Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 8: "Lessons" (Veterans edition)

Okay, in an attempt to get these season one review of "The Wire" back on schedule and hopefully finished before Labor Day, I'm going to try to double up here and there. So we'll get one review today, and another one in the regularly-scheduled Friday morning timeslot. Not sure yet if I'll double up again next week or a little down the road, as I also intend to take a vacation at some point in August, but we'll get this done close to on time or your money back.

As usual, we're going to do this in two versions: one for people who are new to the series, one for folks who have seen every episode from first to last. This is the latter; scroll down for a version where you can safely read about and discuss only these early episodes.

Spoilers for episode eight, "Lessons," coming up just as soon as I teach my daughter how to front-and-follow...

One of the dominant themes of "The Wire" is the tremendous waste that the drug culture has created in inner-city America. Men and women who might have otherwise gone on to great things -- or, at least, to something resembling the middle-class lifestyle familiar to the majority of the show's audience -- are either deprived of opportunity, or else seduced away from those opportunities, by life on the corner.

Look at the moment where one of the abandoned kids in Wallace and Poot's care asks Wallace for help with his math homework. It's a fairly simple, culturally-relevant word problem about the number of passengers on a city bus, and yet the kid has no idea in how to solve it, or much interest in trying. Yet when Wallace translates the problem in terms of keeping the count on the stash, the kid gets it quickly. Math as a concept is an abstraction that has no real place in his world, but getting the count right? Do it or risk a beating.

And in this episode, Simon and Burns establish Stringer Bell as either the greatest example of this wasted potential, or perhaps the greatest counter-example. Maybe both.

Where Wallace's young charge can only relate to the world at large when it's placed in a drug context, we discover in "Lessons" that Stringer is trying to master the drug world by using knowledge gleaned from the real world. We already had a sense from earlier chapters (notably when Stringer and Avon discussed their plans to take over the Edmonson corner, where Omar kills Stinkum near the end of this episode) that Stringer had more business savvy than your average TV druglord. But the idea that he takes macroeconomics courses at the local community college, or that he insists on running his copy business as a real business and not simply as a front? That's the genius of Stringer Bell, and of the show. In another life, Stringer could have gotten a job on Wall Street, but in this one, he applies principles like elastic vs. inelastic products to catering to West Baltimore's dope fiend population.

There's a very interesting moment late in the episode, after Stinkum's death, where Stringer tries to caution Avon about seeking immediate retribution on Omar. Avon's head is in The Game, where you don't let something like this slide, or even appear to slide, or risk losing face. Stringer's approaching the problem from a more calculated point of view -- his plan still ends with Omar being killed -- but you can also see on his face that he's done a mental cost-benefit analysis of the entire Omar affair and is starting to wonder whether the stick-up man is worth all the trouble.

"Lessons" also establishes that there's more of a connection between the real world and the drug world than Stringer's college classes, as the detail picks up Day-Day Price -- driver for state senator Clay Davis -- with a trash bag full of cash handed to him by one of Avon's soldiers. We don't know yet why a state senator is accepting cash from a local drug lord, and thanks to Deputy Ops Burrell, we may never know. It's worth noting that Burrell's reaction to this development in the case doesn't automatically suggest that Burrell himself is corrupt, just that he's politically astute enough to know that no good can likely come to the department from messing with the business of an influential politician. Regardless of his motivation, Daniels appears to be just as screwed with Burrell as McNulty is with Rawls; if the two of them could stand each other's company, maybe they could hoist a beer over the irony of that.

Of course, Jimmy gets plenty of drinking in with The Bunk in this episode, and Bunk sums up his partner and friend in one devastating sentence: "You're no good for people, man." McNulty has been set up as our protagonist, and is played by the exceedingly likable Dominic West, but by the end of this episode -- by the end of this run of episodes -- it's obvious that The Bunk ain't wrong. Jimmy asking his sons to tail Stringer is the sort of thing that seems practical and amusing to him but is an even bigger parental breach than bringing the boys with Omar to the morgue a few episodes back. And he screws over Ray Cole in order to protect both the wire and Bunk's own murder case, big picture decisions that might be more palatable if he had the guts to be honest with Cole about it. I know Jimmy's afraid of the wrath of Rawls, but own your actions, man. Please.

I'll give Jimmy credit for this, at least: when Omar leaves the detail office free and clear, having made it quite obvious (without ever coming out and saying it) that he killed Stinkum and intends to keep hunting Barksdale people, Jimmy at least has the awareness to ask Lester if they're still cops at this point. It's a mark of the series' measured pace that we're eight episodes in, and the detail only has significant charges against two mid-level Barksdale people -- one of which gets taken away when Omar kills Stinkum. Omar is, like McNulty, a tremendously colorful and charming figure -- and a hell of an investigator, to boot -- but an episode like this, with the murder of Stinkum and Kima's realization that Omar probably didn't directly witness the Gant killing, is a reminder of the shady moral territory the cops enter when they deal with someone like him. Omar puts his life in simple terms for the cops -- "The Game is out there, and it's either play or get played." -- and how are upholders of a strict legal code supposed to operate around that?

Some other thoughts on "Lessons"

-Again illustrating the depth that the show tries to give all its characters, this episode shows two very different sides to Wee-Bey. Early on, we get him out with D'Angelo and the guys at the crab shack, having a good time, cracking jokes and getting made fun of for his affection for the too-hot hot sauce. It's a very humanizing scene -- and then we see him drunk (or high, or both) at Stinkum's party, dragging the barely-conscious Keisha into a bedroom and not even noticing that she died later in the evening.

-Earlier in this season, while discussing the opening titles, I pointed you towards Andrew Dignan's essay at The House Next Door about the series' various credit sequences. Andrew, Matt Seitz and Kevin B. Lee have now turned the idea into a five-part (one for each season) video essay for the Museum of the Moving Image, and you can see it at the Museum's website. As I write this, entries for season one and two are up. The season one entry is fairly newbie-safe, but I would avoid anything after that; the season two entry gives away major developments for both that season and season three.

-At one point in the episode, you can see Bunk reading a mystery novel by Laura Lippman, a Baltimore fixture who also happens to be Mrs. David Simon. This will become a running inside joke on the series, as later seasons will show characters perusing books by members of the extended "Wire" family, whether it's a George Pelecanos thriller or a first edition of "Generation Kill."

-If you haven't made the name connection by now, Det. Ray Cole is played by the late Bob Colesberry, executive producer of the show and the man responsible for much of the series' visual style. Though Jimmy notes hear that Ray's clearance rate this year is good enough that he can absorb the Stinkum whodunnit, for much of the series he's treated like just as much of a clown as Santangelo. In one of the prequel short films that were produced to tease the final season, we see McNulty, new to Homicide, explaining to Bunk that he got assigned to this elite unit, despite minimal training and service time, because he solved a case that a Homicide veteran was screwing up. That Homicide detective? Ray Cole.

-By this point, I probably should be keeping my copy of "Homicide" the book handy for reference. I can't swear that a drunken, guilt-ridden Bunk burning his clothes to get rid of the trace evidence is an incident from the book, but I feel reasonably confident that the book is the first place I encountered the idea.

And now let's talk about how some developments in this episode that will play out over the run of the series:

-Stringer and Avon's debate about Omar is far from the last time we'll see these two friends get into it over watching the bottom line vs. maintaining your rep. Stringer is a criminal who wants to be a businessman, while Avon is a good businessman who knows he's just a criminal, and it's that fundamental divide that will destroy them both by the end of season three.

-I love comparing McNulty's relationship with his sons here versus the last time we see them in season five. Here, pre-adolescence, they revere their old man, even though he's rarely around, and think doing surveillance on some scary criminal type is an exciting adventure. By season five, they're old enough to recognize that all the cool things he does are far, far outweighed by all the ordinary things he fails to do.

-Oddly, I remembered this episode's epigraph -- Omar saying, "Come at the king, best not miss" -- as being not from this episode, but the next one, and Omar recognizing that he screwed up his best chance at killing Avon. I guess over the years, the image of two different sequences with Omar shooting while Barksdale people crouched behind the safety of nearby cars blended together.

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