Lost in the Movies: The Wire - "The Wire" (season 1, episode 6)

The Wire - "The Wire" (season 1, episode 6)

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 7, 2002/written by David Simon, story by David Simon & Ed Burns; directed by Ed Bianchi): Six episodes in, the series embraces its title, bugging the pay phones on the low-rise apartment buildings near the pit. However, the police need to ensure that the conversations they're listening to are pertinent to the investigation, requiring constant visual surveillance on the rooftops. Right away, they - and particularly Freamon, who is proving himself the brains behind the whole operation - are able to piece together some crucial information from this eavesdropping. They are able to link pager numbers and call times to the time and location of Brandon's murder, or at least the kidnapping that led to his brutal torture and eventual execution. They also have a new informant, willing to testify as a witness against Bird (Fredro Starr) for an earlier shooting as revenge for the Barksdale enforcer's role in killing Brandon. Omar is devastated not just by his boyfriend's demise, but the condition he's found in: an eye gouged out, cigarette burns and knife wounds all over his body, sprawled out over a car in a particularly squalid neighborhood. But he's not frightened by his own potential victimhood ("Omar don't scare") as much as he is determined to fight fire with fire.

The thief's role as a potential thorn in Barksdale's side is so important that McNulty (who has the kids on this particular night, after much frustration in not being able to see them) drives into Omar's area with his sons in tow and makes them wait in the police station as Omar identifies Brandon's body. Omar wails so loudly that the startling sound interrupts one of the boys' chirping handheld video game. It's clear now that this will be Omar's place in the narrative, at least for the time being. Will Bubbles become less necessary to the cops? If so, a diminished role comes at a very bad time for him - he could really use some help for Johnny, who is arrested while scoring more heroin with money earned from a stolen copper wire sale. If the effect of Brandon's death is rippling across many different areas outside of the Barksdale business, it has also created an impact within the gang. This is particularly true for Wallace, who not only placed the call that led to Brandon's capture but was also among the first to see his body outside the apartment where Wallace, Poot, and a whole bunch of early-school-age children are squatting. Wallace is greatly disturbed by the sight of his own action's consequences. D'Angelo tells him to put this out of his mind, but also shows sympathy for the shaken teen.

Even as, unbeknownst to himself, an old killing is attracting growing police attention, D'Angelo remains a calm at the center of the storm. He reassigns pawns rather than allow them to get beaten for some mild thieving on the side, and he even explains the withholding-pay scheme to Wallace, to whom he's becoming something of an impromptu mentor. Opening the season as a rash, foolish young man in over his head, whose savvy uncle intervened to protect him, D'Angelo now looks like the more shrewd, patient, and responsive leader while Avon descends into paranoia and showiness, sauntering into the pit to make an impression but too far removed from the action himself to really get what's going on inside.

My Response:
There's been frequent emphasis on the idea of a "game" in the previous few episodes. Omar and Johnny both used that word specifically in "The Pager," while others - particularly on the street side - repeatedly emphasized the extent to which both sides in this war know the rules and even enjoy its challenges (think D'Angelo's chess instructions). "The Wire" continues this trend on the police side, the opening quote even citing Freamon's admonition to Prez: "...all the pieces matter." Whether they view the game as a compelling puzzle to stimulate their intellect (Freamon), prove their own heart through dedication (McNulty), or even requiring some cheating (the perpetually soused Polk), they tackle it with the sharpened enthusiasm of players determined to make it through...but distanced enough from the results not to become desperate. This is most notable for Maj. William Rawls (John Doman), the homicide officer who tries to undercut the narcotics squad by arresting D'Angelo for the Deidre Kesson murder. He knows the case will probably fall through, not only resulting in an unresolved homicide but also the destruction of months-long surveillance efforts (with heat on him, Avon would re-organize his operation), but he doesn't care. He just wants the stats and relishes the opportunity to assert his own power in the process. Daniels is just barely able to delay this threat for a month, but it serves as reminder of the ruthless bureaucratic politics at play in the police department.

Daniels is partly pushed into this position by McNulty's guilt-tripping (a man was tortured to death because they didn't have the surveillance ready a half-day earlier), and McNulty himself is motivated to confront Daniels after interviewing Omar. Indeed, just as Omar's cry of grief breaks the spell of the little McNulty's video game, it reminds both the police and the audience that the stakes of the bigger game are quite different for the different sides, or rather for the different social classes within those sides (informants, ostensibly playing for the "police" team, are still engaged with higher stakes than the cops). Nothing, however, serves this role better than Wallace waking up in his squat: in the episode's most bravura move, we rise from Brandon's brutalized body to follow a jury-rigged extension cord into the building where the perpetually parka-clad boy starts and ends his days. Awakened from his mattress on the floor by an alarm clock (that classic TV episode opening device), he shuffles into each room to wake up the kids sleeping on every piece of furniture. He sends the youngsters off to school, handing out bags of chips for lunch and reminding them that if they don't get going they may get caught and end up foster care. It's a life of immense responsibility for someone who should probably be in junior high himself, and when it's capped by the vision of what provides for even this meager lifestyle - the horrific murder of a neighbor - Wallace is understandably "fucked up."

The episode is directed by Ed Bianchi, whose work I've previously seen in the also creative "Marriage of Figaro" on Mad Men. Some of the cop-show material is a little lackluster at times (a hasty meeting outside a courthouse, with distracting cutaways to wide shot coverage, feels rather conventional and thrown-together) but this bravura sequence is one of the most effectively composed passages on the series so far. Delivered in a matter-of-fact manner but with a sharp consciousness of its contrast with other elements of the narrative, Wallace's typical (and then, suddenly, atypical) morning exhibits The Wire's greatest strength, not its clever, deft depiction of the intricacies of a thrilling puzzle, but its awareness of the humanity caught up, crushed, and/or compromised in the execution of this deadly game.

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