1.1: The Corner of the Forking Paths

By Peter Honig

“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.

D’Angelo flashes back to that moment in the trial, his mind’s eye zooming in on Gant’s accusatory finger, which now accuses the defendant of not one murder but two. As D’Angelo slinks guiltily away from the scene, we can almost hear his thoughts. Gant was killed as payback for testifying against a member of the Barksdale Crew. D’Angelo knows it, we know it, and all of the other low-rise denizens know it. Of course, that is the whole point.

But the episode’s final shot suggests that the murder makes an impression on D’Angelo that goes beyond guilt. As he walks away from the scene, the camera cuts to a high-angle shot dominated by the bare limbs and branches of a tree. The forking branches partially obscure the image of a slowly-retreating D’Angelo. The visual imagery is clear–he has become small and vulnerable, and his sense of himself is almost flickering, reeling from shock as he tries to walk away from the consequences of the murder he committed and its subsequent trial.

This sense of consequences dovetails with the image of the tree to imply an interesting philosophical concept which must be occurring to D’Angelo on some level or another, possibly for the first time. The tree, with its single trunk, branching upwards into countless increasingly-smaller sections, brings to mind Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ mind-bending story “The Garden of the Forking Paths.” In this story, Borges imagines an infinite garden made up of all possible outcomes to all possible decisions. “He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time” (from Donald A. Yates’ translation). The concept of forking, whether it be paths or branches, brings to mind the multiple paths that open up before us every time we face a decision.

One of the benefits of The Wire’s sweeping narrative, which encompasses all sides of the investigation, is that it lets the viewer take in the “dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times.” The nature of cause and effect on the show is so dense and wide-ranging that it takes multiple viewings to really process it all. Every choice leads to multiple outcomes, and every outcome stems from multiple choices.

If this is going through D’Angelo’s mind at this point, he must be thinking about all of the decisions which led to Gant’s murder. Many people played a role in this man’s death, but at the same time it feels like it had to happen. It started with the Blanchard shooting, but there were many other factors: Barlow’s ability to convince Gant to testify, Gant’s refusal to be intimidated by the Barksdale soldiers in the courtroom, Avon’s decision to “send a message” and the gunman’s decision to follow the order. D’Angelo’s act may have only been a small part of this path, but that is enough for him to feel morally responsible for it.

The other problem is that a person can be responsible for an outcome even if he doesn’t take action. If so, there might be a second incident running through D’Angelo’s head as he disappears behind the tree: the previous day’s savage beating of Bubbles’ protege Johnny (whose clumsy solo execution of the counterfeit trick proves that he is definitely not brown).

Johnny’s capture confronts D’Angelo with his first major decision as the boss of the Pit. An adrenaline-fueled Bodie wants to throw Johnny onto the freeway. D’Angelo puts a stop to that excessive response, but now he has a decision to make: Does he let Johnny go or does he let the hoppers beat him? Urged on by Bodie’s impatient prompting of “so?”, D’Angelo knows that he should go with the second choice, but his heart wants to go with the first. Instead, he goes with a third option. He does nothing.

Unfortunately, this refusal to make a decision is still a decision: it is the decision to yield the choice to others. In what seems to be his signature move, D’Angelo walks away, thus sealing Johnny’s fate. Had he stayed to oversee the beating, he probably could have protected poor green Johnny from the worst of the brutality that lands him in the ICU.

The Wire’s portrayal of cause and effect is fascinating in the way that it shows the results of a single decision coming back to the characters over the course of a season. We see this in the aftermath of Johnny’s hospitalization, when Bubbles decides to get revenge by snitching for Kima again. D’Angelo will never know how great a weapon he gave to the detail when he walked away from his decision, nor will the Barksdales. As Stringer later tells a guilty D’Angelo, the beating was necessary to “send a message” and avoid looking weak. This is the same reason they ordered the hit on Gant, an event that further empowers McNulty and the fledgling detail. The Barksdales are so focused on maintaining an outward image of fierceness that they don’t see the hidden damage they inflict on themselves as a consequence of those actions.

Of course, when considering the complex nature of cause and effect, it is almost impossible to see all of the dizzying permutations  because so many of them remain hidden from the individuals making the decisions. It gets so tangled that you could argue that there is no choice to begin with, that events unfold according to their own momentum, set into motion by incomprehensible external forces. Or maybe there is a third possibility, an unseen karma that eventually affects the paths of all characters in this densely-interconnected world.

Follow The Wire Guide on Twitter at @thewireblog

3 thoughts on “1.1: The Corner of the Forking Paths

  1. Pingback: The Wire, "Lessons," Choking on Horseradish | The Wire Blog

  2. Pingback: The Wire, "Game Day," Hunting on the Paper Trail | The Wire Blog

  3. Perhaps more than any other character we watch D’Angelo gain consciousness of the interrelation of the forks that he repeatedly faces, and while he falls short of learning to choose the right fork, he does for a time escape the network and gain a level of integrity that’s pretty high in the Wire Universe. Of course a free actor in this environment cannot survive long.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.