The Wire (Season 2, Episode 4): Hard Cases – Warning: Contains Spoilers


“In order for television to become a grown-up medium and say grown-up things, you had to get rid of the advertising. There’s a premium – you’re going to have to pay admission, but we’re not going to try to sell you anything other than story itself. The first 50 or 60 years of television was really the infancy. There was a reason it was an inferior medium to film. Film didn’t have to leave you every 12 minutes so that you would buy Lincoln Continentals and iPods and blue jeans and feminine hygiene products. The advent of premium cable and the banishment of advertising has created the possibility of TV as a medium having real ambition as an art form.”

“Cinematic” is a word that is often attached to The Wire and as the above quote attests, David Simon was clearly fixated with the idea of allowing his show to acquire filmic propensities. And “Hard Cases” exemplifies the qualities which separate The Wire from mainstream television shows – namely: in its emphasis on the image rather than spoken word.

The episode, appropriately enough, begins with a shot of Frank Sobotka’s grim, funereal face. He stares contemplatively from the harbour out into the ocean in one of several moments of obvious lyricism – a characteristic which seems more accentuated in the second series than any other season of the show.

Moreover, it is obvious why Simon appears so enamoured with Chris Bauer – the actor that plays Frank Sobotka. Bauer’s face is capable of conveying a range of emotions and its ability to exude tragedy renders him perfect for his role as the archetypal everyman. Sobotka – owing largely to the consummate expressiveness of Bauer’s veneer – unquestionably invokes the viewers’ sympathy and comes across as the greatest character Arthur Miller never wrote.         

Another subtle touch in which the image is telling involves Nick and his on-off girlfriend, Aimee. They awake looking haggard as the former character arises from his stupor, while the latter complains of having to constantly sleep in “his folks’ basement”.

Although the scene appears relatively insignificant in isolation, it is crucial within the context of the overall narrative arc. Viewers who watch the show carefully will notice several scenes in which Nick – in particular – along with other characters, are shown lying in bed, or in other lugubriously passive states.

The source of characters’ boredom, their frustration and their deep unhappiness lies in their frequent, enforced inactivity. “You try living on five or six days a month and see how fast it puts you on your ass,” as Nick complains to Frank after he is rebuked for engaging in illegal dealings with the Greeks.

Hence, the scene of Nick arising gingerly from his tiny bed and slowly leaving his cluttered room serves as a metaphor for the disorder and poverty which dominates his life. Employment is seemingly impossible for him to obtain on a regular basis on account of the city’s dwindling (incidentally, pre-credit crunch) economy, thus making his situation all the more frustrating. Consequently, in the recurring image of the messy, unmade bed lies a symbol of his frustration and an explanation as to why this seemingly decent human being would be willing to resort to negotiating with thugs like the Greeks. 

This sense of boredom does not confine itself to the dock-workers’ lives – it affects the police department too. After both Kima and Daniels agree to eschew their lawyerly ambitions and continue working cases, they organise a joint dinner whereby they break the news to their respective spouses.

The ensuing scene plays out with no dialogue and to a background of classical music, thereby eliciting an aura of skewed humour. In other words, the image oversees the story for the umpteenth occasion as the camera frantically cuts from one face to another while dinner is consumed in silence, amidst an atmosphere of evident tension. The non-police officer spouses are clearly unhappy at their other halves’ mutual decision and eventually leave the table acrimoniously. Yet most tellingly, their partners’ decisions are due to their inability to cope with a life outside the police department, a life – like Nick’s – which is ridden with boredom as they see it.  

Finally, a crucial moment occurs when Bunk and Lester pay an unexpected visit to the local bar. They interrupt Frank, who is drinking casually, and question him about the dead bodies discovered on the docks. Frank ostensibly stands firm under this pressure, vehemently dismissing any wrongdoing on his part. He then quickly departs to the bathroom. As he looks in the mirror, it becomes apparent – much to the viewers surprise given his tough-talking tendencies – that Frank has been shaken by this encounter, as his quivering face and nervous demeanour indicates.    

Therefore, the episode ends as it begun – with a static shot highlighting the pensive image of Frank Sobotka’s palpably humane, intensely tragic features.  

 Random Facts:

  1. The average viewership for this episode was 4.33 million, making it the fifth most watched US cable television programme during the week that it was broadcast.
  2. Chris Bauer is a HBO regular, having featured in two of the channel’s other shows – Life on Mars and True Blood.
  3. “Hard Cases” seemingly refers to the fourteen arduous cases to which Bunk, Beadie and Lester are assigned to oversee.
  4. McNulty’s inveterately pigheaded ways are not entirely fantastical. In fact, David Simon admits that the character was partly inspired by the behaviour of the show’s co-creator – Ed Burns – during his days working as a police officer. He reveals how: “[Burns] would often pull himself out of the rotation and go to wiretap cases. He had a hard time convincing the department that the methodology was not only sound, but that it should be replicated. I watched him during the last half of his career hit his head against the wall trying to get the police brass to have a little bit of ambition. There’s a lot of Burns in McNulty.”
  5. The episode marks the first time that Andre Royo (Bubbles) has appeared in the second series.

Best Quote: “You ain’t gonna play that country shit, I hate that country shit.” Bunk chastises Horseface’s taste in music and simultaneously establishes his territory in the local bar by taking charge of the jukebox.

Best Scene: A scene which would be more appropriately described as McNulty in microcosm. He listens – with a relatively casual demeanour – to a series of cantankerous messages on his answering machine, each one beseeching McNulty’s indolence as a result of the various misdemeanours that he has committed.   

New Characters: Maui and Louis Sobotka.

WTF Moment: Ziggy again illustrates his odd sense of humour (to put it mildly) by taking a picture of his genitals, before secretly uploading it onto Maui’s computer.