Watching The Wire: Episode One: The Target

Category: , , , , , , By Rev/Views

“…When it’s not your turn” – McNulty

Story by David Simon & Ed Burns
Teleplay by David Simon
Directed by Clark Johnson

Wendell Pierce (Detective William 'Bunk' Moreland), Andre Royo (Bubbles), Lance Reddick (Lt. Cedric Daniels), John Doman (Major William Rawls), Wood Harris (Avon Barksdale), Deirdrie Lovejoy (Rhonda 'Ronnie' Pearlman), Idris Elba (Russell 'Stringer' Bell), Sonja Sohn (Detective Shakima 'Kima' Greggs), Dominic West (Detective Jimmy McNulty), Larry Gillard Jr (D'Angelo Barksdale), Frankie Faison (Deputy Op Ervin Burrell)

Delany Williams (Sgt. Jay Landsman), Wendy Grantham (Shardene Innes), Michael Kostroff (Maurice "Maury" Levy), Melanie Nicholls-King (Cheryl), Clayton LeBouef (Wendell "Orlando" Blocker), Domenick Lombardozzi (Off. Thomas R. "Herc" Hauk), J.D. Williams (Preston "Bodie" Broadus), Hassan Johnson (Roland "Wee-Bey" Brice), Peter Gerety (Judge Daniel Phelan), Seth Gilliam (Det. Ellis Carver), Leo Fizpatrick (Johnny), Michael B. Jordan (Wallace), Doug Olear (FBI Special Agent Terrence "Fitz" Fitzhugh), Richard DeAngelis (Major Ray Foerster), Michael Salconi (Det. Michael Santangelo), Brandon Price (Anton "Stinkum" Artis), Tracy Chaney (Malik "Poot" Carr) and Robert F. Colesberry (Det. Ray Cole).

The Introduction:

Welcome to ‘Watching the Wire’ a weekly series that focuses on each episode of HBO’s masterpiece drama “The Wire” with the combination of an episode recap and then a look into the themes and details of the episode.

Before starting I feel it is important to stress the unique structure of “The Wire”. In a novel the first chapter doesn’t hint on the quality that is present in the rest of it, instead it is designed to provide a foundation for the story and hopefully pull the viewer into its reality slowly. The Wire is built on this logic and narrative structure. But, this can result in a disturbing experience for viewers who almost all have a very different preconception of how a television episode is constructed and how a series works. With a more normal show even the pilot episode will provide a short narrative that mostly resolves itself by the end of the episode. Instead The Wire is built like a classic novel and as such something that many viewers often fail to understand that The Wire is built on the very same structure that they immediately accept when reading books. I have experienced people who attempted to watch The Wire again and again fall down at this first hurdle by failing to grasp this.

This is to be expected, most people prefer to stay inside their own comfort zones and live within a world that is formulaic and reinforces their own stereotypes and preconceptions. The truth of the matter - for these people who turn away from “The Wire” because it doesn’t fit what they mistakenly assume should happen - is that they have failed both the show and more importantly they have failed themselves.

When watching ‘The Target’ you should consider it to be the first chapter of the story rather than the pilot episode of a new series.

The Summary:

[Note: The Summaries are taken from the DVD and no attempt is made to pass this off as my own work.]

During the trial of D’Angelo Barksdale, a mid-level dealer accused of murder, the prosecution’s star witness recants her testimony, resulting in a not guilty verdict. After the trial, Detective McNulty explains to Judge Phelan how he suspects the Barksdale crew for a line of related murders. After the judge contacts McNulty’s superiors about this revelation McNulty is taken to task for his indiscretion. Meanwhile, D’Angelo’s free to return to work. But discovers he’s been demoted to street level deals.

Read on beyond the link for the recap and assessment of ‘The Target’…

The Recap:

The Wire’s cold opening starts out on the corner of Falton & Lexington, Detective Jimmy McNulty is talking at the scene of a shooting to a street dealer about the killing of a young lad nicknamed ‘Snotboogie’. Snot has been shot for pulling the same stunt he always pulled all his life, every week in the alley crap game he would snatch the pot and run with it. McNulty is naturally confused why Snot would be allowed to keep pulling the same stunt week after week and still be allowed back the next time. When he asks why they let Snot continue to play the lad replies “Got to. This America, man.”

The credits roll (scored to the brilliant Blind Boys of Alabama’s cover of Tom Wait’s “Way Down in the Hole”) and introduce one of the more insidious themes of the first season, the constant presence of surveillance in modern life spaced with shots of wire tap equipment, footage from episodes and quick images of Baltimore’s streets. Once they have finished we see McNulty and his partner Bunk in Baltimore’s court of law, McNulty is heading up to watch the murder trial of one D’Angelo Barksdale while Bunk is dropping of a file before heading to the office. McNulty warns him not to answer the phones once back there; if Bunk does they will both end up working a murder case out of order.

The courtroom (shot in a real Baltimore courtroom) contains the trial in full swing, the prosecution is interviewing witnesses while various members of the Barksdale organization sit in the stands, both watching and intimidating witnesses at the same time. One Mr. Gant is sat in the stand at the exact moment McNulty enters and he correctly identifies D’Angelo as the shooter, McNulty seats himself near one ‘Stringer’ Bell, a well dressed gentleman who is the second in command of the Barksdale organization. The second witness, one Nakeisha Lyles is not so forthcoming, she recants her testimony while a wordless interchange between Stringer and McNulty reveals that they are both aware of each other. A sketch from Stringer of a superhero best described as ‘Africa-Man’ – thanks to the emblem on his chest – lets McNulty know exactly how Stringer feels about him. After this exchange finishes Nakeisha looks at Stringer and then recants her testimony, claiming that she was mistaken about D’Angelo’s involvement in the shooting while the camera pans across the various members of the Barksdale organization watching her. At this McNulty rises up and whispers “nicely done” to Stringer before leaving while Judge Phelan clearly displays his annoyance at the collapse of the case despite D’Angelo’s obvious guilt.

On the streets of Baltimore, Detective Shakima ‘Kima’ Greggs is working a stakeout of a drugs case along with Detectives Herc and Carver. They stop the car after it leaves the scene in a classic scene much like many other police procedurals; this is deliberate misdirection on the part of the show as it is still concealing its true nature. The show is not about classic police procedure, it is in fact about institutions and their influence on the individuals in them. While Herc and Carver are busy congratulating themselves on a bust gone well Kima heads over to the car and immediately puts them in their place, they forgot that there would be two guns not one and failed to locate the second one. While their mistake here isn’t serious, errors like that are the kind that can get a policeman killed.

Back at the court room McNulty returns with Detective Barlow in time to see D’Angelo acquitted of all murder charges and released. Judge Phelan and Barlow both display obvious signs of disgust at this verdict while the Barksdale crew is jubilant about it. The Barksdale lawyer Maurice Levy scores another victory with minimal effort thanks to the witness tampering from the Barksdales. McNulty is called in to talk with Judge Phelan and explains frankly why they lost. D’Angelo is related to Avon Barksdale, the man who runs the Franklin Terrace, and McNulty also points out the presence of Stringer Bell, Wee-Bey, Savino and Stinkum in the courtroom providing intimidation. He goes on to explain just how many raps the organization has beaten in the past year and how powerful they actually are. Phelan wants to know who’s dealing with this and McNulty tells him. No-one. This is the moment where McNulty catalyses the entire series of events, his careless words are the spark that starts the fire.

Kima, Herc and Carver have returned to Narcotics where they are working on typing up the report. Well Kima is working while Herc and Carver goof about. It’s a light hearted scene filled with the ordinary, problems with equipment, banter between friends and so forth. Scenes like this are a common place in “The Wire” thanks to its story structure, with the plot spaced across an entire season it’s able to enrich the reality of its world with the banal. Daniels tells them he has to leave because the higher ups are angry about something while Herc explains one of the rules of the institutions (and the show) “shit always rolls downhill” then Carver highlights one of the major themes with his comment about how you can’t call what they’re doing the war on drugs, because wars end.

McNulty joins Bunk at the scene of a death, Bunk has ignored McNulty’s advice and picked up the phone. Hearing that it was a death in a house he decided to take it, house related killings are around fifty percent easier to solve because of the extra links involved with the house, homes have names attached to them and names lead to killers. But this particular stiff is located in a vacant house and has been there a while, this means the case is going to be very difficult to solve. Naturally McNulty is unwilling to attach himself to such a case and gets Bunk to shoulder the full burden of the case. Bunk’s response is one of his classic lines “You happy now bitch?” being something he utters to McNulty on several occasions.

Daniels returns from his meeting, both he and the Major have just been grilled over one Avon Barksdale and they came up empty handed. Kima and Daniels are completely unaware of Avon and his organization, but it is revealed that Judge Phelan has been talking to other people and McNulty’s careless words have stirred up the nest and Kima has to put together whatever information they have on him while Homicide does the same thing.

Back in Homicide Jay Landsman is not pleased with Bunk’s actions in taking the call and also informs McNulty that Major Rawls wants to speak with him. Rawls is less than impressed with McNulty and expresses his displeasure to him with both words and gestures. All McNulty can do is sit there and display humility while Rawls reams him for his actions. There’s a very real moment where Rawls shows just how little murders mean to him, he deals with so many in a year that the only way he can keep track of them all is through index cards. Rawls makes it clear that McNulty is on his shit list by sending him to type up the reports about Avon.

Out on the streets Wee-Bey and D’Angelo are talking about the case Dee just beat. We have a great shot outside a diner where Wee-Bey; the hardened gangster stands underneath the word burger while D’Angelo stands underneath the word chicken. It’s designed to highlight the differences between the two men. Wee-Bey reminds him of the rule, the reason why the Barksdales have managed to remain outside the knowledge of the P.D. Then they roll on over to the strip club where D’Angelo is dressed down by Avon in a scene that runs parallel to the reaming McNulty just got. He’s reminded, just as McNulty was, that he’s nothing more than part of the institution and he needs to know his place no matter whom he is related to, Dee is forced to display the same level of humility.

In Homicide both McNulty and Bunk are wallowing in the troubles of their own devising, McNulty is stuck typing after his mouth ran off and Bunk is stuck with a decomposed murder in a vacant lot after his ear and heart got him there. It pays to learn the lesson of the three wise monkeys, something that Landsman is happy to remind them both of. He’s also happy to let McNulty know that the Deputy is not a man to upset because he can send you right where you don’t want to be, in McNulty’s case this is the marine unit.

The following day Dee heads back to the his tower to carry on business as if nothing has happened, but he’s met by Stringer, who informs him that Dee is being busted back to the low-rises, specifically the Pit. This is his punishment for acting out of line and bringing attention to the organization and so Wee-Bey drives him down there where he meets Wallace, Bodie and Poot. Meanwhile, in Narcotics Major Foerster is less than thrilled with the information Daniels was able to pull up on Avon, four pages of single sided A4 is not enough to make the department look good. Homicide on the other hand had a thick file of information from ten murder cases and the Major informs that Daniels will have to head up the investigation into the Barksdales.

Next we’re introduced to one street junkie by the name of Bubbles, Bubbles is based on a real life Baltimore criminal informant who had a real flair for the task before he died of Aids. David Simon was interviewing him but ended up writing his obituary instead. Bubbles has been running a scam with his friend Johnny to get drugs with photocopied money. A scam he pulls successfully on Wallace in part because Dee dresses him down for poor operational procedures that will get them arrested and it’s only after Bubbles has left that Dee counts the money and notices the fake dollars. While Dee lays into Wallace for screwing up Wallace demonstrates a little intelligence when he notes that Hamilton (on the bill) isn’t a president despite Bodie and Dee thinking otherwise. But because he’s screwed up and at the bottom of the pile he’s told that he’s wrong. Even when you’re right, you’re wrong.

Bubbles and Johnny sit back to enjoy their spoils and Bubbles tries to explain how he’s looking after Johnny. Johnny asks to run the money scam tomorrow and Bubbles agrees to let him despite feeling that he isn’t ready.

Daniels meets Deputy Op Burrell and is told in no uncertain terms that this case is to be dealt with quickly to satisfy Phelan. Daniels tells Burrell that he’ll be using Kima on the case because she’s good and Burrell warns him that Homicide will probably send McNulty, informing him about what McNulty pulled. Daniels is happy to toe the line and follow Burrell’s orders on this; he’s a career man and understands how to work the system. Unlike McNulty who continues to do as he pleases and heads out to meet up with Special Agent Fitzhugh of the F.B.I. Fitzhugh is happy to show McNulty how well things are going in their own separate investigation, but he also informs him that the case will be ending soon because of a need to concentrate on counter-terrorism. McNulty gets a little taste of what it’s like to work with decent equipment and it’s revealed to us that McNulty often works around the system to get the results he wants.

Johnny attempts to work the money scam and is aided by Wallace who struggles to get the math right on change for another customer. Unfortunately he panics and attempts to force the money on Wallace who immediately dumps it on the ground where Bodie spots the fake dollars. Johnny is chased down and a street court is held over him with Dee as the judge, unwilling to make a decision on this Dee walks away without telling the boys what to do. At a time like this even a lack of decision can also be a decision and Johnny gets beaten by Poot, Wallace and Bodie.

Daniels meets with the others brought onto the Barksdale case, from Narcotics he’s brought Kima, Herc and Carver while McNulty and Santangelo have been assigned from Homicide and Ronnie from the State’s Attorney’s office. It’s clear here that there is no love loss between Daniels and McNulty here; Daniels just wants to clear the case and put it in the ground while McNulty wants to go after Avon and Stringer. McNulty speaks out and Daniels immediately lets him know where he stands, which is waist deep in the sewer but McNulty isn’t willing to give ground and Daniels reminds him again of his place.

Unwinding after the day Bunk and McNulty chat about McNulty’s failed marriage, difficulties with custody and Daniels, Bunk warns him about Daniels and McNulty utters the first occurrence of his iconic catchphrase “What the f**k did I do?” this line sums up so much you need to know about McNulty’s general ignorance about his actions. In parallel Dee is back at the strip club explaining about what happened with Johnny to Stringer and is then approached by one of the girls who work at the club, an attractive young woman named Shardene, but he’s in no mood for the company and she moves onto another client (played by one of Clark Johnson’s relatives). Kima on the other hand heads back home and we’re given a glimpse into her life that will widen as the series progresses.

Later that night McNulty and Bunk end up drinking down the railway tracks and Bunk tells McNulty about how he dealt with a mouse by shooting it (based on a real story) while McNulty stands in the middle of the railway tracks and urinates while a train approaches (a metaphor for his actions). In order to film this scene they actually had to get Dominic to stand there while the train approached him, there is no trickery involved that train really was heading towards Dominic during the scene.

At the hospital Bubbles is met by Kima and the pair of them regard what has happened to Johnny. Unlike so many hospital bed scenes there is a deliberate distance between Johnny and his friend. Instead of holding hands and sitting by the bed he stands back, divorced from the situation while handing over information to Kima. In Homicide, Bunk still hung over from the previous nights epic binge is informed that there’s a street shooting he has to go and investigate. There’s a great piece of acting from Wendell when he picks up his gun and looks in the direction of Landsman, briefly contemplating shooting him before heading off to the scene of the crime.

It turns out that the murdered man is one William Gant, the same Mr. Gant who gave testimony against Dee at the start of the episode. This is highlighted in the only flashback scene of the entire series, added in after a request from HBO as a compromise to help viewers follow an already complex story and the show runs to the credits while Dee walks away from the scene.

The Themes:

“Shit rolls downhill” – the higher ups always pass the buck onto those below them and so forth. The people who get the grunt work and get into trouble for screw ups are those on the bottom rungs of the two organizations.

“Endless circles” – With Carver’s “Wars End” comment he shows just how impossible the War on Drugs is, deal with one problem and a new one will step up into its place. They have been fighting a never ending war against the trafficking of drugs on West Baltimore and nothing has changed.

“Keep it wide and real” – Scenes in The Wire are normally filmed out on location, sound stages are avoided and most shots are taken with a wide angle to help show the reality. Also, apart from one exception each season there are is no incidental music. All sounds are designed to be diagetic which helps cement the reality of the show and also doesn’t cue the viewer’s emotions. You’re asked to feel what you feel about things, not feel what the music tells you.

“You’re being watched” – Surveillance is constantly shown in this episode with shots that are clearly from security cameras, it’s used to show how modern society is always under the electronic eye of security, even if it isn’t used a lot of the time.

“The Institution changes the Individual” – This one is a biggie, it’s the core theme of the show, demonstrating how the institutions define the rules by which the individuals within them live. McNulty attempts to move outside this (admittedly unintentionally) and is dropped down the dunny for it, likewise Dee’s actions were beyond his station and he gets busted down the ranks for doing so.

“It’s just business” – Several times in this episode the similarities between the Police Department and the Barksdale Organization are highlighted, especially when dealing with McNulty and Dee. The pair of them are dressed down in very similar manners and both are punished for acting out of line. But also, as shown during the scene between McNulty and Stringer in the courtroom that it’s clear that all of this is just business, they know the rules of the game and don’t hold anything personal against each other. One of them is just in the business of making money from drugs while the other is in the business of enforcing the law. There’s no personal “I’m going to get you Stringer” coming from McNulty, he has his reasons for doing this – and he explains them later – but it’s not because of some personal beef with Stringer, Dee or Avon.

"...When it's not your turn." - Characters stepping up and acting when they don't need to occurs multiple times in this episode. McNulty speaking out to Phelan when he could have kept quiet, Bunk picking up the phone for a murder when it wasn't his turn and William Gant pointing the finger at Dee when he should have kept quiet. But there are other small examples of what happens when you move when it's not your turn and what happens if you follow the correct order of things.

The Review:

Looking back on anything usually involves understanding that your memory of it will be a little rose tinted. It’s rare that you return to something and find that it is as good as you remember it being. Looking back on The Target it’s clear that the episode is not as good as I remember; it’s better. Only while writing the recap could I appreciate the sheer level and depth of complexity in this opening episode, there’s no attempt made to make things easier on you, the cast is already huge and it’s daunting to keep track of everyone even if you’ve already watch things once before. The characters are quickly defined, they’re played so tightly that you immediately understand where they fit in and it’s not a spoiler to say that these characters stay real and true throughout the time they’re on the screen in this series. As a pilot episode it’s easy to see why a lot of viewers struggle to understand what the fuss is about, the narrative style is so very different and the entire thing is presented in a very real fashion. It’s not slick or polished; it’s not filled with light and beauty. It’s real, it’s down to earth and it’s not afraid to tell its story as and how it wants to. In order to review and recap this episode I watched it twice in succession and it gripped me both times.

It’s just a phenomenal piece of storytelling and once you accept it’s only the first chapter in the tale you can appreciate how it works and fits. There are some really subtle shots that tell you a lot about the personalities of the characters, sometimes in their actions (like McNulty and the train) sometimes in their positions (Dee and the Chicken sign). It’s just an amazing piece of work that gets better with repeated watching and the more you come to understand about the events the more you can appreciate the brilliance of the show. It’s so detailed that it deserves the ‘Dickensian’ label used by some critics when referring to the show.

The Target is a masterpiece, but it is certainly a demanding episode to watch. It expects more from the people who watch it then the average viewer has to give and while it should be commended for this lack of compromise over its artistic vision it is also understandable why so many people have failed to see the brilliance beyond. Big demands, on the viewer, big rewards for watching.


4 comments so far.

  1. Rev-Views 12 October 2008 at 18:06
    For those of you who've read this far. Would the odd picture help break things up? And if so, is anyone any good at taking screen caps?
  2. Aaron 13 October 2008 at 10:19
    Pics would be nice. Also the music is diagetic not diuretic (that's a drug that helps you pee). I knew my journalism and film degree would come in handy one day!
  3. Rev-Views 13 October 2008 at 11:12
    What, don't you find that the music in The Wire makes you want to go number one? :P

    I knew it was wrong when word corrected my spelling, but I forgot about it in amongst all the other words and the problems with making the post display correctly, cheers for pointing that out.
  4. MysterLynch 15 October 2008 at 11:35
    Very nice job.

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