Friday, June 6, 2008

The Wire: The Scholarly Book

I just wanted to throw this out right now because the due date is June 9 (Edit: I found June 16 on another version of the announcement) and it seems very cool. A collection of essays on different (scholarly) aspects of the Wire. Very neat idea. Apply for it! I know I will, although I feel a little (a lot) out of my league. It's from literary/philosophy scholars, so I just don't know how their world works (um, is an abstract the same as history abstracts?). I'll go ahead and assume it is. Here is some of the announcement:

Please send a 500-word abstract or completed essay (4,000-6,000 words), plus a brief biographical statement (or c.v.), as e-mail attachments (in Word or as a Rich Text File) to both of the editors:

Tiffany Potter (
C.W. Marshall (
Deadline for abstract submission: 9 June 2008.

It's very strange that Canadian academics are writing about this (before Americans, no?). I'm also a bit surprised that I hadn't heard of it in the normal interweb avenues of Wire-fandom or my normal academic avenues (although I guess that's because it's English/literary/philosophy and not History/Social Science).

Here's the website I found it on:

and another with some commentary on this style and Continuum books who are publishing it

And an interview with the bo0k's editors who just published another book on Battle Star Galactica and Philosophy

Yay... scholarly Wire-ness!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Episode 5 - The Pager

First off, a quick apology for missing a day. I have had a few visitors in my apartment all this week, some less announced than others (Dave), but all were great guests and a lot of fun. Unfortunately, less time for wire watching/writing. Don't worry (all two of you), I'll be caught up today and this weekend.


Episode 5 - The Pager
In the opening scene, Avon grows increasingly paranoid about the police (or perhaps this is his daily M.O.). He even asks that a girlfriend's phone be removed after getting a phone call with no one on the line. Not without good reason as his nephew's pager gets cloned and tracked that day. Avon didn't rise to his position by being careless.

"...a little slow, a little late."-Avon Barksdale
Avon ruminates on the fragility of life, because he thinks that everyone is out to get him (and many are). Similar to Bubble's quote in the previous episode, the here today, gone tomorrow quality of the drug game come out in full force as Omar's crew both get killed in separate incidents.

"Seem like some shit just stay with you..."-D'Angelo Barksdale
"You got money, you get to be whatever you say."-Donette
This little interaction in an expensive Baltimore restaurant exposes how Dee feels illegitimate. It resonates with another scene from Season 4, but again shows that D'Angelo made from different cloth than his uncle. I think this gets at the importance of reputation in his world. On the street, people are immediately judged by their position and reputation. In this fancy restaurant you are judged by whether or not you can pay, as Donette points out.


This episode is called "The pager" because the device itself plays such an important role for the Barksdale organization and the police (especially in the final episodes). You could also consider Wallace the "pager" as he gets the crew of shooters to take care of Brandon.

Simon plays up the influence of surveillance and "big brother" in this episode (especially the final scene) more than in any previously. The clicking of the wire tap computers and the pay phones seems dehumanizing, as if the pagers themselves are killing Brandon (the viewer only sees numbers logged on computers, not the actual torture and murder of the kid). It's a pretty powerful scene for mostly including the beeps of technology punctuated by very short sentences and 12 second conversations. But at the end, we sense the slight sense of regret on the faces of Wallace and D'Angelo. Including Wee Bey's creepy clicking of handcuffs, it's an intensely human scene because they are about to snuff out a life. 'Tween Heaven and Here, indeed.

Episode 4 - Old Cases

"Between Heaven and Here"

The opening scene provides just a little taste of how the members of the detail work with each other. They each think the desk should be pushed a certain way and end up pushing against one another. They'll never have a chance with Barksdale at this rate.

Bubbs: "Thin line between heaven and here."

This line brings the show into a different context. Bubbs reminds McNulty that suburban soccer and the projects occupy the same city. In fact, it's a thin line between life and death as well, a theme which manifests more in later episodes with Wallace, Kima, Brandon, and others finding out how quickly life comes and goes.

Also featuring the infamous "fuck" scene between McNulty and Bunk. I don't know if you credit Simon's writing or the acting more, but incredible nonetheless. It's also some damn fine po-lice work. I don't have a problem with profanity, but some of the show's critics didn't appreciate it. Whatever.

I particularly enjoyed re-watching another scene: Herc and Carver's raid of Bodie's grandma's place. She seems utterly unfazed by two of Baltimore's finest fighting a war on drugs- the "western" way. This scene impressed me in a few ways. At the beginning, it's a classic "CSI" raid, but then The Wire does things a little differently and the audience learns more about Preston 'Bodie' Broadus. He's always been an angry person. His mother was an addict. While Bodie is a criminal, Simon shows that his "game" is rigged. The raid also shows how the drug war effects those not specifically in the drug industry. A fact Simon wanted to get across.

Though we don't come away feeling pity for Bodie, Simon gives a glimpse into his humanity. In the context of Season 3 and 4, this little scene fills out Bodie's character and gives him a past. It also starts a love-hate relationship with Herc and Carver (well, continues it in a more personal way) that lasted 4 seasons and got progressively deeper and more complex as all 3 "grew up" in different ways.

The pace of the episode was quick with several important events: reviewing the old homocide cases, Polk and Mahone's shenanigans, the decision to clone pagers, Avon putting a bounty on Omar and his crew, and D's tale of murder to the low rise hoppers.

One final note on this tale. By juxtaposing Dee having to tell everyone that he's a hard gangsta with Bubble's intimate knowledge of Omar's nature (without Omar going around shouting his story from the rooftops), we get another theme that becomes very important in season 4 and 5. Your name and reputation. It's one of those things that if you gotta tell someone- you don't have it. Omar and Wee Bey got it. Dee doesn't (despite having murdered two people). In an environment of such economic poverty, reputation takes on an expanded importance (in the Cop Shop, Freamon's reputation did not precede him).

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Episode 3 - The Buys

The most important aspect of this episode is its increasingly dismal treatment of Institutions. The title refers to the constant buying and selling of "favors", "suction", and "owe-you-ones" in order to accomplish real police work within the Department administration. Who you know and how they like you is far more important than how smart or how good at police work you are .

Of course, the title also refers to the "Buys" of drugs made by Sydnor. The police have some success in making hand-to-hands, but as soon as the bosses get word of it, they decide to use the info and raid the projects. This will start the investigation back at ground zero (because they don't have enough info to roll low level players higher than the street), but this is what the bosses want.

"The King Stay the King"

This episode also features Dee teaching Wallace and Bodie how to play chess. It's one of those great moments, like the Chicken Nugget scene, that Wire fans love and remember. Bodie thinks that if the pawn gets to the end, it wins. Dee reminds him- "the King stay the King." The lesson here is that institutions don't run on a system of merit, and it's actually impossible to rise to the very top (only become the Queen, aka Stringer Bell's position).


Like the other early episodes, this one is important for characterization. It introduces Cool Lester Freamon as more than the dude who paints doll furniture. Lester solves the mystery of Barksdale's photo by checking out a friend's boxing gym. He also writes down a phone number in the suspected, but now empty, stash house.This is also the first episode where McNulty learns that Kima is a lesbian. There have been many who lauded Simon for including more than a token homosexual character, and I have to agree that Simon does a good job of including the issue of homosexuality without highlighting it artificially.

Finally, Simon introduces another homosexual character in this episode. Omar and his crew check out the low rises and are not impressed. They later rob the stash house (and blow off a knee cap just for good measure) again proving that Dee is not a real gangster like Wee Bey. The introduction of Omar is not overly flashy, but he would become such an important and fascinating character that it's noteworthy.


This episode is directed by a different director, Peter Medak. Medak is not a famous director, and it seems he defers to Simon's style without too much of his own touch (I'm sure its there, I just couldn't recognize the similarities between The Wire and Zorro: The Gay Blade. The hand-held buy scenes are some of my favorite, visually. You know... that "verite" style. Most of the scenes in the low rises just look beautiful for a reason I can't put into words. Very open, yet poverty is so evident. The orange couch is quite a throne on which D'Angelo sits. I also like how Simon juxtaposes McNulty and the drug crew at the late moments of the night. Simon shows that The Wire is about more than the actual game of cat and mouse between the two, or the business of the drug war (Stringer Bell: "This shit is forever, Dee"), but about how we live together in cities. More tomorrow.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Episode 2 - The Detail

"You cannot lose if you do not play"

This episode focuses on members of the narcotics-homocide task force assembled to take down the Barksdale operation. If we're talking about action- well, on the surface not a whole lot happens this episode. McNulty and the Bunk bring in D'Angelo for questioning and he writes a letter to "the children" of William Gant (he has no children) saying that he is sorry for the murder and wishes he could have stopped it. Several members of the detail also show up at the tower late at night to "conduct field interviews." These go pretty poorly and the final result is Herc and Carver end up hurt, Prez half-blinds a kid.

But the most important part of this episode is how it drives character. I'll discuss three events that have a resonance far beyond their relevance to the season's plot arc. These include the couch discussion about chicken nuggets, Bubbles hat trick, and the Barksdale church barbecue.

The Chicken nugget story is a favorite for many Wire fans. In this scene, Dee, Wallace, and Bodie are sitting on the orange couch, as is their normal position. Wallace thinks Chicken nuggets are the bees knees and that their inventor must be raking it in. Dee doubts this and opines that the inventor is just another contract worker for McDonalds. He's in the basement of some building working hard to make the fries taste better. Like the three of them, he's working so that the owners of the company can make a ton of money. Marx might call them the "proletariat," but I don't need to outline this well known capitalist critique as it relates to the American myth. The little story also shows that Dee is no fool, he knows his place but tries to rise above it. He's also schooling Wallace and Bodie in a strange way. The orange couch is a weird classroom, but iconic and effective nonetheless.

Bubbles also shows that dope fiends can be clever and compassionate. He impresses McNulty with his "hat trick." While Kima snaps pictures, Bubs tries to sell hats to the dealers. He puts a red hat on the players, regular hats on people of little or no importance. This provides names and faces for several of the players who go on the large corkboard. Besides using the clever trick and impressing McNulty, Bubbs disproves some of the myths about addicts. The media represents addicts as unfeeling beings who only care about their drug of choice and do anything to score for it. While they often will go to great lengths for the drug, this does not make them any less human. Bubbs cares about his friend Johnny and his "police" work is personal, not for the money (or the drugs it will buy).

The third bit of interesting characterization happens at barbecue sponsored by the Barksdales. On first glance, this could be any barbecue held on Sunday in a church basement. But this one was organized by the Barksdale crime organization, who had killed a man the day before just to send a message that snitching would be answered with murder. Avon Barksdale, who'd ordered the hit, was all class, helping prepare the food himself, asking about Dee's kid, and telling Donnette, Dee's wife, that she needed to get some ribs because she was too skinny. Avon and Stringer, two very evil men, also had a softer side in which they "put family first."

These three events mark the show as radically different from other cop shows. This is a show from the dealers and users perspectives, not just the cops. Not all drug dealers are the same, Dee is a somewhat reluctant gangster even if he's willing to kill. Bubbs is an addict who will pull any scam to get his fix, but he definitely has a sense of right and wrong which goes beyond his sickness (addiction). Even Avon and Stringer (ostensibly) have motivations beyond money.

On the flip side, several of the cops are characterized in a different way. Herc, Carver, and Prezbo are seen as the bad guys- beating on citizens who had done nothing to them, yet having no remorse for it. McNulty and Daniels don't trust each other. Finally, Freamon, Foerster, and Polk are basically worthless as police. Definitely an interesting characterization against the grain of traditional cop shows. The cops are not all good, and the bad guys not all bad.

Visually, Clark Johnson continued using the hand held camera in the projects to great effect. The instability of the 2am terrace fight makes it much more exciting. In including The Guess Who's "American Woman" leading up to this fight, Simon is sending an interesting message as the song was originally written as an anti-war tune.


In one of the final scenes, Daniels eats dinner with his wife Marla (could she be a female version of Marlo?? All ambition, little regard for relationships besides what they can bring her. Probably not... but we'll see). She tells him not to take the case seriously because the bosses don't take it seriously. If Daniels wants to advance, he should follow what the bosses want and not worry about solving the case. If you don't play the game, which is rigged, you can't lose. This could apply to the drug game as well. If Gant hadn't testified (played the game), he wouldn't have lost his life. But this has another side, in West Baltimore, the drug game is so pervasive that even someone who does nothing with drugs eventually witnesses something and has to speak up. Bodie and Wallace have to join because they've got no other path to take coming from the low rises.

Although this episode does not advance the plot significantly, it does build upon the multitude of characters introduced in the Pilot. The two institutions are being sketched out, character by character. Simon is building a house and all the pieces matter. More tomorrow!

Season 1 Episode 1 - The Target

Scene opens with a pan up a trail of blood and flashing lights to a dead body.

This is the opening of what some have called the greatest drama of this decade, or the greatest television show ever, or the angriest show on television, or... you get the point. A lot of people who watched it, think it's pretty darn good.

The opening scene sets the up a show that definitely breaks the mold of "cop show." We get the story of snotboogie, a citizen of Baltimore who has a greed for money which ultimately kills him. It's a tragic tale which elicits more questions than answers for McNulty, the assigned homocide detective. How'd he get the name snot? Who killed him? Why'd they even let him play the weekend dice game, when he snatched pot every time it got big. Those assembled would customarily beat him up except this time. McNulty does find out why they let him play: "You got to. This is America."

The opening story sets up some of the show's ultimate themes, like the brutality of the city, "games," and the false opportunity of America's myths. These might be a bit pretentious for a cop show- but remember "It's not TV. It's HBO." The opening also provides a compelling (true) story about human life, and one which likely never made it into the paper. If Simon is a journalist, then this is the human interest story on A1 of the West Baltimore Sun. And the story is one of the many true tales which Simon and Ed Burns introduce from their experiences in the institutions of Baltimore.

The opening also never features into the overall narrative. At all. In TV world, the pilot (which this basically is) must provide all of the necessary backstory, introduce the main characters, and make an argument for filming episodes 2-13. Apparently snotboogie's story didn't help this because HBO initially declined to pick up The Wire. It later would authorize the show after Simon's begging letter convinced them.

"...when it's not your turn"

After the credits (also worth discussion on another day), we find ourselves in the courtroom. In the case of D'Angelo Barksdale, the jury found the defendant innocent even though he was guilty as sin. This was another example of witness intimidation by the Barksdale crew. But the interaction between String and McNulty shows that, no hard feelings, this is just business.

Back to an unidentified block and Kima, Herc, and Carver introduce themselves. Kima is cool, calm, and all business. Herc and Carver play the role of beat'em down, take no prisoners, "the Western District way" cops. This is a successful narcotics bust- reminiscent of typical cops shows, but fairly small time stuff.

Back to the Barksdale court room for the jury's decision- innocent. Then onto the Judge's chambers where McNulty begins discussing Barksdale, the real Barksdale, Avon. This is one place where the opening quote, "...when it ain't your turn" applies. McNulty could play dumb and not stir up trouble with Judge Phalen, but instead he tells him about Barksdale's power and success in the towers. If this were a Greek Tragedy, it would be that one act by the protagonist which leads the gods to strike him down in Act III. Later in the episode, we get another example of a small act with long term consequences. When McNulty tells Sargent Jay Landsman where he doesn't want to go, the boat, it surprises no one that McNulty eventually ends up here.

I particularly like some of the exchanges, including:

McNulty: Think about clearing the court?
Phalen: On what basis? It's an open court, a free nation of laws.
McNulty: I thought it was Baltimore.

This sets up a theme that Baltimore is not the same as "America," at least as America considers itself (which I've written on).

Later, the Bunk decides to answer his phone (even though it wasn't his turn) after hearing a body was found indoors- unfortunately it turns out to be a vacant. This little turn is an example of the realism that Simon tries to bring to the show. According to the DVD commentary, every detective in the country knows why Bunk prays for the indoor body because he has a much greater possibility of solving the case.

Up to this point the show has introduced four different cases in rapid fire, none of which have much importance (the Gant case being the exception). In the world of network procedurals, this would be a big no-no. But it soon becomes The Wire's bread and butter.

The episodes also introduces my blog's namesake, Bubbles. He's a happy
go lucky dope fiend with the skills to successfully hustle his daily
fix, but he's also a teacher. He's trying to "school" his new white
friend name Johnny. When Johnny fails at the fake money scam and gets
beaten within an inch of his life- Bubbles decides he will turn on the
Barksdale crew. This is another example of how "all the pieces matter."
A theme which will be discussed more in later episodes.

One other theme, that would achieve larger significance is how institutions function. AKA "shit rolls downhill." The narcotics crew makes note of this, but you don't get it in full until McNulty and Dee get reamed out by their respective bosses. Both McNulty and Dee get "punished" for their errors in judgement. we also learn about "chain of command" from Major Rawls, Burrell, and Lieutenant Daniels.

The episode closes with what will become a well known feature- Bunk and McNulty's drunken bullshit sessions by the railroad tracks. Bunk tells another true story, this one about Bunk shooting a mouse with his service nine. More importantly, McNulty almost gets run over by a train. A symbol that I have also discussed on numerous examples. This is an instance when the symbol, representing the institutions of Baltimore, comes closest to rolling over McNulty in reality. But in a symbolic sense, the episode shows how Baltimore's cop shop is slowly massing against him.


In plot and theme, the show is a far cry from "the cop show," even at this early episode. But in the show's look and feel as well, it's a very different world. This episode, directed by Clark Johnson, used a very gritty and real style, favoring hand-held shots, wide angles, and footage from natural sources (like security camaras). As many have said, it's a world where we all are increasingly being listened to and watched. But in the show's music it also treads some fresh ground for TV. All music must come from natural sources- car stereos, boom boxes, etc. This is very different from network procedurals which use music to lead the viewer by indicating suspense, resolution, and conflict.

The show is different in its characterization as well. Simon introduced a whole trove of actors in the first show, most of whom will make further appearances. This includes- McNulty, Bunk, Landsman, D'Angelo, Avon, Orlando, Stringer, Wee Bey, Stinkum, Savino, Phalen, Bubbles, Johnny, Kima, Herc, Carver, Daniels, Freamon, Burrell, Poo, Bodie, Wallace, Coles, and about 20 more in addition. The only characters who seems to have a main role in bridging between the different worlds at this time is McNulty and Bubbles. The procedurals feature a small cast of notable detectives and a revolving list of crooks who float in and then float out after the police catch them and solve the cases.


To sum up, the first episode introduces some very big themes that later episodes and seasons will address. More importantly it introduces a style outside of the traditional cop show in plot, characters, visually, and even in sound. The Wire staked new ground on television with this episode and broke many conventions. But the show had greater aspirations than to be "not your average cop show" or "better than Homocide." These came out in later episodes which I'll keep discussing tomorrow.