1.2: Laughter in the Mud

By Peter Honig

“The Detail” ends with a montage that is both haunting and comical, one that unites both of the show’s major worlds, one that both advances specific plot points and makes broader comments about the universe of the show.

The sequence begins right after the Daniels dinner scene that I discussed yesterday and brings the hectic opening days of the investigation to a close. The best way to approach this sequence is to look at each piece of it, one scene at a time.

  1. The montage starts with a long shot of a car sitting on top of an embankment in the late-night darkness. It is raining lightly, and the positioning of the car give the appearance of an impending fall off the cliff. There is a cut, and now we see McNulty, alone, sucking some more Jameson out of his favorite flask-size bottle. The rain, along with the slow, sultry singing of Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange,” along with McNulty’s involuntarily-closing eyes, all create a feeling of isolation and loneliness. As with the previous episode, this one ends with McNulty drinking, but this time he is all alone, trapped in the world that he has created, left to drunkenly ponder the mess he has gotten himself into (remember that in his previous scene, he told Judge Phelan that “I’m in the shit here, your honor”). His outward conviction to “do this case” has been reduced to silent, self-medicated regret.
  2. We return to Franklin Terrace 24 hours after the riot, and we find a scene that is very different than the one Herc, Carver and Prez stormed into. With no Five-O present, the courtyard is once again a bustling drug market, a hive humming around the burnt-out ruin of Prez’ car. The camera slowly pans left across the car, on which one hopper leans and makes a sale, the ultimate slap in the face to an impotent police force. When I watch this scene, I can’t escape an image from one of those Planet Earth-type documentaries: the way the rusted hulk of a wrecked boat becomes an oasis for marine life, drawing in coral and barnacles, and all sorts of plant and animal life from all up and down the food chain, all magnetically attracted to this foreign object that somehow ended up there. Within a day, the hoppers and fiends have incorporated this car into their environment. We see a full transaction as a fiend hands money to one dealer, who signals to a second unseen dealer who then comes out of the tower to hand the fiend his vials.
  3. We jump from the highrises to the lowrise, in a cut that is so subtle it is easy to miss. In fact, this subtlety highlights the sameness of all drug corners, where the faces of the fiends and the hoppers are different, but everything else is the same. The deal from the Terrace is now followed by a second one, and it is only when the camera pulls out that we recognize the hopper taking the cash as Bodie. As above, so below, and for the Barksdale crew, business is flowing all across the city. Bodie whistles and signals for three vials.
  4. The camera cuts to the center of the Pit, where we see four hoppers sleeping in a tight group on that damp dirty orange couch. Poot is on the right, and one of the other hoppers leans his head on the shoulder of another. They are all dead to the world. Just as it did with the burnt car, the camera slowly pans left around the couch until it reveals the mysterious form of a man who approaches and stops, as if he is waiting for something. You can hear sirens in the background. He is probably waiting for his vials, but it is too dark to tell if he is the same person who gave Bodie the cash. But maybe he isn’t waiting. Maybe he is watching, looking at this curious scene, that orange couch, which has been made into a piece of the environment just like the car from the previous scene. In this case, though, there is a more moving reason for this. A couch is typically a part of a living room, an object of comfort that sits at the heart of family life. For these boys, these hoppers and runners, this family life has literally been turned inside out. Their home is now the courtyard, and their comfort is that couch and each other, even on a cold and rainy night.
  5. We return to McNulty’s car, with the stereo still oozing “Baby, my sweet baby, you’re the one…” His eyes open to a loud banging sound, too jarring and fast-paced to be the rhythm to the song. He gets out of car and shouts “Hey!” From his point of view, we look down the slope that he is parked on and we see a row of cars down below. An unidentifiable man beats on one of the cars with a stick while another one keeps guard. McNulty shouts again “Hey you fuckheads!” and tries to go after them, but his tie is caught in the door, and he nearly chokes himself before he realizes this. He tries to follow them, but he trips, as the car alarm finally goes off and the men run away. Sitting with his drunk ass in the mud, McNulty looks down and sees something and picks it up. It is his badge, covered in mud. He does the only thing left to do. He laughs.
  6. For the first time in the sequence, we are inside, back in the warm comfort of the Daniels abode. It is the epitome of comfort: not a car, not a salvaged couch, but an actual bed. Marla is asleep, but Cedric is sitting up, reading what must be some sort of case file (possibly information about the Barksdales or the IID reports from the riot). The phone rings, and Cedric has a quick, nearly-wordless conversation with the unknown caller. Marla stirs and asks the question we all want to know: “Who was that?” It was the hospital. “Blind in one eye,” he reports. “Who?” She has already forgotten. “The kid. The 14 year old.” The episode fades to black on his disturbed face.

A montage is a powerful technique because it enables a filmmaker to tie together multiple seemingly-unconnected details. Taken as a whole, the episode-ending sequence has some interesting things to say about the worlds we are just getting used to. For one, there is a symmetrical structure, from Daniels to McNulty to the two Barksdale territories back to McNulty and then Daniels. This makes it seem like the police work, with the summation of an episode’s worth of ugly, complex politics, is merely a frame surrounding a world that will always go on in its own way, unaffected by those around it, because that is all it knows how to do. Things end poorly for the officers. McNulty ends up wet, humiliated and alone, looking at physical evidence of his doomed fate with the force. Daniels is equally alone and powerless. He has to face his inevitable failings as a leader, and the impossible position he is in. Worse, he is left to suffer guilt, and face the realization that everything he does and does not do in this case will have real consequences for people he has never even met. What makes him so lonely is the fact that the very person who makes him aware of that guilt, Marla, doesn’t even care enough to remember the boy.

And finally, there is the boy, Kevin Johnston, who loses half of his eyesight. He is the first, but not the last one-eyed person (literally and metaphorically) who will haunt the show. He is half-blind, only able to see half of the picture and blind to everything else that is going on. For a show as focused on vision and observation as The Wire, there is no better image to unify all of its dark and diverse worlds.

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