The Wire (Season 1, Episode 5): The Pager – Warning: Contains Spoilers


“The first season of The Wire was a training exercise. We were training you to watch television different.” David Simon’s sentiments are especially evident in “The Pager”. Over the course of this episode, nothing happens ostensibly. There are no scenes depicting murders or car chases and the level of violence on display is minimal.

Yet Simon’s show compensates for the lack of overt action by executing countless suggestive images. Namely, one particular scene focuses on Omar strolling down the streets, whistling in a deceptively casual manner. His demeanour is in stark contrast to the other street dwellers, who flee with fearful abandon once they become aware of his menacing presence.  

Omar’s sheer aura, along with the intimidation and begrudged respect which he induces, make him reminiscent of a mythical John Wayne-type figure. And indeed the moment in question looks as if it has been taken straight out of a classic Western, given the high tension that it successfully conveys.

However, what distinguishes the moment from similar scenarios in a dozen other films is the manner in which Simon breaks away from the scene once Omar has cornered his unsuspecting target (with a shotgun in hand) and examined the gold chain around his neck. So no action happens onscreen.

Nevertheless, it seems clear Omar’s victim’s death is inevitable and thus, it is deemed unnecessary to portray its occurrence. Instead, there is a brief shot, several scenes later, of Omar’s boyfriend (Brandon) inspecting the very same gold chain which his victim wore. Consequently, alert viewers are granted near confirmation of the death.

Essentially, The Wire refuses to titillate viewers with representations of excess violence for its own sake. This approach of neglecting to show graphic violence (at least not without a meaningful reason for doing so) was particularly refreshing considering that the show coincided with an era in which ‘torture porn’ films, such as the Saw series, were prevalent. In contrast with The Wire, these films basically delighted in eliciting cheap thrills through pointless exhibitions of copious gore and brutality.

A further fascinating aspect of The Wire, was its supposed intention to “f*ck the average viewer” in Simon’s words. It is a show which unashamedly wears its intelligence on its sleeve. This mannerism is routinely apparent, as the programme consistently requires viewers to recall specific details from various moments after several scenes (and in some cases several episodes) have elapsed.  

In one of the opening scenes, Stringer expresses his concerns to D’Angelo that there is “a snitch” in the low rises. He subsequently instructs D’Angelo to postpone his workers’ weekly Friday payout and claims that whoever does not protest this decision is the guilty party. “N*gga that ain’t askin for shit, that’s the n*gga,” he concludes, in a characteristically blunt fashion.

Unsurprisingly, a ramification of the aforementioned dialogue is not illustrated until towards the end of the episode. It occurs when Wallace reluctantly pleads with D’Angelo to supply his weekly wage. D’Angelo responds in turn by simply nodding his head and smiling before walking off, as he now feels certain that Wallace is not the snitch. The viewer’s attention span is again being tested and thus, there is no doubt that The Wire is self-consciously challenging television.

Moreover, the show’s intelligent, novelistic preoccupations are accentuated on several occasions. For instance, the episode is called “The Pager” for good reason, since this object is the primary narrative device around which the action unfolds.

Avon’s crew are continually caught out after the cloning of a pager enables the detectives to trace the criminals’ phone numbers. Not only does the action cause the plot to develop significantly, but it also indirectly gives insight into the character of Prez.

The eccentric cop, who initially appeared to be a stereotypical dim wit, suddenly reveals his considerable talent by cracking the pager’s code and ultimately proving key to the crime unit’s innovative operation. The sheer looks of amazement on the faces of McNulty and Kima, when they discover his mathematical proclivities, is telling. Similarly to the viewer, they have both been guilty of prematurely judging Prez. And in fact throughout the series, characters unveil surprising levels of depth which force the audience to perceive them in a totally different light.

A further recurring motif is the concept of scenes mirroring one another – the aforementioned resemblance of the rebukes given to McNulty and D’Angelo by their respective superiors in episode 1 is a prime example. Accordingly, this episode ends (as it begins) with a murder that is never explicitly shown and in which Omar’s crew are on the receiving end this time. Hence, as in Waiting for Godot, nothing happens twice. 

Random Facts:

  1. The episode originally aired on June 30, 2002. The same day as the World Cup Final in which Brazil beat Germany 2-0.
  2. The conversation between Bodie and Poot concerning AIDS is taken more or less directly from David Simon’s nonfiction book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inne- City Neighbourhood.
  3. The rapper Fredro Starr, who appears for the time as Bird, is one of eight renowned musicians to play a character in The Wire.
  4. The tune which Omar whistles while walking the streets is “The Farmer in the Dell” – a famous children’s nursery rhyme. It is also made reference to in William Faulkner’s 1930 novel, As I Lay Dying, and the 1932 western, Renegades of the West.
  5. Barack Obama’s favourite TV show is The Wire and his favourite character is Omar, who is an integral part of this episode.

Best Quote: After Kima and McNulty have engaged in a fruitless search of Omar’s car, McNulty expresses his disbelief: “Omar with no gun on the street? Must be a first.” Omar’s response perfectly conveys his gargantuan self confidence: “Sometimes who you are is enough dog.”

Best Scene: When Avon visits his unconscious brother in a rehabilitation clinic, he demonstrates a rare moment of philosophical reflection: “He scares you don’t he?” he says to D’Angelo in a melancholic tone. “You only got to f*ck up once. You can’t plan for sh*t like this – it’s life. It scares me.” His words foreshadow the intensive dilemmas which D’Angelo will encounter imminently.

New Characters: Marquis “Bird” Hilton

WTF Moment: When Omar chastises Brandon for swearing. In his eyes, using the “f word” is a far graver offence than murder.