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.

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