Spoilers for episode five, "Undertow," coming up just as soon as I take the Fifth Commandment...
"It's just business. Everything is just business with us: Buy for a nickel, sell for a dime." -VondasThe Sobotka detail gets moving in "Undertow, but while they don't need to learn each other's strengths and weaknesses the way they did last season, they don't really have the first clue what kind of opponent they're going up against.
Herc suggests that the port guys must be involved in drugs -- because what other kind of major crime is there in Baltimore? -- and while we learn in this episode that Vondas and company are involved in that trade, we also know by now that their interests range wider and deeper than dope. And we know by now that they're far more ruthless, and efficient, than even the mighty Barksdale/Bell outfit. Sobotka isn't who the detail should really be after, and drugs shouldn't be their primary focus, but it's going to take them a while to recognize the magnitude of the problem before them.
"Undertow" features a lot of characters underestimating their opponents. Ziggy again gets in way over his head trying to play dope dealer, letting Frog rip him off and then letting Cheese steal (and later torch) his beloved Camaro. Nick thinks he can out-clever Vondas by having Ziggy look up what the chemicals might be used for, and while their deduction about drugs seems to be right, they really have no way of knowing. When Nick asks Vondas if it's drugs, he more or less invites Vondas to lie to him, and we've seen by now what kind of a poker face that guy has -- a poker face he puts on display when he talks a reluctant Frank into staying in business with The Greek. (Vondas also knows how to twist a metaphorical knife, as he does by pointing to the defunct steel factory and reminding Frank of how easily a Baltimore industry can disappear.)
None of the Sobotka men understand what kind of people they're putting themselves into business with, and you don't need to have seen the first season to suspect this will end badly for some or all of them.
Even Avon seems stuck in circumstances more dire than he cares to admit. Avon doesn't want to acknowledge how bad things have gotten with the Atlanta package, or how strained his relations are with D'Angelo, or even that Stringer seems eager to be done with D.
Stringer, on the other hand, is more than aware of the state of the operation. While he's not quite the pure capitalist that Vondas and The Greek are (he has his passions and pretensions, where they're all about the cash and nothing but), he's still a cold enough businessman to want to cut D'Angelo loose, and to realize that something has to be done about their pathetic dope supply.
The latter problem leads to another inspired "big business meets dope business" comedy set piece, as Stringer's macroeconomics professor (not recognizing what his prize student's real business is) teaches him about Worldcom, and Stringer in turn tries to pass the lesson along to the likes of Bodie and Poot. To the crew's credit, they seem to grasp an outside-the-box concept more easily than they often do, but it's still hilarious to watch these worlds collide.
And speaking of thinking outside the box, with Lester assigned to Lt. Daniels' detail -- and Daniels adamant about not taking on the Jane Doe murders unless they're gift-wrapped as clearances -- Bunk finally starts coming around to Jimmy's way of thinking about Homicide's way of doing things (instant gratification) and the right way to handle a sprawling case like this. He's one of the few characters in "Undertow" (other than Vondas and The Greek themselves) who seems to recognize exactly what he's up against -- he just has no way to adequately deal with the problem.
Some other thoughts on "Undertow":
• Before this season of "The Wire," my only significant exposure to Paul Ben-Victor was as hustling snitch Steve Richards on "NYPD Blue" -- possibly my least favorite recurring character in the history of one of my favorite shows. Ben-Victor's performance as Steve was so mannered, so cartoonish, that when I saw him turn up on a completely unmannered show like "The Wire" -- and realized how well he was fitting in -- I was stunned. His portrayal of Vondas is such an economical performance, saying so much with so little, that I remain kind of in awe that a man who could be so irritating and over-the-top on one show could be so quietly menacing on another.
• Method Man makes his first appearance as Ziggy's new nemesis Cheese. David Simon told me at the end of the series that many rappers tried to get parts on the show over the years, "and this was the only guy who walked into a casting office and (auditioned) and said, 'Okay, tell me about the part.' We didn't take him because he was Method, we took him because he was the best read for Cheese."
• Once again, we see that Ziggy is pretty good with computers (or, at least, better than Nick), and it makes me wonder how differently his life would have been if he hadn't been raised by a stevedore who didn't want to prepare him for anything else.
• And speaking of computers, this episode offers the kind of scene you never would have gotten with the detail's season one target, as Frank himself offers to show Beadie and Bunk how the checker computer system works. There are many key differences between Frank and Avon (really, the comparison should be Avon and Stringer with The Greek and Vondas), but foremost is the fact that Frank has a legitimate career and is only dabbling in crime.
• And Beadie starts to demonstrate that, whatever her initial interest in policework may have been, she's both willing and able to learn from Bunk, as she turns her former fling (and Ziggy hater) Maui into her own confidential (if unofficial) informant.
• Lots of good comedy moments in this one, from Herc with the toothpick (which amuses Carver and Kima at first, then slowly drives them nuts) to Jimmy taking Omar clothes shopping. ("It's a look." "No, it ain't.") For that matter, I love Omar's reaction to Ilene Nathan's confusion when Omar mentions another of Bird's murders: "Fish gotta swim, you know what I'm saying?"
• And still more hilarity: Carver listens to the white drug dealers trying to sound black and complains to Kima, "Thieving motherf--kers take everything, don't they?"
• While Nat Coxson is terrified of the grain pier being turned into condos, Nick gets a first-hand look -- courtesy of Jimmy's ex-wife Elena, who turns out to be a realtor -- at how gentrification is already affecting his neighborhood. A house that belonged to Nick's aunt, and that he might have been able to afford a few years back, has now been fixed up enough -- down to a fancy new nickname for the neighborhood -- that he has no shot at it.
• Also, Nick mentions that he gave Aimee money to get furniture at Little Pages, a real-life Baltimore store that was also mentioned by Beau Felton in the "Homicide" pilot.
• Speaking of "Homicide," the grand jury prosecutor is played by Gary D'Addario, who was the shift commander when Simon was following the real Baltimore Homicide unit to write his first book. (D'Addario also played the head of the QRT team in a number of "Homicide" episodes.) Oddly, Bunk refers to him as "Charlie" here, when in later appearances, the character will be named Gary DiPasquale. A rare continuity flub, or Bunk using an odd nickname?
• Is this the first time Kima has referred to Lester as "Cool Lester Smooth"? The nickname doesn't come up often, but it's so perfect that it's hard not to think of the guy that way.
• So bizarre -- and more than a little scary -- to see Stringer Bell with a small child.
• Jimmy's attempt to identify his own Jane Doe more or less hits a dead end in my own backyard of beautiful Newark, NJ. Probably the most interesting part of that subplot in this episode -- and very fundamentally "The Wire," in the same way as Carver's "same as it ever was" line -- is the bit where the Baltimore INS office gets its logo converted to Homeland Security office and the agent sarcastically asks Jimmy if he feels any safer.
And now it's time for the veterans-only section, where we talk about how developments from this episode will play out over the rest of the season, and the series:
• From such humble beginnings is one of the series' more loathed characters born in Cheese Wagstaff. I guess you had to figure they wouldn't cast Method Man in a walk-on part, especially once he auditioned well.
• How differently would things have gone for the Sobotka men if Frank and Nick had both declined Vondas' offer in this episode? The detail was only able to follow the cans and the rest of the trail because Frank kept working for The Greek, and Nick's going to wind up getting caught up in the dope trade -- which, in turn, will only fan the flames of Ziggy's resentment, leading to the explosion with Double-G.
• Ilene Nathan should have been more specific than "anything with a tie," shouldn't she? Not that Omar will need to suit up, as it turns out.
• Though Avon doesn't want to admit his distance with D to Stringer, you can see in that scene that he's preparing himself to let go of his nephew -- not to kill him off, obviously, but to cut him off. And Stringer more or less reads the latter as license to do the former.
Coming up next: "All Prologue," in which D'Angelo gives a book report, Maury Levy goes up against Omar, and Sergei helps Nick with a problem.
What did everybody else think?