Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Wire — Season 2

[Warning- this review assumes you've seen the first season and will contain spoilers from that season]

A police major visits his local cathedral to donate a stained glass window, only to find that the spot in question has been filled by another window, donated by the Stevedores' Union. Unwilling to place his donation in the less visible rectory, the major puts a detail on the union secretary treasurer to dig up some dirt on him. Meanwhile, a port authority officer inspects a cargo container only to find 13 dead girls inside. McNulty, reassigned to the marine unit, finds a 14th floating in the harbor. Welcome back to The Wire.

The finale of The Wire's first season flew in the face of the typical season bookend. Instead of setting up events to end on a giant cliffhanger, it resolved its main plots while leaving enticing yet not maddening loose ends: the Barksdale organization was ripped apart by arrests and convictions, yet this victory didn't satisfy the more political members of the Baltimore Police Department, who scattered the Major Crimes Unit detail into the wind. The final montage rammed home the realization that the drug trade wasn't even dented and that the cops, who all came to believe in their work and excel, felt useless when it was all said and done.

Welcome to hell, Jimmy.

From such an end one almost wonders how the show could continue. Even though the season inevitably felt just a little derivative (inner-city poor turning to drugs amidst urban decay), it rose above any and all clichés with its sharp writing and natural acting. Its finale was a devastating critique on the socioeconomic decay of America, how it could turn decent, intelligent people to crime, and how even --or perhaps especially-- driven, honest police officers would forever be one step behind in the War on Drugs; why sully all that by trying to match its quality?

To my utter amazement, The Wire not only overcame its negligible flaws but moved in unexpected and fantastic new directions. It pulls back the camera a bit to investigate not only the drug trade on the streets and the cops who fight them but the deeper levels of operation of both sides. For the cops, we move up the political ladder to see why the higher-ups were always so concerned with how much the detail was digging up, and at the same time we see how the drugs get to the dealers and how the suppliers get their stuff into the country. Despite the greater scope, the show never loses an ounce of character depth or intrigue and even manages to add a heap on with all the new additions.

Let's go back to the first paragraph. Those three events, seemingly disparate, hit the viewer like a sledgehammer in the very first episode and form the foundation for the season. If you thought the last season was a bit hard to understand at first, this premiere will show you how well you had it. Not only do almost all of the last season's characters make an appearance, but we meet a whole new set of people, from port authority officer Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan of Gone Baby Gone fame) to the set of stevedores, lead by union secretary Frank Sobotka. I tried to keep track of the new faces but I lost count at a dozen and resigned myself to playing catch up over the next few episodes.

Brother Mouzone is the coolest character since Omar.

I won't even try to go through all the happenings of the season; not for spoiler reasons, but because life is simply too short. These 12 episodes pack more dense, layered story than any full 22-episode season of network drama. We delve deeper into McNulty's private life and his attempts to win back his wife and his descents into alcoholism and casual sex when he fails. After watching these episodes I must say, few people can act drunk as well as Dominic West. Meanwhile, Stringer Bell must apply his night school knowledge in order to deal with increasing supplies of low quality drugs. In a darkly ironic twist, he applies his business school teachings to mask the quality of the stuff in a way not entirely dissimilar to the shady practices of big corporations.

But its the newcomers, the stevedores, who provide much of the season's intrigue. The first season's central character was D'Angelo Barksdale, precisely because he epitomized the core message of the "bad guys" of the show: honest, intelligent, and decent people must turn to crime when the corruption of established institutions boxes them in. But with Dee in prison and increasingly resentful of his family's dealings, the emotional brunt of the show falls on the shoulders of Frank Sobotka.

Chris Bauer better not have to pay for drinks again as long as he lives.

Frank has been in the docks his whole life; his father was a stevedore, and his father, and so on, and he's raised a new generation of stevedores. But he must contend with a rapidly failing business thanks to an unrepaired grain pier, and in order to keep money in the coffers he helps Greek smugglers get their contraband through. Every day he goes to work in the shadow of a run-down steel factory, once a source of many jobs in the area, now a decaying reminder of how fast "unskilled" labor is being outpaced by technology.

Chris Bauer is note-perfect as Frank; just watch the look on his face when he realizes his role in the death of the smuggled girls, or later on when he discovers the police are onto him. He forever looks as though the world is on his shoulders, but he keeps working with the Greeks out of desperation.

As with the last season, this ends with a montage of chilling, deeply symbolic imagery. The first finale showed the drug trade continue without missing a beat, despite some big convictions. This season, on the other hand, ends with a series of images of rusting factories, symbolizing not only the death of the Industrial Era and its effect on the working class but also the increasingly isolated politics of the police force. After all, the whole season unravelled based on the petty whims of a childish old cop.

Many shows aim to be cinematic, and it certainly makes for more enjoyable entertainment. The Wire is not one of those shows. Instead, it aims to be novelistic; you do not simply pop in a season to watch one or two stand-out episodes. You have to sit down for a whole season. Not that you'll hear me complaining; if I didn't need to watch the rest of the series, I would have immediately rewatched the entire thing. With this season, The Wire stopped being great television and started being timeless television. I don't know how it could get any better, but I can't wait to find out.

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