Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"We have to kill again.": The Wire

(Forgot to publish this Sunday night. Don't know what's up with that. -- ed.)

Once again, I am saddened to find that I lag behind the curve on a Wire observation. I was struck by just how funny the fake serial killer plot was, only to find Alan Sepinwall labeling it as outright farce and various other commentors calling this the funniest episode of The Wire ever. If the fake serial killer storyline was going to work, it had to have a note of humor to it, and I think the show has been nailing that tone as the storyline progresses.

The most important thing here is that David Simon and his writers didn't make McNulty's plan a raging success. The bleakly comic tone of the utter failure of McNulty's plan to take off initially (so he must bring in Lester -- who's surprisingly amenable to the idea, coming from a similar position of frustration as he does) sells the whole thing. If McNulty had launched a front-page story, if he had hooked up with Scott from the first and peddled his crap more easily, the whole house of cards would have fallen apart. The story is still mighty hard to swallow, but the careful work at making sure it doesn't go too far too fast is keeping it just on this side of the believability line.

McNulty's idea of the red ribbon killer is silly on its face, but it also speaks to a deep-seeded need in people to hear stories that they can make sense of, to collect information that can be assembled and forced to fit into a pattern. The randomness of real life, of the actual patterns that keep the streets of Baltimore a tough place to live, are much harder to put into an easily digestible narrative, and that's why they get ignored. As Gus pointed out last week, you need to be more wide-ranging if you're truly going to diagnose the problems of the school system, even for a newspaper article. But wide-ranging doesn't sell papers (or attract viewers), so the system turns things into something more palatable. It's just the way things work, though not on The Wire itself.

This episode seemed a lot more concerned with plot than several others this season, particularly in regards to Marlo dealing with Proposition Joe and trying to get at Omar (living down in Puerto Rico, but forced to confront his past and hometown at the end of the episode -- and we can only hope his return lives up to all the anticipation). But McNulty also hatched his serial killer plot in earnest, Burrell saw the beginning of the end of his career, and Gus continued to smell a rat in regards to Scott, who made up a quote, then fibbed his way through it easily enough, even as the quote had unintended consequences for Burrell and Daniels.

Most in the media are complaining about the media storyline because they don't like the way Simon has slammed his former employers at the Sun, but I'm inclined to forgive him for that. What I'm less impressed by is the treatment of Scott, who seems almost too much of a bad guy at this point, someone whose sheer toady nature is portrayed with little nuance. Maybe this is because he's just been introduced, but I already feel like I know Gus and Alma pretty well, and we've only known them for three episodes as well. Scott just feels a little too bad to be true, if you'll forgive the cliche twisting, what with the way his flimsy work ethic so easily gave way to just making stuff up. Then again, if you read an account of how the Jayson Blair thing went down at the New York Times (or how the Jimmy's World story that ended Janet Cooke's career ended up in the Washington Post), you might not be surprised that the unscrupulous with a good gift for kissing the right butts would jump so quickly to just making it up as they go. Still, it might have been nice to see Scott struggle with doing it the right way for a while, even if the theme of the season is how lying can become the truth if you can back it up.

Two scenes that did ring true were the scene where the newsroom staff learns of further staff cuts (though the complete and utter lack of mention of the Sun's Web site in any of these scenes seems to me to be the one way this plot doesn't approach "realism," insofar as that's important). The frustrated howls, the angry questions, the loss of institutional memory. All perfect and right on. And the scene where Gus and his departing colleague went out for a drink and talked of their dreams for what journalism used to be and why they grew interested in it in the first place hit just the right note of fond nostalgia without pandering.

I feel as though juggling all of the balls this season (including incidental appearances from figures from seasons one and two) has led to a situation where the Carcetti storyline, so potent in seasons three and four, is being backburnered. But that's, perhaps, the way it has to be, as you can only do so much in this storyline. Perhaps it will perk up a little later on in the season.

If there's one thing we can be sure of this far into The Wire's final season, it's that lies abound on the streets of Baltimore. Some of those lies will have to be paid for. Others will probably allow their tellers to skate on by. In the meantime, let's hope for some more howls of desperation. Or of laughter.


Filipe said...

I'm with about Scott. The Daniels scene would have being much better with when Gus asked Scott answered with somethink like "he is a police colonel, right?". He would still be unable of add any new info from what Gus already knew and we would still come from the scene with the notion of how important for the paper the older guy is, but Scott would be more believable as carachter.

Andy Asensio said...

In lieu of actually getting much of a backstory for Scott, I'm compelled to just make one up. (It's only appropriate.)

We've seen plenty of examples over the years of characters in different lines of work whose personalities and stories parallel one another to some extent. To me, when I see Scott, I instantly think of Herc. It's a little unfortunate that we haven't seen Herc since the season premiere, because I picked up on the similarities between the two characters back then and have been disappointed not to see them play out. But the similarities are striking - they're more interested in climbing the career ladder than doing serious work, they're annoyed and downright offended when asked to do grunt work, and they're always choosing the dramatic over the mundane (with anonymous slander as the journalistic equivalent of "busting heads"). Maybe Scott seems a little thin as a character so far, but he's no more lazy or amoral than Herc, a character who's been around forever. And Herc seems to be almost universally despised, but I've never thought of the character being underwritten.

Actually, I'm most interested in this parallel in terms of hypothetically extrapolating it into the future. When Herc got kicked off the police force, he said it was the best thing that ever happened to him, as all of a sudden he was the most popular kid at school and everybody wanted to hire him. When and if Scott gets caught in his pack of lies, will the same happen to him? After all, the Jayson Blairs and James Freys and Stephen Glasses of the world all became more culturally relevant after they were caught - and in at least the latter two cases, you could argue more successful as well. Since David Simon is spending so much energy - on the show, in interviews, and perhaps most provocatively in that Post editorial earlier this week - bemoaning how we fail to value journalism, you could see where that might head.