Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy. What the hell are you doing?
Okay, so it's kind of clear what you're doing, but like the Bunk -- and the On Demand viewers -- my immediate reaction to your phony serial killer plan was queasiness and dismay.
As I've seen a number of episodes past this one -- and therefore know more about the mechanics of Jimmy's plan and how successful he is (or isn't) with it -- I need to step lightly here. I know there have been some complaints that have gone past horror at McNulty's actions and straight to the matter of plausibility. Some people think this is too absurd, too bizarre, to be part of the grim reality of "The Wire." To those people, I have one word: Hamsterdam. How is a cop inventing a serial killer (for reasons that I'm sure you can guess, but which will be spelled out next week) any further out there than a police commander legalizing drugs in his district?
If there's a problem with the story, it's the rush with which it comes together. That's a symptom of the condensing of the season from the usual 12 or 13 episodes down to 10. In an ordinary length season, I'm sure we would have spent more time on Jimmy stuck back in Homicide, dealing with the broke-ass nature of the BPD (though him taking the bus to a crime scene was great shorthand), just as I'm sure that the scene where he finds out how to make a natural death look like murder would have been in a separate episode from the one where he makes use of the information. Between the shorter order and the addition of the newspaper people, everything's going to feel a little rushed this year. It's unfortunate, but it's what we have to work with. And as Lester and the MCU so often show, it's possible to work miracles with limited resources.
It's important that Jimmy doesn't just start desecrating the corpse the second the uniformed officer leaves the scene. No, he has to go out to the car and take several very long pulls on his bottle of Jameson before he can get the courage to go through with this idea. It's long been a truth of the character that his work drives his addictions (to both booze and cheap women), but now we're seeing the concept working in reverse. Take a Jimmy who was sober, who was going home to Beadie every night, who wasn't painfully hung over in the Homicide bullpen when Landsman sent him out to this crime scene, and you have someone who could never even conceive of this idea, let alone get the nerve to try it.
Years ago, I interviewed David Milch about an "NYPD Blue" arc where Sipowicz fell off the wagon when his son died. Why, I asked, did Andy fall so far, so fast? Hadn't he been doing well for so long that the descent to rock bottom would have been much slower? Milch, a recovering addict of many stripes, fixed me with a patient stare and explained that being clean for a while doesn't mean you start off higher up on the boozehound ladder; when you start using again, you generally go right back to the level you were at before you got clean, maybe even worse because of the time away. I'm not saying that's every addict's experience, but it definitely seems to be Jimmy's.
And as a contrast to McNulty sinking under the weight of the booze and his desire to prove he's smarter than the rest of the damn world, we have Bubbs robotically treading water. He's doing recovery the right way on paper, going to meetings and staying away from temptation. But as I noted last week and Walon (season five theme song singer Steve Earle, who was Bubbs' sponsor back in season one, and visited him in the hospital in the season four finale) does here, he hasn't replaced the huge place dope occupied in his life with anything else. Even when he tries, by volunteering at Viva House, he can only allow himself to do the most menial jobs: handing out tickets, scrubbing pots, etc. He can't forgive himself for what he did to Sherrod, can't even talk about it and claims not to feel anything -- which, as Walon points out, goes against everything we've ever known about Bubbles. If the man has a defining characteristic other than his addiction, it's his great capacity for empathy. Hearing Bubbs talk about his inability to feel anything was painful. Bubbs isn't the one on this show who's not supposed to feel; Marlo is.
And speaking of which, we immediately see the folly of Rawls and Burrell pulling the plug on the Major Crimes Unit. When the MCU's away, Marlo and his people go out to play, putting out hits on anyone who's even rumored to have said something bad about Marlo, massacring families, going after Omar, and taking steps to get with Vondas and The Greek. Actually, I take back what I said before about Marlo not feeling anything. The man's capable of one emotion: ambition. He's obsessed with wearing "the crown" and punishing anyone who tries to tarnish it.
It's been interesting reading the reaction from the On Demand viewers to the return of Avon Barksdale, the first of many curtain calls for former characters that we'll get this season. Some are convinced he and Sergei are running some kind of scam on Marlo and others were pleased to see the majestic, charismatic Avon in the same room as the (deliberately) colorless Marlo. Without getting into what does or doesn't happen in this story down the road, my initial reaction to that scene was to think how pathetic Avon seemed. He's talking way too much about what a big man he is in prison, whereas when we saw him locked up in season two and three, he treated whatever power he had inside as understood. He stammers here and there, lamely tries to bond with Marlo over them both being from the West side (and you can see how disinterested Marlo is in this exercise, though he plays along in order to get to Sergei), even flashes gang signals at Marlo during the second meeting. I didn't exactly feel sorry for Avon, as he deserves his current fate and far more, but this was definitely a marked contrast from the Avon I remember. He used to talk about only serving two days in prison -- the day you go in and the day you go out -- and now you can see him feeling the weight of every day in there, and of the loss of the crown that Marlo now wears.
Marlo's replaced Avon, and in a way Michael has replaced D'Angelo. His questioning of the reason for killing Junebug sounded a lot like the sorts of things D began to ask about The Game as season one went along. Michael, unfortunately, has even less power and less ability to get out, but you could see how much he wanted to, both in the car with Snoop and in that moment where he saw the little boy run out the back of the house. After Michael arranged his stepdad's death last year, I said there was no coming back from that, not for a long time. Maybe I spoke too soon.
The Junebug killing then led to our first real path-crossing between the cops and our new newspaper characters, as Alma tried in vain to get Kima's attention from behind the crime scene tape. One of the many things "The Wire" is brilliant at is taking a stock figure you would never think anything of -- in this case, those anonymous reporters hurling questions at cops trying to do their jobs -- and putting a human face on them. Usually in that kind of scene, you're supposed to be annoyed with the reporter for getting in the way of policework. But because we now know Alma a little, and know that she means well (as opposed to Scott), suddenly we start thinking, "Hey, Kima, couldn't you help her out just a little with a quote?"
One man apparently in no need of quotes is Scott, at least based on the way the scenes at Camden Yards were filmed. We don't know for certain that the kid in the wheelchair didn't exist, but you would think if he did, they would have shown Scott talking to him, no? Instead, we saw Scott trying and repeatedly failing to find anyone to fit his preconceived plan for a column about the game, in a sequence that will be familiar to any reporter who set out to tell a particular story and then couldn't find anyone or anything to back it up.
Because Scott has already been portrayed as a lazy, entitled social climber, and because Gus is shown repeatedly to be as conscientious as they come -- the late-night call to the copy desk to make sure he didn't transpose the numbers is also something that anyone with newspaper experience can relate to (I once woke up in a cold sweat at 1 a.m., having realized that I referred to Bruce Campbell in a column when I meant Billy Campbell) -- the implication is pretty clear that Scott is, to use a bit of newspaper jargon, cooking it.
Whether he is or isn't doesn't matter, though, because executive editor Whiting is so in love with the story that he pushes it through over Gus' objections. The entire thing is foreshadowed at the loading dock, where Gus tells a story about a reporter harassing the mayor. When Jeff Price asks whether that really happened, he's told the story was "too good to check out." Not only does Whiting not seem to care that Scott's story doesn't meet the Sun's fact-checking standards, you can tell if he found out it wasn't true, he'd be more irritated at having to cut the story than he would over Scott's ethical lapse.
As I said last week, a lot's been written about how Whiting and Klebanow are stand-ins for David Simon's ex-bosses at the Sun, John Carroll and Bill Marimow, how a lot of reporters think Simon has an unhealthy vendetta against them, and how I feel that these two aren't necessarily depicted as any worse than Rawls or Burrell -- they just have a lot of reporter friends and colleagues to stand up for them. By far the best account of the dispute I've read is Lawrence Lanahan's story in the Columbia Journalism Review, which is good both because Lanahan doesn't have any real history with either side, and because the piece is less about the he-said/he-said of what happened at the Sun a dozen years ago than it is about opposing philosophies about the way to cover the problems of the urban poor, which is the very point of this season. (In that way, it is to the other Simon v. Marimow stories as "The Wire" is to regular cop shows.)
It's a very long article, but well worth your time if you're interested in going deeper into issues like the debate Gus and Whiting have about the education series. It's interesting: because Gus is so clearly our hero and because Whiting makes such a terrible first impression in the season premiere by shooting down the U of Maryland desegregation story -- and because there's been so much written about Simon allegedly using this season as revenge on Carroll and Marimow -- it's easy to view the argument as completely one-sided in Gus' favor. Yet having read the CJR story, and having gone back and watched the scene a few more times, I can at least see the other point of view, even though I disagree with it.
Yes, years of watching this show have conditioned me to reject a statement like Whiting's "I don't want some amorphous series detailing society's ills. If you leave everything in, soon you've got nothing." That's anathema to everything "The Wire" is and says. But at the same time, Whiting/Carroll have a point about the difficulty of pulling off the kind of journalism that Gus/Simon would like to see, and about the minimal commercial viability of it. "The Wire" has been telling these kinds of complex, leave-everything-in stories for years, and its audience is a fraction of the ratings for the "CSI" shows. When Whiting asks who would want to read the Gus-approved version of the education series, he's being cynical, but I don't know that he's wrong. It's a lot like how we bash Rawls and Burrell for living by the stats, and how Carcetti did it last year, but the bottom line is that, for whatever reason, people want to hear about the stats. There's the world that we want to be, and the world that is. Simon, and Gus, and McNulty and Bunny and Lester, are all arguing for the world that should be; Carroll, Whiting, Rawls, Burrell and, sadly, now Carcetti all work in the world we're stuck with.
Some other thoughts on "Unconfirmed Reports":
-Boy, did it do my heart good to see Lester watching Marlo on his own time (and listening to some great music while doing so). Also nice to see the continued education of Sydnor, who still gravitates towards street work but isn't willfully ignorant about what Lester wants to teach him about the value of going after the Clay Davises of this world.
-Speaking of Clay, he also seems to have picked up a bit of a stammer since last we saw him. Being the subject of a grand jury probe will do that to you, I suppose.
-In addition to Avon's return -- and, for that matter, the return of FBI man Fitz, who showed us how deep the impact of Carcetti's cursing out of the US Attorney runs -- we had another echo of stories past with Bunk repeating his familiar, "There you go, giving a fuck when it ain't your turn to give a fuck" from the pilot.
-One echo that maybe didn't work: Marlo calling Sergei "Boris." Sure, it's a callback to Ziggy in season two, but what are the odds that Marlo Stanfield has ever even heard of Boris Badenov, let alone seen a "Rocky and Bullwinkle" episode?
-And another echo from "Homicide": Jimmy unable to find his car in a garage full of identical cruisers evokes a similar scene from both the book (involving Edgerton) and the TV show (maybe the best interaction ever between Pembleton, going ballistic over his inability to find the car, and Felton, amused as hell at seeing Frank boil). The difference, of course, is that Edgerton and Pembleton could have gone back to get another car if they wanted to, while Jimmy had to either find that particular car or take the bus. And I loved the way Ernest Dickerson shot Jimmy's spaz-out from a distance -- violence is always funnier for me when it's somewhat removed.
-Have we had full-frontal male nudity on this show before? Admittedly, it was a corpse, but it still seemed like a new one on me.
-Keep in mind Scott's reference in the loading dock scene to the single mom who died of a crab allergy. It comes up again later in the season, and I had forgotten about it until I went back to rewatch each episode for note-taking purposes.
-Getting back to the return of Steve Earle as Walon, while it might be distracting to have the singer of the theme song appearing on the show, I spent a good chunk of season one thinking that the lead Blind Boys of Alabama singer was really Andre Royo under a pseudonym. (Listen to it on YouTube, and tell me it doesn't sound a little like Bubbs with a music career.)
-I made it a practice last season to break out some of the funnier or more insightful bits of dialogue for each episode, then completely forgot to do it for the premiere. Sorry. Let's give it a try for this one, though. Some nominees for Lines Of The Week:
"Everything's thin. The whole world shines shit and calls it gold." -Chief of Staff SteintorfA reminder once again of the spoiler policy: talk about this episode and what's come before, that's it. There will be an episode 3 On Demand post up in the morning. I see any comments discussing material in that episode or ones down the road, I'm just going to delete them.
"I'm gonna drive away now, if it's okay with you two suckholes." -Fitz
"Fuck those West Coast niggers. Cause in B-More, we aim and hit a nigger." -Snoop
"You think if 300 white people were killed in this city every year, they wouldn't send the 82nd Airborne? Negro, please." -Lester
What did everybody else think?