Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Wire, "A New Day": Tomb raiders

Spoilers for "The Wire" just as soon as I geek out and do a complete Wire/Lord of the Rings character parallel flowchart...

"This is a tomb. Lex is in there."

Well, halleh-damn-lujah! Finally, finally, finally, Lester figures out about the vacants. And it was so much sweeter because we had to wait so long for it -- through Lester spending several episodes wondering where all the bodies are, through him looking everywhere in town but the vacants, through Herc putting his hands on the nail gun and still not getting it, etc., etc., etc. You have to be extraordinarily patient to love this show, but Simon and company understand the virtues of delayed gratification.

While Omar, Bubbs and Bunk are flashier, slightly more obvious choices, Lester has always been at or near the top of my favorite characters list. It was a pleasure to see him using that great brain of his for something other than assembling dollhouse furniture. You could tell that he had mentally checked out during his most recent stint in Homicide, and then Daniels went and gave him a reason to care again. Two beautiful nearly-silent Lester sequences: him reopening the MCU (along with the intercuts of him opening the subpoenas with the people in those files being introduced to Tommy), and, obviously, him walking through that vacant lot, walking stick in hand like some kind of Biblical wise man, finally figuring out what Marlo was doing with the bodies. (This was punctuated beautifully by Bunk's "Ah, fuck me!" Lester's the smarter member of that team, but not by very much.) It pains me to think of how much progress he could have made on Marlo, Chris and Snoop if it wasn't for Rawls and Marimow.

This being "The Wire," of course, we have to get about 17 bad developments for every good one. So while Tommy and Daniels are sprinkling fairy dust through the city, Michael is going more fully to The Dark Side, Randy's secret is out in the open, Dukie is about to be expelled from the safety of Prez's class, Bunny's class is being shut down, Bubbs and Sherrod continue to take beatings from their nemesis, Burrell is weaseling his way back into power, and Tommy is getting hit with a $54 million dinner check from the school board.

First, we have Michael snatching The Ring from Officer Walker, and in a manner that even Namond considers reckless. (Namond wouldn't have the nerve to try anything, but he'd talk like he did.) I'm assuming he got the gun from new mentor Chris, and you could see how dismayed Chris was to learn that his protege had stuck up for snitching Randy.

Meanwhile, Randy and Dukie are both good and rightly screwed, just in different fashions. It nearly broke my heart when Randy whimpered, "I'm not a snitch" after his beating, and especially when he asked Prez if calling the cops would make things better, when Prez's face showed that it wouldn't. (I know Carmelo Anthony -- he of the infamous cameo in the "Stop Snitching" DVD -- is a big fan of this show; maybe witnessing Randy's plight will make him and others realize that treating snitching as a crime far worse than murder is completely insane. But probably not.)

Poor Dukie, who was finally blossoming in Prez's class, gets banished from the place where his friends are, where his own mentor is, where his computer is, etc., as some kind of unwanted reward for getting good grades. Is a teacher at the high school going to let him sit at the computer all day? Give him a spare lunch? Launder his clothes? Maybe, but the look on Dukie's face suggests that teachers like Prez are rare indeed.

And how's Namond supposed to deal away from Bunny's guidance? The move to shut down the special class isn't a shock, given how characters on this show are so afraid of any change in the way of doing business, but damn. With Bunny, Namond almost seems like a normal kid who's never so much as walked past a corner; away from him, and with the pressure from his evil mom, he could be heading Michael's way.

Over at City Hall, Carcetti has one of those two steps forward, eight steps back episodes. He may be getting short-term results from some of the city agencies (and not to Ervin Burrell: that was actual "quality of life" improvement happening there), but that kind of trick doesn't have any ongoing currency unless he can weed out most of the complacent management. And despite the sales pitch to McNulty, Santangelo and the rest of the Western, I don't know that he has the stones or political muscle to really do it. He's already inching towards keeping Burrell in power. If they can work out some deal where Burrell handles the political stuff and leaves everything else to Rawls, and eventually Daniels, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, but it's a sign that Tommy's plans for reform only can go so far.

After the two big Lester scenes, the highlight of the episode was the latest confrontation between Omar and Prop Joe, complete with another theatrical exit gesture by Omar. (If I thought I had the coolness to pull it off, I do believe I would be throwing around, "Now go ahead and write my ticket so I can tip on out" at the dry cleaner, restaurants, etc., etc.) As bored as Renaldo has looked doing surveillance the last couple of weeks, he was eating up his man's showiness in that scene. That's why they get up in the morning -- and why they occasionally have to go to the bathroom in a stolen cab.

Some other random thoughts:
  • Those scenes where Bubbs' nemesis beats on him were hard enough to watch the first time, but going back and revisiting every episode for the purpose of these reviews, I keep having to resist the urge to just fast-forward through them. It's like the guy doesn't even exist; he's a nightmare come to haunt Bubbs and Sherrod. Just brutal.
  • Il Returno de Cheese! Good to see Method Man back in action. Really hard-core fans may notice that Cheese and Randy both have the last name Wagstaff, and Randy's bio on begins with this: "Having lost his mother to the streets at a young age and having never known his father, reputedly an eastside corner boy who later became a major drug trafficker..." Hmm is all I can say for now. Hmm.
  • How much of Bunk and Lester's good cop/bad cop routine with Herc and Prez was genuine anger on Bunk's part, and how much was play-acting? I lean towards the latter, especially with the way Bunk was able to turn on the charm and get Prez to give them the info they needed on the way out the door.
  • Good: Tommy quotes "Bull Durham." Bad: he quotes the "announcing my presence with authority" line, which implies he identifies more with Nuke than Crash. Maybe it's one of those short guys envying the tall guy things.
  • Another hmmm: McNulty and Bodie are suddenly lunching together, talking shop, realizing they share a hatred of Walker, etc.
  • Hell hath no fury like a Rawls scorned, does it? Tommy would have been much better off not stringing him along quite so much, methinks.
  • Carver looked especially pained at learning the results of giving Randy to Herc instead of Bunk.
Lines of the week:
  • Donut and Randy on planting condoms in Walker's car: "That'll send a message." "Yeah, but what kind?"
  • Tommy after meeting with the ministers: "Yummy! My first bowl o' shit!"
  • Omar offering toilet paper to Renaldo: "Whether you squat in an alley or sit on a porcelain throne, don't really change the moment, now, do it?"
  • Bunk telling Daniels what Homicide needs: "More women! Loose women!"
  • Dukie surveying the aftermath of Michael's brawl: "Guess them books are good for something."
  • Kenard, on the subject of Namond's new 'do: "Man, do I look like a faggie?"
What did everybody else think?


SJ said...

I had a discussion on's message boards over Randy's last name. I think it's a huge hint that Randy and Cheese are related.

It broke my heart to see Randy get beaten, but how brilliant was that last scene? The Wire is one of the few shows which can show some quiet moments and convey more info than with dialog. I can't wait to watch the next episode after this one.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Wowee wow wow. This is why I love The Wire: the payoff that's just started to take shape is very rewarding, yet it can be told very simply because the viewer has all the background. Take the story of the ring: sure, I'd almost forgotten about it, but the 10 or so seconds of screen time that we actually get to see it are enough of a reminder. Lots of other films would use flashbacks, or voice over narration, or would have a character explain the events to someone else. Think of the ending of Psycho, which totally ruins an otherwise average movie for me. In The Wire, the explanations and motivations have all been set up beforehand, and even though a lot of stuff still has to happen in the last two episodes, given the many loose ends right now, everything can be told in very little screen time. Hats off to Ed Burns, who I just realized contributed to every episode's story this season.

Anyway, the story of the ring is now interesting again, aside from its obvious nods to Tolkien and Wagner. The ring has typically resulted in misfortune for its bearer. Michael too has thrown away caution and become reckless, if not greedy. What will happen to him now? What if Marlo sees the ring on Michael? For all Marlo knows, Omar still has that ring, but Omar is about to set up Marlo.

One of the great role reversals this season is Omar and Renaldo doing the kind of long-term surveillance work that would ordinarily be done by the MCU, if it wasn't effectively brain dead. Especially now that Omar is honor-bound not to "drop any more bodies", his way to set up Marlo might just include delivering him to the police, to pay back his debt to Bunk.

The scenes with Lester Freamon worked on many levels. The last scene where he finally had all the information from Prez and Herc and figured out the significance of the nail gun is by now standard fare on The Wire. But that doesn't mean it gets old: it's fun to watch someone do their job and do it well, even if it takes time. It's much more convincing to see a detective strolling through a back alley looking for a place where a body might be hidden than it is to hear some ridiculous explanation (think L&O or CSI) of how the Lab managed to get someone's DNA knowing only their IP address.

Then there was also the scene with Freamon walking through the empty MCU building, looking at the board and realizing that no progress whatsoever had been made on Marlo since Freamon left the MCU. (By the way, why is that character called Freamon? If anyone is ever thinking of making "The Morgan Freeman Story", I hope they offer the lead to Clarke Peters.)

I didn't think it was remarkable to see McNulty having lunch with Bodie. It's not like they had a lunch date. But the cops and their usual suspects and repeat offenders certainly know each other and can find some common ground, being in the same business. Both McNulty and Bodie were seeking refuge from the ongoing "quality of life" arrests, both have some personal integrity and despise Walker, and in the first or second episode McNulty was vaguely proud of Bodie having escaped the Barksdale arrests at the end of season 3 by claiming entrapment in Hamsterdam.

Dukie's story appears to be quite simple, but will probably turn out to be just as heart-breaking as everyone else's, this being The Wire. Michael sells his soul to the devil; Randy's made into an outcast, or possibly worse, for being the one to tell the police what everybody else on the street knows; and Namond is a spoiled rich kid trying but failing to live up to a gangsta image promoted more by his mother than by the commercial rap music that lots of people, black and white, love to blame. But Dukie's case is quite simple: he's a smart kid who needs a little bit of care and attention, which he's not getting from his own family. There's an obvious political metaphor here for providing welfare to the severely underprivileged, to provide basic necessities like food and clothing, which Dukie wasn't getting and which enable him to function normally in school. And of course the reward is that he's promoted, no longer has access to Prez's generosity, but since nothing else has changed he'll probably be back to where he started at the beginning of the season.

Anonymous said...

Two stupid questions:

Is it realistic that Bunk and Freamon would be able to devote so much time to an alleged murder when there's no body? After all, until recently, it was all about clearance stats. It's technically just a missing persons case and the report of a kid until they find a corpse, and I'm sure there are more cases on the board with actual bodies.

Landsman made a remark about Daniels and Pearlman being a cute couple. Was this a joke that accidentally hit the truth (a Landsman trademark) or is their relationship out in the open?

Anonymous said...

Oh, come on. Omar would never be so crass as to have Renaldo defecate in the cab they were staked out in. He clearly told him to go in the nearby alley. Give Omar some credit for couth and hygiene. Jeesh.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I'm sure you're right, but it was a slightly better joke that way.

Louis said...

I don't know if it qualifies as a "line," as in, "line of the week," but I liked McNulty's addressing Carcetti as "Your Worship."

Anonymous said...

Which one is Cheese?

Anonymous said...

As for Bunk and Freamon wasting a bunch of time looking for a body, remember Lexx himself is wanted for a murder. Presumably, finding the body gets them that clearance.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Cheese is Prop Joe's lieutenant and nephew, played by the rapper Method Man. More on him here.

Anonymous said...

Is it realistic that Bunk and Freamon would be able to devote so much time to an alleged murder when there's no body....It's technically just a missing persons case...

Remember, they were searching for Lex because he shot and killed Fruit. They were never officially looking for him as a victim until now.

Anonymous said...

(This was punctuated beautifully by Bunk's "Ah, fuck me!" Lester's the smarter member of that team, but not by very much.)

I don’t believe Bunk was acknowledging Freamon’s superior intellect here. As the camera pans out to a wide shot behind Bunk staring at the vacant (Lex’s tomb), Bunk realizes the full implication of Freamon’s finding, Bunk knows where all of Marlowe’s bodies are. He now knows all red it will put on the board.

Alan Sepinwall said...

That's the point I was making. Lester figured it out first, but as soon as he said "This is a tomb. Lex is in there," Bunk pieced it all together himself and realized just how many bodies Homicide was about to find.

Anonymous said...

Re: Lex - It's been 10 episodes since it happened, but keep in mind that as far as Bunk and Freamon are concerned, Lex is their prime suspect in an open murder. They have established motive (not strictly necessary) and have a credible eye witness (his former girlfriend) who identified Lex as the shooter. For Bunk and Freamon, this case is a "dunker" either way: if they find Lex alive, he'll break during interrogation (he's no career criminal); if they find him dead, case abated by death and closed.

TL said...

A somewhat off point question, but do we know how much time has elapsed this season? We obviously started out at in mid-late August, and now it's cold, but I don't know what the seasons look like in Baltimore. The general election and inaguration apparently happened off stage at some point. It also sounds like standardized tests are on the horizon, which I presume are given toward the end of the school year?

Alan Sepinwall said...

In the next episode, Lester makes a reference to two months having passed since he left the MCU, and there's lots of Christmas music in the background.

Anonymous said...

There are a few points of reference: we saw the beginning of the school year; Cutty rounding up school-age children who need one day in September; Cutty coming back in October and deciding that this line of work is not for him; the primary, which I assume took place on election day; snow on the ground (?) when Omar got out of prison. But I'm also confused: didn't Carcetti at some point say he still needs to win a general election in May? And what about the standardized tests and the timing of promoting Duke and others to ninth grade?

Anonymous said...

I didn't teach in Baltimore, but I did teach in a different county in Maryland. We took the MSA in mid-March.

Aren't inaugurations usually in late January? Or are those just Presidential inaugurations? It sounded as though the MSA were coming up in just a couple of weeks.

Bottom line. I have no idea what month it is. But I do know that it'll stay pretty cold in MD into April.

Anonymous said...

Thanks all -- yeah, I do remember now that Lex was wanted for the other murder. (I told you it was a stupid question...)

TL said...

"In the next episode ... there's lots of Christmas music in the background."

That makes sense. The Maryland primary is really in early September, so I guess that was kind of a cheat; the general would have been in early November, and I guess the inaguration is pretty quick after that (which also may be kind of a cheat), giving Tommy his "first bowl of sh.t" to eat this week around early December.

I suppose if the schools are already "teaching the test" in Nov/Dec it just shows how bad off they are...

Ben Guest said...

Re the timeline: Simon and company originally wanted to spin the City Hall story off to its own show, "The Hall." To compress the hall story with the school year they probably had to speed things up a little, specifically Carcetti going from mayor-elect to full-fledged mayor so quickly.

Anonymous said...

My two nominations for LOW:

Bunk to Lester, "So, was it The Bunk's colonge? [Sniff, Sniff] Ohhh, pussy!"

Chesse to Prop Joe, "You know who got the fattest asses AND the best pussy? Midgets, n****r."

Bill K

Anonymous said...

The line in question was not:

"Was it the Bunk's cologne? Oh, pussy?"

It was

"Was it the Bunk's cologne? Eau d'pussie."

This show is about the details, by God.

Anonymous said...

The story of Marlo's ring is one of those things that makes you want to go back and watch the episodes over and over.
When Michael took the ring from Walker I didn't think much of it, but then when Marlo saw the ring on all came back.
From Marlo to Omar to Michael.
What a way to end the best season yet.

Anonymous said...

Lord of the Rings!! Please!! I love this blog!! My question is does this ring make people bad or does it harken or illustrate their darkening soul? I've really wondered about that . . . from Andre (tragic) to Marlo (cold-blooded) to Omar (brush with nearly inevitable destruction but escapes--in this season) to Walker (evil) to Michael (young Darth Vader, sadly not Frodo).

I also wondered where Michael got the gun. I figured it was from Chris and Snoop, but really? We see Marlo's skepticism near the end of the episode (in the scene where Randy's fate is sealed), setting us up for getting played at the beginning of Episode 12 . . . which made me question if the crew would have entrusted Michael with a gun at this point. hmmm . . . It probably was from Chris. But I'm not completely satiisfed with this possibility. It smacks a bit of disingenuous.

Spoiler Alert:
And Kenard . . . did anyone catch that interview with Thulisio Dingwall and Keenon Brice: ? I realize now that this is why I have fallen in love with The Wire--tragically. I am a Teach for America alum and who felt the weight of the dysfunction (It was gratifying to hear Ed Burns acknowledge the enormity of the challenge of teaching 34 children and to see that no classroom is completely quiet at Edward Tilghman Middle) and have sold out to suburbia (rethinking it from time to time)--but this is what I so desired for my students. To ultimately be well-adjusted, well-cared for children, who would be able to comment with curiosity and delight at their tragic situations--rather than living them out in real life, without anyone looking to preserve their innocence by telling them it's all make-believe. Tthat they will come out of it in the end with celebrity and good-will.

Season 4, in particular, is a fantasy if you leave it and reside in the pure literary genius of it. It begs the question of what is an authentic response to the material presented in The Wire? This crisis is real. It's a true call to rise to the challenge--in spite of having been called to do so by an escapist medium (as Simon himself points out).

Karen said...

Man, I loved the Bull Durham quote! I don't think it was Carcetti identifying with idiot Nuke, though--I thought he was speaking ironically.

Marlo really likes to stir up the shit, doesn't he? He was almost smiling--does he smile ever?--when he pointed out to Chris that "his pup stood up with a snitch." I don't want to think about what wheels that set spinning in Chris' head.

Anonymous said...

"(By the way, why is that character called Freamon?"

Only a few years late, but I'm sure the spelling of "Freamon" is a nod to DeAndre McCullough's girlfriend Tyreeka Freamon from The Corner. Also, that reception Carcetti was at when he was meeting all the subpoena suspects was in honor of Miss Ella, the woman who kept the youth center going in "The Corner."

Unknown said...

I'm new to the Wire and working my way through season 4, and enjoying Alan's blog and the comments. I can't believe that I didn't make the Lord of the Rings connection, not even when Michael wanted to put the ring on a chain.

While I'm enjoying season 4 quite a bit, it's interesting that the most complex characters are the kids. Most of the regular characters are veering toward the one dimensional McNulty's become a pod person. Colvin is pretty much all good as is Prez. Marlo, Chris and Snoop and Namond's mom have no redeeming personal qualities. Through the previous three seasons, one of the pleasures of the show was watching complex characters with real strengths and real weaknesses muddle through difficult situations. It's a testament to the child actors and the strong storytelling that the show remains as strong as it does without the heavy layers of moral ambiguity that gave such great depth to the first 3 seasons.

Oaktown Girl said...

I was blown away by the actor who plays Bodie in the lunch scene with McNulty. All those myriad changes of facial expression conveying so much without saying a word. Brilliant.

(Alan - I know it's the weekend, but when you come back I have another comment waiting in the moderation queue from episode 8, I believe. Thanks.)

emerald772 said...

Watching these finally through netflix. Knowing that there are only 2 episodes on that last disc has filled me with a sense of dread and worry for all those kids I've come to love. The Pelecanos episode is never pretty for those getting through it to the finale. Seeing the street/corner culture through their eyes has put prior seasons in new light for me.

Anonymous said...

I really loved the scene with Bodie and McNulty. Amazing that here we are in season 4, and these two major players from the get go are reduced to such limited roles in their "occupations" from where they were back at the start, despite both being far too overqualified for their current standings within their organizations.

Also credit to the actor who plays Michael, he throws a very convincing screen punch rarely even seen in adult actors.

Loved Prez having a bit of power back over Bunk and Lester with his knowledge and influence on a key witness.

Pelecanos time, holding my breath, I see the kids I've come to love all heading down a very bad path, as well as my favorite Omar possibly biting off more than he can chew.