The Wire: The Pager
Season One, Episode Five
Directed By: Clark Johnson
Written By: Ed Burns, from a story by David Simon and Burns.
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I’ve been recently reading Sidney Lumet’s great book Making Movies, all about his pragmatic insight into what a director does. Mr. Lumet was a true artist and a list of his films—12 Angry Men, Serpico, Prince of the City—shows a lot of the precedents in both tone and theme for David Simon and The Wire. But one philosophy stuck with me: Mr. Lumet always believes in coming in under budget, and not just wasting money for the sake of art. He understands his contract to his investors, and part of his creativity comes from such limits.
The last scene in “The Pager,” directed by Clark Johnson (his third episode) and written by Ed Burns (his first) is a pitch-perfect example of a great scene that may have been limited by budget, but works better because of it. As retaliation for Omar’s rampage on the Barksdale crew, Avon orders a hit on his fellow gang members, and near the end of the episode, a couple of young workers spot Omar’s lover at a pizza joint. Instead of a big chase and murder sequence, all we see are phone calls, being traced through pagers that the police have tapped. All we see are the phone calls and the numbers being written down, but Mr. Johnson knows how to quicken the pace of this, while showing nothing that is inherently cinematic, and not even using music, just the sounds of dial tones, button pressing, and data being processed. When we hear the last phone call, “it’s done,” it’s a brutal end. This sequence—the best in The Wire so far—matches the best of Spielberg and Lumet, and proves you don’t have to show your cards to lay down a cool hand.
There’s plenty other to discuss in “The Pager” as well, but the overriding theme of this episode is clear: what you can’t see can kill you. Two of the young dealers talk about AIDS (aka “the bug”), which none of them are aware whether they have because they refuse to be tested. Stringer Bell offers advice to D’Angelo to find their mole by refusing pay; the one who doesn’t complain is the one who gets paid by someone else. Most notably, the episode opens with Avon waking up to a phone call at his girlfriend’s place, which irks him uncontrollably. Are they being watched? We know he isn’t, but Avon knows that is the worst. On the opposite gang, Omar is aware he’s being watched, so he is able to stay calm. When McNulty and Greggs tail his van, he leads them to a cemetery, free of any weapons, and confronts them. He refuses any sort of deal and makes them aware that he knows Bubbles is their CI. Omar knows that knowledge and being able to see is the first step, though what the fallout of his two partners will be is left for the next episode. Knowledge is truly power in The Wire.
This episode also jolts the plot quickly forward as Moreland and McNulty get the lead on the murder of the college girl and connect it not only to D’Angelo but Avon as well, and learn about the strip club that fronts as their business center. I was surprised that this piece of information, that seems so crucial, has come out of the plot so quickly. The Wire is not the most heavily plotted show, but it is more than some others. The question is how incompetent are the police or how smart the gang that can prolong this battle for four more seasons (I’m sure Mr. Simon has plenty cooked up). As we see, the solving of the pager code isn’t solved by the expert cops, but by Prez, who’s trying to redeem himself for his mistakes earlier.
The final scene worth discussing is the great one where D’Angelo and his girlfriend go to a fancy restaurant. D’Angelo is uncomfortable in the scene, and unsure of the practices of how the rich and fancy do it, feeling alienated. But his girlfriend tells him that what matters is money—he can pay, so he has the right to be there. D’Angelo believes he can never escape his roots. Like some of the best elliptical scenes in The Wire, there’s no narrative resolution here, simply a question that Mr. Simon and Mr. Burns want to ask. Is the American dream just a dream when you come from the projects? We’ve got 55 episodes to see.