Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Wire - "Lessons" (season 1, episode 8)

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Wire - "Lessons" (season 1, episode 8)


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 July 28, 2002/written by David Simon, story by David Simon & Ed Burns; directed by Gloria Muzio): Orlando's (Clayton Le Boeuf's) strip club - which is, of course, Orlando's in name only - figures heavily in "Lessons." Orlando's offer to D'Angelo, to do a little dealing on the side, comes back to haunt him when Avon finds out, beating and threatening the owner of his legitimate front business for threatening to taint it with crime. Some of Orlando's employees suffer (or are poised to suffer) even more - one stripper, Keisha (Shaneera Lawson-Smith), overdoses at a party to celebrate Stinkum's (Brandon Price's) promotion; the only one who seems to care is D'Angelo. Later, when his own stripper girlfriend Shardene (Wendy Grantham) worries about Keisha's absence, D'Angelo wonders aloud if this life is really for him. Between Brandon's beating, Keisha's death, and the everyday dishonesty and brutality he's witnessing around him, the game is starting to feel like a trap. Unbeknownst to either of them, Shardene may soon be caught in this trap herself; Freamon and Greggs identify her as the best bet for a future informant based on their impression of her photographic portrait.

Other Orlando's-related photos will cause trouble for the detail. While visiting the police again, Omar spies a snapshot of the business on their corkboard and realizes it must be a front for Avon. When we see him waiting outside the club as Orlando locks up, we can probably guess what he has in mind (actually, there are a few strong options). Omar's already caused immense havoc this episode, killing Stinkum and maiming Wee-Bey before whistling "The Farmer in the Dell" and shouting out from the shadows "Come at the king, you best not miss." When the detail realizes Omar's behind the shooting, McNulty forces Bunk to lie to other homicide detectives, letting them know that the narcotics squad has recorded evidence of who killed Stinkum and will offer it once the investigation is over (they have no intention of doing so). All of the officers involved are slightly uncomfortable with this dynamic: is Omar their informant or an off-the-books assassin? Granted, Stinkum's death actually complicates their case rather than simplifying it (since he was one of their best potential weak links to Avon) but the way they all cover him doesn't quite sit will with any of them. "Are we still cops?" McNulty half-jokingly asks, and when he and Bunk go out to drown their sorrows in booze, Bunk ends up going home with a random woman and forcing McNulty to lie to his wife as a quid pro quo. Later that night, McNulty finds Bunk in a pink bathrobe, burning "the evidence" in a bathtub so that he won't go home smelling like another woman.

In the midst of this other personal and professional drama, the investigation almost comes undone when Greggs and Carver pick up a well-dressed bagman in the projects. Turns out this is the state senator's personal driver whom Daniels met at the party in the previous episode; orders come from the higher-ups to let him go immediately and Daniels is warned that the investigation has a few days to wrap it up and bring whatever charges they can against Avon. Phelan comes to their rescue, warning Deputy Commissioner of Operations Ervin Burrell (Frankie Faison) that he'll be held in contempt of court if he attempts to prematurely close down the wiretaps. McNulty doesn't just have powerful judges on his side in "Lessons"; his own sons assist him early on by tailing Stringer when he randomly walks into a grocery store they're shopping inside. McNulty uses the information they acquire (Stringer's license plate) to tail Avon's right-hand man, although the only thing he discovers is that Stringer is taking macroeconomics courses at a community college. In an episode where Herc and Carver study for the sergeant's exam and McNulty quizzes his kids on police terminology, this proves that the titular lessons aren't just for the police side of the equation...although how much longer Stringer will be able to pursue and apply this knowledge is far more open to question.

My Response:
Perhaps the biggest lessons, of course, are reminders of what the characters already know but have tried to deny. Episode 8 challenges assumptions that the characters, and even at times some of the previous episodes themselves, often fall into. We are reminded that the police department is designed to turn a blind eye to aspects of the very activities it ostensibly opposes. As Daniels comments to his wife, the thing that his superiors most fear is an investigation that can't be controlled. Who knows what that could expose - possibly the culpability of the very power structure the police are a part of? Meanwhile, D'Angelo's acceptance of the world his uncle has incorporated him into is cracking. What's increasingly clear is that he has too much of a conscience for the drug game; things that his peers can brush off effortlessly bother him on a fundamental level. This is a vulnerability that the cops almost capitalized on once (when they got him to write a near-confessional letter in the interrogation room), and it may be what draws him to Shardene, in whose eyes Greggs observes a similar sensitivity.

Of course the most sensitive - and yet also the most collected and calculating - character may be Omar. He's able to sublimate his intense sorrow after Brandon's death and channel that pain into a brilliantly callibrated assault on his enemies. A few episodes ago, Bubbles ludicrously claimed that the police were working for him rather than vice-versa, but if the junkie was just deluding himself, Omar doesn't even need to speak this justification for it to be true. Throughout "Lessons," he wraps the cops around his finger, calmly absorbing the information they're too blind to conceal from him, creating a situation in which they're stretching the furthest bounds of their professional duty to protect him, and even causing the usually confident Greggs to question her own interrogation skills and wonder if she got played by mentioning their need for an eyewitness. Granted there's a certain amount of recklessness embedded in Omar's fearlessness - getting his name dropped on police surveillance within twelve hours of the killing makes it supremely lucky they had already reached out to him. But Freamon's advice to Greggs (instinct-reliant interrogation is more of an art than a science) describes Omar's own particular talents quite well. He knows exactly what he's doing, not because he's mapped it all out like Stringer or Freamon (ironically, given his advocacy of the art approach) but because his receptors are up and the right moves comes naturally to him.

Next: "Game Day" • Previous: "One Arrest"

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