CW for The Wire spoilers (obviously), discussions of police brutality, sex work
I didn’t want to do this by reviewing every single episode individually, because one, these are not going to be recaps, as the show has already aired in its entirety so what’s the point, and two, any show can get off to a rough start and then get better. To whit, the pilot for this series is not particularly good— the lighting, in particular, is much too dark for a predominantly Black cast, and many of the actors are shot in too low light to see their faces and expressions clearly. (This is an historical problem with cameras. You can read about more about the white skin bias of camera technology in this fantastic essay, “Teaching The Camera to See My Skin” by Syreeta McFadden, which specifically references Ava DuVernay’s criticism of another HBO series, Boardwalk Empire, for failing to properly light Michael K. Williams— who is also on The Wire.)
By the second episode, however, they crew has figured out this issue and generally the camera work is better, we can see our Black actors well, and our nominal lead, Jimmy McNulty, has gotten a much needed haircut.
The two issues that really jump out at me from these three episodes are the way that the show handles police brutality and the way that it portrays strip clubs.
First of all, it came as a surprise to me that this show is actually a cop show. My understanding of it had always been that it was about the members of narcotics distribution ring— sort of an inner city, Black version of The Sopranos that focused primarily on the members of an organized crime syndicate. Really it’s a cat-and-mouse drama about an “underdog” team of cops trying to pull down the kingpin of a narcotics ring. In our first few episodes, our main character in the drug trade is not the head of the organization, Avon Barksdale, but his young adult nephew, D’Angelo (played winningly by a clearly but subtly conflicted by Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.). Very little of the focus is actually on the drug organization, but on the cops themselves.
For those who haven’t seen it, Dominic West plays Jimmy McNulty, a homicide detective who, inexplicably, goes to a local judge and says he knows that Avon Barksdale is responsible for a number of murders in Baltimore. I am entirely unsure of how he knows this, but some suspension of disbelief is necessary to watch fiction, so let’s roll with it. The judge essentially gives him permission to run a task force on Avon. Assigned to lead the detail is Lieutenant Cedric Daniels. Daniels is the first very obvious inspiration for a later television character, as he is the straight (in every sense of the word) inspiration for Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Captain Holt— a tall, elegant man with a deep, commanding baritone that makes you want him to read you the phone book, who rarely smiles and enjoys the finer things in life. This last trait is something of an issue, because on his salary he shouldn’t be able to afford them. Some hints are dropped by an FBI agent McNulty is friends with that Daniels is not on the up and up, hence why he’s got the money to enjoy dinners with his wife using china and crystal worthy of Hannibal Lecter.
Daniels is assigned three young, scrappy narcos, as well as a rogue’s gallery of “worthless” cops. Our main three cops at this point are Kima Greggs, a petite, long haired Black lesbian that I guess we’re supposed to read as butch because she doesn’t wear obvious makeup; “Herc”, a bumbling white guy who already seems to be a racist and misogynist; and his partner Carver, who is also Black and really seems to have no identifying qualities other than that he puts up with his racist white partner. Add to that an awkward, violent white cop named Pryzbylewsky (who will hereafter go by “Prez”), who was busted shooting up his own cop car while calling for backup that he was under fire, and yet somehow still has a job.
I mention these four, because by the third episode, every single one of them will have committed unforgivable acts of police brutality, while still continuing to work on this case, and, confoundingly to me, still being portrayed as sympathetic characters. Herc, Carver, and Prez get drunk after work one night, then, while literally intoxicated, drive over to the housing projects where they suspect Avon is running drugs, and proceed to harass and throw to the ground two residents of the housing project— an elderly man, and a man doing laundry that he says is his job. They throw the laundry washer’s (I assume) client’s clothes on the ground, and force both men to lie face down on the sidewalk, demanding that one of them pull his pants down, and submit them to an absolutely humiliating and entirely unprovoked and unjustified search.
Returning to their car, they find a young kid (we later learn that he is all of 14-years-old) leaning against the hood of the car eating some chips. The kid is a little snarky— he’s a kid, after all, and brave as hell considering what he just saw— and Prez proceeds to beat him so badly with the butt of his weapon that we later learn the kid has lost an eye.
When Daniels comes to collect them after the residents fight back by throwing objects from their windows at the car, which eventually apparently goes up in flames (we don’t see the car burn, but we do see it as a charred husk in the later scene), Daniels advises them on their story, knowing full well that they acted unprovoked. The line he uses is the same one that we have heard from cops accused of killing unarmed Black Americans time and again since these murders finally started to come to national attention: the assaulted child had a weapon he didn’t have and the cops were scared for their life.
While I’m only three episodes into the series, it’s already abundantly clear to me that, as a viewer, I am still supposed to be on their side (or at least not feel like they are irredeemable shit bags who deserved every bit of retaliatory, defensive violence from the residents of “the towers”, as the housing project is referred to). Prez is desked, with pay, while apparently nothing happens to Carver and Herc, who continue to carry guns and work in the field.
Which allows them, by the way, to be involved in a confusing daylight run up on D’Angelo and his young crew at “the lowrises”— a smaller housing project where D’Angelo was demoted after getting caught shooting someone at the highrises, a crime for which he barely got off thanks to his uncle’s Jewish stereotype of a dirty lawyer and the bribing of a security guard who witnessed the shooting. (I’m sure we will get to the specifics of this proto-Saul Goodman in a later post.) Not only do our two narco guys who are already facing brutality charges, get to go, but after one of the younger members of the crew (who is maybe 16?) punches one of the older cops in their detail, they, along with Kima, force the kid to the ground and repeatedly kick him in the ribs and head over and over again while he is restrained and on the ground (and thus no threat to anyone). So there goes Kima as the one “good” cop in the bunch.
The way that the show treats these horrifying acts of violence does not sit well with me at all. One minute, the cops are blinding and beating children, the next scene they’re goofing off in the basement dungeon to which their team has been relegated, and I’m supposed to be OK with this? I’m supposed to take comfort in Daniels’s moment of sympathy that a child has lost an eye, even while he is coaching his cops to lie about it?
Maybe these cops will get their comeuppance later, but what justice is to be had by comparison? And how am I supposed to be even slightly on their side for 57 more episodes? Maybe I’m not? But it’s extremely difficult to interpret the presentation of the characters in later scenes as villains. Which, let’s be clear— they are.
The second issue is less serious, but equally strains credulity, which is centers around the strip club Orlando’s. This is where Avon and his second in command, Stringer Bell, run the whole narcotics ring show, which makes absolutely no sense. Strip clubs are notoriously monitored by cops, particular vice squads, who are very specifically looking for not only prostitution but money laundering and, most crucially, drugs. That there doesn’t seem to be a single cop in any of the strip club scenes absolutely boggles the mind. I suppose, if you’re a straight white guy in a strip club, your focus while doing, ahem, research isn’t on the other dudes in the club, but cops are in and out of those places all the damn time! It’s frankly the worst possible setting for a clean front, and the only reason I can fathom that the show runner and HBO thought this was a good idea is because, as premium cable, they can show boobs.
From a more detailed perspective, the character of Shardene, who is clearly being set up as your clichéd Stripper With a Heart of Gold Who Isn’t Like the Other Girls, is just straight up unbelievable. This is not a criticism of Wendy Grantham, who is definitely punching above her weight in imbuing this cardboard cut out with some real empathy, but her flirtations with D’Angelo make zero sense. She’s at work. She’s turning down his money. At work. And sliding his hand in between her thighs. At work. For FREE.
And not to be a stickler, but no stripper douses herself in glitter— customers are hip to the fact that the sparkly stuff transfers and never, ever comes out, and it’s unearned association with strip clubs by those who don’t know any better means men are terrified that glitter will send up a red flag to their partner that they were visiting a club (or at least ask them some very pointed questions). The girls know this, so they avoid it. Yet Shardene is absolutely glazed, head to toe, with silver glitter in one scene. Yes, it makes a striking shot, and haloes her in an angelic, not-yet-totally-fallen way, but it does so at the cost of me buying this at all, and goes back to the “really a good girl despite being a stripper” (eye rolls) archetype in which she has been constrained.
None of this is to say that there’s nothing good in these 3 episodes. The slice of life chats on the sofa in the middle of the low rises between D’Angelo and his young crew manage to be both light hearted and a little heart breaking— these are regular conversations that young teens have to fill their time, but these are kids who should be in school instead of working anywhere, never mind in a job where people kill each other. In particular, recognizing Michael B. Jordan as the sweet (perhaps too sweet?) Wallace was an unexpected delight. (Why has everyone who has told me Idris Elba was in this a thousand times neglected to mention this?)
Thus far, though, that’s not enough to counteract the rather flip treatment of gratuitous police violence. If I hadn’t already committed to seeing this through, that alone would be enough to turn me off at this point.