Spoilers for episode three, "Hot Shots," coming up just as soon as I dump all my telecom stocks...
"Mishy gishy gushy gushy mishy mushy mooshy motherf---er." -LesterWe're still a long way from what will pass as major progress in the story arcs of season two, but "Hot Shots" features a variety of characters from the different worlds "The Wire" follows making one kind of dangerous power play or another:
• Nick Sobotka, fed up with not getting enough shifts down at the docks and under pressure from baby mama Amy to do right by her and their daughter, decides to go in with Ziggy and Johnny 50 on a scam to steal a can full of digital cameras and sell them to Vondas' associate, Double-G.
• Valchek, with much prodding from Prez, realizes he's been pacified with a detail of humps and threatens to ugly up Ervin Burrell's coronation as commissioner if Erv won't give him a real detail, led by Cedric Daniels -- who has just made a bold move of his own in deciding to retire from the force to put his law degree to better use.
• Failing to get anywhere with the polyglot crew of the Atlantic Light, Bunk, Lester and Beadie Russell agree to let the boat sail out of Philadelphia, even though they don't have any better leads in the case of the dead girls.
• McNulty resolves to identify the girl he found in the water so at least one of the 14 can be spared the indignity of a Jane Doe disposal.
• Avon and Stringer put together a plan that will get Tilghman off of Wee-Bey's back -- and, Avon implies to D'Angelo, a plan that will lead to Avon and D getting earlier releases -- by swapping out his usual drug supply for poison.
• We hear two of the happiest words in the English language -- "Omar back." -- and then see the man who makes the grandest gestures in "The Wire" universe decide to partner up (along with new boyfriend Dante) with a pair of lesbian thieves now that he's back in Charm City.
Omar's mostly a sideshow for now (albeit a damned welcome one), so let's focus on the other happenings, starting with young Nick.
This season is going to turn into his story at least as much as it is Frank's, if not moreso. Frank and Horseface and Ott and those other guys came up in an era when the port was still a relatively thriving place, where there was more than enough work to go around. It lived up to the unwritten American promise that David Simon likes to talk about in regards to this season, the one that says something like, "You may not be highly-educated, or even highly-skilled, but if you're willing to work, and work hard, America will find a place for you." Nick, on the other hand, is coming of age after that promise has been broken, with the industrial base and the blue-collar employment it offers shrinking by the day. Whether the promise ever really existed or not, it's one that Nick has been taught from a young age, growing up in this family and this world, and now he's finding out that it doesn't apply to him. So what's he supposed to do?
We know "The Wire" is fond of its parallel structures, and "Hot Shots" starts drawing lines between Nick and D'Angelo Barksdale. Both are nephews of the detail's main target. Both have kids with women they like well enough, just not enough to really want to marry them. Both are finding that the family business isn't as rosy as they were raised to believe, and both are letting their relatives suck them deeper into a life of crime than they intend.
It's one thing for Nick to go get the can number from Vondas to pass it along to Frank, even after discovering that they're aiding and abetting human trafficking; it's something else entirely for Nick and Ziggy to start stealing cans themselves and selling the contents to The Greek and his people. But when there aren't enough ships to work, too many guys with seniority, and pressure coming from Amy to do something for their makeshift family, Nick decides he has no choice but to become an active criminal.
What Nick doesn't know is that the police pressure on the port is about to get a lot tighter, now that Valchek is arranging to have the hump detail replaced with actual police. It's hilarious -- and more than a little sad -- to see Stan listen to Prez's story of the Barksdale case and extract only the realization that he can use this knowledge to get over on Burrell. Imagine what this guy could accomplish if he actually cared about anything other than self-preservation. Of course, if he did, he likely wouldn't have the power that he does, which is why the show's version of the Baltimore PD remains a mess.
And elsewhere in the department, it's equally funny -- and, in this case, frustrating -- to watch Bunk, Lester and Beadie struggle to make any headway on a case that we all know, based on the end of last week's episode, is probably a lost cause. Lester is usually so cool and composed and erudite that it was hilarious to see him lose his cool and curse out the Atlantic Light crew. But Bunk and Lester still have 14 red names to try to turn black, and they're nothing if not tenacious -- as, it seems, is Beadie Russell.
Maybe my favorite scene in the episode is McNulty riding into the Homicide office on his white horse to save the day with his brilliant insights -- only to find out that Bunk and Lester beat him to all those insights. That speaks to both the cleverness of the current Homicide duo and the ego of Jimmy, but it also is a reminder that Jimmy, for all his narcissism, does mean well. He instigates the Barksdale detail to prove how smart he is, but he does recognize on some level that these are dangerous people who should be stopped. Here, his decision to put a name to the Jane Doe from the water is classic Jimmy, in the good and bad sense; he's trying to do right by this one girl and her family, but he's also doing it so he can feel a little like a cop while he's stuck riding the boat.
And Avon seems determined to keep playing kingpin even while he's stuck in prison. There was some debate in the later seasons about whether Avon was more or less ruthless than some other criminals the series introduced, and I think the people trying to argue for Avon as a relative softie might want to revisit the final shot of this episode. Avon has just arranged to fatally poison a bunch of convicts who've done nothing to him, just to get back at Tilghman (and, perhaps, to finagle his way into an even shorter sentence), and he sits calmly in his little corner suite, enjoying the book he took from the library when he went to see D, not a bit of concern for all the collateral damage he's created. (McNulty, for all his faults, at least feels bad when he learns that Bunk and Lester got stuck with the dead girls because of him.)
On the chess board that is season two, the pieces are starting to move into place. Get ready for some clashes, soon.
Some other thoughts on "Hot Shots":
• Poor Ziggy. Even when he pulls off (with a lot of help from Nick and Johnny 50) a successful and relatively lucrative theft, he can't enjoy the moment, because he has to be at the bar to witness Dolores handing cash from Frank to the hard-up stevedore who'd been thinking about switching unions. Everywhere Ziggy looks, he gets reminders that his father cares more about the union than he does about his own son.
• By now, the show's stylistic template is so firmly established that it's a little jarring to watch the "mishy gishy" montage sequence, funny though it is. Yes, it detailed Lester and Bunk's mounting frustration in short order, but "The Wire" usually isn't about telling you things in short order. Not bad, but different.
• Is there a "no animals were harmed during production" disclaimer at the end of this episode, or did they actually film a dog eating a rat? Either way... ugh!
• Loved Stringer making stock portfolio decisions based on what he sees down at the Pit. But given the way the cell phone market has only gotten bigger in the years since, was this a poor business decision on his part?
• Speaking of Stringer, I don't want to overlook his seduction of Donette. He's usually depicted as being so consumed with business that it can be jarring to see him just act like a man, with needs and a libido. But Idris Elba played it well; just because he's taking his shirt off and kissing somebody, doesn't mean he stops being Stringer Bell.
• I want to hire Jay Landsman to be my own personal fashion critic. "Tweedy impertinence" is never not funny.
• Confusion over "prostate" vs. "prostrate" seems to be a favorite joke of language-obsessed TV scribes. David Milch got a lot of mileage out of Sipowicz confusing one with the other, and here Landsman laughs a lot at Crutchfield using the wrong one in a report.
• How do you feel about Nick using an old-fashioned phrase like "I haven't got a pot to piss in"? Does it feel right (like this is the world Nick grew up in, and/or he thinks that's how a stevedore's supposed to talk), or is it a too self-conscious attempt to link the character back to the days of "On the Waterfront"?
Coming up next: "Hard Cases," in which Burrell tries to talk Daniels out of retirement, Avon tries to exploit the Tilghman situation, and McNulty reaches out to an old friend for help finding Omar.
What did everybody else think?