Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Death and The Wire: "The Target" and "The Detail"

Beginning, middle and end: the three classical parts of a story.  Also, the points of the first episode of The Wire where we see a dead body.  I had not actually thought about this when I conceived of this series but it certainly seems to be some kind of a sign from the internet gods that I was meant to write about corpses.

Thanks, internet gods.

Most cop shows start with a dead body, or at least the process by which the victim of the week became such.  The lumbering juggernaut that is the Law and Order franchise operates using this structure, leaving the investigation and possible conviction for the remaining part of the hour.  The Wire diverges from this at the outset, however; the victim, one Snotboogie, is already lying cold (the first image we see is his blood, lit blue by flashing police lights).  By the end of the open, we'll have found out how it happened, in a dramatized re-telling of a real story David Simon heard during his year spent embedded within the Baltimore PD's Homicide Unit.  Its this blending of reality and fiction that gives the show its authenticity; Simon's background is in journalism and he, and his staff, are committed to telling a story that, if it didn't literally happen, could feasibly have happened (with one or two exceptions).

Giving a fuck...
Much has been written about the opening scene and its thematic ties to the rest of the season;  all I'll say about it is that the beat between the delivery of that last line ("Got to. This America, man.") and the next visual (Snotboogie's unseeing stare) is pitch perfect.  At this point we've seen the body, but not the face, and we've been engaged in this darkly funny story about Snotboogie and hey, isn't that Dominic West charming, and then bam, Omar Isaiah Betts is looking right at you.  It really is a stunning scene,  even though it eschews the sort of pulse pounding thrills you see in pretty much every other cop show out there.  The Wire is simply content to talk to you, and to let the details speak for themselves.

...when it ain't your turn to give a fuck.
Our next death is midway through the narrative.  Jimmy's partner, Bunk, has taken a call and is out investigating at the scene of the death of an apparently homeless man.  The man himself doesn't figure much in the narrative, but the way the detectives talk about him reveal a lot about how we're meant to view the police in this narrative.  One of the things revealed by Simon's first book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, where the anecdote above comes from, is that generally a homicide detective (or 'murder police' in the colloquial) is generally pretty dispassionate about death.  They aren't unfeeling monsters, they feel sorry for the families of victims (citizen victims, that is) and can get personally caught up with specific cases for varying personal reasons, but for the most part they treat the act of death investigation as a job, which invariably means a lot of gallows humor that, to the uninitiated, might seem insensitive.  For a murder police, it's just a way to get through the day and emerge on the other end relatively sane.  This profane attitude towards the slain and the sleeping gives us lines like Bunk's (played by Wendell Pierce) masterwork during the scene where he and McNulty (Dominic West) are out at what can laughably be called the crime scene: "Don't even think about comin' back a murder.  You molderin' motherfucker don't even think of that shit."

I wouldn't draw the conclusion that the show wants us to be dispassionate about death in the same way that the police might, on the whole, be.  The show has some incredible death scenes, and chances are that unless your favorite character is 5-0, he or she might not make it out alive.  This is a tragedy, after all, and those typically end in blood.

As does the first episode.  The arc of the episode is that D'Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard, Jr., one of the many fine minority actors on the show to do incredible work and then never be given anything major to do again), nephew of Avon Barksdale, the untouchable drug lord who controls much of the West side's drug trade, is found not guilty of murder.  D'Angelo was in charge of one of the towers, high-rise, low-rent apartments where much of the drug trade went on back in the day.  Before the show starts, we learn, D'Angelo killed a man in self-defense, necessitating his uncle's intervention in the form of witness intimidation.  There are two witnesses against D'Angelo, William Gant and Nakeesha Lyles.  Gant gives good testimony, but Lyles, clearly intimidated by the Barksdale organization, says it was someone else on the stand, and D'Angelo goes free.  This drives Detective Jimmy McNulty, from the opening scene, who witnesses the trial, to go to Judge Phelan and complain, setting off a chain of events that results in a police detail being formed to investigate Barksdale.

This is not going to be a series of plot summary posts, I promise, but it is a lead-in to the last of our deaths for this first episode, which is that of William Gant.  The final scene of the episode is D'Angelo noticing a crowd of people gathering, looking at Gant's corpse.  We're then given a flashback, the only one of the entire series, inserted at the urging of HBO, who believed audiences wouldn't be able to connect the dots that far back (and fortunately something the show eschews in the forthcoming episodes).  We see Gant on the stand and then fade back in to his body, while D'Angelo watches and realizes that this man was killed for speaking the truth.  There's a lot of that in The Wire.

We see that death weigh on him in the second episode, "The Detail."  Bunk and McNulty pick him up and take him off to an interrogation room, because he's the most likely suspect and because they don't even know what Barksdale looks like at this point (although Bunk could give a fuck about Barksdale and really only cares about solving the Gant killing).  Bunk and McNulty browbeat and manipulate D'Angelo, but you get the sense that of the three, the young hustler is the one most affected by it.  "The Detail" features no additional deaths for our total, but it does continue D'Angelo's trajectory toward some kind of awareness that, as another character will say later, "there's games beyond the fuckin' game."  D'Angelo and McNulty, in addition to being words Firefox doesn't recognize, are presented as the dual protagani of the first season, but D'Angelo is the one who changes the most over that span (McNulty will change, but his path is long and torturous and takes much of the show's length to unfold).  The Gant killing is the beginning of his journey.

Death Toll: 3
Death Average: 1.5 deaths per episode

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading this so much. I want to watch The Wire again.