“All the pieces matter.”
If you’ve never seen The Wire before, episode six starts with a mutilated dead boy on the hood of a car. It looks like a million other cop shows, albeit maybe a touch more graphic than most. After a few seconds of looking at the body, it’s basically forgotten for a few minutes as we go off and follow another character entirely. That second character eventually comes back, stands over the scene as cops start their canvas, and is visibly moved by the gore. The opening credits roll. It’s sensitive, to be sure, and a slightly different perspective than most police shows, but you don’t quite get the sense that it’s one of the most brilliant sequences in the early days of the best show in the history of television.
But it is.
When you’ve watched The Wire sequentially (especially if you watch it on DVD in rapid succession, the way most people watch it these days), you know right away that the mutilated dead boy is Brandon, even without getting a good look at his face, because (a) he was caught at the very end of the last episode and (b) he has been previously condemned by Avon to be displayed “like a deer” as a message to Omar. You don’t even need to see his face: oh shit, that’s Brandon, and oh shit, this all just escalated.
When you’ve watched the entire series and are coming back for more, it’s easy to see that this is a gigantic moment – beyond a gigantic moment, really, as it shifts Omar from bad-ass stick-up boy to all-out Barksdale enemy, seeking retribution both out of and inside the legal system. It’s his involvement in the legal case that allows the detail to make actual and lasting progress, and when you think about, that speaks volumes about the way police work gets done; good cop or not, you kind of have to hope that something happens in the life of the criminal that’s going to help lead you to his capture. We’ve never (as far as I know) seen a police show that addresses this angle. It’s not about super cops coming up with the ah-ha moment that breaks a case wide open. It’s about police doing the hard grunt work to get close, and hoping that you get a little luck (and in this case, that luck comes in the form of a mutilated dead boy).
So that’s the first two seconds of the episode.
The camera trails up to an extension cord (a wire, let’s call it what it is) plugged into a street light (giving us a sense of the poverty level in this, a major American city), then follows a second extension cord (this is not an unusual thing in this neighborhood) through a shattered pane of glass (broken windows theory?) to a clock radio that immediately explodes into action (the first real sounds of the episode), waking up Wallace (who, by the way, happens to be responsible for the mutilated dead boy, but has no idea what’s waiting mere yards from where he sleeps), who is fully dressed (in what appears to be school clothes, although there’s no indication he ever goes to school – and oh, by the way, that’s foreshadowing of season four) and springs immediately to his feet – he’s got work to do.
We know Wallace as a corner boy, a pit worker advanced enough to handle the money but not cut out for much more in the game. Over the course of the next three seconds or so, we’ll see a whole other side of him – the side, perhaps, that fits him best – head of household. Wallace turns off the alarm (no snooze here), brushes his teeth (with a swig of bottled water – not only is there no electricity, there’s no running water), fixes a dangling extension cord in the hallway (more wires), bangs on Poot’s door to wake him up and drag him away from the (older white) woman in bed with him, and wakes up a room full of young children, yelling to them that if they want to stay out of foster care (and what great indictment of the foster care system can there be that it is perceived as a fate worse than, well, this? Oh, and by the way, season four.), they need to get their asses up and out to school. The kids all get up, Wallace gives them juice boxes and bags of chips for breakfast (although he doesn’t have enough for all of them), and off they go – Wallace even checks to make sure they’ve got their backpacks (although really, there’s not much he can do if they claim they didn’t get homework – he’s playing the parent role, but he’s really not a parent). And then, just for a second, he hears the approaching police cars, and he still has no idea why they’re approaching, but he looks out at them anyway – and my god, he’s so young. As everyone heads out to work and school, we see that they live in a boarded up building behind a door with a number to call if an animal is trapped (what about if a human is trapped?) — we’ll later come to call these vacants, and Chris and Snoop – I’ll say no more.
And once Wallace and Poot get outside, we’re snapped back into the reality of the present situation – we see Brandon’s face for the first time (missing an eye, at that) at the same time Wallace and Poot do. The police are taping off the crime scene and, as police do, joking about the gory nature of it all; later in the episode, McNulty will arrive on the scene, and jump out of his shoes when a dog barks at him. The detectives already on the scene laugh at his reaction, as does Poot, who’s watching from the window. There are some folks who can compartmentalize and even find humor in the face of such a tragedy. Then there’s Wallace, who simply isn’t cut out for this. His face upon surveying the crime scene is heartbreaking – he knows he led to this boy’s brutal, bloody death. He’s just a little kid. He’s not able to carry this. And we don’t know it, but this is all directly leading to some of the absolute best scenes in television history.
And then the opening credits roll, and the episode actually, you know, starts.