Archive for December 2007

The Storming Clouds of Plenty

December 31, 2007


None of us have OnDemand this season (intractable cable problems), but I think we’ll have screeners for each episode. So same as before: A week ahead, but with warning.

Well, there it was. Months of waiting satisfied with one long establishing shot. We find out that time has passed since #50’s finale, perhaps more than it past seasons. Carcetti’s regime is in the crapper, McNulty’s back with Major Case, Herc’s with Levy, and Bubbles has already moved into the mundane part of recovery. Some of these changes are trends continued, others mini-ruptures, and, as with Bubbs, some seem like narrative shortcuts. While it’s not a new day in Baltimore, as a viewer/citizen it’s like waking up after a long, long nap. In a way, the introduction of the newsroom characters was less jarring than taking stock of what our old friends have been up to in our absence.

However, I’m already thinking to the end of this season which is, of course, the ultimate finale. Here’s where The Wire—that tightly-plotted, intricately-layered that Simon’s always referred to as a single arc—comes to an end. With the montages, the show has embraced the concept of season finales. Then again, with #50’s we saw more questions raised than answers posed, with some snippets bordering on unintelligible. And on principle, The Wire has never cared much about neat and tidy endings, or any kind of resolution. Like, how many of us are still waiting to see Rawls outted at ComStat? The overlapping and intersecting of elements is as important here as resolution is in most scripts. Actually, “it’s all connected” is Simon’s version of “happily ever after,” bringing both reassurance and crushing hopelessness.

I think fans would be disappointed if The Wire ended on a Sopranos-esque note. Critiquing dramatic finality is, for this show, a little pedestrian. But Simon has created a monster, and he has to wrestle it down in the next ten episodes. Individual characters or storylines may find little peace, and yet if Baltimore is the main character, shouldn’t its circle be completed? It’s the system, the network of structural relationships that makes the city tick, that’s forever entrenching itself. And as viewers, we’re constantly being let in on the extent of its tyranny. The newsroom is, as we saw in #51, a mirror image of the police department, city hall, and the drug market. All individuals can do is try to stay afloat, and snatch up small victories as they can. There’s no way they’ll ever achieve lasting satisfaction or stability (without selling their souls), and so we’ve got no reason to expect this of their stories.

So I’m not particularly worried about my favorite characters getting through unscathed, or figuring out whatever happened to the docks. It’s not even worth it. What I do expect, though, is for the show to get awfully crowded toward the end. The Wire isn’t about surprise—that too is a byproduct of “everything’s connected.” But if there’s no such thing as coincidence, bringing the entire picture into focus says less about the characters than it does the environment they’re governed by. As the series comes to an end, it will once and for all lay out the terms and conditions for a show about the modern American city. Like those cases the police work: The minute the bulletin board gets full, things fall apart and its time for another iteration.


I’m Set Free

December 26, 2007

Note: These are the most straightforward images I’ve ever used. That’s because I’m in a rush to go buy Christmas presents. Don’t ask.

Finished up with Season Two, and I’ve had an worthwhile itch going on that I think pertains to all Wire arcs. Of course there’s such a thing as integrity in Simon’s universe, and it usually correlates with some kind of ultimate undoing. It’s not too much of a stretch to claim that, in a cruel, cruel world, death is a form of release. A little goofy, maybe, but not an unfamiliar theme. But I’ve become a little troubled by exactly what characters on The Wire find release into. Instead of the usual expanse of existential possibility, they simply find solace in another system—a kinder, gentler version of the same thing that’s cut them down.

Wallace’s death marked Bodie’s coming of age and, not surprisingly, that of the show. Up to that point, it had only been so harrowing. However, it’s not right to infer that Wallace wanted that drastic an escape, or that he found any peace in getting popped by his best friend. D’Angelo’s exit the next season, though, could’ve been culled from one of them books he was reading; it also happens to be quite unlike any other murder the show’s seen. Done with the game, family, the prison pecking order, and just about anything that could superficially offer him support, D’Angelo sets out to more or less find himself. This makes him a threat to all that he’s left behind, Stringer has him choked, and lo, only then is he truly free of it all.

Frank, on the other hand, spends the live and dead parts of his downfall returning to his union roots. He works a ship, offers to unburden himself of the forces that have corrupted him, and, for all we know, might’ve ended up telling The Greek to fuck off. When the union would rather close down than sully Frank’s good name, that’s when you know he’s made good in death. He might’ve ended up deep in some dirt, but in the end he saw the light, and the light was. . . his union. Every moment of clarity Sobotka has that season is not about him or his own (c.f. Ziggy and Nicky), but a longing to return to the primordial system of industrial production. Frank’s paradise is working men belonging to their craft; he meets his end not because of who he is, but because he insist on belonging to a doomed world.

“The system destroys us all” is the show’s mantra, with “the game” standing in for “system” at various points. However, I can’t decide if it’s pragmatic or demoralizing that systems also offer the lone form of redemption. Take Bodie: He went down like a soldier, standing up to Marlo’s nihilism as someone who remembered when soldiering meant something. Or Stringer, who can be read either as a martyr to the cause of reform, or a man who, in his last moments, accepted his inner gangster and welcomed a gangland-style exit.

Last week, PW asked me who I thought would die this season. The question caught me a little off-guard; while each cycle has climaxed with a murder, they’re kind of running low on viable suspects. Cops just don’t die at the same rate as criminals, and already we’ve seen Cole and that guy Prez shot go out, and Kima and Dozerman nearly lost. McNulty would be a tad obvious. In the land of bad guys, Avon’s irrelevant, Prop Joe’s immutable, and Marlo—to get back to the thrust of this post—has nowhere else to turn. Michael’s a possibility, since he’s got Bug and isn’t so seasoned yet. But man, how crushing to realize that, on The Wire, “having somewhere to turn to” is synonymous with “might find himself dead.”

To Each His Vulcans

December 22, 2007

In the run-up to January, I’ve been watching Season Two again. It had always been my least favorite, mostly because it’s the whitest; while there is the “gotcha” connection to the Barksadale saga, by and large it’s about setting about a parallel form of Baltimore strife. With the union severely corrupt and the next generation turning to crime, the stage is being set for a neighborhood’s downfall—or, this being the twenty-first century, gentrification. Then there’s Frog and White Mike, intentionally pale reflections of West Baltimore soldiers.

But this around, I’ve been fascinated by how much this season widens the shows scope. Not in its ode to Sobotka and the docks, but in the international crime syndicate that all of sudden crops up. The characters of The Wire are comically, sadly provincial. Most of them know this, and take a small measure of pride in it. Season Two offers remind us, with almost crushing irony, that Baltimore is technically still a port city, a gateway to the world. But at this point, the only people who care are undesirables on some sneak and smuggle shit. I once thought it screwy that Spiros, The Greek, Sergei, and Etan hung around Baltimore. I’m realizing now that this is both apt and believable.

And yet as characters, this crew was only barely developed; past the facts, the most we learn about any of them is Spiros’s misplaced paternal affection for Nick. They demonstrate Baltimore’s backhanded niche in globalization, remind us of drug trade food chain, and, in some ways, sidetrack the “portrait of an American city” project. These cosmopolitan gangsters provide a window out into a nearly infinite network of localized dramas, a million Wires waiting to be made in nearly as many languages. Lord knows I’d rather see that than Traffic or Syriana. But they all vanished after that season’s finale, which for this program is pretty unusual. It’s like they mostly just spoke of the port, while further isolating that scene from the other seasons.

But during Season Four’s balls-out montage, all of a sudden Spiros and The Greek returned. What’s telling is that they’re introduced as part of Marlo’s power-mad machinations; he demands a meeting with Spiros and later tails The Greek. In Season Two, their involvement in the drug game put Stringer and Prop Joe in perspective. Kings of Baltimore, they were but placeholders in a far bigger structure. It’s kind of like that scene where Nick enlists Sergei and company to confront Cheese. Sitting in the car, you can see Nick’s expression shift from apprehensive to, well, more apprehensive. First, he’s nervous about the situation getting ugly. Then, when the uzis come out and Nick realizes just how deep shit is. He hasn’t just tip-toed over the dark side—he’s plunged headfirst into the abyss.

Marlo, on the other hand, has already proven himself in his field. He’s ruthless and rational at the same time, exercising an iron hand with hardly a loose end left. The fact that Prop Joe will set up face time with Spiros for him speaks volumes for Marlo’s place in the drug lord pecking order. So when we see him trying to insinuate himself into that next level, it’s not a joke at his expense. Marlo Stanfield wants to make it out the criminal ghetto (that’s what happened in American Gangster, right?), and until proven otherwise, we have to take his ambitions serious.

Despite all the geo-political complexity that separates West Baltimore’s dealers from The Greek’s brand of organized crime, what makes it matter is the disparity in power. If Marlo can get their attention, earn their respect, or go toe-to-toe with them, his story becomes about raw power, and these out-of-towners become a measuring stick. Peers, not semi-facetious foils.

Those Provident Fires

December 15, 2007

The Wire has a rich, profound, and possibly lazy relationship with the real world. That much we know. I don’t think it’s ever been suggested, on Heaven and Here or elsewhere, that the program bears the genetic stamp of past forms of fiction. Ninety-percent of the articles written on it take the “you think it’s a genre show, but it’s another thing” angle and run with it; Simon’s proffered that as the show’s creation myth, and “authenticity” has become it’s calling card—and the principle preoccupation of many of its fans.

However, this reading of the show sets up a sharp opposition between The Wire and contemporaries like Law and Order or (later) NYPD Blue. The Sopranos, the original take-the-genre-and-run joint, exploded mob stereotypes by fixating on their domestic and personal consequences. But it’s not like these themes weren’t present in Godfather II, or Goodfellas. Sure, there was mountains of nuance-less dross on either side, but at its height, the best fiction provides a jumping off point, an occasion, for the real world to step in. That’s the paradox of genre-defining icons—they’re both so stylized it hurts and indefinitely complex, and it can be hard to tell which one came first. Impenetrable and yet begging for elaboration.

I’ve been watching a lot of film noir lately. I’m hardly a expert, but I do know that these movies are responsible for much of language of cops-and-robbers moving pictures. In one sense, they should be anathema to the Wire-viewing part of my brain. However, I’m increasingly struck by the number of characters that seem direct reference points for The Wire‘s universe. I’m not implying that the writers do this intentionally; nor so I believe in some great big soupy reservoir of cosmic creative brain-mass that we all dip into. Yet almost at random, performances crop up that evoke my Wire faves. Just this week: In East Side, West Side, Van Heflin plays a goofy, lovestruck cop who turns abruptly into obsessed, nearly grim, case-solver. Maybe I’m tainted, but me (and Pizza Whale) both saw McNulty at both ends. And it wasn’t just the narrative; the acting itself reminded us of ol’ Bushy Top.

Morris Levy, too, is often in my thoughts and prayers. Last night, I watched Illegal, with Edward G. Robinson as a theatrical D.A. whose hurbis drives him to mob defense. Now, I’m sure that Levy is actually based on so-and-so, who defended such-and-such, with a nod to Simon’s cousin Mel, plus a few in-jokes about Baltimore Jews that I don’t get. But if I didn’t know about The Wire‘s pipeline to “the real,” I would swear Levy was modeled after characters like this. Actually, I had to kick myself and yell that three times after meeting Jose Ferrer’s villain from Whirlpool. Dude even has Levy’s look and nasally insolence:

This is not to suggest that my spotty viewing is authoritative, or—I’ll say this again—that there’s some real-time connection between the making of The Wire and these old movies. What I do want to get out there is the possibility that fiction does yet have a role to play in our understanding of this show. CC’s been claiming that the show’s male slant makes it inherently “unreal,” and JSJ reminded me that, practically speaking, any watchable television show is distinct from reality. And let’s not forget, Simon’s fond of calling the show a “visual novel.”

Maybe film noir is the beginning of everything The Wire seeks to rebel against, or transcend, in the depiction of crime in the city. But in between all the formulas and phoned-in scripts, there are those moments when a great performance distills something about the detective, lawyer, mobster or victim that helps focus all that real world data. Part of what I love about the show is its open-ended character development; I hated the prequels exactly because they assumed essentialism and downplayed the connection between society and soul.

That doesn’t mean, though, that characters in a work of fiction don’t need a template. Otherwise, they’re nothing more than a collection of loose events–whether these are “real” matters very little–grasping at thin air. I humbly submit that, at its best, film noir can provide that necessary template.

Or, to put it another way: YOU DON’T MAKE A DRESS OUT OF PLANTS!

Relatedly: I’ve had this conversation seventeen times now, but figured it should go public. Is there any chance that Lance Reddick’s not supposed to be playing Daniels here?

And if so, why would that move luxury cars?

P.S. If anyone tech-savvy knows how to center videos in this template, tell me. I hate the way this looks right now.

backing into it

December 11, 2007

alright, i guess it’s time to start posting again. I had envisioned doing an elaborate “What Wire Character Are You?” Quiz, but judging from how much y’all hated the prequels (which I maintain are outside of the universe of the show and totally insignificant, merely the result of some actors, writers and directors having a little fun during their last week of being together as a cast & crew), I guess I’ll skip it for now. Maybe I’ll spring it on you once the season gets going. But seriously? Nobody out there likes fan fiction? Didn’t you guys read Stephen Colbert’s bit about being roommates with Stringer?

fan fiction

Moving on.

Shoals and I were g-chatting the other day about whether or not male fans of The Wire are disproportionately represented among its critics, fans &c. in the media. I’m thinking here particularly of last year’s Slate “Wireologists” featuring the usual suspects like Jacob Weisberg (I guess he has plenty of time to watch TV because he doesn’t edit his writers ), Alex Kotlowitz, Sam Anderson, blah blah. (Don’t even get me started on their little Sopranos club of Timothy Noah, Stephen Metcalf, Brian Williams and Jeffrey Goldberg. This could easily just turn into a “What’s Wrong with Slate” blog.) And of course Matthew Yglesias is a huge fan of the show, and the House Next Door guy is a, um, guy, and we happen to know another dude who’s writing about it for the Columbia Journalism Review, and one of our own male HHers is working on something for another magazine, and it all starts to look like the show gets a pretty heavy male representation in the critical community. There are exceptions: ladies at the New York Times like Virginia Heffernan, Lola Ogunnaike and Alessandra Stanley have all written about the show; Margaret Talbot did the New Yorker profile; Rebecca Traiser and Laura Miller debated the ever-fertile Wire vs. Sopranos question on Salon. So this all adds up to… what? Is this an issue? Why does it feel like there’s so much macho media whiteboy business that goes on around the show? Am I just crazy, or missing something? And by the way, are you all totally sick of people who just discovered The Wire wanting to talk to you about how hot McNulty is? I am! I mean, I’m not an elitist, and I’m happy for them because their lives just got so much better, but it’s like, the man is hot. I know. Do you have anything else to add?

I just realized how sexist that was of me, in my post about sexism, to mock women for only being able to talk about how hot McNulty is! That’s the thing about the patriarchy: it’s totally internalized. For the record, the dudes just getting into the show are just as frustrating. It’s all, I can’t believe this Stringer fellow! Or: shipping containers!


The Land Before Land

December 10, 2007

When we sleep, we make noise. When we don’t write for months, it’s a lot less deliberate.

With that, here’s my attempt to follow in JSJ’s footsteps and get this site to pop again. There have been numerous reasons before now to get going, but the prequels (scroll down, on the off chance you haven’t seen them) have compelled me to speak. On paper, this idea is stupendous, especially given the density of the characters and the show’s allusions to an equal mired past. Yet somehow, these completely misfire.

Each vignette gives us a moment from the past that shows us the character’s essence. For our intents and purposes, these might as well be when Prop Joe, Omar, Bunk and McNulty became who they are today. And therein lies the problem: There’s something altogether too comic book-y about these, even when it’s Omar being revealed. I guess we could think of the The Wire’s character as clear-cut vectors made complex through circumstance. Prop Joe had it all figured out before puberty, and all that cherubic poise got grizzled needlessly. Our two favorite detectives were lovable, untroubled drunks recognized for their brilliance. And Omar was Robin Hood with even less to stand in the way of his righteousness. It was all so simple, and innocent, until the real world intervened.

And that’s exactly the problem. Exactly when did innocence become part of the The Wire? To presume that people know themselves all along, and simply get distracted or deterred, is way too Romantic. As is any kind of idealized version of the past. There’s just not any point at which the various societal forces are kept enough at bay to allow for this; if they could be, and tragedy always snuck up at the last minute, then Simon’s pessimism would be weepy, not frank. I seem to recall Season Four, in which a bunch of kids had about five minutes of finding themselves before getting refracted through the system. Randy couldn’t be Bobby Hill in a group home, and Michael would probably turn into Marlo.

These prequels are little more than retroactive sentimentality. We see these characters as uncertain adults in a dismal, violent city, but can rest assured that once things were better. They weren’t always subject to drama, and if that’s the case, we can feel better about their future prospects. Which, of course, is radically counter to everything we know about The Wire. There’s no confidence in its world, only arrogance, caginess, and long-suffering conviction.

Unless, of course, we’re supposed to infer that Baltimore was once a very different place. Sadly, the prequels give you no sense of context other than haircuts and music. And certainly, there’s none of The Wire’s patented collision of individual and social circumstances. Nothing about the local economy, or political climate, that might explain the halcyon tone. Did Prop Joe grow up in a time when brains trumped brawn among the kids? Was Homicide once less harried? What about growing up during crack’s heyday made Omar into a moralized stick-up kid?

I wish I knew.