Monday, August 4, 2008

he Wire, Season 1, Episode 9: "Game Day" (Veterans edition)

n case you missed it -- and, judging by the minimal comments, I'm guessing many of you did -- I decided to double up on "The Wire" reviews this week in order to get back on schedule. (If you didn't see 'em, here are the Veteran and Newbie editions of the review for episode 8, "Lessons.")

Same drill as usual. We're revisiting season one in two editions: one for people who have never watched the show before and don't want future episodes (or seasons) spoiled for them, one for people who have watched from first episode to last. This is the latter; scroll down for a newbie-safe zone.

Spoilers for episode 9, "Game Day," coming up just as soon as I put on my sun visor...

"I just don't wanna play. Don't wanna play no more." -Wallace

"Game Day" lives up to its name with all kinds of games being played -- or not being played -- by most of our characters.

There's obviously The Game itself, and this week both Wallace and Bubbs express a desire to stop playing it. By getting high to blot out the guilt over Brandon's death, of course, all Wallace is doing is becoming a different kind of player. Bubbles, after nearly dying over what turned out to be a burn bag, seems to be taking the wiser route by crashing with his understandably wary sister.

Then there's the game that Lester teaches Prez and Sydnor how to play, the scavenger hunt (as Prez aptly describes it) wherein they try to track down all of Avon's assets, as well as any contributions he might have made to politicians like Clay Davis. We got a hint of how a game like this might end last week when Burrell ordered Daniels to give back the money they took off of Day-Day Price, and Daniels doesn't look like he particularly wants to keep playing, either, even though he knows he has no choice.

The most obvious game, of course, is the annual West side vs. East side hoops contest, with an Avon-backed team going up against a bunch of guys supported by Avon's biggest rival, the very old (by standards of The Game), very wise (ibid), very sneaky (op cit) Proposition Joe Stewart. It gives me no end of pleasure to watch actor Robert F. Chew work as Prop Joe, but the real fun of the basketball story is the humanity it gives to Avon. Yes, he's a drug lord, and a killer, and he's not above cheating even at something as relatively small-time as a basketball game. (He just isn't as good a cheater as Prop Joe.) But he also has genuine pride for his neighborhood, can be very funny ("You can't even read a playbook! Be for real!") and does appear to hold some rules and roles to be sacred. Witness his tirade at the ref over the decisive non-call at the end of the game. Avon is furious at what he believes to be sloppy officiating, but he gets even angrier when the guy's terrified reaction makes it clear that he thinks Avon might kill him over it. That sort of thing's just not done, even by someone as cold and ruthless as Avon, and so instead he yells at the guy for not having the guts and referee-like demeanor to get right back in his face.

And the basketball game in turn leads to a game of hide-and-seek, as Daniels and the other guys in the detail attempt to get their first good look at the target. It's an exercise in futility; not only is Avon too good to get caught by them (love him wagging his finger at Daniels as he rolls by in the opposite direction; as I learned when I saw him play Jimi Hendrix a few years before this, Wood Harris has some of the most expressive fingers in the business), but, as McNulty explains to Prez, there's no value in it. They're not going to catch Avon doing anything remotely illegal, certainly not right after such a public appearance, and so all they accomplish is to remind Avon to be careful about police surveillance.

As I've written a few times before, Avon -- and Stringer, for that matter -- doesn't have as much screen time as you would expect given that the show is devoting an entire season to them as the detail's target, but episodes like this one give him enough stature that he has a presence even in others where he doesn't appear that much. And Jimmy's assessment of Avon -- "You know what they say: stupid criminals make stupid cops. I'm proud to be chasing this guy." -- and his dispassionate approach to him reminds you that, to Jimmy, this entire detail is little more than a game to him.

Meanwhile, Omar continues to show off his own playful side, disrupting Barksdale business in as loud and colorful a manner as possible. Last time, he whistled "Farmer in the Dell" while shooting at Stinkum and Wee-Bey; here, he threatens the crew at the Pit (minus D, Bodie, Poot or anybody else recognizable; they must have been on a food run) with "Y'all need to open this door before I huff and puff!"

But Omar's game turns deadly serious when he makes an overt play for Avon outside of Orlando's, inadvertently supporting his own argument from last week that "You come at the king, you best not miss." Given how pathologically careful we know Avon to be, Omar's not going to get such an open look the next time, will he? And Stringer's probably not going to have so easy a time telling Avon to be patient with Omar, either.

Some other thoughts on "Game Day":

-When Kima picked Shardene's face out of the photo array last week as a potential witness to turn, she had no idea how on the money her instincts were. Not only is Shardene as moral and malleable as she and Lester had hoped, but they find out that she's been dating D'Angelo -- and that she's not immune to Lester's charms.

-Getting back to the property scavenger hunt, that montage is something that doesn't exactly fit with the series' house style, but I imagine it was the only way to make Lester's long explanation about corporate charters palatable for the audience. Even nine hours into a show that has made it clear it expects you to think about what you're watching, that speech is asking a lot of the viewer. The upside is that, when we see cops in the future try to follow the money trail (and it's not a spoiler for the newbies to say that money trails will be followed in the future), we're now relative experts on this unglamorous type of policework, and so the show doesn't have to spend much time explaining what's happening.

-Along similar lines, because the show has spent so much time explaining the rules governing the wiretap, it then allows for scenes about what happens when the cops bend or break those rules, like Jimmy pretending Sydnor monitored the call about the stash house, or Herc and Carver's eavesdropping of Poot's phone sex leading to a tip on Wallace that they shouldn't be allowed to use.

-I don't know if the homage is intentional or not, but Prop Joe's tactic of keeping his ringer on the bench for the first half so he can jack up the wager at halftime reminded me a lot of the football game from "M*A*S*H" the movie, where Hawkeye and Trapper deliberately keep Spearchucker Jones out of the game long enough to inflate the rival coach's confidence. The guys in the 4077th have less respect for the sanctity of the game than Avon, though, as they wind up neutralizing the other team's ringer through less-than-legal means.

And now let's talk about how events in "Game Day" will ripple throughout the rest of the season and the series. In terms of foreshadowing, this is a good one:

-As mentioned above, Lester is going to keep chasing the money trail, season after season, and will always get shut down before getting far enough. The last time will be his own fault, of course; without his and Jimmy's shenanigans, Ronnie could have used Maury Levy to finally get at the cash.

-Bubbs' sister is right to be nervous about him. When we see her again at the start of season five, she reminds him that the last time she let him attempt to get clean under her roof (presumably this time), he eventually went upstairs and pawned her silverware. Seeing these scenes in light of what happens in season five makes them a little less painful, and in turn makes those later scenes more rewarding. Bubbs' eventual victory is that much sweeter for seeing how close he came once before.

-In hindsight, it's obvious that the seeds are being planted here for Shardene to wind up with Lester, but was it that apparent at the time? I remember being more surprised when we find out in a few episodes that they've hooked up, but I'm admittedly clueless about romantic signals sometimes.

-The fans who didn't like Marlo point to episodes like this one as an example of why Avon was a more interesting character. Marlo was all about The Game and wearing the crown, while Avon had more of a personality and outside interests. I would argue that this contrast is what made Marlo so fascinating; he was a generation younger than Avon, and several generations scarier. Marlo had no interest in geographic loyalty and likely wouldn't have cared about this basketball game, but had he gotten sucked in somehow, the ref would have been very justified in fearing for his life. One thing both drug lords have in common: their refusal to be patient when it comes to getting revenge on Omar Little.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 8: "Lessons" (Veterans edition)

Okay, in an attempt to get these season one review of "The Wire" back on schedule and hopefully finished before Labor Day, I'm going to try to double up here and there. So we'll get one review today, and another one in the regularly-scheduled Friday morning timeslot. Not sure yet if I'll double up again next week or a little down the road, as I also intend to take a vacation at some point in August, but we'll get this done close to on time or your money back.

As usual, we're going to do this in two versions: one for people who are new to the series, one for folks who have seen every episode from first to last. This is the latter; scroll down for a version where you can safely read about and discuss only these early episodes.

Spoilers for episode eight, "Lessons," coming up just as soon as I teach my daughter how to front-and-follow...

One of the dominant themes of "The Wire" is the tremendous waste that the drug culture has created in inner-city America. Men and women who might have otherwise gone on to great things -- or, at least, to something resembling the middle-class lifestyle familiar to the majority of the show's audience -- are either deprived of opportunity, or else seduced away from those opportunities, by life on the corner.

Look at the moment where one of the abandoned kids in Wallace and Poot's care asks Wallace for help with his math homework. It's a fairly simple, culturally-relevant word problem about the number of passengers on a city bus, and yet the kid has no idea in how to solve it, or much interest in trying. Yet when Wallace translates the problem in terms of keeping the count on the stash, the kid gets it quickly. Math as a concept is an abstraction that has no real place in his world, but getting the count right? Do it or risk a beating.

And in this episode, Simon and Burns establish Stringer Bell as either the greatest example of this wasted potential, or perhaps the greatest counter-example. Maybe both.

Where Wallace's young charge can only relate to the world at large when it's placed in a drug context, we discover in "Lessons" that Stringer is trying to master the drug world by using knowledge gleaned from the real world. We already had a sense from earlier chapters (notably when Stringer and Avon discussed their plans to take over the Edmonson corner, where Omar kills Stinkum near the end of this episode) that Stringer had more business savvy than your average TV druglord. But the idea that he takes macroeconomics courses at the local community college, or that he insists on running his copy business as a real business and not simply as a front? That's the genius of Stringer Bell, and of the show. In another life, Stringer could have gotten a job on Wall Street, but in this one, he applies principles like elastic vs. inelastic products to catering to West Baltimore's dope fiend population.

There's a very interesting moment late in the episode, after Stinkum's death, where Stringer tries to caution Avon about seeking immediate retribution on Omar. Avon's head is in The Game, where you don't let something like this slide, or even appear to slide, or risk losing face. Stringer's approaching the problem from a more calculated point of view -- his plan still ends with Omar being killed -- but you can also see on his face that he's done a mental cost-benefit analysis of the entire Omar affair and is starting to wonder whether the stick-up man is worth all the trouble.

"Lessons" also establishes that there's more of a connection between the real world and the drug world than Stringer's college classes, as the detail picks up Day-Day Price -- driver for state senator Clay Davis -- with a trash bag full of cash handed to him by one of Avon's soldiers. We don't know yet why a state senator is accepting cash from a local drug lord, and thanks to Deputy Ops Burrell, we may never know. It's worth noting that Burrell's reaction to this development in the case doesn't automatically suggest that Burrell himself is corrupt, just that he's politically astute enough to know that no good can likely come to the department from messing with the business of an influential politician. Regardless of his motivation, Daniels appears to be just as screwed with Burrell as McNulty is with Rawls; if the two of them could stand each other's company, maybe they could hoist a beer over the irony of that.

Of course, Jimmy gets plenty of drinking in with The Bunk in this episode, and Bunk sums up his partner and friend in one devastating sentence: "You're no good for people, man." McNulty has been set up as our protagonist, and is played by the exceedingly likable Dominic West, but by the end of this episode -- by the end of this run of episodes -- it's obvious that The Bunk ain't wrong. Jimmy asking his sons to tail Stringer is the sort of thing that seems practical and amusing to him but is an even bigger parental breach than bringing the boys with Omar to the morgue a few episodes back. And he screws over Ray Cole in order to protect both the wire and Bunk's own murder case, big picture decisions that might be more palatable if he had the guts to be honest with Cole about it. I know Jimmy's afraid of the wrath of Rawls, but own your actions, man. Please.

I'll give Jimmy credit for this, at least: when Omar leaves the detail office free and clear, having made it quite obvious (without ever coming out and saying it) that he killed Stinkum and intends to keep hunting Barksdale people, Jimmy at least has the awareness to ask Lester if they're still cops at this point. It's a mark of the series' measured pace that we're eight episodes in, and the detail only has significant charges against two mid-level Barksdale people -- one of which gets taken away when Omar kills Stinkum. Omar is, like McNulty, a tremendously colorful and charming figure -- and a hell of an investigator, to boot -- but an episode like this, with the murder of Stinkum and Kima's realization that Omar probably didn't directly witness the Gant killing, is a reminder of the shady moral territory the cops enter when they deal with someone like him. Omar puts his life in simple terms for the cops -- "The Game is out there, and it's either play or get played." -- and how are upholders of a strict legal code supposed to operate around that?

Some other thoughts on "Lessons"

-Again illustrating the depth that the show tries to give all its characters, this episode shows two very different sides to Wee-Bey. Early on, we get him out with D'Angelo and the guys at the crab shack, having a good time, cracking jokes and getting made fun of for his affection for the too-hot hot sauce. It's a very humanizing scene -- and then we see him drunk (or high, or both) at Stinkum's party, dragging the barely-conscious Keisha into a bedroom and not even noticing that she died later in the evening.

-Earlier in this season, while discussing the opening titles, I pointed you towards Andrew Dignan's essay at The House Next Door about the series' various credit sequences. Andrew, Matt Seitz and Kevin B. Lee have now turned the idea into a five-part (one for each season) video essay for the Museum of the Moving Image, and you can see it at the Museum's website. As I write this, entries for season one and two are up. The season one entry is fairly newbie-safe, but I would avoid anything after that; the season two entry gives away major developments for both that season and season three.

-At one point in the episode, you can see Bunk reading a mystery novel by Laura Lippman, a Baltimore fixture who also happens to be Mrs. David Simon. This will become a running inside joke on the series, as later seasons will show characters perusing books by members of the extended "Wire" family, whether it's a George Pelecanos thriller or a first edition of "Generation Kill."

-If you haven't made the name connection by now, Det. Ray Cole is played by the late Bob Colesberry, executive producer of the show and the man responsible for much of the series' visual style. Though Jimmy notes hear that Ray's clearance rate this year is good enough that he can absorb the Stinkum whodunnit, for much of the series he's treated like just as much of a clown as Santangelo. In one of the prequel short films that were produced to tease the final season, we see McNulty, new to Homicide, explaining to Bunk that he got assigned to this elite unit, despite minimal training and service time, because he solved a case that a Homicide veteran was screwing up. That Homicide detective? Ray Cole.

-By this point, I probably should be keeping my copy of "Homicide" the book handy for reference. I can't swear that a drunken, guilt-ridden Bunk burning his clothes to get rid of the trace evidence is an incident from the book, but I feel reasonably confident that the book is the first place I encountered the idea.

And now let's talk about how some developments in this episode that will play out over the run of the series:

-Stringer and Avon's debate about Omar is far from the last time we'll see these two friends get into it over watching the bottom line vs. maintaining your rep. Stringer is a criminal who wants to be a businessman, while Avon is a good businessman who knows he's just a criminal, and it's that fundamental divide that will destroy them both by the end of season three.

-I love comparing McNulty's relationship with his sons here versus the last time we see them in season five. Here, pre-adolescence, they revere their old man, even though he's rarely around, and think doing surveillance on some scary criminal type is an exciting adventure. By season five, they're old enough to recognize that all the cool things he does are far, far outweighed by all the ordinary things he fails to do.

-Oddly, I remembered this episode's epigraph -- Omar saying, "Come at the king, best not miss" -- as being not from this episode, but the next one, and Omar recognizing that he screwed up his best chance at killing Avon. I guess over the years, the image of two different sequences with Omar shooting while Barksdale people crouched behind the safety of nearby cars blended together.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 7: "One Arrest"

Friday, July 18, 2008
The Wire, Season 1, Episode 7: "One Arrest" (Newbies edition)
Okay, it's a Friday morning and I actually have a review of "The Wire" for you. Can't promise the same for next week (I usually take a few days off at the end of press tour), but right now we're back to business as usual, in which we talk about season one of "The Wire" in two different versions: one safe for people who are brand-new to the show (or who haven't watched all the way through to the end), one where we can talk about anything from first episode of the series to last. This is the former; scroll up for the veterans edition if you want to talk about things that are still to come, both this season and in later seasons.

Spoilers for episode seven, "One Arrest," coming up just as soon as I explain to Fienberg that I'm Batman and he's Robin...

"A man must have a code." -Bunk

There are several types of codes at work in "One Arrest." One is Omar's code, spelled out more explicitly in his conversation with Bunk than it was in previous episodes, in which he declares that he would never put his gun on an ordinary citizen who wasn't a player in The Game. There's the code that the Barksdale crew uses to communicate, and which Lester and Prez are proving so adept at cracking. And then there's the unwritten code of conduct that players on both sides of the drug war are expected to follow -- and the consequences that befall those who don't.

Rawls is out to get Jimmy for starting the Barksdale ball rolling in the first place (thereby depriving Homicide of a detective for the rotation system) and for giving Daniels ammunition to defeat Rawls in an argument before Burrell (thereby violating chain of command and the notion that Rawls can strike fear into the hearts of all his subordinates).

The detail tries to go around the usual code of conduct by not arresting Stinkum with the package; it's such a stark departure from how things are usually done that Lester has to repeatedly explain it to Herc. But Lester proves too clever for his own good, because Avon and Stringer are smart enough to know there has to be a reason why the cops didn't track Stinkum down later to arrest him. And that in turn starts revolving the wheels in Stringer's head, which leads to him ordering the destruction of the courtyard payphones at the low-rises. As things are going, it's probably the lesser of two evils -- giving Avon's lawyer a look at the charging document would have blown the entire case -- but in retrospect, there was probably a better way to handle their tracking of the re-up.

Again and again and again, "The Wire" shows us people in long-standing institutions who try to think outside the box, and who get mocked or outright attacked for doing so. The Game is The Game, and you're only supposed to play it one way, right?

Look at what happens when Lt. Daniels tries to reach out to Kevin Johnson, the kid Prez half-blinded back in episode two. Kevin listens to Daniels' pitch for a minute, but the pressure to behave in a culturally-correct way is too much for him, and so he turns to Carver and mocks Daniels' entire offer and belief that there's another way out for a kid like him. Maybe if Prez isn't hiding in an adjacent windowed office at the moment, he considers it a little more, but I doubt it.

(While Kevin just happening to be the runner in Stinkum's car could have seemed contrived, it fit into the show's philosophy that everything is connected, and it also served as a reminder that past actions will not be forgotten. Other shows would happily stick with the more likable, puzzle-solving geek that Prez has been the last few episodes and try to forget his original sin. Not "The Wire.")

On the other hand, when you expect everyone to play The Game by your rules, you occasionally become vulnerable. Just look at how dangerous Omar has become to the Barksdale crew. They get over by instilling fear into the citizenry and punishing anyone who might speak out against them, but they would never count on someone like Omar -- someone brave and tough enough not to fear them, and well-connected enough to have intel to offer up when someone like Bunk asks -- cooperating with the cops. Omar's beef with Bird isn't specifically about Bird killing a citizen -- it's about Bird as representative of the crew who tortured and killed Brandon -- but you can tell that sort of standard 'yo behavior disgusts him just the same.

With Polk now drying out or on vacation or whatever, our focus shifts to the lowest man on the detail totem pole: Michael "Santy" Santangelo, who fits the classic hump mold of many of the original detail members. In Baltimore Homicide parlance, a "dunker" is a case that any idiot should be able to close with minimal effort, and yet Rawls notes that Santy, at best, nails 6 to 7 out of every 10 dunkers, and is all but useless on the more difficult cases.

But if Santy isn't that bright (see also him missing a chance to photograph Avon in the previous episode), he's not that bad a guy. (It's interesting to see the bit where Jimmy calls him an a-hole when he has to cover for Santy, when we know that Santy is specifically ducking out to try to save Jimmy. It's a small moment, but one of those vintage "Wire" bits where our knowledge of everyone's perspective deepens our understanding of what's really going on.) He busts his hump, by Santangelo standards, to close one of his open whodunnits, and when luck -- and Bunk and Omar -- bail him out, he recognizes that the time has come to warn Jimmy, no matter the blowback from Rawls.

Getting back to the notion of how The Game is expected to be played, behold what happens when Bubbs accompanies Johnny to his court-mandated 12-step meeting. While Johnny thinks the whole thing is a joke, something to be endured until the judge forgets about him, Bubbs' eyes are open by the sight of all the ex-junkies he hasn't seen in so long, he assumed they were dead. Even though he gets high later that night, you can see that the group speaker Walon (Steve Earle, who will sing the theme song in season five) makes a connection with Bubbs. Johnny cares about nothing but getting high, but Bubbs sees, even for a moment, a possible way out.

But whatever progress Bubbs may briefly make is canceled out by the incredibly sad sight of Wallace getting high, doing anything he can to block out his memory of Brandon's corpse and the role he played in his death. As I've said many times over the course of these reviews, Wallace is just a boy. He shouldn't have to carry this kind of emotional weight (even though he made a conscious choice to place that call), shouldn't be in an environment where the only comfort he can find is in a bag of dope. God, that kid breaks my heart.

Some other thoughts on "One Arrest":

* I like how the beating of the unrepentant, loathsome Bird is led by supervisors Daniels and Landsman, where you'd usually expect to see the rank and file doing it and the boss coming in to break things up.
* Daniels' trip to the expensive fundraiser shows that, while he's a good enough politician to be tight with Burrell -- so tight that Burrell thinks nothing of uttering a line like "In this state, there's a thin line between campaign photos and photo arrays" in front of him -- he's not really of this world, and is much more comfortable watching a ballgame with the blue-collar limo drivers.
* Speaking of which, note that thieving limo driver Day-Day Price is played by Donnell Rawlings, who would go on to greater comic fame a few years later as one of the supporting players (he was Ashy Larry, among other characters) on "Chappelle's Show."
* Jimmy and Bunk's scene at the bar reminds me of how much I love how the show depicts drunkenness, as the two of them always reach a level of sloshed that you almost never see in movies and on television. Also, Jimmy's line about how Bunk, um, made love to him gently is a verbatim quote from "Homicide" the book, with Jimmy saying Terry McLarney's lines and Bunk saying Bob McAllister's.
* Man, Omar gets all the best lines. Love the bit where he's telling them where Bird might be scoring dope: "That's if I happen to be constabulating like y'all."

Up next: "Lessons," in which Jimmy takes advantage of his kids, D'Angelo considers Orlando's offer, and Day-Day takes a drive. My guess is that one will be two weeks away, as I'll be wrapping up press tour, then flying home, then taking some time off to reconnect with my family.

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 6, "The Wire"

As I mentioned on Friday, I had to postpone the latest review of "The Wire" due to some personal stuff. While that's still ongoing, I had some time over the weekend and needed the distraction, so I finished my write-up of episode six, also titled "The Wire." It's a little shorter than the others have been, but it should be enough to get the conversation going. Due to uncertainty about my situation, and whether I'll still be going to press tour (which in turn might make it tough to do these reviews for a bit), I don't know exactly when I'll be doing episode seven and on, but I promise to keep you posted.

Same rules as always. We're going to talk about season one of "The Wire" in two different versions: one safe for people who are brand-new to the show (or who haven't watched all the way through to the end), one where we can talk about anything from first episode to last. This is the latter; scroll down for the newbies edition if you want to be protected from discussion of things that are still to come, both this season and in later seasons.

Spoilers for episode six coming up just as soon as I clean some eggs off the sidewalk...

"It cost you?"

There's an episode coming up called "The Cost," but in some ways, that title applies better to this one, as the murder of Brandon illustrates the emotional cost of living in this police/drug world. The episode opens and closes with the image of Brandon, no longer beautiful after being tortured to death by Wee-Bey, and through the course of the episode, we see how much seeing that image -- and being aware of the role they played in creating it -- costs Wallace, Omar and Daniels.

We'd had hints before now that Wallace was just a kid playing at a deadly, grown-up game, but the episode's opening sequence simultaneously shows off his childlike and adult sides. He and Poot live together in an abandoned, boarded-up rowhouse, siphoning off electricity from a nearby house through an extension cord (as much a titular wire as the tap on the courtyard pay phone), as they take care of a group of younger, similarly parentless neighborhood children. Wallace makes sure they get up on time, get their snacks, and get to school every day so the social workers don't get suspicious. (In "The Wire" world, the west side kids have good reason to fear social services.) Wallace is too young to be playing this role -- he still plays with toys, and unlike the sexually-obsessed Poot, hasn't moved onto girls yet -- but he's all these kids have. And just as we've seen him successfully get them off to school, he walks past the public tableau of Brandon's corpse, and his childhood innocence overwhelms the jaded would-be adult, and wrecks him. Yes, as D'Angelo points out, Wallace works in The Game and knows how violent it can get, but he's still just enough of a kid that he never imagined someone might die because he made a phone call, let alone that that death would be so brutal, or that the evidence of his sin would be deposited so close to his own doorstep. Wallace should be in a real home with real parents who send him to school, instead of playing parent to other abandoned corner kids and slinging dope in the Pit, but this is him, right here, and he can't handle it.

(Interestingly, while Poot was the one who was afraid to make the call about Brandon's whereabouts, he has no problem dealing with the body outside the window, and can be seen laughing at McNulty after Jimmy spills his coffee approaching the crime scene.)

If Wallace is the one who called in Brandon's executioners, Omar is the one who put him in a position where someone might want to kill him. The cast of "The Wire" is so uniformly wonderful that I could fill up each and every one of these reviews with nothing but praise for the various actors, and so instead I've mostly taken their greatness as a given, but hot damn is Michael K. Williams brilliant. There's no truth to the rumor that Omar originally had a small role that expanded once David Simon saw how great Williams was -- the series in general, and each season in particular, is too meticulously planned out for that -- but when you watch a scene like Omar howling in the morgue, and then follow it with Omar being slightly more relaxed, even a little funny ("Bad time for y'all?") but still incredibly dangerous in his visit to the detail office, you can understand why people might have wanted to believe that. As the man outside the system, and the show's lone character drawn slightly larger than life, Omar would stand out with almost any competent actor playing him, but Williams is, indeed, superb.

As for Daniels, he didn't cause Brandon's death, and even his inaction on pushing Burrell for a wiretap sooner likely wouldn't have saved him. But there's no way to know that for sure, and so when McNulty shoves those pictures in Cedric's face, the lieutenant finally recognizes that he can't half-ass the case anymore. Either he needs to go all the way, or not at all. When Lester asks Daniels if going up against Rawls cost him, he's talking about the political ramifications, but one look at Daniels' face as he studies those photos makes it clear that any potential cost to his career doesn't remotely approach the cost his soul has suffered in realizing what he may have failed to do.

And for now, it seems as if Daniels' passionate argument against Rawls will hurt McNulty more than himself. Not that Jimmy -- who finally got past his own arrogant prejudices to realize his new boss is good police -- would have wanted Daniels to go in firing anything less than both barrels, but by naming McNulty as the one who pointed out the truth behind Rawls' quest for paper clearances, he put Jimmy squarely back into Rawls' crosshairs.

The detail as whole, on the other hand, is trying to take at least one step forward for every step it takes back. Rawls tries to screw them by wanting a paper charge on D'Angelo, but Daniels manages to fight him off for now. They miss all the calls related to Brandon's murder, but at least they have a wire up now and are gathering good intel for a conspiracy charge. Polk bails rather than doing actual police work, but he wasn't contributing anything, anyway. But there's nothing in the episode to compensate for Santangelo taking an extremely long piss at the exact moment when Avon, Stringer and Stinkum march through the Pit and have a chat with D'Angelo. Would be nice to have a more current photo of the target, and to have one of him and his chief underlings appearing to talk business with another chief suspect, no?

Still, Lester gets to utter another of the series' mission statements with his speech to Prez about building something from scratch, and how "all the pieces matter." Much like the chess game in episode three, the detail itself functions as something of a metaphor for the series. Both are half-forgotten, half-unwanted members of a larger institution (the Baltimore PD, the television business), ridiculed or flat-out ignored for choosing to approach the old profession in a more thoughtful and thorough way (one where, indeed, all the pieces matter), and yet, when it's least expected of them, both are capable of performing absolute miracles in their field. Many of the detail's miracles are yet to come, but evidence of the series' miraculous powers have already been apparent in just six episodes.

Some other thoughts on "The Wire":

* I understand Rawls' argument about Jimmy being out of the rotation system and therefore overworking the other Homicide detectives. It's the same one that was made against Ed Burns, and Harry Edgerton, in "Homicide" the book, and I can see being frustrated if I'm the commander of a unit -- or member of a unit -- charged with bringing down the clearance rate if one guy goes off on a mission that seemingly has nothing to do with that and leaves everybody else picking up his slack. But I'd have a lot more sympathy for his argument if he didn't make it in the same episode where he proves how ephemeral the idea of clearances can be. Charging D'Angelo with those murders might have turned three names on the board from red (unsolved) to black (solved), but those charges would almost certainly not lead to convictions.
* So after we see Jimmy try to do the right thing for his kids in the previous episode and get screwed over by an mistrustful ex-wife, here we see exactly why Elena's wary of him, as he takes the boys to the morgue on a school night to listen to a grieving stick-up boy howl at the top of his lungs. I can see Jimmy's dilemma -- he's trying to turn Omar into an informant, and maybe Kima couldn't be reached just then -- but there had to be some way to put the guy off until morning without losing him, right?
* Note the black and white gangster movie playing in the background of the sequence where D'Angelo takes forever and a day to get himself decked out in a style of which Jimmy Cagney likely wouldn't approve, but which typifies many modern-day gangsters. On the other hand, his confrontation of Cass the thief, where he threw her eggs one by one onto the sidewalk until she confessed, was very old-school, as was D'Angelo's refusal to sell out Cass and Sterling for committing a crime that was only caused by Stringer's plan to smoke out a non-existent mole. A modern gangster like Stringer or Avon would have had those two beaten or killed for daring to skim off the stash, but vintage '30s gangsters (in the movies, anyway) still had some kind of standards about whom to hurt and why.
* So when I talked about the show's music rules -- outside of the season-ending montages, there's supposed to be no background music that doesn't have some kind of practical source, like the portable stereo in Daniels' office or the radio in Herc's car -- several people reminded me of the one time in the series' history where Simon and company violated that rule, with Avon's jazzy, slo-mo walk through the Pit. It seemed less out of place at the time -- six episodes in, it wasn't so obvious to me that the show was doing without a traditional score -- but now it's really jarring.
* The two Homicide detectives working Brandon's murder will become very familiar faces throughout the run of the series. In particular, keep an eye on the white guy, Ed Norris, played by... Ed Norris, who at the time this episode was filmed was still working as the commissioner of the real Baltimore PD. As he does here, Simon and Burns will often use Norris as their mouthpiece to complain about the state of the department in the bluntest terms possible.
* Bubbs and Johnny's scam with the copper pipes will be familiar to anyone who read/watched "The Corner" and remembers all of Gary McCullough's escapades involving the scrounging or outright theft of copper pipes and fixtures to pay for his habit. True story: when I was in Montreal last weekend for a family wedding, a cousin who lives in Baltimore, who's a fan of "The Wire," told me that she recently discovered that the copper pipes in her apartment had been stripped. While she was upset at the inconvenience and the expense, she was glad that "The Wire" at least made her understand why it had happened, and she tried to make herself feel better by imagining that it was Bubbles himself who robbed her.

And now let's talk about how the episode relates to events down the road in the season and the series:

* Norris' joke about being willing to give up half his overtime if it would fix the department seems especially funny in light of season five's story about the department gutting overtime pay in the budget crisis.
* Getting back to our discussion from episode 4 about whether we should have known that D was lying about killing Kresson, his reaction -- or lack thereof -- when Wallace first brings up "that girl" is, in retrospect, a blinking neon sign that D didn't do it. Knowing the man that D is, and the guilt that he carries, if he had actually committed that murder, he would have immediately gotten the reference when Wallace made it. But because Wee-Bey killed her, D'Angelo needs Wallace to elaborate.
* What's that saying about tragedy plus time equaling comedy? It's amusing to see how Carver gets so torqued about Bodie's constant escapes (both legal and illegal) from the law, yet by season four it's something he'll be able to crack jokes about.
* Question for the legal scholars: in light of how the rest of the season goes down, would the missed Santangelo photo have really made a difference? They get Avon on drug conspiracy anyway, but would the picture have somehow netted them Stringer?
* So what exactly does Polk choose to do? Obviously, he's out of the detail, and we know he's still on the force four seasons later -- he's the property room clerk Cedric and Ronnie go to see in the penultimate episode to check out Marlo's cell phone -- but he just doesn't strike me as the type who would have been willing to report to Medical and sober up on the spot like that. Daniels didn't seem to leave him a third option, though, and he seemed tired but not necessarily drunk when he showed up for his final season encore, so maybe he did take the Medical option.

Coming up next:"One Arrest," in which Bubbs and Johnny explore the world of 12-step programs, Omar meets Bunk, and Rawls keeps pressing Santangelo to get dirt on McNulty. Again, I don't know exactly when that review will appear, but it'll come at some point, and hopefully soon.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 5, "The Pager" (Veterans edition)

Once again, we're going to talk about season one of "The Wire" in two different versions: one safe for people who are brand-new to the show (or who haven't watched all the way through to the end), one where we can talk about anything from first episode to last. This is the latter; scroll down for the newbies edition if you want to be protected from discussion of things that are still to come, both this season and in later seasons.

Spoilers for episode five, "The Pager," coming up just as soon as someone comes to take away my crumbs...

"The thing is, you only got to fuck up once. Be a little slow, be a little late, just once. And how you ain't never gonna be slow, never be late? You can't plan for no shit like this, man. It's life."

This is Avon Barksdale, explaining the fate of his older brother, who lies in a vegetative state in a dingy government-run hospital after being shot in the head but not killed. This is also Avon Barksdale explaining his governing philosophy of life. He knows you can't plan for everything, but dammit if he isn't going to try.

"The Pager" offers our first in-depth look at the detail's chief target, and we see just how cautious Avon has become. Is it paranoia -- or, as Wee-Bey puts it, "going past careful" -- that he won't use the same pay phone twice, that he wonders if the two lacrosse stick-wielding kids standing across the street from his girlfriend's apartment might be shooters from a rival crew, and that he orders Wee-Bey to rip the phone lines out of his girl's place? Based on the progress the detail makes in this episode -- more than in the previous four put together -- I'd say no. It's not paranoia if they're out to get you, is it?

No matter how careful Avon and Stringer try to be, they're still in charge of a large organization filled with people who aren't as alert as they are. Imagine if, as Lester insisted they should, the detail already had a tap up on the pay phone in the Pit. After this episode, they would have Avon's nephew and Avon's right-hand man on a murder conspiracy charge, based on their conversations about Omar's young lover Brandon. (It's not a spoiler to say Brandon's done for; we already know what Avon's bounty is about, and that his people killed John Bailey. Wee-Bey isn't going to use those handcuffs just to throw a scare into the kid.)

And even without a wiretap, the detail now has a clone on D'Angelo's pager -- and, thanks to the unexpected code-cracking abilities of Prez, an easy means of decoding the messages -- as well as a line on Avon's many real-estate holdings. Slowly but surely, they're gathering information that could be very dangerous to Avon, so why wouldn't he act like his spidey-sense was going off all the time? If his ex-girlfriend can put the cops on his trail even after she's dead, what might his current girl do with a tappable phone and a lot of time on her hands?

What we learn about Avon in this episode is that, in addition to being careful, he's a very smart businessman. He and Stringer discuss their planned move into a neighborhood on Edmonson Avenue like they're Wall Street types preparing for a hostile takeover. They know exactly how to make Scar (the current proprietor of Edmonson) go away if he won't leave on his own accord, and they know that they need to set Stinkum up with a good package of dope, rather than the weak, stepped-on garbage they've been selling at the high-rises and in the Pit, because a strong product is the best way to hook new customers in a new territory. (After Stinkum has established himself, they can, of course, return to stepping on the dope. As Stringer told Avon a few episodes back, what are the fiends going to do about it once they're hooked?)

After all the rampaging incompetence and bureaucratic interference we bore witness in the first four episodes, it's almost startling to watch an episode in which virtually everybody knows what they're doing. Sure, we get a large helping of Herc and Carver bumbling their way through their encounter with Bodie, but even there they seem to recognize their mistake (underestimating Bodie's guts and street smarts) quickly. But the detail is starting to get its act together -- even though missing out on the phone chatter re: Brandon was a colossal missed opportunity -- we get to see quite a bit of Avon and Stringer in action, and we start to see just how clever Omar is.

When the lovestruck, hero-worshipping Brandon calls Omar the living embodiment of danger, Omar replies that he's just a man with a plan. He lies in wait and observes his targets until he sees the pattern in how they work and move, and once he knows how they're going to react, he factors that reaction into his plan and strikes. He's savvy enough to know when the cops are sitting on his van (and to know when they aren't, so he can take it out for a job), to know that someone named Bird killed William Gant ("the working man"), and that Kima and Jimmy are getting most of their street intel from Bubbles. Like Avon and Stringer, he's not a man who can be taken out by ordinary means, as we see when he deliberately arranges a parley with the detectives at a location of his choosing, and under circumstances where they'd have no grounds to arrest him or Brandon.

You'll note that, one episode after "The Wire" gave us the most profane scene that had ever aired on television, we get Omar scolding Brandon for his casual use of profanity, insisting, "Don't no one want to hear them dirty words." At the time the episode first aired, as I was just getting to know Omar, I took this as David Simon having a laugh on himself, but he explained there was a thematic point to Omar's aversion to four-letter words:

The reason Omar doesn't curse is that he has a personal code and he is beholden only to that code. He alone is deinstitutionalized and free and therefore in control of his own morality, flawed though it might seem. Everyone else is, in this sense, debased by the institutions they serve and cop and criminal alike, their language reflects (that).

We'll learn more about Omar's code in the weeks to come, but Omar's clean language is just one of many character traits -- along with his fondness for whistling nursery rhymes as he walks up to his targets -- that establishes him as his own man. As Simon notes, he's not beholden to an institution. Jimmy, for all his antics, is still attempting to work within the complex rules and traditions of the police department. D'Angelo, for all that he questions his job, is a part of his uncle's drug empire. Even Bubbs is just a pawn of The Game, trapped as he is by his addiction. Omar takes advantage of The Game, but he's not truly part of it. He could walk away at any point if he wanted, an option the other characters either don't have or don't know about.

D'Angelo certainly acts like he'd like a way out, based on his behavior at the fancy downtown restaurant where he takes baby mama Donette. This is the first time we've seen a street-level character travel into a more familiar middle-class environment, and while D makes a couple of rookie mistakes (he doesn't think to make a reservation on a Friday night, nor does he understand about the samples on the dessert cart), most of his discomfort (beautifully played, as always, by Larry Gilliard) comes from his acute awareness of how he makes his money versus the other patrons. Donette tries to explain one of the fundamental tenets of capitalism to him -- "You got money, you get to be whatever you say you are" -- but D know that he has blood on his hands and blood on his money, and he's becoming less and less okay with that knowledge.

Note that his attraction to Shardene the stripper only grows after he sees her refund the money of an irate customer as he's being kicked out of Orlando's. Shardene says she did nothing wrong, and most of the other girls in that place would pocket the guy's cash and not think about it again, but she didn't feel comfortable keeping it. People who think outside the rules of The Game -- be it slinging dope, working Homicide, or dancing at a strip club -- are rare on this show, and D may have found himself an attractive kindred spirit.

Some other thoughts on "The Pager":

* Carver detailing exactly how he would break Bodie last week made Bodie's jaded reaction to the eventual interrogation -- "You supposed to be the good cop!" -- especially priceless. But I like how Bodie's resiliency, as well as his acknowledging the superiority of their sandwich place -- won some grudging respect (or, at least, a toning down of the usual hatred) from Herc and Carver. Not a lot of cop dramas would show two cops playing a game of pool with a guy they just tuned up, you know?
* Like Bodie, Johnny is now a devout believer in the rules of The Game, and you can see that Bubbs already regrets having taught him so well. Johnny, with the colostomy bag hanging at his waist and news of him having "the bug" (street slang for HIV), trying to cheer himself up by finding out who has the best package on the street would be funny if it wasn't so damn sad.
* Also interesting to note that talk of the bug comes up earlier as Bodie and the sex-obsessed Poot argue over whether you can get it from receiving oral sex. While Poot seems prepared to move onto adult pursuits like seducing Arletta Mouzone, Wallace is still interested in childhood pursuits, like the toy he's playing with when Bodie throws the bottle at his head. And yet it's Wallace who's the one with the courage to ask D'Angelo for some extra cash, Wallace who's the one willing to call in an APB on Brandon once Poot spots him at the arcade, and Wallace who's unafraid to go up and talk to Stringer when the SUV rolls up.
* After taking most of the spotlight last week, McNulty takes a bit of a backseat to the likes of Avon and Omar, but he gets a great tragi-comic subplot where he tries to do battle with IKEA furniture (I may have to get a bottle of Jameson's the next time I try to assemble one of those monstrosities) and then, after he for once in his life does the right thing by putting the boys' bedroom together, finds out that Elena has blown him off because she assumed he would screw it up. Very nice solo work by Dominic West, who's called on more than any other member of the cast to act alone.
* I don't, by the way, want to ignore the fine work by Wood Harris as Avon. Because Avon has worked so hard to insulate him from the street, he doesn't appear as often or for as long as you would expect the chief antagonist on a show like this. But Harris takes a showcase episode like this one and takes control of it, particularly during the hospital monologue.
* This is the first time so far in this rewatch where I've noticed Bodie do a long-distance spit through his teeth. Whether it happened before now or not, get used to seeing it a lot in the future. J.D. Williams is very good at it, and it becomes one of the character's trademarks.
* Landsman shows us his ass (the horror!), then shows himself to be mostly interested in covering it when he admits he doesn't care about what happens with the other shift, even if the Bailey case could in some way be connected to what Jimmy's working on.

And now it's time to talk about this episode in the context of all we know that's coming through the rest of this season and all the way to the end of the series:

* Compare Avon's paranoia to Marlo's. Wee-Bey thinks he's being over-careful, and yet the Barksdale crew still uses a number of communications technologies that can be tapped by a dedicated and talented enough police unit, whereas until Marlo hooked up with Vondas and The Greek, he continually stymied the MCU with his refusal to go anywhere near a phone.
* D'Angelo's fancy dinner will be recreated in even more mortifying fashion in season four, when Bunny takes Namond and some other kids from the special class out to Ruth's Chris, where they're overwhelmed and miserable with a glimpse of a world so different from the one they know.
* Though there will be many beatings and insults to come, the game of pool begins the long-standing, always amusing professional relationship between Bodie and Herc and Carver.
* Johnny's being HIV-positive is echoed four seasons later by Bubbs' refusal to accept that he somehow escaped his own years of drug abuse without catching the bug. It also better explains Johnny's disinterest in even comtemplating sobriety, and his willingness to lose himself forever in one of the more nightmarish corners of Hamsterdam.
* Kima will obviously have her own IKEA struggles in season five, and Jimmy will enjoy every minute of hearing her complain about them.
* There were some complaints in the final season about how the 10-episode order meant that the writers had to rush along certain developments that they might have taken more time with in earlier years, like McNulty discovering how to fake a strangulation murder in the same episode where he tried it out. And while the series traditionally moved at a measured pace, I see how they introduce the pager code and let Prez crack it in the same episode and wonder how much we were romanticizing the good old days when we watched season five.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 4, "Old Cases" (Veterans edition)

Once again, we're going to talk about season one of "The Wire" in two different versions: one safe for people who are brand-new to the show (or who haven't watched all the way through to the end), one where we can talk about anything from first episode to last. This is the latter; scroll down for the newbies edition if you want to be protected from discussion of things that are still to come, both this season and in later seasons.

Spoilers for episode four, "Old Cases" -- and a word of warning that due to the episode's nature, this post will feature extensive discussion (and, on occasion, reproduction) of a certain four-letter word -- coming up just as soon as I try to prove a negative...


Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

The fuck?

Fuck it. Motherfuck!

In the seemingly neverending debate about "The Wire" vs. "Deadwood" (in which I took part at one point), one of the arguments in favor of "Deadwood" is the idea that David Milch's use of language is so beautiful and so exact that it elevates his show to a level that "The Wire" (or "The Sopranos," or any other great TV drama) can't quite reach. I would certainly never speak ill of the amazing "Deadwood" dialogue, but I think it's only fair to point out that "The Wire" had its own moments of gorgeous, precise employment of nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives. And nowhere is that more obvious than in the justly-celebrated scene where McNulty and Bunk go over the Diedre Kresson crime scene, uttering nothing but variations on the F-word.

It's a goddamn symphony of profanity, is what that scene is, at once shockingly funny (as you realize just how many times the F-word is being uttered, to the exclusion of all else) and unexpectedly brilliant (as you realize that the two cops are quickly getting to the bottom of what happened here). It's almost a parody of the idea of doing a cop show on HBO, and yet it conveys so much about how smart Jimmy and The Bunk are -- and how well they work together -- that they can figure out so much about Kresson's murder and communicate it to each other using only that word.

What, of course, sets it up so beautifully is the earlier scene where D'Angelo, irritated with Bodie's bravado about escaping from juvie, walks Bodie, Wallace and Poot through every detail of the crime. That scene serves other purposes -- notably in continuing the tension between D'Angelo, who questions the way they do business, and Bodie, who blindly follows the rules of The Game -- but its primary function is to act as a road map so that we don't need any kind of expository dialogue -- or any dialogue of the non-F-word variety -- when Bunk and McNulty go into that apartment. We know exactly how this murder went down, and so we can just appreciate watching these true professionals at work.

(Getting back to the notion of "The Wire" as a show that teaches you how to watch it, by later seasons Simon won't even need to resort to that level of hand-holding. There's a sequence in season four where we watch a Homicide cop silently work through a murder scene and slowly put all the pieces together, and by that point, a preamble isn't even necessary. The show's visual language, and our own understanding of how a good detective studies a scene, will be all we need to fill in what's left unsaid.)

But if the legendary "fuck" scene teaches us what a natural police McNulty is, the bulk of "Old Cases" is devoted to illustrating the ways in which his personality flaws -- his addiction to himself, as Sgt. Jay Landsman puts it -- constantly get in the way of people noticing just how good he is.

Sure, his knowledge of Baltimore street crime is so encyclopedic that he can cite No-Heart Anthony's home address without prompting, and he and Bunk are like magicians when they work together, but McNulty is constantly getting in his own way. We already know that he cheated (with Ronnie Pearlman) on his soon-to-be-ex-wife Elena, which no doubt explains her hostile demeanor towards him, and we've seen countless examples in just these four episodes about how Jimmy's need to prove himself the smartest guy in the room causes him to violate protocol, common sense and even (in the case of refusing to take a sick day for the raid last week) basic decency.

Jimmy may not always be the smartest guy in the room, but he's self-aware enough to recognize this. You can see he's already starting to regret his tight bond with Judge Phelan, who's just digging Jimmy's grave by pushing Burrell to continue the Barksdale detail. (Landsman charming Rawls into giving Jimmy two weeks to wrap up the detail and come home clean won't do him much good if they're going to start writing wiretap affidavits, will it?) And when Lester Freamon -- who, in the story of how he wound up in the pawn shop unit for 13 years (and four months), proves that our cuddly housecat is really just an older, possibly smarter, but just as stubborn version of McNulty -- warns him about not letting the bosses know where he doesn't want to be transferred, you can see Jimmy immediately flashing on that conversation from "The Target" where he told Landsman that he'd never want to ride a boat for the marine unit.

When Bubbs, the wisest fool in all of Baltimore, gets a glimpse of the clean and bright neighborhood where Jimmy's kids play soccer, only to return to another burnt-out street in West Baltimore, he notes that there's a "thin line 'tween heaven and here." This is one of the core statements of "The Wire" (and the inspiration for the title of an outstanding "Wire" site), as the show is about all the people who fall over to the wrong side of that line, and how impossible it is to get back across. For the most part, the line represents the barrier between ordinary citizens like Elena or even the late Ms. Kresson and players and hustlers like D'Angelo and Bubbs, but the Baltimore PD has its own versions of both Heaven (elite units like Homicide) and Here (do-nothing squads like the pawn shop unit). Lester was already tossed over that line for valuing pride over common sense (as Jimmy notes, he could have easily made his case without the fence) and only made his way back by a fluke and some determination (he kept coming to work long enough that anyone who remembered his punishment were gone when the call for humps arose), and Jimmy can see that he's in very real danger of being cast out of heaven if this goes much further.

And yet, as we continue to see here, the Barksdale crew is both a worthy and challenging target, a tough, disciplined bunch who can't be got by ordinary methods -- see Marvin taking a mandatory five years in prison versus risking the wrath of Avon -- and who have more than one civilian body on their side of the ledger. If Jimmy's going to jeopardize his career in order to go after a bad guy, Avon seems as good as any.

Herc and Carver once again don't get it. Even if Bodie hadn't escaped from Boys Village (Here) and headed back to the Pit (for him, Heaven) through the simple luck of being left unattended in his civilian clothes with a mop bucket nearby, we know there's no way that Carver's proposed scare tactics would have put a dent in his gangster armor. As Herc learns from Bodie's grandmother -- a bit of information I confess I had forgotten all these years later, and one which makes me look at young master Broadus very differently now -- Bodie was orphaned at age 4, and had spent the years leading up to his mother's death being dragged around the fringes of The Game by her. (In that way, he's no different from the baby that Omar coos over before hooking up the mother with some dope. That kid will be very lucky to grow up to be anything other than another Bodie.) Bodie may be a knucklehead himself, the Herc or Carver to D'Angelo's Kima, but he grew up hard and remains hard, and if those two morons had shown up at Boys Village before he walked away, he would have either stared them down or simply laughed in their cop faces.

No, traditional methods have no real way of working with Avon's crew, which is why Jimmy and Kima and now Lester are going to have to employ every bit of creativity at their disposal in order to get them. And if it takes more than two weeks -- as we almost certainly know it will -- then what happens to McNulty?


Some other thoughts on "Old Cases":

* "Who uses pagers anymore?" As I've mentioned, this season's arc was inspired by work Ed Burns did on several drug crews in the '80s, and so we get the Barksdales using outmoded technology. (Possibly purchased from Dennis the Beeper King on "30 Rock"?) But because the cops comment on this, it works, and because Lester points out the counter-surveillance advantages of pagers versus cell phones, it makes Avon, Stringer and company seem that much more impressive.
* The show's visual style, as laid down by Clark Johnson and Bob Colesberry, rarely called attention to itself, but there are a couple of stand-out images in this one. The most obvious is Bodie throwing rocks at the stationary surveillance camera in the Pit, which would become a memorable part of the opening titles for years to come, but there's also the transition between the dirty water in the mop bucket Bodie used for his escape to the coffee in Herc's cup as he and Carver drive down to juvie to scare him. Also, there's a nice moment at the end of D'Angelo telling the story of Diedre Kresson's murder when the camera takes a skyward view of the Pit, then pans over to the more prosperous skyline of downtown Baltimore, illustrating Bubbs' "heaven and here" remark.
* Note that, at the gym, Stringer (despite his clothes) isn't really there to play basketball but to talk shop, and the one thing we see him do on the court is to set up Avon for an alley-oop dunk, as befits his role as Avon's number two.
* We get another of the show's small handful of "Homicide" alums as Callie Thorne makes her first appearance as Elena. I never much liked her on "Homicide," but I think that was more a matter of her character, Det. Ballard, being poorly-conceived than anything to do with Thorne. She's fine here as the woman who has to play the bad guy because Jimmy's too busy playing Peter Pan.
* After exploding on the scene last week with his hijack of the Pit stash, Omar becomes a much more unusual and interesting character this week. We find out not only about his brother No-Heart Anthony, but that he fancies himself a bit of a ghetto Robin Hood, doling out free dope to the truly wretched cases. And we find out that, to the horror of Avon -- who immediately ups his bounty upon hearing the news -- Omar is openly, proudly, defiantly gay, and that his young partner Brandon is also his lover.
* The reveal of Omar's sexuality comes in the same episode where we get our first extended look at Kima's relationship with upwardly-mobile girlfriend Cheryl. It's interesting how being gay is viewed in the two different worlds. Omar is reviled for it -- even his other partner, Bailey, tries to make himself scarce as soon as Omar and Brandon get affectionate -- while Kima is able to thrive professionally, even though she has to deal with the usual innuendo (and occasional insults) from the likes of Herc and Carver. But the decision to include two prominent gay characters, neither of them defined solely by their sexuality, is part of the series' commitment to showing a panorama of modern American life, even if it's through the lens of a show about cops and dope dealers in West Baltimore.
* The detail loses a body, albeit a useless one, when Pat Mahon (not Mahone, as I'd been previously spelling it) takes advantage of Bodie's assault to take a disability pension. Augie Polk, too scared (or smart, depending on your POV) to take Pat's advice about throwing himself down the steps to the detail office, is still on the job, but at the moment he, the mysterious disappearing Santangelo and word jumble-solving Prez seem to be neck-and-neck for title of biggest hump on the detail. Herc and Carver may be stupid, but at least they went along with Kima's plan to prove they couldn't follow D'Angelo.
* Is it wrong that I was as charmed as Rawls by Landsman's masturbation story? Delaney Williams makes Jay's utter lack of shame seem like an admirable trait.
* I should, I suppose, mention the pre-credits scene with the desk wedged into the door. But even though it's very funny -- particularly if you watch it knowing that Lester's smarter than these other guys put together, and therefore knows what's wrong -- and a commentary on inefficient bureaucracy, the scene kind of speaks for itself, no?

And now we come to the part where we can talk openly about what we know is to come. Ordinarily, I'd do bullet points, but there's one specific thing that I want to talk about at length here instead. Feel free to bring up any other plot or thematic foreshadowing in the comments.

D'Angelo is, of course, lying to Bodie and the other Pit kids about his role in Diedre Kresson's murder. We'll find out in the season finale that Avon just used him, without D's knowledge, to set up Wee-Bey for the actual hit. It's a really interesting choice for the show to make, I think, as it fundamentally changes our perception of D'Angelo between now and when we find out the truth in the finale. It's one thing for D to have killed another player in the heat of the moment, but quite another to think that he killed a civilian woman on his uncle's say-so, you know? And it complicates -- not eliminates, but complicates -- my desire to sympathize with him over his growing desire to get out of The Game. I'm not saying I loathed D from the minute he tells the story -- he could regret that killing as well, after all -- but I definitely viewed a lot of his later actions this season through a different lens than I otherwise might have if I knew from the jump that this was a lie.

It seemed so out-of-character for the series -- Simon and Burns rarely misled viewers about something that big, for that long -- and so I asked Simon why he chose to do it that way:

There are clues in HOW D'Angelo tells the story -- his dramatic hesitation at the moment of truth, when it comes time to actually describe him shooting her in the face after the tap tap tap -- he hesitates, can't say specifically what he did next. A character was lying, taking credit for being more gangster than he actually is. No way to show this without simply throwing the lie out there. It would be lame and false to have him confess his lie in the next moment, even to someone else. People don't behave that way. So he lies. But in the writing and performance there are clues to a careful viewer that something is amiss with D'Angelo's account. And ultimately, when we hear the true story, we are certain (or should be certain) what it is. He is telling Wee-Bey's story, claiming it for his own. It works with the Pit Crew -- save perhaps for Bodie, who still doubts. But even D'Angelo, as he lies, is taken aback by his own claims of brutality. Watch the performance again.

We didn't have Wee-Bey recount it because it was a better window into the soul of D'Angelo to watch him use it falsely and stumble through it emotionally. Wee-Bey would've just told the story, serving the overt plot only.

In this case, I guess, I wasn't a careful enough viewer. I'd like to say this is another thing that I would have recognized in hindsight once the show had educated me on how it worked, but because it's so unusual for their MO, I doubt it.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 3, "The Buys" (Veterans edition)

Once again, we're going to talk about season one of "The Wire" in two different versions: one safe for people who are brand-new to the show (or who haven't watched all the way through to the end), one where we can talk about anything from first episode to last. This is the latter; scroll down for the newbies edition if you want to be protected from discussion of things that are still to come, both this season and in later seasons.

Spoilers for episode three, "The Buys," coming up just as soon as I walk on broken glass...

As I've written many times before, I'm grateful that HBO sent out the first four episodes of "The Wire" for review instead of just one or two. Because the show proceeds at such a measured pace, because it has so many characters and stories going, and because it so often refuses to play by the normal rules of TV storytelling, it took a while to really appreciate how great the show was. For some, that revelation didn't (or won't) come for another episode or two. For me, it was the chess scene contained right here in "The Buys."

If the first two episodes established D'Angelo as more thoughtful than your average TV drug dealer -- and "The Wire" as more thoughtful than your average cop show -- then the chess scene, where he schools Bodie and Wallace on both the game (chess) and The Game (drugs) is the moment when I realized that I was looking at someone -- and something -- very special here. Not only does the chess/drug metaphor work, but it shows how well D'Angelo understands the rigged, unchangeable nature of The Game, and how deep this series intends to go.

Bodie and Wallace using the chess board to play checkers -- a fine game, but a simpler one where it's easy to play in a relaxed, reactive fashion -- are standing in for every TV crime drama that preceded "The Wire." They had the same pieces at their disposal, but they chose to play an easier game with more instant gratification, where David Simon and company are in this for the long haul, setting up pieces for moves that we won't get to see for weeks or months or, in some cases, years. The pieces are not interchangeable; each one has its own unique role to play on the board, and each one's actions affect what happens to every other piece. And if you stick around for all those moves, it'll be clear that, as D'Angelo says, chess is the better game, yo.

The show is absolutely in opening gambit mode at this point. We're three episodes in and the Barksdale detail has accomplished next to nothing. They don't even have a photo of their target until late in the episode, thanks to "cuddly housecat" Lester Freamon demonstrating more game than anybody expected of him, and the raid on the low-rises turns out to be as useless as both McNulty and Daniels knew it would be. But pieces are being moved all across the board, defenses are being probed, and all of this will turn out to be brilliant storytelling strategy by the end.

Simon's fondness for parallel dialogue and behavior continues here. In the opening scene, D'Angelo echoes McNulty's thoughts about how stupid it is for the drug business to be conducted in such an agressive, violent manner compared to every other (legitimate) American industry, and though McNulty planted a seed, we know that D has already been questioning how things get done. Meanwhile, we see that both a low man on the drug side like Bodie and a high man on the cop side like Burrell can be equally clueless about how things really work. Bodie is positive that he has the ability to advance in The Game, to get all the way to the other side of the board and win, no matter how many times D tries to tell him that he'll likely always be a pawn. Burrell, meanwhile, is so complacent and far removed from the street in his position as Deputy Ops that he believes Daniels' detail can get to Barksdale with nothing but quick and dirty street-level arrests, when Avon is so far removed from that sort of action that he doesn't even appear in this episode.

Avon's number two man, Stringer Bell, starts to come into focus here after being an equally shadowy presence in the first two episodes. Like D'Angelo -- better than D'Angelo, really -- he has an intuitive grasp of how The Game is played. Where D is shocked by the idea that the "new package" will be the same as the current, stepped-on, impotent brand of dope they're slinging down at The Pit, String understands the power of rebranding, particularly to an ignorant, desperate client base like dope fiends. His take on the drug war is as chilling as it is accurate: "We do worse and we get paid more. The government do better, and it don't mean no nevermind. This s--t here, D, it's forever."

"The Buys" keeps playing with our expectations of these characters based on what we've seen of them so far and what we know from other police show archetypes.(*)

(*) And by now I should probably throw in the obligatory disclaimer about "The Wire" not really being a cop show, but in this embryonic stage of the series, it's using a familiar cops-vs-crooks paradigm to get its points across.

McNulty and Daniels continue to go at it, as McNulty refuses to go along with the pointless raid on the low-rises, which might be an admirable moral stand if he didn't insist on taking it in the most public, petulant manner possible. Daniels, loyal servant of Burrell though he may be, understands just as well as Jimmy how stupid this raid is, and he gives Jimmy opportunity after opportunity to bag on it without being so obviously insubordinate to Daniels, and Jimmy refuses. And just when we're starting to take Daniels' side in all of this, we find out from Jimmy's FBI buddy Fitz that Daniels might be dirty.

And during the raid, there's that wonderful, hilarious moment when Bodie takes a swing at boozing old Pat Mahone, Carver starts wailing on Bodie in retaliation, and we see Kima -- upstanding, forthright Kima, in some ways even more the hero of the piece than Jimmy to this point -- sprinting over. And just as we assume she's going to break up the fight, she instead starts beating on young Mr. Bodie herself, even harder than Carver and the others were doing. Kima just wanted to make sure she got her licks in on a punk who'd hit a cop (useless though Mahone may be), and the ferocity and joy Kima takes in the moment isn't the sort of thing you would ever expect to see from a "good" cop on a different show.

(Punctuating the comic genius of the scene is the quick cut to the equally useless Augie Polk lighting up a cigarette for his prone partner to enjoy during the fracass.)

And then there's the scene at state's attorney Rhonda Pearlman's house, which bounces back so often between the cop show cliche of the secret cop/lawyer romance (going back at least to "Hill Street Blues") and the notion that Jimmy's just there for work reasons that it becomes not a chess game, but a ping pong match. Ronnie's pained reaction to seeing Jimmy at her door makes it clear that this isn't the first time his charming Irish ass has appeared here at a late hour, and as she tries to decide whether she wants to answer his booty call, he instead starts asking her about warrants for cloning pagers... which actually pisses her off more than if he was just there for sex... and so of course Jimmy admits that he's there for that, too, and flashes her that devil grin that he knows she can't resist... and then Ronnie tells him to go... and then we cut to them making the beast with two backs. The constant reversals take what could have been a stock situation and make it into something more interesting and much funnier.

We're not even close to having a sense of the endgame, but things are (very) slowly starting to happen, and a fuller picture will be visible very soon.

Some other thoughts on "The Buys":

* If Avon's the king, Stringer the queen, muscle like Wee-Bey and Stinkum the rooks and slingers like Bodie and Wallace the pawns, what does that make the newest piece on the board, shotgun-toting stick-up boy Omar?
* Bubbs' "What Not to Wear" dope fiend fashion intervention for the undercover Sydnor was another darkly hilarious scene in an episode full of them. Bubbs is yet another character on the show who's never quite what you expect him to be. He's so at ease with himself, and so perceptive about those around him, and yet, as Jimmy notes, if he has the answers, why the hell is he a dope fiend?
* Continuing last week's discussion of the show's rules for background music, the titular buys by Sydnor and Bubbs are accompanied by a low-rise boom box blaring out Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's "It Takes Two," which was also prominently featured in Simon and Ed Burns' non-fiction book "The Corner" as the signature song during the summer that Simon and Burns were hanging around on the Fayette St. drug corner. (NOTE: Whoops. Several people pointed out to me that "It Takes Two" was the signature summer song in Simon's "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets." That'll learn me to act like I read books and whatnot.)
* More music: while the rest of the detail is at the low-rises and Prez is stuck doing a crossword puzzle, Jimmy is going over his notes while listening to The Pogues' "Dirty Old Town." Get ready to hear a lot from Jimmy's favorite band over the course of the series.
* Though D'Angelo last week talked about getting an apartment to live with his son and baby mama Donette, it would appear that's more about being there for his kid than any major loyalty to Donette, seeing that he decides to spend the bonus from Stringer on buying a "drink" from Shardene the near-sighted stripper.
* Early in the episode, we're introduced to Prez's odious father-in-law, Southeastern District commander Stan Valchek (wonderfully played by Al Brown). I love Burrell and Daniels' post-mortem discussion of the meeting, where Burrell calls Valchek "a necessary evil" and Daniels asks what's so necessary about him.

And now it's time to talk about how this episode relates to what we know is coming later:

* As with Stringer's presence in these earlier episodes, there's much less to Omar's introduction than I remembered, though Michael K. Williams' delivery of "Well now..." while watching the cops roll out of The Pit foreshadowed all the "Indeed"s and other bon mots that would emerge from Omar in future episodes. It's interesting to see an Omar who isn't such a local legend yet -- Wee-Bey seems puzzled when Bodie first tells him the name -- but of course it makes sense, as much of his legend will be created over the course of the war he conducts with the Barksdales this season.
* Also, note that in our first glimpse of Omar in action, he shoots someone in the knee, a move that Michael will copy during our final glimpse of him at the end of season five.
* During the bogus press conference about the Gant killing, you'll note Bill Zorzi (former Baltimore Sun reporter and future "Wire" writer and castmember) as one of the reporters asking a question, and there's another voice that sounds a lot like David Simon himself.
* During our post-finale interview, Simon and I talked about how all three characters in the chess scene eventually wound up dead -- and at the hands of their employers, at that: "We knew that if we got a long enough run, all three of the chess players would be out of the game, so to speak. Prison or dead. We did not chart all of their fates to a specific outcome, but we knew that the Pit crew would be subject to an exacting attrition."
* With the Gold Gloves photo pull, not only does Lester demonstrate that he's more useful than Polk and Mahone will ever hope to be, but he gets the first chance to show off his flair for the grand gesture with the way he silently drops the poster in front of Kima and Jimmy, then retreats to his desk without comment. One of the reasons Lester is my favorite "Wire" character was his knack for -- need for, really, as intellectual vanity was the Achilles heel that led to him participating in Jimmy's season five shenanigans -- demonstrating his superior brainpower in the most dramatic way possible.