Friday, August 21, 2009

The Wire, Season 2, Episode 11: "Bad Dreams" (Newbies edition)

Almost to the finish line on "The Wire" season two, folks. As always, we're going to look back in two slightly different versions: one for the people who are watching the show at roughly the same pace I'm writing about it and don't want to be spoiled on what comes down the road, and one for people who have watched the entire series and want to be able to talk about all of it. This is the newbie version; click here for the veteran edition.

Spoilers for "Bad Dreams" coming up just as soon as you get me two hot dogs and a strawberry soda...
"You know what the trouble is, Brucie? We used to make s--t in this country. Build s--t. Now we just put our hand in the next guy's pocket." -Frank Sobotka
When we get to this point of each season of "The Wire," I tend to rail a lot against the screenwriting crimes committed by George Pelecanos. In season one, he killed off Wallace. Here, he sends Frank Sobotka walking to his apparent doom. In later seasons... well, you veterans are probably already cringing in memory of what Pelecanos did to your favorites.

But it's reductive to single out these penultimate/Pelecanos episodes just because they often (but not always) feature the deaths of beloved characters. Yes, the deaths hit, and they hit hard, but all the non-lethal parts of them hit nearly as hard. This is the point in each season where things that had often seemed like intellectual abstractions start to take on emotional heft - when you see how much misplaced faith Nick has put into his relationship with Vondas, when you see Beadie smile at a job well done in tailing Vondas to his hotel room, when Frank nails Bruce and the state of the American industrial economy to the wall with the line I quoted above.

David Simon likes to compare each season of "The Wire" to a novel, and Pelecanos' episodes always have the sensation of reading the last 70 or 80 pages of a really good thriller - one like, say Pelecanos' own "The Turnaround" or "The Sweet Forever." What may have taken a long time to read in the early going now flies by. You know the players, the conflicts, the stakes, and now you just want to see what happens next, and whether people come to the end you want for them or not(*). So some of the power of these episodes tends to come from their position in the season, but it also comes from the fact that Pelecanos is really, really good at this. Simon has said that in season one, several of the big moments that wound up in Pelecanos' "Cleaning Up" were originally going to be in the Simon-written finale, but George's take on them was so strong that Simon let him handle it.

(*) What's funny is that, for all the talk - including by me - about how Pelecanos and Simon are such kindred literary spirits, his books on average tend to be more optimistic than "The Wire." They're operating on a much smaller scale than what the show is doing - "Drama City," for instance, is what a season of "The Wire" would be like if it were only about Cutty - and not everyone's story turns out as well as they deserve, but the success rate is generally higher, and the overt bad guys (as opposed to the systemic problems) tend to get bumped off in the end. Pelecanos is always much more brutal to Simon's characters than he allows himself to be to his own.

Obviously, the killer sequence here comes at the very end, as Frank's fate is irrevocably changed during the long walk from his truck to where The Greek and Vondas are standing. It's a testament to how well the series has trained its audience that Pelecanos' script and Ernest Dickerson's direction can mine so much tension from a point of view montage of a fax being sent, transferred by mail cart to a secretary, and entered into a computer.

There are shows that try to get a lot of mileage out of springing surprises on their audience - only giving them a small part of the story so their minds can be blown when they find out the whole truth. "The Wire" rarely operates that way. Like the Greek dramas Simon likes to talk about, it tends to lay out everything that's going to happen well before it happens. It doesn't cheat, doesn't hide. It turns you into an omniscient observer of this world, and then it drives you crazy because you know how badly things are going to go, and when you see characters who don't know as much as you do. There are so many moments in "Bad Dreams" alone where I wanted to scream (or have screamed) at the screen, trying to warn characters about fates that in my head I know are unavoidable.

I want to tell Omar not to trust Stringer. I want to scream for Kima to pay attention to the old man in the sweater walking past her in the parking garage. I want to tell Ronnie to not let Sobotka leave the detail office under any circumstance, even if that would require Herc and Carver to entertain him with a song-and-dance number while they waited for Frank's lawyer to show up. And you know I shouted like hell the first time I saw Frank walk toward The Greek, even as I knew the info in Fitz's fax was slowly, inexorably making its way to Agent Koutris' computer.

But it's a TV show, not an interactive experience. Ronnie can't hear me any more than Stan Valchek can listen to reason, and so Frank walks out of the detail office and into the hands of a couple of ruthless international gangsters.


I like that even in this episode, even as Frank is being set up for what looks like a permanent fall, the show allows him the depth that marks him as one of the more complicated characters in the show's history. As Rafael Alvarez said in his comments about "Backwash," "Frank Sobotka was a very smart man who often mistook his heart for his brain." And so the show is allowed to admire Frank's ends - as it does when he puts in a hard day's work in place of Little Big Roy, and as it does when he gives Bruce a piece of his mind - even as Louis Sobotka is invited to cut right through all of Frank's self-rationalizations, and to tell him that trying to save the union doesn't justify turning Louis' son into a drug dealer. (Imagine how angry Louis would be if he knew about the role his brother played in the deaths of the Jane Does.)

An incredible performance throughout the hour, and the season, by Chris Bauer as Sobotka. He's gotten more post-"Wire" work (including his current stint on "True Blood") than someone like Larry Gilliard, but none of those parts have been as rich, as complicated, or as compelling as Frank.

As we did at this point in season one, we see the case coming together, but not as strongly as it should be. Ziggy not only killed off Double-G, he gave The Greek advance warning to clean out both the warehouse and electronics store - the latter because Jay Landsman was too tunnel-visioned to alert Lt. Daniels, or secure the scene, or do anything that might have led the detail closer to those 14 open murders. (To Landsman's credit, he at least recognizes how badly he screwed the pooch, where he wasn't quite as remorseful when he failed to alert Jimmy about a Barksdale-connected murder in season one.) They had Frank in the office, ready and willing to cooperate, but they let him go because Ronnie wasn't stubborn enough to tell Frank to call a lawyer then and there. And thus far, the only person in custody who seems willing to talk is White Mike, who probably wouldn't recognize The Greek any more than Kima did.

It'd be enough to make you cry... if, that is, "The Wire" hadn't already told you that tears won't be enough.

Some other thoughts on "Bad Dreams":

• The other major story of the episode pits our two larger-than-life bad-asses against each other, as Omar buys into Stringer's story and goes after Brother Mouzone, only to realize that the gut-shot man calmly praying to his deity couldn't possibly be the same one who tortured and mutilated Brandon. Though if Omar is savvy enough to see this, why would he believe Stringer in the first place? Butchie could smell something off about things when Joe approached him in the previous episode, and it's not like Stringer didn't have a previous face-to-face opportunity to share this information with Omar.

• The recap of this episode takes a literal reading of Ziggy's line about how "the same blood don't flow for us, pop" and suggests that Ziggy is letting Frank know that he knows they're not biological father and son. But there have been enough mistakes in various recaps on that site over the years (on this show and on "The Sopranos") that I don't take them as gospel, and I always viewed that as a metaphor; Frank is Ziggy's father, but Ziggy inherited none of his father's abilities or temperament. Either way, a haunting scene from both Bauer and James Ransone, particularly when Frank has to watch his son walk back into the holding pen and realizes he can't protect the kid anymore from the awful fate he's trapped in. (And it's a fate that Frank set up, by putting Ziggy's cousin and best friend in business with The Greek in the first place.)

• Though nobody on the detail recognizes The Greek (they assume the man in the fancy suit must be the boss), it's still a pleasure to watch Beadie successfully tail Vondas - and, almost as importantly, to see that Bunk and the others trust her to do it. As The Bunk says, she has come a really long way from the clock-puncher we met at the start of the season.

• While The Greek seems to be utterly without emotional attachments (making him more like Stringer), it's interesting to see that number two man Vondas is (like Avon) capable of letting business be complicated by his affection for certain underlings, in this case through his odd surrogate father relationship with Nick.

• Don't blink or you'll miss David Simon as one of the reporters out for Sobotka's perp walk. He's the one shouting out, "Is it just you or is it the whole union?"

• Even amid the tragedy of this one, we get some good nickname-related humor, including Sergei lamenting, "Why always Boris?" and more wacky stevedore nicknames like Big Roy (a small guy) and Little Big Roy (a huge guy).

Coming up next: The season comes to an end with "Port in a Storm," as the detail tries to put a charge on Vondas and The Greek, while Stringer has to deal with the mess he made with Brother Mouzone.

In theory, you'll see that review a week from today. But, as mentioned in several other posts this week, I'm going to be taking some vacation days next week (and will be away for all of the following week), so no promises. Worst comes to worst, you'll get it sometime during that week after Labor Day, when I'll be back at work full-time.

What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

Too stunned.

Poor Frank.

Dan said...

This episode was absolutely stunning. It had everything great I've come to expect from the Wire - great performances, terrifying inevitabilities and Omar. I've already seen next weeks episode and I have to say, this episode is a rather perfect set-up.

Calvin Cleary said...

Was anyone else holding their breath the ENTIRE time Beadie was following Vondas?

Also - holy crap. This was a stellar hour of television.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Was anyone else holding their breath the ENTIRE time Beadie was following Vondas?

see? This is why I love the newbue perspective. All I feel now, years later, is pride that Beadie is doing so well. But the first time, I'm sure I was scared for her.

emilyhall said...

Hello there--I just started season 3 tonight, and have been reading along with you as I go. Thank you so much for all these posts.

This season felt to me like Greek tragedy because of how the characters are driven forward by temperament, to such a degree that it feels like fate. They can't act otherwise, like Oedipus driven by his temper, leading him to kill a stranger at a crossroads. Sobotka, especially--who never enjoys the fruits of his crime, because it's all for loyalty, for something that's not even necessarily good for the union--a phenomenal character. So when Ziggy says they're not of the same blood, I think he's talking about some other substance, something Sophocles would have recognized.

Girl Detective said...

What makes the Wire work for me is that while I am holding my breath, or yelling at the screen, or peeking at it through diamond fingers, I always feel like whatever is happening has to happen that way--it's inevitable or fated. Given that it's fiction, and thus theoretically always open to possibility, this shows me how good the writing, characters, and story all are.

I've been wondering, and figure it's probably out there somewhere, but a quick search didn't turn up the significance of Nick's pi tattoo on the back of his neck. It seems like a strange symbol for a dock worker.

femmeperdue said...

Between Beadie, the fax scene, and Frank's walk to the Greek, I don't think I took a breath during the entire last hour! Man....

Karen said...

I'm still gobsmacked that Landsman didn't pick up on the name Sobotka when he was interrogating Ziggy.

Frank's long walk towards Vondas and the Greek, while Ronnie's proffer popped up on Koutris' screen, had me in tears. The mournful Greek music didn't help, that's for sure (my ex-husband was born and raised on the island of Kefalonia, and Greek music still makes me a little sentimental). That scene was a killer, and just seeing the screenshot at the top of this post set me off again.

I knew, before Bruce ever walked through the door, that Frank's arrest would mean the end of the grain pier and the canal dredging, and the irony of his attempts to make those things happen and save the union men's way of life being what could drive the final nail in their coffin was just heartbreaking.

Everyone's mentioning Greek tragedy so much that it seems almost cliched to say that it felt that way to me, too--but it sure did. The fatal flaws, the hubris, the inevitability of doom--it's all right there. Stunning to see it done so well.

Oh, and it never even entered my mind that Ziggy's comment about his and Frank's blood implied illegitimacy. No, no, this was part of Ziggy's recognition that his life HAS been as the punchline to everyone's joke, while his father's--however crooked--has always been in pursuit of some larger ideal. They have the same just doesn't flow the same. A terrible thing for a child to come to face.

yoda said...

That was one of the most powerful and bleak hours of television I've watched (on DVD). It reminded me of the episode in season 1 when the detail makes the arrests, and McNulty says something like, "This isn't as fun as I thought it would be." I found the scene where Frank asks Nick what they want from him, and Nick says "loyalty" to be devastating. The anguish you imagine Frank feeling--he wants to help his son, he just offered to be an informant, what if the Greeks could help?--Frank is trapped. And then the music begins again. Terrible! I'm excited for but also dreading season 3. (and thanks for these very helpful newbie posts. I read them religiously.)

Abdul said...

Awww birdsh-t

Frank Sobotka died.

Thanks for these. I'm a The Wire newbie and these help a lot.

That Beadie-tailing-Vondas scene was intense. The whole time, I remember Beadie being so clueless in the second episode, the same episode where Vondas slits a man's throat without hesitation.


Pete said...

@Girl Detective

i like that he always goes to see 'the greek' and pi is a greek symbol.

RD said...

I think what Ziggy was referring to when he said "the same blood don't flow for us, pop" was that, him, frank and nick are all "good" people and are not cold blooded murderers. That, frank, nick and ziggy are not criminals. And so when he's explaining to his father that "it made him sick when he realized what he done" was him telling his father that they arent like the Greeks.

Kevin said...

I am making my way through the complete series on DVD after much coaxing by friends. I did the same thing with The Sopranos (no HBO), and came to appreciate Alan's insights regarding that show. Love The Wire rewind newbie edition. Good work.

@RD: pretty sure that Ziggy is talking about him and and Frank. I seem to recall him saying something along the lines of "I wish it did, but it doesn't." in regards to the blood. Frank is larger than life -- even Ziggy's comments about Frank's absence aren't cast derisively, but instead with an air of near reverence. His dad is larger than life. A beloved figure in the union and on the docks, and Ziggy knows he never will be that guy.

Sean said...

I agree with everyone. Tremendous episode. I, too, felt intense fear for Beadie as she tailed Vondas, particularly when she had to get the number on the hotel door. Thought she'd be caught for sure. If I had a complaint, it's that I knew Frank wouldn't make it to "the next morning" when his lawyer would be present. As soon as Ronnie set that up, I told my wife he ain't making it to that appointment. But it was interesting to see how destiny would keep him from his destination. Can't wait to wrap it up and dive into Season 3.

SgtJohn said...

This is my first post here, but I couldn't keep reading without thanking Alan for these wonderful newbie posts. I read your recap for many current shows, but to go back and do this for the greatest show ever...just thanks.

These last 2 episodes have been so extraordinarily heartbreaking, and at the same time weirdly satisfying in terms of screenplay, I really get now all these comparisons with greek (no pun intended!) tragedy.

I could keep going for pages about my love for this show, but it's all been said, hasn't it?
So I'll mention what's a small blemish, for me, the 'deus ex machina' that is agent Koutris. First, the fact that he seems to call the Greek directly from his work phone seems absolutely unbelievable. Working for a company that handles moderately sensitive economic information, I know how far the IT goes to monitor and store every communication on the company networks... This guy works for the FBI! Even with regularly changing phone numbers on the Greek's side, this seems like a foolish risk to take.
I don't know enough about federal law enforcement to judge the realism here, but if we believe Simon, apparently having ONE man inside the FBI makes your organization pretty much bulletproof, all bases covered.
Then again I've only watched up till this particular episode, but even if it turns out not to be invincible, it had been pretty close to it for years and years.

Anonymous said...

I think Vondas watched Beadie through the peephole as she walked by the door. I was thinking, just walk up far enough to get the room number.

Anonymous said...

The Pi symbol on Nick's neck is probably a preexisting tattoo the actor Pablo Schreiber had/has. Pi for P for Pablo. I assumed that the audience was just left to figure on there being some personal explanation for Nick having it -- simply unoffered to the watcher.