Friday, June 26, 2009

The Wire, Season 2, Episode 5: "Undertow" (Newbies 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 newbie post (click here for the veteran 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.

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?


Cinnette said...

I just wanted to say, thanks to your blog I am an addict of this show. I passed this episode a couple of weeks back and have two more episodes to go for this season. I don't have the will power to go one episode a week with you, it's just too good! Thanks for going back and blogging about it, I am glad to be hooked on a new (for me) series.

Ellie said...

In the comedy vein, a bit you left out cracked me up--that's the continued mocking of "McNulty the Sailor Man" and his sketchy seaworthiness. Even Bubs is making fun of his "knots."

It was sort of funny (odd, not ha-ha) to see Frank showing the cops how the checking system works, while Nick, more of a protege than Frank's own son, barely knows how to work a mouse. Ziggy is such an oddball--100% id. However, I wonder if both Ziggy and Nicky were thrown into "respectable" middle class life, if Ziggy wouldn't do better. Both are stuck in this life, but Nick seems most determined to be of the life.

Angie said...

I just wanted to say - thank you Alan. I've been following your blog for some time, and your mentions and praise of The Wire gave me the motivation to discover the series. A week later, I have watched three seasons, and it's been full of greatness, as well as heartbreak. What an incredible series, what an achievement in art. I can't wait till you review "All Prologue" this week!

TC said...

Just watched this ep last night (plus "All Prologue"), and I suspect I'll be moving ahead of your schedule by, oh, tomorrow. Wanted to note that I finally saw what you were saying about how some people seem to have a soft spot for Ziggy, despite his being so damn annoying and inept. The poor schlub is just too dumb for his own good.

Karen said...

Oh, my, the line of the night for me was Omar in the men's store, looking at those sherbet-colored suits and telling Jimmy that if he's not at Liddell's, he'll be with Muffy at the club. That was freakin' hilarious.

Carver bitching to Kima about how the white boys are stealing black culture reminded me of something the Knicks' Doc Rivers once said in an article I read somewhere, about how white people "listen to our music, talk our talk--everything but live in our neighborhoods."

Ray Cole said...

I finally have some free time and started watching "The Wire." Obviously the comment thread is dead since I am three years late to the party, but I had to point out what I think is a rare error on a show that usually nails all the details.

The idea of Stringer Bell using his econ class to apply knowledge to the drug trade is a great one. But the writers should have made him take a microeconomics class, not macroeconomics. Macroeconomics deals with economics on a large scale, involving government, fiscal policy, global markets, etc. Microeconomics is more relevant to an individual business providing one particular good (or class of goods).

I have not looked on the internet to see if others have pointed this out elsewhere (since I don't want to see any spoilers). I just thought it was a rare careless error on behalf of the otherwise very detail-oriented writing staff.

Unknown said...

Ray Cole, Stringer has been taking classes since the first season (or before that for all we know) he's eventually going to graduate beyond microeconomics. Also, the plot he and Avon devised involved buying up slum property only to have it bought back by the government at an inflated rate through a series of bribes and kick-backs. I would say that's pretty large scale and even includes multiple layers of government.

Also, I just want to say that my girlfriend and I are making our way through the show now and that these recaps are pretty great. I only wish i could just binge watch them instead of waiting for a time when we can watch a few episodes together. Don't know if you realized how long these recaps would stay relevant, but i imagine you're going to have new converts coming in for years to come.

Anonymous said...

Indeed you are, it's 2023 and these reviews are still much appreciated!