The Wire – Pilot episode critique

Written by show creator David Simon and Ed Burns, the pilot episode of The Wire, titled ‘The Target’, first aired in 2002. 

The show’s theme song, Tom Waits’ Way Down in the Hole, foreshadows the world of broken promises and lost dreams we’re about to enter. Its lyrics When you walk through the garden/You gotta watch your back”serve as a terrific pointer to the dramatic theme of this landmark drama series.

I’ve chosen to review this pilot as I’ve been a fan of The Wire since its debut. I’m drawn to realism in criminal justice (and injustice) screen stories, and I feel The Wire, along with Hill Street Blues, and NYPD Blue, wrote the book on how television could realistically portray the battle between good and evil on the means streets of urban America.

Set in Baltimore, a struggling working-class east coast city, the pilot opens with Homicide Detective Jimmy McNulty talking to the friend of a murdered gang member about his friend, nicknamed ‘Snot Boogie’, lying on the street in front of them. This conversation cleverly sets up the show’s exploration of the illegal drug trade and helps to humanise the victims of gang violence and police ineptitude plaguing the city.

The central conflict of the series is good versus evil; ostensibly the police versus a gang led by ‘Stringer’ Bell and Avon Barksdale. The richness of the writing is such that the cops often act badly while Bell (especially) does some good for the community, ensuring that the world of the story is comprised of rich greys rather than binary black and white. The root of the conflict is poverty, race and class and The Wire is clearly a snapshot of America itself. This is encapsulated by Snot Boogie’s friend who, in the opening minutes of the pilot, tells an exasperated McNulty a story about how Snot Boogie always stole the money at the gang’s weekly craps games. When asked why he was even allowed to play, the dead man’s friend says “We got to (let him) – this is America, man.”

A hugely important aspect of the ‘real feel’ of the show is the grit and grimness of life. This is reflected in the actions, the characters, and in the filming and editing choice. For McNulty – and the audience – it’s very clearly not just another night on the streets of Baltimore’s drug and violence riddled housing estates. Snot Boogie lying in a pool of blood on the wet, garbage-strewn street represents a beginning point on an exploration of what is wrong with the city and America itself.

The pilot follows McNulty as he sits in on the murder trial of Avon’s nephew, D’Angelo Barksdale. Also watching the trial is the show’s antagonist, Bell. Elsewhere, a pair of drug-affected homeless men use forged money to buy drugs from street-level dealers working for the gang. One of them, Johnny Weeks, is savagely beaten and hospitalised for the fraud.

Narcotics Detective Shakima ‘Kima’ Greggs meanwhile works on a case with a couple of ill-disciplined gung-ho officers, Detectives Ellis Carver and Thomas ‘Herc’ Hauk. Simons often uses these two as comic reliefs but they are hardened detectives sick of busting kids for ‘eight-balls’ while the gang leaders get off scot-free. The narcotics squad detectives rely on buy/bust cases to arrest low-level dealers. Greggs, visiting a hospital, encounters Weeks’ friend ‘Reggie ‘Bubbles’ Cousins who decides to inform on the gang in response to his friend being beaten so badly. This act unlocks an important piece of the narrative and turns Bubbles into one of the few true heroes in the show.

Witness interference means D’Angelo is found innocent. On his way out of court McNulty meets the trial judge. He informs the judge that he’s heard that the Bell-Barksdale gang are responsible for a series of unsolved murders and also control the city’s drug trade. Infuriated, the judge challenges senior police to look into the crimes, putting McNulty’s head on the chopping block.

A taskforce led by career policeman Lieutenant Cedric Daniels is assembled, with McNulty sent from homicide to work alongside Greggs and her crew. The episode ends with the death of a witness that identified D’Angelo; reinforcing for the viewer the existential crisis facing Baltimore and the detectives, who know they will need to get up on ‘the wire’ to gather the evidence needed to take down the gang.

In terms of organisation and structure, the pilot sets the series up perfectly. The dramatic question, world building and plot development all hit their stride early in this episode, but what marks it as a standout strong pilot is the character building. Characters are introduced not just superficially, but with significant detail as to their motivations, flaws and relationships. For example, we find out that on a personal level McNulty has a drinking problem, that he is separated from his wife and has difficulty getting access to his children due to work demands. On a professional level he’s not well liked by colleagues as he doesn’t respect the chain of command and as his long-suffering Homicide Squad partner Detective ‘Bunk’ Moreland identifies, he has a habit of “Giving a fuck when it’s not your turn to give a fuck.” This is a recurring refrain across all five seasons of the show. The phrase, and variations of it, signpost to the viewer that someone in the taskforce – usually McNulty – is about to stick their neck out, which has implications for all.

We also learn that Stringer Bell wants to keep a low profile to keep the money rolling in, while D’Angelo Barksdale needs to toughen up, lest Baltimore’s streets claim him just as they did Snot Boogie. While meeting so many characters at once could be overwhelming the writers have threaded some humour and plenty of humanity into the story to carry the load. The pacing is fast, there’s no time lost on pensive speeches or decorative long shots, instead we’re up in people’s faces seeing them at their best and their worst.

David Simon was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun newspaper for 12 years. He used his knowledge of the city to build a highly contextual, complex, engaging and very real portrait of a city down on its luck. This episode successfully leverages Simon’s encyclopedic knowledge of the streets to set up the journey of what’s to come. We know that the cops and the gang will clash, and that ‘the wire’ is as important to giving the audience an understanding of the issues affecting the characters as it is to solving the case. Just as importantly, we learn why what’s to come in the series affects us all as viewers.

The pilot provides us with a complex, non-cookie-cutter approach to storytelling where bad guys and good guys meet, mesh and merge. The warmth and flawed humanity – especially between McNulty and Bunk, and Greggs and Bubbles – provides some welcome relief for the viewer and ensures it delivers entertainment, rather than merely docudrama. For those who can endure the bloodshed, the foul language and sense that maybe, just maybe, there’s a bit of Baltimore in every town, the rewards are immense, leaving us definitely wanting more. This is a screen story for those people who understand that in places like Baltimore, the American dream has become a nightmare.

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