Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Wire, "Unto Others": Getting better all the time?

Spoilers for "The Wire" just as soon as I finish making a potato silencer...

“Unto Others” is the literal halfway point of season four (show 7 out of 13), and it represents a kind of turning point. After six episodes of Murphy’s Law reigning supreme -- of Marlo killing with impunity, Prez bumbling around the classroom, Burrell and Rawls marching to Royce’s CYA beat – things are getting better. At least, better by the grim standards of “The Wire.”

The subpoenas that Rhonda thought would spell her professional doom have instead catapulted her into a top position under the new State’s Attorney. Daniels’ competence and vision have caught the eye of mayor-in-waiting Carcetti. Omar has The Bunk on his side. Prez is mastering ways to teach his kids (and finding lots of great new supplies gathering dust in the book room). Cutty has started to learn the error of his player ways, even if he hasn’t totally won Michael’s respect. Kima earns her Homicide stripes with an unexpected solution to the Braddock case. Hell, even Royce himself seems like a changed man without the weight of the election and the office. (Some of that, no doubt, was an act to protect his pride, but not all of it.)

This being “The Wire,” I don’t think any of us expects these halcyon days to last – especially since it’s still not all flowers and puppies. Bubbs has lost Sherrod to the corners and is being routinely menaced by that hulking dope fiend. Bunny and company are having a hard time getting through to Namond and the others. Carcetti may not be able to get rid of Burrell right away. And the only people going after Marlo are the members of the gutted MCU, led by Herc, who personifies the kind of functionally illiterate street cop Daniels was describing at ComSTAT.

Especially troubling is the fact that Randy’s future is now in Herc’s clumsy hands, through a chain of bizarre events beyond anyone’s control. Forget what Randy himself did to get in this mess (and if he had kept to the code and avoided snitching, he’d be home-free since the girl recanted). Just consider how things might be different if Prez had taken the case to Lester instead of Daniels, if Carver hadn’t felt so guilty about having outgrown Herc, if Prop Joe hadn’t told Marlo to steal the camera, if Omar hadn’t called in his chit with Bunk, if Crutchfield wasn’t so pissed off at Bunk for interfering in his case, etc., etc., etc.

While Herc is still struggling to differentiate between his own bodily orifices and various holes in the ground, Bunk and Omar have resumed their duet from season three's "Homecoming." Bunk tries to act above it all, like the job is just a job, the murders don't affect him, and all he's about is the wardrobe and the booze and the ladies. But Omar, who grew up on the same streets and even went to the same schools, gets to him, forces him to confront his own choices in life and views on crime. And Omar knows the man well enough to know the right card to play -- not the literal one from Ilene Nathan, but the one that points out that Bunk is letting the killer of a citizen walk to punish Omar for killing dope slingers. Very strong scene between the two of them.

When I interviewed Simon and Ed Burns before the season, one of the things I was really hung up on was Prez finding the new books and computer untouched in the book room. I wasn't naive enough to think that couldn't have happened during Ed's teaching days; I just assumed that there was a reason they kept the stuff down there, that they didn't trust the kids with nicer books, an expensive computer, etc. No, he told me: the administration just forgot they were there. (The middle school he taught out also had a locked-up, abandoned room full of tens of thousands of dollars worth of computer equipment. It was designed to use a specific type of software to communicate with schools around the world, but the system also had a firewall that prevented it from connecting with any computers outside the state, and only one other school in Maryland had compatible software. Whoops.)

The smile on DuQuan's face when he got the computer up and running was almost heartbreaking, in comparison to the usually guarded, downcast expression he usually sports. And Prez is learning how to reach out to the entire class, and not just Dukie. It was only a matter of time, I think. Prez's gift has always been problem-solving (see his breaking the Barksdale pager code), and while his students aren't just an abstract concept, there are certain universal methods of dealing with them. Tricking kids into learning is a method I've seen work just as well in a rich suburban white school as it did for Michael and Randy and the rest.

Things are moving at a much slower pace in Bunny's special class, but then, it took half a season to get Hamsterdam up and running, and he got an earlier start on that than he's had here. Beyond the segregation, we're seeing Bunny and his team changing another fundamental element of these corner kids' school lives: one-on-one guidance counselor talk instead of suspensions. And the kids seem just as baffled by that as the hoppers were by the idea of Hamsterdam.

But for now, at least, progress is being made, in City Hall, at Tilghman Middle, in the Homicide unit, etc. Optimism is such a rare emotion on this show that I'm a little afraid of it. But for every bit of hope, Simon and company were sure to throw in an equal dose of realism. Tommy may have grand plans for this city, but how much time is he going to have to pull it all off if, as the former mayor explains, he's going to spend all day, every day, eating shit?

Some other random thoughts:
  • I forgot to note last time the journey of Old-Face Andre’s gawdy ring, which Marlo took as punishment for being robbed, which Omar then took during the poker game heist, and which Officer Walker now proudly wears after taking it off Omar during his arrest. The last segment of this season's credits features one circular image after another -- the pass-through at Andre's store, a kids' merry-go-round, a spare tire, etc. -- as a way to illustrate the endless loop of these people's lives, that the same events, the same mistakes, will happen again and again, no matter how much people like Tommy or Prez or Bunny try to change things. Keep an eye on this particular circle; its travels aren't over yet.
  • Dammit, I actually feel some affection for Clarence Royce after he invited Tommy to sit in his chair. Any thoughts on how much of his behavior in that scene was saving face, how much was relief at not having the job anymore, and how much was simply a realization that this was just business, not personal?
  • Was I the only one who didn't realize the angry kid in the camo jacket was Sherrod until Bubbs went to talk to him? Between the absence of his familiar white t-shirt, the hat obscuring his features a little and the fact that he rarely talks, I had no idea it was him and wondered why we were spending this much time with a random unaffiliated corner crew.
  • Sherrod is seemingly out of Bubbs' life, but he left behind a nightmarish legacy in that giant dope fiend who keeps treating Bubbs as his personal ATM. Definitely a no good deed goes unpunished situation: if Bubbs hadn't tried to help Sherrod against this goon (and if he wasn't trying to better himself with the shopping cart business), none of this would be happening to him.
  • I love it when this show just steps back and shows people doing their work, whether it's Bunk and McNulty in the famous "fuck" scene from season one, or McNulty studying navigation charts so he can stick Rawls with the dead hookers case, or, here, Kima using "soft eyes" to figure out who really killed Braddock and why. Two and a half minutes of screen time may not seem like a lot, but I can't imagine any other show on television devoting that much time to a silent sequence of someone just looking and thinking.
  • While Bodie's crew is still selling Pandemic, Namond's junior bunch (including Donut and that little kid, Kennard, who looks to be about nine) are slinging around the Big Yellow Bird. I'm not sure I can watch "Sesame Street" with my daughter anymore without cringing. If someone introduces a Snuffleupagus brand-name, I'm out.
  • After all her career-threatened whining about Lester's subpoenas, it was nice to see Rhonda acknowledge, even under her breath, that the man in the reading glasses is responsible for her fancy new job.
  • If Cutty was still holding out any hope of getting back with Ms. Sampson -- and, given his fondness for the neighborhood ladies, I don't think he was -- that awkward encounter at Tilghman Middle should have put the end to that dream. "Be well" is just a polite way of saying "Smell ya later!," isn't it? But I'm glad he seems to have learned some lessons from what happened with Spider, even if Michael still doesn't seem that impressed by him. Also, interesting to see Cutty's soldier instincts come out as they did when he saved Namond from Sherrod; Chad L. Coleman can pull the crazy eyes when he wants.
Lines of the Week:
  • Omar to Big Man #2: "They got Honey Nut Cheerios in here?"
  • Big Man #2 to Omar: "Sheeeeit!"
  • Landsman contemplating Freamon’s lucrative dollhouse business: "Fuck me. I need a hobby."
  • Namond trying to be polite: “Mr. Colvin, sir? Fuck. You.”
  • Herc, re: Carver calling them an enabling relationship: "Enable me, Carv. Enable me to find my camera."
  • Herc on the sum of his intelligence on Marlo: “I know he’s a drug dealer. I can’t prove it or nothing.”
  • Crutchfield: "Fuck The Bunk!"
What did everybody else think?


SJ said...

Hey Alan I just came across your blog while I was searching for places to discuss "The Wire". Nice to see you discuss all the great shows.

Just when you think this show couldn't get any better, it does. There's so much drama packed into one episode it's a bit hard to discuss. The Bunk is a great character isn't he? Herc is such an idiot I find it hard to believe he's a sergeant.

I love how the detective on Omar's case hates all the extra work. I guess it is all about "juking the stats".

Anonymous said...

Was I the only one who didn't realize the angry kid in the camo jacket was Sherrod until Bubbs went to talk to him?

I didn't recognize him either; it only became clear who he was two thirds into the episode when Bubbles tracked him down. And while things were often looking up, Bubbles did not get any break: I was hoping he'd go to his old friend "McNutty" (not seen in this episode) for help, but instead he runs into none other than Officer Walker.

Speaking of Walker, I'm not too sure what to think of the story of the ring. This could turn into some rather cliche Wagner/Tolkien or, worse, Hollywood storytelling device. It would be rather trite to have the ring be about nothing more than karmic retribution coming to those who are too greedy. On the other hand, if the police were to bring in Andre for questioning and he saw the ring on Walker's hand, he might be able to conclude that Marlo isn't after Omar just because he robbed Andre, but that there is a personal aspect to it.

The story of Randy as a witness in Lex's murder was classic Wire: dysfunctional institutions, ineptitude, and sheer bad luck. And note that it's not just Hauk who is obviously inept, but it's also Carver, who simply forgot to call Moreland about a potential murder witness. This nicely mirrors season two, with Daniels' unit forgetting about Hauk and Carver's continuing stakeout of Nick Sobotka's house, and Moreland not telling Daniels about Ziggy Sobotka's arrest.

I loved the solution to the Braddock case, on many levels: the fact that it was solved by talking to the suspect and by looking at the crime scene (and not in any fancy CSI way), and of course the fact that it turned out to be manslaughter.

But I guess the murder of Lex will remain a major element of suspense for a while. It would have been too much to ask for two open homicide cases to be solved in one episode. Still, it's very frustrating to see all the pieces in place, yet circumstances conspire to keep anyone from connecting the dots.

It will be interesting to see what happens with Carcetti and Daniels. Carcetti knows he can't fire Commissioner Burrell and replace him with Rawls. If he wants to get rid of Burrell, he has to find another replacement, and given today's development that could be Daniels. But Daniels is not just lacking rank, there's also the political aspect: do we even know the outcome of the battle between Marla Daniels and Eunetta Perkins?

Anonymous said...

Oops, that wasn't Moreland in season two, it was Landsman.

Anonymous said...

Because I have a roommate that loves The Wire, and I am too impatient to wait for his schedule to watch, I have seen all four seasons twice through. It is amazingly frustrating on the second time through, when you recognize those little turning points and know the devestation that they will cause. You want so hard to change the outcome. I can't think of a higher compliment to a television show than that.

Anonymous said...

When Carver passed off Randy to Herc, all I could think was, "Sheeeeit." I've said it before and I'll probably say it again: Randy's story is going to break my heart. Stupid Carver!! Hell, stupid Prez for not giving the info to Lester in the first place! WAAAH!

I love this show, I really do. And I enjoy reading all your insights, Alan (which I mostly agree with all the time). As for your question re: Royce: I think he was probably relaxing for the first time in years and that his gestures toward Carcetti were genuine. Royce will go on to run for bigger offices, unfortunately, where he can go back to being a tool.

Last thing: Crutchfield, you will pay for your insolence to The Bunk. Shame on you (especially because it may cost Randy his life)!

Anonymous said...

I am also pretty sure that I heard some of the corner sellers pushing a product called "Brokeback".

Anonymous said...

I heard the "Brokeback" thing, too, tuckpendleton.

Anonymous said...

- This is one of those enabling relationships.
- Enable me, Carv.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for commenting on the internet connection in the school. I kept thinking that is the most implausible part of that little triumph . . . where did they get such a fast internet connection at that school? There needs to be a whole infrastructure in place for the hardware and software to work properly--you can't just come in with a fancy box and have it run like that. But, I guess that was a comment on the ingenuity of Dukie in conjunction with Mr. Prezbo.

Also, I completely missed Sherrod as the boy beating up Namond until much later. Whew! I feel better.

Anonymous said...

"Also, I completely missed Sherrod as the boy beating up Namond until much later. Whew! I feel better."

Wait, Sherrod? I missed it too. Why was Sherrod beating up Namond?

Jen said...

I'm just up to this ep in season 4. Sadly, when Carver 'almost forgot' about Bunk's case and Randy, it reminded me very strongly of one thing from season 1: Wallace. He had contributed to someone's death (much more innocently than Wallace, who knew, even if he was in denial, that he was siccing people on Brandon), felt guilty afterward, spilled to the police, and then the police 'forgot' to deal with him in a timely fashion. We all know what happened to Wallace, which makes me fear for poor Randy...

Anonymous said...

I'm obviously years behind the rest of the commenters here, but figure other people will be doing what I'm doing for some years to come, watching for the first time then reading.

Royce is nice to the Carcetti for one reason - he is going to run for Congress and is going to need the mayor's help if he does. Remember, this is why Royce won't fire Burrell, because he will need the church's folks for his run at "elijah" This is a reference to running against Elijah Cummings, the real congressman in MD-4 ... so I think it is safe to assume he won't win. Can't imagine the writers having a fake candidate defeat a real person and then dealing with all of that ... too messy for the realism

Rozenswag said...

Still relevant 6 years later. Thank you Mr. Sepinwall for helping me to enjoy this show even more.

Two notes:
1) "Be well" is what Ms. Sampson said to Cutty when she kindly turned him down last season. It was a nice callback to their last encounter, showing Cutty had grown enough to say it earnestly.

2) Another line of the week: Kennard to Namond after changing corners -"Sheeeeit!"

WAM said...

Still relevant 15 years later. I'm betting that the former mayor (Tony) is meant to be Thomas D'Alesandro (Nancy Pelosi's brother), who was mayor for one term 1967-1971.

I grew up in Baltimore. I was with my mother downtown in the 1970s and my mother stopped a gentleman for directions. After the man gave them to her, she asked if he was Tommy D'Alesandro. He was -- a lawyer working downtown, just like Tony.