The Wire: The Buys
Season One, Episode Three
Directed By: Peter Medak
Written By: David Simon, from a story by Simon and Ed Burns
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There are two big philosophical discussions at the center of “The Buys,” the third episode of The Wire, and while the chess analogy has become iconic in the series, it was the earlier discussion I found more fascinating. D’Angelo and his workers are waiting for the latest shipment of crack before they can distribute, when one of them chastises an addict for approaching them. D’Angelo asks why this business has to beget violence, why can’t it run just like any other business. He pontificates that if there was no violence, the police would never come to the projects—they wouldn’t care about a bunch of junkies shooting up.
That question goes unanswered till near the end of the episode, when a rival gang led by Omar (Michael K. Williams) smashes in their safe house, steals their stash, and blows one of the workers in the kneecap with a shotgun. Violence is how one controls business. This is a great episode of television—the best in the series so far—because it really shows how drug selling is a business. D’Angelo pays a visit to Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) and gives him the weekly earnings in a backroom of the strip club they run to launder their money. Stringer gives him a bonus, and explains to him how they change their business based on the quality of product they sell. The only thing that truly separates the drug business from any other is that it is these low lives who have gone insane or gone violent.
Many people who I talked to before used the quality “Shakespearian” to describe how The Wire balances its many plot lines. You get a really good sense of that in “The Buys,” as the two major plotlines of the last episode—the article about the witness murder and the riot that led to Prez half-blinding a young boy—are more or less shoved to the side for other narratives. This is in stark contrast to a show like Breaking Bad, where the central plot never changes, but rarely moves forward. I’m not sure one is better than the other, and I think as we’ll see that Mr. Simon loves a grand narrative that really brings elements together.
This week, we see the continuing showdown between Daniels and McNulty. Daniels has power from up top telling him to make a few low scale arrests with some nice photo opportunities, while McNulty is interested in the long run, and taking down Avon Barksdale. Problem is, they don’t even have a picture of Barksdale, despite the work of their CI Bubbles (Andrew Royo is wonderful in this role, especially in the scene where he chastises their undercover for thinking he can play the part). Leave it then to the mysterious stranger in their unit, Lester Freamon. While he usually sits at his desk working on dollhouse models, Freamon gets the break when he overhears that Barksdale used to be a boxer. Clarke Peters owns this role with his solemn face and expressions, and knows how to carry himself in a room without having to rely on dialogue to bring the truth—this guy has it in his eyes.
The center of the episode, however, is back with D’Angelo and his gang when he observes two using chess pieces to play checkers. He explains the roles using analogies—Barksdale is the king, Stringer the queen, and they the pawns. They ask them though, why can’t pawns become the kings? “The King stays the King,” he explains, both to their disappointment and his as well. This ties in perfectly with a conversation between McNulty and Greggs who have no idea how Barksdale became the kingpin of the projects. What I love about the scene as well is the way that director Peter Medak uses a much more free-flowing camera than Clark Johnson. Mr. Medak keeps the camera spinning, as D’Angelo tells this tale of chess. This is the only episode he directed, which is a shame given how many great shots are in this episode, which has a more Scorsese feel in the use of dolly shots and handheld than a Lumet feel that Mr. Johnson brought. It’s less focused and controlled, and didn’t always work, but nonetheless fascinating to watch (the opening sequence is a single take).
“The Buys” finally ends with two sour notes. Daniels takes the crew (McNulty defies in subordination) to bring down D’Angelo’s low-rise projects, but the stash has already been stolen, leaving them with nothing. Plus, McNulty learns from his FBI friend that Daniels has some hidden cash, much more than any lieutenant should. Once again, we see the impossible stakes that this series is setting up, where success, or even relief, is going to be hard to come by. Pawns have a long way to travel if they want to become great, but they can never become kings.