Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Death and The Wire: "The Buys" and "Old Cases"

The first four episodes have, among other things, forced me to really evaluate how I think about the count (which is important, because if you're wrong with the count they'll fuck you up) of bodies going forward.  This was somewhat relevant during the second episode, where we see a medical examiner about to cut open a dead body.  Since said body has no impact on the narrative or on the storytelling, I'm not counting it.  I am, however, counting someone we don't see die on-screen, but whose death and manner of dying ripple outward and illuminate many aspects of many characters.

Dierdre Kresson, like Poo Blanchard (the man D'Angelo was on trial for killing), dies before the narrative starts.  She comes up on the show because one of the few pieces of information related to her killing is that a man named 'D' had something to do with her death.  McNulty and Bunk's sergeant, the ever-profane Jay Landsman, makes a connection between that nickname and D'Angelo, and, over their objections that it's probably bullshit, sends them out to re-canvas the scene.

Meanwhile, at the Pit, where D'Angelo has been sent to run things until he wins back his uncle's trust (which he lost for getting hot under the collar and killing a guy in the first place), D'Angelo responds to the needling of his subordinates by talking about a girl he killed before Blanchard, one Dierdre Kresson.  "Aha," we think, "we explore both directions of the killing through parallel narratives."  Yeah, sort of.  D'Angelo's description of the event is pretty convincing (it certainly convinces his charges), but once we get to the infamous 'fuck' scene, where Bunk and McNulty investigate the scene of Kresson's death and communicate only by using the word 'fuck', we start to see, if we're really paying attention the way the show has been trying to teach us we should, that D'Angelo isn't quite telling the truth.

It's easy to miss one of the most revealing aspects of the 'fuck' scene, given that, especially on first viewing, we're probably enjoying the surface aspect of it.  The scene itself, however, is one of the most extensive death investigations we see in the series, and it establishes that Bunk and McNulty are very, very good. at what they do.  I mentioned in the last post that many homicide detectives, contrary to their TV depictions, have a very disconnected, workmanlike approach to their job, even though at its core violent death is a wrenching, emotional beast.  But, and this is important, it's a job they like, and it's a job they do well, and it's a job they bring their A-game to.  This isn't necessarily true of all the cops on The Wire; some of them no longer care about the job, while some of them never had an A-game to begin with.  Bunk and McNulty, meanwhile, will catch the killer, but they've largely been desensitized to death in its many forms and so there's not a lot of emotional response from them.

On the D'Angelo side of things, it's interesting to contrast the way he reacted to William Gant's death (one of the things that begins to make him question the Game and the way it forces him to live) and the way he uses Dierdre's death as a way to bolster his rep with his subordinates in the Pit.  One of the many things The Wire does so well is to draw attention to an underclass that lives with death and violence and what it's like to be someone to whom a savage, brutal beating (like the one suffered by Johnny in the first episode) or a drive-by shooting or a gang murder is commonplace.  By necessity humanity can learn to deal with the intolerable, but each person does have their breaking point.  D'Angelo, Bodie, Poot and Wallace all have theirs, which we'll see as the seasons unfold.  Something true for both groups that the first season concentrates on, the police and the street dealers (as well as the movers and shakers in the West Baltimore drug trade, eventually, although it takes a while for us to get inside Stringer or Avon's head), is that death is something that causes almost a cavalier response, but that response is a coping mechanism for dealing with something both groups face with a frequency that would startle us.  The police use gallows humor and alcohol, while the players and hustlers have swagger, braggadocio and a limited world-view.  "This is the way things are," goes a long way towards justifying the unjustifiable, until you see that things are different elsewhere.

However, seeing things are different elsewhere is one thing; getting there from where you are is a whole different matter.

We'll come back to Dierdre when we get to the finale, but one final thing to mention is Bunk and McNulty's interview with Dierdre's friend.  The Wire frequently drops in outside perspectives to ground us, the viewer, in what a more natural, emotional response is or should look like, and that's one of the purposes this scene serves.  For many of the characters of The Wire the various deaths are almost treated like movements of chess pieces (though I have nothing much to say about the chess scene), but it's nice to have a reminder of how those deaths, especially the unsolved murders, affect those who knew the deceased.  It keeps us grounded in the stakes.

Death toll: 4
Deaths per episode: 1


  1. OK, keeping in mind that I know nothing about the Wire -- I have literally only ever watched the 3 and a half minutes of the chess scene -- I think this is a neat scene. The kid who's learning, he thinks that if he gets the pawn to the end and promotes to a queen, then he's Gotten There. He can only see the chess board as an extension of himself, as a metaphor for his own personal transformation and will to power. He is unable to see what is being taught: the pawns only exist as foot soldiers to the king. Whether or not they get promoted, whether or not they get capped immediately, is of ultimately no relevance to the larger narrative, which narrative the young man is unwilling to see. He can't see anything beyond himself. My hunch is that there's a narrative in The Wire -- and this might be an absolutely trivial observation, again keeping in mind that I've never watched the show -- that the unspeakable violence and death on the streets is fueled by narcissistic, wannabe Machiavellian posturing of the 'pawns' who are unable to project beyond anything that's not of immediate bearing to their present interest.

    Also, work in the mental health field if you really want to see learned helplessness in the face of daily despair.

  2. OK, and lest that comment be seen as trivial, David Simon is a 'systems guy', who seems to look at problems 'top down', as structural, as basically independent of any individual. If that's one of the fundamental premises of The Wire, then a low-key message that individual selfishness and narcissism are the particularized fuel for the systemic fire, that's kind of neat. Again, I am ignorant and probably stating the obvious.

  3. That's mostly on point. The series does put forth the view, however, that much of the good that is done in society is done on the personal and individual level. I would say that it's mostly the other way around in regards to self-interest; the organizations are structured in such a way to reinforce selfish behavior and advancement and less to reward individual achievement and effort that's bent toward societal good. Being a high-ranking police officer is about kissing ass and making stats, not doing good, solid, long-term police work that would make the streets safer. Being a drug dealer is about rep and posturing and getting over on people through intimidation so that you can get enough people behind you to run shit beyond the day-to-day, not actually making money as easily as possible (multiple times through the series it's reinforced that without the body counts, drug dealing would be easier and more profitable, since ultimately dealers are investigated much more heavily when, as Avon does before the show starts, they drop bodies).

    The kid who misses the point of the game is Bodie, who is one of the best characters in the show, IMHO.