“The grand theme here is nothing less than a national existentialism: It is a police story set amid the dysfunction and indifference of an urban department – one that has failed to come to terms with the permanent nature of urban drug culture, one in which thinking cops, and thinking street players, must make their way independent of simple explanations.”
David Simon’s outline for The Wire was unique in its emphasis on “thinking street players”. One of the perpetual inadequacies of much TV drama is that the villainous characters are often shown to be either fundamentally oafish or wildly eccentric. The joker from the Batman television series is one clear example that springs to mind.
The Wire subverts some of the stereotypes traditionally associated with TV villains. Both Stringer and Avon are highly calculated and consistently unemotional in their behaviour. They are not much different to other corrupt characters with more societal clout, such as Carcetti and Maurice Levy. They are all constantly scheming whilst trying to preserve the efficiency of their organisation.
Moreover, like some of the shows’ more esteemed individuals, these characters are seldom involved in violence, but are rarely blameless in such incidences either. The same can be said – to a lesser extent – about characters such as Levy, who in no way help to alleviate the various injustices that are endemic in Baltimorean society.
In this episode, the viewer sees Stringer and Avon assessing their current situation with the utmost degree of care. They examine each individual linked with their organisation and weigh up the threat which they pose and the likelihood of their “snitching” to the police. Eventually, Stringer orders Bodie to kill Wallace, ignoring the contrary wishes of D’Angelo in the process.
What Simon seems to be asking, by virtue of the fact that he elects to portray the criminals as intelligent, is: why did they not choose to put their talents to better use? Why do they feel the need to resort to a lifetime of criminality? This theme is not comprehensively explored until season 4, which focuses on the school system and how kids acquire criminal instincts. For now, the viewer must be content with less intricate explanations such as their desire to possess power and acquire social status.
Conversely, not all criminals are depicted as being intensively hardened and lacking feeling. Larry Gilliard Jr gives one of his finest performances in this episode, conveying the reluctance and apprehension which haunts D’Angelo during his criminal activities. Yet the utter disbelief and anger with which he greets the news of Wallace’s death is a pertinent demonstration of his inveterate naivety.
The said scene, in which Wallace is slain, is executed with equal mastery. Bodie is hardly ever shown to display more vulnerability than in this moment. The usually suave nature of his character causes viewers to forget the fact that he is merely sixteen years of age. Hence, the psychological pain which killing Wallace elicits in him becomes evident. Bodie’s noticeable discomfort is effectively demonstrated by the close-up of his shaking hand, as he struggles to pull the trigger on the gun.
Furthermore, the cops’ morality is far from black and white. The continual confrontations between Borrell and Daniels are the most tacit example of the departments’ unsavoury elements. Specifically, Borrell threatens to uncover “dirt” on Daniels unless the latter character agrees to ignore the misdemeanours of prominent figures with important political affiliations. Yet Daniels, despite the risk it poses to his career ambitions, refuses to accept Borrell’s orders.
Indeed the situation confronting Daniels is not dissimilar to the dilemma facing D’Angelo. Both characters are faced with a quandary in which the more moral decision is the one which conflicts with their self-preserving instincts. In other words, if Daniels continues to defy Borrell, he will ruin his chances of ascending the ranks of the police department. Meanwhile, D’Angelo knows that if he implicates his compatriots for their various crimes, his life will be in imminent danger.
Therefore, while D’Angelo and Daniels are different in several ways, the difficult but admirable decisions they eventually elect to take shows the underlying humanism which often dictates characters’ actions. This facet of the show seems to have been overlooked by many commentators who seem more intent on exploring the bleaker societal meditations which infuse its narrative.
- The episode title “Cleaning Up” shares its name with a 1925 film directed by Fatty Arbuckle.
- This was the first episode written by George Pelecanos, the novelist who would go on to become an integral part of The Wire’s success.
- The scene portraying Wallace’s demise was highly praised by critics. New York Magazine described it as “one of an overwhelmingly bleak show’s bleakest moments”, while MSNBC said it was “perhaps the most memorable (scene), and one that illustrates The Wire in microcosm”.
- In this episode, the murdered body of Nakeesha Lyles is shown. The character was last seen testifying against the Barksdale organisation in episode 1. This elucidates the long attention span which the show requires of its viewer.
- The episode is one of three from the first season which are accompanied by commentaries on the DVD box set. The other two episodes in question are “The Target” and “The Detail”.
Best Quote: “You like the crib I put you in, right?” Avon provides a pertinent riposte to his sister’s reservations regarding his lifestyle.
Best Scene: The scene in which Avon is arrested encapsulates The Wire’s modus operandi. It is deliberately non-sensational and highly realistic. There is no dramatic confrontation and little discernible intensity evident – instead, Avon allows Daniels to handcuff him and he does not utter a single word during this procedure. Its visuals also echo Wallace’s death scene, however on this occasion characters are shown walking downstairs rather than upstairs.
New Characters: Brianna Barksdale (D’Angelo’s mother)
WTF Moment: The image of Rawls comforting McNulty is nothing less than surreal.