The Wire: Cleaning Up
Season One, Episode Twelve
Directed By: Clement Virgo
Written By: George Pelecanos, from a story by David Simon and Ed Burns
David Simon’s The Wire is not really a show that comments on itself or the genre of cop shows, but there is one particularly fine meta moment in “Cleaning Up.” The pieces aren't set up, but the order is made to arrest Avon Barksdale without the needed evidence to convict him. McNulty and Daniels drive up to the club with SWAT, and we see inside that Avon and Stringer are sitting in an empty office, calmly watching the take down on security televisions. “I didn’t expect this to be so anticlimactic,” McNulty mutters to himself.
It’s very on the nose, but for this heartbreaking and devastating episode before the season finale, it couldn’t be more perfect notice. This isn’t a show where the heroes are going to walk away feeling good about themselves, and the bad guys will receive justice. This isn't even a show where "good" or "bad" make much sense. This is a show where everything comes at a balance, and things goes on in temperament. “Cleaning Up” is the first Wire script written by George Pelecanos, who before writing his first of many episodes, was a DC boiled fiction writer. This episode feels very indebted to film noir, especially a shot after McNulty and Daniels take Avon. McNulty stands in a doorway, covered half in shadow. He is like Dave Bannion of The Big Heat or the Phillip Marlowe of the Raymond Chandler novels, a detective who must persevere, even when the possibilities for real change are impossible.
Part of Mr. Simon’s balance on the entire show, and especially with this scene, is letting us see how everything works from both the detective side. The episode begins with Stringer and Avon “cleaning house,” meaning erasing anyone or anybody that could link them to drugs, money, or murder. Some of this is simple: Stringer confiscates the pagers and hands out cellphones (for planning meetings only; no business talk). Some actions require more difficult actions. They bring in D’Angelo and ask him about Wallace, a loose end who doesn't have the heart to keep his mouth shut. “He’s out, man,” D’Angelo exclaims. Unfortunately, Wallace shows back up, unable to take the outside world. “This is me, yo, right here,” Wallace explains, unable to understand he's sending himself into a death sentence. And thus, in the most heart breaking murder, his fellow low rise members shoot him down in cold blood, even if they were the men closest to him.
With the pagers down, Burrell tries to shut down the detail, but Daniels uses his push with the warrants to keep it running for a little longer, though losing Santangelo (useless) and Snydor (sad to leave) in order to keep it running. Freamon and Prez continue to follow money to see how far the rabbit hole goes, which shakes the earth to its core. The State Attorney calls an emergency meeting with Pearlman to assure they aren’t taking bribes from illegal sources. A powerful state senator named Clay Davis (the great Isaiaah Whitlock Jr., who will become an important character later in the series) tells Daniels that his investigation stops now. And thus Burrell rings the gambit that I’ve been waiting to come pop up again—Daniels’ dirty past. We've known since the second episode that Daniels had something that would encroach back on him, and Mr. Simon finally pulls it back in as the final pull. One might of thought, watching Lance Reddick’s performance, that his ambivalence to the case would get in the way of those who actually cared. But as Daniels has changed through this season, he’s become the champion of fighting time after time for what’s right. Thus, his wrong past is what holds him back from doing the right thing. One might recall the perfect line in Richard Sidomack’s The Killers when Burt Lancaster, sitting calmly as he waits for men to come shoot him down, explains, “I did something wrong…once.”
And thus Avon is taken without a fight, knowing he’ll stand trial for a case that’s held together by twigs. D’Angelo finally sees the fallacy of the game in full proof after he’s arrested and meets with Stringer. “Where’s Wallace?” he demands over and over again, as Stringer sits silent. It’s a hell of a scene to watch because the Barksdale operation has been based on not only loyalty but necessity, and it’s when these come into conflict that things go terribly wrong. And it shows that no one wins. Stringer and Avon aren’t exactly excited that their entire operation is put on lockdown. McNulty and Daniels know none of their arrests will stick. Greggs lays in the hospital. Bubbles is MIA, and no doubt will begin using again. And the season finale doesn’t seem anymore promising. In film noir, nothing is ever resolved. And this fantastic episode of The Wire proves that still remains the case.