Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Wire Season Two

As articulated in my earlier review, I liked the first season of The Wire a whole whole lot, probably more than I've liked any other television show or film released in the past ten years. Disappointment in season two seemed inevitable. Imagine my delight when three or four episodes into the season I realized that the show had retained everything that made its first season so remarkable while expanding into new and deeper territory. By the season's end, I was utterly overwhelmed with what I had viewed, and I still haven't come to the end of my thoughts about the show.

The show continues to follow the investigations of the Baltimore Police Department, this time in their investigation of the deaths of 13 Eastern European immigrants found in a secret compartment of a cargo container on the Baltimore docks. While the first episode gives a bit of a CSI vibe, the tone is quickly dispelled when the circumstances of the death are revealed. The Wire adamantly refuses to descend into the whodunit antics of typical crime dramas, revealing the details of the crimes investigated early, instead focusing on the process and nature of police work and criminal response.

Much of this season takes place in the community of the Baltimore docks, a heavily unionized workplace where it is implied that collective bargaining a changes in shipping have together caused a massive labor surplus. Work is given on the basis of seniority, so young stevedores may receive only a few days labor per month. Like its portrayal of the housing projects in season one, the depiction of this community is both compassionate and critical. The stevedores drink heavily, turn a blind eye toward stolen containers, and seem to fear and resent education and technological innovation. Simultaneously, they display intense loyalty to one another and to their union. At the center of the community is union secretary-treasurer Frank Sobotka, a deeply tragic figure whose corruption is outweighed by the depth of his commitment to the good of his union brothers. Frank's essential decency is given a sharp foil in the rash antics and irresponsible materialism of his son Ziggy. The docks are so skillfully depicted that we emerge with a strong sense of the daily lives of these men, their hopes, fears and escapes.

While police investigation into the deaths of the girls proceeds, eventually leading to an adept Greek criminal organization, the show explores the personal lives of its officers in some detail. Jimmy McNulty, having infuriated his commanding officers in season one, is moved to the mundane Baltimore harbor patrol unit and attempts to reconcile with his estranged wife. Kima Greggs confronts jealousy of her pregnant partner, and Lieutenant Daniels clashes with his wife over continued career options. Simultaneously and seamlessly, the show keeps an eye on the struggling Barksdale drug organization. Avon Barksdale continues to run the organization from prison through constant meetings with Stringer Bell, and to care for his depressive nephew D'Angelo. The Barksdale subplot provides many of the season's most emotionally jarring moments. The writers make no attempt to artificially integrate the two plot lines or to establish obvious parallels between them, instead relying on the viewer's continued interest in these characters. Despite the enormous complexity of the plot, the writers avoid making the show feel sprawling by choosing a few characters to investigate thoroughly, while giving a few key details about the lives of other characters. Within the police department, McNulty, Greggs, and Daniels receive the grand treatment, while Bunk, Freamon, Herc and Carver act more as types. The writers also strike this appropriate balance in the docks and in the Barksdale organization.

This season is so rich in memorable scenes and characters that any attempt to catalogue the very best of them will descend into stream of consciousness gushing. The final episodes have a tragic momentum that feels Shakespearean, where even the perpetrators of violence seem victims of a greater chaos. This is the most compelling television I have ever seen.


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