Archive for January 2008

Before they blow them horns like Coltrane…

January 29, 2008

For commentary and rousing discussions on episode 54, take a gander at THIS, THIS, THIS, and THIS, but for the bleak, violent, catch-as-catch-can world of 55, continue below.


Although there’s still a lot of loose ends to tie up, or more realistically to simply drag past the camera eye, the shortened season and ornate plotlines (yes i stole the word from Freamon since McNulty couldn’t bring it to mind when talking to the reporters) are making everything seem very tightly packed. I worry I’ll spend too much time writing about Marlo or the gang getting back together (kinda sorta) and ignore Bubs or Dookie, potentially much richer narrative actors since they stand on the knife’s edge of actually making something out of their lives, even if all that means is survival outside of drug addiction or drug pushing. I admire the writers’ ability to allow time for Bubs’ suddenly much flatter, beige-er, boring-er world of sobriety to get so much airtime, since his interactions with Walon, the director at the soup kitchen, the nurse, and his sister have painted one of the fuller portraits of a life that we’ve seen all season, and certainly in his character’s history. Not being high stretches out time, allows for all the recollections that were previously so easy to subsume beneath the brain-fry-up to rise up and wait on the still surface of everyday chores and banalities. Realizing he doesn’t have decades of medications, doctor visits and fear of his own body’s capacity for failure in the cards is unsettling because it’s just another, larger “now what?” At least HIV would have allowed Bubs to focus on his years of using and point to their consequences, but without illness, with a relatively fresh and low-interest lease on life (forgive the metaphor; too much financial newsreading), Bubs sees days stretching out before him without joy and without despair, just stretched out, blank. If the first few episodes where he was fitful and anxious were the emotional hole after the extended high, this is the phase that follows, where Bubs has to decide if he wants to push his life forward in any direction, if he can push anywhere other than the simple maintenance of sobriety, already a weighty burden.

huis clos

Cutty’s reappearance and pointed dialogue with Dookie (how these two have missed meeting before seems now ludicrous) refracts Bubs’ predicament from another angle. While we’ve known Cutty’s to be a genuinely positive tale of rehabilitation and redemption through good works (admittedly bankrolled, at least at first, by some pretty bad works, but, you know, it’s all, what’s the word? collected? corrected? dang), his talk with Dookie betrays a larger sadness that life may exist outside the neighborhoods he has always known, but he’s been forever cut off from it, and is likely never to see it. It’s a real No Exit moment, and while Dookie provides a hopeful example (and of course, be careful what you hope for on this show. best to duck and cover) of someone whose “other skills,” as Michael puts it (I hate myself for having thought, at that dense and weighty moment (I mean they’re holding GUNS!) of Napoleon Dynamite), could earn him a pass to that larger world, one wonders if there is anywhere for him to go. School? He seems to have abandoned any thought of that, presumably because Michael counts on him to look after Bug, though night school exists, and there are other ways always. Yet these thoughts bandied between two of the most langorous, pensive, and, each certainly in their own way intellectual (for Cutty perhaps his last name Wise is a better adjective) characters on the show reflect a larger theme in the episode and the series, of being trapped, but of that state that not stopping anyone from having, as the quote at the start notes, an opinion.


Of course if we look close enough we find that every character is, to some degree, trapped: McNulty in his quest to do police work is trapped in an ever-more-screwed state of personal and professional hell; Daniels sees his hands tied tighter than ever before as he assumes greater power than ever; Davis is trapped in the eternal shit-eating process of avoiding absolute failure; I could go on forever. But I think that while Simon & Burns and the other writers like to remind us that there are better things in the world, better lives to lead (lives that most viewers, presumably, lead), the words of Beanie Sigel ring true for many more in this country: “And still we grind from the bottom / Just to make it to the bottom.” Think about Bodie.


So there I go spending a whole post talking about characters who (save one) did not even hold a gun or wield any kind of power in the episode. Never enough time.


Go On And Cry

January 25, 2008

So I finally watched 54, and I’m not too much of a man to admit that I cried. It wasn’t just Joe dying (although it made me sad), cause jetset/shoals are right that he was a criminal, and he had it coming. (Did anyone else think there was something a little sexual about Joe closing his eyes and Marlo telling him to breathe easy? The camera trained in on Marlo’s face while the shot was fired? Dude, there’s a reason Marlo doesn’t notice the ladies. He is hot for the gun.) But I was overwhelmed by the small moments that added up to one bleak bang: Michael and his mom; the little withdrawn boy who was so traumatized by the murders; Slim Charles telling Omar to do it if he’s gonna do it — confronting the violence that hangs over him every day of his life.


It was nice to see Beadie, and great to see Clay Davis in front of the grand jury, and I loved Daniels’s little smile of triumph all alone in his new office, but my favorite moment was when Kima sat down to play with Elijah. Adults can be so selfish with kids — we want them to go away when we need quiet, or to entertain us when we need comfort. I loved how Elijah was just doing his thing, coloring. It was like he was the mom, and Kima was the one who needed him. And then when she talked to the little lego man and the two of them started building that house… man I needed that scene.


On Martin Luther King Day I watched Clockers, and I was struck by how differently that movie (and book, I imagine, although I haven’t read it) represents the kingpin. We know Avon and Stringer and Marlo and Joe and all the rest of the guys on the top are vicious and cold-blooded towards those outside their clans. And it’s true that Wallace was killed. But on the whole, I feel like The Wire shows those characters to be like fathers to those who report to them. It’s hard to imagine Marlo killing Snoop, or Avon taking out Bodie — but in Clockers, Rodney Little tells Mekhfi Phifer that he’s like a son to him, but has no qualms about betraying him. Clockers doesn’t show the grinding poverty of The Wire, but it does question the “family” — the family of men — that The Wire seems almost to celebrate as the only alternative to the crackhead parents, bad schools, and no future of life in the city. Spike Lee seems to use Richard Prince’s plot to bust up whatever honor we bestow on successful gangsters, dealers, “businessmen.” Lee also — unsurprisingly — does a much better job of showing women, notably Regna Taylor as the mother of a ten-year old boy, challenging the drug culture.

This brings me to my last point. Clockers does something The Wire never does, which is show you the other people who live in the projects, the other paths of honest work and family that they choose — those paths aren’t easy, and they come with their own terrible consequences, but they are still a choice. The tragedy of the inner city that we see in these kinds of shows and movies is that children are asked to assume responsibility so far beyond their age, and so much harder than other kids do. But you know, Simon talks a lot about dignity in the face of impossible odds. And there are many ways to have dignity, and many ways to be a man. We haven’t seen Cutty this season. I hope that changes.


Invisibility is an unnatural disaster

January 24, 2008


I’ve tried to like dude-lit since the 90’s, when I somewhat ascribed to the strain of emo culture that would eventually genre-merge with it to form the basis for much of modern white masculinity. And in each attempt, guys who dwell heavily on male development and plot social importance by New Jersey and Connecticut township hierarchies inevitably bore and alienate me. However, I still impulse checked-out Rick Moody’s novella-trio Right Livelihoods at the undergrad library last week- perhaps, subconsciously hoping to do my part to keep it out of the hands of the university’s impressionable young. Skipping the first part and snoozing through the second story on the bus, I was shocked when I tried to put myself to sleep with “The Albertine Notes” the other night and ended up finding its reflections on cities, media, drugs and ethnicity somewhat compelling, even if predictably hung up that that same old song of girls/sex/parents/cities/male psyche stuff.

Set in some near-future Brooklyn (obvs) where Manhattan has been destroyed by radiation attack, Moody’s protagonist, Kevin Lee, is a journalist marginally employed because, duh, without Manhattan the papers cease to exist, as does “real” journalism. He’s left writing for a porn mag, and he’s being consumed by whilst covering Brooklyn’s drug epidemic. With New York consisting exclusively of its outer boroughs, the rapid and shoddy gentrification of them has been quickly reversed, lack of infrastructure is nightmarishly apparent,  and ethnic neighborhood boundaries assume tribal significance (yeah, I found this a little offensive), and previous social roles taking on perverse lack of meaning. Distinction between public and private spaces is little to none, with evacuees drifting and camping, and oh, everyone has become a junkie. The Albertine drug epidemic has turned public spaces into drug markets and private ones into shooting galleries. There’s some shit about memories that figures heavily into it, but I found it kind of sappy/irrelevant. Especially since the protagonist, a stoner child of Asian-America, struggles  intensely with purpose and character, identity, et al. Generational metaphor, who knows?

With Moody’s character’s straits of attempting to cover a drug epidemic he’s a victim of (yeah, like that Post story and like, um, every Brat pack novel?) and in facing the collapse of respectable journalism, I can’t help to find some common threads here as I do in this season, especially in this years’ final questions . What I find  so interesting about the Sun newsroom on the show isn’t the depiction of copy-editing, channels of knowledge and civic power (although I live for that latter stuff in the everyday). What I think Simon is getting at, and it’s odd, being the kid-of-the 70s he is, is that the newsroom- and the paper itself, stands at odds between being a vehicle of children of the local working classes (as Haynes’ monologue last week made clear), and a product of a syndicate enterprise that pulls kids from out of town, which streamlines and disengages itself and its news with wistful prose and universal themes. The local lore of the newspaper isn’t a viable commodity- the old social ties, which go deeper than journalistic  sourcing and towards the fact that Prop Joe can still appraise Burrell from his high school glee performances. In real life, with Northwestern and Columbia second stringers scrambling for jobs at papers in places like -gasp- Baltimore (not to mention cities and regions outside the eastern corridor of this country), and major cities recruiting their police chiefs and school superintendents from other cities, local knowledge seems to trump little else.

And I think that that’s what Moody’s trying for, in a detached Brooklyn dude novelist way- his memory metaphor is that for non-natives in cultural hubs- that eventually, memories have to mean something. This week’s episode, and last, seem to make this point so much better. I like the fact that part of Simon’s and Burns’ zeal for this stuff came from their late-blooming into it (don’t we all like to think of ourselves as late bloomers?)- that Simon sort of wishes he was still writing for the paper he was writing for 20 years ago, and that this is what he’s doing instead.

P.S. I’ve also been re-reading Baltimore native Cookie Mueller’s stuff this past week. On her hometown:

I was always leaving. Every time I left I had a different hair color and I would be standing on the porch saying good-bye to the older couple in the living room. I didn’t have anything in common with them except that we shared a few inherited chromosomes, the identical last name, and the same bathroom.

They would be protesting. Screaming. It became a tune, with the same refrain, and the same lyrics, “If you leave now, you’ll have no future. If you leave now, you’ll be a bum.”

“I’ll be back in the fall when school starts.” Or “I’ll be back after the weekend.”

They say the art of conversation is dead but I’ve rescued the drowning chat.

January 23, 2008

Shoals has had a photo meltdown, affecting not just H&H but also FreeDarko, so that’s why you’re seeing a whole lot of blank boxes on his posts. Anyhoo, for 53 go HERE, HERE, AND THERE. Otherwise you’re on to 54, and for those less familiar with the episode numbers, this season it’s really easy: 54 can be thought of as season 5, episode 4. See how easy that is?


So I normally am not the type to just post up an IM convo like it’s a bother to put together complete sentences and capitalize letters and insert punctuation, but I feel like I got to the bottom of what I felt the unreal events of this most recent episode were all about in the following exchange with Shoals. I hope this doesn’t make us both look too dumb / nerdy / lame. Actually that would be okay.

me: you must be fucking kidding me

Shoals: me? did you watch it?

me: i just finished. i’m in shock

Shoals: well, there it is

me: jeez

Shoals: read my post

me: reading it. hang on

Shoals: running out, back in five minutes
okay, back. do you see what i’m saying? it’s sad, but it’s a crime show, and joe was messing with some serious shit

me: totally. I mean they all are, all the time

Shoals: basically they had lost some faith in joe because of the stick-up.  marlo was there to say “i’m that other option”

me: well, seems to me the greeks know that they need to deal with someone, but marlo has shown them that he won’t lie down and take no for an answer

Shoals: and joe might have his flaws. . . “he’s not joe” that meant something

me: they trust and like joe, and don’t have to worry about him for the most part, but nothing is permanent, and their own business has volitility too, but theres an amount of chaos they will accept
and marlo shows that he can do what they need, cleanly, without quesion, and with respect. i think also they are kind of in a corner
suddenly this dude shows up, joe has had problems

Shoals: right

me: this dude follows directions

Shoals: he is unstoppable and hard

me: and it’s like, do we kill him or work with him?

Shoals: i can’t wait till people are like “this marlo thing has gone too far.” it’s like, how do you think people become kingpins?
I mean what did avon do?

me: right. gave away turkeys?

Shoals: we never saw it, but it probably looked like this. prop joe, what, he just niced his way into dominance? i mean, marlo is going for absolute fucking broke. gangster honor?

me: right. i don’t think that exists. there’s efficiency, and that always trumps honor

Shoals: look at the mob, they aren’t as hokey as joe. they’re like marlo

me: this is kind of the point of the show, right? what’s efficient for those in power bleeds everything below it dry. the mob is also messy. and sometimes some yahoo gets the reigns and drives the whole thing over a cliff. order may be restored, maybe not, but there’s no natural order.
marlo’s trying to be the one in charge, and he has the resources to climb higher, so why eat shit and wait for some other kid to have less respect for the chain of command than you? i do think simon can be too sentimental, and sometimes there’s an idea of gangster code in there that gets a litle too much play, like “good ‘ol days” nonsense.
it’s what we want from the criminals we like, but it’s not what they necessarily give us. marlo killed the security guard. avon had the witness killed. it’s going in different directions, but it’s to a similar end. brutality = fear = power

Shoals: yo, there’s your post

me: heh. good thing gmail saves chats. okay i have to work on this cat power review

Shoals: buh-dum-ching!


Everyone in the Pool

January 21, 2008



Well, that really didn’t hit me as hard as I’d thought would. More than Butchie’s death, but still, not the heel in the gut that Bodie’s last stand was. Really, I think it comes down to one thing: It’s the illegal drug business. People don’t last long, much less stick around to languish in semi-retirement. The young’uns will always be more ruthless, if not “worse each year,” then still hungrier, and more nihilistic, than an old, fed guy can ever still expect to understand.

I know that there are kingpins who quietly operate forever, but things catch up with them eventually. That was the lesson of Stringer, right? He wanted out of the game, and yet in the end, the skeletons came knockin’. In this case, there just wasn’t any reason to think Joe would live forever because. . . he’d managed to loaf around unscathed these four plus seasons? It’s telling that Marlo asserted himself at the meeting as everyone was talking real estate. To him, that’s soft, and weak. Vacants are where bodies go. Spend too much time thinking like that, and to Marlo, you’re vulnerable.

You want to talk about realism? Why exactly would Joe or Butchie have been able to involve themselves in crime forever, well after they’d lost their edge—or, symbolically, any physicality that could intimidate? Going back to what I wrote last week, Marlo ended up having no use for Joe past acquiring his knowledge base. Mildly heartbreaking that Joe “treated him like a son,” but that also showed just how off his instincts were. Marlo’s retort barely even bothered with irony. It was fact, and Joe should’ve seen that.

It’s rough watching these beloved graybeards get cut down, but hey, it’s a show about violent drug gangs. Maybe there are ways to get old, fat, and insulate yourself completely, but that hasn’t happened here. Everyone hates Omar; at some point, that was going to come back on his benefactor. Joe played with fire by letting Marlo into the co-op, and fell victim to sentimentality by trying to mentor him. Maybe it’s tacky, or unseemly, or frightening that he ended up where he did. But for heaven’s sake, there’s tons of money and corner for the taking. That’s what drives these characters, and Marlo’s that to the zillionth degree.

I know we like to rhapsodize on how human, nuanced, and worth knowing even these criminals are. Here, though, we’re reminded exactly what we’re fucking with. Marlo’s an extreme case, but he’s the harsh reminder that at the end of the day, no likable character means shit when it’s a question of making money. It’s nice to think that there’s honor among thives, but there’s a reason the cliche runs in the opposite direction.

One thing worth noting about this rash of killings: It kind of makes it hard to write about much else, or have the kind of sprawling reaction it takes to fuel HH. At least not the hour after I finish watching. Maybe I’ll come back later in the week to praise that Herc/Joe scene, but even that just seems like foreshadowing of the ugly.

Vacation: All I Ever Wanted

January 17, 2008

Greetings, amigos, as we take another rest stop on our tour of season five… to my left is Marlo Stanfield, who is so obsessed with putting his hands all over his giant stacks of money that he is incapable of being charmed by a beautiful French woman… (this is a problem that our friend Avon would never have had)… to my right is everybody‘s favorite homothug, wearing a white vest and scheming, as always, to get his hands on more… cereal. Can we just talk for a minute about where on earth — er, in Baltimore — these scenes were filmed? San Juan looked alright, but I swear they just dressed everyone in loud colors, threw a few signs up and filmed Antilles right there on the corner.


Usual disclaimer: Episode 53 spoilers below.

But first: does anyone else find it hilarious that the Slate discussion group is complaining about the amount of media coverage devoted to The Wire? Hey, pot! It’s the kettle: you’re totally the problem. If you guys want to eliminate some of the coverage, you could start by killing the feature you have devoted to the show. Simon’s posting explaining about the Sun plot and his reactions to your reactions was the best thing on the TV club, and he isn’t a member. Also, could you dudes get any more dude-tastic?

Short post today. I’m still getting into a groove with this season — it’s usually a slow taxi, as we all know — and right now I mostly want to make bad predictions (Lester and Jimmy go to jail! Jimmy sleeps with Alma! Beadie never gets any screen time ever again! Daniels becomes mayor!) and keep watching. But I have been thinking about the interplay of the different plots, particularly Marlo and the Sun, which are at two extremes of the show and arousing pretty extreme reactions from viewers. I understand why it is that some long-time fans are having trouble with the Sun plot — a lot of these viewers are journalists themselves, and so it’s not exciting to learn about that which you know all too well (although corner boys didn’t seem to have the problem of over-identification with the show… could it be that journos are just voyeurs?); for those that aren’t, newspapers aren’t that sexy. How many TV shows can you name that are about newspapers? And how many that are about cops & robbers? Open it up to TV news: would you rather watch Murphy Brown or Law & Order? It’s not even a contest. Column inches vs. bodies in vacants…

But what I like about the Sun plot is what I also have liked about the school plot, and Bunny Colvin, and the dockworkers, and the mayor’s office. There’s only so much brutal violence and life on the streets that I can take as a viewer. Simon & co., I think, are purposely pushing people to their limit with Marlo. Watching Budgie die this week was awful. Just awful. He died with dignity — we knew he would — but he died senselessly and brutally. Chris and Snoop and Marlo are as scary to me as child soldiers in Sierra Leone. Is there anything worse than watching a child kill a man? (and no, I don’t think it’s better to watch a man kill a child, so let’s not even get into that.) Whatever charge I got out of it last season, whatever pleasure I got out of their dialogue, their jokes, is over. Chris and Snoop show up on screen and I just want them to leave. After five seasons, we know the corner in and out. What I want to know is how the corner got to be the corner, and how it fits into the city. Shit is fucked, but why? This is why I like the Sun plot. I don’t think the death of the newspaper is “worse” or “as bad” as the prevalence of the drug game. But it’s bad on its own terms, and life isn’t a zero-sum game. I don’t think The Wire is asking “who’s got it worse — cops, dockworkers, addicts, dealers, or reporters?” This is just another room in the house that it’s building.

big tent

I also like little kids dressed in costumes. More Bug, please.

We Worship An Awesome God

January 16, 2008



Bunk. The Bunk. Detective William Moreland. Named for a real Baltimore cop who really did and said plenty of what Wendell Pierce has recreated so beautifully these past four seasons (in part from spending some time and, perhaps more significantly, garnering the approval of, the real Bunk). He’s got no superhuman crimesolving abilities, he rarely catches a break, and he has ended up moaning in some woman’s bathroom, a pink robe in place of evidential clothes he tried to burn. He’s remarkable. Yet while in all our lives moments come when we must look the other way, the real Bunk probably never had to turn his eyes away from two friends and colleagues as they conspired to fabricate a serial killer in order to secure funding for the purposes of solving a real, shelved string of murders.

Omar. O. Homothug stick-up wizard. Also based on, though cobbled together more by stacking attributes rather than mixing, real Baltimore stick-up legends and fiends, Omar is perhaps the most fantastic of the Wire‘s characters. He’s already survived more showdowns than most real-life stick-up artists ever live to see, but he’s the show’s cowboy, the wild card that stirs the pot when all the smart dealers just want to chill things to a whispering steep. Escaped from the bullets and grudges to a paradise in the shadow of San Juan’s ruined fortress (apologies if my eyes and memory of San Juan decieve me), wearing a tropical getup that I could never in a million years have dreamed up, Omar gets some bad news, but his burgeoning tears seem obviously the harbingers of serious retribution.

tears of rage

So here we are, just three episodes into the final season, with a scant 7 to go (this is gonna be tight!), and between one of the most grounded characters and one of the most outsized, we have the makings of a dramatic climax that feels, at the moment anyway, out of step with everything we have seen before. Bear in mind that I thoroughly enjoyed #53, but that my brain’s own private devil’s advocate hasn’t shut up since I watched it. The serial killer strategy, Marlo’s seemingly neverending bloodlust (to say nothing of two trips outside not only the mid-Atlantic but indeed the continental U.S.; something that a CSI show wouldn’t blink at but that to this realm is only slightly less surprising than if Brother Mouzzone showed up on the moon), Omar’s virtuous impending return, and of course the fantasies of certain newspeople more concerned with hanging on to their job than the truth; All these things are more than just a reminder that this is a cop show, that this is a fictional dramatic representation of social truths, that this is a form of fantasy not bounded by, but bettered by its tribute to verisimilitude. But what? Is the central thrust of failed institutions going to be brought home by smashing up those institutions in the most dramatic and stupendous ways possible in the Wire universe? Will Jimmy and Lester end up on trial for falsifying evidence, while Omar and Marlo’s crew engage in an epic slow-motion showdown…inside a burning warehouse…where the Greek, some union guys, a couple teachers, some kids and a few corner boys are all tied up and hanging over a vat of molten steel?


I will say that the fantasies of Templeton’s Orioles fans and City Hall crabs refracted through similar fictions propogated by real police on a show in part concerned with the honor in real police work is amusing, and I am excited to see how it develops, particularly given the inevitable linkage of Lester and Jimmy, two cops who have consistently attempted to lead principled careers as investigators and seem the system kick them down the ladder time and time again precisely for their good works. It’s like they’ve been searching for one another for so long that once they finally find each other it’s far too late for them to work rationally on real cases. Instead, they’re so far on the other side of reason (due to forces inside and out) that the only thing to do is invent situations that could fool the powers that be into allowing the right thing to happen.

midnight cowboy

Perhaps another way to enter into this increasingly manic, sinister, and cartoonish climax is through the lens of Michael, Dookie, and a batman be-hooded Bug, piling out of a run-down station wagon after a day of pure fun. While their superiors were binding, torturing and killing an old blind man, Michael and Dookie were flirting, riding the rides, smiling. Christycash pointed out to me that, of course, the fun may be innocent but the cash Michael used to hire the private car and get them all into the park was drug money. Stepping up to the corner at the end of the day was a reminder not that escape is fleeting, but that escape is impossible and the wheels keep turning, sometimes to your disadvantage, just when you think you’re finally getting a moment of freedom. When it comes down to it, through all the investigations of systems, the machinations of power, and the handling of truth, the show’s whole point is that theose with the least power, the least money, the least say are the ones that matter most. Whether McNulty ends up parachuting from an exploding airship or not, the corner culture’s not going anywhere, not changing much, and sucking more lives up every day. All the rest is just different ways of understanding that singular immutable tragedy.