Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Down to The Wire: The First Hooks

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 2, 2008

Season Five of The Wire, the HBO drama that is almost inarguably the most compelling, innovative and exciting show on TV at the moment, begins at the end of this week. With that in mind, we here at IITS are devoting the rest of the week to the show–the characters, lines, scenes, episodes and themes that make up the patchwork of the show that broadened the perameters of what a TV drama could be capable of. Spoiler Alerts abound, so if you haven’t already, be sure to marathon the entire show first before reading.

Ask a Sopranos fan what their favorite episode of the show is, and they’ll likely have a whole host of answers for you without even needing to think much abut it. “University,” “Kennedy and Heidi,” “Long Term Parking,” “The Blue Comet,” “Isabella,” “Whoever Did This,” “Whitecaps,” “The Test Dream,” “Made in America”–everyone has a favorite or seven. The Sopranos has so many famous episodes that fans will often actually be able to refer to them by title, without having to resort to “The One Where…” type descriptions, despite the fact that the titles are often obscure references to blink-and-you’ll-miss-it themes or plot points, and despite the fact that they aren’t even shown on screen in any of the episodes.

Ask a Wire fan what their favorite episode of the show is, and you’ll likely be met with a blank stare. With the possible exception of each of the season finales, The Wire has zero famous episodes, and certainly none that fans would tend to know by name. This is helped little by the lack of effort David Simon and other Wire producers put into the titles, especially in the first season, where episodes are titled as simply as possible (“The Target,” “The Hunt,” even “The Wire”). At least on The Sopranos, the titles worked as litlte episode puzzles, challenging you to figure out what the meaning is, on The Wire, it seems mostly just like easy reference for the filmmakers.

The real reason why it’s so difficult to name a favorite episode of The Wire, as should be obvious to fans, is that it’s not a show built by episodes. Sure, each season is cut into twelve or thirteen hour-long slices, but naming a favorite episode within a season is like naming a favorite inning within a baseball game–ultimately, it’s basically irrelevant, since the whole is all that matters. And as in baseball, it’s fairly difficult to remember exactly what happens when–there are so many plots going on at any one point in The Wire, and so few major, arc-defining moments, that remembering what minor points share time in a particular episode is virtually impossible. One of The Wire‘s lasting TV legacies will undoubtedly be its utter destruction of the “The One Where…” labelling system, since even if you could manage to remember everything that happens in a particular episode, it’d be impossible to summarize in under a chapter.

All that said, while re-watching the first season of The Wire recently, there was an episode that, for the first time, stuck out to me as being particularly important in the development of The Wire–Episode Three of Season One, “The Buys.” I had never made note of it before, but this time through I realized that the episode performed a unique purpose for the show, something no other episode would do, because no other would have to again. It made the show truly compelling for the first time.

You may or may not remember this, and hell, you might not have experienced it at all, but for most people, getting into The Wire is not as easy as all the glowing reviews (even mine) would have you believe. It requires a patience that other Capital G Great shows never really demand–like, say, The Sopranos, which is addicting from episode one. And there’s a bunch of reasons for this, none of which are too hard to guess–the sheer volume of characters and plots that one needs to get a handle on to really understand what’s going on in the show, the rarely glossaried use of regional and occupational dialect, and the lack of immediately recognizable actors to provide familiar faces for audiences to latch on to are among the top reasons.

The main problem at first, though, is that the show just doesn’t make itself that interesting at first. There are a couple cool exchanges, and some important character development, but mostly, it’s just a whole lot of exposition, at the expesne of any of the really unforgettable scenes and moments that make the show so brilliant. The closest the first episodes come to these moments is in the first scene of the series, where McNulty confronts a boy about his murdered acquaintance, who explains that he was shot for stealing money from a craps game–something he’d done many times before and for which they usually gave him a beating, but never tried to kill him before. When McNulty asks why they let him keep playing at all, the kid answers “Got to. This is America, man.” It’s a memorable dialogue piece, but it’s kind of cheesy, especially for a series like The Wire, which rarely lets itself get quite so heavy-handed with its symbolism.

It’s not until episode three, “The Buys,” that there are any really classic moments, but luckily, the episode comes with a trio of ’em–the three scenes that hook viewers for the first time, that give a taste of what the show is really capable of, and that make it virtually impossible to watch anything else until you’ve completed the entire series. And, as is fitting for a show like The Wire, you’d never really know to say it until watching it for the third or fourth time–until then, you probably wouldn’t even remember that the scenes were even in the same episode.

The first one comes courtesy of D’Angelo, the Barksdale drug ring lieutenant that provides one of the main focuses for the first season, who sees his drug runners Bodie and Wallace playing checkers using chess pieces on a chess board. Incredulous at their using the chess set to play what he views to be an inferior game, he tries to explain how chess is played to his underlings. To do so, he frames chess as an extended metaphor for the drug game, with the King as Avon (head of the drug ring), the Queen as Stringer Bell (the drug ring’s main enforcer), the rooks as the stash house (always moving, always with protection), and the pawns as soldiers like Bodie and Wallace (limited means, potential for upwards mobility, tendency to die quickly).

Like the “This is America” scene, it’s more than a little bit cheesy, and you even get the feeling like you’ve heard the chess-as-street-life metaphor elsewhere before. But it’s the first truly transfixing dialogue exchange in the entire show. Listening to D’Angelo rambling on with his analogy, you’re eagerly anticipating the next part of his explanation, even trying to figure it out in your head before he gets there. Despite the stretches he makes in his explanation (the rooks as the stash house especially seems kind of weak), the parts of the game he conveniently fails to addressed in these terms (how he would’ve applied castling to drug terms is anybody’s guess), and the unlikelihood of the entire exchange, it’s thoroughly engrossing, and sticks in your mind long after.

That’s not to say it’s just a corny scene of audience compromise, though. It also provides subtle character development and foreshadowing that you won’t realize until way later, if even at all the first time around–the way it exposes D’Angelo’s more intellectual side, the way Wallace’s eagerness to learn more about a game he doesn’t understand sets him apart from Bodie and the other corner boys, and the way D’Angelo’s talk about the pawns “getting capped quick” foreshadows the eventual demise of all three. The dialogue itself may feel gimmicky, if captivating all the same, but the undercurrents make the scene as a whole nearly as rich as any in the show.

The second is another scene with D’Angelo, though this time he’s the one getting schooled, courtesy of Stringer. D’Angelo comes in to Orlando’s, the front strip club for his uncle’s dealings, and delivers his weeks earnings to Stringer, expressing his excitement for the “new package,” which will supposedly be stronger than the weak heroin they’ve been selling recently. Stringer tells D that the new shit will actually be essentially the same as the old, merely packaged differently, since addicts will chase the high no matter what, and will even buy twice as much if they only get half as high as normal. “It’s crazy,” Stringer rhapsodizes. “We do worse, and we get paid more. The government do better, and it don’t mean no never mind.”

The speech, just as compelling as D’Angelo’s chess diatribe, is the first example of one of The Wire‘s biggest thrills–the feeling of being privy to a world we wouldn’t know shit about otherwise. Stringer’s brutally honest explanation of the business mechanics of the drug trade are fascinating, because they feel like the real deal–he tells us things that we might not have guessed on our own, but which make perfect sense anyway. Meanwhile, it belies what is possibly the show’s most important over-arching theme, which is that all instutions–be they the drug trade, the legit business world, or even the government–essentially operate in the same manner. We know in our hearts that most businesses are knowingly screwing us to make more money, so why should the drug world be any different? And finally, it establishes Stringer Bell as being on the top of the food chain, mentally at least–explaining the cynical nature of things to a naive D’Angelo in a way that’s even more patronizing than his chess speech to the young’uns, the scene demonstrates just how shrew and cold-hearted a badass Stringer really is.

The third scene, though, is possibly my favorite of all. This time it’s from the law enforcement side of things, as Detective Sydnor prepares for an undercover gig as a junkie in the hopes of infiltrating the lower levels of Barksdale’s crew. With ratty clothes and a disshevelled appearance, Sydnor thinks himself ready to play the part, but Kima asks their junkie informant Bubbles to chime in about the verisimilitude of Sydnor’s look. He gives Sydnor a general thumbs up, but advises him on a few signs that might be a dead giveaway to his true nature–his wedding ring, for one (“You married to the needle, boy!”), his too-white teeth, and especially his shoes, which should have been cut up more by the empty vials junkies invariably walk over in the drug-infested alleys of Baltimore (“Have him dance on some empties,” Bubs advises).

The appeal of this scene is similar to that of the Stringer and D’Angelo one, giving another insider look to a world viewers presumably would know nothing about, this time of course of the self-aware street junkie. But it’s also one of the first instances of one of the most underrated aspects of The Wire–how fucking funny the show can be sometimes. On the grand comedy scale of The Wire, Bubs rates up there with Herc and Omar, a character that is so unique on TV and is so unapologetically himself that you can’t help but crack up at half the shit he does. As he drops science on the ignorant Sydnor, you get one of the first real glances at Bubs’s undeniable charisma, as well as at the great sort of chemistry the unit has with each other, to the point where scenes that take place within the unit often feel like laughing and hanging out with old friends.

It’s a bold, ballsy fucking move that The Wire makes to hold out on these scenes so long–by the time the third episode rolls around, it’s not difficult to imagine that many viewers have already checked out, finding the show too complex, too impenetrable, even too boring. But doing it this way ultimately makes the experience a more satisfying one, since by the third episode, you’ve already paid your dues, gotten the establishing shit out of the way, and now you can really the soak up the density of the show as best as possible. So if you’ve convinced a friend or relation to watch The Wire–and as an IITS reader, doing so should be one of your top missionary priorities in life–be sure to get them to watch up until the third episode. The show’ll take it from there.


3 Responses to “Down to The Wire: The First Hooks”

  1. Jason L said

    Season 1 has always felt like the weakest to me, but it does have some great moments in its first half, like the three you talked about. Bubbles critiquing Sydnor on how to properly resemble a junkie is pure gold.

    But I do think Simon and co. gave viewers something to latch onto in the first episode, in the scene where D’Angelo rolls up in Orlando’s after almost being convicted of murder. Avon chews the shit out of him for being so careless, but then gives him a hug, not letting his cousin leave on bad terms. The scene not only reveals the general dynamic between the two doomed characters, but it’s also damn well-written, and really engrosses the viewer into what’s going on inside this new world.

    Thanks for continuously pimping “The Wire”, hope other people get into it before it’s gone. Can’t wait for the rest of the week.

  2. Mitchell Stirling said

    Despite not seeing the forth series yet, I am going to have a little read of these now.

    I’ve only seen that episode once but all three of those episodes are as clear as crystal in my mind and was like you say the first time I thought I was in for the long run. I also think that the best comparison for a show like The Wire isn’t with TV but the literary work of someone like Dickens. Each episode is a chapter which can’t be summed up in a brief couple of lines adequately and taken on it’s own not that much happens. But as a weaving narrative moving towards the end it’s very rewarding.

  3. Awesome blog you got going on. This site runs on wordpress right?

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