Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Wire: 'The Dickensian Aspect' (5x06)

“The Dickensian Aspect,” like much of the season, is simultaneously brilliant and frustrating. The best aspects revolve around the increasingly desperate Omar struggling to make some kind of a strike back against Omar, while the weak elements once again revolve around Scott and his antics over at the Sun.

The thing that really bothers me about Scott’s storyline is it doesn’t feel vital to our world. I’m sure there’s people out there making stuff up in newspapers, but isn’t the bigger problem what they are reporting from reality, not what’s being made up? The New York Times’ greatest failure in the past few years wasn’t the whole Jayson Blair thing, it was their failure to question Bush during the buildup to the war in Iraq.

Along those lines, I think Alma would have been a better focus for the season. The strongest parts of the newspaper storyline were about her initial idealism clashing with the reality of what the business is. People don’t care about the very real murder of three people in their house, but they love this serial killer stuff. Why don’t we see her questioning these values at all, or at least deal with her dealing with this stuff? What we’re seeing is the same transfer of priorities that’s happening over at the police department, real murders being bumped out for the fake ones.

Scott himself remains a rather one dimensional guy. The notion that his Iraq War veteran story was less overwritten, felt more real, was way too head on. We get it, Scott was a bad journalist, and doing the right thing feels good. I’m surprised they didn’t throw in a scene where Whiting says that the veteran piece could have used a little of Scott’s usual magic just to hammer home the point.

Whiting isn’t necessarily a more uniformly bureaucratic, destructive character than a Clay Davis or Rawls, what makes him a problem is that he’s so boring to watch. Clay Davis and Rawls clearly love what they do, and we can understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. The reason people forgive some of the craziness in the Omar storyline is that it’s a joy to watch, Whiting is always boring, so the problems with the character come to the fore. Increasingly, I feel like the newspaper storyline was mishandled. With only ten episodes, it was going to be tough to pull off, and I don’t think Simon took it in the best direction by focusing on this chronically fabricating guy when there’s a lot more real problems out there with the way newspapers operate. Watching the Carcetti storyline in seasons three and four, it was easy to see how someone with good intentions could run awry and wind up a part of the system. There’s none of that complexity with the higher ups at the paper.

Plus, with the exception of the Daniels quote story, they haven’t taken advantage of our split perspective to show the way the newspaper’s agenda and the police or city hall agenda run into conflict. What made the first season so brilliant was I simultaneously wanted them to catch Avon and wanted Avon to avoid capture, I don’t get that conflicted feeling watching this because the newspaper gang isn’t emotionally engaging. I don’t care about what happens to any of the characters. Now, maybe things will turn around in the last few episodes, but right now, the storyline’s going to have to kick its game up to match even the port storyline.

Along with that, I’m finding the serial killer storyline a bit exhausting, though it’s starting to hit hard, and I think it’ll end strong. It’s hard to watch McNulty and Lester so thoroughly destroy themselves on this crusade against the system, putting their careers and lives on the line to get Marlo. The point that this episode makes is it’s not about Marlo, it’s about sticking it to their bosses. Both of them have a chronic desire to rebel, to show they’re better than the authority figures lording over them, and they’d gladly martyr themselves rather than do police work under the conditions handed down by City Hall.

What makes this episode effective is the contrast between what Bunk’s doing and what Lester and McNulty are doing. Lester and McNulty spend all their time perpetuating the swindle, and have made very little progress on Marlo. I think that all hits home for McNulty when he takes the homeless man to the shelter and sees just how bad things really are. These are the people he’s exploiting. He thought that no one would care about some homeless bodies, but looking at the guy, he realizes that they are people, and is it worth desecrating those bodies to get a wire tap on Marlo? I think the whole thing is going to come crashing down soon, not necessarily because they’ll be found out, but because McNulty will recognize that Lester is on an endless quest. Getting Marlo won’t mean anything, he’s certainly not worth sacrificing their lives for.

This is all in contrast to Bunk, who’s making real progress on the bodies in the vacants. Bunk is the star of the season for me. Normally relegated to comic relief, he was a character I loved, but didn’t seem that essential to the show. Here, he’s the voice of reason, the guy who thinks that it’s still possible to do things by the book and get results. He’s a murder police, so he’s going to work those murders. This is bringing him into contact with the gang of kids from season four, and setting up some potentially incredible, and sad stories.

Already, we’ve got the great scene with Randy. Bunk knows that Randy has the information he needs, but after what Herc did, it would be foolish for Randy to talk to him. The kid has changed, he’s grown tough to protect himself in the group home. The person we knew last season is dead, and it feels ridiculous when Bunk threatens him with time, he’s already in juvie. I doubt we’ll be seeing Randy again, and it’s sad to think this is how it all ends up for him. Herc may get revenge for his camera by busting Marlo, but that same camera led Randy down this path. If anything, it only makes the scene where Carver is taunted by Randy at the end of “That’s Got His Own” even more haunting. It all goes back to that fucking camera.

Michael’s mother provides a better lead. Here, we see the complex web of interactions that will potentially bring Marlo down. Michael rejected his mom after she bailed him out, making her more open to talking to the police. Bunk knows Chris and Snoop did the murders, and now he’s got another one to tie to them. It’s ironic that the one potentially justifiable murder in the whole bunch will be the one that could bring them down. It’s emotion that gets people into problems in crime, that makes them do stupid things, and that murder may be what dooms Chris. I’d love to see Bunk bust Marlo and his gang using traditional police methods instead of McNulty using his serial killer.

I’m not sure what kind of message that sends though. Simon is fond of saying the system is broken, so why should Bunk working things through the system help him succeed? I’d argue that Simon has always valued individual action. People like Colvin and Stringer can achieve their own goals within restrictive systems through individual action. That’s what Bunk is doing, he’s working as hard as he can to succeed in spite of the system, not because of it. McNulty is actually more controlled by the system than Bunk. He’s going through this whole serial killer charade to stick it to the man, whereas Lester’s one day of spying on the lot earlier in the season got them more information than all this.

A scene I really loved was Carcetti’s speech about homelessness. It calls back to the last episode of season three, where Carcetti gives an inspiring speech about changing things, right after shutting down Hamsterdam. We’ve all seen these speeches, and it’s harrowing to realize it’s all a lie. Carcetti isn’t doing all he can, he’s doing the exact same thing as before, but he made the media believe in him. Watching that speech, I could see how Carcetti could become governor. He’s electrifying, even if it’s all a lie. That’s what McNulty doesn’t understand, the bosses only have to keep up appearances, they don’t really need to fight crime any differently.

Elsewhere, Omar takes the fight to Marlo’s people after surviving some “Spider-Man shit.” The man is battered, barely able to walk, but he’s still calling Marlo a bitch. Omar has watched his entire world torn apart, all his enemies killed, and he’s got nothing left. I’m not exactly sure what his goal is, is he going to kill Marlo’s whole organization? Either way, it’s harrowing to watch him strike such a well equipped foe. There’s such desperation in everything he does, and I’m really not sure how he’s going to be able to defeat Marlo.

Marlo completes his corporate takeover of the drug game, shutting down the co-op and raising the price on the good drugs. I’d like to think that Marlo’s hubris will set up his fall, but it’s hard to say. Certainly corporate America has been taken over by people like Marlo, but I think he’s just done too many bad things to survive the series. Someone’s going to want revenge. Slim Charles is still in play, he may tip off Omar.

I’ll admit it’s tough to watch this show on a weekly basis. The episodes are dense, but I always need a bit more when it ends. This was a really good episode, and I’m sure it will play well on DVD, but as all The Wire I’ll get for the week, I always want a bit more. I’ve noticed when I rewatch an episode, it always plays a lot better, I think it’s because I know what to expect, and can appreciate what we have, rather than just waiting to see what will happen next. There’s a huge difference between finishing an episode and knowing you can watch the next one whenever you want, versus finishing an episode and having to wait a week.

And, the show’s lost a lot of my favorite characters. Stringer and Bodie are dead, Colvin’s MIA, Cutty’s barely been on, the Bubbles we knew is essentially gone. They were all incredible presences, and it’s hard for the show to be the same without them. There’s a ton of great people left, but you can’t help but miss what’s not there.


Patrick C said...

Yeah, I've really been enjoying the episodes but I feel like something is missing. I watched the previous 4 seasons on DVD also, so I was wondering if it was the waiting that had that effect. The newspaper storyline still isn't grabbing me at all, as 6 episodes in I still don't really care. I'm not sure at what point in season 2 I started to be interested in the dock workers, but I feel like it was by about this time. Also, I liked seeing Nick Sabotka in the most recent episode, tying things together.

The most compelling part for me this season has been Omar and watching Marlo's organization do its thing. I really hope Omar survives this season, or goes out guns blazing and takes some people with him.

Oh, and in your first paragraph I think you meant a desperate Omar was going after Marlo, not after himself.

Patrick said...

I never loved the port storyline in season two, but what I admired was the way they made a total commitment to showing us this world. I'd imagine it would have been frustrating to spend so much time with them on a week to week basis, instead of the Barksdales, but the emotional hook was there from the beginning. The story, for all its flaws, gave a great window into a different world, in the same way that season four's school story did.

What bothers me about the newspaper story is that it doesn't feel like anything new. This is the same newsroom from countless films, with the same stock personalities.

And, the Omar/Marlo/Prop Joe feud is definitely the best part of the season. The closer the stories are to that, like the Michael/Dukie stuff or more recently, Bunk, the better they've been. The serial killer/newspaper stuff is off in its own world, and not quite working for me.

Patrick said...

But, I'll just add that I'm sure a lot of season four would be really frustrating watched on a weekly basis. I remember practically yelling at the TV, the bodies are in the vacants! It was a great moment when they found them, but stretched over 11 weeks, it would have been a long and frustrating journey.

Parkamarka said...

I watched the first three seasons on DVD then the fourth on a week-by-week basis. I have to say I got way more out of season 4 than any other, partly because I genuinely think it's the best season but I think I also had time to digest each episode, and really involve myself in the different trajectories of the kids' characters. By the end I was emotionally invested in a way I'm not sure I would be just racing through the episodes on a DVD binge.

That said, I think season 5 is more of a conventionally plot-driven series than maybe any of its predecessors. Perhaps this is due to it being only 10 episodes, and the pace being noticeably faster, I don't know.

I kinda disagree regarding the Omar storyline being the most compelling - it feels a little cliched and like well-worn ground at this point. The balcony dive scene was a little too close to shark-jumping territory for my liking.
While I agree that the characters in the media storyline are a little one-dimensional, I think it does work as a whole - The Wire is all about parallel narratives, and I can see Scott's playing outside of the rules of the system for his own individual gains eventually paying off, while McNulty's subversions for the good of his whole department ending up dooming him.

Patrick said...

The binge vs. weekly issue is a tough one to consider. In some ways, I think season four was better suited to viewing on a weekly basis, since, as you said, it didn't have the intense plottiness of season five. But, I have to say, watching it as a binge, I was totally wrapped up in what was going on, and it'd be pretty hard for me to more emotionally affected by what happened in the last two episodes.

And, I think the Omar balcony jump is redeemed a bit by the fact that the show not only points out how unlikely it is, we also see just how much it's affected Omar. He's seriously fucked up, the Omar we knew died in that apartment.