In a new column, Sean T. Collins examines several episodes of HBO’s award-winning drama The Wire at a time to figure out what made it such a groundbreaking show. Whether you’re a fan of the original, or haven’t seen an episode but are still lying to your friends at parties to save face, this is your chance to catch up on the show now for its remastered rerelease in widescreen HD. Find previous entries here.
This week: Season Two, Episodes 7-12
Along with leftovers and late-arriving relatives, The Wire in HD showed up the day after Christmas, in all its cable-marathonable, HBOGo-bingeable glory. And despite its debut being the impetus and inspiration of this column, I really hadn’t planned on talking about it at all. The high-def remastering is one thing, a fine thing, and a legion of cinephiles could, and no doubt have, walk any interested reader through notable changes screenshot comparison by screenshot comparison. But the new aspect ratio — a flatscreen-friendly 16:9 for a show shot in good old-fashioned boob-tube 4:3 — brought out the McNulty in me. I had to fuckin’ say something.
It turns out that The Wire expanded for widescreen screens looks exactly as bad as widescreen films look cropped for square screens. You are very clearly seeing a stretched-out fraction of the original image, and it looks wrong. I kept instinctively searching for a remote control to resize the picture. Sure, David Simon helped supervise the reformatting, so it’s unlikely you’ll suddenly see lighting rigs and crew members cluttering up the edges of the image as you have in less carefully prepared remasters. And yeah, it’s the kind of thing you get used to, just like generations of viewers got used to seeing movies chopped and cropped whenever they switched on their TV or popped a tape in their VCR. But you shouldn’t have to get used to a deliberately fucked-with version of a show as thoughtfully constructed as this. The industry-wide switch to widescreen TVs was a victory for cinematic sanity — now we’re gonna go nuts again in the opposite direction? I kiiiiiiiinda think everyone involved in this decision should be ashamed of themselves.
Or I would, if The Wire Season Two hadn’t made a convincing case that America is a nation beyond shame. Season One established The Wire’s interest in exploring the system’s resistance to change, but that was only part of the story. In its second half, Season Two argues the system can change, but only in one direction: whichever way the already powerful want it to go. The economy can mutate, shedding union jobs like a snake sheds skin, replacing derelict ports and graineries with high-priced condominiums. The law can mutate, prioritizing post-9/11 terror panic at the direct expense of catching organized-crime outfits already living, working, and killing here in the homeland; or busting unions on corruption charges instead of pursuing the kingpins who corrupted them in the first place.
But woe to those, from the frustrated detectives in Lieutenant Daniels’s major case squad to the stevedores in the docks’ shattered, shuttered union, who can’t mutate along with it. “We used to make shit in this country, build shit,” says disgraced, doomed Frank Sobotka in the season’s famously defining lines of dialogue. “Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket.” You don’t have to be Sergei, the head-and-hand-chopping hatchet man for mysterious crimelord the Greek, to know that some people will stick out their hand and draw back a stump.
As powerful a polemic as this segment of the story is — for better or for worse The Wire is always a polemic — it’s not without its flaws. For one thing, revisiting the season reveals that the story feels substantially less urgent than that of Season One until its very final hours. The union members are at less personal, physical risk for most of the season than the drug dealers were during the show’s first outing. The mission to catch them was devised out of Major Valchek and Jimmy McNulty’s peevishness rather than desire to catch a monster on the loose. There is a monster, of course — the Greek — but he and his underlings are remote, amoral figures compared to more fleshed-out, conflicted characters like Stringer, Avon, D’Angelo, even Wee-Bey. The Greek himself is more myth than man; when he’s captured in a surveillance photo almost by accident, it’s like looking at the Patterson-Gimlin footage of Bigfoot. Ditto Brother Mouzone, the brainiac bow-tied Muslim hitman brought in to keep control of the Towers while Avon’s in prison — a pitch-perfect character, but so much larger than life that he feels like he crossed over from the Breaking Bad universe, on loan to the Barksdale crew from Gus Fring’s chicken-and-meth empire. Many of the best characters/performances from Season One (Bubbles, Omar, D’Angelo) are by now almost non-factors.
Moreover, the murder of fourteen women smuggled into the country for purposes of prostitution, ostensibly the driving force behind Daniels’s detail, is only indirectly the Greek’s fault. He and his goons go so far as to torture and kill the killer themselves, largely eliminating the desire for cathartic justice that normally draws viewers through narratives of crime and punishment. The season’s other most morally horrifying acts of violence, the execution of D’Angelo and an unbearably sad stray-bullet shooting of a nine year old during a shoot-out over a coveted drug corner, have nothing to do with the Greek’s outfit at all; they’re part of the Barksdale gang’s completely tangential story, which only truly connects with the main action in the very last episode, when Stringer officially becomes a beneficiary of the Greek’s drug pipeline into Baltimore. By then, the Greek himself is gone.
Less central to the action, but at least as irksome: Every single wife character on the show is a one-dimensional drag, trying to get her husband or wife to stop doing what fulfills them. Daniels’s wife kicks him to the couch when he takes on the fourteen homicides. Kima’s wife dresses her down in the children’s section of a department store for being more serious about the job than their baby-to-be. McNulty’s wife fucks him as a reward for drying out, cleaning up, and working better hours, but ultimately rejects him anyway, leaving him literally and figuratively at sea. The mother of D’Angelo’s kid hectors him about staying right with Avon even while she sleeps with String. The mother of Nick Sobotka’s kid is given nothing to do but look lovely and unhappy both when he’s making no money and when, after becoming one of the Greek’s drug dealers, he’s making it hand over fist. Since none of them are major characters, and none of them (with the possible exception of Donette, String’s paramour) are painted as abrasive, this can be easy to miss, but it’s precisely because they’re so sketchily drawn as characters that The Wire has as big a “wife problem” as any show in TV’s New Golden Age.
So it falls to the Sobotka boys themselves to carry the weight of the season’s second half, and I truly don’t care what anyone says: They get the job done. James Ransone’s Ziggy is a thing of ungainly beauty here: His antics, from adopting a duck he allows to drink itself to death in the stevedores’ favorite watering hole to devising a grand theft auto scheme that works like a charm until his buyer refuses to pay him what he’s owed, are increasingly compelling to watch, like a spinning coin wobbling further and further off its axis until it finally falls. When Ziggy’s life as a ne’er-do-well butt of jokes finally gets to be too much, he snaps horribly, gunning down two of the Greek’s associates, then collapsing under the burden of what he’s done, unable even to drive away from the scene of the crime. “You’re a Sobotka,” Frank tells him during jail visiting hours after his arrest. “Fucked is what I am,” Ziggy sobs, his despair thick as snot. Pablo Schreiber has a less showy role as Ziggy’s cousin Nick, but he winds up starring in the season’s final scene, hunted by the Greek and haunted by the collapse of the union — of all unions. His is the quiet misery of a man who’s realized his best isn’t good enough, not by a long shot.
But it’s Chris Bauer as Frank Sobotka who deserves the most praise. By season’s end, it’s clear that he’d suffer any indignity, barter any piece of his soul if it meant his union, and by extension his family, could thereby survive a few more years. Whether he’s defying the feds, bargaining with the Greeks, brown-nosing the cops, horse-trading with other union officials, shouting at his lobbyist, or growling out his frustrations to his family members, his rage against the dying of the American light is palpable and relatable and devastating. The way Bauer uses nothing more than a clean pair of khakis and a purposeful stride to transform a guy at the end of his rope into someone mustering every bit of well-deserved pride he’s got left during his final, fatal march to meet with the Greek after his arrest is an absolute marvel to watch. (Cinematographer Uta Brieswitz, a constant presence behind the camera, is owed a lot of credit here too.) Frank winds up in the water; the Greek winds up in the wind. Desperation, The Wire argues, drives people dirty. And whether they put their dirty hands in the next guy’s pocket or around his throat, the hands of the people who built the system that dirtied them stay clean.