Lost in the Movies: The Wire - "Sentencing" (season 1, episode 13)

The Wire - "Sentencing" (season 1, episode 13)

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 8, 2002/written by David Simon & Ed Burns, story by David Simon & Ed Burns; directed by Tim Van Patten): Greggs is awake, but she can only do so much for the overeager homicide detectives. She won't identify Wee-Bey as the second shooter because she couldn't see him through the windshield; "Sometimes things just gotta play hard," she tells a disappointed Bunk. But she can play it soft too, sending McNulty to (finally) deliver the promised cash to Bubbles. It's too late: he's clearly using again and McNulty can only nod in understanding when Bubbles gently requests, "Don't tell Kima." These are only two of many disappointments in a roller-coaster denouement for the season. D'Angelo decides to turn state's witness, shocking McNulty and Pearlman (who celebrate by screwing in the parking garage), but then changes his mind when his mother Brianna (Michael Hyatt) pressures him. It probably doesn't help that he hadn't been placed in a witness protection program yet, due to the FBI's unwillingness to take the Baltimore Police Department's case. They're only interested in going after terrorists, big suppliers, and corrupt politicians. The Barksdale investigation could potentially provide that third target, but the Feds want to provide protection for Stringer and Avon if they turn in bigger fish and neither McNulty nor Daniels wants to let the butchers of Baltimore off the hook that easy.

So the case goes forward with mixed results, better than might have been expected but much smaller than seemed possible when the FBI and D'Angelo were in the offing. Instead, D'Angelo takes the big fall for the drug charge (a maximum sentence of twenty years for possession with intent to distribute) while Wee-Bey avoids the death penalty for one murder by helping the BPD clear out their backlog, pleading guilty to multiple slayings (including some he didn't actually pull the trigger on). Over a dozen Barksdale men take plea deals and are sentenced to about five years each while Avon himself is sent away for seven - all of them charged for narcotics activity rather than violence (only Wee-Bey gits pinned for homicide). Everyone's congratulating McNulty: Stringer as he walks away scott-free, Judge Phelan as he attempts to skirt his own utter abandonment, and Rawls as he facilitates McNulty's reassignment (to the marine unit, where a chuckling Bunk and Freamon toss him a drink as his speedboat pulls out of the harbor). McNulty's work doesn't seem to be worth much, but he also may view his treatment as a necessary penance. During his visit to Greggs he apologizes, observing that it's always the black officers who have to go undercover in cases like this, tacitly acknowledging that he could afford to treat it as a game while others couldn't.

Other characters face diminished returns too: Daniels loses his shot at promotion, Greggs remains in the hospital, and Bubbles is back to hustling. Some are moving up in the world, to varying degrees - Herc plays cerebral mentor to fresh young recruits, Freamon is restored to the high-profile homicide work he richly deserves (he's also enjoying Shardene's company more than professional duty requires), and Carver is promoted to sergeant - although Daniels' stern warning rings in his ears, about the responsibilities of this position and the values necessary to become a good leader (after Daniels discovered Carver was the one passing information to Burrel). On the street side, Stringer is now running a tight ship out of a back room in a sober funeral home rather than the sleazy strip club, Bodie has been promoted to the high rise, and Poot has taken over the pit. And the traffic goes on, and on, and on, the episode's closing montage confirming that the hard work and sacrifices of the Daniels detail made absolutely no actual dent in Baltimore's drug trade or its human cost. The product is even traced up to New York where Omar whistles "Farmer in the Dell," holds up a dealer, and laughs, "All in the game."

My Response:
With so much going on in episode 13, the central drama really belongs to D'Angelo - as it has all season. While it's hard not to enjoy shrewd, savvy figures like Stringer or Freamon, or to identify (at times) with the struggles of a McNulty or Bubbles, few characters carried as much emotional weight as Barksdale's nephew and perhaps none had as tumultuous an arc. The whole season involved his slow education, a dawning consciousness that the way of life he'd taken for granted since childhood may not suit him after all (maybe he just wished it didn't). And still he remains ambiguous, telling McNulty and Pearlman that it was Wee-Bey who actually killed Deidre Kresson. Was D'Angelo lying to Bodie to intimidate him, shifting his role in violence he witnessed? Or is he lying now, shifting the blame elsewhere so he can better play the part of informant? (Probably the former, given how readily Wee-Bey confesses to this murder and how poorly this cold-blooded incident fit with D'Angelo's usually nagging conscience.) I was a little taken aback by how readily he was willing to snitch (although it's consistent the show's season-long assessment that most individuals are borderline informants, whatever code they boast about), and I also wish his mother had played more of a part early in the season so she didn't come off as quite so much of a deus (or daimon) ex machina. Nonetheless, D'Angelo's story is a strong point of connection for both the finale and the season as he ends back where he began - in court, but with a different outcome. His glaring, bitter, yet resigned expression says it all.

If Episode 12 gave off a slightly wistful, show's-over air, suggesting that the finale might be more of a postscript than a climax, "Sentencing" surprised me by ramping up the excitement. This is true not only in the event-packed narrative but also the direction (maybe a bit too much at times - Sopranos veteran Van Patten's fondness for dramatic wide-angle lenses feels jarring in the wider context of the show's aesthetic). Even as the case wilts there's a sense of bustling activity and movement for the individual characters - for better or for worse. And the damning conclusion is itself a testament to hustle: the system may continue, its damaging costs impossible to contain, but this is an example of momentum rather than inertia. In other words, the episode is as energetic as it is sobering. There's a sense that the protagonist of The Wire isn't the Daniels detail (now dispersed to the wind) or the Barksdale organization (reorganized after a temporary decapitation), but the entire structure: the criminal gang and the legal establishment, the thieves and the police, the beggars and the wealthy elite, each forming small parts of a greater, ruthless whole. Is there an operating intelligence behind it all, a force that can be identified and countered, or is this simply a state of nature that everyone is equally trapped in, unable to change? The Wire's first season asks this question about Avon and his enterprises but I expect future seasons will apply it more broadly.

Next: (season 2) "Ebb Tide" • Previous: "Cleaning Up"


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