Thursday, August 30, 2018

Puddles of What I'm Enjoying: Lester Freamon's Stakeout Scene in Season 5 of The Wire

In a new sporadic series, Matt Domino shares a brief look at a bit of pop culture, entertainment, or literature he is enjoying.

The fifth season of The Wire is usually regarded as the weakest of the show’s entire run. This argument isn’t without merit. The manufactured serial killer story arc and McNulty’s famous line, “We have to kill again,” feel tonally off with the rest of the show. As does McNulty once again veering into self-destruction in a way that doesn’t feel revelatory—the same way Don Draper’s late-season indiscretions in Mad Men were more redundant than revealing. For some viewers, the newspaper storyline also came off as a bit too moralistic, too on the nose. Scott Templeton was very clearly a creep and not in the compelling or, at the very least, interesting way that Tommy Carcetti was.

However, the fifth season of The Wire is the one that I always find myself drawn back to. Part of the appeal is wanting to dig deeper and find the potential hidden merits in the episodes and the development of the individual characters. Another part of it is the fact that I am a sucker for following and appreciating a saga in full. Sure, the Star Wars prequels were terrible, but they were part of the larger story and canon, so I had to appreciate them in some way.

Mainly, though, I am drawn to the fifth season of The Wire because of the newspaper storyline. The scenes in the Baltimore Sun newsroom, more than any other depiction of journalism or publishing onscreen, remind me of the office experiences I have had in my career of vague journalism. But I’ll get into that all another time, especially the character of Augustus “Gus” Haynes, the city desk editor.

In rewatching Season Five recently, though, a specific scene stuck out to me in a way that it hadn’t before. That is one of the joys of watching a season of a television series you have already watched in its entirety nine times an additional tenth time. The scene I am referring to comes in the season’s second episode, “Unconfirmed Reports.”

I am a poor fiction writer and a bad critical reader, but I do enjoy reading novels and I do enjoy the idea of trying to understand or comprehend the basic mechanics of what make a good novel work, as well as looking for those same mechanics in other forms of media.

In his book How Fiction Works, the star literary critic James Wood devotes two chapters to focusing on and dissecting the influence of Gustave Flaubert. In one of those chapters, “Flaubert and Modern Narrative,” Wood analyzes the way Flaubert introduced a manner of conveying multiple objects and subjects operating at the same moment or what Wood describes as a tool where “the awful and the regular will be noticed at the same time.”

Wood uses an example from Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education to illustrate this point. The below translation that I found accessible online differs from the translation that Wood uses in his book:

He plunged at random into the Latin Quarter, usually so noisy, but deserted at this particular time, for the students had gone back to join their families. The huge walls of the colleges, which the silence seemed to lengthen, wore a still more melancholy aspect. All sorts of peaceful sounds could be heard—the flapping of wings in cages, the noise made by the turning of a lathe, or the strokes of a cobbler's hammer; and the old-clothes men, standing in the middle of the street, looked up at each house fruitlessly. In the interior of a solitary café the barmaid was yawning between her two full decanters. The newspapers were left undisturbed on the tables of reading-rooms. In the ironing establishments linen quivered under the puffs of tepid wind. From time to time he stopped to look at the window of a second-hand book-shop; an omnibus which grazed the footpath as it came rumbling along made him turn round; and, when he found himself before the Luxembourg, he went no further.

Wood tells us that in a scene description like this, Flaubert introduced a conscious noticing into his narratives, one that Wood compares to the effect of film. Wood explains that we as readers notice that what Flaubert has chosen to include is “not of course casually scanned but quite savagely chosen, that each details is almost frozen in its gel of chosenness.”

In the “Unconfirmed Reports” episode of The Wire, the scene that fascinated me featured this very basic concept of the modern novel in full effect. In the scene, the character of Lester Freamon is sitting in his car on a stakeout. He is in the middle of two major investigations: one is an investigation of the highly corrupt, but highly entertaining, state senator Clay Davis; the other is into Marlo Stanfield’s drug organization. Here, Lester Freamon—the wily, smooth, and insistent detective—is staking out Stanfield’s crew.

Freamon waits in his car, eating a bag of chips. On the stereo, a version of “Piece of My Heart” by Erma Franklin plays. Freamon sings and hums along, crunching and chewing on chips, his eyes peering out the window. The street he is parked on glows orange, the brick row houses behind him appear a maroonish brown. The camera starts close on Freamon’s face, then slowly pulls back. A car alarm goes off. The music is overtaken by the sound of a woman, a mother, yelling at someone. She emerges on camera pulling her young son by the hand, while a young black woman walks beside her. She tells the son, “You ain’t doing nothing but aggravating me. Now get up on in this house before I beat the black off your ass. Get on up in here fool, c’mon!” She pulls her son up the stone steps—the camera pulling back still a bit more to capture the action and so that we notice Freamon turn and watch her from his car—and opens the door to their row house building, pushing her son inside. The young woman keeps walking. The mother’s attention moves to her and she looks down the street: “Trina,” she says. “Trina, wait for me, I’ma come back out.” The woman turns back to the young boy, closes the iron-grate door behind her and says, “Stay here, fool.” As she walks away, the camera inches back closer so that we see the son’s small, shadowed form standing in the doorway, his small hands gripping the iron-grated door. Freamon gazes at him for a moment, then turns back out his window, his attention drawn back to the stakeout. The camera zooms just a bit closer and moves toward Freamon so that his face is in center-frame. Then, it’s over.

Just as in Flaubert, every detail in this scene is perfectly selected. Freamon is chewing on chips on a stakeout, a form of easy nourishment while on the case. The mother and her son enter the frame and become the focus for just a moment. Then, for a brief moment both the boy, left alone, and Freamon observing from his car are both the center of attention. In the end, the camera returns us to Freamon. An investigation into a major crime, a mother chiding her son, that same mother following her daughter or her friend down the street, and a son left alone, all of these things are occurring simultaneously and carry with them their own universes and weight.

And, of course, you can add to all this context from having watched the rest of The Wire—the scene just before the one described above is in the Baltimore Sun office where the executive editor is explaining why they need to do an investigative series on the schools; the fourth season of The Wire focused on the problems with the school system and how kids in Baltimore have little chance to escape a life of crime or drugs; the child that Freamon watches, but knows he can’t help is one of those kids—but that doesn’t really matter. All that matters is the scene, the way the action is captured so clearly so that they are “frozen in [their] gel of chosenness” that you can almost narrate or relay the action in your head while you are watching it.

At least that’s how the scene made me feel when it jumped out at me upon my tenth viewing of the episode. And now there’s yet another blog post comparing The Wire to literature out in the world.


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