Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Wire: 2x03-2x09

The Wire’s first season is pretty close to a perfect season, telling its story and ending in a satisfying way. However, either imprisoning or killing most of the street characters, and splitting the detail up left them with some work to do to get things rolling again in season two. The second season is quite ambitious, and still immensely satisfying, but also runs into some issues that weren’t present in season one.

The major issue for me is simply the divided focus. I think it was smart to expand the focus and not just retread the cops vs. drug dealers storyline of the first season. If you keep Avon around, we’ve got the same basic conflict and not much room for the story to grow. However, this brings us to a catch 22. I loved the characters in the street storyline, so even though I think the focus needs to change for the series’ overall health, in changing the focus, we lose touch with much of what made the series successful in the first place. Particularly with all the major police characters splintered apart, I found myself wanting to spend more time with Stringer, Bodie and the other characters from that storyline.

Instead, we spend a lot of time with the dock workers. Those characters have grown on me a bit, but still don’t feel as fully realized as the characters on the street in season one. Part of it is that I find the milieu, the heavy drinking blue collar lifestyle, less interesting than the disciplined business world of the street characters. Avon and Stringer were a worthy foe, and you got the sense that they could outwit the police. Frank Sobotka is a tragic character because he’s merely a pawn in a much larger criminal enterprise.

Now, you could argue that’s true of the drug dealers too, something made explicit in D’Angelo’s speech over the chess board. But, it’s tough to watch the inevitable oncoming tragedy for Sobotka. Even if he beats the cops, the port is on the way out, his lifestyle is on the way out, and that’s driving Nick into drug dealing in the same way that the project kids get pushed there. Thematically, the storyline expands the series’ scope considerably. We get the absurdity of these struggling people paying thousands of dollars to politicians to try to preserve their jobs. Watching this series makes you astonished that anything good happens in American politics because the entire system seems to be motivated by people paying politicians off to pursue their own interests. Sobotka is driven to illegal activity because he needs to pay off the politicians to save his job. Shouldn’t they just be looking out for him in the first place?

I actually like Frank and Nick, but the other characters are annoying. Ziggy’s unhinged self bothers me, though I did enjoy his duck plot. The other characters aren’t as well realized as the minor street characters, they seem to exist more in the service of the plot than just exist because they’re there.

But, my issues with the port plot are primarily because the other plots are so much more interesting. On another show, this port stuff would be the best thing, but it pales next to the riveting drama surrounding Avon’s crew. Placed in more of a leadership role, Stringer has become my favorite character on the series. The switch from strip club to funeral home for his headquarters is appropriate because, as he says, he’s not a soldier like Avon, he’s a businessman. He’s clearly got an aptitude for economics, and I love when he applies what he learns in class to his drug business.

Stringer’s conflict in guiding his organization is between being a soldier and being a businessman. Is it more important to have the towers but no product, or to deal with Proposition Joe and lose some of his territory? Avon is stubborn and won’t concede their need to ally with Joe. Stringer is more of a pragmatist. There’s a lot of conflict brewing between Avon and Stringer, with Brianna in the middle. They’ve already set up a way for Avon to get out of prison, and I’m guessing that next season will deal with Stringer struggling to give up power after Avon’s return. Can Avon run things better than he is? Probably not, but can he shut Avon out of the organization that he started?

One of the most shocking developments for me was D’Angelo’s death. Arguably the main character on the drug side of things, I was wondering how they’d get out of the corner they’d written him into. When he started to get choked, I was shocked, and as time passed, I realized he wasn’t going to get out of it. It does make sense from a storytelling perspective, but it’s cold. D was our best hope among those characters, and now, he’s gone. Now he’ll never know the difference between Ultimate Spider-Man and regular.

Over with the police, we finally reunite the detail. A lot of shows, like The X-Files and Friday Night Lights, like to mess with the status quo at the end of season one, leading to the inevitable slide back to what things before. It makes a lot more sense to have the detail together, and thankfully they’ve made it permanent so we won’t have to deal with the split. What I loved about the first season was watching the team work together, watching everyone find what they could contribute to the whole. They’re not quite running at full strength yet, but the brothel sting was a really fun mission. There’s actually a lot more humor this season, and it’s all the funnier because of the show’s usual seriousness.

So, the series is still going strong. The economy of the storytelling is dazzling and the writing still humbling. In Russell, we’ve got another fully realized, compelling character. My only major issue now is that the port storyline isn’t as interesting as the drug stuff. I’m guessing that will be a season two only thing, so it shouldn’t be a problem for too much longer.


Grim Reader said...


Great post, i agree with your assessment of series 2. I take it you havent seen up to season 4 yet? You are lucky, a lot of good viewing ahead of you. Season 2 is something of an anomaly for the wire, it doesn't quite live up to the other 3 seasons ... but as you say, it wuld still be considered excellent stuff if it was any other teevee programme.

It only gets better with seasons 3 and 4, which focus respectively on the 'hamsterdam' project, and the school system (once all the grown up gangsters git kilted or gaoled). I was gutted when i discovered s4 was the final one ... such a good show!

Jacob said...

But S4 isn't the final one, grim! We've got one year left, which will apparently focus on the media. Should be good times.

For me, season 2 is actually my favorite. It's sort of a divisive issue among the other Wire fans I talk to; I guess a lot of it is how well you relate to dealers vs. dockworkers, or barring that, which of the two seems more exotic and interesting. In my case, while I found the mechanics of dealing fascinating, I had already learned a lot of that stuff from David Simon's books and from the novel CLOCKERS, but growing up in the midwest I knew exactly jack about container shipping and the culture around it and so I was fascinated by the tour of the industry that this season gives us.

Patrick said...

I've got one episode left in season two, but so far, it hasn't quite matched season one for me. The major issue is the characters. While the show is more story based than most, I just didn't care about what happened to the dock workers in the same way that I did with the dealers. Plus, I don't think the dual perspectives were as effective as in the first season, where I frequently found myself wanting something to go two different ways so that both the police and dealers could get what they want.

I still think season two was great, and the dock workers did grow on me, but The Greek was a more clear cut and easily to dislike villain, so there was less ambiguity. But, I'd agree that the dockworker world was something different and worth exploring. The show had a couple of growing pains, but was still so good, I'm eager to check out season three.