Monday, March 10, 2008

Sepinwall on TV: The Wire unplugged

Sepinwall on TV: The Wire unplugged
Posted by Alan Sepinwall March 09, 2008 6:19AM
At the end of last week's episode of "The Wire" -- arguably the greatest episode of inarguably the greatest drama in TV history -- two 15-year-old boys, Dukie (Jermaine Crawford) and Michael (Tristan Wilds) sat in a car together, their lives in ruins. Michael was a killer several times over and now a hunted man by the drug crew that made him so. Dukie, born into then abandoned by a family of junkies, was about to go live with junkies again, his other options for residence and guardians seemingly exhausted.

As the two boys contemplated their awful futures, Dukie smiled and brought up a silly story from the previous summer, when they and their friends decided to fight back against neighborhood bullies by throwing urine-filled balloons at them.

"That was a day," Dukie said, trying to hold onto his childhood for one more moment. "You bought me ice cream off the truck. You remember, Mike?"

Michael, his childhood long since abandoned, closed his eyes in pain and said, "I don't."

But we did.

What made that scene so powerful -- what makes so many "Wire" scenes so moving -- was how it built on things that had happened before, sometimes long before. We saw the balloon fight that Dukie describes, we saw how young and innocent the boys and their friends were and the long chain of terrible events that led them to this moment where Dukie desperately wants to cling to that memory and Michael is so far gone he can't even remember it. (Or doesn't want to.)

One of the series' main characters, and perhaps its most symbolic creative figure, is Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), a marginalized detective who, while no one is paying him any mind, repeatedly builds miraculous cases out of nothing simply by being slow and steady and seeing how everything's connected. As Lester said in an early episode, "We're building something here, detective. We're building it from scratch. All the pieces matter."

All the pieces on "The Wire" matter, which is why the show was so brilliant, and why its small fanbase will mourn its loss after the final episode ends tonight around 10:35. (As soon as it ends, go to for a review of the finale and an extensive Q&A with "Wire" creator David Simon.) Every character, every moment, is important in some way, and if it doesn't seem so at first, just take a cue from Lester and be patient until you can see the whole picture.

Before the series' finale, let's look back at some -- but by no means all -- of the greatest moments in "Wire" history (with YouTube links where available) and how they either paid off a long way in the future or were paying off earlier set-ups.

"The king stay the king." (Season 1, episode 3)

D'Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.), a middle manager in his uncle Avon's drug empire, spots teenage slingers Wallace (Michael B. Jordan) and Bodie (J.D. Williams) using a chess set to play checkers and decides to school them on chess. He compares the pieces to members of their drug organization -- his uncle is the king, for instance -- and notes that the three of them are a lot like pawns.

Wallace asks how you get to be the king, and D'Angelo says the king is always the king, and the best a pawn can do is to somehow make it to the other end and become the queen. But "the pawns, man, in the game, they get capped quick. They be out the game early."

It's all connected: First Wallace, then D'Angelo, and eventually Bodie are murdered, not by cops or rival drug crews, but on orders of their own leadership, who had deemed each pawn expendable. (Wallace's death, by the way, leads to one of the best scenes in the series, as an incarcerated D'Angelo loudly demands to know where Wallace is.)

"*¢&%" (Season 1, episode 5)

Cops Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) visit an old crime scene and figure out exactly what happened while uttering nothing but variations on the F-word.

It's all connected: Not only is this a classic, hilarious example of the series showing how effectively people can communicate without words (on "The Wire," the most important messages are often sent in code, or left unsaid), but it establishes how tight the two partners are. In season five, when Bunk loudly protests McNulty's mad decision to invent a fake serial killer and trick the department into paying for a different investigation, we recognize just how extreme Jimmy's behavior is.

"There's never been a paper bag for drugs -- until now." (Season 3, episode 2)

Police district commander Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom), fed up with the damage the War on Drugs has done to the department, tells his troops the story of the early days of Baltimore's open container laws. Cops couldn't waste time that could be spent on real police work busting everyone drinking beer on the sidewalk, but they also couldn't let people openly break the law in front of them. A crisis was brewing, until some wino got the brilliant idea to put his bottle inside a paper bag, which gave him plausible deniability and the cops the license to do real police work.

It's all connected: Bunny's paper bag turns out to be Hamsterdam, a designated group of otherwise-abandoned blocks where he allows all the drug dealers to work unmolested, provided they keep to that area and aren't violent. Hamsterdam dramatically reduces the crime rate and improves the local quality of life, but it's such a radical break from the status quo -- the entrenched institutions that are the series' real villain -- that the program is shut down and Bunny is fired.

"How far we done fell." (Season 3, episode 6)

After larger-than-life stick-up artist Omar (Michael K. Williams) gets into a shoot-out with the Barksdale/Bell crew with multiple fatalities, Bunk comes to the crime scene to find a group of little kids enthusiastically re-enacting the firefight. Later, Bunk tears into Omar about the scene, insisting that, for all of Omar's talk of having a moral code and working outside the drug game, he's still part of the ongoing cycle of violence, another criminal for the kids to aspire to be.

It's all connected: One of the kids Bunk was watching --the one who yells out, "My turn to be Omar!" -- is Kenard (Thuliso Dingwall), a pint-sized corner kid who, two seasons later, will shoot and kill Omar simply because the opportunity presented itself.

"Us." (Season 3, episode 11)

Avon and partner Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) stand on the balcony of Avon's new waterfront condo, reminiscing about their childhood days running afoul of the law in this neighborhood. Each has betrayed the other -- Avon has set up Stringer to be killed by Omar, while Stringer has given the cops info that will lead to Avon's arrest -- but neither realizes the other has, as well.

It's all connected: The tension between Avon's desire to be a classic gangster and Stringer's to become a legitimate businessman was a running thread throughout the first three seasons and climaxed in this grand, subtext-laden scene. Stringer would wind up dead, Avon in prison.

"This is a tomb. Lex is in there." (Season 4, episode 11)

Lester and Bunk, on the search for Lex, a murder suspect believed to be a murder victim himself, silently go through a block of vacant row houses, and as Lester takes note of the different nails used to board up various houses, he realizes that Lex's body is inside one of those houses -- and that drug enforcers Chris Partlow (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and Snoop (Felicia Pearson) have created many similar tombs.

It's all connected: The first episode of that season established that Chris and Snoop were killing and hiding people in the vacants to keep police from noticing the body count, and Lester spent several episodes trying to figure out why there seemed to be no casualties from the rise of Chris and Snoop's boss, Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector). By having Lester go down so many dead-ends for so long -- and by having so many other characters find out about the vacants without telling the cops -- the writers made Lester's moment of discovery feel epic.

"You gonna help, huh?" (Season 4, episode 12)

Randy (Maestro Harrell) -- one of Dukie and Michael's friends from the balloon fight -- is facing a return to a nightmarish group home after his foster mother was critically injured by a firebomb, the result of Randy talking to the cops about Lex's murder. Sgt. Carver (Seth Gilliam), the cop who sent Randy down the road to ruin, visits him in the hospital waiting room and offers to help him. Randy doesn't respond at first, and as Carver makes the long walk down the hallway, Randy begins screaming (à la D'Angelo's "Where's Wallace?"), "You gonna look out for me, Sgt. Carver? Do you mean it? You gonna look out for me?"

It's all connected: The show meticulously detailed the long list of all the things that had to go wrong for Randy to wind up in this terrible situation. The following season, while Bunk is reinvestigating Lex's murder, he visits Randy at the group home and we find that this once-sweet boy with the omnipresent smile has, to survive, become another stone-faced thug.

"My name is my name!" (Season 5, episode 9)

Marlo finds out that before Omar died, he was conducting a street-level PR campaign accusing Marlo of being a coward for refusing to fight him directly over the death of Omar's friend Butchie. Chris tries to calm him down, but Marlo explodes, insisting that they get the word out that he's not afraid to fight any man, any time.

It's all connected: Over three seasons, Marlo had been written and played as a man of intense mystery and control: no wasted emotions or speech and few apparent hints of a personality. When he lost control at hearing the Omar news, we finally realized just how much effort went into that control, and how dangerous he would be without it.

"Around the way, they call me Bubbles." (Season 5, episode 9)

Recovering junkie Bubbles (Andre Royo) celebrates the anniversary of his sobriety at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, telling the story of a recent moment where he desperately wanted to get high but resisted the temptation. He then talks about the death -- largely Bubbs' fault -- of Sherrod, a teenage boy he took care of on the streets, and says he's finally made peace with it: "Ain't no shame in holding onto grief, as long as you make room for other things, too."

It's all connected: The show had spent five seasons chronicling Bubbles' progress toward this moment, from a failed attempt to get clean in season one to the nightmarish circumstances that led to Sherrod's death, and even Bubbs' struggle to feel he deserved to escape the corners. "Wire" characters rarely get the fate they deserve, but Bubbs did.

"The Wire" (Tonight at 9 on HBO) The critically acclaimed drama wraps up its five-year run as City Hall decides what to do about McNulty and Lester's fake serial killer and Levy and Pearlman try to get the better of each other on Marlo's case.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at or 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, N.J. 07102-1200.

COMMENTS (4)Post a comment
Posted by bjergy on 03/09/08 at 10:56AM

One of my favorite moments was in Season Four. McNulty picks Bodie up from holding and offers to take him to lunch (a move that would seal his fate). In the conversation they have in the park, Bodie finally comes to realize how wasted the game was even though its all he knows. The scene then rolls into his final showdown on his corner.

I know a lot of people never forgave Bodie for killing Wallace. And because of it, this scene never had the emotional weight for them as other characters in the show. I understand your feelings and won't ask you to suddenly change your mind. I would just ask you to rewatch the scene and see another brilliant dialog between two great characters.

Bodie's death scene is just one of many accurate death scenes the Wire has shown us. It sickening.

The game is rigged.
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Posted by sanders0811 on 03/09/08 at 11:22AM

Five more classic "The Wire" scenes

1. Brother Mouzone and Omar's stand off in the alleyway.

2. Bubbles breaking down in Walon's arms whilst in hospital.

3. Stringer revealing to Avon that D'Angelo's death was indeed no suicide.

4. Ziggy's rampage in Double G's electrical shop.

5. "Fuzzy Dunlop" being thrown down the street to Herc and Carv's absolute horror.

The list could go on. The Wire is quite simply the greatest television series in history.
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Posted by stooge9 on 03/09/08 at 1:22PM

From episode 34 (Season 3, "Slapstick"):

Coming off the previous episode where Prez, Freamon's most unlikely protege, made Bodie's cell phone and helped crack open the case against the Barksdale crew. It seems the cops are about to close their proverbial "always one step behind" position in their continual chase to bring down Avon and Stringer. And it was all due to Prez, who just might have found his niche and re-invented himself as a detective.

Then, stepping out for Chinese, he and McNulty respond to a radio call of gun shots fired, McNulty jumps out to persue by foot. And by the time he gets to Prez again, Prez has shot and killed another under cover policeman.

The bottom falls out for Prez, with undercurrents of racial motives. And I felt like I was just punched in the gut. Same way I would feel when Michael drops off Dukie in the last episode. It can only take moments to unravel months, if not years, of hard work for these characters. And it extremely moving to watch it happen.

Another Wire moment I will always remember was the wake for Ray Cole. Landsman's speech, uniting the room in somewhat gloomy recognition of the fraternity of their occupation, prompting Freamon to yell: "Just play the f*****g song!" Transcendent.

Again, Alan, thanks for this write-up, as we prepare for our own Wake in regards to life after the Wire.
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Posted by TLH on 03/09/08 at 7:00PM

Some of my favorite moments from this historical show.

Season 2: Vondas and The Greek and preparing to escape the clutches of the police and Vondas observes that all Nick knows is his name, but "My name is not my name." The Greek points out that all they know of him is 'The Greek', but, of course "I am not even Greek."

Season 1: Kima's refusal to follow Bunk's "fat fingering" the photo of Wee-Bay and telling her that her ID would play better in court. Kima's inflexible honesty forces her to respond "Sometimes you've just got to play it hard." This sets the stage for her decision to turn McNulty in during season 5 when she learns of his manipulation of the system to get Marlo.

Season 2: Nick's soliloquy on the merry-go-round in the park after Ziggy has been arrested for murder reminiscing about Ziggy's life before it was destroyed by their alignment with the Greeks.

Season 2: Beady's confrontation with Frank where she asks him to turn himself in, telling him that he's "better than the people he got in bed with." They both had tears streaming down their faces, and although in some sense Beady had betrayed Frank, he doesn't hold it against her.

Season 4: Dukie's abortive attempt to start a new year at a new school. You know right there that the lack of familiarity is more important to him than finishing school, and he will probably be doomed for this decision.

Many, many other truly great moments.

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