Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 2, "The Detail" (Veterans edition)

Same rules as established last week. 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 safe from discussion of things to come.

Spoilers for episode 2, "The Detail," coming up just as soon as I show you just how light my trigger pull is...

David Simon modeled "The Wire" on Greek tragedy -- every bad thing that happens to characters on this show (and many bad things will happen to many characters) is pre-ordained and unchangeable -- but there are also elements of heroic quest narratives, at least from the point of view of our "heroes," the cops. One of the most frequent recurring features of hero narratives is the gathering of the team, whether it's the Argonauts or the Magnificent Seven or the Justice League. As the title of "The Detail" suggests, this episode's largely about the forming of a team, the detail tasked with putting a charge on Avon Barksdale as quickly and quietly as possible. But this is no collection of bad-ass gunfighters or noble superheroes. In true "Wire" fashion, it's mostly a bunch of humps.

Yes, there are McNulty and Kima, whom we already know to be clever police, and near the end of the episode, Lt. Daniels guilts the auto theft squad commander into loaning out his best man, Sydnor (he's the young black guy in the suit who shows up right before Daniels gives his speech to the troops two-thirds of the way through the episode). But beyond that, near as we can tell at this point, are humps as far as the eye can see. The worst offender, obviously, is Det. Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski, a clumsy menace to himself and others who would be easy to laugh at if we didn't witness him blind a 14-year-old boy in one eye for no particular reason. There's also the duo of Herc and Carver, Kima's crude, knuckle-headed (and knuckle-dragging) Narcotics partners who enable Prez's assault on the kid by deciding to go down to the high-rises in the first place while drunk at 2 in the morning. We also have Polk and Mahone, the two wheezing old drunks, about whom Daniels was likely not exaggerating when he said they hadn't made a case in 10 years. There's Lester Freamon, the "cuddly housecat" from the pawn shop unit, who says little and whose only activity of note here is to work on assembling miniature furniture. And there's Detective Santangelo from Homicide, who doesn't do anything particularly egregious here but who can't be very useful if Rawls consented to give him up to this doomed expedition.

And then there's Lt. Cedric Daniels, who dominates this episode almost as much as McNulty did the pilot. What are we to make of Daniels?

Daniels is a company man, no doubt about it, but his loyalty to the organization in general and Deputy Ops Burrell in particular isn't blind. In the meeting with command about the Gant case, he's the only one who seems at all interested in exploring the possibility that Gant was killed for testifying at D'Angelo's trial, and he definitely has the respect of Kima, Herc and Carver. But he's being pulled horribly in both directions. On one side is Burrell, who just wants this Barksdale mess to disappear and is setting Daniels up to fail by ensuring that he gets assigned all the aforementioned humps. On the other side is McNulty, who actually cares about making the case, but is so quick to judge Daniels -- and so sure that McNulty himself is the smartest, most dedicated guy in the room -- that he keeps going around chain of command and putting Daniels in positions where the boss has no choice but to come down on him, and hard.

Though McNulty doesn't get it nearly as badly as Prez, Herc and Carver do the morning after their assault on the high-rises. (There are actors who try to play hard-asses but are clearly only playing; when Lance Reddick starts dressing down those three, he's intimidating enough that I start edging towards the back of the couch.) And even there, Daniels' handling of the situation is all in shades of grey. His three cops have just done something completely FUBAR, and something that has terrible racial overtones, even with Carver present -- note how he refers to the high-rise residents to Daniels -- but what can Daniels do? Not only is Prez politically connected to an influential commander in the Southeastern District, not only is it against the unwritten code for cops to cover for each other in situations like this, but the entire detail is already under a microscope, and so Daniels makes the politically expedient choice instead of the morally correct one. But given the pressure on him from all sides, what the hell else could he do? This is far, far from the last time on this series that we'll see one of the good guys do what is easy instead of what is right; that's "The Wire."

While Daniels is getting a handle on the flaming bag of crap that Burrell left on his doorstep, McNulty (with major assistance from The Bunk) has his first face-to-face confrontation with D'Angelo, and has the good timing to be approaching his man at the exact moment when D is starting to experience some doubts about the business he has chosen.

There was already a taste of that in the pilot, when D complained to Stringer Bell about the beating of Johnny, but now that he has the death of a second man on his conscience -- and a civilian, at that, as opposed to the player he shot in the Terrace lobby -- the questions really begin. First we get that brilliant scene on the orange couch where Wallace and Poot assume that the inventor of the McNugget made a fortune off the idea, and D'Angelo has to set them straight about how big corporations -- or police departments, or drug organizations, or any of the many institutions that this series distrusts -- really works. The way it is, D explains, the McNugget inventor is just some anonymous grunt who found a way to make more money for his corporate overlords. Poot says that's not right.

"It ain't about right. It's about money," D insists, one of several series-defining statements in this episode.

Another of those comes during the extraordinary interrogation scene at Homicide. (That scene's the first indication that Larry Gilliard Jr. is going to do something really special here. In typical Hollywood fashion, nobody in the business noticed, and his post-show profile is just as low as it was before. It's sad how excited I got when I saw him in a small role in a screener for next week's episode of "Fear Itself.") McNulty has already explained to the Pit crew that all he cares about are the bodies, not the drugs, and right before he and Bunk try guilting D'Angelo with the tale of Gant's (fictional) orphaned children, McNulty asks D'Angelo a very simple question:

"Why can't you sell the shit and walk the fuck away? Everything else in this country gets sold without shooting people behind it."

This is one of the show's fundamental tenets about the drug problem in America. On the one hand, law-enforcement wastes far too many resources policing low-level dealers and users, resources that could be far better-used elsewhere. On the other hand, the drug players bring much of the police attention on themselves by beating, stabbing or outright killing folks in a way that the cops just can't ignore. As McNulty asks here -- and as several other characters will ask throughout the run of the series -- wouldn't things be a lot better for everybody if they could sell the dope without dropping bodies along the way?

And in the third major movement of the hour, Kima puts Bubbs to work at getting to know the crew they're going after. The red hat scam is a lovely idea, and the first sign we get of Bubbles' immense charm. (He spends most of the first episode either trying to get high or being high.) As I said last week, "The Wire" teaches you how to watch it, and part of that is in the way it slowly and carefully explains who all the characters are and how they relate to each other. The Barksdale organization is large and populated by unknown actors, and so we get Bubbs helping Kima identify them one-by-one on the detail's cork board. So now we know three of Avon's muscle: Wee-Bey (the muscular guy with the beard and close-cropped hair), Stinkum (the bald guy who vaguely resembles Stephon Marbury) and Little Man (the ironically-nicknamed heavyset guy). And in a less organized fashion, we're getting to know the crew down in the Pit, all of D'Angelo's young assistants, and how they relate to one another.

There's still plenty of people to meet and things to learn about them, but many balls are now rolling.

Some other thoughts on "The Detail":

* We get our first semi-human look at the detail's target when D'Angelo takes his son and baby mama, Donnette, to a neighborhood barbecue hosted by Avon. For all the bad things that Avon has done and will do, he fancies himself a benevolent kingpin -- think young Don Vito strolling through Little Italy during "The Godfather Part II" -- and will make the occasional community-minded gesture like this one.
* I suppose I should make some mention of the show's main title sequence. While the Blind Boys of Alabama's cover of Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole" is my favorite of the five versions of the song used over the years (even though I still think the lead singer sounds like Andre Royo as Bubbs), I've never loved this particular title sequence, because so little of it comes from the actual episodes, especially compared to later years. If you want some deep analysis of the credits sequence, Andrew Dignan did a nice breakdown of the first four seasons' sequences at The House Next Door back in '06. (Newbie alert: Even before he gets to discussing the season 2-4 sequences, Andrew gives away some major plot developments from both this season and the future, so you may want to bookmark it for reading much later.)
* I'm half-tempted to keep a weekly tally of Dominic West's most explicitly British line readings. This week, it was his pronunciation of "Narco" as "knocko."
* One of the stylistic choices that Simon and Robert Colesberry insisted for this show was -- with one yearly exception, for the montage near the end of each season finale -- to eschew the use of any music that didn't come from a practical background source. No score, no songs that appear as if from nowhere. If the song doesn't originate from the sound system at a club, or somebody's car stereo (as in this episode's use of "American Woman" during the terrible trio's middle of the night arrival at the high-rises), it can't be used. Eventually, the producers would find ways to bend their own rules -- there's a montage midway through season two that's scored to Johnny Cash's "Walk the Line," but it's justified because the character who appears at the beginning and end is listening to it on a portable stereo -- but for the most part, the lack of musical cues helps the show's aura of realism, as well as Simon's desire not to hold the audience's hand and tell them how to feel at any given moment.
* The show is fond of having two characters in unrelated social strata utter the same sentiment, independently of each other, to illustrate the connectivity of society and the way all problems are the same, just on different scales. Here, we get something slightly different: McNulty shoots down Daniels' lame defense for not treating the witness killing as such by pointing out that everybody on the street already knows, but when he goes to accuse Judge Phelan of ratting him out to the newspaper, Phelan throws the argument back at McNulty by pointing out that everybody in the courthouse knew, and therefore could have talked to the reporter.
* This episode gives us our first glimpse of McNulty's apartment, and I applaud the production and set design team's anti-decorative approach to the place. It's rare to see a character on a TV show live in such a barren rathole -- even a poor, maladjusted single male cop like Sipowicz had a tropical fish tank and other interesting decor in his place -- but this seems like exactly the kind of place a post-divorce McNulty would call home. All the money that doesn't go into child support goes to supporting his drinking habit, and so does any time that might otherwise be spent on making the place look even slightly nice.
* The show rarely dipped into the "Homicide" casting pool, other than Clark Johnson coming out from behind the camera to play a central role in the final season (far more actors came from "Oz"), but there's a handful of "Homicide" fringe players here in the early going. Most obvious is Peter Gerety (Stu Gharty) as Judge Phelan, but we've also now seen Clayton LeBouef (Col. Barnfather) as Orlando, who fronts the strip club that Avon uses as his headquarters, and this week we get the first appearance by Erik Todd Dellums as medical examiner Doc Frazier. On "Homicide," Dellums played Luther Mahoney, a charismatic drug lord with a family-run organization who eventually drew the attention of a persistent Homicide cop. Much as I loved "Homicide" in its early years, the difference between the cackling two-dimensional Luther and this show's depiction of Avon illustrates just how far "Homicide" eventually fell, and how "The Wire" rose far above its most obvious TV inspiration.

And once again, it's time to look into the characters' future and see what was foreshadowed (intentionally or not) in this episode:

* We have a new wrinkle to the question about the origin of Clay Davis' catchphrase. While Clay himself won't appear until late in this season -- and he won't say "Sheeeeit!!!!" until season three -- it does come up during the McNugget discussion. Hmmm...
* Did you catch Daniels calling Ronnie "Darling" while he was trying to sweet-talk her into helping with his complaint for better manpower? I don't know if the Daniels/Pearlman relationship was planned out this far in advance, but if it wasn't, moments like that (and the nice chemistry between Lance Reddick and Deirdre Lovejoy) no doubt helped convince the writers it might be worth exploring.
* It's really amazing to me how little we've seen of Stringer in the first two episodes. I remembered Avon as being more of a phantom presence in this season, but Simon's restraint in waiting to really establish his chief antagonist -- and arguably the most memorable character in the series' history -- is either admirable or nuts, or maybe both.
* It's also a lot of fun, in retrospect, to see Prez and Freamon in their early days. With Lester, it's obviously not a matter of his abilities, but rather him hanging back until an opportunity presented itself for him to show off said abilities, but you can understand why he'd be categorized among the detail's humps. Prez, on the other hand... if I hadn't witnessed the step-by-step five-season transition with my own eyes, it would be almost impossible to reconcile the violent, hotheaded moron he is here with the mature, gentle and empathic school teacher he became by the end of the series, or even with the natural investigator he turned out to be before he got kicked off the force for another poor decision with his gun.
* Herc's fixation on rank and the rights and privileges that come along with a sergeant's stripes comes up for the first time here, as he complains that Kima orders him around even though they're the same rank. As Herc will prove throughout season four, those stripes don't automatically make you wiser, just better-paid.

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