The Wire: All Prologue

“He was who he was and he did what he did and 'cause he wasn't ready to get real with the story, that shit caught up to him.” – D’Angelo Barksdale

Lots and lots of scene cuts made this episode seem a little choppy, and yet it came together brilliantly. There were many plot lines and stories running simultaneously, and in some key ways this episode was the actual conclusion of season 1. In a number of other ways, it is a signal that everything we have seen thus far in season 2 has been the prologue to what will come next. So exactly as we saw in season 1, the pieces are all in place and now for the race to the end.

First, finishing unfinished business:

Omar testifies. And it was a work of pure genius, the god of war indeed. All conventional wisdom would say that Omar as a witness would never, ever work. He is a criminal, looks like a criminal, talks like a criminal and is entirely unapologetic about it. The brilliance (and no hyperbole in using the word) here is that you really believe that if you were sitting on the jury that you would believe him. The fact that the judge is Phelan also adds authenticity since we know that he would love the testimony as well.

D’Angelo exits. With McNulty, he was the lead character, and conscience on the criminal side of season 1. Because of this, his end is far more meaningful than the same fate would be for most of those we have met. Lawrence Gilliard always had a flair for delivering the speeches that really defined our understanding of what episodes were about (e.g. the chess speech and the chicken nuggets speech), and his musing on The Great Gatsby is another example. Nobody else does this, not with the naturalistic style combined with improbably philosophical pedantry. He will be missed.

McNulty retires. He seems to have given up on being a detective, and when he looks up for a moment he realizes that spending his days boating and actually being decent to his wife and family is not such a terrible way to go. The consequences of his action have brought him to this point (even if we know it can’t last).

And on to new business:

All the threads on the criminal side begin to come together, as we see Nick plunge fully into working with Spyros and the Greek. The connections to Proposition Joe and the drug trade become clearer (and a route that they can potentially connect to the Barksdales). We also see the connection to the issue of political corruption as Frank describes their efforts to persuade Maryland’s political class to support the projects he wants. Importantly, Frank mentions developers who want waterfront condos and the like instead of port facilities (and if you knew Maryland developers and politics, you would know that is a very bad sign for our stevedores). The Sobotka detail is also now on to every one of those threads: drugs, smuggling, human trafficking and even the political money, which is the real signal that we are getting ready for the action to jump up several notches.

As last year, there are characters on both sides who we pity, but whose fates are now essentially written by their actions to this point. Past is prologue.

Bits and Pieces

I watched The Wire for the first time well after it was initially on HBO (Apropos of this season’s plotlines, I was in Eastern Europe at the time although not involved in human trafficking or any other criminality), and only recently discovered that apparently Sex and The City was the lead-in show for The Wire for a number of years. This may be the oddest pairing of programs that I can name, although it apparently worked as they were frequently numbers 1 and 2 on cable for later episodes in their runs. Does this mean they shared an audience?

Quotes

"It don't matter that some fool say he different..." -D'Angelo

(I have really resisted using the epigraph or even anything from the same conversation to lead my review, but this time it was too much to resist, especially given this is the last speech we will get from Dee)

Dee: Like at the end of the book, you know? Boats and tides and all. It's like you can change up, right? You can say you somebody new, you can give yourself a new story, but what came first is who you really are, and what happened before is what really happened. And it don't matter that some fool say he different 'cause the only thing that can make you different is what you really do or what you really go through. Like, you know, like all them books in his library. Now, he frontin' books, but if we pull one down off the shelf, and none of the pages ever been opened. He got all them books and he ain't read near one of 'em. Gatsby, he was who he was and he did what he did and 'cause he wasn't ready to get real with the story, that shit caught up to him. I think, anyway.

(Dee’s last talk with his mother is also worth quoting)

Dee: I'm bangin' on the door, tryin' to get inside and you standin' right there to open the door. 'Cept you ain't lettin' me inside. You told me to go back out there and fight 'em, whether I lose or not. Remember?

Brianna: They beat the shit out of you.

Dee: Yeah, then you say to me, "Boy, I might've brung you into this world. But you the one who gonna have to live in it." Well, ma, I'm still here. Me. You gotta let me live like I need to live.

(Omar had more than a few choice lines)

Levy: You are amoral, are you not? You are feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade. You are stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city. You are a parasite who leeches off--

Omar: Just like you, man.

Levy: The culture of drugs-- Excuse me, what...?

Omar: I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It's all in the game, though, right?

McNulty: You really see him shoot the man?

Omar: You really asking?

(and Phelan gets to fire off a bit a Bird’s expense as well)

Phelan: Not only will there be no bond pending sentencing, but as far as I'm concerned, the pre-sentencing report is a mere formality. Mr. Hilton has been found guilty of killing a state's witness who testified in this very courtroom. He did so in cold blood and for pay. Unless the pre-sentence report indicates that he is, in fact, the Messiah come again, he will very likely be sentenced to life, no parole, by a Baltimore judge who for once in his life gets to leave his office feeling that his job actually matters. Mr. Hilton, are you the second coming of our savior?

Bird: Excuse me?

Phelan: Are you Jesus Christ come back to earth?

Bird: Um...

Phelan: See you at sentencing.

(McNulty turns over a new leaf)

McNulty: Yeah, I'm done fuckin' myself up, Bunk. I am done. Come on, man, let's go home.
Bunk: Alright, man.

McNulty: Nah, this is retirement. And after today, I'm retired.

Elena: That's not you.
McNulty: It wasn't me. It wasn't me not to drink, or dog around either. A lot of things weren't me. I want another chance.
Elena: How about a fuck for the road instead?

Jess Says

I'm always so glad that this episode starts off focusing on Omar's hilarious day in court and his glorious take down of Maury Levy. It was almost kind of the writers to begin the settling of unfinished business with a lighter approach, letting us linger a bit longer with the small victories from last season, before taking us back down the dark path to the devastating, tragic, and probably inevitable death of a beloved character.

D'Angelo’s death is every bit as crushing for me as Wallace's. In retrospect, you can feel it coming the whole episode, in all the little ways he makes peace with his choices and his current situation, and the way he cuts ties with his family. And yet, the first time I watched it, I really thought Dee was on the cusp of a new start. A peaceful acceptance of the person he was, leading to transformation. I heard him give that wonderfully insightful speech about Gatsby, and I thought, here’s Dee, “ready to get real with the story.” He’s gonna be okay. He’s going to get that second act. I should have known better --- this is The Wire, after all --- but I so wanted him to have that chance to be a better man. And to have it snatched away in those closing moments absolutely gutted me.

If only I had paid closer attention to the strong “no second acts” message throughout the episode. Gatsby doesn’t get to be a different guy, just because he says he is. McNulty doesn't get a second chance with Elena, just because he says he’s changed. Ziggy actually does get a second chance when Nick manages to keep Cheese and his guys from killing the idiot, but he’s still the same dumbass that got himself into that situation in the first place --- the asshole burning $100 bills in a working man’s bar. Even worse, Nick’s efforts to save Ziggy convince him he can handle dealing drugs!

At least we've got Shardene. One person who actually seems to be making the most of her opportunity to get away from her crime-adjacent life. It was wonderful to see her doing so well, to learn she's still with Lester, and to know that she's pursuing a nursing degree thanks to his gentle pushing. Maybe there's still hope for some second acts.

And more bits and pieces …

Ziggy really knows how to make you regret sticking your neck out for him, huh? I never should have said such optimistic words about him last week.

But on that subject, I found it interesting that Ziggy’s brother attends community college. Frank said Ziggy's mother wanted the same for him. Was it Ziggy's choice not to go because he wanted to be like the guys from the old stories? Or was it Frank's inability to believe he was capable of succeeding in school, to give him the opportunity? I couldn't really tell from their chat.

Avon didn’t want this for D’Angelo. Some aspect of all this was really about family for him, and I think he would have been content to let Dee go his own way, knowing he’d been fair to him. What’s he going to do if he ever finds out Stringer had D’Angelo murdered?

The Upshot

4 of 4 great works of literature (one of the best of the season)

1 comment:

ChrisB said...

Like Jess, the first time I watched this episode, I fully expected Dee to move on with his life. This time through, boy howdy were the signs there. His death still affected me strongly, however, as he is one of my favorite characters from the beginning run of this series.

You make a great point, Ben, about this episode being the end of season one. I hadn't thought of it in those terms, but I agree with your assessment.

There are two other aspects of this episode that I really, really like. The first is that the writers give real literacy to those whom I would never expect to have it. Omar knowing that Ares and Mars are the same god and the scene with the guys in jail reading Gatsby turns so many stereotypes around and gives us real insight into these people. They were not born criminals.

The second aspect I really like is the idea that drinking is a sign of masculinity. Bunk is a drunk (sorry for the bad rhyme) and so is McNulty. And, so are many of the guys who work on the dock. In fact, Frank specifically encourages men who can't afford to feed their families to go to a bar and spend money on booze. The implication is that real men drink and that those around them tolerate it. The scene with Bunk being sick in the office is a great example. I'm not sure how many people outside the docks or the police profession would tolerate that behavior at any level.