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Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Complete Wire (13 Essential Scenes)

Years too late, I have finally finished The Wire. It was devastating, thrilling, terrifying, inspiring, and depressing, and pretty much always incredible acting, dialogue, and storytelling. The best television show I've ever watched? I don't know how to best judge that--because, ultimately, I'm not sure, The Wire even works as a television show, as we've traditionally understood them. Which is really the point: those who spent a lot of ink in years past talking about the brilliance of The Wire have usually been forced to admit that it doesn't work like a traditional television drama; it's more like a novel, and a 19th-century novel by Dickens or Zola at that. Of course, The Wire isn't alone having had such aspirations; the same could be said about many of the ground-breaking television dramas (The Sopranos, Mad Men, etc.) of the past 10 or 15 years. Clearly, the cable (and now digital) revolution has finally caught up with how writers and producers think the medium can be used to tell stories. Just as clearly, the British knew this a while ago (consider Prime Suspect)--but none of them, I think, gave us such a range of characters, all connected so clearly to such a sociologically (and morally!) grounding particular place. The best comparison is, inevitably, Homicide: Life on the Street, a show that I loved, and which I wonder might actually have been a better tv show than The Wire, if only because its aspirations didn't prevent it from occasionally going outside its own novelistic structure and treating itself like, well, a tv show. (Case in point: the winter 1997 episode, "The Documentary.") But did Homicide do for me, as a watcher, everything that The Wire did? Not nearly.

So let me document all that it did for me, all the ways I received its manifold characters and plots and surprises. This is, for me, my complete Wire experience.

Season 1
The first season was the tightest, and I suppose the least ambitious of all the rest of the series which followed. It was, in this season, a very, very good police procedural, introducing to us some of the fundamental mainstays of the show: McNutly, Bunk, Griggs, Pearlman, and Daniels on the police side, and Omar and Bubbles on the street side. It also gave us Stringer Bell and the Barksdale organization, and at this point it would have been reasonable to assume that the entire program was going to be a long, entertaining face-off between Bell (perfectly dressed, wicked smart, and a complete monster, the perfect homo economicus) and McNutly (rumpled and overwrought and struggling against his own worst elements, in both dress, body, and soul). But no, despite some good scenes between them, the central moral arc of the story of season 1 belonged to D'Angelo Barksdale, and he is the key character in the two essential scenes which communicate the season's plot. First, when he teaches (with a foreshadowing none of us could have seen at the time!) Bodie and Wallace about chess:

And second, after Wallace, upon secret orders from Bell, has been murdered by Bodie and Poot (under suspicion--justified, though there was no way Bell could have known that--of turning evidence to the police), and D'Angelo, facing time for transporting drugs, wants Bell to tell him what has become of his friend:

Season 1 is about kings and pawns, and how everyone--both cops and robbers--are playing their roles, and heaven help anyone who tries to go off the board.

Season 2
The second season was also tight and mostly self-contained, but it was during this season that you begin to see the show's ambitions broaden. Proposition Joe's character, and his connections with The Greek's organization, emerges as crucial to the developing economy of Baltimore's drug world; Bell's desire to be something more than a gangster is further fleshed out; Omar, through the confrontation with Brother Mouzone and the machinations of Bell, truly comes into his own. But all that is on the sidelines: the real action is a powerful, fully developed morality tale, told in the context of the collapse of blue-collar work and neighborhoods for Baltimore's white immigrant population. Again, in this season, a single figure--Frank Sabotka, a man who loves his union, his church, and his family, in that order, so much that he willingly embraces corruption and criminality to keep them going, and pays the price--dominates the crucial scenes of this season, and defines its central moral arc. First, Frank's furious socio-economic defiance of the police, in spite of the crimes (and bodies!) that he knows are piling up on his pier:

And second, after Frank is arrested, after his son Ziggy has lost control and got himself arrested for murder, after his nephew Nicky arrested for dealing in drugs, Frank watches his ultimate prize, rebuilding the grain pier that will bring business to his union, slips out of his fingers. After this, really, what is left for him to do, then to walk up to The Greek and embrace his doom?

Season 2 is my favorite season of the whole show, and while things from here on out got ever more complicated, deep, and intense, it was this straightforward story of class and ethnic determination and vain resistance to a world which cannot help but change, economically as well as socially, that rings most true to me.

Season 3
The third season of The Wire is where the interweaving of storylines and mutually re-enforcing plots really took off. We start examining city politics through the ambitions of Tommy Carcetti and the manipulations of Clay Davis; the struggle between the various factions in Baltimore's drug economy, with the rise of Marlo Stanfield and his organization, goes into high gear; we start to see the possibilities of redemption in Cutty's release from jail and his honest struggles to figure out a place for himself in a world where "the game" is no longer for him; and, of course, there is Bunny Colvin, and his experiment with drug legalization in "Amsterdam." In some ways, this resulted in the most loosely structured, least effective season overall, though it was still excellent television, and included some scenes of tremendous power. But picking amongst all that was going on this season to find consistent through-lines is hard. Two do stand out, though. There is the tremendously suspenseful and ominous balcony scene between Avon and Bell, both of them having sold each other out, and both of whom will be out of the picture by the season's end:

But for a real moral journey this season, I have to point, not to the finally doomed main street dreams of Bell, but to Ellis Carver--a small player throughout the whole show, but one who Colvin's experiment puts on a different path. Once he was a slacker cop, hard-working but without direction or perspective, willing to engage in petty corruption and betrayal when it suited him. Under Colvin, he learns loyalty, dedication to the job, and a mature sense of the streets that he serves. His vision is widened, he feels his failures (and he has a doozy coming up) more deeply, he finds a quiet confidence that puts his friend and one-time partner, the incorrigible thug Herc, to shame. To a degree, by the final episode of the last season, Carver has emerged as perhaps the emblematic police officer of the whole series--and nothing did more to get his character to that end then this scene right here:

Season 3 is a story of rises and falls; some get up from their falls and try again, whereas many others stay down.

Season 4

A lot of people argue that the fourth season was The Wire's best, and I can see why--the shift to looking at Baltimore's school system was utterly immersive, surrounding us with brilliant little character moments (the teachers, the students, the academics, the do-gooders and power-hungry cops and drug addicts) while enveloping us in a fascinating, fierce picture of the harm which fear, poverty, and a culture of violence has on the young black people of America's mostly ignored underclass. It was, truly, the most realized, most perfectly balanced, season of the whole show. It's impossible to pick only one scene to capture the interaction between the four young men--Mike, Dukie, Namond, and Randy--and the adults who either hasten them towards or present alternatives to the destiny which awaits them all, so I'll pick two. Watch how their different personalities are foreshadowed by this scene: Mike, a hard-case with a code; Dukie, a follower robbed of the ability to do otherwise than what others suggest; Randy, a kid with a spirit of a joie de vivre just waiting to be hammered out of him; and Namond, the punk who is, nonetheless, smart enough to see the stakes.

The greatest moral arc of season four, though, is Bubbles. He's been around since the very beginning, fighting his addictions or inventively glorying in them, and he's seen tough times before, but only now, truly, do the same streets and the same corrupt forces which grinds down three of our four young, lead him to take steps that finally put him on bottom. As Walon, his once-and-future sponsor, said, no one will truly seek to change until they've lost it all. Now, Bubbles has.

Season 4 is about the harshest, most honest and most despairing, but also the most decent, season of television I've ever watched. It's a story about how most of the time, most of us can't be saved--but sometimes, one or two of us just might be. It's not my favorite season of The Wire, but I agree it's probably the best.

Season 5
The fifth season doesn't get much respect from those who loved the show--they agree that it stayed great until the end, to be sure, but they felt the end was rushed, almost ginned up to tie everything together in a tidy package. I can see the point of that--but the truth is, what possible way could there be to bring the story of a whole city, a whole economy, a whole racial and class tragedy, to an end? I give season 5 some credit: it provided us with a resolution, of sorts, for the two greatest losses from the previous season, Mike and Dukie:

And Omar's story also comes to an end, in some ways providing, again, a kind of resolution to the struggle for honor in the midst of a drug war that slowly but surely went from neighborhood pride, to cold-blooded business, to simple exercises of tyrannical power. Omar is a broken man by the end of the series, shattered by his own inability to bend from his mission; his death is almost poetic.

But ultimately, the real moral arc of the fifth season is one which was promised since the very first episode: McNulty, every last horrible and brilliant part of him, comes under the microscope, and he somehow just barely manages to escape with his skin, and our respect, intact. The death of Bell at the end of season 3 had seemed to pull back McNulty back from the edge, and as season 4 unfolded, I started to believe that The Wire was going to do the nigh-impossible: take beloved, complicated anti-hero, and let him fade away into ordinary domesticity. Instead, McNulty in season 5 re-emerges, angrier than ever, pushing his scams to force the police department to work further than ever before--I'm sure I'm not the only viewer who truly believed that he was going to murder a homeless man, just to keep his lie alive. He pulls back, at the last moment, and it's really only because his lie was so huge (and had been unwittingly furthered by a certain lying fool in the media) that the powers that be couldn't let everything come down around him that he was able to back away and, one hopes, finally realize who he is. The result is probably the funniest scene in the whole show:

And then finally, the truest:

Season 5 ends The Wire by telling a story about telling stories about Baltimore. The stories in question are told to voters, to newspaper readers, and to ourselves. Some stories, like McNulty's, hurt (even if they do some good). Some stories, like the one Bubbles is able to stand and deliver at the end, heal. Ultimately, that's what we all are--story-telling animals. The Wire gets that absolutely right.