Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Wire, "Refugees": No one (bleeps) with him now

Thoughts on "The Wire" episode four, "Refugees," just as soon as I check in on the methane probes...

One of my favorite DVD commentary lines of all time comes on the "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" disc (trust me, this is going somewhere). We get to the scene where Vice-Principal Rooney is pulling up to a pizza joint in part of his Ahab-like search for Ferris, and John Hughes deadpans in a way that always makes me laugh, "Okay, here he's clearly gone too far. He's left the school."

Marlo having the security guard capped is Ed Rooney going off school grounds. I'm not saying it's going to lead him to the equivalent of being kicked in the crotch, attacked by a dog, loss of his car and a humiliating ride on a school bus next to a girl with warm gummy worms, but killing the guard is the moment, to me, where Marlo goes way over the line.

Every other killing in this show's history, no matter how heinous, at least served some purpose for the killer. Wallace had talked to the police. So had Sobotka. D'Angelo could have complicated Stringer's affair with Donnette. The security guard was no threat to Marlo. He wasn't going to cause him any problems, wasn't even going to go around bragging about how he stepped to the west side's drug kingpin, was just going to return to his crappy minimum-wage job and his strapped family.

This show generally treats the concepts of good and evil as childish, but this was the closest I've felt a character on the show has come to pure evil. David Simon, naturally, disagrees:

"The security guard spoke to Marlo's utter indifference to the outer world's perception. 'I'm living in this world, and this man tried to assert himself with me.' I didn't see it as being utterly evil. he wasn't enjoying the evil of it. It wasn't Snidely Whiplash. This is, 'The place where I occupy in the world and what my world demands, this guy talked back. And that was foolish.'"

And on that level, I can understand where he's coming from, but after a minute Simon admitted that this killing was extreme, even for a character on this show.

But it fit one of the key motifs of this episode: Marlo doesn't play by the rules. He won't join the co-op, barely even listens to Prop Joe's sales pitch, and then only as a formality. He has Snoop and Chris taking out anyone who troubles him even in the slightest, takes Bodie's corner because he can, even has only so much patience with his attempt to learn poker from the old men. (At the rim shop, he tells Chris, "Maybe I get bored, send you to take 'em.")

And with Avon gone and the rest of Baltimore's drug muscle bunched up in other parts of town, Marlo can afford to make up his own rules. But it's poetic that Prop Joe, hoping to teach him a lesson about the need for assistance, sics Omar -- the one man on the show even less bound by rules or structures -- on him. And Marlo did not look happy at all. Omar took something worse than Marlo's money; he stole Marlo's rep as the one man in Baltimore who can't be touched.

I love watching Jamie Hector just stand. Not stand around. Stand. There's an intense stillness to Marlo. No wasted motion or energy. He may not enjoy the evil of killing the guard, but he doesn't enjoy much else. The piece of him that's missing that allows him to be so hard and cold also keeps him from taking much pleasure in his reign. He does everything because he knows he can, and because he feels he should. And Felecia Pearson and Gbenga Akinnagbe are just as scary great playing Snoop and Chris, hired killers as total pros; their conversation as they shifted from trailing the guard to taking over Bodie's corner.

Michael, Marlo's other interest in Bodie's neck of the woods, wasn't around when Snoop and Chris rolled up, but he doesn't look especially comfortable around potential mentor Cutty. He practically sprinted to the other side of the ring when Dennis put a hand on him and couldn't get out of the van fast enough once Justin went home.

Our other kid in the spotlight was Randy. Behind that huge smile is a boy terrified of going back to a group home. When he said "You don't need cats to make you crazy" when you're in a place like that, you could see the other boys all shudder a little at the thought of what their friend must have gone through before he got his foster mom. Hell, Dukie shuddered, and we know what kind of a hellpit he lives in. And it was Randy's deep fear of angering his foster mom so much that she would send him away that made him turn snitch for Vice-Principal Donnelly. We already know how snitches get treated on a higher level (again, Wallace), but you could see the shame on his face when the other kids talked about the tagger getting suspended. What a lousy situation to be put into by an authority figure, even a well-meaning one like Mrs. Donnelly.

Mrs. Donnelly is doing her best, but she's stuck trying to make a deeply-flawed system work. Sherrod has absolutely no business being in the 8th grade, and if social promotion weren't a necessary evil, he might have been willing to stay in school. Probably not -- his discomfort was about more than being illiterate -- but at least he would have had a reason to stay. Prez's class has nothing to offer someone who's so far behind in the learning process. And the truancy policy Cutty gets hired to enforce -- make sure all the kids do one day in September and one in October and the school keeps its funding -- is a joke. But if there aren't resources to properly teach the kids who want to go to school, how can there be resources to perpetually corral the ones who don't? Even after the crash course provided by Cutty's ex, Grace Sampson, Bunny and Professor Parenti are going to have their hands full trying to make any sense out of this insane place.

Some other random thoughts:
  • I'll say this for Marlo: at least he's making an effort to master the game of poker, instead of just sitting at a table full of flunkies who are too afraid and or indebted to do anything but lose to him. Yes, Mr. Mayor, I'm looking at you. And did you catch Delegate Watkins realizing that Royce went back on his word and put Eunetta Perkins back on his ticket against Mrs. Daniels? Meanwhile, Carcetti's came damn close to winning a no-win situation with the ministers. Again, if race wasn't a factor, Royce would be something getting scraped off Tommy's shoes.
  • If there were spots where the episode dragged, it was in the scenes with Kima and Lester. Homicide hazing is a long-standing tradition of this show, and most of the pranks pulled on Kima are straight out of Simon's original book. But I don't know that we needed this much time devoted to them, what with everything else to cover. Note, by the way, the second mention of "soft eyes" this season, which Bunk told Kima she needed to see a crime scene. And you definitely needed some set-up for Kima having the Braddock case dumped in her lap, but it still felt like that stuff could have been tighter.
  • Poor Bunk. Lester is a pitiful wingman compared to the old McNulty, who appears to have had one of those Regarding Henry/My Name Is Earl-type personality transplants. And if Lester still has Shardene (the stripper from Avon's club in season one) waiting for him at home, what's he doing carousing with The Bunk anyway?
  • I did like Jimmy's shaky hand bit, which was straight up Steve McQueen circa "The Magnificent Seven."
  • Four episodes in, and each hour has closed on one of the four boys: Randy contemplating Lex's murder, Namond playing video games, Dukie with his fan, and now Michael walking home from the fight.
  • So the school board administrator tells Bunny, "Just make sure there's no fuss. Nothing that gets anyone upset." Does she not realize she's speaking to the man who legalized dope in west Baltimore?
  • Boy, do Herc and Marimow deserve each other -- and yet even Herc can tell what a jerk-off the new boss is. Dozerman seems to have recovered nicely from getting shot and losing his gun last season.
Lines of the week:
  • Marlo: "You want it to be one way... but it's the other way."
  • Cutty to Deacon Melvin: "You hang around, you can see me preach on some young'uns. Solemn left and sanctified right."
  • Landsman to Kima: "Marimow does not cast off talent lightly. He heaves it away with great force."
  • Lester to Bunk: "Nature don't care. Nature just is."
  • Snoop, re: Michael and Bug: "Fucking Huxtables and shit."
  • Omar to Marlo: "Man, money ain't got no owners, only spenders."
  • Omar to Marlo again: "Boy, you got me confused with a man who repeats himself."
So what did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

Alan, I didn't classify the murder of the security guard as 'evil.' It was harsh and almost seemed random, but 'evil' hits me harder emotionally. Maybe it didn't feel evil because there was a slight disconnect between seeing a dead man I couldn't quite identify, seeing Chris and Snoop board up a house, and THEN seeing the badge. It took a while to register in my mind who had been killed.

I agree that the 'rookie hazing' scenes went on too long.

Can anyone tell me 1) what walk around money is, and 2) why Royce doesn't "ask" for money if he needs it (as opposed to forcing guys to lose it at cards)?

Wetlands, I'm assuming Joe wanted Marlo to know he isn't as invincible as he thinks he is.

Anonymous said...

Savethewetlands, Joe wants Marlo to understand that he can't always see trouble coming and that strength in numbers is the way to go. Omar taking the diamond ring just by asking for it, just as Marlo took it from Andre, was the writer's way of hammering home the idea that Marlo was learning a lesson about his own vulnerability.

Anonymous said...

I have some questions: Who exactly are those guys at Marlo's poker game? Obviously they are high stakes regulars playing under shady circumstances, but I didn't get the sense that they were in the drug trade. So who are they, and why is Marlo trying to learn from them? The set-up seemed to provide a too convenient contrast to Royce's rigged game. Knowing who the men were would also help put Marlo's comments to Chris in context -- Is he really joking about sending Chris to the game, or does Marlo regularly pick up and drop hobbies?

I also have to say that the same convenience seems to exist around Marlo's interest in Michael. Exactly how much effort is Marlo going to expend on converting one "stoop kid" into a "corner kid"?

I find Jamie Hector very charismatic as well -- with Gbenga Akinnagbe just a shade behind. But both men are so terse that I'm worried they'll turn into one-dimensional ciphers. The developing confrontation between Marlo and Omar, with all of its mythic overtones, has me particularly worried.

On the other hand, I really liked how this episode emphasized both how people get squeezed and how people get stretched. Bodie and Randy -- both entrepreneurs in their own way, skilled and capable, just trying to do the (financial) best the can -- get squeezed by more powerful forces in a way that both stifles and demeans them ("'Why' is not in your repertoire now"). I like the parallel because it both suggests just how a kid like Randy might become a man like Bodie, because he thinks by selling drugs he will be free ply his sales skills outside of school strictures, while also demonstrating that Bodie isn't actually that free at all. (And I will say it again -- I'm really impressed with how JD Williams can spit with disdain.)

The stretched side concerned Kima and Sherrod. They are both placed in situations that are really beyond their capabilities. Dumping the witness murder on Kima is just as much "social promotion" as dumping Sherrod in eighth grade, if you read the primary motivation of both acts as being to make things easier for the people in charge (Burrell/Royce and the teaching staff/Prez, respectively). And sure, Kima may rise to the occasion and Sherrod may fail, or vice versa, but the point is that that sort of sudden responsibility shouldn't have been dumped upon them. If you want to teach someone something it takes time and effort -- you can't just dump a file or a book on someone's desk and expect them to absorb material that's beyond their capability ("the latest band-aid"). There's an echo of this theme with Michael, who basically has had the responsibility of raising his little brother thrust upon him. Once again, I like the parallels because it makes Sherrod more sympathetic -- yes, he is failing in his responsibility to attend classes, but the school administration is also failing in its responsibility to actually teach him. Bright, capable people like Michael and Kima might find a way to get by without too much support/training, but that doesn't change the fact that the lack of support/training is unjust.

Or maybe it's just me. Maybe I just want things to be one way, when they're actually the other way.


P.S. savethewetlands, I got the impression Prop Joe directed Omar towards Marlo so that Marlo would feel vulnerable and therefore more amenable to dealing with the co-op. We'll see how that ploy plays out.

P.P.S. A suggested line of the week addition: Mrs. Prez's scene closing line, "See, someone's winning," while the camera took in the Prez' nice TV in their nice big, clean living room.

Anonymous said...

Teresa, "walk-around money" is under-the-table contributions meant to circumvent campaign finance laws. They mentioned earlier in the season that $4000 is the legal limit for a single person to donate in Baltimore (so Carcetti was phoning donors asking them to give $4G themselves, $4G from each of their kids, etc.) Royce cannot simply ask for the money openly because that would be illegal and he wants to avoid unneeded scandal. The fixed poker game was a way to get "walkaround money" from wealthy supporters

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that we haven't seen Vinson this season. His advice last season seemed to help keep Marlo in check, especially in considering options when Avon was released from prison. Marlo's decision-making this season seems a little more rash and a lot less cautious; I wonder if Vinson's absence might have a hand in that. Perhaps he talked back.

bill komissaroff said...

As always, great review/recap Alan. Reminds me of the old NYPD Blue days, although the 15th seems like Mr. Roger's Neighborhood now compared to the Western.

I always thought that Stringer's set-up of D'Angelo had more to do with protecting himself and Avon from D someday flipping as oppossed to his relationship with Donnette.

I had less of a problem with the Homicide Hazing scenes than I did with the scene where Sgt. Jay shows Kima around the unit. It's not like she's never been in the building before; She should know where the coffee is.

That being said, I thought this was a very strong episode. I thought the Marlo scenes were very intense. I especially liked the scene in the Rim Shop where the grocery guy compared Omar to a terrorist with Marlo listening, nodding along, and then making his case.

My favorite line came from Drunk Bunk: "Do you know what the plural of pussy is?...Pussai!" [SP?]

Anonymous said...

Andrew L, thanks for the help regarding walk-around money. Here's a follow-up question for you or anyone else.

Is Royce likely to report having and spending the walk-around money? I assume he has spending limits on his own "personal" money and this might cause a problem. Or, will the money also be spent "under the table"?

Anonymous said...

Ahhhh. Now I see why Royce would want to covertly find the money. Brilliant.

Thanks, Wetlands!

Anonymous said...

"And if Lester still has Shardene (the stripper from Avon's club in season one) waiting for him at home, what's he doing carousing with The Bunk anyway?"

Because he's The Bunk! Who doesn't want to hang with The Bunk?

Anonymous said...


Now that I see where your mind is at regarding Marlo and the security guard, and your sense that it is in some ways an improbable crime, allow me to flesh out its origins in a way that may reassure, or perhaps, disturb.

In Baltimore, at a store up on West North Avenue in the early 1990s, a uniformed security guard became embroiled in a petty argument with a major narcotics trafficker named Linwood Rudolph Williams, along with Williams' girlfriend who was accompanying him. Days later the guard, while pulling down the security grate at closing time was shot to death. The crime was not solved.

Information came back to homicide detectives that the shooter may have been a man named Robin Bruce, who worked for Rudy Williams in such a capacity. The case remained unsolved despite such information coming to police, though Ed Burns ran a prolonged investigation of Williams and his organization that resulted in a long federal incarceration for Williams. Bruce later died of AIDS in federal custody.

Sometimes, it isn't about what is smart or calculated or serves a drug organization best. Sometimes, as it often was with Rudy Williams, it is about wearing the crown.

For an interesting read on Rudy Williams and his fall, you might seek out -- from the Baltimore Sun's online archive -- a piece under my byline that I wrote in the early 90s when Williams was convicted. In a fit of hyperbole, I married his rise and fall to that of Shakespeare's Richard III. The guy was so taut and capable of violence he gave other dealers the creeps.

There are times when The Wire surely seems outrageous and I can't blame anyone for doubting us amid such extremity. But Baltimore, Maryland can be pretty outrageous as well.


Alan Sepinwall said...

David, you misunderstand me. I don't have any trouble believing that Marlo did what he did with the guard; I'm just pointing out that it made me uncomfortable in a way that even, say, Wallace's murder didn't. Nothing wrong with that, but worth noting, especially as it distinguishes him in yet another way from those who have gone before.

It's not that the death of a citizen (especially for a petty reason like this) should be significantly more tragic than the death of a runner or a tout or a soldier; it's just that it's so outside the norms of behavior you and Ed generally depict that it stood out to me.

While the bulk of the Linwood Williams story is behind a paywall, here's the intro:
This is [Richard III], the Duke of Gloucester, the hunchbacked usurper who manipulates and destroys whomsoever he touches, then loves himself the more for it. This is King Richard, so "rudely stamp'd" by nature, that he glories only in power and death and strife, until at last, a valiant Richmond leaves him gutted and bleeding on Bosworth Field, saving England and bringing the War of the Roses to its close.

Not so. Linwood Rudolph Williams was unique -- a villain of a classic kind -- and his passing in federal court last week deserves special note. In Baltimore's drug trade, some men feel they are forced to kill; others kill because it serves their interest. Linwood Williams killed because he is Linwood Williams, as elemental a force of nature as Baltimore's underworld has ever seen.

Anonymous said...

One small point. You refer to Omar as one with even less rules than Marlo but I actually think Omar, more than any other character, abides by a clear set of rules, alebit rules of hois own making. This I think can be seen in Omar's insistence on paying for the cigarettes after stealing the package. Its his own complicated ethical code that, in my opinion, makes him one of the most interesting characters on the show.


Alan Sepinwall said...

Kevin, you're absolutely right. Omar is bound by a code, but it's his code, one that no one but him created. But compared to, say, a Bodie or a Carver or even a Royce who has to work within the limits of his institution, Omar is his own institution. He defines the limits.

Anonymous said...


I also found the security guard murder uniquely evil of those depicted on The Wire. As mentioned, all others seemed to have a strategic purpose or involve someone in the game. (For example, maintenance man killed in Season 1 after testifying was a public warning not to testify against the Barksdale crew). This one, not so much.

What I found interesting was how differently this was handled than Michael showing up Marlow by not taking the school clothes money. The security guard incident was basically just the two of them - there was no need for Marlow to take action to maintain his status as viewed by others. Michael's affront was in front of everyone, yet Marlow let it slide.

Obviously, part of this is that Marlow feels Michael can be useful to him. But I have to wonder how much of it has to do with the pleading, almost begging manner, which the security charge used. Marlow seems to value strength above all else, I wonder if the result would have been different if the security guard had not shown the weakness Marlow seems to detest.

While I would classify this as the most "evil" murder on The Wire, Wallace's is still the most disturbing for me. Beyond Wallace's potential, youth and responsibility with his siblings, he and Poot were practically brothers, seemingly to even live together often. Poot's willingness to then kill him for Stringer spoke to the hopelessness and warped sense of values they were living under. IMHO.

Anonymous said...


Any chance you could create a talkback for those of us that have seen the entire season? I just finished this weekend and am going crazy wanting to talk about it.


Anonymous said...

Anyone see Chris throwing the security badge in the grass next to the house where he and Snoop disposed of the body as a bit of foreshadowing? As in that badge could be fingerprinted placing him or Snoop at that particular crime scene. Could be wrong, but we'll see. BTW the killing of Wallace was by far the worse killing. He begged for his life to be spared by his pretend homies and peed on himself while doing so.

Anonymous said...

Wallace was the saddest death, yes, but it made sense. If I was Stringer I would have ordered the same thing. It was a kill or be killed situation. For better or worse, boy left the game and he gotta pay. It's cruel, but it's in the rulebook.

Security guard was a horrible thing. Made no sense at all, by God. Stringer had his ambition and Avon had his pride - Marlo seems to have the ego. The way olden people spoke to him got to his nerves, I think. Shook his confidence.

And irony is, at the end he gets it back - just before Omar cuts him down and scuttles with his monies.

Anonymous said...

What did it mean when Marlo said "You want it to be one way, but it's the other way?"

Beth said...

I understood Marlo's treatment of the "civilian" security guard to define his character against Avon's and his treatment of the "civilian" basketball ref in the east-west game in season one.

Anonymous said...

Great show with some impressive reviews. I have been sitting at work reading through these the last few weeks. Pretty cool that David Simon posted in here.

- Kris

Anonymous said...

Kudos from another late-comer. I'm watching and reading along. I couldn't imagine anything topping season 3, but this is season is getting to me (in good and bad ways).

Avertr said...

I thought that the scene with Marlo in the store where he steals the 2 suckers before getting in the altercation with the security guard said a lot about Marlo's character. Most of the "old-school" dealers wouldn't steal petty candy from their local store, they'd pay for what they get. "Man's gotta have a code" - enjoying these walk-thrus - thanks (even if I'm 5 years too late)

Anonymous said...

I'm late to the party, but I completely agree with the commenter who said the murder reflected Marlo's insecurity. Consider the sequence of events: Marlo suffers an embarrassing loss at a poker game, he then goes into the store and blatantly steals candy, and then the guard calls him out, not just for stealing the candy, but for doing it while knowing the guard was looking at him. In other words, he was calling Marlo out for his childish insecurity.

I also agree that Chris throwing away the badge was foreshadowing, in two different respects. Practically speaking, it's almost guaranteed that will trip them up, especially with Lester starting to put things together. Equally important, though, is what Snoop says about it: She wants someone to find it, because she feels like they're not getting "credit" for their work. Alan's buddy Bill Simmons has written about sports teams suffering from the "Curse of More", as post-championship teams lose the hunger and drive that got them where they are, role players look for a bigger role, etc. That may be what's going on here.

Taken together, those two events suggest trouble ahead for Marlo's crew. To date, Marlo has come across as supremely confident (much like he was with Prop Joe in this episode), while his crew has remained disciplined and content to remain in the shadows. But as Marlo himself admitted last season, they can't stay on top forever.

Oaktown Girl said...

"And if Lester still has Shardene (the stripper from Avon's club in season one) waiting for him at home, what's he doing carousing with The Bunk anyway?"

It's pretty clear to me by the way Lester was really hammering on McNulty to show up for drinks after work, his desire was not so much to simply hang out with the guys but to talk some real police work. He's jonesing for some real detective conversation and venting about what's going on, and Shardene, like any non-police spouse, can't fulfill that particular need. He knows that McNulty needs that (or at least used to need it) too. Clearly, Lester wasn't banking on Bunk's company being only about the puss-i.

Jim Leff said...

Two items for my fellow latecomers:

1. Watching Marlo during his chat with the security guard, those are pretty much the epitome of "hard eyes"

2. David Simon's newspaper piece about Rudy Williams is no longer behind a paywall. You can read the whole thing now at:

Anonymous said...

Responding 18 years later . . Walking around money is not illegal contributions as suggested below. It is cash to use to promote voter turnout on Election Day. While it is theoretically entirely legal - to pay for taxis to the polls or food and water for people on line, or umbrellas if it is raining, in some cities it has historically also been used to essentially pay people to vote - which actually is also not necessarily illegal everyplace (it would be illegal to explicitly pay them to vote for a particular candidate). The poker game is a way to avoid campaign finance limits.

Anonymous said...

This is not quite the right definition of walking around money. While the poker game is intended to circumvent campaign finance limits, walking around money is technically completely legal (though it is sometimes used in ways that cross lines). It is money for use on Election Day to get out the vote. Taxi or bus fare, food for people on line, money for people knocking on doors, generally given to precinct bosses (and sometimes at least in part a bribe). There’s definitely some winking at questionable usage that goes on, but it is technically legal.

Anonymous said...

I think it’s left open for a range of interpretations, but the general idea is that the security guard wants to live in a world where someone wouldn’t disrespect another man just because he could when it didn’t gain him anything, and Marlo is saying that his world is the other way around - he will disrespect anyone, whenever he chooses, because he can. The guard is saying “just let me do my job - I need it more than you need the lollipop” and Marlo is saying you want your needs to matter - but they don’t - all that matters is who has the power.