Play All, p.7Clive James
The terra nullius of The Wire is an absurd world that works. At the cost of occasionally killing even someone like Stringer, and of eventually quite possibly killing everybody, the drug world continues indefinitely. Its plan of organization, however, is defined with clarity; and the plan is what fascinates, to the extent that the second season seems comparatively negligible when it moves away from the drug-dealing areas to the docks and puts the action in the hands of a few corrupt white stevedores and standard imported Greek and Balkan heavies. There aren’t enough black people. A few containers get parked profitably in the wrong place; a few foreign cars get heisted; but that’s as fascinating as the skulduggery ever gets, although some might say that the Port Authority officer Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan), who finds thirteen corpses in one container, is fascinating enough to make up the difference. Back in the days of On the Waterfront, the corrupt union bosses took a percentage of everything that moved in and out of New York. On the Baltimore waterfront they are taking a piece of a diminished traffic. The real action is back in town, to which, thankfully, we are frequently referred in subplots during the second season; and from the third season onward the various narrative lines are all directly concerned with the main event, which is how the black people live in a postindustrial residential landscape, and how easily they die. The docks are interesting enough, but it’s in the houses that we are faced with a more complex and inexhaustibly interesting code of misbehavior.
And that’s what we get: a code. The show makes the move that will ensure its greatness when it takes us into the network of expertise by which the drug hustlers work their sad supremacy. The key is in the communications between the bosses and the minions on the corners. The messages are coded. Listening in to the phones of the miscreants (the show ought rightly to be called The Tap, not The Wire, but let that pass), our basement full of cops have to crack the code or lose the battle. Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) is our mastermind in charge, but detective Ronald “Prez” Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), a white guy of Polish background with an established rep as a violent klutz, is the one who comes up with the goods, almost as much to his own surprise as ours. The code depends on the dialer touching or skipping certain buttons on the touch-tone dial. It’s simple to use but hard to figure out. The smart move of the script at this point is to follow the figuring out. Luckily the code, though complicated enough to be plausible, is just simple enough to allow this treatment. The result is screen magic. Almost always, elsewhere in screen history, to show the characters solving a technical puzzle is a formula for screen death, or else the matter is fudged, resulting in screen stupidity. One need only think of the 1980 mini-series Oppenheimer, in which the script avoids both the physics and the engineering of the atomic bomb, leaving us with nothing but a character analysis of the hero. Nor do any of the television or movie accounts of the World War II code-breaking at Bletchley Park come anywhere near making a drama out of the problem: they make their drama out of the characters. (Take a look at what Charles Dance has been given to do in The Imitation Game—grit his teeth and keep growling that the code must be cracked by dawn—and you get some idea of just how grateful he must have been for his long and manifold role as Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones). Between them, Robert Harris, who wrote the novel Enigma, and Tom Stoppard, who wrote the screenplay, get close to transmitting the Bletchley thrill, but they can do so only by developing the subject into a spy story about how Saffron Burrows and Kate Winslet crack the secret of the Katyn massacre. Nobody cracks the actual Enigma code except by looking tense. They might as well be sucking pencils. Not even Stoppard, who has a mind in the Bletchley league, can show a mind at work. An image just can’t do it, unless the puzzle is almost within our grasp.
In The Wire we see Prez make the leap. It’s pure screen drama. Fittingly, Prez has another such moment at the end of the final season, when, in his new persona as a successful schoolteacher—having been useful in the fight against the drug lords was what put him on the road to fulfillment—he realizes that a treasured pupil is not going to escape the drug world after all, but is being sucked back down to doom. Along with the bid by the white “Tommy” Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) to replace a black mayor, education is one of the big themes in the later chapters. The good guys, like Prez, put every effort into it, but they can’t win the youngsters away from the bad guys, because really there is no good and bad, there is just the system. An even bigger theme is even more depressing: the black senior policeman Major Howard (“Bunny”) Colvin (Robert Wisdom), definitely a good guy, gets the impossibly bold idea of establishing his district as a zone where drugs are effectively legal as long as the gunfire stops. For a while it seems to work, but that’s just why it can’t last. So the total effect of the show is entirely pessimistic: a rare event in American culture. The show-runners are essentially saying that in the postindustrial landscape, with no real work for anyone to do, the black minority becomes the majority only through being locked into its depressed status as a subclass. David Simon went far enough toward deserving our applause for such an unflinching view of circumstances determining behavior. We can’t ask him, in his screen work, to raise the question of whether there might be such a thing as an individual choice independent of determinism. It should be noted, however, that in his off-screen work, he did so, if only at one point: in his real-life book of reportage The Corner he brings on a young black character who is so gifted at legitimate business that he looks like breaking out of the deadly system which has brought all his contemporaries to early ruin. Having built up a bank balance of money legitimately earned, the character is sufficiently excited by achievement; but he eventually takes a taste of the poison anyway, and likes it. So down he goes into the same pit as everybody else.
In my crowded memory of the show, which I might not have time to sit through again while I yet live, two things stand out even in a maelstrom of outstanding things: the androgynous young enforcer Snoop (Felicia Pearson), who shoots people simply because she likes it, and Lester’s discovery of the nailed-up houses in which the bodies have been left to rot in their thin dusting of quicklime. Of The Wire, so full of life—who wouldn’t like to get drunk with Bunk?—the abiding image is of a City of the Dead. It’s all so cruelly pointless that it makes you long for a real crime.
Breaking Understandably Bad
REAL CRIME WAS LARGELY MISSING from Treme, the misguided attempt by The Wire’s creators to take new territory. It wasn’t their fault that the factual setup was so short of juice. Unless you were an ultraorthodox climate change believer, there was no way of blaming the Bush administration for the hurricane that flooded New Orleans, so there was nobody to blame except the New Orleans administration that failed to keep up the levees; which would have meant blaming black people with a specificity that not even The Wire had dared to do. For understandable reasons it was deemed preferable to show us how people in the Treme (pronounced to rhyme with “away”) district went on playing excellent jazz while the city recovered, or failed to. Unfortunately, even for people who love jazz as much as I do, the music has traditionally never held the screen. As Clint Eastwood inadvertently proved with his movie Bird, not even the life of Charlie Parker can be made to look interesting by an actor with a sax sticking out of his mouth. (To be fair to Eastwood, though, his 1984 movie Tightrope had some nice stretches of sweet old jazz in the streets of New Orleans; but a few minutes at a time was plenty.) In Treme, Wendell Pierce, this time called Antoine instead of Bunk, is there again from The Wire, but although he’s lovable even when pretending to play a trombone, he would be more so if he said “fuck” instead. I like watching John Goodman venting his scorn of corrupt authority—it’s like watching an airship emerging from its hangar, a tremendous combination of grace and volume—but he’s better being a temporary president in The West Wing while Bartlet awaits the rescue of his kidnapped daughter. Or so I thought as I went gently to sleep, regularly nudged by Lucinda, who thought the show was pretty good. But she’s a civil servant wh
Real crime was meant to be awarded epic status in Boardwalk Empire, but the show faced unbeatable competition even as it was being born. The Sopranos had already cornered the market in the fascination of an alternative outlaw universe, and The Wire’s black outlaws, with both feet in criminality, had somehow outdistanced the whole tradition of mob movies, whose white inhabitants were hampered by having one foot in respectability. A third factor arises from the question of whether Steve Buscemi, who stars as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, is credible as a poised crime lord. He looks like a poised crime lord’s raving mad subordinate; although admittedly that impression might arise from one’s lingering memory of his arrival at screen prominence in a Coen Brothers context, where almost everyone looks insane. (The Coen Brothers can make you wonder if even George Clooney is quite all there.) Wasn’t Buscemi closer to being himself when, in The Sopranos, after a couple of episodes of striving to look normal, he reverted to homicidal weirdness? An unfair question to ask about an actor, perhaps, because the whole business of an actor is not to get stuck in a single self; but Buscemi invited it every time he bared his teeth, so clearly designed for biting the head off a live chicken. Leaving questions of casting aside, however, the viewer who wants to be absorbed by the show is still stuck with the problem that Nucky’s burgeoning organization burgeons to little purpose and with not much in the way of planning. We need to see the criminal mastermind’s superiority as a strategist. Even Tony Soprano gives us that: it’s how we know he’s picking up tips when he watches History Channel documentaries about Rommel. You get that even in The Borgias, where the aging Roderigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons), while arthritically reveling in his title as Pope Alexander VI and in the Vatican’s lavish supply of aristocratic young women, revels even more in explaining to his son Cesare (François Arnaud) that if the French army can be detained in Naples, the Neapolitan army can advance on Paris. Or is it the Nepalese army advancing on Pasadena? Whatever, this is the thing that Roderigo is best at and that Cesare will inherit: a sense for the mechanism of power. For dramatic purposes, it has to sound intricate even if it isn’t. From Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson you get almost none of that. Nucky has interesting relationships. His handsome but blundering brother Eli (Shea Whigham) is a rich source of embarrassment. Nucky has commendably complex feelings for his decent wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald, that nice maid from Gosford Park). But Nucky’s relationships are more interesting than he is, and we get little sense of what he is out to build, except perhaps a longer boardwalk. He makes moves to expand his bootlegging operation. The other hoodlums make moves to stop him. Head ’em off at the pass!
Roderigo and Cesare of The Borgias, their mobility confined to the speed of a horse, might envy Boardwalk Empire’s supply of vintage cars and machine guns but would be astounded by little else. The two shows ask to be linked because the set is the most eloquent protagonist in each case. The Borgia ambience looks as good as a panorama by Pinturicchio, and the Atlantic City boardwalk is a triumph of nostalgiaville art direction. But when you get down to the level of personnel, Boardwalk Empire is thin on people. Back from the war and lethally desensitized, the enforcer-for hire Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) is a scary invention. Another war casualty, Jack Huston (Richard Harrow) is even scarier, having left half his face behind somewhere in France before returning to America as the remorseless dispenser of certain death. (Every crime show needs its own Terminator, but the idea is subject to the law of diminishing returns.) The story is weakened, however, through being staffed with walking wounded to run the office, as if the man in charge were insufficiently interesting. Hence the viewer longs for the gangster movies of an earlier day. In the old Richard Wilson movie Al Capone, Rod Steiger did some of his most terrifying work, almost as if the man who took over Chicago were a slightly overweight actor making shapes with his mouth as he blasted his way to center stage. And Ray Danton in the title role of Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond at least had physical style. Examples could be multiplied (the diminutive Mickey Rooney filled the screen as Baby Face Nelson), but it wouldn’t be fair to Buscemi, whose role is simply underwritten. Nucky isn’t present as a mind. As a result, we are left with an expensive heap of evidence that décor and action aren’t enough.
Sometimes, in a movie, they are, or almost. Martin Scorsese, who directed the pilot, was an informing presence behind the conception of Boardwalk Empire. Scorsese had proved with Casino that a shapeless story about robbers robbing each other could be at least partly redeemed by lovely slow motion shots of a Vegas bombing in which the poker chips float like colored snowflakes. But a TV show is never strong when it reminds you of how a movie made the same motif more beautiful; and Scorsese might have done more to note that the deadly taciturnity of the Boardwalk character who is least like one of his—Lucky Luciano, played by Vincent Piazza with a dead pan that could not be duplicated by Joe Pesci unless he was calmed down by Novocain—was the way to go, toward the sinisterly normal and away from the rococo picturesque. We need to be looking at a man in the middle who represents us in all our frightening secret power. Bernard Berenson said that Raphael reflects back to us the classicism of our yearnings.
Whether the antihero of Breaking Bad gives us back to ourselves is a question much discussed in my family. Lucinda sat the whole thing through with me and agreed perhaps too readily with my laughing suggestion that cooking crystal meth might have been one of the ways I could have gone; but my wife gave up watching, unable, much to my relief, to find the character plausible. Perhaps her opinion was a tribute to Britain’s National Health Service, which ensures that no man stricken with a terminal illness need find a way of raising a quick few million dollars.
I found him plausible but dull. Failed chemists in America no doubt turn into drug overlords every day, but do they walk around in their underpants with their mouths open? It was that last part that set me nodding. Even my granddaughter gives me credit for the work that goes into my Benedict Cumberbatch impersonation: it’s quite a strain on the corners of the mouth, pulling them down like that without using your fingers. But nobody gave me credit for my impersonation of Walter White, as played by Bryan Cranston. I would keep my mouth sagging open for ten minutes at a time but nobody gave me an Emmy. I should be more reverent, because the show was a huge hit: a legitimate source of pride for AMC, for Netflix, and for its creator, Vince Gilligan. Cranston, who had to outdo Spencer Tracy in transforming himself over time from mild to monstrous, was much praised for carrying the show, along with Anna Gunn as his wife, Skyler, bravely adjusting herself to the realization that her husband is a lying head case, as so many wives must.
After he is cheated out of a fortune by his unscrupulous science partner, Walter settles for an unspectacular career as a mere teacher, but when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer he realizes that his family will be left impoverished, so he breaks bad. He breaks understandably bad. But the criminal activity he opts to join is one that will inevitably damage people by the thousands. I found him hard to sympathize with even when he was reduced to his underpants, and I speak as someone who has done unspeakable things to stay in business: I once voluntarily interviewed the Spice Girls. Luckily White has a brother-in-law, the DEA agent Hank Schrader, played by Dean Norris, who is marvelous at inhabiting the mental territory somewhere in between implacable detective and plodding knucklehead. Eventually he will be White’s nemesis, but it takes him five seasons to get there. Another plus is the secretive drugs mastermind Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), who proves that a black criminal kingpin can be as smart as Stringer Bell and still live. Or he almost proves it: in the end he presents us with one of the most stunning images in all the box set dramas when he walks toward us through a doorway with one side of his head missing. There is also Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), a fast-talking shyster with bad taste in ties who looked s
Unfortunately, from my viewpoint, nobody blew away Jesse Pinkman before my patience was exhausted. Lucinda, who quite liked him, told me to stop being irrational, but I would put a cushion over my face rather than watch those unnaturally perfect teeth bared at me again. This was probably a triumph of acting, but still: there are things you don’t want to see twice. Why Walter didn’t upend his rebarbative assistant into a vat of bubbling acid was a mystery, and a bigger mystery was why the kid attracted the affections of Jane Margolis, played by Krysten Ritter in all her witty beauty. The latter mystery didn’t last long, because she OD’d, and was helped along to death by Walter. I could just about put up with the loss of cheesecake, but I thought the show’s texture could ill afford to lose her character, which had been light and quick: qualities otherwise sorely missing from the script, even when Saul was in full spiel. Still, perhaps it wasn’t that kind of story; although it didn’t seem to mind turning into a bad action movie at the end, when Walter wiped out the enemy with, guess what, a remote-controlled machine gun. He was supposed to be a chemist, not an ordnance engineer, and anyway we had seen the remote-controlled gun in the highly unnecessary Bruce Willis–Richard Gere remake of The Jackal, where it had already looked more than enough like a desperate plot device. With a TV drama as with any movie, it’s always a bad sign when the image that flares into your head is of a bunch of tired writers listlessly shuffling their memories of scenes they’ve seen before.
Play All by Clive James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes