The Wire almost always restricts itself to a straightforward form of storytelling that gives it a sense of journalistic realism. As a result, the few scenes that do stray off the linear narrative trail stand out so much. There are the notable examples like the five montages that serve as season-ending epilogues. There are some other early anomalies, like D’Angelo’s brief flashback at the end of “The Target” or Avon’s slow-mo, soundtracked trip to the Pit in “The Wire.”
This past Spring, David Simon sat down for a long, fascinating interview with Alan Sepinwall on how The Wire has been received in the four years since its finale. At the end of the interview, Sepinwall asked if there were any parts of the show that the audience did not properly understand, and Simon went right to the idea of corruption. He specifically mentioned Rawls and Burrell. These two bureaucratic titans consistently served as antagonists to the more independent-minded detectives like McNulty and Freamon. But that doesn’t make them corrupt.
There are few social experiences more uncomfortable than being at a party where you don’t know anybody. Everybody else looks so at ease, so happy to be in the presence of others just like them. Everybody just belongs. But for that poor, abandoned party-goer, the perceived sense that others belong only exacerbates the feeling that they don’t, that they have been left out of the club.
David Foster Wallace, the brilliant, troubled writer who took his own life in 2008, spent part of his final months watching The Wire. According to this account, he called it “the best writing being done in America today,” and you can assume that the painfully-self-conscious Wallace included his own writing in that pool.
This affinity for The Wire should come as no surprise to anybody who has read enough of Wallace’s writings. Like those works, The Wire is concerned with the ways our fragmented postmodern world causes despair, addiction, and social devastation. Wallace was also obsessed with logic puzzles and paradoxes of the type which infest the show. One of my favorite examples comes from Broom of the System, Wallace’s first novel, where he describes a game of chutes and ladders slightly different than the one most people played in their childhood.
There is a funny moment in the middle of “The Wire” that shows just how many characters are reaching key turning points with the Barksdale investigation. It is nine in the morning and there is already a lot of action in the detail office. Freamon briefs Kima and McNulty on the results of the first day of listening in on the phone calls, when Polk stumbles in, “lit” possibly from the night before, possibly from this morning. McNulty gets a page from Bunk. Daniels sees how drunk Polk is and calls him into his office.
“The Buys” ends with a small joke that reflects a common dilemma. It a moment where a character accidentally reveals a lapse in his understanding of a foreign world. The episode already has several examples of this, like Polk and Mahone’s attempt to get Avon’s picture, or Sydnor’s half-assed undercover disguise. But in the final scene, the lapse of understanding parallels the conflict that lies at the very heart of the detail.
“Get out of it.”—Marla
“How do I do that?”—Cedric
Throughout the first half of “The Details,” Daniels seems to be pretty pessimistic about the quality of his new group of detectives. When he negotiates with Cantrell for Sydnor, he says “I’ll carry Pryzbylewski for as long as I can.” By the end of the episode, it is clear that, if anything, Daniels was being optimistic. He may not even be able to carry the pistol-whipping Prez for more than a day. If anything, the riot is the easy part for Daniels. Managing the political and ethical considerations will be the real headache for this beleaguered commander.
“Not a thing.”—McNulty
When Daniels, the Barksdale investigation’s head, realizes that his detail is being cast aside by the department, he reacts by engaging in intense political negotiations for better personnel. When McNulty, the investigation’s shadowy spiritual head, realizes this, he reacts by putting on a show.
“I owe you, okay?”—Cantrell
Daniels is immediately reluctant to head the newly-formed Barksdale Detail, but it’s not until the opening scenes of “The Detail” that he begins to realize the real scope of his predicament. It’s starts off with the detail’s exile to the basement, but then he sees the parade of humps who Burrell gave him for the case. They appear to be a ragged assortment: two lazy drunks hiding behind seniority, a dull wall-shooting reject, and a mute wallflower absorbed in his own strange trinkets. Daniels asks for more manpower, and he gets the department’s waste (“dead wood,” “garbage”). At this point he realizes that he is being dragged down into the quicksand of departmental politics courtesy of a special force known as “suction.”
“Just some sadass down in the basement…”—D’Angelo
While McNulty is busy digging himself deeper into the case by stoking Judge Phelan’s interest in the Barksdales, the other members of the ragtag newly-formed detail move into their new home, and it’s not pretty. With Daniels in the lead, Kima, Carver, Herc and Santangelo follow like a row of ducklings. He opens the door that leads to a basement. We see a low angle shot, looking up a darkened stairway at a group of peons whose relocation to this murky subterranean world should remind Office Space fans of squirrely Milton’s slow stuttering descent into Storage B.