Newbie-friendly spoilers (the veteran edition is here) for the season two premiere, "Ebb Tide," coming up just as soon as I take note of the mileage...
"It's all about self-preservation, Jimmy -- something you never learned." -Jay LandsmanAs I wrote when I reviewed "The Target," the first episode of season one, "The Wire" is a show that teaches you how to watch it. And even here, with a full season under its belt, the series still needs to offer up reminders that it's going to play by its own rules.
Having spent the 13 hours of season one introducing this huge cast of characters, explaining how they work together, or against each other, you might expect season two to pick up with a quick re-assembly of Lt. Daniels' task force to go after Stringer Bell and the remains of the Barksdale drug operation, or after a similar drug crew. Instead, it's like we're back at square one.
There are some familiar faces, but they're often in new and marginalized places, like McNulty working on the boat or Daniels in the evidence room. Characters who were marginal last year, like Prez's well-connected father-in-law, Major Stan Valchek, are now major players, and we're introduced to a whole new cast of characters down at the docks.
Because the stevedores are a predominantly white group, you might assume that "Ebb Tide" is in some way an attempt to reboot the series and try to draw in a larger audience. You would be wrong (though this was the show's highest-rated season). Outside of Prez's monologue in Valchek's office, in which he offers his own brief synopsis of the Barksdale investigation, there's no attempt at hand-holding, no effort of any kind to make this world fathomable to a new viewer. I could barely follow the action with Bodie and Shamrock and Stringer in this one the first time through, and I'd watched the first season religiously. This is the start of volume 2 of the Great American Novel for Television, and good luck to you trying to crack it open at this point.
No, what David Simon, Ed Burns and company are doing here is revealing that "The Wire" is going to be far more than a cops vs. drug dealers saga. It's not a crime show. There's a lot of crime in it, yes, but it's a story about the death of an American city (really, the death of the American city), and little by little the show is going to take us into every corner of that city. Last year, it was the projects and the drug war raging within them. This season, our focus turns to the ports, and to the state of blue-collar, industrial America, which has been phased out in favor of a service economy that many of these guys just aren't equipped for. As Simon referred to it in a few interviews, it's "a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class."
As has been said many times before, the opening scene of each "Wire" premiere is like a mission statement for that season. We open with McNulty riding forlornly on the boat, staring out at the many abandoned factories ringing Baltimore's harbor. Once upon a time, these places were thriving concerns that provided jobs for any man willing to put in the work, no matter his background or skill level; now they're rotting husks, relics of a time that barely exists anymore. Jimmy looks at those factories and thinks wistfully about the way things used to be, the lifestyle his father and his father's friends had. Then he and his partner Claude answer a distress call from a party boat filled with yuppies who couldn't care less about Bethlehem Steel or Domino Sugar; they just look at the harbor as a place to get their drink on while dancing to "Blue Skies." Jimmy notes that they have to tow the boat out of the shipping channel, but at the same time, the harbor seems so dead that it hardly seems worth the bother; it's been a long time since cargo ships were constantly coming and going from this port.
Recognizing all of this, Jimmy takes a bribe to tow the boat to an out of the way location where the party can keep going, and there you have your season in a nutshell: the port workers are dinosaurs, being replaced by wealthy people looking to party (or buy condos with waterfront views), and the only real money to be made around here is through bribery.
And it's in that capacity that we get to know the new season's central character, union leader Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer). I don't want to go too deep into discussing everything Frank is up to, but he makes some of it clear in his argument with union rival Nat Coxson, and in the actions we see him take involving his nephew Nick, the mysterious "Greek," and Father Lewandowski at the local parish. Because the grain pier has fallen into disrepair, and because the shipping channel isn't deep enough any longer, not enough ships are coming to the port to employ all stevedores that Frank represents. So he's taking bribes from the Greek to slip shipping containers past customs, and then using that money to get close enough to politicians -- with a little help from his favorite priest -- who might be able to help him get the canal dredged.
But in buying a new window for the church nave -- and in making an offering higher than the one the Polish cops and firemen could afford -- Frank has now put himself on the radar of the petty but politically influential Stan Valchek. And in trying to help the Greek and his people import a shipping container (or, as they'll be referred to mostly from here on out, "can") full of dead girls, he's about to get a whole lot more.
Again, without wanting to give too much away, let me offer the best I can in terms of an explanation of who some of the key new (or more prominent) figures are so far:
• Frank Sobotka: Head of the stevedores union. Keep in mind that there are several different types of stevedores involved at the port, but the primary group, and the one Frank and these others are a part of, are the checkers, who are responsible for identifying and tracking all the cans as they move in and out of the port, and who have the ability to help smuggle items in.
• Nick Sobotka (Pablo Schreiber): Frank's nephew, such a junior checker that he struggles to get shifts when there are so many senior guys ahead of him and so few ships to work. He's Frank's go-between with the Greek.
• Ziggy Sobotka (James Ransone): Frank's bumbling (but well-endowed) son, who can be as charming as he is obnoxious.
• Horseface (Charley Scalies): Frank's heavyset sidekick
• Stanislaus Valchek (Al Brown): Commander of the Southeastern district of the Baltimore PD, which covers most of the remaining white ethnic neighborhoods in the city, as well as the port; he's Prez's father-in-law.
• Spiros "Vondas" Vondopoulos (Paul Ben Victor): Nick's soft-spoken contact; is either the Greek, or at least a Greek
• Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan): Port cop whose job largely involves driving around the stacks of containers to make sure nothing's amiss; she's the one who notices the broken customs seal on the Greek's can.
This is a lot to take in, I know. Lots of new people, and lots of old friends still absent for now. No Bubbles, or Omar, or D'Angelo, and a bare minimum of Bunk, Kima, Avon and others. But just as I imagine lots of you were completely lost at this stage in season one, only to grow to understand and love it as you went, I suspect you're going to have a similar learning curve here.
Some other thoughts on "Ebb Tide":
• To make it clear that the show hasn't forgotten about the Barksdale investigation, and that it views every part of this city as connected in some way, we spend a decent amount of time in the premiere following Bodie trying to pick up a non-existent drug shipment, and then on Stringer trying to find out why their supplier left them hanging. What makes it particularly inscrutable is the way we keep seeing Bodie and his partner Shamrock from the perspective of Tank and Country, the two older hands Stringer has sent along to make sure the young guys aren't stealing. It's sound strategy on Stringer's part, but it makes the subplot more complicated than it probably should have been in the middle of an episode that's already incredibly dense.
• That subplot does give us two wonderful Bodie moments that echo season one. First, we have him being confused by the idea that the radio stations change when you leave Baltimore (and then being disgusted when the first Philly station he tunes in is playing "A Prairie Home Companion"), which is very much in keeping with Wallace not even knowing what things are like on the east side of town, let alone in the country. Second, we have him scolding -- in an echo of one of D'Angelo's lectures to him last season -- one of his new soldiers about the futility of always thinking of violence as the first solution to any problem in this business.
• One final point on that subplot, and a holdover from the veteran discussion of last year's premiere. A commenter, Boones19, suggested that the Dominican drug crew that Fitz from the FBI was investigating (with the help of one of Jimmy's informants) would turn out to be Avon and Stringer's supplier, but when I caught the lawyer telling Stringer that his client was under investigation from the DEA, not the FBI, I checked with David Simon, who says they're two unconnected outfits.
• A new season means a new -- or, in this case, the Tom Waits' original -- version of "Way Down in the Hole," and a new opening title sequence, this time filled with images of the port. As I did last year, I suggest taking a look at Andrew Dignan's analysis of each of the first four seasons' title sequences at The House Next Door, though I'd steer clear if I was a newbie, as it's filled with spoilers about this and later seasons.
• "The Wire" is nothing if not patient, as is Jimmy McNulty, and the show is willing to take the time to show Jimmy taking the time to screw over Bill Rawls and Jay Landsman (who, we find out, was the one who gave away Jimmy's fear of the marine unit, rather than Jimmy himself doing it out of self-loathing over what he did to Kima and D'Angelo) by going over the tide charts for proof that the dead woman fell into the water within Baltimore PD jurisdiction.
• This show loves its parallels, and here we get Daniels and Bunk tearing apart the evidence room for the material on the Gant case at the same time Bodie, Shamrock and the mechanics are searching the car for the drugs that are supposed to be there.
• The band playing at the stevedore bar is The Nighthawks, who enterprisingly put a banner with their website on it in the background of the shot.
• This qualifies less as a spoiler than it does a fair warning for the newbies: get used to Ziggy showing off his large (albeit, to our eyes, clearly fake) male appendage.
Coming up next Friday: "Collateral Damage," in which the dead girls cause a stir among various law-enforcement agencies, Avon's sister pays him a visit, and Valchek's vendetta begins.
What did everybody else think?