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.

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