Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Death and The Wire: "The Pager" and "The Wire"

I would be remiss as someone writing about death as it relates to the particular television show if I didn't point out that the first meeting between Omar, McNulty and Greggs takes place in a cemetery.

I would also be remiss if I did not warn you that Omar comin'.

There is, once again, only one death in these two episodes, and it takes place in the silences of the closing sequences of "The Pager" and the break between episodes themselves.  We have yet to see an onscreen killing, which I believe is both deliberate and significant, but even if those things aren't true it's undeniably ballsy.  For a cop show, The Wire has been remarkably mannered in its approach to violence.  Obviously episode one featured Johnny Weeks' brutal beating at the hands of the Pit boys, episode two had Herc, Carv and Prez at the Towers, and episode three has Omar's robbery of the stash house and Bodie's beating at the hands of the detail (offering opportunities in subsequent episodes for Herc and Carver to assault him whenever he pisses them off).

What's interesting to me about these episodes of violence is that they're not really cathartic in the way that violence in bad TV shows or movies can be.  Our sympathies are mainly with Johnny, fuck-up that he is, when he's savagely beaten (a beating that puts him into the hospital and has him shitting into a bag for at least a little while) and not with his attackers.  I don't think anyone who watches the show can see Prez pistol-whip the project kid (an injury that costs the kid his eye) and be on Prez's side, no matter how much of a jerk the kid might have been.  We barely know Omar when he robs the stash house, and while we may still be ambivalent about the Barksdale organization at this point in the show (more likely a viewer still has little sympathy for them, being that they're violent drug dealers) it's hard not to wince when Omar kneecaps one of them with a shotgun.  And the gang-up on Bodie is hard to watch because these are supposed to be the good guys, and while I think anyone can understand defending your own that's still no justification for the lengths that even good police go to getting their licks in (this isn't my observation, but watching that scene (not sure why that needs to be seven minutes, given that the relevant part is the first minute or so) is disturbing because of the zeal which Kima, whose been shown to be good police, beats down Bodie for his transgression).

There's nothing in any of that painting violence in a positive light.  It's a part of reality, but it's disturbing and, well, violent.  And the events of this episode are going to start a chain of even more violence.

Omar has been sketched out in a couple of scenes prior to "The Pager."  We know that he's a stick-up artist, we know that he's a homosexual in what looks to be a good relationship, and we know that he's got a rep on the street.  We get more details in "The Pager," namely that he robs drug dealers and spreads said drugs around the city (we see him doing this earlier, but it's established in this episode as a pattern rather than a one-off).  We get a glimpse of his unflappable nature, his independent streak and his charm.  He's a magnetic figure, and one of the show's breakout characters.  The Wire, as a show, posits that society's organizations are ultimately self-serving and destructive to the ends that they were ostensibly created to maintain.  The police department is concerned primarily with keeping crime stats down, even if this is done by calling felonies misdemeanors and getting paper clearances over actual convictions (meaning find a suspect and enough evidence to credibly charge him or her, with no regard to whether or not the case can be successfully prosecuted in court or, for that matter, if the suspect is actually guilty, although we only really get that plot line once, coincidentally when it happens to Omar).  Rawls has a speech to that effect during these episodes, in fact, when he talks about the clearance rate as the end-all, be-all of the Homicide department.  Solve enough murders, the rate stays high.  If a detective (i.e. McNulty) is off in some other unit not doing Homicide work, the clearance rate suffers and, by inference, so do Rawls' chances of advancement.  I feel like I belabor this point too much, but that's because the show does as well; often the focus is not whether justice is done for the victims, but whether justice is done for the Homicide unit.

This is all to say that, if this is the view the show is positing, the inevitable question that arises is, "well, why not live apart from society?  If it is so destructive and meaningless, why be a part of it at all?"  Omar, and his inevitable fate in the series, is the show's preemptive answer to this question.  And that fate begins to unfold here when, in the margin between "The Pager" and "The Wire," Brandon is horrifically tortured and murdered at the hands of the Barkdsale organization.  Wallace and Poot make the ID, they make the call to D'Angelo (all documented via the cloned pagers in the detail office, which no one is around to monitor as it happens), D'Angelo calls Stringer, who brings Wee Bay and the other muscle to the diner where Brandon is unwittingly playing pinball.

There are a lot of corpses in this show, but Brandon's is probably the worst.  His fate is a masterpiece of cruelty, revenge for Omar's having robbed the Barksdales, and it prompts the two most human reactions to the violence and death we've seen on the show thus far.  Omar's is the first.  He confronts McNulty and orders him to take him to the morgue to see Brandon's body.  McNulty does so (and for those of you writing Bad Parenting and The Wire articles, here's another example, since he takes his kids along and leaves them in the lobby), and Omar responds with a scream of rage, pain and grief that we only get second-hand, as a sound that echoes down the halls of the empty morgue.  He responds the only way he can, by getting revenge as completely as he can against the men who wronged him, to the point of lying to the police about being a witness to the Gant killing.  As a man outside the system, he fights using whatever weapons he has.

The other notable reaction is Wallace's.  Wallace sees Brandon's body at the top of the episode, and makes the connection between his own actions and the mangled corpse lying outside his home.  We see the repercussions of the change of heart this causes over the next few episodes as well.  He seems genuinely affected and broken by what he saw, unable to articulate quite what he's feeling, but knowing that things can't stay the same.

If a teenage drug dealer and a thief are showing this kind of pain what kind of dysfunction does this highlight in the rest of the world of The Wire?

Also dead in these episodes is John Bailey, the third member of Team Omar, who dies off-camera.  We only really know this through dialogue, and it serves largely to highlight the reach of the Barksdales (Omar isn't nearly as broken up by this, indicating that it was an alliance of convenience: "Bailey?  Man, his enemies got enemies.").

Death toll: 6
Deaths per episode: 1

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