The Wire – 2
Writing about The Wire is turning out to be a pretty daunting task – made for better and more informed writers than I. Not because the narration is hard to follow – even with all its complexity, it’s not – but because the atmosphere is impossible to recreate. I tend to think this is a strictly you had to be there kind of TV show: you can talk all you want about its greatness, but you can’t fully understand it unless you sit through all of the 60 or so episodes.
To get a general idea of the setting: it takes place in Baltimore, a city where blacks are a clear majority (which is reflected in the casting) and it starts out as a pretty straightforward crime series: you have the police and you have the drug dealers. But nothing is what is seems: the police are not the heroes, nor are the criminals strictly bad guys – they’re all just people, trying to make sense of the cards they’ve been dealt (or chose) as best they can. As you’re reminded many times throughout the series, it’s all in the game and to stay on top of it you have to resort to all sorts of practices. There are no absolutes – just shades of gray. And what starts as an attempt to make a drug bust, ends up opening doors to a number of Baltimore’s institutions: police, docks, mayoral and senatorial offices, schools and newspapers. Like Lester says: if you follow the drugs, you get addicts and dealers – but if you follow the money…you never know what you’re going to get (I’m paraphrasing here, but that was the gist of the quote).
I’ve tried to explain this series to a bunch of friends, and it’s possible that only my enthusiasm convinced them to give it a shot because my eloquence sure didn’t. And in case anyone reading this (btw – there will be spoilers ) is considering giving the series a shot, my honest advice would be to jump right into it. No one but David Simon (I’ve put the link because I don’t want to re-write all the stuff on Wikipedia. It’s really worth checking out.) will convince you why this series is worth watching and loving.
In terms of characters – there are no sketches; only fully fleshed individuals, with a life, a purpose, a past and a future and you can sense it anytime they open their mouths. There’s memorable individuals on both sides of the fence, and for different reasons: wise man Lester Freamon, Bunk Moreland – great detective, fabulous drunk, Jimmy “what-the-fuck-did-I-do” McNulty and his womanizing ways, Daniels, Rawls, Prez and his unbelievable bad luck, Kima Greggs, Bubbs, Stringer Bell, Avon Barksdale, Prop Joe and the second generation of dealers – Marlo, Chris and Snoop; Bodie, Clay Davis (because of whom I’ll never hear the word shit in the same way), the kids: Namond, Michael, Dukie and Randy and stickup boy Omar Little. I left Omar at the end, because he’s in a league of his own. He’s been hailed many times as one of the greatest characters on TV (if not the greatest) and far be it from me to argue; I had my eyes glues to the screen every time he made an appearance (and not just because the actor’s pretty damn hot – although that doesn’t hurt 😀 ). He gets the best lines, the most colorful moments, he’s got this Robin Hood act, he really is larger than life – and it all seems designed to make him loved. And this bugs me a tiny-little bit, because it’s the only character which gave me this vibe. But Michael K. Williams played him perfectly to the bitter end – and his lack of recognition (in terms of awards) is just as egregious as the show’s lack of Emmy love.
There’s a special brand of humor in this series – if you have eyes to see it. There have been others, but three moments really stand out for me – and I’ll get to them when I go through each season. I just wanted to put this upfront because it took me by surprise when I found myself laughing out loud, somewhere in season 1. It’s good to know that, even for a series dealing with such tough subjects, there’s still always something to laugh at.
Technically, every season is constructed in much the same way: the opening credits feature various versions of Tom Waits’s Way down in the hole and a montage of bits from the current (and past) season. You never see the faces of the main players – it’s just background shots of details; and spotting the moment you’ve seen in the credits in its context during an episode feels a bit like putting a puzzle together. And every season wraps up with a montage – and it seems to me that the chief theme of these montages is nothing ever changes: you have to work so hard to gain every inch, to earn even the smallest victory, but, at the end of the day, the streets and the problems are always the same. It might sound glum and pessimistic, but, if you take a minute to think about it, you’ll see exactly how true it is.
I wasn’t sure whether I should go into the narrative for each season – but I’ve voted no. I will, however, highlight a few of my favorite moments in the hope that something will strike a chord in others and convince them to watch it. I’ve never really been so eager to get other people to watch a show I liked as I am with The Wire – probably because it was rather underrated and not particularly popular during its run. I mean – take The West Wing: I’ve sang its praises many times but, love it or hate it, most people know what the deal is, and I never insist.
Yo, lesson here, Bey. You come at the king, you best not miss. Omar to Wee Bey.
So then…season one: where we meet the ever-changing Major Crimes Unit and the Barksdale clan. The first time I was struck that there’s something special about this show was, during episode 8, when McNulty uses his kids to follow Stringer Bell through a crowded market. I’m sure he’s not the first character to do this, but it was a memorable moment for me. Season one’s most notable victim is Wallace: the first to try to get out of the game and fail. I couldn’t warm up to Bodie and Poot after that – not until near the end. And, while it seems that the case is closed successfully (with the appropriate amount of loose ends and compromises) the closing sequence (my favorite, by far – probably because I loved the song as well) shows exactly what I’ve said before: nothing has changed. Bonus – from season 1: the apparently famous crime scene investigation featuring Bunk, McNulty and a lot of fucks.
Levy: You are amoral, are you not? You are feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade. You’re stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city. You are a parasite who leeches off–
Omar: Just like you, man.
Levy: –the culture of drugs… Excuse me, what?
Omar: I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game, though, right?
After the high of season one – season two felt like a slight disappointment. The MCU is broken up and the main investigation takes place around a murder at the docks. At the time I was bugged by the attention the Greek received, but, by season 3, you see how the pieces fit in the overall puzzle. Sobotka and his union – they are only pawns, minor players.
Tell me something, Jimmy. How exactly do you think it all ends?– Lester to McNulty
Nigga, is you takin’ notes on a criminal fucking conspiracy? – says Stringer to some unfortunate subordinate. This is a perfectly good example of The Wire-type of humor. And yes, season three was my absolute favorite. There are moments that are pretty much unforgettable – like Bubs walking through the ‘legal drug’ district setup by Colvin with its dark, eerie atmosphere, filled with people at the end of their rope and with those taking advantage, with little kids mixed up with drugs and thieves, with addicts and murderers. In the dim light that is coming only from the fires in the barrels you can spot women giving blowjobs in the middle of the street – a whole display of depravity and desperation. Soldier’s paradise – Johnny calls it. Not even the police bother to make arrests; it’s pretty much a jungle –the dark side of Colvin’s little experiment.
Post prison Avon is a new man – or perhaps he’s the old one, and our point of reference has changed through Stringer, because his and Stringer’s visions are now divergent: a man always with the ghetto and one trying (and frustratingly not succeeding) to overcome his condition. Wallace was a sign, a prelude if you will – because Stringer’s fall will be much steeper. “I look at you these days, you know what I see? I see a man without a country. Not hard enough for this right here, and maybe – just maybe – not smart enough for them out there.” -Avon says to String sometime in episode 8. And he’s right, more than he even knows at the time (as we’ll later find out from an anecdote told by Clay Davis on how he managed to swindle some drug dealer).
There are two memorable showdowns in season 3 – each of a different caliber. You’ve got Omar Little & Brother Mouzone (appearing in only a handful of episodes, but leaving a much stronger impression) in a western style street shoot-out (or almost shoot-out), before they set on a truce (to collaborate on killing the one who tried to manipulate them into killing one another) and Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell. Mouzone is forcing Avon’s hand to give up Stringer and Stringer is working with Colvin to get Avon back in jail. It’s all just business, they both say. At their last meet, when they drink and relive simpler times in a rare moment of peace, each is aware of his own betrayal. It’s gonna sound silly, but there’s a touch of Greek tragedy in all of this.
A life, a life Jimmy, you know what that is? It’s the shit that happens while you’re waiting for moments that never come – Lester tells McNulty. Jimmy is sinking more and more into his own demons, putting all of himself in the hunt for Stringer. That’s why, when they find him dead, it’s a bit disheartening but nonetheless expected to see McNulty regretting that Bell never knew they had him. He took it all too personally, got too involved – and his desire to take things easy (start a new life, a normal relationship) is understandable – though it’s no surprise it doesn’t last, as season 5 has him at his lowest. I did miss him throughout season 4 (where his role is seriously scaled back) – and I missed his interactions with Kima. I always felt she was McNulty-lite; they made a fun team and, apparently, she picked up the womanizing mantle from him, too.
In all this mess, there’s one character who manages to get out of the game (by the end of the series, there will be two): Cutty. For a lot of season 3 I thought he simply didn’t belong, he was too optimistic, too successful in his attempt to change his life (and I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop). Then I read an interview with George Pelecanos (incidentally, the man who wrote all 5 penultimate episodes in all 5 seasons – so the man who is responsible for my favorite TV episode ever) in which he says that the character of Cutty was his idea, not David Simon’s, because his own vision of the world is a notch brighter. So yeah – I’m guessing that’s why I didn’t feel him click as much as everyone else 😀
Other memorable moments: the Sunday morning truce, Prez and his unlucky streak, Slim’s “once you’re in it, you’re in it. If it’s a lie, than you fight on that lie” speech (which is as pointed a reference to Iraq as it gets). By the end of season 3, in the whole spirit of nothing ever changes, Marlo Stansfield and Chris Partlow are the new kings, the new Avon & Stringer, if you will.
Money ain’t got no owners. Only spenders. – Omar to Marlo
In season four, we move to the school system – and a pretty clear parallel is drawn early on through the teachers’ & the police’s instructions: both are out of touch with reality. Another moment that got me laughing out loud: the opening to episode 3, when Omar is coming out of his house and strolling down the street in his silk pjs in his search for HoneyNut Cheerios (I think). I mean….just look at him 😀
Season 4 was hailed as one of the best seasons (if not THE best) and, while it was good, it just can’t top s3, not for me. It was interesting – exploring further the drug trade and the effect it has on kids and the school system – but it was slightly more preachy (kids and education are always a fertile ground for that, I guess) and with definitely less charismatic characters. The kids were great – but they’re no D’Angelo; too little of my favorite police (Lester and Kima) and Marlo, Chris and Snoop – they’re no Stringer or Barksdale when it comes to charisma. Omar though – he’s as good as ever. When he’s sent to jail – the look on his face when everyone’s angling to kill him…it’s probably Michael William’s merit and that alone is worth the price of admission. I wasn’t particularly engaged in the political race – but it did cross my mind that Carcetti is, in a way, Baltimore’s Obama.
On a side-note, I thought Snoop’s history is kinda cool. Whenever I heard her speak, her accent struck me as the most realistic – she definitely looked like she was in the street. I mean, everyone is good, but she puts out a different sort of vibe. So I googled her, only to find out that the character of Felicia ‘Snoop’ Pearson is played by the actress Felicia ‘Snoop’ Pearson who’s got a bit of an interesting background. So…how’s that for overcoming your condition?
McNulty: Fuck the fucking numbers already! The fucking numbers destroyed this fucking department. Landsman and his clearance rate can suck a hairy asshole.
Bunk: Marlo ain’t worth it, man. Nobody is.
McNulty: Marlo’s an asshole. He does not get to win. WE get to win!
By the end of season 5, things come full circle, the game is the game and nothing ever changes, not at an institutional level. Everyone’s replaceable. On a personal level, Marlo is striving to become what Stringer couldn’t: legit businessman; but, just like Stringer, he’s still too tied to that world. Namond Brice is turning out to be a future citizen, Bubbs is making things right with his family, Lester is enjoying his retirement, Templeton is enjoying his Pulitzer (this character – I utterly hated; there was nothing redemptive about him), Dukie’s shooting heroin and Michael is the new Omar. These are only a few of the endings, in a 90 minute finale that gives you goosebumps.
Another one of those funny moments: with the phone calls made up separately by McNulty and the weasel from the paper (Templeton) regarding the serial killer – the whole episode 5 played almost like a farce. The look on McNulty’s face when he realizes that Templeton is just as full of shit as he is (only a lot more clueless) is priceless.
And I’m gonna add a fragment from a review done by Alan Sepinwall (a proper critic, with a great love of this show) because I thought about it, but I couldn’t put it better on paper anyways: “Now, as Jimmy and Lester were discussing the details of their master plan — to acquire intel on Marlo via their illegal wiretap and then credit the information to a phony CI — I groaned (not for the show, but for what’s become of these two cops), because what they’re doing is just a more elaborate, deranged version of Herc and Carver’s Fuzzy Dunlop scam from season two. If Herc and Carver (at the time) were symbols of all that’s wrong with the Baltimore PD, what does it say about these two top investigators that they’re trying something similar?”
Omar’s death…it deserves more than I can ever write. And, even if by now he’s only a shadow of his former, confident self, the ending he got was a bit undeserving, you know? If The Wire can be said to have a hero – he was it, and maybe, just maybe, he should have went down in a blaze of glory. But…life’s never like that, is it now?
I went through these last 2 seasons fairly quickly; the more I write, the more I realize that I simply can’t put down everything I should – I’d never finish this post. And, again, at the risk of exaggerating and sounding silly, I don’t think there ever was a TV show that left me quite so drained – emotionally. Not all of it – but there are a few key episodes (like 11, in season 3 – the favorite episode I was talking about earlier) that are simply mind-blowing. And, while there will always be shows I’ll re-watch more, with characters I’ll love more (or rather – relate to more), it’ll take some time to find another show I’ll respect this much.