Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Wire - "The Target" (season 1, episode 1)

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Wire - "The Target" (season 1, episode 1)


Welcome to my viewing diary for The Wire. Every day, except Saturday, I will offer a short review of another episode until I finish the first season. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on June 2, 2002/written by David Simon, story by David Simon & Ed Burns; directed by Clark Johnson): Baltimore Homicide Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) is noticing a pattern. He has recently seen a murder rap result in an acquittal, and now he's watching it happen again - one witness (Ingrid Cornell) changes her story while another (Larry Hull) sticks to his, but also hesitates nervously when eyed by Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) sitting in the back of the court. McNulty recognizes Bell as a member of the Avon Barksdale crime organization, and the defendant who gets off, D'Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.), as the boss' nephew. Judge Phelan (Peter Gerety) notices McNulty in court, and asks him why he attended a case he had nothing to do with. McNulty never quite answers this question, other than implying curiosity based on what happened to his own previous case, but he does share everything he knows about Barksdale, who pushes drugs in most of West Baltimore's projects. Actually...that's pretty much all he (or anyone in law enforcement) knows about the mysterious kingpin, who has never been photographed and keeps a low enough profile that even McNulty's peers seem unfamiliar with his name. That won't last.

The conversation with the judge opens up a can of worms and McNulty finds himself on the hook (to mangle a metaphor). He's assigned to a detail run by the Narcotics Division, led by Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) and staffed by gung-ho detectives Herc Hauk (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam), the more by-the-book Det. Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), and - also dragged along from Homicide as an unwilling victim of McNulty's loud mouth - McNulty's erstwhile partner Det. Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce). Their superiors are furious that McNulty spoke out; they want to rush through this Barksdale investigation as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, D'Angelo is facing the heat despite beating his case. Wee-Bey Brice (Hassan Johnson) rakes him over the coals for his impulsive shooting, and he is demoted from selling drugs in a high-rise to supervising a group of youngsters in a low-rise yard. There he catches a junkie (Leo Fitzpatrick) trying to use fake bills, and the other dealers beat him so badly he winds up in critical condition at the hospital. This is a helpful turn of events for the detectives, since the junkie's friend Reginald "Bubbles" Cousins (Andre Royo) is a former informant and tells Greggs he wants to inform again for revenge. Speaking of revenge, D'Angelo eventually discovers the price of his escape in the episode's final minutes. The security guard who identified him in court lies dead, and D'Angelo looks a bit stunned to see what a moment's indiscretion has wrought: not just one corpse, but two - including someone who hadn't even been in the game to begin with.

My Response:
As with my viewing diaries for Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The X-Files, I have watched the first few episodes of The Wire already. Back in 2014 I began each series but was unable to continue as I got swept up in a yearlong devotion to Twin Peaks and little else. All the better; I wasn't writing down my reactions at the time and now that I am, I can capture fresh responses to most of these series. For the premiere, however, I have to rewind a couple years and recall my initial impressions. I remember two very distinctly: I found the police jargon somewhat hard to follow, and I was immediately gripped by the characters. Obviously, six years after the show had ended, I was familiar with The Wire's towering reputation, particularly how much attention it paid to the human lives enmeshed in the drug trade. I knew there was a character named Omar, who was one of the great characters in TV history. What surprised me about this episode then was how closely much of it hewed to familiar cop-show turf and how the protagonist seemed to be a cocky young detective named McNulty - no Omar in sight. When I say "familiar cop-show turf", however, that's not to suggest I was disengaged or that the action seemed cliched. On the contrary, I was completely immersed in the drama and enjoyed the company of the whole ensemble at Baltimore Police HQ. I also recognized, of course, that a good chunk of the episode strayed pretty far from law enforcement's point of view. Off the top of my head, I'm struggling to think of many shows that follow criminals' stories with the same amount of attention, at least prior to The Sopranos; I certainly can't immediately identify any shows that focused on crime in black neighborhoods. Maybe this is due to my admitted TV ignorance, but it's telling I have no problem remembering dozens of cop shows, of which I've casually absorbed countless hours.

The fluidity of The Wire also captivated me right away. The show explores radically different worlds that exist in close physical proximity, crossing these boundaries with a freedom hardly ever available in reality (except perhaps in the precarious experience of informants). From a dramatic standpoint, this is a risky endeavor, encouraging us to root for - or at least understand - both sides in a war. How long can this split viewpoint be sustained? How will it evolve? Though I've seen a few more episodes, I know very little about, say, 95% of the show so I will have to wait and see. For now, The Wire doesn't soften any of its characters: the police are enmeshed in bureaucracy and harbor, at best, a palpable indifference to the population they "serve." And if we're tempted to romanticize the pushers, Godfather-style, with their street code and family loyalty, the episode ends with a reminder of their cost, a murdered witness startling even the perp whom he tried to finger. If we're going to follow these characters for five seasons with something more than a removed, objective interest it will not be because they are sanitized but because we're allowed to view their world as they do, from similar motivations and with similar goals - even when those goals clash with one another.

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