Lost in the Movies: The Wire - "Old Cases" (season 1, episode 4)

The Wire - "Old Cases" (season 1, episode 4)

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 23, 2002/written by David Simon, story by David Simon & Ed Burns; directed by Clement Virgo): "Old Cases" is full of surprises. Avon and his closest associates are taken aback to find out that Omar is a gay man, even doubling the bounty on him when they learn this information. (A few scenes earlier, we were already shown Omar and Brandon, played by Michael Kevin Darnell, cuddling on a stoop.) McNulty is unexpectedly impressed by the innovative police work of Freamon, one of the quietest members of his crew, who has tracked down D'Angelo's pager, concocted a pager surveillance program, and thus set up a new phase of the operation. Taking Freamon out for drinks, McNulty learns his history as a homicide detective reassigned to pawn shop duty when he overstepped his bounds (he forced the son of an influential newspaper publisher to testify in a murder case fourteen years earlier). Bodie Broadus (J.D. Williams), the kid who just beat up the cop (and was beaten in turn), disappoints the policemen arriving to interrogate him at a juvenile detention center by sneaking away before they even arrive (disguised as a janitor, he makes an easy escape and then steals a car to drive back to Baltimore; Carver and Herc, meanwhile, raid his grandmother's house while only Herc lingers behind to apologize and make a brief connection with the older woman).

Bodie catches D'Angelo's eye when he arrives back in the projects, boastful about his escape, and then the older, more experienced D'Angelo cuts him down to size by recounting a previously untold hit on one of his uncle's too-talkative girlfriends a few years ago. McNulty and Bunk are shocked when a dog of an old case, the unsolved shooting of Deidre Kresson (actress unknown), yields new evidence, including a bullethole in the window, previously assumed to be an exit from an interior execution but, in fact, an entry from an exterior shooting. The detectives communicate their weariness, curiosity, and eventual excitement with multiple variations of "fuck," a verbal tic as iconic in its own way as any visual flourish. The biggest surprise of all is ours: the circumstances of this woman's murder match the killing that D'Angelo has just described - something we already suspected as soon as he began to talk but which the crime scene apparently confirms.

My Response:
In my few forays into serialized TV dramas, I've noticed that fourth episodes often take a little detour. The premise is set by now, some important subplots and character moments have been established, and there's room to breathe. The new show - whether it's an eight-episode limited run or an open-ended short season or a full twenty-plus episode order - can afford to explore its world in an enclosed, standalone fashion no matter how non-episodic the storytelling normally is. Think the previously-mentioned True Detective indulging in a biker milieu that's only loosely connected with the rest of its mystery but allows for some McConaughey drug-fiend flamboyance and flashy single-shot camera movement, or Shinji going off on an extended nature walk in Neon Genesis Evangelion. There were times when I thought The Wire might be headed in this direction; for example, Herc and Carver trek into cow country, fantasizing about how they're going to break the Barksdale case by interviewing Bodie at the rural juvie center (although of course by then Bodie's almost completed his escape).

Most notably, though, the episode title suggests that perhaps Bunk and McNulty will get to some detective work unrelated to the central drug bust; maybe this unusually isolated mystery will relate in some roundabout, thematic way to the resolution of Barksdale, but it will also stand on its own as a mini-plot. I should've known better, but "Old Cases" fooled me, just as Freamon initially fooled McNulty and the others. The old case isn't just Bunk's and McNulty's - it's D'Angelo's, and it will surely become relevant once again. This was an effective twist; it may be too early for the writers to tip their hand as to what will bring Avon down, but I imagine D'Angelo's own path will be severely altered not just by the astonished "fucks" of the two cops but his own foolish decision to share the circumstances of the murder with an increasingly desperate teenager whose grandmother now has a police card for him to call. Then again, maybe there's another twist in store: maybe D'Angelo's braggadocio is simply insecure appropriation of another's story, so that his underlings think he's tougher than he is. If so, this idle boast will come back to haunt him.

If there is a revealing, albeit brief, detour in the episode, it involves McNulty's trip to "Leave It to Beaver land" with Bubbles, whom he doesn't have time to drop off before arriving late to his son's soccer game. It's not a particularly happy trip for McNulty, but for Bubbles it's a glimpse of a world far removed from his own. "It’s a thin line between heaven and here," he remarks as McNulty drops him off an alley, ambiguously suggesting not just the wild contrast between the suburbs and the inner city but also the distance between both and whatever is desired, seemingly just barely out of reach (think not just McNulty's own family frustrations in the shadow of that stately school, but Bubbles' own occasionally euphoric habit in the depths of a tenement's filth). This was my first Wire episode in a while (after writing the earlier entries between a year and four months ago, the rest will be watched and written in close succession). It was a fascinating trip back into this world, with a subtle expansion of its boundaries in a few key scenes.

Next: "The Pager" • Previous: "The Buys"


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