(Recurring Episodes is a regular feature taking an in-depth look each week at a single episode of television, placing it in the context of the larger TV landscape to show what works, what doesn’t, what’s important, and what’s entertaining about the shows of the new Golden Age of Television, and the series that served as influence on those shows. Learn more about Recurring Episodes here.)
This week, Recurring Episodes takes on the third in HBO’s unimpeachable drama trilogy, The Wire, a show that many consider to be the finest complete series in television history, a novelistic, “Dickensian” achievement. Spoilers after the jump.
The Show: The Wire was created by David Simon, a former Baltimore journalist and the author of the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which became the basis for the crime drama Homicide: Life on the Street; and Ed Burns, a former Baltimore cop and school teacher who had previously worked with Simon on the book and HBO miniseries The Corner, the story of a drug corner and those who congregated there in one of Baltimore’s worst neighborhoods. It debuted in 2002 and ran for five criticially acclaimed seasons. Though it never found the broader audience The Sopranos did, many believe The Wire, which used the drama of police and drug dealers to explore the bigger picture of an American city in decay, to be the superior achievement.
Each season of The Wire explored a different issue. The first took on the futile drug war, painting street dealers and their bosses, and police and their bosses, with the same brush, giving equal screen time to characters as varied as Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), the drug kingpin of West Baltimore; Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), his business-minded right hand man; D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard, Jr.), Avon’s nephew, who runs the street operation at one of the Westside’s many housing projects, basically middle-management; and street-level dealers Bodie, Poot and Wallace on the criminal side. The side of the law, too, is represented by those at all levels, from district attorneys and judges to the bureaucracy of the police department itself, along with the detectives and officers who make up the special team brought together with the purpose of bringing down the Barksdale organization.
Further seasons would explore other issues in the city of Baltimore beyond the drug war, while keeping that storyline intact. The “major crimes” unit as it evolved tackled union corruption on Baltimore’s ports in season two, returned to the Barksdale organization in the third reform-themed season, split into many pieces as season four took on Baltimore’s educational system, and was basically eliminated in season five as the show took on the current state of journalism.
The Wire was always a show with ambitious aims, to show the horrors of the drug trade, the ineffectiveness of drug war policies, and the bureaucracies that hamstrung not only the police but every institution in this stand-in for the mid-sized American city. Because it was so ambitious, it took a while to find its momentum. The pilot episode was solid, but it had the difficult task of introducing a broad swath of characters on both the criminal and police sides of the story, all while attempting to set the plot in motion. Subsequent episodes, as we learned more about the Barksdales and the cops brought together to bring them down, and the police bureaucracy up above, grew stronger. The show didn’t really hit its stride until this episode, the fourth of its run, “Old Cases,” which not only has us getting to know our characters even better, but has one of the show’s most iconic scenes at its center.
Why The Wire? It would be silly to have a “recurring” series of pieces about the new Golden Age of Television without including The Wire. It is a fantastic achievement, and in many terms is probably the most successful show of all time in a creative sense. It remains gritty, realistic, darkly humorous, and cynical throughout its entire run, and its finale is one of the best ever, maybe only topped by The Shield when it comes to recent cable dramas (caveat: I have not seen Six Feet Under, and have heard that finale is great as well, just so that’s noted). It is broad in scope but full of great characters and indelible moments. Its weak points (parts of seasons two and five spring to mind) are few and far between, and there’s always something going on with the characters to get us through those few weak and muddled moments.
That being said, as someone who’s watched the entirety of, and loved, all three of HBO’s drama greats, my personal opinion is that The Sopranos was the superior achievement. The Sopranos was compelling from moment one; The Wire, like Deadwood, takes work. Both have strong viewpoints about today’s America, and both convey them effectively, but The Sopranos managed to do so without wallowing in misery, using its outsized characters and broader sense of humor to make the bitter pill a bit easier to take. The Sopranos could appeal to a greater number of television viewers; you could tune in for the jokes and the “ate-up” gangster action without worrying about the greater artistic aspirations of the show’s creators, and still have a good ol’ time. Not so with The Wire. You were all in, or you weren’t, because, as is the motto of the show’s smartest detective, Lester Freamon, “All the pieces matter.”
And there’s the matter of Dominic West. If The Wire, truly an ensemble show (and one filled with great actors) did have a lead, it was Dominic West as Jimmy McNulty, the drunk, self-righteous detective who sets the whole series in motion by spurring the investigation into the Barksdale organization. The truth of the matter is, he’s just not very good. His character is supposed to be a smug prick, and he can handle that, but it’s obvious he’s supposed to be a lovable smug prick, and he just isn’t. It’s no coincidence that the best season of the show is the one with the least McNulty—season four filmed at the same time West was doing 300, so his character was basically written into the background. James Gandolfini made The Sopranos. Dominic West, at his very best, didn’t hurt The Wire, but at his worst, he could.
The rest of the ensemble more than makes up for it, but those are my reasons for The Sopranos being the superior show. It doesn’t matter either way; both are great. So, on to the episode, which, after all I’ve written, contains what might be Dominic West’s best moment on the show, shared with partner Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce), as they investigate one of the show’s “Old Cases.”
The Episode: “Old Cases” is an important episode for The Wire. As mentioned before, it contains the series’ first truly iconic scene, which will be covered later on. It contains some of the show’s best language, in monologues given by D’Angelo Barksdale and homicide sergeant Jay Landsman (Delaney Williams). It gives viewers some of the first real moments of outlaw Omar (Michael K. Williams), who would become one of the show’s most beloved characters—including the reveal that the badass who makes his living robbing drug dealers (he took down the Barksdale stash in episode three) is gay. Detective Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) and Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) get some good moments, independently coming up with how the investigation into the Barksdale case must go down. There are some good comic moments, mostly dealing with corner boy Bodie (JD Williams) escaping from juvenile detention, and the meathead white/black due of Herc and Carver, cops who don’t know how to solve a case other than by cracking skulls. Most of all, though, it finally gets the show moving along.
The episode opens with a metaphor for all of the institutions The Wire would depict. Herc is trying to move a desk, and it gets stuck in a doorway. Eventually, all of the cops in the squad help, but none can move the desk. They were all trying to get the desk out, and he was trying to get it in. The show goes to the credits with the desk still sitting there, stuck in the doorway. It’s not the most subtle metaphor, but The Wire was never the most subtle show, especially when making a point.
That’s not to say it’s not a point that should be made, as evidenced by the bureaucratic hoops the cops have to go through to justify the wiretap that the episode finally brings us toward. As the deputy police commissioner fights them every step of the way, and the lieutenant in charge of homicide (John Doman, perfect in every way in this role) just wants his detectives back in the homicide rotation and off of the special detail, they have to demonstrate “exhaustion,” meaning that a wiretap is truly necessary to gain the information they need to make the case. Which means following their suspects until their suspects lose them, over and over again, until a judge believes “exhaustion” has been met.
The plot moves along incrementally in other ways, too. Avon and Stringer talk over getting revenge on Omar for sticking up the stash. Lester reveals himself as “natural police” by finding D’Angelo’s pager number. The squad moves closer to getting a real case going. The true heart of the episode, though, comes with the “old case” that McNulty and Bunk are left to investigate.
Early in the episode, McNulty and Bunk sit in the homicide office trying to find old murder files to tie to the Barksdale operation. As they do, Landsman, their direct superior, comes over with another file to add to the lot. The suspect has a street name of “D,” same as D’Angelo Barksdale. The case seems otherwise unrelated, but McNulty and Bunk are forced to take it anyway.
Since this is a TV show, we know that the case will end up being related. All the pieces matter, especially in a show like this one. That is confirmed as D’Angelo talks to the young “hoppers” he’s in charge of dealing in the low rise housing projects. He talks of being in city jail, with a body on him. He talks of a murder, committed far away. A pretty young girl, shot dead late at night. How he crept up on her, tapping a gun lightly against the window of her apartment, “Tap, tap, tap,” and when she came to look, that was the end.
Which brings us to The Wire’s first truly iconic scene. Bunk and McNulty arrive at said apartment, crime scene file in hand, to rework the case. They go over the crime scene in meticulous detail, and finally come up with some very good evidence, while communicating to each other using only variations of the word “fuck.” Now, that might not sound very interesting, but it is, it’s great television. Instead of trying to further explain why, here is the scene (NSFW for language, obviously, and for naked dead girl pictures):
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Odds & Ends: Those who have watched the show (SPOILERS) will know that it wasn’t actually D’Angelo who committed the murder. His arc is one of the show’s most tragic; he’s a good guy at heart, not really cut out for the family business, and pays the ultimate price.
The other speech I mentioned, from Delaney Williams’ Landsman, is some pretty vile stuff, as he moves from a story about jerking off to how Jimmy McNulty can’t help himself, but that’s what makes him a good cop, in a matter of moments.
This episode was written by David Simon himself, from story by Simon and Burns. It was directed by Clement Virgo, who would later direct a ridiculous indie movie called Lie to Me that was basically softcore porn for arthouse people. The styles don’t really seem to mesh.
There are a ton of other great episodes I thought about tackling for this one. My absolute favorite episode is probably the penultimate episode of the third season, written by DC-area crime novelist George Pelecanos.
Recurring Episodes will go on hiatus while the author tries to figure out what in the h-e-double-hockey-sticks to cover next.