S1E12, Part One
“This is me, yo, right here.”

This is the Wallace episode.

I don’t remember watching the episode of Sesame Street when Mr. Hooper died the first time it aired. I’m not sure if I even watched that day (I was six years old at that point, so it’s hard to say). What I do remember is seeing it again, years later, during a primetime tribute to the show on its twenty-fifth anniversary. I remember getting a lump in my throat, which wasn’t all that unexpected; Mr. Hooper was a seminal part of my childhood, and the show handled his passing with remarkable tact, bravery, and sensitivity. Watching the episode as an adult, I realized that this was the kind of thing that only television could do: allow you to develop a relationship with a group of characters over months (or years), then force you be a part of the major events that transpire in their lives. This kind of intimacy means two things when it comes to the portrayal of mortality: one, the death of a beloved character is going to hit you awfully hard, and two, the reactions of other characters to that death can be loaded with personal meaning.

That’s why Wallace’s death is the best scene in season one of The Wire, maybe the best scene in the entire series (although at least one scene in season three gives it a clear run for its money), and one of the most emotionally rich scenes I’ve seen on television, film, or theater. If The Wire already made the jump to great television show earlier this season, this scene (and the “Where’s Wallace?” scene from later in the episode) catapult it directly into legend.

I’m going to attack the essay for this episode (which might be the best episode of the show, which might mean that this is the best episode of the best TV show of all-time, which might mean that this is the best episode of television ever made—something I’m not sure I’d argue, but it’s on the table) slightly differently than most. Usually, I take copious notes on an episode, pick out a primary theme from those notes, and bounce around the episode out of chronological order, highlighting only the scenes that tie into the thesis statement. But this is one of those episode where, as Lester says, “all the details matter,” so I’m going to work through my four pages of notes, one by one, in an attempt to flesh out exactly what I love so much about this hour of television.

(A quick housekeeping note: there’s a good chance this will blow past twelve hundred words, which is my unofficial limit for these essays. If, by the time you’re reading it, this post is titled S1E11 Part One, you’ll understand why.)

*“Ah, fuck this case.” — This time it’s Daniels (not Rawls) who has to kick McNulty’s ass back to work. Everyone recognizes that this whole thing – the whole stupid tilting at windmills case – is McNulty working off his ego. Even McNulty knows it. What’s fascinating though is that everyone seems to agree that the case matters now that Kima’s been shot – and to me, that just echoes the question of the futility of it all. It takes the near-death of a cop to make it matter? In the world of the police though, you get it completely – that’s the way they frame the conversation. As soon as it comes to one of their own, all bets are off – and even if it’s Jimmy McNulty’s drunken egotism that started it, everyone’s going to work together to end it.

*Stringer takes everyone’s pagers, replacing them with cell phones and exclusive numbers; it’s all a result of the big raid at the end of the last episode. They’ve been hit and hit hard. The main stash is gone. They’ve got to change up. But guess what – they’re still just changing up. They’re not shutting down. They’re just regrouping. The work, the bust, the wire – it all amounts to a momentary change of plans. And we’re back to futility.

*Lester puts eye drops in Shardeen’s eyes, and it’s the first time that we’re really starting to think that something could actually be up between the two of them. He sweet talks her, Sydnor and Herc share a look (can you believe this guy?), and that’s really all we need. Later in the episode, we see him putting her in real danger by sending her into Orlando’s with a wire on; he’s using her, it seems, even as he’s hitting on her. This being The Wire, of course, you assume something is going to go horribly wrong here, and (long-term spoiler alert) it ultimately never does.

*Daniels is called on the carpet and told that he’s going to have to send two members of the detail back. He’s given the option to choose which two, and refuses: he knows how this game is played (as do we, thanks to Lester’s story of he got to the pawnshop unit in the first place). Since the higher-ups can’t get Daniels to screw himself, they go ahead and screw him: Sydnor and Santangelo are pulled from the squad and sent back to their departments. Daniels is left with the dead weight: Freamon and Pres – who happen to be the only two members of the unit that are still relevant to the paper trail.

*Ronnie gets called into her boss’s office about Lester’s work tracking the paper trail; as soon as it becomes known that he’s looking into campaign finance reports and investigating contributors, the elected officials start to give back all the donations they can’t account for. They’re scared that they’ll be linked to this investigation – and as Clay Davis will say later, the electeds could care less who was making those donations, but now that the pressure is on, everyone’s got to cover their asses (they’re changing up, you could say). Interestingly, it’s Ronnie who is placed into danger here by this, which makes her the third woman to be thrown into the line of fire (with Shardeen and Kima, and only Kima went willingly), which raises all kinds of questions for me and parallels to things like old white men sending young poor people of color into wars and women being forced into the silly power games that men play to prove their dick size and that’s not even the point, but look, this is The Wire, and it’s all there.

And we’re at eleven hundred words. And we haven’t even gotten close to the Wallace scene.

Part Two Monday.