Down to The Wire: A Moment of Silence
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 6, 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.
Season three is by far my favorite season of The Wire. The first season comes close, because of the sheer rush of the new, and obviously there’s no fucking with seasons two or three either (I’ve probably said it elsewhere, but choosing a favorite season of The Wire is like choosing a favorite Velvet Underground album or a favorite movie starring John Cazale–the quality is so high across the board that there’s practically no point in putting one over the rest). But three has my favorite story arc in the entire series–Avon’s return home from prison, his subsequent ideological split with Stringer Bell, and the fall that inevitably ensues. The Wire had told plenty of heartbreaking stories before, but it’s the break between Stringer and Avon that elevates the show to Shakespearean, Greek, or even The Godfather Pt. II (speaking of Cazale) levels of tragedy.
I didn’t realize this the first time through, but the fall out between the two is evident even before Avon gets paroled, even before Season Three. Obviously they’d started to think differently earlier in the season–Stringer’s plan to join forces with Prop Joe to get better product, at the expense of Avon’s territory, had met with friction from Avon, and Stringer’s ultimate decision to do it anyway marked the first time in the show he visibily went against Avon’s wishes. But Avon eventually seemed to come around to reason, and never appeared to discover Stringer’s going behind his back. However, there’s a scene in the S2 finale, when Stringer visits Avon in prison to brief him on the prop joe situation, where String puts his fist up to the glass as an expression of his bond with Avon, and Avon hesitates–just a little bit, but plenty long enough to show his sense that something has changed–before joining him with his fist. The events of Season Three couldn’t have been too far away at that point.
Still, Season Three is brilliant enough to give you plenty of reason to root against the fall of this relationship, and to hope that maybe it isn’t quite as unavoidable as you suspect. Mainly, there’s the last scene in “Straight and True,” the season’s fifth episode, which is a true demonstration of the brotherhood between the two at its very peak. Stringer treats Avon’s return from jail as he would a king coming back from the crusades, awarding him with new clothes to his taste, a gorgeous luxury pad in his own name, a new car, a homecoming party, and even a girl (or two) that Avon has his eye on. “We Brothers, B.” Stringer explains. “Always, baby” replies Avon.
A more cynical viewer might say Stringer does all this out of a desire to keep Avon complacent while Stringer continues to pull the operation’s strings, or that he does it all as a sales pitch to try to convince Avon that going legit (something Stringer’s been gravitating towards since day one) is the right direction to be heading, and knowing Stringer, it’d be naive to believe that those don’t reasons play a part. But you’d have to be made of stone to not at least sense a little bit of the love between these two guys–the look of glee on Stringer’s face as he’s regaling Avon with all his new shine speaks of his desire to genuinely do good by the soldier with which he came up, even if they’ve since grown apart a little. At this point, they’re still brothers more than business associates.
It, uh, doesn’t last. By the very next episode, Avon vocalizes the split between him and String, after he witnesses it all too clearly at an architectural development meeting that goes way over his head. “I ain’t no suit wearin’ buisnessman like you, you know, I’m just a gangsta, I suppose. And I want my corners.” It’s heartbreaking, because you feel so strongly that Stringer’s way is the way to go, as he’s essentially offering Avon the opportunity to sit back with him and just get richer and richer, while minimizing their personal risk until it’s barely even there–the opportunity to, as Stringer says, “run this fuckin’ city.”
But Stringer’s mistake is thinking that since this was his goal from the beginning, it must be Avon’s too, which it obviously isn’t. Avon’s a born soldier, someone for whom the fight for the money, power and respect is just as important as the money, power and respect itself. And though you smack your forehead at Avon’s short-sightedness, you also have to give it up to him for being so true to and honest with himself, for holding onto his roots and his passion while Stringer just looks for the next way to make a buck. Like he tells String later in the season, “You know what the difference between you and me is? I bleed red. You bleed green.”
The wedge between the two just drives deeper and deeper as the season goes on. Avon’s decision to go to war with Marlo Stanfield over the corners he lost to Marlo in his absence frustrates and perplexes Stringer, who sees the move for what it is–a shallow attempt to regain hood bravado at the expense of lives and commerce.Meanwhile, the differences in motivation between the two characters lead them to start to question the other’s strength, Avon questioning if Stringer is hard enough for the Game, and Stringer questioning if Avon is smart enough. It all leads to one scene–and one particular moment–after which you know that the relationship between the two is truly over, and that shit is about to get real.
In episode eight of the season, “Moral Midgetry,” Avon returns to his operation’s home base after nearly getting killed in a shooting by the Stanfield organization–one in which he found himself completely outsmarted by Marlo and his people. Rather than be upset about this (as well as the shoulder wound he suffered in the shooting), Avon is overjoyed at the challenge–“We finally get back to old times, baby!” he exclaims to his people. Stringer is predictably less amused, however, protesting that they’re “past this bullshit.” Avon finally calls Stringer out on his weakness, saying that he suspects Stringer of being “not hard enough for this shit right here, and maybe, just maybe, not smart enough for them out there.” As if this wasn’t enough, Avon also mocks String for his body count–the ultimate dick-measuring tactic among soldiers.
But, as we know, there’s one exceptional name on Stringer’s resume, one card up his sleeve that Avon isn’t aware of, and Stringer makes the monumental decision to play it. Why he does, I’ll probably never really be sure–in his three seasons of The Wire, it’s the one decision String makes that doesn’t seem motivated by cold, well-reasoned, cost-efficient logic. It probably says something about the strength of the initial relationship of these two men that Avon seems to be the only person whose opinion means so much to Stringer that he’s willing to risk everything–their friendship, their partnership, their business–in order to prove himself.
Because once Stringer mentions D’Angelo’s name, and the fact that it was String who ordered him killed, it’s all over. Just about every truly great drama in the history of Western literature has one of those “Oh Shit” moments. It’s the moment in a drama where you know a line has been crossed, a moment before any real fire and brimstone starts to rain down on the cast, but in which you become positive that hell is truly ’round the corner. Thibault stabs Mercutio. Ahab ignores a ship’s plea to help them look for the captain’s son to further hunt Moby Dick. Sal beats the shit out of Radio Raheem’s boom box with a baseball bat. Before these moments happen, there was at least a slight chance that everything could have settled down, and all parties could have escaped relatively unharmed. After these moments, it’s fucking on.
And that’s why possibly the series’ most dramatic moment isn’t String’s confession to Avon, or even the scuffle that the two have as a result (though had Avon not been largely incapacitated by his recent injury, it seems doubtful that both men would have left the room alive). Rather, the tensest moment comes in the silence between the two afterwards. For a full minute after their fight, neither of the two says a word, catching their breath, gathering their thoughts, and planning their next move. A minute might not seem like a long time on paper, but you don’t realize how rare a minute without dialogue on TV is until you actually watch it happen. And this pause, this sort of post-climactic breather, gives you time to sort of step back and realize the breadth of what just happened, and to realize that even though the two appear to have temporarily made peace, the real battle is looming.
Naturally, though, it isn’t going to happen in “Moral Midgetry,” as the eventual duh-ding-ding signals that the episode has come to an end, and that viewers will have to wait until future episodes to see which of the two crosses the other first. But despite the tragedy that follows, no moment in the series carries more emotional weight than this moment of silence, saying more in nothing than even the pen of David Simon ever could. And while The Wire managed to follow up this moment, and even the end of this arc on the whole, with at least one more season of brilliant television–a feat that no other show could even be asked to do–it’s not one that I could realistically see being topped in the future.