The Man of the Vacant House

That’s him. You see?–Poot

“The Wire” begins with one of the season’s more disturbing images: stickup boy Brandon’s dead body, horrifically mutilated and left on the hood of a car like a trophy buck for all of the residents of the low rises to see. It is a tough image to look at for even the most hardened of viewers, and the sadistic brutality of the murder will haunt many characters (most significantly Wallace, D’Angelo, Omar, and Daniels), motivating their actions for the rest of the season.

And yet, with all of that, it might not even be the most disturbing part of this scene. Arguably, the true tragedy takes place just yards away, connected by a barely-noticeable orange extension cord.

The opening shot of the episode is a cinematic masterpiece. It begins by looking down on Brandon’s body on the car. His arms are spread winglike, and his head is almost invisible towards the top of the frame (an interesting contrast with the opening shot of Episode Two, where William Gant’s corpse is shown head down). He has clearly been tortured and mutilated, but the positioning of the body hides the worst part. Of course, the fact that he has turned up dead is of little surprise to the viewer. Two episodes earlier, Avon the hunter described this very scene when he put the bounty on the stickup boys who stole his stash: Omar and his “bucks.” Then, in the previous episode’s final moments, the ominous clicking of Wee-Bey’s handcuffs leaves no doubt about the cruel fate awaiting Brandon, who obliviously plays pinball and boasts “I’m the king of this shit. And this whole sequence begins with a single call placed by Wallace, the lowly low-rise hopper.

The camera stays on Brandon’s body just long enough for the audience to process his corpse, along with the eerily silent morning atmosphere of the projects (a silence broken only by the incessant barking of the dog that later scares McNulty into spilling coffee on himself). The camera tilts up and stops to focus on the orange extension cord. We then pan slowly to the left, following the cord as it droops, loops around a pole, and eventually ascends to a broken window in a nearby building. The slow pan draws attention to the wire itself, an object that shares a name with both this episode and the whole series.

The most literal interpretation of the name is the wiretap the police use to build their cases, a device that they will finally put into play later this episode. But this shot suggests at least two other ways to read the name. The first becomes clear when we see that the cord enters the building through the broken window. It is an extension cord, a medium used for transferring power and information. In this case, it illegally siphons power from a legitimate source. This becomes a metaphor for the complex hierarchical power dynamics of the show’s various worlds, as well as the sapping effect that the drug game has on Baltimore.

The other meaning becomes clear at the moment when, simultaneously, the first external shot cuts to an interior shot, a clock radio alarm goes off, and Wallace sits up with a jolt. Suddenly, the meaning of that first shot becomes clear—the wire signifies that often-unseen connection that links all people. For Wallace, this may seem like an ordinary day, but we are already aware of the horror that lies in wait for him just outside of his window, a horror that he helped create, however unwittingly.

From the moment the camera cuts to interior shots, Brandon’s sad fate is temporarily put out of mind. This middle section of the scene focuses instead on Wallace’s morning routine, offering a shocking glimpse into the life of the young hopper. It is hard to watch this scene without thinking of the previous episode’s opening scene, with Avon’s morning routine (or lack thereof). Here, we are on the opposite extreme of the drug trade’s hierarchy, and the lifestyle could not be more different.

The scene begins with Wallace alone and fully clothed in bed, tossing aside a ratty blanket as he gasps for air and grabs his chest from the jolt of the alarm. Each new day seems to be a shock for him, a difficult struggle that he can only temporarily escape through sleep. He shuffles into the bathroom, swishes around some stagnant water, spits, picks up a toothbrush and brushes (without toothpaste, even though a tube is visible in the background next to a roll or two of toilet paper). This seems to be the extent of the hygiene in this home. He looks into a mirror so covered in filth that it gives no reflection back. This is reminiscent of Avon’s mirror in “The Pager,” but if the king’s identity is fractured by his power, the pawn’s identity is blotted out by his insignificance.

Wallace proceeds through the darkness, and goes into the next room, where he begins his real morning duties: that of drill sergeant. “Rise and shine! Come on, man, get up!” he shouts to Poot, lying in bed spooned by some random girl, both slowly coming to. As Wallace moves on to the next room, the real nature of his lifestyle becomes clear (even in a manically-panning shot that makes it hard to fully take in what is happening). It is a room full of small children, but there is too much motion to count how many there are. They sleep throughout the room, sharing precious space on couches and mattresses surrounded by heaps of clothes and trash. Dirty blankets and sheets fly all around as Wallace comes in to get them ready for the day.

He shouts at them incessantly, saying “come on!” seven times and “get up!” four. Not only is he responsible for waking them up, he is also responsible for getting them to school. He offers a compelling argument: “Y’all know what happens if you don’t go to school? Soon enough, they’re gonna be callin’ around and all y’all gonna end up in foster care.” If this lifestyle is preferable for the kids, that doesn’t speak very well for the foster care system. It is also easy to forget that Wallace himself is school-aged, and should be in high school himself. But this scene makes it clear that Wallace is very much an adult, even with all of his action figures, board games, chicken nuggets and arcades.

In fact, in this makeshift family unit, Wallace is the man of the house. There is no way to tell who these kids are. They might be his (or Poot’s) brothers or cousins, or they might just be stray waifs they take in out of pity. What is clear is that Wallace is responsible for their wellbeing—getting them up, getting them to school, getting them fed, and keeping them out of trouble. It is all on him.

Out in the pit, Poot seems like Wallace’s equal or even superior, but here he takes little responsibility. He hangs around, but offers little help beyond asking about the passing police sirens. Granted, this question is far from inconsequential. If they are “knockos,” then it has a direct impact on how their day will go in the pit. When Wallace responds that they are only “rollies,” he thinks they are insignificant, but we know exactly why the rollies are there, and this reason will have a far greater impact on Wallace’s future than any knockos ever could.

Like any traditional man of the house, Wallace is also responsible for providing sustenance. At a fridge powered by the siphoned energy and covered with a pizza box and empty bags of Utz crab chips, Wallace takes out small juice boxes and distributes them, along with a bag of chips, to the lined-up kids (we can finally count them—there are six of them). Even in this group, the most disjointed family unit imaginable, we see the type of power hierarchy that also exists at the highest levels of the police department and the drug crew. Like a dollhouse miniature of those groups, we see a power structure here as well. Wallace is the boss, Poot is his number two, and the boys line up in order of their size and, presumably, age. The first boy who shows up “gets two” according to Wallace, and he happily accepts his bounty. We don’t know why he gets this reward, whether he did Wallace a favor, got good grades, or is just bigger than the rest. It doesn’t matter. After the next four kids take their lunch, the last and smallest says “where’s mine?” There is nothing left for him, so all Wallace can do is send him off to fight for his own sustenance.

We see several games as they leave the vacant and enter into the outside world. First, before they leave, the boys stop behind the board that functions as a door (the “IF ANIMAL TRAPPED…” wording functioning as a tragic comment on the quality of life within). Wallace peeks out and looks left and right, a gesture remarkably similar to Avon’s as he left Chantay’s house in the previous episode’s intro. But where the king looks for probably-imaginary threats, Wallace looks for something very real—anybody who might see a group of kids leaving a supposedly-vacant house and care enough to call social services. As they finally exit, Wallace notices that one boy doesn’t have a backpack. “Teacher ain’t giving no homework,” he says. Wallace clearly doesn’t buy it, but his authority as a stand-in father has his limits. All he can do is look at the boy suspiciously and let him go on his way with others.

The scene then shifts its action to the place where it began. We see a close-up of an officer unrolling police tape and then we see what we didn’t see at the beginning—not only did Bird, Wee-Bey, Stringer and Stinkum torture Brandon; they also put out one of his eyes. We seem to be watching from Wallace and Poot’s perspective, not sure which is more unsettling, the empty socket, or the open eye staring back at us. “That’s him,” Poot says. “You see?” Of course Wallace sees, even if he doesn’t want to. We see him peeking out from behind a tree, trying to hide from the terrible reality of what he set into motion the night before with a single phone call. He can’t bear to look, and he can’t bear the dead stare of the corpse. Just as when D’Angelo sees Gant’s body at the end of the first episode, Wallace walks away, futilely swatting at a dead branch.

It is a crushing moment for Wallace, as well as the audience. This is the scene where Wallace confronts the terrible consequences of his actions. At the same time, we get our first look at him as a selfless protector of these poor abandoned children, even though he has clearly been abandoned himself. Our struggle is Wallace’s: How do we resolve the image of a boy who was accessory to murder with the image of a man trying his best to raise six children? Where is the wire that connects these two?

The answer lies in his possible motivations in calling D’Angelo after spotting Brandon at the pinball machine. Why did he do it? A simple answer is that he naively thought that nothing bad would come of it. Maybe he figured that Brandon might take a beating, but nothing past that. This comes up later in the episode when D’Angelo asks a guilt-tormented Wallace “When you picked up that phone, what did you think they were gonna do?” Either Wallace naively didn’t know what the crew would do, or he didn’t think far enough ahead to even consider the consequences of his call to D’Angelo (he is, after all, just beginning to learn the game of chess, where it is important to consider the possible far-reaching outcomes of every move).

There is another explanation, and it lies in a key aspect of this chain of events: Wallace is the one who makes the call and gets the reward, but he wasn’t even at the stickup. Poot is the one with the shotguns turned on him and Poot is the one who identified Brandon as part of the crew. So why didn’t Poot make the call? An answer to that might be found in the very dynamics of the home life we just witnessed. For some reason, when this family of squatters formed, Wallace took charge while Poot accepted the role of his number two (maybe Poot is too occupied with sex to be responsible for the kids). In this case, maybe the call to D’Angelo was a family decision, one motivated by another subplot in the pit: the fact that D’Angelo, under orders from Stringer, has been withholding pay from his employees in an attempt to flush out a possible snitch. Wallace already asked D’Angelo for some financial help, and maybe the paltry juice-box-and-potato-chip lunch is one result of this lack of income. If that is the case, then Wallace probably made the call because he felt that the reward was the only way to support his family (not to mention a good way to gain favor with superiors like Stringer). He acted out of necessity.

This all comes back to the stenciling on the board that acts as a door to this tragic residence. “IF ANIMAL TRAPPED CALL 396-6286.” This message will come back, horrific in a different way, as the epigraph of the Season Four finale, but here it suggests the true nature of Wallace’s family. This is a group of eight children, all abandoned by fathers and mothers, not to mention the police, social services, and the schools. They have been left to their own devices, and everything we see in that vacant rowhome suggests the survival instinct of animals, with just enough bedding to keep them warm at night, just enough water to rinse the filth out of their mouths, and just enough scavenged electricity to keep their paltry rations cool. The true tragedy in this scene is not so much Brandon’s gruesome murder, as the fact that a boy like Wallace, a boy with obvious heart and conscience and intelligence, feels compelled to play a role in that murder.

4 thoughts on “The Man of the Vacant House

  1. Pingback: The Wire, "One Arrest": Wallace Falls Into Darkness | The Wire Blog

  2. Not important, but he does use the toothpaste!! When he goes to the window, he presses down on the tube, but you can barely tell because he’s blocking it. I went back and rewatched the scene after @WireFans posted a blog about that scene.

    • Great call. I have seen that scene countless times, but I never noticed. I guess it goes to show just how detailed The Wire can be. Thanks for the info.

  3. Pingback: The Wire, "Lessons," Problems With Word Problems | The Wire Blog

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