‘The Wire’: George Pelecanos talks about ‘Middle Ground’

This week marks the next-to-last time I’ll be doing any kind of significant writing about “The Wire” for a very long time, since I’ve already exhaustively covered seasons 1, 2, 4 and 5 at my old blog and am one episode away from completing season 3 here. I wanted to do something special here as we get close to the finish line, and since this week marks one of what I call the “George Pelecanos Episodes” – penultimate chapters of a season where very bad things happen to the characters we care most about – I thought I would reach out to George Pelecanos himself to get his perspective on playing the role of the writing staff’s hatchet man.

George – who’s also a terrific crime novelist (if you’re a “Wire” fan who hasn’t sampled his work, I’d suggest starting with “Drama City,” but he writes a mix of series and standalone books) – was actually on vacation with his family this week, but he was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk about the process of writing this week’s episode, “Middle Ground” (my review of it is here), as well as all the other penultimate episodes.

We do touch on the penultimate chapters of seasons 4 & 5, so if you’re reading my reviews at the newbie pace, you may want to save this to read much later. After the jump, we get down to it.

What do you remember about writing that first episode (season one’s “Cleaning Up”)?

That was the season that I was least involved in, because David (Simon) hired me to write an episode for the season, and he sent me the beat sheet. I had never been to set, I didn’t know the actors, I wasn’t in the writing room, and I just wrote it on my own. All those decisions about where the scenes fall are made in the writers room. This is the episode that I actually know least about.

What happened was that when I wrote that scene of Wallace (being killed), David was probably a little bit surprised that it was as powerful as it was – that the tension was as protracted as much as it was. That all came from my novel-writing. So after that, we had sort of an unofficial handshake that I would get the penultimate episode every season. There were some seasons where I wrote two episodes, some where I wrote one, but I always got the next-to-last. By design, the last episode, which was always written by David, was wrapping everything up, thematically and the loose threads. The next to last is what led up to that. You would have the really awful things that were going to happen, happen then. I was just suited for that because of my background as a crime novelist. If you’ve read my books, there’s not a high body count, but there’s a lot of tension leading up to the climax of each book.

I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Especially the killing of Wallace was one of the most difficult things I’ve written. On set, people in the crew were crying. They liked the kid (Michael B. Jordan) a lot as a person, and the interaction between him and the other two was difficult.

You say your background as a novelist helped you, but I’ve read most of your books, and the starkest difference between them and “The Wire” is that the bad fates are usually saved for the bad characters. For the most part, the people we like come out of them okay.

I think in general, I was the odd man out in terms of “The Wire.” The others tended to have a little bit darker view of humanity than I did. Which is why you see a character like Cutty pop up, which was my character. That’s a guy who sort of makes it through to the other side. He’s one of those rare characters in the show who comes out of it all right and does some good in the city and doesn’t get punished for it. You’re absolutely right, my books are different from “The Wire,” but I got a lot out of writing for that show. It made me look at a different side of things. If you look at my books afterwards, particularly a book like “Drama City,” it was heavily influenced by the show.

What was it like, emotionally, to be responsible for killing Wallace and Frank Sobotka, ruining Randy’s life, killing Stringer, etc.?

Some were harder than others. I was dispassionate about Sobotka to a degree. That was almost a mechanical, “How do I figure out how to do it? How do I write it so it’s most powerful in terms of tension and foreboding?” The ones that were hard were Wallace, especially, because he’s a kid. Snoop was a real tough thing to do that David and I debated for a long time. Especially that line: “How’s my hair look, Mike?” He wasn’t sure about it. And finally I said, “Let’s shoot it.” If you remember the way the scene was shot, the camera is behind the car and you see the flash. You could cut it so that line isn’t in there if it didn’t work. But it did work, and now people are quoting that line all the time. The thing with Michael and Dukie in the car, when he says goodbye to him – that was a real tough scene to write. Nobody gets killed there, but he’s as dead as you can make him.

We live with these characters for so long that they did seem kind of real to us, it wasn’t just an exercise.

Okay, so let’s talk specifically about “Middle Ground.”

My favorite episode. I could talk to you for hours about that one.

Why was that your favorite?

I think, top to bottom, the script is pretty clean. Everything that I was trying to do, and we were trying to do. I can’t take credit for everything. A lot of stuff happens in the writers room with five guys sitting around the table. Once you get the beat sheets down and go into the room to write a script, you don’t know if it’s going to work. One thing you haven’t talked about a lot in your writing is the different directors and the things they bring to it. This one was directed by Joe Chappelle, and Joe directed the hell out of this episode. Joe and I were tight. He’s listed as an executive producer, but he was also the house director. Joe would do second unit on all the episodes, and Joe was a guy who always storyboarded. He knew exactly what he was doing. When we came to this episode, I said to Joe, “Let’s collaborate on this and really hit a home run.” Joe and I went out to all the locations. We coordinated everything: the whole stalking of Stringer by Omar and Brother Mouzone, we found this location on Howard Street. The reason the pigeons are in the scene is simply that there were pigeons everyplace. I said, “Joe, we gotta do this.” The very first scene of that episode, we decided to shoot like a spaghetti Western. It was the middle of the night, we waited for the train to go by, so we could have that in the background. It was our “Once Upon a Time in the West” moment, because we both love that movie. Nina (Noble) and David pulled back on that in the editing room. We had all the tight close-ups of the eyes. They were right. We really took it to the limit, and they were right. My favorite scene I’ve ever written is the goodbye between Stringer Bell and Avon on the rooftop. I do take credit for the writing, but that’s also the direction of Joe Chappelle. he just killed it.

That’s just an incredible scene. It’s like something out of “The Godfather.” They’re so friendly to each other for the first time in a long time, but we know what they’ve done to each other. 

Both of them know they’re saying goodbye, but they don’t think the other knows. And all that stuff about stealing stuff from stores and booking down the street, that’s all out of my childhood, man. It’s a good episode. everybody did a great job

Getting back to what you said before about Cutty, these episodes are always remembered for the dark moments, and yet there’s usually something good happening, too, like Justin sticking it out in the fight with the little kid. He doesn’t win, but he doesn’t quit, either, and that’s a huge victory for him. And that’s not the kind of story you’d see almost anywhere else.

Yeah, we’d go for just these tiny moments of redemption that nobody’s gonna talk about him in the neighborhood, like he kicked that guy’s ass. It’s really what’s going on inside of him and in Cutty’s eyes in that scene. Cutty knows that he got through to him.

(I thank George for his time and invite him to get back to his vacation, but – perhaps because he also doesn’t have many opportunities to talk about the show anymore – he pauses to make sure that he commends the work of all the other people he knew on the series.  

This was a team of people. Down to the crew. It’s like lightning in a bottle. Who knows if we’ll ever get it again? The thing that really sucks now, the film industry in Maryland is dead, the administration has cut out all the tax credits. There’s nothing being done in the state anymore. All my friends in the crew are either unemployed or they’ve left their families behind to find work in Michigan or someplace else. It really sucks. But at least we had those five years.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com