Wednesday, February 13, 2008

From Wire to Wire / EPISODES 4-7: Old Cases, The Pager, The Wire, One Arrest


Old Cases
Directed by: Clement Virgo
Story by: David Simon & Ed Burns
Teleplay by: David Simon

"It's a thin line 'tween heaven and here." - Bubbles

The Pager
Directed by: Peter Medak
Story by: David Simon & Ed Burns
Teleplay by: David Simon

"... a little slow, a little late." - Avon Barksdale

The Wire
Directed by: Ed Bianchi
Story by: David Simon & Ed Burns
Teleplay by: David Simon

"... and all the pieces matter" - Freamon

One Arrest
Directed by: Joe Chapelle
Story by: David Simon & Ed Burns
Teleplay by: Rafael Alvarez

"A man must have a code." - Bunk

You see? You see what happens with The Wire? You sit down to watch one episode. One becomes two. Two becomes three. In a lot of hourlong shows, even the ones I like, the first couple episodes of the season and the last couple are the only ones worth watching; the rest of the season is basically spinning its wheels for sweeps. J.J. Abrams' Alias, a very worthwhile show I've watched in its entirety, is often like that. Not The Wire; it starts strong and only builds momentum from there, like a snowball rolling downhill. By the midway point of the season, where Melissa and I are right now, it's not that you don't want to stop watching, it's that you can't.

So what makes it so addictive? It's that unique 1 season / 1 story structure -- each individual episode is satisfying, but it leaves you wanting to know what happens next, since within the confines of each sixty minute segment very little gets resolved. In fact, it's more common for a storyline to be complicated than ended in just about any episode before the season finale. For instance, in episode 7, "One Arrest," the Detail seems to be making headway with their wiretapping efforts. The surveillance yielded enough intel that they're able to intercept the Pit's supply "re-up" of drugs. If things followed their course, they'd be building a significant case. But near the end episode, Stringer Bell grows suspicious of the pay phone the crew uses to make their phone calls and orders them to tear it out and to start walking to other pay phones. Cut to Lester Freamon back in the office, watching their equipment suddenly flash "SERVICE INTERUPTED." The characters in The Wire are smart, which is a big reason why it's easy to like (or at least respect) so many of the ones who are on the wrong side of the law.

Of these four episodes, the one that shares its name with the series is probably the tightest. It opens with the images of a dead teenager named Brandon, murdered as payback for his boss, urban vigilante Omar Little's, theft of Avon Barksdale's stash and ends there as well; after one of the police officers has put his career ambitious in jeopardy by fighting one of his superiors over the right to continue the detail's work he tosses a photo of Brandon's body onto his desk in frustration. In the opening, a crane shot pulls off the dead body and follows a telephone wire from a nearby pole down into the bedroom of Wallace, the runner who fingered Brandon to Stringer and his muscle and essentially targeted him for death. That's a beautifully clear visual by director Ed Bianchi, which not only reminds us of the link between the two characters (Wallace's ID of Brandon happened the week before, at least upon initial airing) but also calls to mind the way seemingly random acts and seemingly disconnected people all end up affecting each other in The Wire. Those who succeed and survive within The Wire (and those who most enjoy watching it too, I suppose) are those who can see that big picture. And Brandon's death is retribution; you could also cynically describe it as "returning the favor." I've already discussed how important favors are in the Baltimore Police Department and it comes up one more time in "The Wire" — when Lieutenant Daniels asks Major Rawls not to press charges on three old murders the Barksdale investigation has uncovered as a favor to him.

The parallels between the law and the street continue. In "The Pager" we see two men kiss on either side of the law; Omar and Brandon share one as lovers, McNulty jockingly smooches Pryzbylewski after the latter cracks the Barksdales' pager code. In all these episodes, but particularly in "One Arrest" we see both sides using pagers and pay phones to communicate instead of cell phones. Simon begins to work in comparisons between the dealers and their clientele as well; "Old Cases" features two different scenes set on basketball courts. Avon Barksdale and Stringer discuss their plans for Omar inside a beautiful, private gymnasium. Later, in The Pit, several street kids play ball with an old milk crate tied to a rowhouse wall.

I've seen all these episodes at least once already; I'm glad to see that they feel just as authentic and as compelling as they did on first viewing. There are little things you forget too, which are nice to rediscover: the eloquent gibberish of Bunk and McNulty's bottle-fed conversations, the way Freamon derisively uses the term "Detective" when the others in the detail don't live up to his rigorous intellectual standards. I'm also especially enjoying rewatching the development of the Pryzbylewski character, one of the show's finest assets. First established as a boob (he accidentally fires his weapon in the detail's office) then as a thug (he brutally attacks a teenager for the hell of it, blinding the kid permanently in one eye), he ultimately becomes a valuable member of the unit, working in house as the go-to guy for code-cracking. Prez, as he's known, is emblematic of the way The Wire treats all its characters: with equal parts sympathy and scorn. Sort of like an understanding parent who'll always love you despite your flaws.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Michael J. Anderson said...

Matt,

I think this is a very smart idea for a series of posts. It will provide a valuable critical archive on an important show. That doesn't mean I've had the time to read all the posts... but a very nice idea all the same.

5:35 PM  
Blogger vijay said...

I love to watch the wire episodes and i love to gain information about this episode and this is really interesting to me.I hope that i would get a lot more from yours blog in future also.

5:38 AM  
Blogger joy said...

Great show!! but i like the unit TV show more as its military downnplay is juss fab!!!

2:05 AM  

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