Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Wire: 'More with Less' (5x01)

I caught The Wire’s season premiere on On Demand today. Even though I’m glad to see the episode a week early, I really don’t like having the episodes released early. While it’s increasingly becoming a thing of the past, I like having a work released at the same time everywhere, to emerge in a single cultural moment. In Before Sunrise, Jesse talks about a study which showed that people who do crossword puzzles a week after they’ve been released do better, presumably because the answers are somewhere out there in the collective subconscious. The same is true of having the episodes show up a week early, they’re just sort of floating there, and there’s no single moment when the episode emerges. I’d imagine this will be a particular issue with the finale, as The Sopranos shows, a finale can be a galvanizing cultural moment, but The Wire finale will just show up on On Demand at some point, there will never be that shared sense of watching the finale with everyone else who loves the show.

Both The Sopranos and the recent Radiohead album release show the fun of watching people struggle to catch up with something right as it emerges. But, we won’t be getting that with The Wire this season. I’ll be watching the episodes as early as possible, but I’d rather wait for everyone to see them at the same time.

Broadcasting issues aside, the episode itself is fantastic, quickly bringing us back into the world and conflicts that will guide the final season. One thing that’s significant about the season is that for the first time in Wire history, one season is directly continuing what happened in the previous one. You could easily view seasons one through three as a continuous arc, but there were significant tonal shifts between the seasons, most notably with the jarring introduction of the Frank Sobotka crew in season two. Season four set up the post Barksdale status quo, and we’re continuing that story here. The central conflicts of the season are Marlo’s feud with the co-op, and the police attempt to bust Marlo for the bodies.

Because we don’t need to spend a lot of time setting up the status quo, this season premiere feels a bit more accessible than previous year’s. Rather than being chapter one of a thirteen part story, it’s chapter fourteen of a twenty-three part one. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of new stuff going on, it’s just most of the changes are tending towards what we used to know rather than something new.

I’ll start off by talking about the new element of the season, the newspaper. With only ten episodes in the entire season, I’m a bit worried about how they’ll resolve the myriad character arcs in play, and fit in this newspaper stuff. Now, the show probably won’t give everyone a definitive conclusion. More likely, everyone will reach some kind of stasis point, and life will go on. The central plot conflicts have been in development for a while, so it shouldn’t be too tough to close them out in the ten episodes, and the newspaper will probably play a significant role in that storyline.

After the first episode, it seems like the newspaper will be used more as a pawn/catalyst in the conflict between Carcetti and the police, and the police and Marlo. Already, we’ve seen Haynes link city politicians to drug officials, and their reporting will likely dovetail with Freamon’s investigation into the Clay Davis money. Avon will be returning at some point during the season, and it would make sense that he would feature in the corruption scandal. I’m not sure what happened to Avon’s landholdings, but donated a lot of money to the Davis campaign, and could be involved should a trial happen.

I don’t think the press people will be developed as in depth as the kids were last year. We pretty much know all we need to already because we’ve seen similar people in the other institutions. As the parallel dialogue makes clear, it’s always hard to fight the good fight against the bosses. Haynes is just as disrespected as Lester or McNulty, but he’s going to keep fighting for small victories, like the one he gets in this episode.

I’m thinking that McNulty will leak the news that the police have halted the investigation into the bodies, which would put him in contact with the press characters. I’m also thinking that McNulty will have his eye on Alma, as the target of his returned wandering eye. I think The Wire is the only show on television that would send their attractive female reporter on a mission to a strip club and not even show the scene. HBO probably read that script and told Simon this is the reason you only get a ten episode renewal.

Either way, the press attention is going to be another pressure on Carcetti, who is already getting it from all sides. I’ve talked before about how Carcetti sold himself out at the end of season three, when he shut down Hamsterdam then gave a speech about how they need a new approach to stopping crime. His justification then was he could do a better job stopping crime as mayor, so the loss of Hamsterdam was worthwhile. As mayor, he’s been doing everything in service of the notion that he can make more change if he’s governor. That’s what led him to pass up federal money for the schools at the end of season four, another damning moment that has lingering consequences this season, as he finds the police force getting more and more out of control.

Even though I hate Carcetti the character, I love what Simon and co. did with his story. Carcetti started out as a somewhat annoying, but goodhearted character. You got the impression he really did care about protecting witnesses when he write Royce the letter in season three. There, his political ambition meshed with his desire to do good and all was well. However, as the series has progressed, we’ve seen the way any hopes of doing good are gradually extinguished by his immersion in the system. He’s beholden to so many special interests as mayor, it would be near impossible to really change anything. The budget crisis is similarly vexing, preventing him from any serious bureaucratic restructuring. The system is designed to maintain itself, and real change is near impossible.

But that still doesn’t excuse Carcetti’s awful behavior. He created a problem when he passed over the money, and creates another one when he passes on federal funds here. He didn’t think things through and now has a mutinous police force on his hands. Norman is the one voice of reason in his cabinet, the rest are just feeding his deluded further political ambitions. Carcetti will likely compromise the Clay Davis investigation because a major takedown there could enhance the political reputation of the states’ attorney. He is sabotaging his own people to ensure his position, and around him corruption like the drug dealer move continues to happen. As Daniels observes, the new day in Baltimore is most definitely over.

In general, the change we’ve seen over the course of the series has proven futile. At this point, we’re basically back to the season one status quo. The detail has been reassembled and is using the same surveillance techniques that got Barksdale to track Marlo. However, Marlo is a smarter, more evolved form of gangster. It’s fascinating to watch the one upmanship over the years, the move from beepers to burners to personal communication only. Marlo doesn’t take any risks, and that’s kept him and his crew out of prison. But, eventually they all slip, and the detail needs to be there when it happens.

That’s why it’s such a problem that they can’t get the overtime to track Marlo. The constant police presence will reduce violence, but once it’s gone, the bodies will start piling up again. From a dramatic point of view, I’m not sure why they brought everyone back into the detail only to tear it down an episode later. However, I’m guessing the point is to show that Carcetti’s grand ambitions were not realistic, and crumble in the face of the city’s financial troubles. Carcetti is more loyal to his party and Clay Davs than to the people of the city.

Along with the slip back to season one, we get McNulty’s return to drunkenness. He’s combined his addiction to alcohol with his addiction to the job, and in slipping back on one, he slips back on the other. It’s hard to watch the scene with Russell alone at the house, knowing that she still trusts McNulty on some level. The problem is much like the one faced by Nate on Six Feet Under. McNulty can play at being the good husband and father for a time, but in doing so, is he destroying the real him? Was everything he was in season four a lie? Maybe, or maybe that’s just how he justifies his current behavior to himself.

Either way, it’s good to see McNulty back in a prominent role. In season one, he was the spark that ignited everything that would follow. He got Freamon back to real police work, and helped to set up the whole Barksdale takedown. His role on the show diminished as time passed, and I think there’s a tendency to write him off as the white leading man put in to appease network demands. But, he’s a fascinating study, and a great presence. Dominic West always brings it, and it’ll be nice to see him leading things forward again this year.

The episode is saturated with callbacks to the past. The best is Chris going to City Hall to get information about the Greeks. It’s amazing to see that storyline coming back to the fore. After season two, I assumed it was just a standalone piece, but it’s returning to the fore here, and I love the fact that Marlo is using McNulty’s investigation to support his own. It’s a great use of continuity, a great example of how the show really is one unified long work, broken into five chapters, but all connected. In addition to that great moment, there’s some funny callbacks, like Sydnor reminding McNulty he wasn’t on the port investigation, or the talk about McNulty’s undercover mission in the brothel.

The series has always made parallels between the drug dealer organizations and the government bureaucracy, and this episode did some great work by showing Prop Joe in a similar position as Carcetti. He is facing a challenge from Marlo, and trying to sure his power base. It’s interesting that Joe actually runs a more fair operation than Carcetti, trying to help out his people who have been negatively impacted by the Hopkins expansion. While he obviously does a lot of wheeling and dealing in his interest, Joe sees the benefit of the co-op and is legitimately committed to supporting his fellow dealers.

Part of that is that they are all weaker than him, and the co-op gives him a way to keep control. Marlo threatens that because he’s the only one who offers a real challenge to power, and attempts to sow discontent by pointing out how Slim Charles was passed over for territory. Simon usually talks about the show in the context of its sociological message, but he can make a hell of a story. Over the past season, we’ve been set up for a war between Marlo, Prop Joe, the Greeks, and Omar and the Hispanic gangs, with the police on top of all that. It’s been a perfectly paced build, and if Avon gets involved, it could synthesize all the seasons together for the final climax. I felt like it would be impossible to do something as epic as the Stringer/Avon conflict at the end of season three, but things are building and building here, and this show always pays off its plot points. That meeting was full of ill portent, and it’s only a matter of time before Omar makes his move.

One of the things I love about the co-op scene is the way the police are so close to finding out about the whole co-op, but Marlo brings a girl with him and they look no further. All the acting on the show is phenomenal, but I want to give some props to Robert Chew as Prop Joe, who brings the huge charisma that Stringer and Avon used to carry. Method Man is another fantastic presence, it’s weird to talk about Method Man acting in one of the best works of art of the twenty-first century, but he nails it every time, and looking at his glare at the end of the episode, it’s clear he’s not happy with the way things are.

The thing The Wire does better than any other show is to tell a story in the most efficient way possible. In two scenes, not even three minutes total, we learn exactly where Dukie and Michael are. Michael is emulating Chris, the first adult he can trust as a father figure. He’s trying to be like him, and is apparently moving up in Marlo’s organization. Dukie has no respect on the corner, a couple of lines of dialogue and the shot of him on the stoop convey this. He’s been playing at drug dealer, but isn’t able to do it yet. The entire story of his move to the corner, and failure to succeed is told in two shots basically. The show trusts the audience to follow things, we don’t need a lot of details, just the single shot in the montage at the end of season four, and this pickup here tells the whole story. That’s a testament to the fact that the characters are so well realized, we already know what will happen if Dukie goes out on the street, and can fill in the blanks of what happened for ourselves.

Dukie’s future remains uncertain. Michael cares for him, and is willing to give him an easy life as Bug’s nanny, but Dukie doesn’t want to just take his charity. Michael recognizes the damage that Dukie’s parents did to him, and he also sees Dukie as his last tie to the life he used to have. It’s so sad to think that a year ago, these kids were starting school, that their lives are already so far gone.

Can Dukie come back from this? I hope so, I could see him getting arrested and calling Prez for help, possibly turning witness. Or, Prez might tell him not to say anything, after Randy got totally fucked over last year. But, The Wire always surprises. We know Dukie will fail in his initial venture to the corner, but over the course of the season, he might harden up and become more like Michael. Either way, that storyline is one of the most interesting on the show right now, and I’m eager to see how it develops.

Another of the show’s best strengths is the way they are able to reinvent characters to suit the needs of the story, and rather than feeling contrived, it fits perfectly with the character arc. Look at Prez last year, I think of him as a teacher more than a police, like he finally found his true calling in that last year. It’s not so much that he was turned into a teacher to suit the story, it’s that the person found what he really should be.

This year it’s Herc who gets the fantastic reinvention. I felt like they had exhausted him by the end of last year, when he screwed over everyone in his path. But, he has found a way to fuck up even worse. Probably my favorite moment of the episode is the reveal that Herc is working for Levy. It’s such a perfect twist, and knits everything closer together. He’ll now be using police resources to help out the very drug dealers they’re trying to prosecute. Watching those scenes, and the episode as a whole, made me feel like David Simon had the whole five years in mind from the very start, that he knew where all these people would wind up and expertly navigated them through the years. That Herc, seemingly a comic throwaway character, could become so significant in the overall plot is amazing. It’s a perfect development.

The only major thing I haven’t touched on is Bubbles’ struggle to recover. Again, Simon assumes we’ve seen the whole show. Bubbles went to his sister’s in season one, he’s back here without much explanation because he knows we remember what happened before. And, we get the subtle reveal that Bubbles stole her stuff last time and pawned it. This year, we get the dichotomy between ‘Reginald,’ the person he is without the drugs, and ‘Bubbles,’ the legendary street figure. We’ve never even heard him called Reginald, who is that guy? What kind of life will he have without the drugs, and can he ever get people to trust him again? It’s hard for us to watch his sister throw him out because we know he’s really trying to change, but for her, this is one of many attempts to get clean, and who knows if his resolve really means anything?

It’s jarring to see him all cleaned up, and so much more subdued. He doesn’t have that energy he used to have on the streets. Part of him is missing, and I think that is one of the major troubles people have getting clean. The drugs make you into a different person, and what if people like that guy better? Certainly the death of Sherrod changed him too, forced him to look back and see what his life had become. I really hope that Bubbles doesn’t relapse, that he makes it to at least a somewhat happy ending. After what he went through last season, it would be too hard to watch things get any worse.

No show on TV is as dense as The Wire. This post is 3,000 words, about one episode, and I feel like I only scratched the surface. The show is back and as good as ever, though I do still have some doubts about everything getting wrapped up in nine episodes. We shall see. But, they’ve never let me down before, I’m sure things will go out on a good note.

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