Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Death and The Wire: "The Hunt", "Cleaning Up" and "Sentencing"
After the jolt of cliffhanger ending of "The Cost," comes a different kind of jolt, in which we see characters who have previously been antagonistic to what we might loosely describe as our heroes show different facets. Landsman, who has heretofore been the source of comedic, profanity and middle-management dickery in roughly equal measure, shows us that a real police lurks beneath the portly exterior, while Rawls steps into action and clears a path for the men under his command to investigate freely. Much of the episode concerns the investigation of Kima's shooting, and because it's one of their own everyone swings into action with fervor. This being The Wire, there's no computer enhancement of surveillance footage or pulling DNA off of random objects; the closest we come is Freamon pulling a partial fingerprint of Little Man off of a discarded soda can.
However, this being, again, The Wire, we're shown the pieces of how that can got there. Little Man and Wee-Bey hoofed it to a pay phone to page Stringer, then got the call back to confirm that the job - to wit, killing Orlando - was done. Little Man drops the can, which we see him do. Freamon notices the call because of the taps on the pagers, at which point Prez puzzles out Bey's pager code. They deduce what we already know, that Bey called Stringer from the pay phone, and at the phone itself Freamon finds the can. This might seem redundant if The Wire was a mystery show about how crimes are committed, but it's more interested in establishing just how good police work gets done, through information, observation and leg work (and a little bit of luck; if there wasn't a wire tap going on the shooters, that piece of the puzzle probably never gets found).
What it's also saying, if you read between the lines (something the show tries to train people to do), is about priorities. When you see the collective might of the police department being brought to bear to solve one case, you'll probably find yourself asking, "why don't they just do this all the time?" It asks us to briefly entertain a world where the police expand this much energy investigating each and every crime. I don't mean to suggest that homicide detectives only give a shit when it's one of their own; even if I hadn't read Wire head writer David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets I would still find that too cynical a belief. The book does make a case for the same ironic detachment we've seen from detectives earlier in the series (Bunk's, "Don't even think of comin' up a murder," exhortation to a corpse, the infamous Bunk-and-McNulty Fuck Scene), positing that it would be impossible for one person to care about every single case and not go insane, confronted as they would be by the worst of humanity. Barriers are necessary for these men and women, and so I think seeing the energy of the investigation into Kima's shooting should not be read as a wouldn't-it-be-nice-if fantasy of how law enforcement should always work - remember, much of the sound and fury of the investigation is largely meaningless, since the case is solved by the information gleaned from the existing wiretap and some very cool, collected police work from Bunk and Freamon - and more as a privileged view of what happens when those barriers come down.
In the aftermath of the shooting, we start to see the Barksdale crew in panic mode. After Stringer lets Wee-Bey know that "shorty was a cop," Stringer tells Bey, with chilling indifference, "Little Man got to go." We never see Little Man's death on screen, only hear it referred to. In a later scene, where the Barksdale's lawyer Maurice Levy (played by Michael Kostroff, an actor who, in what is, amazingly, only the second most baffling Disney-The Wire-related association, played a character on the Disney sitcom for kids Sonny With a Chance - I'll get to the first most baffling when I cover season 5) tells Stringer and Avon that they need to "limit their liability," (i.e. kill anyone who can hurt them), they come around to Nakeisha Lyles, the security guard from the first episode who was intimidated into changing her testimony against D'Angelo. The reasoning goes that the intimidation might not stick, and that leaving her alive is too much a risk, so Nakeisha, like William Gant, is sentenced to death. There is no safe place for residents of Baltimore or, by extension, anyone who lives in a city where they might witness something that someone else might not want them to see. Lyles was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and even though she was willing to stick her head in the sand and disavow what she saw, even though she's not a drug user or a drug dealer, but simply a woman living her day-to-day in a bad part of town, she is as doomed as any of the kids in the game.
Which brings us to Wallace. Brandon's death so shook him that he decided he wanted out, and D'Angelo, whose own awakening to the horrors of his life has been ongoing throughout the season, gets soft-hearted and lets him leave, telling him, "you a smart little motherfucker," and that he should get back in school. Wallace's heart has never been in his day job, but after some time out of the city with his aunt, he comes back, since it's what he knows. This might have gone unnoticed if D'Angelo was the only one he had to deal with, but with the Barksdales paranoid about snitches in their organization (because of the effects of the wiretap and a mandate from the Commissioner to send a message by raiding all of the Barksdale's assets, torpedoing the investigation), Wallace's exodus and return look suspicious. And so, in "Cleaning Up," we have Daniels and McNulty realizing that they haven't been keeping tabs on Wallace and racing to try and track him down, even as Bodie and Poot, Wallace's childhood friends, have been enlisted by Stringer to kill him. Which they do, in one of the most powerful scenes of the first season, a beautiful piece of writing and acting, from the way Wallace can barely muster up a coherent defense ("Y'all my boys," he says through tears. "Why it gotta be like this?"), to the way Bodie actis hard up until the moment he has to pull the trigger, then is unable to do so until Poot shouts at him, and the way Poot takes the gun to finish the job.
As with every death on the show, Wallace's death ripples out. D'Angelo gets sent to New York to pick up drugs, since the police took everything the Barksdales had, and gets caught because of the wiretap. The cops try to push him, revealing that Wallace has been killed, and at first, D'Angelo is incredulous, but later, in another incredible scene, he blows up at Stringer and Levy. Things have finally gone too far, and he tries to cut a deal with the police, to tell them everything he knows, which is pretty substantal (this video contains some graphic photos of dead bodies, one of whom, Deirdre, was naked when she died, so don't watch it at work, I guess, although if you work somewhere where you're watching clips from The Wire let me know where it is so I can send them my resume). Of note in this scene is D'Angelo's lawyer's reaction to the photos McNulty send D'Angelo's way in the course of the confession. The photos of Nakeisha, Wallace, Deirdre and Brandon are each horrific in their own ways, but taken together they're particularly gruesome. However, as viewers we may have, by this point, become used to them, deadened as D'Angelo, McNulty, Rhonda and Bunk have been deadened, and it's useful to have the perspective of someone who can give us what we might consider a normal reaction to them.
Among other things, we get the real story of Deirdre Kresson's death. Wee-Bey was the shooter, not D, meaning that if D'Angelo's braggadocio when he was trying to impress boys in the Pit rang false to you, you were ahead of the game. D'Angelo agrees to testify if he can go away, if he can get "what Wallace wanted," and start over somewhere. However, he's visited by his mother, who appeals to his sense of duty to his family, convincing him that without family, he'll have nothing. And so D'Angelo goes back to letting Levy represent him and goes to jail, this time for the maximum of 20 years. Stringer, at the hearing, approaches McNulty and says, "Nicely done," just as McNulty did to him back in the first episode.
And so we come to the end of the first season of The Wire. The last thing we see after a montage showing what the major and minor players are up to is Omar, sticking up some poor schmoe in, presumably, New York, where he's still laying low. A lot of bodies got dropped throughout the season, but what The Wire tells us is that the toll for each body goes farther than the immediate friends and family. You can argue that those who investigate those deaths are relatively unscathed, although even beyond the example of Kima's shooting you have multiple scenes of McNulty and Bunk drinking themselves into oblivion, which speaks to the psychological cost they're incurring by working where they work. Wee-Bey is serving life in prison for the murders he committed, and for murders he might not have (like the Gant shooting, which he tries to admit to in order to potentially spring Bird), and D'Angelo is serving 20, pushed by forces beyond his control into doing something he didn't want to do, and paying a price he doesn't really want to pay. Bodie and Poot murdered their best friend. Omar lost a lover, in an existence where he really doesn't have a lot to call his own. Avon is in jail and Stringer is in charge of a diminished Barksdale organization. And drugs are still being sold.
Death toll: 12
Death toll per episode: .92
Ahead in season 2: The death toll increases substantially in only the first episode and we come to one of the two deaths that made me start the series.