Friday, August 28, 2009

The Wire, Season 2, Episode 12: "Port in a Storm" (Veterans edition)

And so we've come to the end of our look back at "The Wire" season two, and that means it's the last time (for this summer, anyway) that I'll have to tell you that we're doing this in two slightly different versions: one for people who have watched the entire series and want to discuss it from beginning to end, and one for people who've only gotten through season two (or, at least, haven't made it all the way to the finish line) and don't want to be spoiled. This is the veteran version; click here for the newbie edition.

Spoilers for the season two finale, "Port in a Storm," coming up just as soon as I look at a table full of heads...
"The world just keeps turning, right? You guys move onto something new. No one looks back." -Beadie
"Always" is a word that comes up several times in "Port in a Storm." The episode's epigraph is of The Greek, amused, telling an airline ticket clerk that his travels are about "Business. Always business." When Prop Joe expresses concern about the dope Vondas is leaving on the docks, Vondas assures him, "Always, there is more." And when Avon is lecturing Stringer about how the rules of business school can't always be applied to the drug business, he tells him, "The street is the street... always."

David Simon (who co-wrote the script with Ed Burns) is a former newspaperman who chooses and uses words carefully. There's a point to that repetition of "always," and that point is driven home in the closing montage(*): There is no changing any of this. No matter how clever or well-meaning the cops might be, there will always be men like The Greek ready to exploit human weakness. There will always be people looking to buy and sell guns, and drugs, and even human beings. There will always be little guys left behind by progress. There will always be toughs and gangsters and soldiers, and there will always be a new case for people like Lester and Bunk to move on to, no matter how hard that is to process for someone as relatively un-jaded as Beadie Russell.

(*) This season's montage brought to you by Steve Earle's "I Feel Alright."

There's a sense of hopelessness throughout "Port in a Storm," which is structured much like season one's finale, "Sentencing." The detail gets some mid-level players, but the big targets get away, and it's clear that our heroes didn't even make a dent in things. The FBI's presence causes more problems than it solves, the death of a key witness (Wallace last year, Frank this year) prevents the detail from getting to the major players, and a talented investigator (first Jimmy, now Beadie) is wasted aimlessly driving a vehicle around the port. And there's also time devoted to setting up the following season's storyline, as Bubbs turns Kima and Jimmy onto Joe and Stringer's new business arrangement.

But in many ways, it's even grimmer than "Sentencing." While it seemed obvious that Frank was walking to his death at the end of "Bad Dreams," we (and Beadie, and the stevedores) still have to get an up close and personal look at his mutilated corpse. (And damn if his eyes don't seem to be looking right at Beadie, even as Chris Bauer is doing a good job of playing dead.) And where the season one montage at least climaxed with a laughing Omar - the one character on the show who follows the rules of more traditional filmed entertainment, and the one allowed to exist outside The Game - sticking up a drug dealer, here we end on a grieving Nick shuffling through the rain, trailed by the U.S. Marshal who's preparing him for a new life far away from the one he's always known.

As I asked last year at this time, why do we watch this show if it's going to give us nothing but tragedy and despair? And as I answered myself, we watch it because it's so profound, and moving, and funny, and well-acted, and thrilling even as we know things aren't going to end well except for the worst of the worst.

This was a controversial season at the time it aired, and it remains one. The port story was such a jarring shift from the drug case of season one. And (don't worry, newbies, I'll be vague here) most of these characters will be ignored, or only seen briefly, in later seasons, creating the sense that this season had little to do with the larger picture of the series.

Me? I love season two. The performances by people like Chris Bauer, Al Brown and James Ransone are among the best the show will feature in roles big or small. Sobotka is one of the more complex characters on a series that prides itself on giving depth to even the worst people (like Vondas' affection for Nick). There are so many standout moments from this year that come to mind when I look back on "The Wire" as a whole, whether it's Ziggy struggling to light his cigarette after killing Double-G, or Frank under the bridge, or Brother Mouzone going all Dirty Harry on Cheese, or Jimmy trying to recreate his car accident.

And whether or not the stevedores factor into the narrative down the road, I think this season is just as important thematically as any other. This is not just a show about drugs, or cops, or gangsters. It's about a city, and it's about America, and it's about showing how the system is letting so many people down, whether they're black dope slingers like Bodie or underemployed white guys like Nick.

But even if you want to focus on the drugs, season two is an essential part of the puzzle. Season one is about how a drug crew operates, and later seasons will show how cops and politicians have failed to adequately deal with the drug problem, how kids grow up to be soldiers, and how the media's failure to cover this (and the public's disinterest in the small bits of coverage) allows the problem to perpetuate itself. Here, meanwhile, we get a sense of how the drugs come into the country in the first place, and how men like Vondas and The Greek enable men like Stringer and Prop Joe. Like the poster says, it's all connected, and even if Nick Sobotka and D'Angelo Barksdale never got to meet before one went into witness protection and the other was killed, their lives were as intertwined as they were parallel to one another.

And because "The Wire" on so many levels is a critique of a purely capitalist society, attention must be paid to a season in which the chief villains represent capitalism at its purest and most cruel. They're fake - Vondas is using an alias, The Greek isn't really Greek, the rosary beads are just an affectation and not something he cares about, etc. - in every way but one: they will do anything and hurt anyone to keep the money rolling in.

Always.

Because I've been on vacation most of this week, and because I've hit a lot of the larger plot and thematic issues in my reviews of the previous episodes, let's move straight to the bullet points:

• Getting back to the idea that Frank's death prevents the detail from nabbing Vondas and The Greek, does it really? I know it seems that way, but even if he had shown up at the detail office the next morning, he doesn't know The Greek's name, nor Vondas' real name, nor does he know what hotel they could be found at. They only discover the correct hotel because Lester and Bunk are able to scare Sergei with the death penalty, and the timetable on them gathering all the evidence to make that work wasn't really affected by Frank's death, was it? Nick gives them the Philly info on the same day Frank would have.

• The focus on the port story meant that some of season one's characters got short shrift. Omar is gone for most of the season's mid-point, and the finale is the first we've seen of Bubbs and Johnny in a long time. Meanwhile, the appearance by Detective-turned-Officer Santangelo leaves Sydnor as the only surviving season one character of note to not pop up at any point this season.

• One minor quibble with the finale, though I acknowledge it's something that had to be glossed over given everything else that was happening: given the difficulty the detail had even finding, let alone tailing, Stringer and Avon a season ago, how did Kima and Jimmy get a tail on Prop Joe and/or Stringer so easily?

• Though Valchek may be the petty bastard who set much of this tragedy in motion, and though his absolution of Prez is tied up in his own pride (the apology letters have to explain that Stan could only be hurt by a sucker punch), he does have a very human moment when he looks at the latest photo of the surveillance van and realizes he did, in fact, have some affection for Frank. Can anybody translate what he says in Polish at the end of that scene?

• Robert Colesberry, the series' lead non-writing producer, made his directorial debut on this episode after a long and distinguished career behind the scenes, but not behind the camera, in movies and TV. As the man whom David Simon credits the most with helping come up with the series' visual style, Colesberry unsurprisingly was a natural in his first stint in the director's chair; I especially love the shot of the stevedores standing over Frank's corpse, and the way Nick's confession to the cops is shot with Frank's photo directly over his shoulder, with the shot shifting focus between the living nephew and the dead uncle at various points. Tragically, Colesberry - who also dabbled in acting on the show as bumbling Homicide veteran Ray Cole - died before season three really got up and running.

• Frank's death, and Ziggy's incarceration, and the disintegration of the union are among the season's bigger tragedies, but on some level I'm just as upset at that shot of Beadie driving aimlessly through the stacks. She went from someone who didn't know or care much about being a real cop to someone who displayed a real talent, and at times passion, for investigation. Emotionally, she's probably better off - the crimes always weighed harder on her than they did on the rest of the detail - but it still seems like a waste.

• I wouldn't call Pablo Schreiber a weak link exactly, but because the show's casting is so uniformly good, and because most of the other actors come across so naturally, Schreiber's more mannered performance as Nick often seemed a half-step out of sync. But the man really brings it in the finale, both with the rage burning in Nick's eyes as he sits in Frank's trailer and thinks about killing Vondas to the anguish on his face as he stands at that fence and contemplates his past and his future.

• As I said when Agent Koutris first appeared, some fans initially believed that he was corrupt. But the idea was always supposed to be that he was an honest agent who had done a moral calculus and decided the intel he thought he was getting from The Greek was worth more than whatever crimes The Greek committed because Koutris kept him on the street. The fact that Fitz is mad at himself, but not at Koutris, once he realizes what happened, suggests that this is just the way things work at the Bureau.

• One of my favorite things about the storytelling style that Simon, Burns and Colesberry created is that they're happy to simply stop and show characters thinking. There's a lovely extra beat after Stringer asks Brother Mouzone who shot him, and you can see the very sharp Brother wondering why Avon's number two is so curious.

• Again, the show is always very fair about seeing multiple sides of issues. Even though it's very clear that the writers are in favor of the patient, cerebral Ed Burns style of policing, and even though Herc and Carver are supposed to represent the reckless, pointless head-busting approach that's largely ruined the Baltimore PD, their frustration at having to play pack mule for the detail is understandable - and funny. I think anyone would be justified in asking for a transfer after spending an entire case doing the scutwork - note who had to do all the hard labor for the warrants judge a few episodes back - and after being left sitting on Nick's house long after Nick had turned himself in to a member of the detail.

• The brief scene at Daniels' home confirms what was already clear back when he assumed responsibilities for the 14 Jane Does in "Backwash." His marriage to Marla is over in everything but name, as he's now sleeping in a spare room and she couldn't possibly be colder to him. The irony, of course, is that Daniels' unit did turn those 14 red names to black, and in the process boosted his standing with Burrell and Rawls, but Marla has already decided that the man running the newly-official Major Crimes Unit is not the man she thought she married.

• The scene where Louis Sobotka shows up at Frank's trailer and tells Nick "Let's go" is a real testament to the economy with which "The Wire" creates characters. Here's a guy who's had only a handful of scenes throughout the season, but we know him (and we know the Sobotka family) well enough by this point that it's a big moment when he tells his son it's time to stop messing around and face the consequences of what he's done.

And for the final time this season, here come some veterans-only thoughts on how the events of this episode will play out through the rest of the series.

• As alluded to above, this is the last we'll see of most of the port characters in any kind of significant role. Beadie gets involved with McNulty, and Vondas and The Greek come back into play with Marlo and Joe in the final season, but aside from brief season five cameos by a now-homeless Johnny 50 and by Nick protesting the opening of new waterfront condos, we're done with these people. And to reiterate a point from that Nick cameo, David Simon told me that the idea was Nick left the witness protection program, as many people do, because he missed his old life; if Vondas or The Greek know he's back in Baltimore, they don't much care, because the case is years old and they feel confident they can get out of town quickly should any new problems arise.

• Vondas' "My name is not my name" line works as the antithesis of Marlo's "My name is my name!" speech from season five, and nicely illustrates the difference between the two organizations. Vondas and The Greek care only for money, where Marlo's primary concern is power and respect. Marlo's name is all he cares about; Vondas' name is just a tool to use so he can remain anonymous and count his cash.

• And getting back to Johnny 50's homeless future, I wonder if Simon and company had that in mind at all with the brief clip during the montage of Lala dragging a plastered Johnny away from a corner. With the union taken over by the feds, with his two best friends either in jail or in witness protection, and with the general level of alcoholism among the stevedores, it's not at all hard to imagine Johnny climbing inside a bottle for a few years and emerging to find himself living in a shanty town.

• The Major Crimes Unit becomes a more or less permanent thing, and will operate out of that off-site building in the Southeastern for the rest of the series' run.

• Once again, we see a police document referring to Cheese's last name as "Flagstaff," when in season four it will become Wagstaff to tie him to unacknowledged son Randy.

• Carver and Herc leave for the Western district, where Carver will learn how to be a good cop from Bunny Colvin, and where Herc will stay ignorant as ever.

Well, it's been fun. With any luck, we can finish up the series next summer with a look back through season three, which was the last one to air before I started my second career as a blogger.

What did everybody else think?

54 comments:

Fernando said...

Great reviews all summer. Thanks a lot for doing this Alan.

I after my second or 3rd viewing, I was always tempted to say that how the 3rd Season plot lines are set up in this episode are too neat, but putting Bunny Colvin in "Stray Rounds" kind shows they had been thinking this through for a while.

And McNulty finding Stringer doesn't seem like a stretch since he seemed to always be able to find him (even back in the pilot it seemed like they already knew each other), Avon was the one that was more problematic with his hiding skills.

Great point about how this season connects to the series as a whole. These drugs aren't grown or made in West Baltimore, they have to come from somewhere. So the fact that you have people like the greek bringing it in, people like Frank getting it off the dock and the system as a whole letting most of it get through, really shows as much as Stringer or Prop Joe are ruining lives through drug use and addiction, Frank is just as responsible for letting it in.

Gourmet Spud said...

I've always heard that Valchek says "Rest in Peace" in Polish.

Gridlock said...

Because this is the first chance I've had to comment on a WAW post which isn't 3 years old, thanks to everyone from the set chef to the head of HBO for such an outstanding piece of work.

It's what, 60 hours long? And yet I want more, much more, the Hispanic season, The Hall, The Next Generation even. Hell. The Wire: Atlantis at this point.

Roll on the NOLA show.

Dan said...

This season grows on me every time I see it. I liked it initially, but appreciate it more and more with every rewatch, mostly for the quality and depth of the Frank Sobotka character and Chris Bauer’s excellent portrayal of him

There are so many standout moments from this year that come to mind when I look back on "The Wire" as a whole, whether it's Ziggy struggling to light his cigarette after killing Double-G, or Frank under the bridge, or Brother Mouzone going all Dirty Harry on Cheese, or Jimmy trying to recreate his car accident.

I also rank D’Angelo’s Gatsby speech and final scene and Omar’s testimony as two of my favorite Wire scenes (and they were in the same episode, right?).

Nick gives them the Philly info on the same day Frank would have.

Did Frank even have the Philly info? Vondas told Nick directly, but I can’t recall if Nick passed that on to Frank or not. So, if Frank doesn’t get killed, do they even get the Philly info?

And, as always, excellent reviews Alan. Looking forward to Season 3 next summer, but not sure what I’m going to do at work on Friday mornings until then. Enjoy your vacation.

Theresa said...

Re: Nick leaving witness protection, did he really even need to be in it? I know he thought he did, but it seemed that at the end, Vondas and the Greek cut their losses and moved on, hence their henchmen leaving their post at his house. Yes, he missed his old life, and yes, they wouldn't have been interested in him later, but I don't think they were interested in him for very long after he entered the program. Just my two cents. Thanks for doing this, Alan, and I look forward to season three next summer!

Visceralist said...

Just wanted to say thanks a ton for another great summer of Wire recaps. Looking forward to Season 3 next summer.

troy said...

I think these recaps have been must-read for me, and helped me look at more of Simon's angles than would have occurred to me on my own. Thanks very much for these, Alan and all the commenters.

The New No. 2 said...

One quick note, Alan: I don't think those are rosary beads the Greek is constantly fingering. They're fittingly called Greek "worry beads" - they are used as a type of relaxation/stress relief.

T.J. Hawke said...

I thought this season was the weakest because of Ziggy and Pablo Schreiber.

While I believe Ziggy gave a very good performance as a complete screw-up, I just found his character just so uninteresting, mostly one-dimensional.

However, I think Pablo Schreiber was quite weak on the show. Maybe it's just because every other character was seemingly perfectly cast, but Pablo just felt so out of place on the show.

Alan Sepinwall said...

One quick note, Alan: I don't think those are rosary beads the Greek is constantly fingering. They're fittingly called Greek "worry beads" - they are used as a type of relaxation/stress relief.

If true, that makes it an even funnier joke: The Greek doesn't care about leaving the beads behind, because in reality he has very little to worry about. Invisible, invincible, invulnerable, that's him.

Anonymous said...

I always thought the worry beads were a callback to the drug shipment left on the docks. He cared about them both, but not enough to risk getting caught. For all we know the beads could have been the equivalent of the watch in Pulp Fiction. The Greek just knows to keep walking. The only time he was close to being caught was when he indulged Vondas convoluted plan to keep Nick alive. And the second Koutris told him about the proffer he ordered Frank and Nick killed.

Michael said...

I never really understood why Stringer asking Brother Mouzone who came after him was such a "tell" that he was behind the shooting, or such an insult to Mouzone.

If someone from Baltimore was behind it (Omar or Cheese in revenge), wouldn't that be something that Stringer would not only need to know, but would have a right to ask.

Also, is Omar's Reynaldo hanging out in the background at the bar at the end of the episode?

Patrick Wynne said...

Valchek's words in this episode actually came up on AskMetafilter exactly one month ago:
What does Valcheck say in Polish at the end of S2 of the wire?

It is indeed "rest in peace".

Rahul said...

Whenever I talk to Wire fans who don't like Season 2, I can't help wondering if part of the reason they like The Wire is that they see it as exotic: In other words, I wonder if they think that the story of a white blue-collar family is inherently less interesting than the story of poor black people living in an urban ghetto. I especially wonder if the person exoticizes black people when it's someone who namedrops the show to try to impress people. It might also be that Season 2 has less of a cat-and-mouse element than, say, Season 3 (with Avon and Stringer trying to get each other) or Season 5 (with Marlo and Omar).

Thanks a lot for these reviews, Alan.

Anonymous said...

Michael, I think it's Stringer saying "them?" in a slightly confused way, as if Mouzone using a plural and not a name came as a surprise to him. He covers quickly and asks who they were, but they've already showed that he registered Stringer's response. In addition to that, his hospital visit is more about testing the water since Mouzone survived than anything else. Avon's response to his asking about the shooter suggests that that kind of thing is entirely unnecessary and somewhat insulting - Mouzone has no reason to cancel his deal with Avon until then. The strangeness of visiting an external contract killer in the hospital combined with asking who the shooter was are enough to make Mouzone suspicious.

As far as the second season as a whole goes, when I first watched the series it seemed like a jarring change from Season 1 and I was disengaged for about 4 episodes and felt it to be a weaker season overall. Coincidentally finished up my second runthrough of S2 last night and I've come around to the point that I think it might be my favourite (pending a rewatch of S4).

oyaguy said...

I'm one of the people who liked The Wire more for the second season. To me the first season was busy deconstruction the cop show by hitting all the same notes but with a different rhythm.
So just when you get used to that new rhythm the second season comes in and makes it readily apparent this is more than just a superb example of a cop show. It was all there even in the first season but the second season made it apparent. Just a very audacious and bold move on the part of David Simon to essentially sideline half his cast to focus on another story. Which he would do even better in the fourth season.

Muz said...

I'll add to the chorus of praise and mention one of my favourite little bits:
When Beadie walks over to see Frank on the wharf and no one else besides the coroner's people do likewise.
You could look at it a few ways I guess. I've always had it that she doesn't want those big tough Homicide people to see her cry, but she doesn't want to be like them either (even if she wants to do what they do sometimes).

Anonymous said...

Season 2 is my least favorite season and I feel the need to defend that opinion a bit. This season frustrated me because it seemed way more derivative than The Wire should be. Frank Sobotka - how many times have we seen the labor guy who is really a nice dude but caught in the corruption? Ziggy? Sometimes I had to blink to remind myself it wasn't Eric Roberts in The Pope of Greenwich Village. The Greek, the soulless head of the evil operation, was cartoony. I did like Nick's dad, mostly because the actor knocked it out of the park. Apparently I'm missing something, but I didn't see anything beyond the standard "wrong side of the tracks/blue collar" tropes.

Love your recaps, Alan. I can't wait til next summer to see what you have to say about Hamsterdam.

Alex said...

Re Alan's question about why we keep coming back to a show that features so many depressing outcomes, here's my theory. The Wire offers answers to some otherwise baffling questions. Why have we invested so much energy and money in drug prohibition after alcohol prohibition failed so dismally? Why do people continue to become gangsters when everyone knows (to paraphrase Tony Soprano) that 90 percent of gangsters end up dead or in the can? Why do promising politicians turn out to be disappointing so often? Why does the news media fail to cover so many stories that really matter and linger on unimportant stories? I could go on and on, but the point is that when I watch The Wire these questions about our society don't seem quite so perplexing anymore. Solutions? Forget it. But the show does an amazing job of clarifying the problems.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for doing these, Alan. Lots of insights I wouldn't have caught otherwise.

And I have to say, IMO the closing montage in this episode is not only the best season-ending montage of the Wire, but perhaps the single most affecting and brilliant sequence in the entire series.

Anonymous said...

Alan, Those are most definitely Worry Beads. My father's side is Greek and my grandfather was always carrying them around.

Also, the Flagstaff/Wagstaff thing is kind've funny. I wonder why they didn't just call the Randy character Randy Flagstaff? Or maybe Cheese's name "changed" to Wagstaff during S3?

As always, thank you so much for adding so much to my summer. You are the best.

JAMMQ said...

Best video montage of all the seasons (even Season 5).

I felt defeated when I saw more girls getting out of a can.

What a great season!

This was the season it became more than just about the corner boys or the ghetto- but about everything.

JAMMQ said...

And I forgot to say . . . thank you Alan for the recaps.

They are great.

Good Dog said...

Regarding Nick leaving the witness protection, I always figured that was heavily implied by the last shot.

Before he grabs hold of the chain link fence leading up to the final montage the agent is trailing him in the car. Once it's over and he carries on walking the camera pulls out and purposefully holds on the shot showing the street to be empty. No Fed, no more.

Have to say the first two seasons are my favourites. I don't know if Robert Colesberry had a hand in the visual style, but come season three the colour palette became much stronger and brighter. It may have been the change in locale and subject matter required it but I preferred the rather dour tones previously employed in those earlier years.

Matt said...

I love all of the show's closing montages. Each one is always set to the perfect song for the season.

Thanks for the reviews, Alan. I'm looking forward to the Season 3 recaps.

Anonymous said...

Alex - this is an interesting theory. My main quibble with it would be that it pins most of the motivation on watching it for some sort of socio-economic reason. But when I slot in a DVD of the Wire, I'm not thinking about the problems, I'm thinking "Hell yeah, I get to watch the Wire! And get really depressed!"

That said, I can't offer an alternate explanation. I know when I watch The Wire, I'm mostly watching it for myself, but it'd be wrong to term it "enjoyment" somehow for a show that so routinely crushes my soul even on multiple viewings (sometimes more on multiple viewings).

Ryan W said...

I would also like to add to the Season 2 love-fest in these comments. I gave the pilot a shot, but otherwise did not see Season 1 until the release of the DVD set a few years later. When Season 2 first aired on HBO, I gave it a shot and fell in love with the show. Obviously, this made watching the show difficult sometimes until I purchased those DVDs, but I digress. Season 1 is, as others have pointed out, a critique of the drug war and a deconstruction of the TV cop show, but the former has been done numerous times in numerous mediums. This comment in no way belittles the first season as it adds so much to that debate and is certainly in the running for the single best season of the show.

On the other hand, Season 2 brings out so many different plot arcs that you rarely see on film or, especially, television. How does a drug organization recover from major losses in supply and personnel? How does all of this contraband actually make it into the US? Only Roseanne depicted true working class folk realistically (for the first 5 or 6 seasons anyway) in the last few decades of television. And, as David Simon himself mentioned in an interview, the ports have not been seen in any meaningful way since On the Waterfront fifty years prior to this season's first airing. The fact that they can come up with such compelling television from such disparate issues is a testament to the quality of the writing on this show. As far as I am concerned, Treme cannot come soon enough.

Anonymous said...

alan, what do u mean by schreiber giving a mannered performance as nick?

Eyeball Wit said...

The thing that separate season two for me is that I knew guys like Frank and Lou and Nicky and Ziggy.
So it hits closer to home, both for better and for worse.

And while it's a comment on race in America, It wouldn't have taken much more than an associates degree and a kick in the ass for Ziggy (and Nicky and Amy) to have ended up better.

For all his street smarts, Bodie's story is already written. There's no escape for a guy who doesn't understand that different cities have different radio stations.

And thanks Alan, for the smart recaps, and giving us a cool place to hang.

And finally, you know that monster ad: find a job you'd do for free and let them pay you.

Well, here's something close to that. My friend works for HBO and he got to edit all the promos, reaps, and previews for The Wire (and Deadwood and the Sopranos...)

Here's season two in 60 seconds.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bvl3D8S1Bc

Mike Schilling said...

Another way that the Greek and Vondas are a metaphor for capitalism: When things go bad, capital can always flow elsewhere. That's much harder for labor, most of which stays put and has to live with the bad times.

Mike C said...

"I've come around to the point that I think it might be my favourite"

I had a similar Season 2 experience as this poster. During the first time through, I didn't fully appreciate it. But after seeing the whole show, it is probably my favorite. I think it's very impressive that Simon and company managed to plausibly bring the MCU back together, introduce and connect a whole new set of characters, continue the storyline of the Barksdale organization, and lay the foundation for the Avon/Stringer fireworks of Season 3. Plus, I think the whole "Hot Shots" plotline was spectacular.

Finally, maybe Alan can confirm that Seasons 2/3 and 4/5 were ordered by HBO in pairs? Seems like they follow a similar pattern with Seasons 2 and 4 focusing on an entirely new setting while continuing to follow the action on the streets. And both seasons also served as setup for the following seasons (with McNulty and Kima's photo of Joe/Stringer and then with the discovery of all the bodies in the vacants).

And thanks again for all the great commentary, Alan.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Finally, maybe Alan can confirm that Seasons 2/3 and 4/5 were ordered by HBO in pairs?

I don't remember about 2 & 3, but 4 & 5 most definitely were not ordered together. There was a whole thing at the critics press tour the summer before 4 debuted where the head of HBO was saying he felt the show could end after that season if need be, and David Simon was pleading otherwise, and eventually the reviews were so glowing that HBO renewed it the day after the (very low) season 4 premiere ratings came in.

Jerry said...

"If true, that makes it an even funnier joke: The Greek doesn't care about leaving the beads behind, because in reality he has very little to worry about. Invisible, invincible, invulnerable, that's him."

If true, its even funnier than *that*. It means the Greek was so knowingly, confidently "safe" and "unworried" earlier in the day while *at* his hotel room that his ever-present "worry beads" completely slipped his mind. Then later, when he realizes later that he had left them at the hotel, he doesn't care.

Of course, since we know that the Greek "isn't even Greek", it calls into question "The new Number 2"'s theory that these *are* Greek worry beads, so we're still left sort of hanging on this.

Go ask Simon. I think he'll know.

Anonymous said...

These have been great, Alan.

So what do you say, seasons 1-4 of the Sopranos starting in summer 2011?

Ford said...

Just got to highlight The Wire’s second shout out to all of us down under. (Bird’s “Australian” gun being the first). Even though I’m West Coast (Perth), it was great to see Valchek’s van had made it all the way to Brisbane.

gcam said...

regarding the greek being greek......he is

in the scene with vosnos, vosnos makes a remark about his fake passport, the greek responds that on his fake passport, " i'm not even greek"

J-rod said...

I too didn't care much for S02 when first watching it but then it became my favorite season after rewatching on the DVD release.

I think Pablo was great as Nick. I was never bothered by his performance and get chills on that final montage.

Thanks to all for recaps and comments. Enjoyed reading.

Jerry said...

Sorry, GCAM, but The Greek wasn't referring to his *fake passport identity* in that scene, he was referring to himself.

As Alan puts it in his own review/recap just above these comments, in this episode we learn "The Greek isn't really Greek."

The Wire-Wiki and other fansites confirm this,as does a viewing of the ep.

That's why I suggested Alan go right to the source to clear it up.

Kirchhoff said...

@Eyeball Wit:
"For all his street smarts, Bodie's story is already written. There's no escape for a guy who doesn't understand that different cities have different radio stations."

Well, Poot seems to find a way out.

Knowing that Poot ends up fairly happy, with a legit life and a real job, really colors his character differently when you go back and watch seasons 1 and 2.

It also gives Wallace's murder yet another layer. The guy who hesitates (Bodie) gets a bullet in the brain, while the guy who pulls the trigger on his friend without a second thought (Poot) goes successfully straight.

Eyeball Wit said...

Kirchoff

I guess Poot "got out," but I'm not sure that selling sneakers for minimum wage and no health benefits really qualifies as a "real job and a legit life."

Poot's straight life actually reminds me a bit of the "cubicle prison" where Vic Mackey ended up in the last episode of The Wire.

As Neil Young wondered, is it better to burn out than to fade away?

Anonymous said...

poot is omly about 21 and an ex-con, how many guys like him end up back in the game, back in prison...

me said...

Regarding Koutris and the question whether he's corrupt or if that's just how things work in the FBI...

I've been watching the Canadian show "Intelligence", not sure if others have seen it, but it definitely addresses the relative trade-offs of protecting bad guys in order to access the information they have that may lead to other crime-fighting successes.

The cost is that these "bad guys" get a free pass to run their businesses.

Alan's question about Koutris made me think of this show. I think the nature of the relationship between Koutris and The Greek is still quite vague, but I kind of like how it begs the question but doesn't clearly answer it.

Anonymous said...

Omar - the one character on the show who follows the rules of more traditional filmed entertainment

Very puzzled by this characterization. Then I realized I had no idea what it meant. It would be like someone saying, "Allan Sepinwall's reviews follow the rules of traditional TV criticism." Absent some common understanding of the "rules of a traditional TV criticism" it doesn't really say anything. But it did evoke for me David Simon's understanding of a rule of traditional filmed entertainment—“the Shakespearean tradition of the angst of the individual and his own conscience and his own struggle against himself”—that provides me with an approach to “always.”

[P]eople are very comfortable in the modern world with the Shakespearean, and certainly a lot of the post-Shakespearean, in that it deals with the very modern notion of protagonists struggling against themselves, against the external world, but very much in control of their own destinies. Their choices matter, and their choices can ensure a better outcome. They are affecting their own future when they assert for their own future.

“The Wire,” ever-Omar-ish, resists and goes its own way making its political argument (everything in “The Wire” is political; Simon did say “I've always regarded storytelling as a means of positing an argument that is political in nature”):

”The Wire” made the argument, from its first season, that the modern world is becoming increasingly indifferent to individual catharsis and individual dignity, and human beings are worth less. Every day, human beings are worth less. That's the triumph of capitalism…. We've constructed an economic model that doesn't need a lot of human beings. It doesn't need as many as it once did for certain people to attain wealth. In a world like that, the old superstitions start to seem less superstitious. The idea that these massive institutions—school systems and police departments and drug trades and political entities and newspapers—might actually become utterly unfeeling to the people they're supposed to serve and the people who serve them seems to me to be the paradigm of the 20th century, and I think it's going to continue.

That's why the Greek tragedy was employed as a dramatic device. At least for the writers, it speaks to something that is not only latent in the modern world, but is becoming predominant in the modern world. And that's what “The Wire” was about.


Greek tragedy is a dramatic device employed rhetorically: a dramatic realization of a socio-economic structure governed by market forces and an oligarchical political structure that shields, ideologically and factually, that economy and political power from democratic control ("we're a money-obsessed oligarchy and not a democracy"). But “The Wire” makes no argument about any inevitable consequences of human nature outside of its particular socio-economic context. That's the universalizing drama of traditional filmed entertainment it rejects. “Always” has a context: “as long as….”

Getting back to Omar, arguably this episode begins to develop Omar's final story arc—which follows the pattern of a Greek dramatic tragedy to a tee—with its allusion to the blind seer of Greek mythology: “Blind Butchie” as Tiresias. At the end of season 4 Butchie will tell Omar: “You stole this much [hubris], and this ain't over.” Omar in classic Oedipal fashion misinterprets the prophesy as a threat to Reynaldo and seeking to avoid Brandon's fate (tortured and murdered to find him) takes Reynaldo away from Baltimore and thus brings about the worst conceivable outcome (the torture and murder of Butchie … to find him). Omar executes the Greek tragic hero to perfection: “its scope is that of lives lived, whether in action or suffering, at or close to the limits of human possibility—a form of heroism … which, in its concern with human extremes, is inherently religious in its implications for tragedy” (Stephen Halliwell). In a world where human agency has deferred to the Inevitable, not even Omar can control his fate.

Tom in London said...

Eyeball Wit, you get it right. As far as I can tell, the sneaker store Poot works in is on Howard Street (as are Stringer's rehab projects), and despite decades of efforts to rehab that once-grand Baltimore shopping corridor, Howard Street was all but dead by the time The Wire went into production. And it's even worse now. When I was last there in April, even the remarkably resilient wig and pager shops were gone.

If I had to guess, the best-case scenario for Poot is that he goes through a succession of such no-future jobs. As Simon and Burns' The Corner makes plain, there are precious few happy endings in places like the one Poot comes from.

As for all the love heaped on James Ransone, I have to say his Baltimore accent really grated on me. He sounded for all the world like a middle-class kid from the Baltimore suburbs that he is (as am I) trying to sound like a blue-collar boy from Locust Point. Aside from that, I give the guy tremendous credit for making his character so infuriating yet ultimately sympathetic.

matxil said...

Great reviews. It´s a pleasure reading them and so re-living the pleasure of seeing this great series.
(Warning: spoilers in the following!).

Just a few little comments after reading other people´s comments.

I´m rather surprised to see that apparantly I´m the only one who really can´t stand the Ziggy character. I suppose people are supposed to feel some sympathy for him in the end, but personally he´s the typical sort of guy I can´t stand. I was glad he went to jail and wouldn´t have minded seeing him dead instead of his father. Am I alone in this?

Also (about season 1, really). After having watched various times the scene where Bodie and Poot kill Wallace, I am still not sure who is the most cold-hearted of the two. Bodie hesitates but also jsutifies his act (even in later seasons) whereas Poot seems to be crying but also urges Bodie on. They deal with it in very different ways, that´s for sure. And it´s strange that despite Bodie doing this absolutely horrible thing, it did upset me to see him killed later on.

Anonymous said...

One question I had from the final, which I just rewatched on demand. When Nick is confessing to the major case squad, he strongly insists Horse had nothing to do with the smuggling. The final montage shows Horse appearing in court as a defendant. Obviously, they know from the investigation that Horse was assigned to every can that disappeared, but they never bring up the fact that Nick lied to protect the well liked Horse. Maybe I missed some eye contact between Daniels and Pearlman or something.

Anonymous said...

"given the difficulty the detail had even finding, let alone tailing, Stringer and Avon a season ago, how did Kima and Jimmy get a tail on Prop Joe and/or Stringer so easily?"

In the first season, by the time they're tailing anybody, Avon & Stringer are incredibly paranoid. By the second season, they're not thinking about cops anymore. That said, isn't it the first season where Jimmy (a) randomly sees Stringer at a mall and sends his kids after him and (b) tracks Stringer to the community college?

Anonymous said...

I'm a new comer to this blog and have read the comments with interest.

Season 2 is a great saeson in my opinion but the Port angle only needs to be visited once as it really only serves to demonstrate the supply chain. The depths that the dock workers will sink to in order to put food on the table is perhaps a cliche but perhaps a commercial reality.

I too have a problem with Ziggy. Whilst the portayal is good I think the character only really serves to highlight the shortcomings of Frank Sobotka as a father figure; more interested in his precious Union than his own son.

Is Nick really in danger from Vondas / The Greek? The police clearly think so but in reality what is there to give up? I think this is why Sergei cracks so easily under interrogation and why he is allowed to live (albeit in the can). Did Sergei realise this? Vondas (and clearly The Greek too) have the ability to walk away from houses, ditch cars and assume new identities with ease, so are the police ever likely to catch up to them irrespective of an informant's information?

This is a key theme in the Wire for me. For those outside the Major Crimes Unit (particularly Rawls and Landsman) they are not interested in convicting the main guys but will settle for mid-ranking criminals as long as it produces the stats (red names turning black and the smug grins of Rawls / Landsman in the closing montage).

I think the quote of the season is Frank Sobotka's 'used to be we made stuff in this country....' comment. This could be said about many 'advanced' capitalist economies but what happens after that? As per usual The Wire offers up the question and leaves it hanging.

I'd missed the subtle repetition of 'always'. Excellent work; it made me think about it. I look forward to exploring more of your blogs.

Anonymous said...

I agree alot with you Alex, to the reasons why the show is so great. I also agree with alot of you here that the recaps are great, and with Alan I agree the comments written contributes so much in getting more of the Wire-plot.

However, a thing bugging me which Alan, as well as many of you writing here seem to agree with, is that The Wire is a critique of capitalist society.

I urge you all to read Ayn Rands 'In Defence of Capitalism'. Using her ideas, and her definition of capitalism, such as I myself do, this show is good and accurate critique of our society. But I see most problems depictered in The Wire stemming from statism (thus creating corruption in government 'lobbyism', corrupt institutions, war on drugs, inefficient public schools), while instead the solution (at least in some part) is de facto laissez-faire capitalism.


(/Greetings from Sweden,)

Ahmedkhan said...

Aimee must be or should be wondering why she’s still keeping Nick’s company, given all he’s put her through. I’ve always regarded her as an intelligent, level-headed person, and would have thought she’d have developed serious reservations about Nick when she discovered the wad of dough in the basement laundry and obviously didn’t buy into Nick’s explanation of where it came from. Now she’s suffered the indignity of a drug bust, so there can – or should - be no doubt in her mind about what he’s been up to. More profoundly she’s faced with the initial prospect of having to go into Witsec and leave behind everyone and every place she’s known. This is weighty stuff for someone so young and just starting out in adult life. I’m guessing that their kid is the major bond but there is still genuine attraction between the two of them, and throwing in a heavy dose of youthful naivete and the possibility that she has nowhere else to turn, she’s not ready to let go.

More minutiae: I’ve come to learn that the Polish phrase Valchek utters to Frank when he’s looking at the photo taken in Brisbane of the stolen van is Odpoczywaj w pokoju, which means, “Rest in peace.” I’m still working on obtaining a translation of the Russian phrase Ilona Petrovna mutters at Kima in the interrogation room. It is no doubt an obscenity. If I find out, I’ll be sure to post it.

On the subject of Slavic languages, isn’t it a curiosity that we never hear Sergei say anything in Russian/Ukranian? Like I say, minutiae.

Stan’s sentimental farewell to Frank is an unexpectedly pleasant and touching departure from their lifelong acrimonious relationship. We see that Valchek actually has a human side. It’s a very nice poignant insertion on the part of Simon and Burns; strictly in terms of poignancy it isn’t at all unlike the scene between Cutty and Grace in the school hallway a couple of seasons hence. Without the human element, Valchek’s “Frank, you cocksucker” would convert the scene into a humorous but less effective (IMO) case of Frank’s pimping Valchek from the grave.

Unknown said...

Amazing stuff Alan –befitting of such an amazing work as The Wire.

I love the juxtaposition of Vondas saying that “his name is not his name” with Marlo’s famous credo. Totally spot-on. I remember my friend who first introduced me to the show and watched it through with me saying the Greeks were “one of the most together organizations in the show,” and in re-watching Season Two I was pondering on why that is. My first idea was that the Baltimore drug crews need territory to operate, which meant muscle, and that reputations serve a real purpose in that regard. The Greeks’ success is predicated on their anonymity. They recognized that it was truly not in their interest to have “their name ring out.” Obviously they come from an entirely different world than Avon or Marlo, and their psyches and motivations reflect this, but still a very interesting contrast.

I’ve always wondered why Sergie seems to flip so casually in interrogation, (or I suppose as casually as possible given the stakes of the discussion were literally life and death.) Don’t the Greeks ask “only loyalty” of their people? Sergie was a top lieutenant –the Chris Partlow of the Greeks. Does Sergie really recognize that the cops’ pursuit of Vondas and the Greek will be fruitless, regardless of any information he does/doesn’t provide? Does the prospect of death really shake Sergie so deeply? Remember, prison is nothing to him, after his experiences locked up in the old country.

I find Ziggy to be THE most frustrating character in the series. While we are consistently frustrated with characters like Herc whose carelessness/inability to do the right things consistently results in tragedy, at least we understand the majority of the show’s characters’ actions as motivated by self-interest. Ziggy’s course of action through the season seems to be motivated by some sort of psychosis, although he clearly an intelligent dude. Conversely, the tragedies of most all other characters often befall them due to circumstance outside their control –like Randy for instance, in sticking with the Herc example earlier. They are the unhappy collateral damage of the self-interested decision making of others, who fail to realize, as Carver points finally to Herc, out that “this shit matters.” (Even though they thought it didn’t it does.) Ziggy on the other hand, digs his own grave time after time. He could’ve died the slow death of Johnny 50 –I could live with that, understand it. But Zig just seems to take every possible situation and spike it into the ground as hard as he can. It’s more than the poor judgment it took to be convinced that clocking Maui was a good idea–it’s a ravenous self-destructive approach to everything. It almost seems crazy he lasted as long as he did and didn’t get himself killed by the age of 20.

By far, the best closing montage. Obviously the closure and perspective of Season 5 will prove emotional and poignant for eternity. But after blowing through the Season in a week or so, man, did that montage get me. Steve Erle is an astoundingly fitting soundtrack. The music befits the working class theme, the lyrical content is relevant, it feels right, and I discovered after listening to this song on Youtube that Erle himself is a recovering Heroin addict and has served time in jail. It doesn’t seem possible that the people who made this show could get so much right on so many levels. “It don’t seem possible.”

Anonymous said...

As kids if we went to our Dad with a statement like "But Sister Always gets to do that" or some other form he would patiently look back at us and say:

Always is a long time.

Anonymous said...

While David Simon and crew have done an incredible job nailing the accuracy and realism of all they depict, I'm always bothered by the (apparent) legal mistake in this episode. Sergei and his cronies kill the shepherd in Pennsylvania, yet he's apparently charged and jailed in Maryland. Lester even specifically says something to him about the laws "in this state" (referring to MD) and how he could see death row. Since we see in S5 that he got life, this would essentially mean MD officials proffered a deal with a suspect for a crime committed in another state under another set of laws.

Does anyone know if it would be possible to charge and imprison Sergei in Maryland for a murder committed in Philly? Or did I miss something in the show that would explain it?

This is obviously a very minor quibble in what is otherwise a perfect piece of art. It's just always bugged me.

Mr. Lyon said...

I absolutely regard this show as the greatest ever made for many reasons, including Simon's attention to accurate detail. And I'm not typically one of those viewers who looks for inaccuracies in everything I watch to try to prove I'm smarter than writers, show-runners, etc.

But something that's always bothered me is how Sergei is charged with and pleas to the Philly murder in Maryland. Did I miss something? How would Maryland have jurisdiction over a crime that happened in Pennsylvania?

Nitpicking I know, but this show is incredibly accurate in everything it depicts. Any thoughts?