Tuesday, January 09, 2007

What I Loved this past Fall Season: THE WIRE
To borrow a question Entertainment Weekly often asks when referring to The Wire, “Why aren’t you watching this show yet?!” I kept saying in December that I’d blog on it, but then I couldn’t come up with enough adjectives for AWESOME. So I’ll try now. My other posts on The Wire here and here were to entice new viewers. This one’s for the people who watched season 4.

The most recent season of The Wire was the best yet. We watched mayoral candidate Tommy Carcetti move from being the long shot to winning the primary, despite being a minority in a city that is predominantly African-American. With his wide-eyed idealism, Carcetti sought to bring money to the schools, clean up the streets (literally, by sending garbage trucks out to clean up the corners), institute programs that would entice young kids moving into the drug trade to perhaps reconsider… and then he won. And it’s not like he was making this stuff up just to win, but when faced with his new colleagues, he discovered a multimillion dollar deficit in the school budget, one that would require drastic cuts to fix. He could no longer give the bonuses and salary hikes to the cops that he’d promised. He couldn’t force the city to go out collecting garbage off street corners when the city didn’t have the money for it. At the government level, the buck stops when the city’s poverty becomes a reality to you. And now we begin to see how the other mayors became so corrupt.

In the police department, the special crimes unit is disbanded (again) and the wire taken down (again) and Kima is off to homicide, where she’s treated like a newbie (they don’t know just what a brilliant detective they have working for them in her). Cedric Daniels was promoted to Major at the end of season 3, and through Carcetti, suddenly becomes Colonel. The sudden promotion of people – and the political reasons behind it – becomes a major eye-opening part of the season.

But there’s an idealism, a feeling that maybe, just maybe, we can make a difference. Carver believed the difference wasn’t in making the arrests, it was in getting to know the kids on the streets and learning the ins and outs of the drug trade, so you could start to see it from their point of view. Unfortunately, he also has an unfailing loyalty to his pissant former partner, Herc, who is the screwup of all screwups. In thinking he’s helping Herc out of a serious situation, he turns over one of the corner kids in his case, and Herc uses the kid, puts the word out on the street that the kid is a snitch, and puts the kid’s life in serious danger, all to save his own ass from being demoted for doing something stupid. Then there’s Jimmy McNulty, the main character of the first couple of seasons, with almost no scenes in this one. He's moved in with another officer and her two kids (and steals office binders for the kids to use in school, one of the funnier scenes in the season). He’s watched some of these corner kids grow from naïve tykes to seasoned dealers, and by the end of the season tries to help out Bodie. But he quickly realizes that trying to help a corner kid is akin to picking up a baby bird that’s fallen out of the nest: the mother bird will smell the intruder on its young, and will quickly dispose of the baby.

There are the addicts, the people who are the bottom feeders in all of this, who don’t profit from any of this, but whom everyone else profits from. Bubbles is one of the best characters in the series. This guy is a drug addict who became an informant for Kima at the beginning of the series, and she managed to clean him up. But he couldn’t stay off the stuff for long, and by season 3 was a full-blown heroin addict once more. In season 4 he’s taken on a protégé who isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, and while he tries to get him to stay in school, the kid eventually jumps ship, selling drugs on the corner instead. Meanwhile, Bubbles sells his stolen goods on the street corners and another thug sees a golden opportunity, robbing him and beating him every day. Bubbles turns to the cops – the people he’d helped for so long – and asks Herc (great) to help him out. Herc says sure, sure, but it turns into a complete disaster, almost ending in Bubbles’ death. Bubs realizes he’s completely alone in this, and this man – who’s a complete mess, but wouldn’t normally hurt a flea – decides to take matters into his own hands. He gets his hands on a poisonous substance… and just then his protégé returns. Bubbles, momentarily forgetting the dangerous situation he’s in, welcomes the guy back with open arms… and the stupid kid snorts the stuff while Bubs is sleeping. Wracked with guilt, Bubs turns himself into the cops, and they don’t know what to do with him. He attempts suicide, begs them to lock him up for murder, and eventually they put him in a mental institution and send his rehab sponsor over to see him. The scene of Bubbles completely breaking down when his former sponsor walks into the room is one of the saddest of the season.

On the street level, you’ve got Marlo Stanfield, who’s running the show with an iron fist, care of Snoop and Chris, two nasty pieces of work who kill people, pour lye on them to speed up the decomposition, and leave them in vacant buildings by nailing up the doors behind them. He realizes that children are our future and doles out cash to the kids getting ready to go back to school, telling them they can use it to buy new clothes, when in fact he’s buying their undying loyalty. Only one – Michael Lee – refuses the cash, knowing the others are selling their souls to the devil. Marlo's faithful soldiers stand on all of the West Baltimore corners, shouting, "Pandemic!" constantly in the background. Pandemic is the hot drug of the moment, and has been aptly named.

But Marlo’s a smart guy. Because he’s figured out the thing that becomes the main theme of season 4: the children. Season 4 moved its focus to a group of youngsters who seem destined for a life on the corner. Pryzbylewski (or Prez) started off as one of the most incompetent cops on the force, largely there because his father-in-law was a major in the police force. In this season he starts off as one of the most incompetent teachers you could imagine, but he gets better. He never becomes a Michelle Pfeiffer character, helping these kids find their way outta the gangsta’s paradise they’ve grown up in, but he does learn to reach them on a certain level, even if he’s still bumbling through class exercises by the end.

The season focuses on four kids: Michael Lee, Randy Wagstaff, Dukie Weems, and Namond Brice. Through these kids, we see the real darkness of the Baltimore drug trade. Michael takes care of his little brother, always walking him home, helping him with his homework. His mother is literally a crack whore, often passed out on the couch, occasionally wandering into the kitchen to ask Michael for money (he carries the family's welfare card) and freaking out if he doesn’t give it to her, but she usually crawls back to her hole, itching her neck and shaking. In one scene, he asks his mom where the Rice-a-Roni is so he can give it to his little brother for dinner, and the cupboard is bare. She tells him she already gave it to the kid, and Michael realizes she just gave the kid the box, forcing him to eat it raw. He’s the one who doesn’t take Marlo’s money, but when his little brother’s deadbeat dad comes back from prison, Michael begins to panic. It’s never clear what the guy ever did to Michael, or if he did anything at all – maybe Michael just thinks he might, or maybe he doesn’t like the fact that someone else would be taking over as the man of the house – but he ultimately goes to Marlo to help him out on the little matter of his dad, and becomes far more indebted to Marlo than any of the kids who took the back-to-school money.

Randy Wagstaff lives with a foster mother, “Miss Anna,” who is strict, but loving. She keeps him on the straight and narrow, and he’ll do ANYTHING to avoid getting into Miss Anna’s bad books. Because he’s small for his age, he keeps the shirts from various grades (the grades are colour-coded, with maroon being the grade 8s, and other grades wearing other colours) and steals a stack of hall passes that allows him to jump from one room to another at lunch, selling chips and snacks to the other little kids and making a profit. When he’s caught, he begins to spill the beans on a murder that happened at the beginning of the first episode when Lex is killed by Snoop and Chris, and Randy witnesses part of it. Carver takes him under his wing, as mentioned earlier, but allows Herc to get his dirty mitts on him, and before long it’s common knowledge on the streets that Randy is a snitch.

Duquan (Dukie) is the poorest of the bunch. Other kids make fun of him for smelling bad at school. He loses his uniforms all the time because his parents are such hardcore drug addicts they will steal everything – including, literally, the clothes off their child’s back – for drug money. Namond and Randy are his closest friends, but even they always have looks on their faces like they wish he'd go away, and walking to school he tends to hang back behind them. He’s a sad character who keeps a smile on his face, puts up with the other kids pretending he doesn’t exist half the time, and endures beatings from the other kids. He’s the smartest of the bunch books-wise, and can repair electronics (we watch him working on a handheld electric fan for a while). Prez realizes what is going on at home, and gives him a teacher's locker to keep his clothes away from his parents, and allows him to use the showers. He teaches Dukie how to use a computer, surf the Internet (where he and Randy find candy in bulk, suddenly making Randy’s profits go up), and for the first time in his life, Dukie actually has some self-esteem.

Namond is the polar opposite. His dad was a drug kingpin, now serving time, and his piece of dirt mother is living large on his father’s money, spending like the money will never dry up, and urging her son to be like his daddy and go out to that corner and make a man of himself. He's got the clothes, the money, the videogames, and the bling, unlike Dukie. His mother is possibly the most infuriating character, because while Dukie’s parents are too strung out and impoverished to even be parents, Namond’s mother has the chance to help her son break out of the vicious cycle, and her greed far outweighs any loyalties to her son. Namond becomes so disruptive in class that he’s moved to the Special Class, set up by former police chief Bunny Colvin. As an experiment, they watch these kids that the system considers to be lost to them as they sit around, fight with each other and the teachers, and eventually start to see correlations between drug dealing and other aspects of life and school. They begin with the basics – teaching these kids manners and how to act in public places – in order to “turn them into” human beings. Both Colvin and Prez learn to reach out to these kids by addressing them on their level. Prez teaches his class about probabilities through games of dice (which Randy uses on the street with a profitable outcome).

There’s hope in this show. So much hope. The politicians hope they can make a difference; the police hope the politicians will follow through on their promises, and that by getting to know the people on the streets, they might be better police and make a difference themselves. The teachers try to make a difference, but because they’re so close to the kids and understand the reality of their situations, they don’t have a rose-coloured view of things. Sure, they’d like to see a handful of these kids rise above their situations and find jobs somewhere other than the corners. Some, like Prez and Colvin, actually do something with one of the kids to help them on a personal level. The kids, more than anyone, are the pessimists. The glass isn’t half empty to them – it’s empty. Why bother going to school? they wonder. A middle-class child who’s never been exposed to the world of The Wire goes to school to learn how to be something when they grow up.

And therein lies the problem: these kids don’t plan on growing up. Most of their friends never lived to see 20, and they all ended up slinging drugs, so why bother going to school? If you only have 16 years on this earth, why waste it sitting in a classroom while some adult teaches you fractions and ways to conjugate verbs? Even if you do somehow manage to get a decent job, you’ll probably be paying off your parents’ drug habits and supporting them, and there’s just no way you’ll ever get ahead.

But then there’s that light again. That hope. Prez shows Dukie there can be another way, and Dukie flourishes in class, becoming a good student. Colvin takes Namond and a few others to a restaurant to show them how the other half live. Randy begins to like being at school.

And then, just like that, it’s gone. By the end of the season, McNulty’s offers of help to Bodie force a bullet into Bodie’s head. Dukie graduates to another school, and knowing his friends won’t be able to help keep him from being beaten up every day, and knowing that he doesn’t have the luxury of the teacher’s lounge showers and lockers, he drops out. Randy, now known as the snitch, becomes Enemy #1 to the kids on the streets, and they firebomb his house. He’s not home, but Miss Anna is, and she nearly dies in the fire. And Michael, the kid who was his little brother’s only real guardian, the kid who refused Marlo’s money, becomes the most ruthless of them all. He orders his stepfather’s execution. He becomes Snoop and Chris’s pupil (and no, while it looked like he was the one who put the bullet in Bodie’s head, it wasn’t actually him). He moves out and starts living the life of a gangster. He allows Dukie to come and live with him, but as Dukie listens to Michael having sex with some girl in the next room, while he tries to reassure Michael’s little brother, he knows he’s caught in a vicious cycle, and will never be happy. The finale ended with Michael becoming a part of Marlo’s gang, Randy going to a foster home where his snitch rep has preceded him, and Dukie – sweet Dukie – standing on a corner, slinging drugs.

Is this possibly the darkest show on television? Maybe. But it’s not the sort of show where you’re sitting there with your head in your hands going “oh GOD, there is no hope… none.” It’s very funny at times. Omar, whom I mentioned in a previous post, continues to be awesome. In his warped Robin Hood ways he steals from the drug dealers, and gives to himself. The police respect him, but when bodies start falling, clamp down on his activities. Bubbles has hit his low point, but there’s only one way to go from there. Could he be rehabilitated? And what about Carcetti; will he be able to make any sort of positive difference? The end of the season saw the reinstitution of the Major Crimes Unit, with McNulty rejoining the group, so that's setting us up for an exciting final season.

And then there’s Namond. Of the four kids, he was the lost cause. His father is a drug dealer, his mother a waste of space, and he had a temper that was out of control. His mom puts him on a corner under Bodie’s watchful eye, but Namond is just a screwup. When faced with any sort of threat, he begins to cry. This is not the fierce man that his dad Wee-Bay was, and his mother knows it. But Namond has something the other kids don’t: Colvin. By the end of the season, Colvin appeals to Wee-Bay to let him save just this one kid, and Wee-Bay gives in. The final scene of the season is Namond sitting on Colvin’s front porch, just on the edge of the West Baltimore corners. Will he find peace, or will season 5 bring him right back to the lifestyle he believed he was destined for?
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now am found
But only temporarily.

1 comment:

Josh said...

I know you posted this over a year ago, but I got into the Wire on DVD and nothing on television ever made me feel anything like I felt when this season ended. I'm a teacher, and I literally sat in my bed, unable to blink or even think as the end credits rolled. It was as if all the air had been sucked out of the room. Seeing Dookie on the corners and what's his name lost in the system hit me to the point that my girlfirned literally had to shake me out of the funk.
As an aside, though they never label the fact that Michael's "step-father" did anything to him, the way Michael reacts around the boxing coach's attention and his comment about the boxers they go see "being cut" are telltale signs of sexual abuse. Yet another happy moment brought to you by the researchers of The Wire.