by Ben P. Duck
Two events open this series: the pointless murder of the hapless Snot Boogie, and the trial of D'Angelo Barksdale. Both establish basic truths for the series, that violence and decay are endemic and that the system is not effective in combating it.
The Wire is the widely acclaimed series that takes as its subject the gritty streets and broken system of Baltimore in the first decade of this century. Producer David Simon, who was a crime reporter with the Baltimore Sun, draws on his experience in the city to create a series which is ostensibly about crime and bureaucracy (at least in the first season), but which is really about the setting itself. This has a long history in literature (Faulkner’s portrayal of the American South comes to mind) but was largely unprecedented in series television. The result was probably as realistic a portrayal of a setting as one could imagine, albeit one which seems most characterized by a deep melancholy and a particular perspective. That realism is further complemented not simply by the use of local actors and settings, but also a relentlessly linear structure (no flashbacks for example, with one exception in this first episode). Finally, the pace is always measured to make time seem to pass as it does in life, with night shifts, walking, and useless meetings.
This first episode establishes the arc of season 1, the conflict between local law enforcement and the illegal drug trade. The former, led by Detectives Jimmy McNulty, Kima Greggs, and Lt. Cedric Daniels, are divided, at cross purposes and mostly don’t like each other. The latter, led by Avon Barksdale and his lieutenant Stringer Bell, are well-organized, close and ruthless. Each group is supported by a sufficiently large crew of supporting characters that it’s hard to even list them all much less give a thumbnail sketch of each in a short review. It also makes it tough to introduce the complexity of the circumstances without resorting to initial caricature, although the few characters who do get attention immediately suggest that this problem will resolve itself in upcoming episodes.
“The Target,” although cutting back and forth between police and drug dealers, focuses on explaining to the audience how the drug dealing side of things work. We see how you routinely carry out this illegal business and the challenges facing those working in it. There is a Darwinian quality to the dealers and their systems. The unimportant and low prestige dealers and locations, like the Low-rises (ubiquitous garden style apartments erected for the city’s poor), are poorly organized and the dealers are just plain stupid. The dealers there are easily duped and would be easy pickings for the police, but they are also unimportant to the drug dealing organization. The high density high-rise projects are another matter entirely, where up and comers work. The top echelons are smart, careful and ruthless. Avon Barksdale’s nephew D’Angelo (or “D”) takes us on this tour. In the big time, he is barely functional, constantly violating key rules and drawing attention to the whole organization. In the low rises, where dealers can’t tell real money from fake, he is a player who knows what’s what and is completely on top of the game.
Meanwhile, McNulty’s little talk with Judge Phelan, motivated by some combination of righteousness, vanity and foolishness, cause the police to begin to turn their attention to Barksdale’s organization. We see, in the reaction of every echelon of the Baltimore police, a deep resentment over the idea that someone was talking about their business with an outsider (creating a mirror of the demands for silence among the criminals) and that the police department is, in fact, a deeply bureaucratic organization whose members are motivated as much by career concerns as crime fighting (when the Major complains that McNulty has brought him a case from last year, and which thus doesn’t count on this year’s performance appraisal, it is particularly telling).
The first episode, although a little mannered in its set-up at times, sets the scene remarkably and arrays a set of fascinating characters in opposition to each other.
Bits and Pieces
Part of the reason I wanted to write about this subject is because I live in Maryland and work extensively in Baltimore, often right at the intersection between government and race. I am not claiming to be anyone of importance or to hold any street credibility but it is hard to miss some of the real world parallels I see with The Wire.
Lt. Daniels is described as having a law degree “from the University of Baltimore, but still…”, UB has struggled for decades to be out from under the shadow of the more prominent University of Maryland Law School. They would hate this line.
D'Angelo is of course wrong when he corrects Wallace that Alexander Hamilton must have been a U.S. President. Again pointing up that D'Angelo is no genius and everyone on the street knows a little something.
It’s been reported that the murder of Snot Boogie was based on an actual incident that Simon reported on while working in Baltimore.
“…when it ain't your turn…”
(This is the epigraph that is used at the opening of this episode; each episode begins with such a quote but it would be way too easy to simply choose these to open each review. This is particularly the case because they often have a pedantic quality and exist primarily so that there is no danger that we'll miss the point of the episode. Still they are often great lines and even better in their full form which is often laced with irony.)
McNulty: “That will teach you to give a fuck when it ain't your turn to give a fuck.”
Bunk (repeating his quote back to McNulty): “That will teach you to give a fuck when it ain't your turn to give a fuck.”
(profanity is sometimes underrated as a form of expression)
D’Angelo: “Ain't no ugly ass white man get his face on no legal motherfucking tender, except he president.”
Kima: “Fighting the war on drugs... one brutality case at a time.”
Carver: “Girl, you can't even think of calling this shit a war.”
Herc: “Why not?”
Carver: “Wars end.”
McNulty: “…why'd you let him play?”
Witness: “Got to, this America, man.”
Three of four ugly ass white men (good but still a bit “drama” in some scenes)