The Wire 1.1-1.3

1.1 The Target

When you think about the first episode of a TV series, it’s usually important to set the stage, introduce the characters and give us some kind of hook into what the show is going to be. The Target does these things, but in some interesting ways. First of all, it drops us in the middle of this world and doesn’t bother to explain anything. We’re knee deep into the American criminal justice system in the second scene of the episode.

Secondly, while there is a narrative hook, I’d argue that the hook the show is leading with is a contrast of two different worlds. The opening sequence is a detective trying to understand the urban world of crime he is dealing with. A recurring visual idea throughout the episode is that crime exists on the ground while the law is lofty and removed. Detectives, lieutenants and sergeants chat about crime inside skyscrapers, removed from the ground where crime exists. There’s a disconnect, one that Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) is trying to bridge.

Instead of going for a flashy hook, The Target is playing the long game, setting up ideas, to be explored later. Sure, there’s the narrative conceit of criminal kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) being so good at his job that no one has heard of him except Jimmy, but it seems almost incidental in the course of the episode that they’re starting to chase after Avon. Most of the show is about everything else.

Which brings us to the dialogue. It exists in that fine balance of well-constructed dialogue that is compelling enough to be smart and witty, but without feeling too fabricated. It’s just down to earth enough to give it authenticity, which is important given the criminal setting.

The character that grabbed me the most this episode is D’Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gillard Jr.). He’s set up as the criminal with a conscious, but he’s not green. He’s done things, he’s killed a man, but being dropped back down to the streets as punishment, he’s suddenly faced with the griminess of crime. I think that’s a great character conflict for the show and I’m interested in seeing how that develops.

I’m also surprised by what comes back by the end of the episode. The way the fake money scam ties back into the overarching narrative shows that this is a series that is interested in exploring crime as a web. A good, understated start for the show that has me more interested in the ideas than the plot and characters, which is saying something given how good the latter is.

1.2 The Detail

This show assumes you’re smart. One of the most tedious things about TV is how it sets up scenarios we’ve watched in these kinds of shows countless times. The Wire drops you in the middle of the story and assumes you’re able to fill in the gaps. For instance, this episode has the police team setting up shop down in the basement. Instead of telling us what is going on, it just shows us and assumes we’re able to figure out all the connotations of what the scene conveys.

This leads to Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) beginning an important game of trying to work the system to get what he needs for his team. He’s been offloaded with all the detectives no one wants, outdated equipment no one needs, and a loose cannon just waiting to blow up in his face. He’s playing a losing hand, but he’s fighting for every inch. It allows the show to tangle with the bureaucracy of the American justice system through an unusual route.

This leads some of the detectives to get upset about how their hands are tied and they decide to blow off some steam and flex some power. The results dive the show into the ethical quandary of justice. What means must be taken? Cops lie, use excessive force and break the rules. These are infringements of justice, but out of a quest for a greater justice. Do the ends justify the means? Is Daniels right to tell his cops to lie in order to keep his tenuous team together? Do ethical considerations even factor in to his decision or is he simply saving face?

On the other side of the law, this episode has a great scene about chicken nuggets. Yea, chicken nuggets. It’s a great bit of writing that digs into the mentality that the system is bent. You can’t play fair to get ahead, it’s not about having the right idea because the right idea will get stolen by the fat cats who’ve rigged the game, so why even play? Also, the interrogation room scene with D is another superb bit of writing.

1.3 The Buys

I love how this show uses conversations about other things to get at the ideas. It’s not always subtle, but it makes for much more interesting dialogue. As one of my teachers says, most arguments aren’t about what they’re about. There’s subtext going on, and a great example of that is the chess scene in this episode. Everyone has their role, if you’re lucky, you can move up, but in the end, the king stays the king.

And speaking of chess, I begin to wonder if there’s a bigger game going on here. It seems too much of a coincidence that the street gang has their drugs stolen mere hours before a police raid. Something stinks. So far, the show has been smart about bringing things back around that you might not expect to be important, something this big has to have something more going on, right?

And then there’s the closing scene. It suggests that Daniels might be dirty. What’s so smart about this twist is that the seed of the suspicions have already been plated. The previous episode has a scene where Daniels and his wife are eating in their home and their house is much nicer than the District Attorney’s house. Moments like that suggest that The Wire might need to be rewatched to be fully appreciated because of all the tiny details you miss on a first viewing.

© 2013 James Blake Ewing