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.
Hard way to go, sometimes–Omar
“The Wire” marks the beginning of the uneasy alliance between the detectives and the big bad lone-wolf stickup artist, Omar. It is a convergence several episodes in the making, and it finally comes together through a combination of luck, strategy, and tragedy. With the sworn officers of the law on one side and a man who commits crimes against criminals on the other, it is a pairing that is as risky as it is unlikely. This first meeting shows the potential benefits and necessary trade-offs that take place when equal and opposite entities come together.
Michael: Um, Dad, It’s a school night. Mom said we had to…
McNulty: I know. We will.
The scene in the morgue, where Omar says his final farewell to Brandon, is one of the most emotionally excruciating of the season. The scene parallels the earlier morgue scene from “The Detail”, especially as they both begin with a shot of the corpse appearing upside down. But this version is much more emotional and far more personal.
D’Angelo: So, what you going to do with your money? You know what you should do? You should take the whole roll and do something nice for your girl. You do have a girl, right?
D’Angelo: Well anyway, you’ve got enough money to go get yourself one now.
“The Wire” is the episode that really solidifies the bond between Wallace and D’Angelo. Up to this point, their relationship took the form of a strict boss/employee dynamic. There were moments where D’Angelo seemed to favor Wallace, the most sensitive of the pit boys (such as when Bodie threw the bottle, or when teaching Wallace how to play chess), but nothing to show that they could become closer.
“We creep back in there…”–Bubbles
Now that Omar’s crew has been torn apart by the vengeful Barksdales, the title of most feared stickup crew in the Westside falls to Bubbles’ ragtag group of fiends. It’s a long fall. Instead of Omar, Brandon and Bailey, we now have Bubbles, Johnny, and a third fiend with the onomatopoetic name of Uck. Instead of shotguns, their weapons are a shopping cart and a colostomy bag. Instead of making off with multiple G-packs, they are happy to net a few vials. But as low-bottom as this crew is, it does have two things in common with Omar’s: they rely on a plan, and they reveal the constant flow of product and manpower that moves in and out of the street.
You gotta make your move soon–Bunk
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.
Avon: Yo, how we doing?
D’Angelo: We doing good. We doing good, you know, if you say we doing good.
One of the most maddeningly-frustrating moments of Season 1 is when Avon makes a surprise visit to the pit with Stringer and Stinkum in tow, and I’m not just talking about the odd slow-mo entrance and seventies-style synthesizer music. It is a rare moment of a king coming down from his castle to walk amongst the people. He looks around as low-level hoppers serve their hungry clientele, and it seems to be a world away from the office in Orlando’s, with its giant safe and security monitors.
When you picked up that phone, what did you think they was gonna do?–D’Angelo
As I mentioned earlier this week, I see “The Wire” as the essential episode of the series, and so I thought this would be a good time to discuss the shared title. “The Wire” is a literal reference to the investigation technique used by the detectives, and it draws particular focus to the superiority of complex surveillance over traditional buy/bust methods of investigation. This superiority is suggested in some of the other possible meanings of the word–a wire as a conduit for information, or a medium of connectivity.
Herc: How are you home?
Bodie: Juvenile Judge, man, he saw my potential. He expects big things from me.
Herc: Yeah, like what?
Bodie: I don’t know, college, law school, medical school, all that good shit.
There is a lot of talk about promise and potential as Bodie clears up his legal troubles and finally comes home under a laughably-permissive home monitoring system. In the very first phone call that the detail officially monitors, Stringer asks D’Angelo if Bodie has enough “promise” to bring home. The real question is whether this hopper is talented enough to justify the expense and effort of having Levy get him out of jail.
How do you log that ‘Non-Pertinent’?–Freamon
Season 1, Episode 6, “The Wire,” might be the most essential episode in The Wire. It’s not necessarily the best episode, or the most exciting. In fact, it is relatively slow, with the action primarily revolving around the nuanced politics of the crew and the detail. But it contains several things that are emblematic of the series’ most fundamental qualities. For one, the episode provides our first disturbing look into the home lives of the project children, and the practical and ethical challenges that they face every day. It also presents, in the form of the Rawls/Daniels conflict, a perfect example of the bureaucratic roadblocks to quality police work. The episode also features a circular structure, ending where it began just as the entire series does.