Friday, February 15, 2008

From Wire to Wire / EPISODES 8-10: Lessons, Game Day, The Cost

Directed by: Gloria Muzio
Story by: David Simon & Ed Burns
Teleplay by: David Simon

"Come at the king, you best not miss." - Omar"

Game Day
Directed by: Milcho Manchevski
Story by: David Simon & Ed Burns
Teleplay by: David H. Melnick & Shamit Choksey

"Maybe we won." - Herc

The Cost
Directed by: Brad Anderson
Story by: David Simon & Ed Burns
Teleplay by: David Simon

"And then he dropped the bracelets..." - Greggs

I love that "Game Day" title. There is a basketball game in this episode, one that pits Baltimore's east side against the west (and both sides are employing ringers) but on a more metaphorical level, game day is the thing that comes after days or weeks or month or preparation. It signals that something is going to happen in this episode after some time of buildup and before this hour of The Wire is up someone's gone down in a hail of bullets. "The Game" is also shorthand for the drug trade; and after becoming afflicted with a guilty conscience one character in the Barksdale crew says simply, "I just don't want to play no more."

(The "game" metaphors also recalls the story McNulty hears about a craps game hustler named Snot Boogie in the series' first scene, the chess match from episode 3, "The Buys" as well as the opening metaphor from episode 2, "The Detail": "You cannot lose, if you do not play." That line in its original context also implies another fact about the game: it is rigged; and if you play you cannot win.)

A lot of the episodes have really good titles. "The Cost" speaks to the bloody events that conclude that episode, but there's a lot of different "costs" going on there: the cost of drugs, the costs of fighting drugs, the costs to your personal life when you're good at your job and vice versa, the cost to your career when you follow your heart on a case you shouldn't, the cost of trying to get in the game when you ain't in the game. In future seasons, Simon & co. will make the titles even better by referring them back to the season's main arc. Next season takes place on the docks, so there are episodes like "Ebb Tide" and "Storm Warnings;" when The Wire takes on the education system there're segments called "Home Rooms" and "Final Grades."

This chunk of episodes gives us lots of new looks at characters we thought we already understood. We get our first hint that the Barksdale case is about more than just a powerful new drug dealer. We see Stringer Bell taking classes in macroeconomics at community college and then correctly applying the lessons he learns to one of his fronts (scenes that are given an appropriate police counterpoint with officers Herc and Carver preparing for the sergeant's exam). We see Griggs and McNulty's CI Bubbles try to clean himself up; we see other characters get dirty. We see Major Rawls — up until this point, the show's most clearly defined asshole — show compassion and integrity, and we also see Sgt. Landsman — up until this point, the show's most clearly defined comic relief — become what people on The Wire call "good police."

There's a lot of good beats for Detective McNulty too. He gets to use his favorite expression ("What the fuck did I do?") a bunch of times. To this point we've heard a lot about his kids, but we get a good look at him with them in "Lessons," where he uses his children to spy on Stringer Bell. Immediately, we get how being a good cop makes him such a bad family man. And as a lot of darker characters around him are receiving lighter sides, the seemingly noble McNulty is shown to have a shady streak; he falsifies a call long sheet in "Game Day" and he uses everyone around him to accomplish his goals. If he started the Barksdale case with good intentions, he's quickly losing his own moral compass to it: by this point in the season it's cost him too much already to screw up the endgame on an ethical technicality.

McNulty's counterpoint, D'Angelo Barksdale, takes a backseat to some of his fellow hustlers, but he quietly undergoes many of the same problems. He, too, has trouble with fatherhood; one effective scene finds the mother of D'Angelo's son laying out a laundry list of needs until the fed up Barksdale simply grabs his keys and leaves. D'Angelo's big divergence from McNulty also begins here as well: while McNulty hardens himself, D'Angelo softens. "This game, this thing with my uncle," he tells one character, "it may not be for me. Nothing good to it but the money." If you're paying attention you can anticipate the confrontation between the two at season's end coming a mile away.

Omar, one of The Wire's most dependably complex, says something in episode eight that's clearly one of the "Lessons" the title refers to. "The game is out there," he tells McNulty. "And it's either play or be played." McNulty acts as if he understands but as this season enters the home stretch we'll see whether he realizes that he's playing a game too, or perhaps getting played by one.



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