Watching the Wire: Episode Five: The Pager

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“A little slow, A little late.” – Avon Barksdale

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

Wendell Pierce (Det. William "Bunk" Moreland), Deirdre Lovejoy (Asst. States Attorney Rhonda Pearlman), Wood Harris (Avon Barksdale), John Doman (Maj. William A. Rawls), Lance Reddick (Lt. Cedric Daniels), Andre Royo (Bubbles), Idris Elba (Russell "Stringer" Bell), Frankie Faison (Deputy Comm. Ervin H. Burrell), Larry Gilliard Jr. (D'Angelo Barksdale), Dominic West (Det. James "Jimmy" McNulty) and Sonja Sohn (Det. Shakima "Kima" Greggs)

Seth Gilliam (Det. Ellis Carver), Domenick Lombardozzi (Det. Thomas R. "Herc" Hauk), Clarke Peters (Det. Lester Freamon), Jim True-Frost (Off. Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski), Hassan Johnson (Roland "Wee-Bey" Brice), J.D. Williams (Preston "Bodie" Broadus), Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar Little), Michael B. Jordan (Wallace), Delaney Williams (Sgt. Jay Landsman), Nat Benchley (Det. Augustus "Augie" Polk), Tray Chaney (Malik "Poot" Carr), Brandon Price (Anton "Stinkum" Artis), Peter Gerety (Judge Daniel Phelan), Wendy Grantham (Shardene Innes), Shamyl Brown (Donette), Clayton LeBouef (Wendell "Orlando" Blocker), Leo Fitzpatrick (Johnny), Curtis Montez (Sterling), Lance Williams (John Bailey), Fredro Starr (Marquis "Bird" Hilton), Michael Kevin Darnall (Brandon Wright), Angel M. Wainwright (Tywanda)

The Summary:

When Avon becomes more and more suspicious, he orders Wee-Bey to change phone lines in his apartment. He also promotes Stinkum to manage a new territory and he gets word that one of Omar’s crewmembers has been “got.” Stringer warns D’Angelo that a snitch may be in his camp and D’Angelo should tighten up his crew by withholding their pay. While talking with Orlando, D’Angelo learns of Stinkum’s promotion.

Read about retribution, the game and a little birdie beyond the link...

The Recap:

Avon is with one of his girls when she gets a phone call with an immediate hang up, Avon immediately gets suspicious and has Wee-Bey scope out some young lads loitering nearby before they move out. Avon wants Wee-Bey to switch up the phone lines in his place, Wee-Bey feels its being a little beyond cautious but Avon doesn’t care. He’s being so careful he doesn’t even want to use the same phone he used the previous day. It’s clear why Avon has been under the police radar for so long, he’s both cautious and clever. Roll credits.

Omar, Brandon and John are planning a hit on some of the east side players, Omar’s confident it’ll be easy because the east side boys are lax in comparison to Barksdale’s crew. He outlines the plan to the others and they’re set to go.

In the basement Phelan has arrived to talk to the detail, he’s not impressed with the location they’ve been given, but he does get the message that the brass have sent with choosing it. They’re sorting out the affidavit to clone Dee’s pager, which is the first step towards rolling up on the mid-level players and hopefully getting a sniff at Avon and Stringer.

Back in the east side Omar rolls up bold as brass whistling his signature tune “ “ and he flushes the street dealers straight into the trap where his boys are waiting – Omar rolls on reputation alone when he needs to. Back in the Pit, Bodie and Poot are talking about STDs and the girl Poot is into. Wallace is sitting nearby playing with a toy (Beast wars transformer I believe) and this lack of attention steams up Bodie who throws a bottle at the wall behind him. Dee heads to confront him over this but is interrupted by his pager going off.

Freamon and Daniels are back in the basement and see that page come through, but there’s a problem, it’s not a working telephone exchange. In fact most of them haven’t been from working numbers, same on the cloned pager itself; so it’s not an error, it’s a code. There’s some exposition about how the pagers and the recording work delivered to the audience via Prez and then we’re back to the street.

McNulty and Kima are meeting up in cars, Bubbs spotted Omar’s van parked out and they’ve come to investigate. They plan to try and roll Omar up on a gun charge; maybe they’ll get some information from him then. McNulty is rather annoyed with the code, he’s impatient for results now, a break, anything. Kima takes Bubbs back and McNulty takes over watching.

Stringer is talking with Dee about Omar and the police raid when the crew start calling out the classic ‘Five-O’ warning. Stringer is concerned because it’s not the patrol cars that are the problem; it’s the stick up crews and the plain clothes surveillance. He wants Dee to wise up his crew and also keep an eye out, Stringer and Avon are concerned there’s a leak in the Pit and it’s one of Dee’s crew, someone tipping off Omar. Stringer tells Dee to withhold the crew’s pay on Friday and see if someone cracks and if no-one does then he’s to watch out for the members of his crew who don’t start begging for money because they’re broke. It’s the ones who are staying afloat by their own means that are the potential problem cases. Stringer wants to know about them and then sends Dee after Poot who’s using a mobile. One of the rules of the Barksdale organisation is no mobiles.

In the basement Prez is copying a telephone when a slightly inebriated Polk turns up, shakes his head at this and walks out. Kima and McNulty are still out watching Omar's van and they get talking about one of McNulty’s old CIs – Reuben Terry – and he calls his ex wife before leaving to sort out some beds for his boys to use when they sleep over. Over at the Pit Carver and Herc finally catch up with Bodie, haul him in and then sweat him out in the box. They push him with an old chestnut - good cop/bad cop - with Carver playing good cop and selling Bodie a story about how he grew up rough. Bodie lets him know in no uncertain terms that he’s not fooled and he isn’t rolling over easy. Carver snaps and immediately discards his role as good cop, Herc bursts in and the pair of them lay into Bodie again. Bodie’s a proper soldier and a lot smarter than either of them think.

In a series of cuts we see three different situations, the first involves Dee and Donette who arrive at a restaurant for a meal, Dee’s a little uncomfortable with this social situation and he doesn’t push like he would in another situation, so they end up sat next to the kitchen door instead of in better seats - on the street he wouldn't stand for that. At his home, McNulty is dealing with a trial of his own; he’s trying to assemble flat pack furniture by himself. I always find scenes like this amusing, because I’ve never had a problem putting together anything like that, but then I did used to build furniture with my grandfather, so I guess I have a better understanding than most. Herc and Carver are stuck with Bodie and unable to offload him because they missed the pick up. Dee’s still feeling a little out of place, he feels that he’s trapped and everyone can see exactly who he is no matter what he does. Donette on the other hand understands a little more about the way money tends to work, in places like this – it speaks – as long as you have cash you get to be who you want and to heck with everyone else.

Avon and Stringer are discussing territory; Stinkum has noticed that Edmondson gully is ripe for the taking. Stringer agrees and so Avon decides to move in and take it. Driving out anyone who’s already there and bringing on board those players who’ve ‘got game.’ Stinkum is his choice to run this new patch.

Bodie is trying to hustle Carver and losing when juvenile intake arrives, the guys have had a good time together all things considered, and this is a strong demonstration of how they all understand that what happens isn’t personal. It’s just business, other shows would have the interaction between Herc, Carver and Bodie turn into an interplay of personal vendettas, but The Wire isn’t just some other show.

Avon and Stringer go over the plan with Stinkum and let him know he’s earned his own patch to run. Then Avon’s pager goes off and lets him know that one of Omar’s crew, John, is down and ‘got’. We get some classic Clark Johnson shots (one of his directing signatures is the use of reflective surfaces to show the action instead of directly shooting it) while Avon takes some money out of his safe and then rolls off with Stinkum.

Up in Homicide Bunk catches a break, the casing he found last week during that crime scene matches up with two other shootings, one Toreen Boyd and Roland Leggett. This means that her shooting is linked to the Barksdales and as such Landsman was right. He then calls up McNulty to let him know the news.

Bubbs is meeting with Johnny who’s still recovering from his beat down, Johnny’s doing ok but it turns out that he’s HIV positive. Bubbs lets Johnny know that Bubbs has dropped the police on Bodie, Poot, Wallace and Dee for what they did. Johnny feels that what’s happened is just part of the game, but Bubbs doesn’t agree. Johnny can’t wait to get back out on the street for his next fix.

McNulty arrives in Homicide and is greeted by Landsman’s jubilant backside before being told to take this to Rawls and then he gets to go back into Homicide with no lingering backlash.

Dee’s crew are feeling the pinch from Dee’s withholding of funds, so both Wallace and Poot approach him asking for an advance.

Bunk fills McNulty in on the details with the links between the three cases when McNulty spots that John Bailey has been killed. Landsman didn’t bother linking it to Barksdale and McNulty is a little annoyed, of course this is because the shooting isn’t part of Landsman’s shift rotation so he isn’t concerned with it. Then Bunk and McNulty head out to talk with Diedre’s friend, the one who put Dee into the mix for the shooting. She’s a little concerned that people might find out she’s talking to the Police, but she does provide another piece of the puzzle, Dee wasn’t Diedre’s boyfriend - Avon was, and she got very possessive over Avon near the end. Threatening to report him to the police and so forth. Diedre’s friend also reveals that Avon is the actual owner of Orlando’s, information that the police were not aware of until now.

Speaking of Orlando’s Dee is down there talking with Orlando himself, Dee’s a little upset that he’s on straight salary, no commission for the additional income he’s bringing in, but Orlando tells him that Dee isn’t alone; he’s also on straight money as the front man. He then tells Dee that Stinkum is getting his own patch with a percentage when a riled customer starts causing trouble and Orlando has to deal with it. He’s unhappy because he feels like he’s been shorted so Shardene, who has been drinking with him hands over some money to shut him up. Dee then asks her if he could meet up with her sometime and she agrees after hesitation.

Daniels, Kima and McNulty scope out Orlando’s from outside and notice the unusual placement of the surveillance cameras, they also know that Avon owns a warehouse, an apartment building and a tow truck company from what he bragged about to Diedre. He most likely owns a lot more besides that. This provides assets for seizures which will get the higher ups in the department interested, seizures provide money. McNulty also fills in Daniels and Kima about John, who they suspect was most likely running with Omar due to the nature of his death. He was shot thirty nine times by three different shooters while wearing Kevlar. Dee then steps out of the club and receives a pager call which the cloned pager reveals is another coded number.

At Omar’s place Brandon and Omar are both a little concerned that John hasn’t returned, Omar wishes that Brandon would clean up his language a little but Brandon explains that without it he’d lose half of his meaning. It’s also a reflection on the language in the show, in the past there has been the occasional response that The Wire’s language is excessively crude, but the case of the matter is it’s actually excessively real. There’s a serious poetry to it and without the swearing it would lose a lot of its meaning. Omar and Brandon then roll out.

McNulty arrives back at the basement where Prez tells him that he paged both McNulty and Kima. They ignored the pager call because it was a non-working number, but Prez shrugs and then lets them know he coded it. Prez has managed to crack the Barksdale phone code; it’s a physical code that relies on knowing the position of the numbers on the phone. Every number is mirrored from what it really is by skipping over the five and the zero and five are switched over. This is the first time Prez has shown any kind of talent or ability; it seems that he’s not just an impulsive troublemaker. McNulty is rather physical with his gratitude, but it’s understandable because this is the break he was looking for.

Avon and Dee are down at the rehabilitation centre with Stinkum to meet with Dee’s uncle/Avon’s brother. He’s in a coma and Avon uses this as an example to show to Dee why he’s taking his time with Dee and being careful about promoting him.

Kima and McNulty are once again keeping an eye on Omar when he finally rolls out during the day, they follow him as he turns into a cemetery parks, then gets out hands up. Omar has headed out unarmed because he’s aware that they’ve been keeping tabs on him – the young lad who spotted them in an earlier scene most likely told him – as such he’s decided to parlay with them, in part to reveal he knows what they’re up to and in part to let them know he’s not going to be snitching on Avon as he feels that’s not how the game is played. McNulty offers an olive branch and then lets Omar know that John is dead without forcing Omar to acknowledge that he knew him. Omar drops a hint about a bird dropping a working man and McNulty seizes on it, but Omar plays coy. To find out who the bird and the working man is they’ll have to use their heads and talk to Bubbles. The viewers can probably work it out for themselves if they think about it long enough. I know I twigged when I first watched.

Daniels is working late in the basement when Freamon heads in to let him know that he feels that there should be a wiretap on the Pit’s payphones by now. Freamon wants the detail to go full into this dance and chase it up all the way. Meanwhile, McNulty sits at home on the freshly constructed bunk beds without his sons.

Wallace and Poot are walking and discussing how Wallace got Dee to pay out when Poot clocks a face he recognises. It’s Brandon who he saw during the stick up. They head on out and Wallace calls Dee’s pager. Dee then pages Stringer and lets him know that Brandon’s been found. While Poot and Wallace watch Stringer and Wee-Bey roll up and they get Brandon. In the basement we’ve seen the entire hit get recorded with the durations and numbers but because there’s no wiretap that’s all there is.

The Themes:

“The Game” – there are plenty of conversations in this episode that directly reference the game. It’s been talked about before a little but this is the first episode where it really comes to the surface. The game is a lose collection of rules that are generally observed around the streets of Baltimore, most of the people involved and around it understand these unwritten laws and follow them. Bubbs is skating outside the rules of the Game right now with his snitching to Kima and McNulty, but he feels that the boys broke the rules first when they piled such a beat down on Johnny. Omar on the other hand refuses to snitch, but does drop a little information when McNulty lets him know what happened to John Bailey.

Naturally surveillance continues to be a major theme, Orlando’s demonstrates that it’s not just the government institutions that are keeping tabs on you, businesses are as well. This feels like a subtle jab at the way targeted marketing is run these days, the Internet in particular is terrible for invasive tracking cookies and search engines that store data on your searches by tracking IP addresses.

“It’s just business” – The friendly banter between Herc, Carver and Bodie around the pool table is a huge underlining point that repeats from the first episode exchange between McNulty and Stringer (silent though that one was). There’s nothing personal in all this, it’s a game between the police and the pushers and this is admirable. Most cop shows feel a need to forge some personal link between the criminals and the police who chase them. But The Wire doesn’t do this, McNulty isn’t chasing after Avon and Stringer because they escaped him before, Herc and Carver don’t beat down on Bodie because they hate him. It’s all just the price of business.

The Review:

The Pager serves as the calm before the storm, a lot of pieces fall into place and you can see the episode gathering momentum. It’s no secret to say that the next episode is titled ‘The Wire’ and everything up until then - including this episode - has been something of a prelude.

McNulty and Bunk now know that there are several murders directly linked to the Barksdales, with the right information they can pull down Avon for conspiracy at least and maybe even more. Also further information has revealed a large amount of assets bought by Avon; this is good news because the Baltimore P.D. is driven by a need for money. The Majors and Deputy are more inclined to provide additional funding if there are property seizures down the line. But they’ve also taken a major hit, if a wiretap had already been up by the events at the end of this episode the detail would have caught Stringer, Dee, Wallace and many more for what’s going to happen to Brandon. As it is all they have are times and numbers. It’s enough to see the picture if Brandon is killed and dumped but nowhere near enough to ever use as evidence. Add to this Omar’s revelation about the Bird and the working man and you’ve got the beginnings of an avalanche.

Dee himself is showing a lot of conflict, he’s desperate to get back out of the Pit and end up being somewhere he can get a percentage of the profits. But he’s also someone who’s been inflicted with a conscience, he didn’t want to shop Brandon in and he almost didn’t have the stomach for it, but Poot and Wallace have shown themselves to be loyal soldiers and if he blanched at this Stringer and Avon would eventually find out.

The pager is an episode filled with subtleties and details, it hints at the coming storm without actually breaking. There are no truly ball grabbing moments amongst all of this, John is shot off screen and Brandon is picked up in between cuts. There’s a deliberate decision to under play some pretty major events here, but it’s similar to Gant’s shooting. We didn’t see that happen either, we just got to see Gant shot dead and lying on the floor afterwards. The violence and killings are all around the story, but for the moment at least they’re happening outside of the visual narrative.

The performances are as always just fantastic, but special note this week has to be paid to Michael K. Williams as Omar Little; this is the second episode where he’s featured a reasonable amount and it’s the first where the man’s charisma and talent become apparent. He’s just fantastic in the scenes at either end of the episode and it’s almost a shame that he’s lost John and Brandon’s been caught.

The Pager is an episode that runs with understated brilliance. Now The Wire does subtle exceptionally well, it normally leaves it’s viewers to make up their own mind and understand the landscape of the show by themselves. It’s up to you to understand what’s happening and why, which explains why a lot of people don’t click with the show – they’re used to being spoon fed explanations like babies – but I for one wouldn’t change this for the world.


1 comment so far.

  1. Avon Barksdale 31 March 2009 at 05:39
    But how does Omar know that Bubbles is snitching for the police?

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