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.
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.
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?