Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Wire - "Cleaning Up" (season 1, episode 12)

Friday, July 13, 2018

The Wire - "Cleaning Up" (season 1, episode 12)


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 September 1, 2002/written by George Pelecanos, story by David Simon & Ed Burns; directed by Clement Virgo): The troubling reality of this case is sinking in for everyone on both sides of the war. Some come out ahead of others, but nobody really feels like a victor. Detective Leandor Sydnor (Corey Parker Robinson), a quiet but steady presence on the investigation (so quiet, in fact, that I haven't mentioned him until now), articulates this sense explicitly. Gazing at the corkboard, where Avon's photo has been tagged with an "Arrested" note while many other faces and names remain untouched, Sydnor sighs, "It's the best work I ever did. I never did a case like this. It's not enough. I gotta go back to auto tomorrow and just feel like...this just ain't finished."

However, it is finished for several characters. Avon spends the whole episode, well, cleaning up - which means several more dead bodies. Security guard Nakeesha Lyles (Ingrid Cornell), whom we met way back in the second scene of the series when she changed her story on the stand (freeing D'Angelo) is not saved by her failure to testify. On the tacit recommendation of Avon's respectable lawyer, the civilian is executed for fear she may change her mind again. The other victim is Wallace; Stringer meets with young Bodie and hints at what he wants done. Bodie acts tough, sneering at Wallace behind his back and later to his face when he has a gun pulled on him. But he hesitates before killing his friend, just long enough for Wallace to realize what's going to happen (all the children are gone from his new squat, a chilling prelude to the end of his brief life). As Wallace cries, Poot shouts for Bodie to do it and ends up finishing the job himself. The police, who lost track of the boy after Greggs was shot, discover his body the next day: yet another individual snuffed out as a result of their interference. Earlier in "Cleaning Up," Avon and Stringer called D'Angelo into their office, asking him to send Wallace their way, but D'Angelo refused ("Let Wallace be," he told his uncle with a steely determination that had building up all season). With Wallace gone, D'Angelo has had enough. He only finds out about the boy's death from McNulty, after getting arrested for possession (thanks to a new wire that leads to Avon's arrest as well). When Stringer and Levy show up at the jail to speak with D'Angelo, he declares that he'll be hiring his own lawyer and angrily confronts Stringer with a question he can't answer: "Where's Wallace at? Where the fuck is Wallace? Where's Wallace, String?" It's unclear if D'Angelo will flip on Avon (I doubt it), but a break has been made.

With Shardene's help, Freamon bugs the strip club from an adjoining building, circumventing the need for a warrant but despite Avon's resultant arrest, the Daniels detail is glum. McNulty is particularly devastated by Greggs' comatose condition, declaring that the case is meaningless - and that for him it was never about stopping the brutality of the Barksdale organization but just about boosting his own ego. Daniels doesn't want to hear it. The job matters now, precisely because Greggs went down. Now the roles are flipped, with McNulty dragging his feet and Daniels taking a hard line; in fact, the lieutenant is finally able to tell off Burrell too - a development that (much like D'Angelo's explosion) has been building all season. After Daniels' investigation into the state senator and other politicians brings heat to the department, the deputy commissioner order Daniels to close shop and threatens to expose the old FBI investigation if he doesn't. But Daniels calls Burrell's bluff, noting that the last thing his boss wants is bad publicity so, if necessary, he'll put it all on the line for this case. Later, to punish the lieutenant, Burrell orders back a number of officers but tells Daniels he can keep his two weakest links: the old pawn shop cop Freamon and the incompetent young buffoon Prez. Daniels smirks, knowing that these are possibly his two most talented cops (Freamon has become the shining star of the detail, while Prez has developed an unexpected flair for analyzing and digging up the paper trail). He's also realizing that Burrell is a paper tiger who doesn't know as much as he'd like to think he does.

Speaking of paper tigers - on both sides - a SWAT team gathers outside Orlando's and revs up for a big raid on the drug kingpin as Daniels and McNulty roll their eyes. Protected only by basic bullet-proof vests, they brush past the jacked-up squad to arrest Avon themselves, leaving Stringer - to his surprise - untouched. McNulty allows Daniels to exit the building with Avon alone, a kind of penance for his earlier, destructive hubris. This, it seems, is how the Avon Barksdale investigation ends - with an arrest, yes, but more of a whimper than a bang.

My Response:
Of course, the investigation isn't quite over yet. The next episode, dubbed "Sentencing," looks like it may be a wrap-up, a post mortem rather than a climax (think the penultimate episodes of Breaking Bad's and Mad Men's first seasons). But there's still some business to settle. What will be the outcome of D'Angelo's repudiation of the game? Will Shardene get away with her betrayal? Will the political aspects of the case bear fruit or die on the vine? Will Daniels and McNulty see any reward for their hard work, or will the department - as expected - punish them with brutal reassignments? Will Greggs make it back to consciousness, or will she officially become yet another casualty? Having dispatched Wallace, and with D'Angelo removed from the equation, will Bodie be promoted by Stringer? Indeed, what will Stringer's role become with his boss presumably locked away for a while? Episode 13 has plenty to address, but episode 12 still feels like a conclusion of sorts, and an appropriately melancholy one.

The strongest sequence, of course, is the slow, inevitable build-up to Wallace's death. I thought I knew this character was going to be killed, but now I'm wondering if I had him confused with someone else. A video essay about this show informed me (I thought) that Wallace would die in a later season, yet here he is, dispatched just a dozen episodes into the series. Jordan's performance has been superb throughout, one of the highlights of The Wire (it took me a few episodes to even recognize him, not just because of his age but because he so fully inhabits the gangly, awkward adolescent so far from many of his later, more confident characters). As such, it feels a little hard to imagine the show going forward without him as its sharpest yet also most muddled conscience and consciousness. Few people bore the cost of the game more acutely than he did, and in a series heavy on an often callous brainpower, he provided a sense of heart. (I don't know much about Simon's previous HBO series, The Corner, but from what little I've read I imagine it centers on a Wallace-like figure.) Of course, his death only emphasizes D'Angelo's own discontent, and so I find myself wondering what will happen to D'Angelo, a character whose arc I've often assumed would end with this season. I hope it doesn't.

The cops dominate the action, as with many of the recent episodes - especially since Omar split town (more than ever, he appears to be a side note to season one, despite his presumably looming importance to the series as a whole). One thing I'm keen to see the next episode address, although I may have to wait for later seasons, is the question of what the cops are really accomplishing in their dedication to the war on drugs. To a certain extent throughout, but especially lately, we're encouraged to root for their gritty determination, as they battle not only brutal murderers on the street but also the corrupt machinations of the bureaucracy that is supposed to support them. As such, despite its interest in balance, nuance, and context, this first season is closer to conventional cop-show dynamics than I expected given its reputation (indeed, I expressed my surprise in the very first episode review when I realized that police officers were going to be central characters). This isn't necessarily a bad thing - The Wire is definitely one of the most thoughtful, creative, and well-executed examples of that genre I've come across - but I am expecting the series to grow beyond that potential limitation with time. Will the season finale tease this growth?

Next: "Sentencing" • Previous: "The Hunt"

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