Breaking Down The Wire

The Best Wire Yet?
Talking television.
Dec. 3 2006 6:16 AM

Breaking Down The Wire

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Alex,
 
It's good to be back. I want to express my thanks to Emily and Saul for filling in for us so ably over Thanksgiving week. Their entries stimulated quite a bit of traffic in the Fray, including a spirited discussion of how the series plots out character arcs and what The Wire's underlying intent is in those portrayals. Specifically, what does Michael have to say to us about the world he lives in and the way we perceive the Michaels of the world? I find it fascinating to read the passion with which all of us, Fraysters and columnists, speak about the characters in this series. Because of their complexity, because of the series' now nearly four-season history, we talk about them as if they were real people, not characters. We assign them motivations and speculate about their histories or where they are headed, much as we would speak about real people close to us. In some ways, it's the highest compliment we can pay the series. But for all the verisimilitude and nuance, The Wire is still, of course, a delicious fiction—crafted and conjured from the maw of research and experience that its team of writers possesses. This comes through in a fascinating Nov. 22 Fresh Air interview with writer and producer Ed Burns—more on that below.
 
And there was perhaps no more fictional moment in the series than this week's episode opening teaser: Michael apparently on the run from Chris and Snoop, which turned out to be a paramilitary-style training exercise. I admit it, they had me. And I was impressed, upon reflection, with how flawlessly they set me up going all the way back to the beginning of the season. But there was also a part of me that thought the fake-out was what other lesser series or movies would do, and therefore out of character for The Wire. (Like the Omar/Brother Mouzone High Noon standoff from last season, though I admit, I loved watching that, too.)
 
But if that was a false moment, everything that followed in this week's episode was powerfully, compellingly real. It may be the most potent episode ever, in my view. The fortunes of our four boys were at the heart of the action. Dukie frets over his "eviction" from middle school and promotion to high school, then comes home to find out he's been evicted from his row house again. Randy spends most of the episode in his row house, "protected" by the police. But then his place is firebombed, landing his foster mom in the hospital in critical condition. When Carver offers more help to an enraged Randy in the waiting room, the result is the most devastating end to any episode I can remember: As Carver walks away, Randy bitterly calls after him, "You gonna look out for me? You got my back, huh?" Namond gets punked by his pint-sized runner, reamed by his mother, and punched by Michael—he's finally exposed for the sensitive, scared kid he really is. And Michael descends further into using his fists to solve problems. He's almost Namond's mirror. Both boys are desperate, yet express it in opposite ways. In an inescapable irony, it's Cutty's boxing gym—ostensibly an alternative to the allure of the streets—that has equipped Michael so ably now. When Cutty tries again to reach out to him, he gets shot. And flashing across Michael's face for the first time is a realization that Cutty genuinely cares about him. It is our only thin thread of hope that Michael is not beyond saving. But the pull of thug life is now probably way too strong.
 
"I looked at teaching as a boxing match," says Ed Burns in the Fresh Air interview. "You have to keep punching or [the kids] will counterpunch. … They will respect you as an individual, but not the institution." Burns' view of his time teaching in an inner-city Baltimore school could stand as the lesson of the series itself. Time and time again, characters keep punching against the walls of race and class—or internal and external politics, misplaced priorities, and greed. "We all operate from certitudes of life," says Burns. "You can't be jumped. You have to be tough. It works on the corner, but doesn't translate to the other world." By that he means, a middle-class world where vulnerability, self-deprecation, and cooperation are sometimes considered virtues. But I suspect Burns' "other world" doesn't include many of our institutions. In the police department, city hall, or the schools, the cost of failure may not be as severe as losing your life on the corner, but the game often seems to be the same.
 
What distinguishes this season from the others is, of course, the focus on kids. "Each of these kids has a street persona, shards of individuality. … We want to show you where the Bodies and Stringers come from. … When you see the same mindset in kids [as the adults], you're looking down the future, where they're gonna go."
 
With one episode to go, we worry about the fate of Dukie, Randy, Namond, and Michael. How many of them will even make it to 15, much less adulthood? To make it out requires an ability to step outside oneself, says Burns. In his former career as a cop and a teacher, Burns says he met only three or four people from the streets of Baltimore who had managed to do that. Interestingly enough, one of them is Felicia Pearson, who plays Snoop. They found Snoop—or rather Snoop found them—when she boldly approached Michael K. Williams (Omar) in a Baltimore club and delivered some of her raps. She'd lived the hard life portrayed in The Wire, yet she possessed the ability to look at herself and her life from a distance, even with humor. Simon and his team wrote her into the series as Chris' murderous sidekick. She missed the first shoot because she got stuck in Philly in a stolen-car arrest. Wrong place, wrong time. She begged for a second chance and has been a total professional, not to mention a mesmerizing screen presence. The Wire gave Felicia a chance. Or as Lester says in another context in this episode: "Sometimes life just gives you a moment." Think how many other Felicias are out there, still waiting for theirs.
 
Steve

Steve James is the director of Hoop Dreamsand Stevie.