For better or worse, episodic television is about expectations. Zombies are going to make an appearance in “Walking Dead” as surely as every episode of “Law and Order” will be split into two halves. Each series teaches us how to watch it, how to take it on its own terms.
As series creators have become recognizable figures, we’ve come to have expectations of them as well. Aaron Sorkin is going to dazzle and assault us with verbiage, plant a notion and then spin dross into gold in front of our eyes. Joss Whedon is going to play pop-culture games.
David Simon is going to kill people.
[Spoilers ahead, for “The Wire,” if you haven’t seen it, as well as “Treme.”]
Anyone who would kill off D’Angelo, Stringer Bell, and Omar will sacrifice any of his characters, especially if their death will have maximum emotional effect.
The demise of John Goodman’s Creighton Bernette may have been predictable (the character was based on an actual figure), but his death was gut-wrenching all the same. So was the street-crime killing of Harley Watt; that Watt was played by Simon’s friend, singer Steve Earle, didn’t seem to faze him a bit.
Harley’s death is particularly apropos this season.
In the fifth episode — teleplay by Lolis Eric Elie & Jen Ralston; story by Eric Overmeyer – Sophia, Toni Bernette’s daughter, is pulled over by the brutality-prone cop Billy Wilson.
There’s no question that this is not an accident: Toni is after Wilson, and this traffic stop is a warning.
It’s also a reminder that in a police state (and Simon, Overmeyer, and Pelecanos are quite clear during the course of this season that New Orleans has become a police state), it isn’t only minorities at risk.
Being white and middle-class is no guarantee of protection. Yes, minorities are the first victims (and, you’ll remember, the first time we saw Wilson out of control was outside LaDonna’s bar, beating a black man). But just as street-crime reaches into the world of the show’s white musicians, so, this season, the abusive behavior comes straight into the most middle-class home on the show.
Abuse of power is not a black problem – it’s a city’s problem. Sophia’s traffic stop (and it’s not going to be the last one) is the result of her mother’s crusade – it’s the middle-class equivalent of Driving While Black.
In any other show, the audience would watch and get angry. But because this is a David Simon show – because he’s taught us that any character can die – the stop puts a pit in our stomach.
Are Simon, Overmeyer, and Pelecanos really going to go this far? Hasn’t Toni suffered enough?
No, I’m not going to answer that question. It hovers from this moment forward until its resolution near the end of the season.
But that, of course, is the point.
The writers know how charming they’ve made Sophia — they’ve fooled us into thinking the worst thing that can happen to her is hooking up with an age-inappropriate guy – and they know what we’re thinking: that could be my kid at risk.
And suddenly, police brutality is no longer a minority issue.