Friday, June 26, 2009

The Wire, Season 2, Episode 5: "Undertow" (Veterans edition)

Once again, we're revisiting season two of "The Wire" in two versions: one for people who have watched the entire series and want to be able to discuss it from beginning to end, and those who aren't all the way there yet and don't want to be spoiled about later developments. This is the veteran post (click here for the newbie version).

Spoilers for episode five, "Undertow," coming up just as soon as I take the Fifth Commandment...
"It's just business. Everything is just business with us: Buy for a nickel, sell for a dime." -Vondas
The Sobotka detail gets moving in "Undertow, but while they don't need to learn each other's strengths and weaknesses the way they did last season, they don't really have the first clue what kind of opponent they're going up against.

Herc suggests that the port guys must be involved in drugs -- because what other kind of major crime is there in Baltimore? -- and while we learn in this episode that Vondas and company are involved in that trade, we also know by now that their interests range wider and deeper than dope. And we know by now that they're far more ruthless, and efficient, than even the mighty Barksdale/Bell outfit. Sobotka isn't who the detail should really be after, and drugs shouldn't be their primary focus, but it's going to take them a while to recognize the magnitude of the problem before them.

"Undertow" features a lot of characters underestimating their opponents. Ziggy again gets in way over his head trying to play dope dealer, letting Frog rip him off and then letting Cheese steal (and later torch) his beloved Camaro. Nick thinks he can out-clever Vondas by having Ziggy look up what the chemicals might be used for, and while their deduction about drugs seems to be right, they really have no way of knowing. When Nick asks Vondas if it's drugs, he more or less invites Vondas to lie to him, and we've seen by now what kind of a poker face that guy has -- a poker face he puts on display when he talks a reluctant Frank into staying in business with The Greek. (Vondas also knows how to twist a metaphorical knife, as he does by pointing to the defunct steel factory and reminding Frank of how easily a Baltimore industry can disappear.)

None of the Sobotka men understand what kind of people they're putting themselves into business with, and you don't need to have seen the first season to suspect this will end badly for some or all of them.

Even Avon seems stuck in circumstances more dire than he cares to admit. Avon doesn't want to acknowledge how bad things have gotten with the Atlanta package, or how strained his relations are with D'Angelo, or even that Stringer seems eager to be done with D.

Stringer, on the other hand, is more than aware of the state of the operation. While he's not quite the pure capitalist that Vondas and The Greek are (he has his passions and pretensions, where they're all about the cash and nothing but), he's still a cold enough businessman to want to cut D'Angelo loose, and to realize that something has to be done about their pathetic dope supply.

The latter problem leads to another inspired "big business meets dope business" comedy set piece, as Stringer's macroeconomics professor (not recognizing what his prize student's real business is) teaches him about Worldcom, and Stringer in turn tries to pass the lesson along to the likes of Bodie and Poot. To the crew's credit, they seem to grasp an outside-the-box concept more easily than they often do, but it's still hilarious to watch these worlds collide.

And speaking of thinking outside the box, with Lester assigned to Lt. Daniels' detail -- and Daniels adamant about not taking on the Jane Doe murders unless they're gift-wrapped as clearances -- Bunk finally starts coming around to Jimmy's way of thinking about Homicide's way of doing things (instant gratification) and the right way to handle a sprawling case like this. He's one of the few characters in "Undertow" (other than Vondas and The Greek themselves) who seems to recognize exactly what he's up against -- he just has no way to adequately deal with the problem.


Some other thoughts on "Undertow":

• Before this season of "The Wire," my only significant exposure to Paul Ben-Victor was as hustling snitch Steve Richards on "NYPD Blue" -- possibly my least favorite recurring character in the history of one of my favorite shows. Ben-Victor's performance as Steve was so mannered, so cartoonish, that when I saw him turn up on a completely unmannered show like "The Wire" -- and realized how well he was fitting in -- I was stunned. His portrayal of Vondas is such an economical performance, saying so much with so little, that I remain kind of in awe that a man who could be so irritating and over-the-top on one show could be so quietly menacing on another.

• Method Man makes his first appearance as Ziggy's new nemesis Cheese. David Simon told me at the end of the series that many rappers tried to get parts on the show over the years, "and this was the only guy who walked into a casting office and (auditioned) and said, 'Okay, tell me about the part.' We didn't take him because he was Method, we took him because he was the best read for Cheese."

• Once again, we see that Ziggy is pretty good with computers (or, at least, better than Nick), and it makes me wonder how differently his life would have been if he hadn't been raised by a stevedore who didn't want to prepare him for anything else.

• And speaking of computers, this episode offers the kind of scene you never would have gotten with the detail's season one target, as Frank himself offers to show Beadie and Bunk how the checker computer system works. There are many key differences between Frank and Avon (really, the comparison should be Avon and Stringer with The Greek and Vondas), but foremost is the fact that Frank has a legitimate career and is only dabbling in crime.

• And Beadie starts to demonstrate that, whatever her initial interest in policework may have been, she's both willing and able to learn from Bunk, as she turns her former fling (and Ziggy hater) Maui into her own confidential (if unofficial) informant.

• Lots of good comedy moments in this one, from Herc with the toothpick (which amuses Carver and Kima at first, then slowly drives them nuts) to Jimmy taking Omar clothes shopping. ("It's a look." "No, it ain't.") For that matter, I love Omar's reaction to Ilene Nathan's confusion when Omar mentions another of Bird's murders: "Fish gotta swim, you know what I'm saying?"

• And still more hilarity: Carver listens to the white drug dealers trying to sound black and complains to Kima, "Thieving motherf--kers take everything, don't they?"

• While Nat Coxson is terrified of the grain pier being turned into condos, Nick gets a first-hand look -- courtesy of Jimmy's ex-wife Elena, who turns out to be a realtor -- at how gentrification is already affecting his neighborhood. A house that belonged to Nick's aunt, and that he might have been able to afford a few years back, has now been fixed up enough -- down to a fancy new nickname for the neighborhood -- that he has no shot at it.

• Also, Nick mentions that he gave Aimee money to get furniture at Little Pages, a real-life Baltimore store that was also mentioned by Beau Felton in the "Homicide" pilot.

• Speaking of "Homicide," the grand jury prosecutor is played by Gary D'Addario, who was the shift commander when Simon was following the real Baltimore Homicide unit to write his first book. (D'Addario also played the head of the QRT team in a number of "Homicide" episodes.) Oddly, Bunk refers to him as "Charlie" here, when in later appearances, the character will be named Gary DiPasquale. A rare continuity flub, or Bunk using an odd nickname?

• Is this the first time Kima has referred to Lester as "Cool Lester Smooth"? The nickname doesn't come up often, but it's so perfect that it's hard not to think of the guy that way.

• So bizarre -- and more than a little scary -- to see Stringer Bell with a small child.

• Jimmy's attempt to identify his own Jane Doe more or less hits a dead end in my own backyard of beautiful Newark, NJ. Probably the most interesting part of that subplot in this episode -- and very fundamentally "The Wire," in the same way as Carver's "same as it ever was" line -- is the bit where the Baltimore INS office gets its logo converted to Homeland Security office and the agent sarcastically asks Jimmy if he feels any safer.

And now it's time for the veterans-only section, where we talk about how developments from this episode will play out over the rest of the season, and the series:

• From such humble beginnings is one of the series' more loathed characters born in Cheese Wagstaff. I guess you had to figure they wouldn't cast Method Man in a walk-on part, especially once he auditioned well.

• How differently would things have gone for the Sobotka men if Frank and Nick had both declined Vondas' offer in this episode? The detail was only able to follow the cans and the rest of the trail because Frank kept working for The Greek, and Nick's going to wind up getting caught up in the dope trade -- which, in turn, will only fan the flames of Ziggy's resentment, leading to the explosion with Double-G.

• Ilene Nathan should have been more specific than "anything with a tie," shouldn't she? Not that Omar will need to suit up, as it turns out.

• Though Avon doesn't want to admit his distance with D to Stringer, you can see in that scene that he's preparing himself to let go of his nephew -- not to kill him off, obviously, but to cut him off. And Stringer more or less reads the latter as license to do the former.

Coming up next: "All Prologue," in which D'Angelo gives a book report, Maury Levy goes up against Omar, and Sergei helps Nick with a problem.

What did everybody else think?


Fernando said...

Great as always.

I find that Vondas nickel and dime line really intriguing as Prop Joe says something similar in the next episode or a few episodes from now: "buy for a dollar, sell for two". I think the fact that Vondas speaks of it in cents and Joe in Dollars speaks to A) the size of the respective organizations (Vondas loses a shipment its no big deal, while it turns Joe's world opposide down) and B) the power of the dollar circa 03 where in Vondas' part of the world it would feed an entire family for a week where on the East Side of Baltimore, a dollar can barely get you a bag of Utz.

As I just finished watching "The Shield" a comparison between Nick/Ziggy and Vic/Shane can be made. Where Ziggy and Shane don't care what their criminal conspirators do with guns, drugs, etc. Nick and Vic can't sleep at night without knowing why they need these things.

kwig said...

Stringer has a legitimate career, he runs a Kinko's, right?

Muz said...

My US politics might be off and/or it goes without saying, but the Homeland Security sign is another Worldcom parallel is it not?

Alan Sepinwall said...

You're exactly right, Muz. Wish I'd thought of that.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Stringer has a legitimate career, he runs a Kinko's, right?

Yes, but it's his side career -- for now, at least. In season three, he tries to turn the legitimate business into his real career, but circumstances won't let him.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

You're so right about "Cool Lester Smooth". Whenever I see Clarke Peters in another show I always call him that.

When he showed up in "In Plain Sight" the other week I kept commenting about how Cool Lester Smooth wouldn't do that.

Kevin said...

I can't remember what was Carver's main offense against Daniels in Season One?

I know he agreed to be a spy in the unit for Burrell, but what exactly did he tell Burrell that got Daniels shipped to the evidence room?

Hatfield said...

Kevin: Carver didn't say anything in particular that got Daniels busted down to the evidence room--that was more a result of Daniels taking the case further than Burrell told him to--but he did effectively cut the detail's legs out from underneath it by telling Burrell about everything Daniels tried to hold back, like the main stash house.

I've always really enjoyed Vondas, because while he's obviously ruthless and dangerous, he's also practical and does exhibit some human qualities both in this season with his affection for Nick (and to a lesser degree, Frank), and later in season 5 when he wants to keep Marlo from taking Joe down. The role I knew him from previous to this was as Moe in a Three Stooges biopic, so this was obviously a big shift, but I agree, he's fantastic. After the first time I watched this season, probably about 3 years ago, I saw him (with a much younger, very beautiful woman) outside some club in LA, and I was struck by how short he was. You can tell somewhat on here, but I think it's a further testament to his acting skill that this little balding guy (and Bill Raymond as an old man) can be so menacing.

Kevin said...

Thanks, Hatfield.

Kind of struck me as strange how much more computer-savvy even Frank Sobotka is than Nick. We all learn in season four how poor the Baltimore school system is, but surely Nick must have SOME exposure to computers from school, no?

Again in this episode I get the feeling that Avon isn't exactly heartbroken over what happens to D' Angelo. Just like I thought his suggestion that D lay off the drugs for a night was kind of lacksadaisical. I can definitely see where even if Avon didn't want to come right out and say that D needed to be taken care of, that Stringer would take it upon himself.

When I saw the opening scene of this episode of Ziggy working the package, I thought momentarily that I had skipped an episode. Seems like a big offscreen leap from have Ziggy go from stealing cameras to flat-out selling drugs.

Best line of the episode is Omar looking at the yellow sportsjacket and telling McNulty that "either that, I'll be with Muffy at the club.."

After last week, I watch every Rawls scene looking for a double-entendre. This week it's Rawls telling Lester "when I eff you, you'll be effed so good, you won't even have to ask…"

Alan Sepinwall said...

When I saw the opening scene of this episode of Ziggy working the package, I thought momentarily that I had skipped an episode. Seems like a big offscreen leap from have Ziggy go from stealing cameras to flat-out selling drugs.

Except that we knew, from the scene with White Mike a few episodes ago, that Ziggy had already tried dealing drugs earlier, and had also screwed up that package.

Theresa said...

A nice/sad bit of foreshadowing in this episode as we get Ziggy's eagerness to use guns to retaliate against Maui.

I was also shocked (shocked!) to see Valchek doing an actual bit of real police work when he lifted the fingerprints from the photo. Does this mean that he actually does know something about real police work?

A Social History said...

I'm pretty sure the continuity difference with Gary D'Addario's character called "Charlie" at first and then "Gary" later in the series is because D'Addario was actually fired from the Baltimore PD after appearing on The Wire. The writers probably gave him a different name at first and then decided to use his real name after he'd been fired by the city.

Anonymous said...

If memory serves me right, one scene in the next episode allows me to have tolerated Sheila in Rescue Me for five years.

Josh R. said...

"I find that Vondas nickel and dime line really intriguing as Prop Joe says something similar in the next episode or a few episodes from now: "buy for a dollar, sell for two"."

That business metaphor is a really great theme that will play itself our over this season and the next (at least), culminating in the Avon/Stringer square off.

Butchie says something in line with it: that when you have a steady supply you can run things like a business; if someone gets hurt it's for a reason.

Of course, that's what Stringer (and Prop Joe) begin to do over the course of Season Two and Three with the co-op (aided by Bunny's Hamsterdam experiment). But Avon (and Marlo) throw a monkey wrench into that simple calculus: reputation/manhood. What good is having a profitable business if your name doesn't ring out on the streets? What good is a profitable business if someone challenges you and you don't hit back?

Mike C said...

While this may be my least favorite of the episodes so far, it is definitely a classically "Wire" episode. We're almost halfway through the season and it seemed like this entire hour was just setting up the pieces for payoffs either in the next episode (Omar testifying, D'Angelo's fate) or later in the season. I think this is where watching the first four seasons on DVD really helped, as I could just move right on to the next episode.

My favorite part is when Lester sees the target of the detail and says, "Frank Sobotka?". Just the type of great moment that the show worked so hard to earn.

Theresa said...

My favorite part is when Lester sees the target of the detail and says, "Frank Sobotka?". Just the type of great moment that the show worked so hard to earn.

And I love that Prez's hero worship of Lester is such that he just assumes that Lester knows who everyone is; he beams with pride when Lester IDs Frank and it's great.

Paul B. said...

Surely Nick must have SOME exposure to computers from school, no?

Well, the season took place in 2003. I was 24, and I graduated high school in 1997. Presumably Nick is at least that old, and his schooling ended with high school, if he even graduated. While there were certainly plenty of computers at my high school at the time, I know I never once went online on a school computer, and though we all knew what the internet was, not everyone had it at home either. So I guess it is possible that Nick's education just ended whenever he left high school, though it does seem like a bit of a stretch that he never learned anything new about computers since.

Eyeball Wit said...

Note that Stringer has a real life parallel. It's in the only decent chapter in the vastly overrated, Freakonomics, called Why Do Drug Dealers Live With Their Mothers?

The story begins when a U of Chicago grad student gets kidnapped by dealers while doing a sociology survey (Imagine, Sanjay from Weeds coming up to Poot and Bodie on the Terraces) They go back and forth between sharing beer with him and discussing where they're going to dump his body when they pop a cap in his ass.

Turns out that the boss of the operation (the real life Stringer) went to community college, had a real life business plan, and actually kept detailed books, which he gives to the grad student when there's fear of a police raid. A review of the books shows that street level dealers make almost nothing, but the prospect of being a boss, like Stringer, is a powerful lure. (Different in this way than the Sopranos, in which even the soliders, like young Chris, get a nice taste.)

And thanks, Alan, for mentioning "staring me right in the face" in last week's happy recap. (And thank you, Kristin Proctor) I've argued for that as being the sexiest moment in a most unsexy show. Any other candidates?

OMG--I just realized who Kristin Proctor looks like--a young Kate Gosselin. Talk about a buzzkill.

Hatfield said...

Eyeball Wit, how dare you compare sweet, sweet Kristin to that psycho! I would say that both McNulty sex scenes coming up are pretty hot.

And thanks for the story, it makes me wanna get that book just to read that chapter.

Anonymous said...

nick not knowing how to use a computer just shows how far behind in the workforce he and all of them really are. they didnt keep up

Ryan said...


Love the recaps as always, but I do not necessarily agree with your musing about fate from this episode. Could Vondas and the Greek really let Frank and Nick walk away unscathed if they declined future dealings? Based on what comes later in the season, we know that they are ruthless at dealing with potential threats to their operation. I would argue that Frank's decision to continue working with the Greek allows Nick to be busted later rather than killed along with Frank.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Ryan, if Frank just walked away, and it was clear the cops were getting nowhere with their investigation into the port -- and they would have gotten nowhere if there were no ongoing crimes for them to witness -- then The Greek would have no reason to hurt any of them. It's only when the cops discovered the existence of The Greek's organization -- which they did because of Frank's continued work for them -- that he became a threat to their existence.

"Always business."

Bill C. said...

Have you seen the deconstruction in issue 51 of "Jump Cut"?

The article speaks mostly about the metanarrative of the Wire, describing Capitalism as the unseen Zeus of the story. It is enhanced by numerous quotes from the Angriest Man in Show Business (David Simon, not Nat X).

In fact, much of what is mentioned in this post (the logo change, Move on Up, and why Nick and Ziggy can't catch a break, is covered in detail.

It's 5 long pages but worth a read.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the deconstruction in issue 51 of "Jump Cut"?

Very good overview of one side of The Wire's metanarrative, the predominant side, but it completely misses the other side, the humanist side of The Wire, in particular the metanarratives of Omar/Michael and Bubbles/Dukie and the role of empathy, love and caring in redemption and resistance, the only "chance for dignity" Simon referred to and a vision of another way of being freed of the imperatives of capital and power. Social critique without that would be an invitation to despair.

Respecting the meeting of Bell and Barksdale in this episode, Avon's "Thing is, String, what happened happened, you know what I mean? Push come to shove, I've been fair to him, ain't l?" always makes me think of King Henry II's rhetorical complaint, "Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?" that was interpreted by some of his knights literally as a plea to kill Becket, which they did.

Eyeball Wit said...

Eyeball Wit, how dare you compare sweet, sweet Kristin to that psycho! I would say that both McNulty sex scenes coming up are pretty hot.

And thanks for the story, it makes me wanna get that book just to read that chapter.

Sorry for the buzz kill, but see the Kristin/Kate resemblance for yourself. McNulty makes me queasy.

As for Freakonomics, please borrow the book from a library or steal it from a friend. Here's a teaser excerpt, but it is worth it to read the gory details of Venkatesh's story. One stat: soldiers have a 1 in 4 chance of being killed over a four year period.

Venkatesh has written two books about the subject. Haven't read either yet, but they couldn't be worse than Freakonomics.

Lynn said...

The Wire: Truth Be Told by Rafael Alvarez and Simon David (Hardcover - Oct 1, 2009)

Seems to only cover the first three seasons. There are excerpts on Amazon.

I watched the philanthropist because someone said Omar was in it - wow I hope they give him more to do or better instructions with what little he has to do.

Anonymous said...

+1 on the Freak-a-nomics name drop.

I read the book when I was powering through Season 1, and that chapter feels like Levitt/Dubner and Simon shared notes.


Hatfield said...

I want to second the endorsement for The Wire: Truth Be Told. Very interesting read.

I actually still don't see the resemblance. And I was referring more to the women in those McNulty scenes, Callie Thorne and whoever that waitress is.

Anonymous said...

@ Ryan & Alan: Also remember that the Greek almost let Frank walk away clean at Vondas' urging. Vondas clearly showing a small amount of compassion at that point. It wasn't until Frank popped up as a cooperating witness that he got killed.

Interesting trivia. I was just watching the original Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, and one of the characters is a ranking officer in the NYPD who is a tall black man named Inspector Daniels. Interesting coincidence to me.

Eyeball Wit said...

I actually still don't see the resemblance. And I was referring more to the women in those McNulty scenes, Callie Thorne and whoever that waitress is.

If you can get the comparison out of your head, more power to you.

FWIW, KP is fluent in Norwegian, studied at Harvard and the Royal Academy, and her dad was one of the founders of Firesign Theatre. She does not have eight kids, a dweebish, unfaithful husband and a $75K and episode TV deal.

I still can't erase McNulty from those other scenes. And FWIW, I think that Simon and Co. mean for them to be kind of sad and desperate, not really sexy.

I'm not sure they know *how* to do sexy.

filmcricket said...

Well, Simon & Co. barely know *how* to do women, so I guess it's not surprising that there's another blank spot in their (otherwise considerable) abilities.

The Gregarious Misanthrope said...

Just wanted to mention that Cheese Wagstaff was revealed by Simon to be Randy's erstwhile father. It never comes up in the show, but they share the last name, and knowing this piece of info adds a further dimension to Randy's sad story.

A reference for the cite-minded:

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alan Sepinwall said...

Okay, play nice people. Rule #1 around here: you can attack the show, but not each other.

Lynn said...

The 6/22 issue of the new yorker has a big article about gang issues in Cincinnati and the answer is right out of Bunny Covin.

debbie said...

Venkatesh has written two books about the subject. Haven't read either yet, but they couldn't be worse than Freakonomics.

Oh, wow. I didn’t know that was his story. A long time ago I read Venkatesh’s book “American Project,” which talks about what the housing projects in Chicago did to help grow gangs and the drug problem and what a nightmare they were to police. Super good stuff.

And I have to agree that the McNulty sex scenes are gross. They wrote that character so sleazy that it’s hard to see him in those scenes as anything more than a large syringe injecting STDs. That’s why I always felt bad that Beadie ended up with him; poor thing probably had to have more than one round of antibiotics.

To comment about this episode being a total set-up for the season, I can testify to that. Somehow I skipped watching this episode the first time going through S2; I only realized what happened because of this blog (thanks, Alan!). Really, the only things that make more sense now are why Ziggy steals the cars (I thought he just got greedy) and how the detail figured out the computers. But I really enjoyed seeing Nick address the gentrification issue, finding out that Beadie was involved with one of the dock guys, and finally knowing how people know Johnny 50’s name…that especially drove me nuts!

SJ said...

"All Prologue" is the best episode of this season, and one of the best episodes overall. Can't wait.

Gridlock said...

Nick gets a first-hand look -- courtesy of Jimmy's ex-wife Elena, who turns out to be a realtor

Can't believe I've watched this 4 or 5 times and never noticed this.

I guess you really do need to relearn how to watch TV with The Wire - anything can happen.

There's a million "thousand-to-one" meetings and almost-meetings like this, from Mcnulty buying ribbon while Alma looks for an early edition to Prez and Bubbs in the school to Daniels and Rhonda directing Chris to the criminal office in the court..

Kevin said...

At the same time Stringer Bell is asking about strategies for changing a brand name when there is inferior product in an aggressive market we have the department of immigration flipping a sign in their office to Homeland Security.

Alex K said...

Just wanted to point something out about the scene where McNulty visits the girls in NJ prison, who are waiting to be deported.

It seems like one of the girls knew something about the girl that McNulty wanted to identify.. but the girl that spoke English didn't let her say anything.

One of the girls asked if they would let them stay if she gave info. McNulty shook his head, and the main girl said "No". Then the first girl started speaking again (not sure what language that was), but the main girl cut her off (in Russian), saying something like "Well, it's not important, they're all dead now anyway".

Just thought I'd point something out for non-Russian speaking viewers ...

Michael said...

Re Nick and computers, and Frank being better with them, despite the age difference...

Since Frank is a checker and Nick is not (he's a 'loader' or maybe there's a better term), maybe that actually makes sense. Nick's job doesn't require him to know computers, Frank's does.

Ahmedkhan said...

Alex K,

Thanks for the translation from Russian. Every little detail helps. If you have a mind to, check out the scene in Episode 11 of Season 2, where Kima and Beadie have Ilona Petrovna in the interrogation room. Kima says, "Come on, you know this part. Give us a name." Ilona Petrovna responds,

"Lesbianka." She then mutters something in Russian - I'm guessing it's an obscenity. Then she concludes with, "There is your name."

Any idea of what she mutters?