"Ain't no shame in holding onto grief, as long as you make room for other things, too." -Bubbs
There's a lot to grieve in this episode -- as there always is whenever the brilliant yet cruel George Pelecanos writes the penultimate chapter of each season -- but there's also plenty of room for things to celebrate, and to laugh at, and to fear.
Many On Demand viewers have already called "Late Editions" the best "Wire" episode ever, and while I would need to go back and revisit the closing chapters of previous seasons (season one's "Cleaning Up" and last season's "Final Grades" in particular) before I make my ruling, I think what everyone's responding to is how the hour touches on everything that makes "The Wire" great. It begins tying together all the disparate story threads, reminding us why all the slow set-up at the beginning of each season is so important, but it also hits all of the feelings mentioned above, and so many more. I know the phrase "emotional roller-coaster" is a cliche of a cliche, but damn if I didn't feel like I was riding one throughout this episode.
The showpiece sequence is obviously the final 10 or 15 minutes, from Michael killing Snoop through Michael saying goodbye to Bug and then to Dukie -- about which I will have much more to say before this review is done -- but initially, the moments that really got my waterworks going were the happier ones.
I swear to God, when Namond showed up at that debate and we saw Bunny and Mrs. Colvin watching so proudly from the audience, I damn near wept -- and I don't even like Namond very much. It's just that, knowing what had happened to Randy, knowing that Dukie was now a junk man (and, later, possibly on his way to being a junkie), knowing that Michael was a murderer and now marked for death by Marlo... to see that one of these four boys, even my least favorite, had gotten out, was thriving and happy and safe and had defied the vicious cycle that claims so many boys like him (on the show and in real life), it affected me almost as profoundly as any "Wire" scene I can remember. Yes, I'm including Wallace's death and Ziggy's rampage and Carver walking away from Randy and the Michael/Dukie/Bug sequence at the end of this show, though I think in this case it was as much about context as it was about anything in the scene itself.
Even more affecting, both in context and on its own merits, was Bubbs' speech at the NA meeting, a moment five seasons in the making. (Simon and the other writers earned every bit of this scene's emotions with all the work they put into showing Bubbs' tragedies over the years.)
As has been repeated ad nauseum here and elsewhere, the depth and breadth of acting talent on "The Wire" is astonishing, and I would have to say that Andre Royo has consistently given the greatest performance of this wonderful cast. Week after week, season after season, he finds the humanity in Bubbs, makes you understand how fundamentally decent he is -- which in turn makes it an even greater tragedy that he became a junkie who stole from family, friends and anyone else who might help him get a fix -- and it's the warmth and sorrow he brings to the role that had me rooting so hard for him to make peace with Sherrod's death. I know that, as Snoop says (while quoting William Munny in "Unforgiven") that what we deserve has nothing to do with what fate gives us, but dammit, Bubbs deserves a break, doesn't he? And as he stood there in front of his fellow addicts, talking about that moment when he managed to not use even when his support system fell through, and then when he finally brought himself to talk, however briefly, about Sherrod, it touched me as deeply as it would have if Bubbs were real and I was sitting in that meeting with him. He still has further to go on his journey before we can consider him whole -- his sister failed to show up for the anniversary, after all -- but as with the Namond scene, any liquid discharge from my eye socket was as much of relief and happiness as it was sadness over what the man had been through.
If Royo isn't at the top of everyone's Best "Wire" Actors list, I imagine he's at least near the top. Jamie Hector, on the other hand, often gets dismissed as being too stiff (or, worse, the stereotypical, insulting "he's just playing himself"). I've always admired the control with which he's played Marlo -- to my mind, Marlo isn't bland but economical, with no wasted words, no wasted movement and no wasted emotions -- and in the riveting scene in jail where Marlo explodes about Omar's insults, it becomes clear just how much both Hector and Marlo have been holding in all these years. It also becomes clear just why Chris and Snoop have been going out of their way to keep Marlo ignorant of Omar's PR campaign. If, as we've discussed before, Marlo isn't a pure capitalist like The Greek, but rather a completely unfiltered product of the corner culture, then to him a loss of face -- of the name he made for himself, the one he hoped would ring out as he took the crown -- would be even worse than the money he lost when Omar ripped him off twice last season.
It's the fundamental difference between the otherwise equally-efficient, equally-deadly Stanfield and Greek organizations. As some of the On Demand viewers reminded me, at the end of season two, when Vondas and The Greek are making their escape from Baltimore, Vondas says that Nick Sobotka knows his name, "But my name is not my name." To them, a name is just a tool to be used for making money. To Marlo, his name is all that he is, a belief he asserts with terrifying authority in that monologue. Hell of a moment for one of the series' most underrated performers.
The police takedown of Marlo and his people, meanwhile, was one of the tensest and yet ultimately satisfying sequences this show's ever done. Because "The Wire" has by now conditioned us to expect the worst at every turn, I imagine we all watched Dozerman and Truck and Sydnor sitting on the marine terminal warehouse just waiting for the bust to fall apart somehow. But instead, after all the games with falsified paperwork and desecrated corpses and homeless abductions and all the rest, Jimmy and Lester's plan seems to work to perfection. They grab Monk, Cheese, Chris and Marlo and a whole lotta dope, and Lester gets to have his wonderful, silent moment of triumph where he stares down Marlo while holding the cell phone and the clock. (As with Burrell threatening Daniels earlier this season, it's a moment that wouldn't be half as intense if it included any dialogue. The look on Lester's face is all you need.)
And then, just as I've once again let the show suck me into the vision of a brand new day where the good guys triumph and the bad guys get what they deserve (again, see Snoop/William Munny for that one), it all begins falling apart, rapidly.
On the police side of things, Jimmy's decision to let Kima in on the secret last week comes back to bite him, as she tells the truth to Daniels. For most of the series, Kima has seemed like Jimmy's protege, but that's really only been on the personal side. We've seen throughout the series that she won't cut the corners that he will, that she believes things have to be done the right way, no matter what. One of the key Kima moments in the series takes place late in season one, after she's been shot by Barksdale's soldiers. Bunk brings a photo array to her hospital room, and when she can identify one of her shooters but not Wee-Bey, Bunk suggests that the trial might go a lot easier if she could identify both men.
"Sometimes," Kima tells him, resolute, "things just got to play hard."
Kima's a cop who does things clean -- and for the purposes of this particular story, she's the cop who got a firsthand look at the collateral damage of Jimmy's scam with the families of the "victims." I have no problem either believing Kima would turn him in -- both out of a sense of moral outrage and to protect the other cops who got unwittingly sucked into Jimmy's scheme -- or in defending her right to do so. We have these laws for a reason, and if we want to throw them out because the ends -- taking a monster like Marlo out of the equation -- justify the means, then where do we stop?
On the other hand, my heart ain't so big that I can find a way to excuse what Herc does in tipping Levy off to the possibility of Lester running a wire. His motives range from insecurity (having failed to get proper credit from Carver, he seeks an attaboy from his new boss) to ignorance (he has no idea that the wiretap is illegal, despite his involvement with Fuzzy Dunlop and the infamous camera, and therefore doesn't think telling Levy is a big deal) to plain stupidity, but this is the man who already destroyed Randy's life through carelessness, and now he's in the process of helping the defense of the very man whom he blames for getting him tossed off the force? Ugh.
Much as it frustrates me to see evil triumphant and all that, I can't help but admire the intelligence and efficiency of the Levy/Marlo combination. Maury may play dirty, but he didn't get where he is solely by cheating, and Marlo is even more careful than Lester gives him credit for. Lester's plan to credit the info that led to the arrests -- both the location of the re-supply and the fact that Marlo and company had been communicating through pictures sent by those cell phones -- to an informant is complicated by the fact that the only people who knew about the phones were the four people who had them, plus the very trustworthy Snoop and Vondas. Even if Herc weren't blabbing state secrets to Levy, I imagine Maury would have figured out something smelled fishy sooner or later.
We also see how tight a ship Marlo runs when he and Chris make the decision to have Michael killed, even though both of them feel confident that he didn't talk to the cops about Chris killing Bug's dad. When you've killed as many as these two have (directly or indirectly), often for lesser sins, and a possible long prison sentence is at stake, would you be willing to let Michael live? Michael is Chris' protege, and they have that shared experience of having been molested (it's interesting how at peace Chris seems to be about going down for the DNA evidence, as if getting to pummel Bug's dad like that makes a possible life sentence worth it), but we learned a long time ago that Marlo will kill you if there's even the possibility of you talking to the cops.
Marlo miscalculates on what Michael might have said to Bunk (the "source of information" was Michael's mom), and Snoop in turn miscalculates just how well Michael has assimilated the lessons she and Chris have taught him. The minute she tells Michael not to bring a gun to the hit, Michael's radar goes off, and he uses the great brain that Prez wanted him to use on math problems to turn Snoop's ambush around on her. It's funny: throughout season four and much of this season, as Chris and Snoop were marching people to the vacants, killing Bodie, trying to kill Omar, etc., there was a part of me that was cheering for somebody -- anybody -- to take them out. And yet in the moment when Snoop's about to die, when she turns her head away from Michael and smooths her cornrows -- the first remotely feminine gesture we've ever seen her make, but also a kind of classic gangster move -- I felt for her and how, like Kenard, she didn't become this way by accident. Great work by Pelecanos, director Joe Chappelle and the two actors. The break in Tristan Wilds' voice as he says "You look good, girl," is what really sells it.
Wilds isn't done, though, as he then has to carry two of the most tear-jerking "Wire" scenes of all time: Michael's goodbyes to first Bug, then Dukie. Michael's just a boy himself, but he felt he had to become a man -- and a killer -- to protect Bug, and the end result of that is that he has to let go of Bug and go on the run. The scene outside the aunt's house in Howard County -- she was mentioned in a season four scene where Donut wants to go joyriding to Howard County, Namond claims the KKK is active out there, and Michael invokes his aunt as proof that, as usual, Namond doesn't know what he's talking about -- reminded me in many ways of Wallace going out to his grandmother's house in season one. It's a perfectly nice, peaceful suburban neighborhood, but it might as well be Mars to Michael and poor Bug, who just wants his big brother to stay with him. (The crickets are just as alien to these kids as they were to Wallace.) You'll note that Bug doesn't say anything throughout the sequence; he just cries, and as with Lester's staredown of Marlo, etc., the silence only amplifies the moment.
And then, and then... excuse me while I go back and watch Namond at the debate and Bubbs at the NA meeting, because I need something happy before I go back and confront that devastating final scene.
And then Michael takes Dukie to the barns where the Arabers hang out -- and shoot up -- and as Dukie prepares to, once again, go live with junkies, he tries to hold on to his childhood for one last moment by reminding Mike of the piss balloon story from the very first episode where we saw them. I still haven't decided whether Michael genuinely doesn't remember it after all the growing up he's had to do since joining up with Marlo, or whether he remembers but doesn't want to, because it hurts too much to realize how much he's lost and how far he's fallen. Either way, it's devastating. How could these two sweet boys -- Dukie, who never meant anyone any harm and somehow kept his dignity in spite of being dealt a horrible hand by life; and Michael, who always tried to protect his friends and family, and who sold his own soul to keep them safe -- have come to this moment? How could Michael be a multiple murderer and a hunted man? (Not boy; man.) How can Dukie, innocent and brilliant Dukie, be right back where he started, only worse because he doesn't have his friends or school anymore? Why do I let this show in general and Pelecanos in particular stomp on my heart time after time like this?
I came to the end of this episode, trying to think of some way things could have turned out differently for the kids: if Michael had trusted Cutty instead of assuming he was just another pedophile, if Randy's house hadn't been firebombed and he could provide a haven for Dukie, if Dukie would ask Prez to take him in, whatever. But then I thought of the empty look on Michael's face as he denied remembering the piss balloon story, and the way Dukie sets his jaw as he prepares to walk back into hell, and all I could think of was Bunny -- the series' poster boy for how hard it is to do anything right inside this system -- telling the now repugnant Carcetti, "Well I guess, Mr. Mayor, there's nothing to be done."
Some other thoughts on "Late Editions":
-The Sun storyline largely takes a backseat to events on the street and in the police department, but Gus is now actively building a case against Scott the fabulist. Slow and steady, kinda like The Bunk.
-Also, for all the people who claim that editors Whiting and Klebanow are somehow less complex than many of the series' other "villains" -- a list that includes the likes of Valchek, Clay Davis and Cheese -- I give you that cringe-inducing scene where Carcetti's chief of staff Michael Steintorf tries to bully Rawls and Daniels into using all those pointless band-aid methods of juking the stats that Tommy promised would end on his watch. There are very few "Wire" characters I have ever found more loathsome than Steintorf, and this is a show that's featured sociopaths, mass murderers and child molesters. The worst part is, he clearly has won the angel/devil on the shoulder battle with Norman for Tommy's soul; witness Tommy's "We did not give up on this investigation" lie during the press conference.
-I know I comment on it so often that the point may no longer be as valid as it once was, but it still feels so rare to see Daniels happy that the mixture of shock and joy at hearing Lester's news felt especially amusing.
-Lester briefly turning Clay into an informant was a delight. For once in a rare while here, we see a cop getting honest answers from someone high enough up on the food chain that he has something valuable to offer. Plus, as with happy Daniels, it's such a novelty to see a completely forthright Clay Davis. (I know there's been some confusion among On Demander's about Clay's reference to scamming Stringer in season three and whether Levy was in on it, but Clay makes it clear that he had to go around to Levy to pull it off, and at the time it happened, Levy even tells Stringer that this wouldn't have happened had Stringer told Maury about the deal in advance.)
-Another politican seen briefly in a different light was Nerese. I barely recognized her casual off-the-record demeanor in her lunch with Gus. Interesting that she would seem less polished and more honest in a meeting with a newspaper editor than when she's having backroom meetings with the likes of Tommy and Clay, though I suppose her manner here could just be another act to endear her to a potentially valuable member of the press.
-O-Dog and Herc's complaints about the different ways the drug lords and cops deal with wounded colleagues nicely echoed Carver's line from season one about how the cops are ill-equipped to do battle with the dealers: when hoppers screw up, they get beaten; when cops screw up, they get a pension.
-I thought it was a nice touch that Marlo and The Greek's people were conducting the resupply at a burned-out, abandoned marine terminal -- yet another example of the drug economy replacing the blue-collar industrial economy of Baltimore.
-Loved the moment during Carcetti's dope on the table press conference where Zorzi keeps cracking up Alma by quietly heckling the mayor ("Oh, you are so butch") or predicting what cliche Tommy will invoke ("Don't forget about the community") before Tommy does so. I have survived many a tedious press conference by playing the role of either Zorzi or Alma.
-The legend of Omar grows: while level-headed Michael believes that the cops are right to be pursuing Kenard for the killing, Spider refuses to budge from the rumor that Omar was gunned down by three Pimlico boys with AK-47's.
-When McNulty shows up at Christensen's crime scene, he uses one of Pelecanos' favorite catchphrases (particularly in the Karras/Clay novels): "Talk about it." That scene also features the hilarious pay-off to Alma and Jay Spry's discussion of "evacuate" way back when. (See the Lines of the Week for the full transcript.)
-In case you don't have a long memory for the series, the guy in Evidence Control whom Daniels thanked for helping them was Augie Polk, one of the two alcoholic old codgers who were a drag on the original version of the Barksdale task force. Evidence Control seems a much more appropriate posting for the going-through-the-motions Polk than it was for Daniels when he got banished there between season one and two.
-The season has been littered with references to our pop culture's fetishization with serial killers and death -- Jay calling McNulty "Clarice," all the Natalee Holloway talk -- and in what may be the final carefree moment of Dukie's life, what is he watching? "Dexter," a show I enjoy greatly but which definitely plays into this fascination with the kind of killer that McNulty manufactured to get Marlo.
-While Gus is interviewing Terry's buddy at Walter Reed, the buddy says hi to a fellow multiple amputee, who's played by Sgt. Bryan Anderson, one of the subjects of the excellent James Gandolfini-produced HBO documentary "Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq."
Lines of the Week:
"Go down Walmart or some shit, see if they take care of you while you laid up for a while." -SnoopIn case you haven't heard by now, the finale won't be made available On Demand, so for the first time all season, everyone in the audience will be on the same schedule. I'm hoping to post some "Wire"-related content throughout the week -- among other things, tomorrow I'm getting to the bottom of the true origin of Clay Davis' catchphrase, I did a "Wire"-related podcast with Matt Seitz and Andrew Johnston that should be posted to The House Next Door within a few days, and I'll have another Star-Ledger column about the show on Sunday morning -- and as soon as the finale ends, I'll publish both the final review and the complete transcript of the long interview I did with David Simon a few days ago.
"Does this mean I still have to take that charge for y'all?" -O-Dog
"My name is my name!" -Marlo
"The Dickensian aspect?" -Scott
"Shardene better be awake, too, because I do believe Lester Freamon is in the mood for love." -Lester
"Actually, it was a burnt sienna, tied around his dick." -Landsman
"Well, I guess, Mr. Mayor, there's nothing to be done." -Bunny
"Mr. C, you know the mayor too? Damn!" -Namond
"Guy stinks." -Christensen
"Probably evacuated." -McNulty
"What, he left and he came back?" -Christensen
"No, he shit himself." -McNulty
The finale doesn't seem to have leaked -- yet -- but one last time, I'm going to make the spoiler policy clear: Do not talk about anything in the previews. Do not talk about anything you may have heard or read about the finale, whether gossip from someone you know who works on the show or any interviews with castmembers who maybe say more than they should have about the end. Do not discuss anything you might possibly know about the finale. I'm going to be extra-vigilant in this final week, and if I sense that too many people are trying to be too clever about this, I'm going to switch over to comment moderation until the finale airs.
What did everybody else think?