me he was one of the most unforgettable characters of the entire show.

The Mouzon character continues to bother me for some reason, it's not exactly clear why. Perhaps because some of the others are so perfectly life-like, the guys in the bar for example, but that Mouzon seemed more of a caraciture.

Prez's exit from the Police Department was pretty cool too. I found it to be absolutely credible and lifelike, his explosion, his father-in-laws shock and outrage and the others' reactions.

Brilliant stuff.

Crcala said...

Alan, thank you so much for these recaps!

I felt so bad for Ziggy in this episode after he killed Double G. Even though he irritated me as a character, like you I felt for how he's always been the butt of a joke. The scene with him at the police station talking to Landsman, completely broken, really got me--I admit I felt more sympathy for Ziggy than Double G.

Jon said...

"That," he said, "was like a Springsteen song come to life."

I feel like season 2 of "The Wire" is basically like a TV season long adaptation of "Nebraska."

Calvin Cleary said...

Mouzon doesn't really bother me - he doesn't fit in, but neither, in a lot of ways, does Omar.

Makes me sad that there won't be a newbie look at season 3 for me, since I hope to finish it this week... if my library can keep up with me on it! This show has moved up to #1 on the List of Things I'll Buy When I Have A Real Job

femmeperdue said...

Is it weird that, in some ways, I find a parallel between Ziggy and Wallace? The fact that both are just kids trying to act like men; that both cause me to sigh "Oh, Wallace/Ziggy" so many times; that a sad ending seemed almost inevitable given their circumstances and choices? But that in the end they both break your heart a little? Maybe I'm just a softy that way....

anakzaman said...

What Ziggy did shows the strength of The Wire. In the 9 episodes before I knew that Ziggy will eventually burst, that he will do the stupidest thing. But when he did shoot GG, I was still suprised and still thought "Holy crap!" even though I was expecting him to do something like that.

Other TV series (Lost, Heroes, Prison Break, etc) do cliffhangers better than The Wire. But you watch the next episode because you don't know what is going to happen. Whereas with The Wire you know what is going to happen, but you want to know how it is going to happen.

It continues like that as the series continues (I'm currently in Season 4 after a marathon of 10 episodes over the weekend) but it never made the next episode feel predictable or unrealistic.

Anonymous said...

I understood completely why Ziggy went into the store with the gun, but I still don't get why he just gave up and took the rap. It seems unlikely that he'd want to end up in prison getting treated much worse than he ever did on the outside.

Btw, I started watching Season 1 in early July. Thanks to the delay between ep 9 and ep 10 recaps, I'm four eps into Season 5, so I'll be joining the veterans soon. But keep up the good work - these newbie posts are great encouragement for someone just getting into the show.

Karen said...

Alan, I know exactly what you meant about the staginess of the scene on the roundabout, but what struck me was how Nicky and Prissy talked about Ziggy as if he were dead. The degree of Nicky's sorrow (aggravated, admittedly, by guilt over his own involvement with Ziggy and the Greeks) was so intense, and the reminiscences were the kind people turn to after a funeral. And it struck me that with, say, the Barksdale crew, getting pinched for murder and going to prison is a rite of passage, or a duty, or just a cost of doing business, but for the Sobotkas, it's an epic tragedy. It further points up the difference between the Barksdale crew, who are stone criminals, in the life, and the stevedores, who are blue collar working guys who are doing some crooked stuff on the side.

Before I started watching this show (i.e., last week), I'd heard that each of the 5 seasons had a different setting. I was expecting a kind of reboot each season, with only the cops staying the same, and never seeing the previous seasons' characters again. So I was pleased to see the projects' story continue through this season, and began to wonder if the cast would just continue to open out, cumulatively, as the seasons went on. And now I see that it has to happen that way, because none of these groups exist in a vacuum,nor could they be presented that way. Last season's group cast light on this one's, and this one's cast light on the previous. All entwined, interdependent.

It's just....epic.

Unknown said...

Ziggy hands down flipped the script totally! The first time I watched this I felt this was a dream sequence, but then I realized it was the end of this misunderstood man. I know some may disagree, but this reminds me of the Columbine shooting. The kids who never fit in, who prove a point which is actually pointless. I hated the character of Ziggy, although James Ransome was excellent. In conclusion, I never was a fan of Johnny Cash, but after watching this episode I have downloaded it and every time I hear it I think of Prezbo!

Danny H. said...

ALan- I don't understand your first(*). Why did Ziggy need a gun and where did he get it? Why wouldn't he have had a gun if fronted the money?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Ziggy bought the gun at the pawnshop, while there to hock the duck's diamond necklace, because Double-G wouldn't front him some of the cash from the robbery. If Double-G gives him some money upfront, Ziggy never goes to the pawnshop, doesn't notice the gun and buy it, and therefore isn't in a position to murder Double-G and destroy his own life as a result.

Stefani said...

You know, my interpretation of Ziggy changing "saying" to "begging" in his statement was his way of emphasizing the gravity of his crime -- owning up to what he did. Because Ziggy had not just killed a man, he had killed a man who was literally begging him for his life. I didn't interpret it as Ziggy trying to show that big-bully Grekas was just a coward at the end of it all.

But that's just me...

Anonymous said...

this episode and the next turned this season around for me.

mcnulty, a character that i find shares a similar character as me, began to frustrate me this season. why he was so cheerfully playing with those prostitutes, when he was so obviously concerned with their situation earlier in the season? and i have trouble seeing the darkness in avon, that i see in stringer; i think that stringer is a brilliant character because, like bodie, he rings true. yes, his business class endeavours do stretch the realism in my eyes, but that man is cold. i've met men like stringer - drug dealers even, who are just as icy. you have to, to be in that game. that's basically what it comes down to for me: i want to believe in the characters and plot, and for the most part i do. when valchek is in such a tunnel-vision for frank as to be a caricature, for example, that bothers me. what a fool that valchek is though - i love to hate that guy.

that being said (phew!) i thought that this and the next episode were close to brilliant. ziggy's character was grating on me, and grating on me, but watching what happened to ziggy was so tragic, and so moving, i can see exactly why his actions were so explicit in the previous episodes. that was some amazing television.

i havn't started season 3 yet, but i hope we see more bubbles, so we can learn a bit more about his history, and why he is such a wise character.

mridley2 said...

Alan, Thanks again for your newbies recap. I'm continuing my journey through Season 2.

I'm surprised that you didn't mention the continued incompetence of Herc & Carver staking out the diner. I thought it was an ironic touch that once again they're too busy bickering over fries to notice Vondas walking out of the diner soon after the "shut down immediately" command on the phone. Luckily Mcnulty and Bunk caught him at the port.

And of course Herc & Carver are scamming again this season though we have only seen clear evidence of that once with the CI pay off though I wouldn't be surprised if they were not pilfering off money along the way.

This weekend hopefully I'll have time to finish Season 2.

Wayne and Kristi said...

Love, love these recaps!! I agree with everything that has been said, but thought I would comment on one little nuance. When the FBI guys first came to Daniels' office (after having been sent there by Valchek), I thought I saw an initial wide-eyed look of fear on Daniels' face, which I figured was because of his background with the money thing and the prior FBI investigation. Nothing was said about it, so this might just be me, but it seemed like it was there. I just thought it was great subtle acting work. (And I am a newbie so don't spoil what happens with that story later, if any!!!)

DeanFH said...

Nobody will read this probably, but I have to say something regardless.

After all the humiliation Ziggy went through, all the past actions of trying to fit in with the 'men', all the jokes on him, and on and on, I couldn't help but picture (at the end of the episode) James Ransone's character on Generation Kill, Ray Person, stating to Brad Colbert: "Look at me Brad, I'm a men now, just ilke you!"

Maybe that was a subtle homage and a slight nod from James Ransone to Ziggy's character. So sad...