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Down to The Wire: The Final Act

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 7, 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, has finally begun. 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.

I forgot how depressing the S4 finale was. I remembered Randy getting stoned by his community and ending up in a group home, Michael getting in the Game for the first time, Bodie getting killed and Colvin’s program getting shut down. Alone, that should’ve been more than enough to ensure a miserable finale. But then I had forgotten about Herc getting fired, Duquan dropping out of school in favor of getting his own corner, Carcetti selling out the city’s education budget to keep his pride and his run at governor. I mean…dear lord.

Probably a good thing I watched it again recently, because otherwise there’s no way I would’ve been prepared an S5 premiere this bleak. Not positive about how I feel about the tone of the new season yet, but dear lord do things seem dire so far. I’m trying not to judge the season too harshly just on the premiere (and the second episode, which I caught on demand, but will refrain from discussing here), since if there’s one thing that became really clear watching all four seasons over again, it’s that these seasons take a long time to heat up–even S3 felt kind of tired for the first three or four episodes. That said, here’s how I break it down after one:

The Good:

  • Clark Johnson. I knew he was gonna be in this season, but I thought it might’ve just been a small, two or three-episode arc character or some such–didn’t realize he’d be one of the main characters in the Media plot (the unique focus to S5). The Homicide star is still as cool as they come (having even directed a bunch of episodes, including the series premiere, before), and his presence is certainly welcome as Gus Haynes, the seasoned vet editor at the Baltimore Sun. Have a feeling we’ll be getting plenty of good moments from him before season’s end.
  • Slimeball Carcetti. The evolution was markedly subtle over the course of the third season–I’m not sure I even really realized it the first time out–but Carcetti had decidedly transitioned from swashbuckling idealist to ccompromised careerist by the finale. At the beginning of S5, though, he’s in full-blown sleaze mode, worrying more about stats, rivals and public image than the concerns of his constituents. Even worse, his hair appears to have achieved a new plateau of slickness–it’s been somewhat disturbing since S3 & 4, but now it looks like I could bounce a golf ball off of it. Plus, he now says “resched” as an abbreviation for reschedule, as sure a sign of evil as there ever was.
  • Herc Goes to the Dark Side. Apparently there’s a code on The Wire about ugly, fat, bald white dudes sticking together, since now Herc has shacked up with Barksdale organization lawyer Maurice Levy. At this point I suppose it’s unsure if anyone realizes who Herc’s current employer is, or if he realizes just what sort of character he’s hitched his wagon to, but right now, it feels like the first (and most unnerving) real betrayal on the cop side in The Wire. Herc was never the brightest bulb in the toolshed, but at least he was generally well-meaning in his brutish stupidity. The storylines that could come out of this thing are BIG.
  • The Stanfield Organization. Yessir. By now, Marlo, Chris and Snoop have definitely proven themselves as formidable a Big Three as Avon, Stringer and Wee Bey were at the beginning of the series, and the fact that they’ve gone this far basically without tripping up at all (despite the 22 bodies discovered at the end of 4) is seriously impressive. And now they might be bringing in the Greeks/Russians/Eastern Europeans from last season–who knows the awesomeness that could result in.

The Bad:

  • Repetittion, Repetition, Repetition. The opening sequence feels especially redundant–not just a tired retread of past Cops-Fuck-With-Knuckeleheads mishigas, but an exact rip from an episode of Homicide. Maybe meant as an inside joke, but either way its a waste of a strong season opener. And then McNulty’s raging against the machine, wondering what it’s like to work in “a real police department,” Bubs’ claiming reform and his sister struggling to trust him again, yet another shutting down of the Major Crimes unit…it just feels so tired. And maybe that’s the point, and maybe that’ll become clearer as the season goes on, but right now it’s hard not to miss the kind fo freshness that came with other season premieres.
  • McNulty’s 360. I had mixed feelings about Jimmy going straight in the fourth season–settling down with Beadie Russell, quitting (or at least significantly cutting down on) his drinking, and quite Major Crimes in favor of humbly manning a patrol car. Though I liked seeing him happy for once, I did miss the old McNulty, fucking around and fucking up, the most loveable loser in all of Baltimore. Still, I don’t like seeing him back in full-on scoundrel mode at this point–his humanity was so hard earned, and seemed to make him so happy, that to just completely strip him of all of that in the off-season (implicitly as a result of his returning to Major Crimes at the end of 4) seems low and sort of lazy.
  • M.I.A. Namond, Randy, Prez, Omar, Cutty and Bunny. None but Omar even appear in the credits this season. BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

The Questionable:

  • The Theme Song. I’m really not sure what to think about this one yet–my initial reaction is that Steve Earle’s version is the weakest one yet, but usually each new theme takes a bunch of episodes to really stick for me, and even the S4 one was revealed to not be without its charms after seeing it enough times. I at least appreciate how different Earle’s accoustic-folk guitar and drum machine version sounds from the other first four–I still get 3 and 4’s themes mixed in my head.
  • Journalism Stuff. Simon said that the fifth season would focus on the media, and so far, it looks like that means following a group of reporters at the Baltimore Sun, led by the aforementioned Johnson. Newspaper writing seems kind of small-game when compared to the behemoth institutions taken on by previous seasons, and I’m not sure if they can milk the same level of drama and social commenatry out of it. But I guess I might not have said that about the Docks at the beginning of S2, and that turned out pretty OK, so I guess we’ll see. Either way, it’ll probably bring up a lot of nasty memories of the last three-and-a-half years of college for me.
  • The Darkness. So yeah, Season Four ended pretty miserably, but at least some good came out of it–Namond escaped from following in his father’s footsteps, Cutty ended up healthy, popular and with a new girlfriend, the Major Crimes unit was in full swing, things were good with McNulty…there was some heavy shit for certain, but as with all season finales, there was at least enough good for there to be hope. So far, I’m not seeing much hope coming out of this season–it’s starting out even more forebodingly that was the HBO Death March of Season Six of The Sopranos. The show’s always been dark, but it’s never felt quite this cynical before. Here’s hoping the show gives us at least one or two reasons to keep hope alive.

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Down to The Wire: Where’s the Love, Y’all?

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 7, 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.

Bubs. Cutty. Omar. Clay. Stringer. McNutly. Kima. Prop Joe. Bunk. Bunny. Just about everyone can agree on who the best characters in The Wire are–some people might differ on the #1, but start listing ten or 15 or so (which, for a show like The Wire, still isn’t that many), and you’ll mostly get lists of the same names. Friend of IITS Jason L already wrote an excellent and fairly definitive piece on his take on the ten best anyway, and my list would barely differ from his at all, so there’s no point in listing them again. However, there are a fair number of characters on The Wire who, even if they don’t quite belong in the show’s top tier, don’t quite get the credit they deserve–either becaue they don’t tend to get much screen time, because they tend to get overshadowed by bigger, flashier characters, or because their depth isn’t really evident the first time around.

So, the ten most underrated. Some characters are grouped together for logic and convenience’s sake.

10. D’Angelo Barksdale. It’s a frequent fixture in The Wire, as well as in just about any major movie or TV show involving a steady cast of criminals–that of the gangster born into a life of crime who decides that he’s not cut out for this line of work. If D’Angelo’s character weren’t better developed, he could’ve just been a gangsta cliche, but the dude brought heart (and turtlenecks!) to the first two seasons of the show–smart enough for the game, but maybe a little too smart for it, and definitely not cold enough. The deaths of him and Wallace provided the show with its first real tastes of tragedy, and both are missed, even if they definitely had to get got.

9. Ervin Burrell. The Wire has its fair share of company men–the downtown equivalent of the street soldier–but none are quite as simperingly loyal as Burrell, the Baltimore Police Commissioner that makes Rawls look like a loose cannon by comparison. And no one could look or play the part better than Frankie Faison, whose pudgy face, smug grin and self-satisfied demeanor make him the ideal middle-management asshole, the kind fo person who makes the idea of entering the work force seem even more terrifying.

8. The Three Wise Men. Even the worst hitters occasionally need guidance. Butchie, Vinson and The Deacon, the mentors to Omar, Marlo and Cutty, respectively, act as a sort of compass, both practically and morally, to their proteges, providing them with the necessary wisdom and rigtheousness for them to carry out their misdeeds. Their characters even put the show on a sort of biblical tip, being a man of the cross, a blind man and a, uh, rims salesman, brilliantly representing Baltimore past and providing contrast with the arrogant, impulsive horrors of the new generation.

7. Michael Lee. Though it doesn’t quite pack the emotional punch of Randy’s story (especially with that ending), Michael’s story is probably my favorite of the four kids at the center of S4. His arc is a hearbtreaking example about how even a good kid–a responsible kid, a kid of integrity who sticks up for his friends and his beliefs–can succumb to The Game, out of sheer desperation of circumstances. His joining up with Marlo, Chris and Snoop by the end of the season is like The Wire‘s equivalent of Anakin Skywalker flipping to the dark side, though maybe not quite as hilariously lame.

6. Beaddie Russell. Not the most interesting character on the show, perhaps, but Beaddie deserves credit for being perhaps the one unequivocal force of good in the show–the one person who hasn’t been at all corrupted or embittered by life on the streets. She’s the one person on the show who smiles regularly, and doesn’t have a shred of darkness lurking underneath the smile. Hell, McNulty likes and respects her enough as a person that he actually doesn’t fuck her the first (or even the second) chance that he gets, which is just about the highest possible compliment McNulty can pay to someone of the fairer sex. Good enough for McNulty, certainly good enough for this list.

5. Chris and Snoop. The Stanfield organization may be so pure in its sociopathy that they make the Barksdale people just look like conflicted anti-heroes, but you gotta say one thing to their credit–they know how to stick together. As Marlo’s right hand, Chris provides stark contrast to Stringer Bell’s late-game mechinations, rarely questioning and never disobeying the word of his higher-up, and always carrying out his word unflinchingly. Meanwhile, Snoop clearly just loves being in the game enough that she’d have no reason to ever betray Marlo–the hitting seems more important than the money to her anyway. Plus as a duo, the two have a handful of S4’s best moments, like when they forebodingly purchase a nailgun in the season’s opening seuqence, or when they kill an out-of-towner with their lack of knowledge about Baltimore club music as evidence, or when Chris coldly responds to a would-be hit’s pleading explanation with “yeah…that’s good…” No reasoning with pure evil, especially when being evil seems to be so much fun.

4. The Mob Moms. There’s nothing I find quite so chilling in literature as a cold-hearted mother–usually the one reliable source of compassion among even the most dastardly of characters, when one has other priorities or motivations than the welfare of her children, it just feels low. There are two such mothers in The Wire–Brianna Barksdale and DeLonda Brice. Brianna gets one of maybe the five most devestating scenes in the series, when she convinces son D’Angelo to take the 20-year fall for his cousin for the sake of business and “family,” just after he finally made the heart-wrenching decision to start over and go straight–the revealing shot of her resting her hands on the shoulders of her utterly defeated son is definitely Corleone-worthy. But at least Brianna is just more misguided than anything–she likely genuinely believes that this is the right move for her son, and when she too late realizes her error, she suffers more than anyone on the show for it.

DeLonda, on the other hand, is just cold (a word that seems to come up a lot when talking about The Wire, but hey, we are talking about the Northeast here). The idea of a mother actively nagging her son to increase his involvement in the drug trade seems so intuitively wrong, but according to the doc HBO’s been airing about the show, the character has gotten one of the best responses for its realism. And to the show’s credit, it does feel real–arguably motivated by tough love and misguided affection, but more believably a result of laziness, greed and a lack of basic maternal compassion. Wee Bey’s finally convincing her to let the boy be is a rare victory for The Wire–one the show badly needed at the end of S4.

3. Maurice Levy. I don’t know if Levy quite qualifies for inclusion in my Jewish Badass pantheon, since his form of misdeedery doesn’t quite inspire the same sense of awe and respect that most of these trailblazers did. But in terms of just being a bad dude, ol’ Maury definitely qualifies for all-time high status–a man just as ruthless and unflinching in his selfishness and greed as any of the show’s street toughs. And like them, Levy even seems to take a certain pride in his evil, springing murderers and other anti-social types with the glee of a supervillain. Good on Levy for proving that for middle-aged Jewish businessmen as much as anyone, pimping may not be easy, but it sure is fun.

2. Spiros Vondas. S2 of The Wire proved that in street crime, as in everything else, the Europeans are way ahead of us. With the possible exception of Prop Joe, no mobster on the show has ever been half as cool as Spiros Vondas, the Greek’s point runner in the dock smuggling game. And by cool I don’t mean bad-ass, I just mean cool–even-tempered, deep-thinking and confident like a motherfucker that always knows that he’s smarter than everyone else in the room (and actually right about it, for once). Plus, dude could be adorable as hell, especially in his interactions with the seemingly loveable (and similarly lethal) Greek. “You’re fond of him,” The Greek tells Spiros in reference to the mercy he shows on Nicky Sobotka. “You should have had a son.” “But then,” Spiros responds, “I would have had a wife.”

1. Herc and Carver. It’s appropriate that this duo should top my list of the most underappreciated characters on The Wire, given the way their characters were so perpetually underappreciated by their higher-ups over the course of the show (despite it often times being, I suppose, fairly well-deserved). Herc and Carver might not be the most compelling or likeable characters on the show, but with the possibly exception of the man McNutty himself, none of the characters on The Wire are so well-evolved. Both start as head-busting hot shots who’d rather put a beating on a couple miscreants than solve a major case, and who weren’t above taking a little something on the side for their troubles.

By the end of the S4, Carver had gradually become genuine police, learning along the way from the integrity of Daniels, the smarts of McNulty, and the sensitivity of Colvin, until he could actually count himself among their ranks. And by the end of S4, Herc…well, he was still Herc, but he had wisened up enough to make that work for him (or at least to take the advice of others when that wasn’t good enough), and was climbing up the corporate ladder himself. The changes aren’t so drastic as to be unrealistic, or so sudden as to be jarring, but rather give the impression of genuine character development, something for which The Wire might be rivalled only by David Simon’s old Baltimore crime stomping grounds, Homicide: Life on the Streets, and possibly by that other HBO show about organized crime as well.

And if you don’t buy all that, at least Herc and Carver owned nearly all the funniest scenes of the first couple seasons. My personal favorite is when Carver tries to run the good cop / bad coop routine on a recently incarcerated Bodie, their first time meeting with the young’n. Carver does the good cop bit, telling Bodie that he reminds him of himself, expressing sympathy for his situation, and offering a deal for information on higher-ups. Bodie says that there is something Carver could do for him, making him lean in real close to hear–“I want you to, uh…I WANT YOU TO SUCK MY DICK, BITCH!” Carver loses it and starts wailing on him, and eventually Herc (who didn’t even get the chance to play the bad cop) busts in and joins in on the beatdown. “You’s supposed to be the good cop!” Bodie yells at Carver in protest.

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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.

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Down to The Wire: The Fall

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 5, 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.

Considering a list of my top ten favorite TV shows of all-time, and I’d say the music used might have the least to do with the success of The Wire of any of them. Which is weird, because The Wire probably also uses more songs that I like than any other show on that list. In the season two premiere alone, for instance, you’ve got The Stooges’ “Search and Destroy,” Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry,” Looking Glass’s “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” The Knack’s “My Sharona,” Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ “Wooly Bully” and Sean Paul’s “Gimme the Light.” Near-classics all, but you could watch the episode five times and not remember the presence of a single one of ’em–it’s just not used the way music is normally used cinematically–not to comment on the show, or to drive it emotionally, but rather just to act as music existing in the world. Blasting out of boomboxes and car radios, piping in from tinny diner speakers, soundtracking the dancers at strip clubs, nearly all the music in The Wire is diagetic, and most of it is entirely interchangable.

That’s not to say that the use of music is bad, of course–it just works more as an element of realism than as a legitimate soundtrack. The Wire is a show that feels, more than any other show in history, practically like non-fiction, a show with such integrity and reliability that any deviation from this verisimilitude feels jarring, almost like cheating. This is why I could never really get behind Brother Mouzone, depsite on paper being one of the show’s most compelling characters–a Muslim intellectual that’s also the most feared enforcer on the entire east coast, it just seemed a little too Television for a show like The Wire (and yes, I’m aware that scarred, homosexual Robin Hood of the streets is one of my favorite characters–good to get in on the ground floor, I guess). So the fact that music is so rarely used in the conventional, more powerful way seems forgivable.

There are a handful of times, though, that the show does use non-diagetic movie. The most obvious one is the theme song–the gospel-blues of “Way Down in the Hole,” performed (depending on the season) by The Blind Boys of Alabama, Tom Waits, The Neville Brothers, DoMaJe, and eventually Steve Earle, depending on the season. It’s a fantastic song for the show, though I personally like each version less than the one that preceded. The second most obvious is the climactic montage sequence at the end of each season, set to songs by Jesse Winchester, Steve Earle, Solomon Burke and Paul Weller. The montages that are just impactful enough to feel excusable from the television verite standards of the rest of the show.

My personal favorite, though, is “The Fall.” Closing themes don’t get too much respect in TV, but they play a very underappreciated part in a show’s success–after all, the closing theme is what you leave the show with, the piece of music that provides the lingering impression. Plus, the best ones can sort of put a period on the end of the show, one final piece of punctuation to leave a mark as important to the chapter of the episode as anything else that came before it.

“The Fall” is one of those closing themes. Composed by the show’s music supervisor, Blake Leyh, the song is the perfect way to close episodes of The Wire. A subdued sort of orchestral, down-tempo instrumental, “The Fall” hums along like an ode to the streets at night, dark, melancholy and haunting. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking piece of music, the yearning and defeated counterpoint to the urgent and virulent beginning theme–like one of the show’s police heading home drunk and bleary-eyed after a long day of demoralizing case work.

But what makes me really love “The Fall” is the way the show uses it. The Wire isn’t a show where you can often see when an episode is about to end–the action is so continuous, and the sub-plots are so infinite, that without clock-gazing, it always feel like an episode could either run for another 45 minutes or end at any second. But when you hear that three-hit cymbal introduction to “The Fall” (duh-ding-ding), leading into that shuffling, echoing drum beat (which’ll always remind me of Four Tet’s similarly underrated “She Moves She“), it serves almost like an unexpected punchline, providing both the familiar thrill of getting to hear the closing theme and the disappointment of the show being over. It gets so I spend the last ten minutes of each show just trying to anticipate that duh-ding-ding.

The Wire‘s first soundtrack comes out on the 8th. I’m hesitant to pick it up–like I said, the show is practically soundtrack-proof–but as a fan of the show, I feel a certain responsibility to pick it up. Plus, it might be worth it just to finally get a full-length mp3 of “The Fall”.

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Down to the Wire: “What The Fuck Did I Do?”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 4, 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.

“You’re an asshole, McNulty.

One of the most repetitively expressed sentiments of Season One is a comment with plenty of justification. Jimmy McNulty is, in general, the closest thing that The Wire has to a hero–a generally well-intentioned crusader who’s willing to go to bat for his job and his beliefs, fighting perpetually losing battles against superiorly organized criminals and his ethically compromised higher-ups. But he’s also an asshole–a recklessly self-centered, self-indulgent and self-destructive fuck-up, one whose most noble pursuits are still mostly motivated by ego and vengeance than any particular do-gooder impulses.

McNulty’s misdeeds give his character fascinating (and often hilarious) depth, because you’re constantly caught between perceiving him as just a loveable ne’er-do-well scamp and a genuinely unlikeable loser. In the fomer category, you’ve got him failing to stop a potential car robbery because he’s too fucked up to stand up straight, showing up drunk at Kima’s door for possibly the most misguided booty call in TV history (and then trying again a few seasons later) and being unable to resist a three-way with two Russian prostitutes, despite being in the middle of a bust. In the latter category, you’ve got him sticking his friends with the responsibility of 14 dead bodies to get revenge on his ex-boss, showing up drunk and screaming at Rhonda’s door when she denies him a late-night hookup, and using his kids to help tail Stringer in the middle of a crowded mall (even losing them in the process).

The best example of this dichotomy is also not only McNulty’s best scene, but possibly the best sequence in the entire series. The beginning scene of Ep8 of S2, “Duck and Cover,” begins with McNutly at a bar drunk-dialing ex-wife Elena, who he’s recently failed to reconcile his marriage with, and who has driven him to (his most recent) binging. After hanging up and ordering another shot, despite his clearly being good to go and last call approaching, the bartender demands that McNulty not drive home afterwards. After insisting that he won’t, the scene cuts to a blitzed McNulty careening his car down an empty street while loudly and slurredly singing along to The Pogues. On an especially wide turn, he crashes his right headlight into a bridge support, and stops the car. After assessing the situation, he decides to back up his car and try the turn once more, ramming into the support again, fucking up the whole left side of his car. The scene then cuts to McNulty in a diner, half-intelligibly ordering coffee and eggs. After an especially young-looking waitress comes on to him, the shot immediately cuts to the two having sex at the girl’s apartment. The last shot is of an evidently hung over McNulty, awaking next to the girl in her apartment, with his expression echoing his de facto first season catch phrase: “What the fuck did I do?

The scene has essentially no consequence on the storyline of The Wire, but if you only needed one scene to understand McNulty (his flawed side, at least), this’d be the one. All three of his biggest vices–sex, alcohol and arrogance–are involved, and entirely separated from his job (the one thing that always keeps his character human), he’s able to let his worst impulses run wild. It’s possibly his lowest moment as a character, flagrantly breaking the law and endangering the streets of Baltimore out of anger and self-pity, and then fucking a much too young, possibly even underage waitress out of an inebriated combination of loneliness, horniness and boredom. With the possible exception of the times he gets his kids involved, there’s no moment on the show where his character is more despicable than this.

Yet the scene is utterly hilarious, and even peversely endearing. Even at his worst, you can’t help but feeling that McNulty is just being McNulty, and despite his neglegence and irresponsibility, you have to sort of admire his general fuck it attitude, as well as his ability to score young, fairly attractive waitresses even at his most pathetically plastered. Take the plot description on the DVD menu, which introduces the episode by talking about McNulty’s “legendary night out”–there’s a hint of sarcasm, sure, but no bitterness. Essentially, no matter how badly he screws up, you just can’t stay mad at McNulty. Look at that smile, ferchrissake!

McNulty’s hardly the first anti-hero in TV history–hell, Tony Soprano is a character that audiences really have to feel conflicted about rooting for, and McNulty never even killed anyone. On the whole, Jimmy’s mostly a good guy, but he serves as the lynchpin example of one of the most prevalent themes of The Wire–that even the genuinely good guys are real assholes from time to time, that even the best cops have thuggish aspects to them, and that the pressures of the city can drive even the most honorable man to some real dogged shit. A tired point, maybe, but when it’s presented this brilliantly, it’s hard to coplain.

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Down to The Wire: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Sobotka

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 3, 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.

Of The Wire‘s four seasons, there’s probably none whose merits are more hotly debated than that of Season Two–the season of the show that feels the most anomalous within the continuity of the four. The reasons for this are many, but mostly, it has to do with the docks–the setting for the majority of the season, which brings with it a whole new terminology, a whole new series of issues, and a spate of characters that we’ve never seen before on The Wire, and with but a couple of exceptions, we never see again afterwards. For this reason, some find the season the hardest to get into, but there also seems to be a growing number of people who label the season as one of their favorites, for the new and unique themes addressed and for the characters we never really hear from again. Personally, I’m not really sure in which camp I land–I’m currently in the middle of watching it again myself, so maybe I”ll report back.

One thing about Season Two that everyone can seem to agree on, though, is Ziggy Sobotka. Throughout the 50 episodes thusfar of The Wire, you meet all sorts of characters and character types–those stubborn (Rawls), arrogant (McNulty), cold-hearted (Stringer), stupid (Herc), corrupt (Royce), nagging (all but a handful of the recurring female characters) and even downright evil (Marlo). But there’s no one character on the show that draws even a fraction of the ire from viewers that Ziggy Sobotka does in his less than a single season’s worth of face time. Talk to someone immediately after they start Season Two, and I’d be twenty-dollars positive that one of their first three comments about the season is “That Ziggy character is a fucking idiot.”

The Wire, for the most part, is a show about tough guys–a show where even the female and gay male characters are dudes you wouldn’t want to mess with. And so while you might rather hang out with the cast of, say, The Office, if given the choice, the cast of The Wire–regardless of what side of the law on which they dwell–demands a sort of respect with its badassedness. So while they might not be morally accountable, at the very least they’s some cool motherfuckers. Ziggy, on the other hand, is not cool–as a matter of fact, he’s downright pathetic, the kind of character you’d cross the street to avoid, but less out of fear than sheer disgust.

We’ve all known a character like Ziggy at least one in our lives, though maybe not quite to this degree, and if we’re lucky, not too well. The kind of guy who’s constantly going too far, drinking too much, fucking around too much, talking too much shit and talking it too loudly. He looks mousy, he’s got a shrill voice, and he goes out of his way to piss off just about everyone he meets. He takes his dick out at the bar for no reason, he tells jokes at the expense of people far more dangerous than he is, and he somehow gets it into his head that he’s a bad enough dude to start dealing drugs and carrying around a gun. Every time you see his face your fists curl up a little bit, and every word out of his mouth makes your blood pressure rise a little further.

But what really seals the deal with Ziggy is the Duck. Ziggy did some seriously inflammatory shit before the duck, for certain–lighting a cigarette with a hundred dollar bill, putting his cock up as a screensaver on a feuding co-worker’s computer, loads of other stupid irritants like that. Still, it’s not until you witness his treatment of his pet duck, parading it around like a mascot and then feeding it liquor until it eventually, inevitably dies, that his character becomes truly despicable. From that point on, you’re just praying for his blood to be spilled.

And you’d probably think you wouldn’t have long to go in that regard. The moment you see Ziggy’s character for the first time, you know this guy is gonna end up dead–even if he was guesting on fucking According to Jim, soon enough he’d have pushed Belushi just a little too far, and the show would’ve had to have taken a turn for the dramatic. The fact that he was on The Wire, dealing with scores of unsavory types at countless different social stratas, made his character a ticking time bomb, seconds away at any point from tempting some character into shutting him up for good.

It might be my favorite thing about season two that Ziggy’s actually still standing at the end. He’s imprisoned, sure, likely for life, but somehow he’s still alive. His character is even given something akin to redemption–after overextending himself so much that he actually murders Double G, basically just for having insulted him, he finally collapses his tough-guy pose, immediately confessing to the murder, and doing it silently, for the first time in the whole season. A lesser show would have him get his comeuppance at the hand of one of his aggressors, punishing him for his sins and letting the audience vicariously experience the thrill of putting him in his place. But The Wire lets him suffer with the knowledge of his own actions, dooming him to a life of misery but at least giving him a sort of dignity in the process.

Did I hate Ziggy Sobotka for every second of his S2 screen-time, just like everyone else? Sure. Is he one of the show’s best characters, and one of the best examples of how the show builds and develops its characters like no other before it? Most definitely.

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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.

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