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.

No comments: