Lost in the Movies: The Wire - "One Arrest" (season 1, episode 7)

The Wire - "One Arrest" (season 1, episode 7)

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 21, 2002/written by Rafael Alvarez, story by David Simon & Ed Burns; directed by Joe Chappelle): "One Arrest" has a knack for playing characters off of one another in interesting ways. The pathetic Prez and professorial Freamon unexpectedly bond over their shared enthusiasm for codebreaking. Bubbles, accompanying Johnny to an NA meeting for laughs, finds himself profoundly moved by a talk given by Walon (country icon Steve Earle) to the point where he pledges his determination to live (even though he's high at the moment and will shoot up again later in the day). McNulty is eager to impress Judge Phelan with the case he's making, only for Phelan to humiliate him with a grammatical lesson on the difference between "then" and "than" while hitting on Rhonda Pearlman (Deirdre Lovejoy), the legal liaison for the Daniels detail (although it's McNulty who ends up getting invited into her home at episode's end - potentially the second time they've hooked up since he asked her how to clone a beeper in "The Buys"). Daniels accompanies his wife to a tony party where he feels out of place, eventually settling in with the chauffeurs who are watching a baseball game in the kitchen. One of them, Damien "Day-Day" Price (Donnell Rawlings) entertains the police lieutenant by describing how he'd rip off the entire place in great detail before Daniels reveals his actual occupation. Near the end of the episode, one of the most unusual and productive pairings occurs between Omar and Bunk; the thief recognizes the cop as a lacrosse player a few years ahead of him in school. In the midst of this repartee, Omar helps solve yet another cold case.

Omar is in the station because he's already fingered Bird for Gant's killing; Bird, defiant even when confronted with the prospect of capital punishment (the ballistics match on his weapon) is beaten by several officers. A succession of police actions - including the arrest of recent police brutality victim Kevin Johnston (making for an awkward moment with Prez and a failed intervention attempt by Daniels) - has the whole Barksdale gang spooked. Stringer correctly deduces the issue after one too many arrests, and he has the low-rise crew tear all the pay phones out of place and implement a new approach to making calls from now on. That is to say, most of the low-rise crew does this: Wallace is pointedly absent, getting high in his home as he gazes at the spot where Brandon was found. His life seems to be falling to pieces (and this in an episode where Omar has gone out of his way to remind us that Avon strictly prohibits users as dealers). There have essentially been two crucial inciting incidents this season, from which almost everything else has rippled: first, D'Angelo's offscreen slaying that led to his demotion, the killing of Gant and recent arrest of Bird, and of course the whole narcotics detail itself; and second, Omar's robbery of the stash which may have created an even more serious long-term threat for the Barksdale organization than the police themselves. These events initiate but can hardly contain the subsequent blowback. The Wire has been called Dickensian and Shakespearean but its delight in arranging and rearranging many moving pieces, and its enthusiasm for intricate tactical detail alongside its taste for the drama of humanity, also recall War and Peace.

My Response:
The character dynamics have been fascinating to watch all season; as part of its eagerness to weave a wide tapestry, embracing both law enforcement and the criminal underworld, The Wire has a knack for bringing together individuals in unexpected but convincing ways. This particular episode places characters into unique situations with even greater relish than usual. And I didn't even mention the whole psychic subplot, in which hapless Homicide Detective Michael Santangelo (Michael Salconi) visits Madame LaRue (Robin Skye) for tips on an ancient case. Santangelo, by the way, is digging up unsolved murders because Rawls has commanded him to find new leads or dig up dirt on McNulty, a secret mission the guilty Santangelo eventually confesses to McNulty. Well, here I am, several sentences into the section reserved for my own reflections on the episode and I'm still relaying plot points! This is one of the rewards and (particularly when it comes to reviewing) challenges of The Wire - there's simply so much going on in the narrative that it seems impossible to sum it up thoroughly, let alone succinctly. Just over halfway through the season, then, this may be a good moment to step back and observe where we are and how this compares to other TV shows I've watched this spring (and at other times).

Most of the shows I've been watching, however cluttered their ensembles and clever their serialized stories, have had two or three essential threads running through each episode, maybe four or five if they're feeling particular ambitious. The Wire, on the other hand, crafts complex relationships between dozens of characters related not only directly but indirectly. The art here is primarily in the writing and the performances; I've heard the show's visual style criticized before (although I find the texture generally absorbing, the cutting effectively if conventionally engaging, and the occasional shot quite striking). What I don't feel I'll fully have a grasp on until the end of the season - if then - is the nature of the dynamic between The Wire's identity as cop show and gangland drama. It's the aspect of the series that fascinates me the most, and which I least expected; for some reason, I'd been under the impression that the whole narrative took the perspective of the drug dealers. Another series I've been watching in the past year (though not much lately, with all the viewing diaries) is the early eighties cop show classic Hill Street Blues. Considered gritty and complex for its time, it nonetheless holds a far more openly admiring stance toward the boys in blue. And yet at times the attitude it fosters doesn't seem terribly far from this season of The Wire.

To bring it back to this particular episode, which - despite diverting into broader subjects - I found one of the most engrossing of the season so far, the tension within the homicide department make it even easier than usual to identify with and root for McNulty. All the "bad cop" qualities are deflected onto one surly asshole (Rawls). Bird cuts a largely unsympathetic figure, to the point where we seem encouraged to cheer as the officers gang up on him and tear his Polaroid in half (indicating they're not even going to try to pretend that he wasn't beaten between arrest and incarceration). Even in one of the storylines where the show has most aggressively asserted police culpability, the revelation of Johnston as a continuing criminal and Daniels' apparently soft-hearted attempt to do right by the boy hint at exculpation. What's interesting here is that the show's ambiguity, which can seem radical in a TV landscape mostly devoted to lionizing police, still almost reflexively trends toward legitimizing and identifying with their presence, however flawed. Will this change as the series continues? Will attention shift further toward the lives of Baltimore's black underclass? Can The Wire continue to span this divide without explicitly "taking a side"? After all, even Tolstoy's panoramic view had its clear sympathies.

Next: "Lessons"Previous: "The Wire"


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