Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Wire: 'Not for Attribution' (5x03)

The last season of The Wire is starting to remind me a bit of the last season of Buffy, in the sense that there’s a disparity of focus between what I’m really interested in seeing and what we’re being shown. The problem in both shows was the decision to bring in a whole new set of characters when the story is right near the end of its last act. The newspaper people on The Wire aren’t as bad as the potential slayers on Buffy, but with a few exceptions, that storyline just isn’t doing it for me in the way that the other stories on the show are. The police is as strong as it’s ever been, Marlo and gang are reaching a Barksdale crew level of riveting, Omar bursts onto the scene and instantly raises the game, but we’ve still got fifteen minutes an episode that’s back at the establishing stage.

I hate to start with the newspaper section of the show, since it’s been sucking up critical attention, and spinning discussion of the show into a vortex of self reflection, but I’ll start there anyway. I still think the newspaper storyline is at best peripheral to the season, it’s not like the port storyline, which was deliberately designed to dominate the show, it’s inserted as another piece of the puzzle, in the same way the political stuff in season three just appeared on the show and became an ongoing subplot as it went on.

My biggest issue with the newspaper stuff is that it feels off to have a storyline in the getting to know you phase when we’re in the saying goodbye to the rest of the show. This is a consequence of the storyline having to jump in halfway through the overall storyline. The other problem is that the newspaper is another system like all the systems we’ve already seen. The parallels are made abundantly clear, but we have no emotional investment in what’s happening. The reason the school story worked wasn’t because we heard people talking about how bad standardized tests were, it was seeing the disconnect between what the bureaucracy thinks should happen and the reality of what’s going on in the classroom. Without that emotional engagement, the newspaper storyline comes off emotionally flat, even if the points are thematically valid.

For all Simon’s talk about how character trumps story, it’s the characters who make his thematic points work. When we see how the police department works, or how the school works, we understand why it’s woefully inadequate. With the newspaper, I feel like there’s a lot more show, don’t tell. There’s a reason that most TV shows are about cops and doctors, those are professions where the consequence of failure is death. Here, the consequence of failure is a failure to properly serve the community. That really does matter, but it’s harder to make that point, certainly not as one small piece of the larger plot in only ten episodes.

What does work for me is Alma’s story because we’re allowed to emotionally engage with what she’s doing. She’s not talking about what it means to be a newspaper writer, she’s living it in the moment. We enter at the moment where her idealism and reality come into conflict, and it’s great to watch her enthusiasm quickly turn to sadness when she realizes how her stories are treated, even the sensationalized serial killer storyline McNulty came up with. Gus is a likable guy, but he’s already so ingratiated into the system, I feel like there’s nothing he can really do. He can either quit or go along like he is now, doing the best he can. Alma is the closest thing to our point of view character, and has the most potential for change over the course of the storyline.

But, that’s not the real meat of the episode. For his first two years on the show, Marlo and his crew were a nebulous menace, an incarnation of the ‘fiercer’ streets, but not particularly personally developed. This season, Marlo himself has taken a bigger role, following the path Stringer traveled to a more legitimate business model. It’s interesting to see just how ill equipped he is to deal with basic social systems, like banks. This is a guy who totally owns the streets, but won’t trust that his money is being kept in a bank. And, after seeing the kids’ storyline last year, we can understand why. He has learned on the corners, not in the classroom.

Marlo wants to control everything, the money isn’t enough for him, it’s about power too. This is the same kind of thing Stringer was looking for, only Stringer wanted success in the legitimate world. Marlo wants to own the streets, to remove all his competitors and lord over Baltimore. He’s not doing it for the money, he has more than he can possibly spend, it’s more that he just needs power. Simon has called the Greeks representatives of uncontrolled capitalism, and that’s just what Marlo is as well. He’s even taking advantage of corporate loopholes, like bank accounts in the Caribbean. He’s going to learn from his competition, then destroy it.

Marlo’s one great flaw is his excessive pride. We saw it last week when he killed three people to fight back against a slur on his name, and we see it this week when he decides to bring Omar back out of retirement just so he can kill him. Joe realizes this is a foolish idea, he’s older and knows when something’s working to just leave it alone. Cheese tips off Marlo about how to get at Omar, and in the process begins a process that will almost surely lead to Joe’s downfall.

Throughout season four, we saw Chris and Snoop do some awful, awful things, but throughout, they never really lost our sympathy. Snoop is such a presence on camera, you can’t help but like her, and the combination of her joy and Chris’s brooding made for the perfect team. The only moment where you see one of them snap is Chris’s assault on Bug’s dad, and that feels justified. The scene is more about seeing Chris’s inner feelings than it is about the violence. After seeing that display, you somehow feel closer to the man.

After all the murders, it’s only this week that they crossed the line for me. The assault on Butchie was nasty, and cruel in a way that none of their other murders have been. This was purposeful, to get Omar’s attention, but it made it clear just how sadistic these two are. They may take direction from Omar, but the bodies are on their head. Butchie was a great character and it was hard to watch him go out like this. But, it was necessary to get Omar back in the game, and wow, was it time for him to return.

I’m not as huge an Omar fan as some people. In a lot of ways, he’s the Spike of the show, and though I don’t like him as much as I did Spike, he’s undeniably a presence, and it wasn’t until he was gone for two episodes that I realized, we seriously need some Omar. His entrance was amazing. For all the talk about the sociological themes of the show, it’s moments like Omar strolling the streets, giving out candy to kids that put it over the top. There’s a sense of dread hanging over the scene, Omar’s done too much to just walk away, and now he’s got to go back to Baltimore and finish things…again.

If Marlo and Stringer are meant to stand for the oppressive force of capitalism, Omar is the chaos in the system. Corporations can fall when they get too greedy because there’s always going to be individuals out there fighting back. Omar is an over the top character at times, but it’s okay to go over the top when it’s so fun. The Western showdown between Brother Mousone and Omar has nothing to do with reality, but it’s brilliant all the same. The show is entertainment at its core, it’s meant to enlighten and challenge you along the way, but if it’s no fun, no one cares. And, if you read Omar as the force of chaos and individuality in the world, some of his over the top actions make more sense. It’s hard to believe one man could survive this long, but when he’s the avatar of chaos, it starts to make sense. All I can say about his return is that it’s about time.

The force of chaos hits Marlo on many levels, one of which is Michael, the young lieutenant he’s been grooming for bigger things. Turns out Michael isn’t any more thrilled with working than any other high school kid would be, so he cuts out on his corner and goes to Six Flags. I liked that scene because it brought back memories of how these kids were before they caught up in the game. The question you’re left with after that scene is can Michael and Dukie ever go back to being those kids for the long term? Hell, they never really had a chance to be kids because they had to care for their parents.

And, if Michael does continue to ditch his work, what’s going to happen to him? Chris has heard about what he did, how will he react to his protégée not being who he hoped him to be? I want to see Cutty get involved in all this again, and find out what’s going to happen to these kids. It’s easily one of the most compelling angles of the season. With Bodie gone, we lost that connection to the street level, Michael and Dukie are carrying on as best they can.

I feel like the death of Bodie really took something away from the show. He never had that much importance to the plot, but in a lot of ways he was the soul of the show, the ultimate corner kid, someone who’d been through all the major plots and survived. I love the way he went out, but it’s hard to go on without him.

Elsewhere, the McNulty serial killer plot comes to the fore…and no one cares! I liked that twist, who really would care about homeless people dying? I bet a lot of people would kind of happy to have the problem taken off their hands. In a great twist, Lester stands up to support the idea, and recognizes the need to sensationalize things for the media. It’s got to be sick and twisted, and the killer has to have a personality. I’m not really sure where McNulty and Lester will get the bodies to do this, but I’ve got faith that the story will work. The show has always made the point that institutions don’t work, and maybe only a lie will allow good work to get done.

The greatest strength of the plot is the humor surrounding it. I loved how no one paid attention when McNulty tried to get people involved in the plot. The line of the episode is definitely McNulty saying “We have to kill again.” I feel like bringing this plot through the newspaper gang will do a better job of pointing out media failure than characters we don’t know getting laid off will ever do.

On the whole, this was really strong episode. The Marlo stuff is amazing, and the McNulty side of things is great too. I’m really curious to see where things go, and I hope next week brings Carver and Herc back into action.

1 comment:

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