That nail gun. That goddamn nail gun.
I'm placed in an unusual situation in doing these recaps, since I've seen the entire season in its entirety. On the one hand, that means I can point out things people may not have realized they should be paying attention to, or help differentiate all the new characters during those first three or four weeks it usually takes to learn everybody's name. But it also means that I have to be very careful to not let my knowledge of what's to come -- for the Major Crimes Unit, for the election, for the middle school kids, Bubbs, Omar, etc. -- turn my analysis into unconscious spoilers. I'm going to try my damndest, but if at any point in this 13-week journey you think I'm talking about things that haven't happened yet, let me know and I'll do what I can to get that under control.
In particular, it's hard for me to delicately convey the horrors that will be perpetrated all because that helpful Hardware Barn employee pointed Snoop towards that nail gun, but I'll try. You already get a sense of it in the scene where Chris and Snoop, with absolute calm and care, kill that guy in the vacants, cover their tracks and board him up in one of Baltimore's hundreds (or is it thousands?) of vacant, condemned row houses. When Bunk, Lester and Norris are wondering why they haven't seen any bodies from Marlo's takeover of the west side, this is why. Chris and Snoop are putting the bodies in places no one would ever think to look, so rotten that the smell of decomposition will mingle in with several dozen other unpleasant odors -- and if, on the offchance, some citizen or junkie is looking for a place to squat, they won't be able to easily get into those particular houses because the boards are nailed tight.
The opening scene of each season has presented that year's key themes. In year two, for instance, we open with McNulty on harbor patrol, eyeing the decayed factories along the harbor (signposts of the death of blue-collar America that we'll see played out with the Sobotkas) before he and his partner have to give a tow to a party boat full of rich assholes (dilettantes turning what was once a thriving site of commerce into yet another place for them to party and enjoy their wealth). By putting that scene on Felicia Pearson, an untrained performer whose speech is hard to understand on a good day, David Simon's taking a chance on his message not getting across. But I've watched that sequence a half-dozen times and thought about it a lot as I watched the other 12 episodes, and I have several theories, any and all of which could be right or wrong:
- Worlds passing in the night: There are two Baltimores (two Americas, if you want to get really poetic): the one the Hardware Barn salesman lives in, and the one Snoop lives in. Snoop may have been briefly raised in the salesman's world and the salesman may have heard of Snoop's on the news, but they have no common frame of reference beyond that. The salesman looks at the nail gun as a tool for building something; Snoop looks at it as a tool for destroying something (or, at least, covering up evidence of that destruction). A lot of this season's political storylines will deal with Carcetti and Royce and Tony Gray trying to raise up Snoop's Baltimore without ruining the salesman's in the process.
- Teaching one thing, learning another: Education is the dominant theme this year. Whether it's Prez at the middle school, Cutty at his gym or Marlo on the street, you're going to see a lot of attempts at educating kids, but what they take out of those lessons isn't always what's intended. Again, the salesman is trying to teach Snoop how to use the nail gun for one thing, and she's going to use it for something else entirely. And when she comes out to show her new prize to Chris, she tells him, "I'm in school, dawg" (or, possibly, "I been schooled, dawg" -- like I said, with Felicia Pearson, it's hard to say).
- The right tool for the job: We all know David Simon's theories about flawed institutions, and how The System is now too large, old and unswerving to fix all the problems it's supposed to. Time after time, we've seen and will continue to see cops and politicans and other well-meaning types try to do good and fail because of a bureaucratic snafu or some other chink in The System. But with our expanded look at Marlo's operation, we're seeing a perfect opposite to The System. Marlo is focused on one thing and one thing only: staying the strongest, baddest slinger on the West side. And he will do whatever it takes to hold onto that, in the most cold-hearted, efficient way possible. In that way, he's even better than Avon and Stringer, because Avon's pride and Stringer's desire for upward mobility created chinks in their armor. Marlo, with the help of Snoop and Chris and that nail gun, doesn't appear to have any weak spots. You're going to see a lot of people get boarded up into vacants for sins a lot smaller than Lex killing Fruit, but in Marlo's eyes, those people are potential problems, and this is the simplest way to be rid of them. No fuss, no agonizing, nothing: just kill 'em and nail 'em up in a place nobody's ever likely to look.
- Namond: He's the one with the ponytail who works (if you can call it that) for Bodie. His father is someone you'll be familiar with when you meet him. He's all talk and no action; when he picks the fight with Dookie about the pigeons, you can tell he's hoping someone will break it up, and when he spots Michael in trouble with the Terrace kids, he cuts and runs.
- Randy: He's the kid with the cornrows and the huge smile, and the one who gets tricked into sending Lex to his death. He's the hustler and idea man of the group, as evidenced by his scheme with the urine-filled balloons and the glimpse we get of his candy-selling business. Has the healthiest home life of the four, thanks to a foster mother with a firm but caring hand.
- Michael: The leader and the muscle; he's the one who baits the Terrace boys and (proudly) takes the biggest beating. He has enough sway over the others that he can shame Namond into buying Dookie an ice cream.
- Dookie: Real name Duquan, he lives with a family of junkies, which is why he always smells bad and is made fun of by the other kids. Too smart to be stuck in such an awful existence.
You'll learn a whole lot more about all four of the boys as the weeks go along, a lot of it in their interaction with Prez, whose entrance actually made me yell out, "PREZ!" Now we know why Simon spent so much time late last season on the end of Prez's police career, at a time when it didn't seem to fit with the rest of the stories: he was laying the groundwork for Lester's protege, the code-breaking savant who knows all the words to "Brown Sugar," to move into a new career as one of the key figures of season four. Jim True-Frost is up to the added workload, and he has a really nice scene here in the premiere where the Vice-Principal (love her accent) shows him his classroom. ("So, this is me?" "This is you.") As we're seeing already, in that great cross-cut sequence where both the teachers and the Western cops have to listen to pointless speeches that have no practical application to their work, the two groups have more in common than being underpaid civil servants.
And speaking of the cops, get used to this amount of McNulty per episode, if not less. Dominic West was feeling burnt-out on the role, and even Simon felt the show would get stale if McNulty was the central character every year, so he's only in about half the episodes, usually as briefly as this. But there's a point to this new, well-adjusted Jimmy, and if HBO actually orders the fifth season, it will all pay off nicely next year.
Lester, of course, is up to his old tricks, finally issuing those subpoenas for the Barksdale property, taking advantage of his oblivious new boss to stir up trouble. What interested me more was our glimpse of a Carver who seems to have actually learned a thing or twelve from Bunny Colvin last year. He knows the names, job descriptions and personal foibles of Bodie's entire crew, and he understands that knocking heads isn't always, or even usually, the solution to anything. While characters like Lester and The Bunk and Omar (whom you'll see again in a few weeks) remain gloriously the same, I also appreciate that the show has charted the growth of people like Prez and Carver and even McNulty.
The election storyline is just warming up, but I love the sequence of Carcetti killing time instead of soliciting donations. Hard to have to spend that much time and energy on what obviously looks like a lost cause.
Since a lot of this is setting up things I'm hesitant to discuss yet, let's move on to some other random thoughts:
- Last year, the popular brand of dope was WMD, which matched the Iraq war parallels of the Avon/Marlo war. This year, Bodie's people are pushing Pandemic. Not sure which name is more accurate in describing the effect dope has on these neighborhoods.
- Did you catch Herc getting uptight when his new partner suggests a willingness to sleep with a man in order to have sex with the city council president? Methinks someone's still smarting from the Gus Triandos fiasco from last year. (Remember, Carver baited him into picking a man he would sleep with to gain the right to nail the Olsen twins, and he picked ol' Gus.) Chauffering Royce seems about the right level of responsibility for Herc, doesn't it?
- RIP, Fruit. Since Cutty will be more of a factor this year, I was expecting to see another confrontation between them, what with Fruit having ripped off Cutty and then Cutty sparing Fruit's life. C'est la vie; you don't always get closure on this show.
- Three of the four season premieres have now closed with discovery of a murder: D'Angelo finding out that Avon had the witness against him killed in season one, Bea Russell finding the Russian girls in the can in season two, and now Randy finding out about Lex.
- Am I remembering right that the official name for the low-rises where D'Angelo, Bodie, Poot and Wallace slung was the Terrace? If so, that's where the kids who beat up Dookie came from.
- Nice to see another face from "The Corner" turn up, with Reg E. Cathey joining the cast as Carcetti's #2 aide, Norman, who last voted for a white guy when Bobby Kennedy was alive. Or maybe not -- Cathey was 10 at the time of the RFK assassination, and he doesn't appear to be playing older. Side note: both Cathey and Larry Cedar, who plays Leon on "Deadwood," first came to my attention as castmembers on PBS' "Square One." Is Beverly Leech (aka Kate Monday) going to pop up on "John from Cincinatti" or the final "Sopranos" season or something?
- This season's version of "Way Down in the Hole" is sung, I believe, by a bunch of Baltimore schoolkids, which fits the education theme. As always, the editing on the main titles is awesome, and I love the kaleidoscope of circular images at the end (the convenience store lazy susan, the spare tire, the kid playing with the tire, etc.).
- School receptionist re: Prez's full name: "You say it, 'cause I ain't even gonna try it."
- Carver to Bodie: "Where's the love, Bodie? Where is the motherfuckin' love?"
- The Bunk, re: his true relationship with Lester: "To hell with Norris, Lester. You my real partner. My life partner." & "Look at that bow-legged motherfucker. I made him walk like that."
So, for those of you who made it to the end of this, what did you think? And, to repeat a question from earlier in the week, how many of you watched it for the first time tonight, and how many had already watched it with On Demand? As of now, my plan is to post these reviews on Sunday nights after the HBO premiere, but if I get a sense that the majority of you are seeing the shows earlier -- and if I can swing it -- I might move up the schedule.