The Look Back: The Wire’s “Middle Ground”

wire-middleground

In The Look Back I will be looking at movies and television series/episodes with fairly recent anniversaries and writing about why I love them so. Basically it’s a desperate attempt to write about things that would normally have very little relevance at all.

Nine years ago today the nominations for the 57th Primetime Emmy Awards were announced. 2005 was a simpler time; Everybody Loves Raymond led the pack with 10 nominations, Angela Lansbury received her 18th nomination, and Desperate Housewives became the second series ever to earn 3 nominations in a lead acting category (the other series? Golden Girls, of course). But not every nomination announced was as standard as expected. A small HBO drama well into its third year earned its first Emmy nomination ever in the Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category. The series was The Wire, and the episode was “Middle Ground.”

For some reason, “Middle Ground” was The Wire‘s first Emmy nomination ever. (The show would only come to earn one more nomination, for its series finale “–30–” again in Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series.) How is it that the most talked about series of its time took 3 years to earn an Emmy nomination? Well, because the voters who decide the Emmy nominations are a group of asinine dumbfucks. Regardless, “Middle Ground” has good reason for being The Wire‘s first Emmy nomination. It’s a brilliant hour of storytelling (as most episodes of The Wire are) and stands out from every other episode of The Wires 5 year run. This is because “Middle Ground” is something all other episodes of The Wire are not: a stand-alone episode of television.

What makes “Middle Ground” a stand-alone episode is that all of the major stories of Season 3 start to come to a head. McNulty and co. have successfully sold the Barksdale crew tapped phones and are thisclose to catching Stringer Bell. Bunny has given a presentation revealing the existence of Hamsterdam and Rawls and Mayor Royce are scrambling in how to explain it before the story breaks. Cutty is nearing his redemptive end. And there’s Stinger and Avon, whose relationship is the heart of this episode. All of these stories are reaching their ends because “Middle Ground” is the penultimate episode of The Wire‘s 3rd season, but there’s something about the narrative propulsion that brings a unique energy to the episode.

Take “Middle Ground”‘s opening scene, for example, which is one of the greatest scenes in television history.

The scene is impeccably shot by episode director Joe Chappelle, whose blocking of the scene hearkens back to Sergio Leone westerns. But the scene works as well as it does not because of its incredible visual style, but because of the palpable energy that stems from a simple conversation between two characters, Omar and Brother Mouzone. (I’d love to show every Breaking Bad fan who thinks Gus Fring is the best television villain ever Brother Mouzone, who puts Fring to shame.) Every line crackles, and when watching the scene it feels like it’s the most thrilling thing you’ll ever see, even though it’s just two men talking to each other. Immediately, “Middle Ground” finds energy and propulsion by simply trusting its characters, which is something that carries on throughout the entire episode.

Another benchmark sequence in “Middle Ground” is the collection of scenes where Bunny shows off his precinct to Carcetti. The scenes are made up of, again, two men talking to each other, this time about the simplicities of daily life in Baltimore. Bunny’s precinct has turned into a “normal” neighborhood, something its residents haven’t been used to, and the sequence relishes in the beauty that comes from this newfound normalcy. One scene that particularly comes to mind is when Bunny and Carcetti attend a community meeting.

It’s a short scene that just features people talking, but the scene strikes a deeply emotional chord. It’s a meditation on human connection. The collection of these scenes between Bunny and Carcetti feel like if Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy was set in Baltimore, but that feeling comes to a crushing end once Carcetti reaches Hamsterdam. The close up of Carcetti’s face realizing what Hamsterdam is is a shattering moment in a series full of them, but that devastation could not be achieved without the beauty of the scenes that preceded it.

And speaking of devastation: Stringer and Avon. As mentioned before, Stringer and Avon’s relationship is the heart of “Middle Ground.” It’s been crumbling slowly, but in “Middle Ground” it reaches its breaking point. The last scene the two men share together is another hallmark one, as it is just Stringer and Avon reminiscing about where they’ve come from and where they stand now.

The scene is, again, filled with incredible dialogue, every line more loaded as the next. There’s “We ain’t gotta dream no more, man” the episode’s epigraph, and the ending line of “Us, motherfucker.” It’s one of the most rich and textured scenes of television I’ve ever seen in my life, and it’s only made possible by The Wire trusting its characters and believing in the small moments they’re able to produce.

And it’s made even more devastating by Stringer’s death. The act of killing off Stringer Bell is an incredibly shocking, ambitious, and devastating one (I’d also love to show every Game of Thrones fan who thinks that the show’s killing off of characters are the most ambitious in television history what The Wire did in 2004), but the most crushing thing about it is that it’s just a small moment in The Wire‘s gigantic universe. Sure, Stringer’s death causes serious complications for the Major Crimes Unit, but after the season finale The Wire just moves on.

Handling Stringer’s death in this way brings perspective and gravity to the episode and series as a whole in a way that is, in the macro, uncommon for The Wire. The series has been lauded continuously for its tactfulness in understanding why institutions fail us, and its sweeping weightiness when exhausting the subject. But for my money, The Wire is not recognized enough for its smaller moments and perspective. The most striking thing about the series is how it’s able to craft a gigantic and complex universe while still being able to deliver small and intimate character moments that feel just as weighty as its big picture ideas. This is readily apparent in “Middle Ground,” as the episode is built on small and unique character moments which bring perspective, and is ultimately why the episode works on its own. It’s what I love about The Wire, and it’s why “Middle Ground” is the series’ best episode.

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2013 Emmy Nominations: Emmy Voters Remind Us That They Can Be Cool, That They Are Still the Worst

The 2013 Emmy Nominations were announced today, at 5:35 AM PDT, and nothing has really changed. Yes, the Emmy voters showed us that they are the same old guys who are able to nominate awesome and deserving things (like Adam Driver for Girls), and still be idiots at the same time (House of LiesEpisodes and Modern Family aren’t going anywhere!). However, it wasn’t all the same old, same old, as a new player emerged and dominated in most of the fields.

Emmy voters really liked House of Cards. Like really liked it. Despite it being a traditional and fairly boring “cable” drama, it earned 9 nominations, making history by becoming the first program to not air on actual TV, but still score top nominations (such as Best Drama, Actor, Actress, Writing, and Directing). Netflix really lucked out with HOC, but unfortunately the same didn’t happen on the Comedy side. Surprise, Netflix’s rebooted fourth season of Arrested Development only scored 1 major nomination (Jason Bateman for Actor) and 2 others (Editing* and Original Score). This fact probably won’t bother Mitch Hurwitz, the show’s creator, because he’ll probably tell the voters they’re resisting change. Regardless, Netflix’s newfound dominance within the Emmys is a major thing, and will hopefully pave the way for Orange is the New Black, which will win all the Emmys in 2014.

*Seriously?!?!? The Emmy voters choose to honor the editing of AD‘s fourth season? What was once the best thing about the show in its original run became one of the worst aspects of the new season, in the overstuffed and overlong episodes.

Despite HOC‘s dominance, there are still great things happening in the Drama side of nominations. Breaking Bad earned 13 nominations (some include Best Drama, Actor, two Supporting Actors, Supporting Actress, Directing, and two writing noms!) and it seems like this is the best year yet for the scuzzy, southwestern, anti-hero-centered drama. Despite its dominance (two writing nominations!!!) BB seems like the show that will never win Best Drama, and that’s okay because its fifth season wouldn’t be my choice for best drama. (Despite being Breaking Bad, the fifth season seemed like a step down from its outstanding fourth season, but in reality, it was still really great television.) Even though I may seem down on BB, this is the year for Anna Gunn to win, and I know I’m going to love her acceptance speech. Same goes for Jonathan Banks.

Accompanying Breaking Bad is Game of Thrones. GOT earned 16 deserving nominations for its best season yet, which is the most of any drama this year. Among the most deserved are Best Drama (obviously), Emilia Clarke for Best Supporting Actress (you truly cannot say no to Daenerys ‘Dracarys’ Targaryen in this scene), Best Writing for “The Rains of Castamere”, and Best Casting (seriously, I don’t know how they do it). Don’t get too excited, the Emmy voters managed to screw up somewhere GOT related, and this year it was Directing. Season 3 of GOT, seemed like it was the best directed show on TV (The Red Wedding, the previously mentioned Daenerys scene), but a nomination is nowhere to be found. Despite this, 2013 seems like the year for GOT to win it all, so here’s hoping it does.

Now, things aren’t all that great in the Drama field of nominations. Voters still found the need to nominate Downton Abbey which has been rapidly declining since the end of season 1. Downton scored 12 nominations, which is still far too many for this import drama. There is really nothing good I can say about this. Instead of submitting the heart-wrenching episode 5, the fairly forgettable episode 4 was submitted and scored writing and directing nominations.

What Downton Abbey is to the Dramatic categories, Modern Family is to the comedy categories. After winning three consecutive Best Comedy Emmys (which compares it to the likes of The Dick Van Dyke ShowAll in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Taxi), MF is back with only 12 nominations. This is a step down from past years, which is only a good sign, because no one wants Modern Family to be compared to the greatness of All in the Family. In fact, there is a rather hilarious (funnier than Modern Family, I promise!) slip that the show experienced this round of nominations. Last years winner, Eric Stonestreet (who I would’ve called one of the best performers on TV three years ago, but is now insufferable) was NOT nominated this year. Again, things can only get better.

While I like might to dwell some more about the negative things on the comedy side (House of LiesEpisodes, even more Modern Family rage) there is actually some really great stuff happening. As previously mentioned, Adam Driver was nominated for his performance on Girls! Laura Dern was nominated for Best Actress for Enlightened! Merrit Weaver was nominated again for Nurse Jackie! (the performance is good, the show… not so much.) Lena Dunham got a directing nomination for directing one of the best half hours of TV in the past decade (“On All Fours”)! Louis C.K. scored a whopping, 9 individual nominations (ranging from producing, directing, writing, editing, and acting)! Things are really, really great on the comedy side.

But best of all is the love for 30 Rock. 30 Rock earned 13 nominations for its beautiful swan song of a last season, which was a true triumph of TV in the past season. Among those are 2 writing nominations for “Hogcock!” and “Last Lunch” which combined create one of the best television finales of all time. In truth, because they are both nominated, votes will be split and Louie will win again, but that’s not a bad thing. Another deserving nomination that 30 Rock deservedly received was for Best Original Music and Lyrics for “The Rural Juror.” This song is truly an outstanding accomplishment in television, and will rightly win the Emmy. Because it is its last year, and has garnered many nominations, there is another comedy that actually stands a chance at dethroning Modern Family, so here’s hoping its 3o Rock.

The Comedy and Drama nominations aren’t all that are important. Yes, there is a lovely field of contenders in this year’s Miniseries/TV Movie categories. Among the top of them are Top of the Lake, and Behind the CandelabraCandelabra earned 15 nominations for Steven Soderbergh’s first foray in television. Top earned a bevy of nominations, and rightly so, though Holly Hunter was snubbed of a nomination for her wacky and confounding performance. Both nominees are equally deserving of their nominations, and I couldn’t be happier with the competition between the two.

Even if there are great things getting nominated, there are still less deserving nominees that exist. For instance there’s Jeff Daniels of The NewsroomVice being nominated for an award with the word “Outstanding” in front of it. There are also far to many snubs to count. The guest actress categories strike a particular chord with me. Parker Posey did not get nominated for her profoundly beautiful performance in Louie, but I guess the nominations of Melissa Leo and Molly Shannon for Enlightened  make up for it. The Americans was also shut out of most major categories, but voters proved they watched it by nominating Margo Martindale. In the guest actor categories Patrick Wilson was shut out for his performance in one of the best episodes of Girls ever. David Lynch and F. Murray Abraham were not nominated for their equally hilarious roles (especially Lynch) in Louie. However, Harry Hamlin managed to get nominated for his particularly great role in Mad Men. But, in return Mad Men (one of top shows of the year) earned no writing or directing nominations. The dramatic actress category is a particularly confusing one. Seven women were nominated, but none of them were Tatiana Maslany for Orphan Black (10 more times!), Keri Russell for The Americans, or former winner Juliana Margulies for The Good Wife! The only “reasonable” explanation for all of these snubs would be to blame it on House of Cards. Fuck House of Cards.

I could go on and on complaining about the snubs from the Emmys. I didn’t even mention Mike White, the New Girl shutout (I’m calling conspiracy!), or Rectify! But in the end, it just turns out that Emmy voters can be stupid. They like stupid things for stupid reasons and nominate them in stupid categories. That’s why fucking House of Cards has nine nominations and Rectify has zero. But it turns out Emmy voters can be cool to. Whether its nominating awesome performances (I can’t get over Adam Driver!), great writing (“The Rains of Castamere”) or great directing (Louis C.K. for “New Years Eve”), Emmy voters can sometimes get it right.

And in one particularly moving case, the Emmy voters got it on the nose. Henry Bromell passed away tragically from a heart attack at the age of 65 back in March. Before he died, he wrote one of the best episodes of the television season, Homeland‘s “Q&A.” Now the nominations are out, and guess who is nominated for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series? This is a profound and moving sentiment by the Emmy voters, and in the end, they seem like they’re alright.