In the rapidly-shifting contexts of The Wire, it is sometimes hard to tell whether a character is the king or a scurrying rodent. The title of the first episode, “The Target,” suggests a similar level of complexity. There is a clear literal meaning to the title (Avon, who becomes the target of the new, reluctantly-formed detail), but a close examination of all the episode’s targets shows that there is more to it than just taking aim.
“I got something for you”–Bubbles
“The Target” ends with a stunning awakening for D’Angelo. We see him among a crowd of onlookers craning their necks and whispering around a taped-off crime scene. A corpse lays out like a piece of street art in front of a backdrop of dumpsters. Under the stony gaze of statues of frozen frolicking children, a hung over detective (who will soon become known to D’Angelo) walks up to the scene and orders the uniformed police officers to roll the body. They do, revealing a face and a name familiar to both D’Angelo and us: W. Gant, the man who identified D’Angelo as Pooh Blanchard’s killer.
“I’m gonna do this case.”–McNulty
Leave it to The Wire. Even when the show does something conventional and cliche, it does so with such style and flexibility that it feels unconventional. Take the catch phrase, one of the oldest and cheapest of all television conventions. From “Don’t have a cow man” to “That’s what she said,” a catch phrase is an easy way to establish a simple character trait in a way that almost pre-programs the audience to respond in a particular way. They also make for great T-shirts.
“You the man in the lowrises”–Stringer
One of the best ways to understand the characters on The Wire is to look at what happens when they move up or down within their hierarchical system. “The Target” spends a lot of time following D’Angelo as he encounters a major change in his status within the crew. The challenges he faces as he adjusts to a lower altitude of power reveals a lot, not only about D’Angelo, but also the nature of rank in any hierarchy.
“…two noble, selfless public servants.” Landsman
One of The Wire’s most distinctive structural features is its use of epigraphs to open each episode. At the end of the opening credits, a short quote from the episode appears on the screen. This sets up a simple game along the lines of Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos: find the epigraph in the episode. But the epigraph also enables The Wire to convey several things with the same line. This is because the line’s first appearance, set against a black screen, is completely decontextualized, and therefore invites a more abstract, conceptual interpretation (some more clear than others). It is only when the line comes up in the episode that it becomes a concrete piece of the plot.
Barlow: Think I give a fuck?
Detective Barlow is a perfect example of The Wire’s ability to put significant lines in the mouths of some of the most insignificant characters. Barlow is the homicide detective who worked the pivotal Blanchard murder, but he only appears in first ten minutes of “The Target” and then disappears entirely from the show until he makes a brief return in Season 5.
Right from the beginning, he is presented as a smug, sneering jerk (and his nasty season five appearance does little to dispel that notion). Even the thick-skinned McNulty seems like he can barely tolerate him, but that makes sense. Their approach to the job couldn’t be more opposite.
After our first walk through the garden, we are dropped into a surprising first-person shot. We are a security guard in the courthouse, looking down at a partially-completed newspaper crossword puzzle (with a second crossword waiting on deck), and a small black-and-white video monitor showing the image of two men entering the courthouse. The camera shifts to the objective perspective and we see McNulty and Bunk walk by in actual size and living color. McNulty and Bunk recount the Snotboogie story with the easy familiarity of men who are partners, friends and equals. The camera shift also allows us to see that our perspective from the first shot is that of an aging white security guard.
D’Angelo: I’m saying, this nigger was coming at me like, like he was trying to end me.
Avon: This ain’t about him. It’s about you. You can’t play him out of that lobby. You can’t take a beating neither. So the first thing you do, you get all emotional. You pull your gun out. You do some dumb shit that now we gotta work around.
Judge Phelan: When you start coming with the customers it’s time to get out of the business.
McNulty: You shouldn’t talk dirty now that you’re a judge.
Judge Phelan: Now that I’m a judge I can say anything I damn please.
When the newly-minted Judge Phelan summons McNulty to his chambers in Episode 1.1, “The Target,” it initiates The Wire’s big bang. This scene is the single point that explodes into the Barksdale investigation, rippling out into life-altering consequences for dozens of people on both sides of the law. So it is a fitting time for Judge Phelan to give his self-destructive friend an important lesson, both directly and indirectly, on the nature of power.
By Peter Honig
A version of this piece was originally posted on wirefans.com
Why’d you even let him in the game? — McNulty
Before the Barksdale Crew, before the Special Investigations Unit, before the docks and the Greeks, before City Hall and Hamsterdam, before the eighth graders of Tilghman Middle School and the reporters of the Baltimore Sun, there was Snotboogie.