“The Target” & “The Detail”
Season One, Episodes One & Two
In my year and a half of television criticism here at Cultural Learnings, I have run into a number of roadblocks due to my lack of knowledge with a particular era of television. As I noted back when The Sopranos was finishing, I never got into the HBO drama – not only am I slightly too young, but my TV addiction is still a relatively recent phenomenon. I am a network television viewer of the Lost generation, and sometimes that hurts.
No better example of this than was earlier this year, when David Simon’s HBO series The Wire was entering its fifth season. I couldn’t go to any of my usual TV criticism sites without hearing about how amazing the series was, and how wonderful the fifth season would be, and how there was absolutely no way anyone could jump into this novel-like series in its fifth season. I, knee deep in thesis work, was unable to commit to watching four seasons in the spring, and as a result I had to be the odd man out when it came to the powerful conclusion to this epic Baltimore tale.
But I’ve come to make amends: just as the magic of DVD is allowing me to revisit Six Feet Under (Which I’ll probably save for when I complete the series), The Wire has officially entered into my rotation. Normally, I might keep such an old catalogue title to myself, but Alan Sepinwall is currently revisiting the first season as part of his summer blogging schedule. And while I’m going to have to stick to his “Newbies” posts in favour of keeping myself free of serious spoilers for what’s to come, I figured that the more people talk about what is (thus far, and by all accounts) a fantastic series the better for my readers, readers everywhere, and maybe even the show’s long-shot Emmy chances.
For now, however, time to dig into the first two episodes of the series like I’d dig into an order of Chicken McNuggets.
Talking about The Wire on an episode-by-episode basis seems as if it is quite the challenge. I’m starting to understand why screener copies of entire seasons were sent to critics – I can talk about great scenes in these episodes, but I can’t help but imagine how much more I could say if I could understand their greater meaning. From Alan’s first post, it seems that even the tangential first scene of “The Target” is a broad statement; in watching the episode for myself, I loved the scene but never perhaps made the connection to the broader parts of the season.
I feel like this is going to become a common theme: I notice something interesting or evocative, and then a few episodes (or seasons, even) later I come to gain an understanding of what it is really saying. Right now, watching The Wire feels a bit like a guessing game, especially in “The Target.” Its apt that Simon ignores traditional television rules and doesn’t title his first episode “Pilot,” because as Devindra noted on the /Filmcast earlier this week this is really the anti-pilot. It’s an episode that doesn’t lay out a structural framework, or create a discernable character hierarchy, or any of the usual pilot tasks.
Rather, it focuses on building three characters: Detective McNulty, D’Angelo Barksdale and the Baltimore Drug Trade. McNulty gets the most time and, as a result, the most clarity: he’s a cop who ignores the hierarchy, who at first glance seems to be our requisite hero. However, ignoring convention once again, this is not a cop defined (initially) by the usual clichés: he doesn’t have an ex-wife, a drinking problem, a gruesome past, or any other easy to understand caveat (Having watched somewhat beyond this point, I know that they’re there, but roll out in a realistic fashion). In fact, after the pilot, I don’t know if we know much about him as a person outside of his clear interest in seeing justice done.
“The Detail” gives us a bit more insight into his character, but it’s still limited: we see that he lives in a rundown apartment complex, sleeping in a mattress on the floor and stealing a neighbour’s paper, which is certainly a less romantic housing situation than most television cops. We also get to see him drowning his sorrows in his car, and his humorous and slightly sad attempt at deterring vandals that ends with him lying in the mud looking at his badge. From this, we can start to surmise quite a few things: as far as I know, he could have some of those clichés in his past, but the show doesn’t feel the need to shove them down our throat to make his character more comprehensible to audiences.
While there are perhaps some viewers who could find this frustrating, don’t count me amongst them – I find it increasingly intriguing. The same goes for D’Angelo Barksdale, a character who we first meet on trial of all places. In the span of “The Target,” he goes from guilty criminal who walks based on the intimidation tactics of his uncle to someone who offers us as viewers an insight into the human side of the “bad guys” (to use an all too simple term). Now, admittedly, this character is cryptic for some reasons outside of just plot structure, as Sepinwall notes:
“D’Angelo’s growing unease with the violence of the drug game — specifically, his objection to the savage beating of Johnny after he got caught passing off the fake $10 bills — doesn’t really track with the guy who was laughing off beating a murder rap earlier in the episode.”
I’m with Alan on this one – it feels like the only near-contrivance on display, a character shift that seems too quick and (As he goes on to further note) seems especially false when he reacts the same way to the beating as he does to the eventual murder of the witness in his trial. The final note is the one that solidifies his character, a young and loyal part of this operation that, when faced with certain realities with a new outlook on life, starts to doubt it all. It’s more in line with traditional pilot plotting, although there’s something about him that really stands out in “The Detail.”
His decision to write the letter to the family of the man who died is perhaps my favourite beat in his character, a fascinating flaw in his loyalty. When McNulty and Moreland start to question him (Both when they confront him in the low-rises and during the interrogation), our knowledge of his own concerns about the witness’ death makes the scenes fascinating. Seeing as the detectives play to just the right notes, find just the right person who is questioning everything, makes for an interrogation scene where we have both sides of the story.
Now, technically, I believe this was one of the original pitches behind Criminal Intent, the now relegated to cable spinoff of Law & Order – that by showing us both sides of the crime, we would find the intense interrogations more, well, intense. This was, however, something different – it wasn’t a wink to the audience as much as the only way for us to possibly understand not just some sort of homogenized view of crime, but rather the complexities of this city’s drug trade.
And in the process, each side is nuanced beyond compare – if further seasons are truly even more complicated, then I look forward to seeing as it all comes together. We have Lt. Cedric Daniels, Det. Kima Gregg, her informant Bubbs, and other various people who I won’t even attempt to name at this point.
The first two episodes tend to divide things up fairly clearly, if not exactly. “The Target” shows us the high-level bureaucratic structure of the “good guys” while showing us the on-the-ground activity in the drug trade. “The Detail,” while still dealing with those aspects, spends considerably more time with the new lemons assigned to the case detail under Daniels’ command, specifically the trio who get themselves in trouble at the high-rises. Really, no other drama on television would be so crazy as to attempt to create two completely separate hierarchies and balance them in this fashion, but it is becoming increasingly clear that Simon and Burns know what they’re doing.
In terms of the second episode structure, meanwhile, Alan raises a fantastic parallel that as a student of medieval literature I find most interesting:
“…but there are also elements of heroic quest narratives, at least from the point of view of our “heroes,” the cops. One of the most frequent recurring features of hero narratives is the gathering of the team, whether it’s the Argonauts or the Magnificent Seven or the Justice League.”
While I’ll spend more time on this subject in the future, I gather, I think this is the greatest symbol of the Wire’s unique plot structure. The quest narrative as a form is, at its simplest level, about providing structure to adventure. I spent a great deal of my undergraduate thesis discussing the importance of this and other phenomena associated with the romance tradition within Battlestar Galactica, so the assertion that it could be driving the “good” side of this series offers a new perspective that I now have to consider.
I’ll leave with a portion of my thesis, a half paragraph on the quest narrative in romance and how it has changed and adapted compared to its original form:
One of the elements Cooper focuses upon is that “the quest places the focus of a story squarely on the knight as an individual” (Romance in Time 50). However, in the case of Battlestar Galactica, the individuals involved are not just single knights but rather an entire society – the decisions made by Laura Roslin and Commander Adama not only impact their own lives but also the lives of the other survivors. Cooper addresses this concern by observing how “the readiness of the individual knight to step forward from his larger community puts the quest romance in tension with its larger social purposes” (53), but in the case of “Home” it seems impossible to disconnect the leaders’ decisions from the fate of that larger community considering the mythology involved.
I feel like we’re in the same place here; that the quest of these officers is not just about the team’s leader, or its lead detectives, but that it is part of a broader social structure. To a degree far surpassing Galactica, The Wire has created a sense that the actions of these individuals in their quest are altering a society. The first two episodes offer mostly hints at this, but having watched the third it is clear that we still have a lot to learn about our quest, its heroes, and how it all comes together.
But, really, I’m trying to talk about too much at once: I’ll settle in a bit more next week, when I post my thoughts of the third episode after reading Alan’s. For now, some brief things:
- The line that hit me from “The Detail” was Daniels’ wife, who in her discussion about whether or not he should hand the officers over to Internal Affairs: “The game is rigged…but you cannot lose if you do not play.” I had to listen to it twice to make sure I heard her right; her statement is a dire one, extenuating further the tough situation that Daniels is in. While the game is no doubt a little bit rough, her assertion that he should just not play (And therefore not lose) is as morally ambiguous as it gets, and this is a throwaway dinner scene.
- Love the brief interactions we’ve seen with the ADA, Rhonda – whether it’s her “You people are screwed” involvement in the initial detail meeting in “The Target” or her interaction with Daniels in “The Detail,” I just find it to be a far more realistic portrayal of that relationship than I’m used to seeing. Plus, since I admittedly have watched the third episode since starting this piece, I now want to rewatch and see what interactions I may have missed between her and certain characters.