Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Wire, Season 2, Episode 9: "Stray Rounds" (Veterans edition)

We're in the home stretch on our trip back through season two of "The Wire," and as always, we're doing it in two slightly different versions: one for people who have never seen the show before, and one for people who want to be able to discuss not only season two, but everything that's coming later. This is the veterans version; click here for the newbie edition.

Spoilers for episode 9, "Stray Rounds," coming up just as soon as I say "No thank you" to drugs...
"This is about Frank Sobotka!" -Valchek
"The case is bigger now." -Pearlman
"Stray Rounds" contains one of my absolute favorite scenes in the run of the series, the one quoted above: Daniels and Pearlman brief Burrell and Valchek on everything that the detail has accomplished -- all these near-miraculous feats of investigative genius, having taken what was a simple petty grudge and used it to get a line on smuggling, drugs, prostitution and possibly 14 open murder cases -- and all Stan wants to hear about is Frank Sobotka.

This, in a nutshell, is why nothing ever gets done in the universe of "The Wire." Good work is damned hard to do, and if it doesn't help someone in power either stay in power or protect his own interests, then it doesn't really matter, does it? Daniels could close the 14 open murders, could nail the entire Barksdale/Bell gang, could find a way to put a charge on the Irsay family for moving the Colts out of Baltimore, and none of it would matter to Valchek if Frank Sobotka weren't charged as an accessory to it all.

There's a lot of hopeless, myopic, institutionalized thinking going on in "Stray Rounds." Bodie's shoot-out with the rival crew kills a little boy, and though Major Bunny Colvin, commander of the Western District, knows the usual War on Drugs tactics are pointless, Rawls tells him to go bust heads and take doors anyway. Norris and Cole assume Bodie is another idiot drug dealer, and so they fall into the trap they think they've set for him. Avon refuses to see Stringer's persuasive arguments about the Prop Joe deal, and instead arranges to hire legendary enforcer Brother Mouzone (and gets him down to Baltimore much quicker than String was expecting). And we see that The Greek is stringing along an FBI agent named Koutris by pretending to give him "terrorists" (actually, a difficult business partner) in exchange for being informed about threats to The Greek's business.

Hell, Ziggy even manages to get his duck to drink itself to death, because it never occurred to him that giving booze to a waterfowl was a health risk.

If it wasn't for McNulty's latest R-rated shenanigans -- or for the joyful performances of people like Al Brown as Valchek and J.D. Williams as Bodie -- this would be one of the darker hours of "The Wire" in which no major character actually dies.

Part of the reason "Stray Rounds" feels so hopeless, of course, is that it's our closest look to date at The Greek and his operation. While the smoke-filled dinner with The Greek and his lieutenants could resemble a gathering of the Injustice League, "The Wire" isn't interested in concepts like good and evil. The Greek does terrible things, but not out of malice -- or even out of the pride that leads to so many terrible outcomes in the drug world (like Bodie and company's stray round). Rather, as David Simon has said many times, The Greek is capitalism in its purest, most ruthless form -- a man who will do anything to keep his business viable, and the money flowing in.

While he and Vondas have their blind spots -- they're a bit too confident about being able to elude the Baltimore PD -- he's still clever enough to recognize what Fitz told Jimmy in the series premiere about the FBI abandoning the War on Drugs for the War on Terror. He has Koutris on the line, not because Koutris is corrupt, but because he's made Koutris believe he can give him information on terrorists, and Koutris has no idea that he's being played.

Against a man with that long a view, with his finger in so many pies, what chance does the detail have to make a case? And against a generation of Bodies and Avons, what chance do men like Bunny Colvin have to make a dent in the human cost of the drug trade?

Some other thoughts on "Stray Rounds":

• Maybe the most heartbreaking part of the opening sequence isn't the mom finding her dead son (though that's brutal), but the moment right before, when she has no idea what's happened and is just telling him to get to school, because the drama's over -- as if this sort of thing happens so often in the neighborhood that they treat it like just another of life's routine inconveniences.

• As if to symbolize the Valchek/Pearlman exchange, Frank is largely spectator in this one, showing up only to witness Koutris' raid on the can with the Colombian drugs, but we do learn that his plan seems to be working, as the new budget will include concessions for the port.

• McNulty is pure comedy in this one, from Dominic West -- a Brit whose American accent is sometimes spotty -- having to do a fake horrible British accent, to the reactions of McNulty and Kima at his situation during the raid, to the flare of Ronnie's eyes when she reads the incident report over Jimmy's shoulder.

• Speaking of the raid, there's a nice small moment where the uniform officer assumes that the only way to take a door is to knock it in, where both Kima and Bunk realize they can just knock and get the same result. This isn't a drug house; you can't flush hookers.

• Herc and Carver have been getting the short end of every assignment all season (down to washing windows in the previous episode), and their frustration is starting to overwhelm them at this point.

• I love the way Frankie Faison plays Burrell in the scene with Valchek, because Erv knows exactly the position Stan is in, having previous assigned Daniels to a detail that sprawled far beyond what was expected.

• We can talk more about Brother Mouzone next time, but note that the character is given the kind of dramatic entrance "The Wire" doesn't usually do -- that is, unless the series' other larger-than-life character, Omar, is involved.

• Bunny Colvin's mustachioed sidekick is Lt. Mello, played by the real-life Jay Landsman, who was the inspiration for both the character of the same name played on "The Wire" by Delaney Williams, but Detective Munch on "Homicide." He has one of the thicker (and authentic) Baltimore accents on the series.

And now we come to the veterans-only section, where we can talk about how developments in this episode will play out later in the season, and the series:

• It's not as grand an entrance as Mouzone gets, but the introduction of Bunny will of course be more important to the series, as he becomes one of the main characters of season three, an important part of season four, and -- depending on your views on drug decriminalization -- one of the more purely admirable characters the show will ever feature. And, yes, all of Bunny's frustration here was designed by Simon, Burns and company to lay some groundwork for season three's Hamsterdam experiment.

• "Stray Rounds" foreshadows not only Hamsterdam, but season three's other grand, doomed experiment, The New Day Co-Op, as Prop Joe mesmerizes Stringer with the story of Charlie Sollers, a heroin dealer who cared only about money, not street rep or violence, and had a long and productive career by staying off everyone's radar.

• While the name of the dope brands tended to change from season to season, Bodie's crew will still be slinging WMD in season three, leading to one of the funniest lines of the series, Santangelo telling the junkies, "I hear WMD is the bomb."

• Because The Greek's people aren't as disciplined about phone use as Avon's crew (and, in the future, Marlo's crew), Sergei dooms himself to a life in prison -- and gives Lester the necessary tip to close the 14 murders -- by reassuring White Mike that anyone he killed would be missing his hands and face.

• Yet another link in the chain that will lead to Ziggy's end: had Double-G just fronted Ziggy the cash that he asked for, Ziggy wouldn't have had to pawn the duck's diamond necklace, and therefore might not have had the opportunity to eye, then buy, the gun he uses to kill Double-G. (Then again, perhaps that's what he intended to buy all along with the cash he asked for.)

Coming up next: "Storm Warnings," in which Brother Mouzone asks Cheese a question, Valchek makes a federal case out of Sobotka, and Ziggy gets pushed around again.

Not sure when that review will go up, as I used my last free evening before the start of press tour to write this one. Could be next week, could be a few weeks. But it'll get done.

What did everybody else think?


Carmichael Harold said...

Though it was a great review as always, Alan, I don't have much to say about the episode that you haven't already written. I did want to point out that the first two segments on Anthony Bourdain's show last night featured Baltimore and, more specifically, the Lt. Mello/real Jay Landsman as well as Snoop (Felicia Pearson).

Bourdain had some pit beef with Landsman, and then wandered through some recognizable scenery with Snoop before learning about her budding career as a reality TV star and sex toy designer.

Unknown said...

I didn't really like the Brother Mouzone character.

Hatfield said...

Are you sure Koutris isn't corrupt? You make it sound like he's being used by The Greek, but I never felt the show played it that way. And even if he was only trading information, he had to know that giving up Frank's name as a cooperator would be risking a murder. I'm curious if this is just your take on it or something David Simon said. I mean, the guy's name even sounds Greek; I figured he was in cahoots, not just morally questionable.

It's a testament to Simon and Burns as storytellers that despite this and moany other things Bodie did that should make us root against him, his death in season 4 is probably the one I took the hardest, maybe even more than Omar. I finished Season 4 with my girlfriend last night, and when that scene started and Chris and Snoop started creeping toward him, she started saying, "Oh no, don't kill Bodie, I like him!" Such a fantastic show.

Hatfield said...

Wow, Bodie did moany things? I always thought that was Poot's department. Thanks, folks, I'll be here all week.

Also, Alan, forgot to wish you a happy time while out here in my neck of the woods. It's not as hot as it has been the past couple of years, but trafficky as ever. I'll actually be in Hollywood tonight at The Henry Fonda Music Box to see Glasvegas, so if you have a jones for Jesus and Mary Chain disciples, come on by.

T.J. Hawke said...

You forgot another debut in this episode: Officer Walker. He participated in the raid and 'cracked some skulls'

Alan Sepinwall said...

Are you sure Koutris isn't corrupt?

Yup. That's straight from David Simon. Like you, I assumed Koutris was corrupt on some level. At the end of that season, I asked Simon about that, since he had earlier talked about how the vision of the one corrupt cop ruining the otherwise good criminal justice system was one he found reductive and wasn't going to use on this show. He said that Koutris believed The Greek was giving him real terror targets, and did a moral calculus wherein the information The Greek was feeding him would save more lives than would be lost by letting The Greek stay in business.

Otto Man said...

Are you sure Koutris isn't corrupt? You make it sound like he's being used by The Greek, but I never felt the show played it that way.

Yeah, I had the same take -- never got the idea he was being used, just assumed (maybe because of the Greek name) that he was in cahoots with the Greek and Vondas.

Otto Man said...

Whoops, should have read all the way down.

Still never caught that. Wish Simon had made it a little more explicit.

alynch said...

He said that Koutris believed The Greek was giving him real terror targets, and did a moral calculus wherein the information The Greek was feeding him would save more lives than would be lost by letting The Greek stay in business.

That may be, but I gotta think calling The Greek up and saying, "Hey, Frank Sobotka's is going informant," is illegal on some level. He may not have been taking bribes or doing any of it for personal gain, but if you're doing something illegal in order to protect an informant, you are still corrupt, are you not?

alynch said...

Or to put it another way, do you think Koutris wrote in an official report to his superiors, "Upon learning that Frank Sobotka was talking to the police, I immediately phoned my informant to tell him, which resulted in Sobotka being killed."?

rhys said...

@Hatfield: It is never really clear whether Koutris is "corrupt." I think part of the issue is that there is no clear line as to what constitutes "corruption" in the modern climate of the "all bets off" hunt for terrorists. When McNulty's FBI friend finds out Koutris is actually working counter terrorism in DC he immediately realizes that Koutris must be feeding information to the Greek. However, it's not a "this guy is corrupt" reaction (he doesn't report him or anything), it is a "this is how it works" reaction.

On a side note, I really enjoyed the scene where Koutris is searching for the coke. At first they are looking for the cliche bundled packages buried in the containers. Then he realizes that it is ALL coke, and he's like "holy crap."

Adrienne said...

Carmichael Harold I also saw that Bourdain episode last night. I had never seen it before, but I watched it because I heard that Landsman and Snoop would be on it.

Anonymous said...

Add me to the list that always thought that Koutris was in cahoots with The Greek. I just rewatched the episode looking for any hint that he was not just a bad guy and if there was any hint, I totally missed it.

Ryan W said...

Re: Koutris and the Greek

I never really thought that Koutris was dirty, but I think the relationship between him and the Greek is a little bit different than Alan's description. Rather than Koutris being strung along, I viewed their relationship as being more equal than that. In this case, yes, the Greek gives up a bad business partner, but Koutris gets a huge bust tied to FARC, AUC, or any of the other alphabet-soup narco gangs in Colombia. Given the information both men have, it's hard to view their relationship as anything but a "you scratch my back..." deal.

Matt said...

The opening scene of this episode says so much about "The Wire" as a show. How many movies have we seen where the heroes blast through huge gunfights or reckless car chases in crowded areas without a single bystander being killed? The street battle in the teaser could have been played as an adrenaline-charged action sequence, but instead it's structured to show the human cost of these conflicts.

Also, I'm glad to hear some discussion about Koutris. I was never quite sure what to make of him, but I think we have to assume that he has general institutional approval for his actions, since Fitz doesn't report him as corrupt.

Unknown said...

I had completely forgotten that Colvin and Mello made this appearance in season two, until I started rewatching the series from the beginning last month.

Their brief scene did not register with me at all the first time through, but now that I know what happens in season three (my personal favorite season), it has infinitely more resonance. Man, Simon and company really knew what they were doing with this show.

Dan said...

I thought it was interesting that Vondas and the Greek both figured that since it had been a few days and the police hadn’t raided the warehouse, that they weren’t on it. Which would have been true had Valchek or Burrell been running the investigation in the typical Baltimore PD fashion. But, as Daniels says, he’s a patient SOB.

I agree with Ryan W that the Koutris-Greek relationship is a “I scratch your back” partnership. Vondas even says something about how they are obligated to return the favor after the tip regarding Double-G. The first time I saw the season I thought Koutris was a corrupt cop getting paid by the Greek, but now I see it’s just a cop protecting his source and getting good tips in return.

And as far as the gun fight goes, it’s amazing see how poorly all of those guys handle a gun contrasted with the training Marlo’s troops receive.

Otto Man said...

The other thing about Koutris that always bothered me was that the actor who played that character -- Tom Mardirosian -- was so great on Oz as Agammemnon, and yet barely had anything at all to do on The Wire.

As soon as he appeared, I expected him to be a major figure, but then ... not much happened with him.

Ford said...

Ahh well I’ve learnt something new. I assumed Koutris was on the take. It never occurred to me that he was doing things ‘by the book’. Just another part of The Wire that deals in shades of grey instead of black and white.

So since Koutris is keeping The Greek protected so he can get good terrorist information, shouldn’t he be annoyed that The Greek tips him off to a can full of cocaine and not bombs? From everything Fitzhugh said in season one, the Feds don’t seem to be too interested in any dope on the damn table.

alynch said...

So since Koutris is keeping The Greek protected so he can get good terrorist information, shouldn’t he be annoyed that The Greek tips him off to a can full of cocaine and not bombs?

Not really. He thinks he's dealing with narcoterrorists, so by taking a shipment of that magnitude, he would be seriously disrupting a terrorist operation. That is, of course, only if these folks (Albanians, I think it was) were actual terrorists, which they weren't.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't Sergei pop up again in Season 4 or 5 when Omar steals the co-op's whole shipment? I seem to remember seeing him in there, which surprised me.

Mike C said...

Yes, Sergei returns in Season 5 when Marlo is trying to set up a meeting with the Greek.

This is a great Stringer episode, between his scenes with Bodie and the first talk with Brianna. You can almost see some regret in him when he's talking with Brianna about D'Angelo.

troy said...

I won't say it struck a wrong note, exactly, but something always hit me as not quite right about the Brother Mouzone mythology. I like the character a lot, but there are already so many badasses on the show, so when they try to make Mouzone seem like the baddest of the bad, it seems like an unfulfilled promise, in a way. Maybe the argument is that it takes him and Omar to kill Stringer, but the buildup that precedes his debut seems almost like a shortcut on this show.

Eyeball Wit said...

I really like Brother Mouzone (and would have liked to have seen Marlo have a similar level of texture to complement his ruthless efficiency.)

I must say I just assumed that Koutris was getting more than just info. He didn't *need* to give up Frank so his level of obedience to the Greek suggested that he was either on the take, or being blackmailed.

Agent Harris did the same thing on the Sopranos, but his motivations seemed to be clearer.

Slightly OT, but I got the chance to insert a video homage to Herc's hero, Gus Triandos in a story I wrote for Esquire.com this week.


Hob said...

Eyeball: Koutris didn't just give up Frank to keep the Greek happy, but to keep the Greek out of jail. His rationale - at least according to Fitz - would have been that his own informant was making his counterterrorism work possible, and that this was more important than Frank's life. Of course, someone in Koutris's position could use the same argument to rationalize just about anything that advanced his own career.

Eyeball Wit said...

It's been a while since I saw that episode and of course, you're right. I still think that the "cleaner" way for this to play out (as Harris told Tony) is for the bust to go down and for the Greek to use his cooperation as a bargaining chip with the prosecutors.

If SImon meant for this to seem like business as usual, it felt like anything but to me.

bergey bill said...

who is anthony bourdain? what is his background?

Ryan W said...

@ Eyeball Wit:

I interpret the Koutris/The Greek dealings as another way for Simon to comment on American priorities post-9/11. Despite the damage that The Greek can cause to American communities, the government, specifically the FBI, reorients itself to deal with a diffuse foreign threat rather than pay attention to other pressing issues at home. Thinking back, these episodes would have been written in the aftermath of the American effort to put warlords and poppy producers in Afghanistan on the payroll in an effort to keep the Taliban out. If you view the situation in this way, it makes much more sense.

TDavis said...

On second viewing, it really makes sense when Stringer says he has no muscle, no Wee-Bey, Stinkum or Bird anymore. Considering the complete lack of ability of anyone with Bodie to hit anything after firing about 30 rounds. Contrast this with the fire fights Omar had with Wee-Bey when they were able to hit each other in the dark. Stringer has to know that he can't really rely on anyone he has now to defend his Towers if it comes to that.

The other thing that really stood out for me in this episode was Valchek. Can someone really be so narrow minded? And if that is the case, the ending really gets darker with this tunnel minded man as police commish. I can understand Rawls being consumed by his clearance rate. I can even understand Burrell to a degree, he was a political animal from the beginning. But the look of shock on Ronnie's face and even Burrell's when Valchek doesn't care about this vast criminal activity only Frank sums up the level of frustration and disbelief that characters like McNulty and Daniels must feel so many times in this series when running up against the system.

Finally, Ziggy punching Nick and looking like a complete wreck after his duck dies is a very depressing scene on second viewing. Ziggy is completely falling apart and no one is around to see it or care. At least earlier in this season Nick was looking out for Ziggy but now he's caught up in the Game and Ziggy has no one.

Theresa said...

I'm rewatching this series with my boyfriend, a newbie, and I think he has some clairvoyant powers or something, because in the scene in which Bunny wonders aloud, "What exactly is it that we're doing?" after seeing the futile arrests, my boyfriend said, "They should legalize drugs." I didn't say anything, but I thought, "Season three, my friend." He also said this when Double G and Ziggy agreed to work together, "If you do business with Ziggy, you might as well shoot yourself [because Ziggy's such a screw up]." That was confirmed very quickly as well. Also, since Bunny is referred to as "Howard Colvin" in this episode and we are now up to season three in our viewing, my boyfriend calls him "Howard" every time he's on the screen, and I say, "His name is BUNNY!"

Matt said...

Bergey, Anthony Bourdain is a chef who hosts a show on the Travel Channel. His "Wire" segment, which was pretty cool, is up on YouTube now. It starts about five minutes into this video:
And continues in this one:

Joe Propinka said...

I think the idea with Koutris is that he's just a bigger-scale version of the compromises even the "committed" cops on the show regularly make.

Scale aside, is his deal with the Greek much different than what we see of McNulty's handling of Omar? Omar gets away with murder, perjury, and the rest so that McNulty can put a hurt on Avon and Stringer. And the Greek gets away with murder and human trafficking so Koutris can get his terrorism busts.

As to Mouzone, I was always a bit put off as well, but I can half-convince myself that he and Omar are being portrayed impressionistically -- that Mouzone is less an actual hitman from NYC than, say, what someone like Cheese or Bodie perceives a hitman from NYC would be like. It's still a serious stylistic departure, but Omar gets similar treatment, so there's some precedent for it.

debbie said...

Funny that Bourdain has a whole TV episode on Baltimore since he talks about how terrible of a city it is in his “Kitchen Confidential” book.

The Brother Mouzone character rubbed me the wrong way too. I guess I have trouble accepting that someone so well-read and educated would be capable of so much violence that he's revered for it. Maybe if the Black Panther movement was still strong, it'd be less of a stretch.

troy said...

Wow. I really liked Joe Propinka's comments.

Anonymous said...

The Greek and Koutris met on a parkbench with a lion statue behind them.

Later Sergei takes the call from White Mike about the package price for Nick and then they talk about the Lion going back to Washington and the drugs will start flowing again.

Ahmedkhan said...

[i]Maybe the most heartbreaking part of the opening sequence isn't the mom finding her dead son (though that's brutal), but the moment right before, when she has no idea what's happened and is just telling him to get to school, because the drama's over -- as if this sort of thing happens so often in the neighborhood that they treat it like just another of life's routine inconveniences.[/i]

I consider this to be the most heartbreaking scene of the entire series, ahead of even Wallace's murder and Dukie about to shoot up. Here is an ordinary, decent American mother trying to care for her kids and she discovers her 9 year old son has just preceded her in death. This, after looking out her kitchen window at the drug dealers' stash. Absolutely devastating.

Ahmedkhan said...

The gunfight in the opening scene shows just how chaotic and sloppy real life armed street conflicts usually are - a far cry from depictions of carefully planned and calmly executed maneuvering that often appear in literature, TV, and the big screen.

And while this particular gunfight is well acted, I'd say a slightly better portrait of a real gang gun battle is found in Simon's "The Corner." Sheer madness.