The Wire, season 1, episode 12: where’s Wallace?

, | TV reviews

“This is me, yo, right here.”

The epigraphs in The Wire are a great way to call attention to a moment without, well, calling attention to it. I read it, it goes out of my head as I’m watching, and then when the line pops up, I go, “Oh yeah!” This episode’s epigraph suggests Wallace felt his return was inevitable. It implies a certain fatalism. But he made the choice to come back. He made the choice to ask to get back into “the game”. He made the choice to demur when D’Angelo nudged him to follow through with his earlier plans to go back to school. When he says the line in the epigraph, it’s basically a credo. Even an epitaph.

A couple of things stand out for me about Wallace’s death. The first is that Stringer Bell’s supposed instructions to Bodie to kill Wallace were vague. It’s a laconic exchange, and it could mean many things. How does Bodie understand from a couple of questions something as important as murdering a friend? Bodie explains that Wallace has “Kool-Aid in his veins”. Bell asks, “What about you? You built for this? You ready to put the work in? You got heat?”

These are the only lines that follow from Bell’s questions about Wallace. They’re fraught with meaning, of course, and the direct eye contact between Bodie and Bell carries even more meaning. But I’d think instructions to murder would be more explicit. I’d think something so important would be specifically stated. I’d think it would be important to avoid miscommunication. Yet nothing explicit is said about Wallace being killed.

It could be that this episode plays it close to the vest for the sake of suspense. As Bodie and Poot interact with Wallace, eating lunch, tending to all of his kids (Who are those kids? Where did they come from? Where did they go?), luring him into the empty tenement building, we’re expecting the worst, but we’re still not sure because Bell wasn’t explicit. No one ever said, “Hey, I want you to kill Wallace.” Certainly Daniels and McNulty are expecting the worst as they search for Wallace. But is the show vague in setting up orders to kill Wallace because it adds more dramatic tension?

Alternatively, is this just how these men operate? Part of what has made Barksdale’s operation successful is the extreme caution — justified paranoia, in fact — with which they communicate with each other. Does Bodie know to infer from those few comments something this dire? Is it the eye contact? Does “put the work in” mean murder in the way “shorty” means girl? Whatever the case, it’s an example of The Wire packing a lot of information into few words. You have to watch closely. You have to listen carefully. Sometimes you have to interpet.

For instance, several episodes ago, Bubs’ friend Johnny says, “I have the bug”. It’s a brief comment. It affects Bubs, but he doesn’t know what to do with it. They move past it. The scene goes on to something else. Yet as near as I can tell, Johnny has just revealed he’s been diagnosed with AIDS. The “bug” comes up later in a conversation between Bubs and Welon (that actor’s awkwardness lends his character a kind of unfakeable authenticity). Welon asks Bub if he has “the bug”, and then reveals that he has it, and he gave it to his “old lady”. That’s says a lot of dire things with very few words. Powerful language in small elliptical packages. Is that how Stringer Bell tells Bodie to murder his friend?

The shooting is, of course, heartbreaking. Especially for Wallace’s reaction. But there’s also the interplay between Bodie and Poot. As Wallace pleads with him, Bodie seems like he might relent. He seems to pity Wallace enough that he could be content with just scaring him. He could have easily just shot Wallace in the back without warning. He hasn’t done that. But is he sadistic enough to humiliate Wallace just to humiliate him? He has taunted and bullied Wallace. But to humiliate him before murdering him? His hand shakes and he doesn’t pull the trigger. Is this what it’s like to have Kool-Aid in your veins?

But Poot, who has been openly reluctant on the walk upstairs, seems to object to drawing it out. His “do it, goddammit!” certainly isn’t because he relishes the act. Is it out of mercy? After Bodey pulls the trigger and Wallace collapses in the corner, Poot take the gun and fires twice. Is this mercy? We later see, with absolutely clarity by the wounds, that Poot has shot Wallace directly in the face. Was that ruthlessness or compassion?

Michael B. Jordan caught my eye early on. Because I’m familiar with the actor, his character carried more weight than if I’d watched The Wire back in 2002. Bodie and Poot didn’t just shoot Wallace. They shot the victim of the police shooting at the BART station in Oakland, the cool guy who found the glowing rock that gave Dane DeHaan superpowers, Apollo Creed’s son, and one of the poor schmucks adrift in the Fantastic Four movie.

The effect on D’Angelo is obviously pivotal given what we know — and Stringer Bell didn’t — about his conscience. It’s the other end of D’Angelo’s character arc. It’s a bookend to the scene when we met him in episode one. He was on trial. Stringer Bell sat in the courtroom, looking on. They were helping each other negotiate the law, one on the inside, the other on the outside. They understood each other clearly. Twelve episodes later, D’Angelo is under arrest again. He’s in a visitation room. Stringer Bell sits opposite him, looking on. They’re negotiating the law, one on the inside, the other on the outside. This time they don’t understand each other. “Where’s Wallace?” is a question, then an accusation, then a wounded bellow. And by the end of the episode, with Barksdale under arrest, will his uncle be able to protect him?

But there’s a single episode left in the season. How much can happen in a single episode? And given that the investigation has gone from tunneling into a drug operation to breaking out into a warren of political corruption, what now? I mean, season two, I presume. But I’m not familiar with the show’s production history. Did David Simon know there would be a season two? Does the thirteenth episode rush to wrap everything up? Is it a transition? A cliffhanger? What better ending could there be than the shot of the investigation board with no one standing in front of it, followed by the shot of the orange couch in the projects courtyard with no one sitting on it?

I’m not sure what to make of the arrest scene, but I loved it. “Look at those Delta Force motherfuckers,” Barksdale laughs as he watches the SWAT team scurry into position. The SWAT guys stack up on the door and McNulty shakes his head at all the firepowere marshaled to arrest Barksdale and Bell.

“These guys probably haven’t touched a gun in a year,” McNulty says. He and Daniels brush past them and knock. The enormous bodyguard who answers is gently ushered out. Barksdale and Bell are waiting in the office, dressed in light summer colors. Jaunty outfits, in fact. No one needs to say anything.

Daniels cuffs Barksdale. Stringer Bell stands with his back to McNulty, expecting to be handcuffed. He isn’t.

“Catch you later,” McNulty says.

He knows who Stringer Bell is, of course. It’s established in the very first episode as they’re watching D’Angelo’s trial in the courtroom. Is the “catch you later” a literal promise disguised as a throwaway comment? And why does the camera push slowly in on McNulty as he hesitates at the top of the stairs, looking back towards Bell? What is the look between him and Daniels? I can think of a few interpretations, but I think I’ll just embrace the ambiguity for now.

“It’s not enough,” says the detective whose name I’ve never known (Leander Sydnor, according to IMDB). “I just feel like this ain’t finished.” But I would be happy if these 12 episodes were the entirety of The Wire.

(Wondering what’s all this stuff about an old TV show? If you support my Patreon campaign for $10 or more, once a month you’ll have to opportunity to assign me a review. The first season of The Wire won one of the recent drawings.)