Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Wire, Season 2, Episode 9: "Stray Rounds" (Newbies 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 newbie version; click here for the veteran 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.

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?


Kate said...

There are veterans' bullets in the Newbies' version, just so you know.

I wasn't spoiled, because I've watched through 4, but you might want to take those down.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Yikes. Thanks for the warning. They've been deleted.

femmeperdue said...

Alan, thanks again for doing this. I've found myself viewing everyone on this show so suspiciously I didn't catch that the FBI agent was being played like that (I figured he was corrupt like, oh, just about everyone in some way)!

parkenf said...

Second what femmeperdue said - I really didn't view the FBI agent that way, but your reading of him certainly makes more sense. Really enjoying these write-ups (I finished S2 earlier this year). Just thought you might like to know that in the UK, the BBC are currently rushing through all wire episodes at a rate of 3 a week! I can't keep up that level, but I have a large pvr, so I'm OK. While I'm waiting for your writeups of S3, does anyone know any good discussions on S3 on the web (lacking spoilers, obviously). Even televisionwithoutpity is missing its S3 write ups.

Orion7 said...


TWoP never got around to recapping the third season, sadly, but you can find the discussion of it starting from here in the archived forum thread. You can't post to it, but you might be interested in reading the discussion. No spoilers at all, since we weren't even sure we'd have a fourth season back then.

Daniel Iffland said...

Hi Alan,

Just adding another note of thanks. Apart from the obvious pleasure we get every time we watch an episode, season 2 has also given a me a new tick of announcing "Sobotka" at increasingly regular intervals. Should be a musical or a cop show with that name, it's a great one.

Karen said...

Jimmy in the raid--a cheap laugh, perhaps, but a genuine one.

I get that Agent Koutris is being played by the Greek to get their troublesome Colombian connection off their hands, but I have to say I'm unclear on why Koutris called the Greek as soon as Fitzhugh called him about Glekas. Isn't that run-of-the-mill corruption?

Unknown said...

Do you honestly believe that Koutris is linked to the Greeks organization only in the link to terrorism? Do you feel it is a stretch that he is just plain dirty, and is prospering from the side money he can earn from this crew. The amount of drugs these guys are dealing with produces millions of dollars, we are not dealing with a beat cop who stumbles on a ounce of cocaine here!

Anonymous said...

That Ziggy character is very very good, played so well. And a plausible character, too, if probably larger than life. Unfortunately, while such guys and gals turn up in every subculture and scene, they‘re seldom as colorful.

However, being a huge Avon-ist, I wonder how long Mr Bell is able to go on with his machinations. I felt some episodes back that Avon is very likely to feel (because he got gut feeling galore) that his one-time homie is going solo. And somebody or other is going to rat Bell out, if just to score points with the Master. Avon is so multi-faceted you can‘t easily figure him out, what with his family dedication and emotional intelligence. Wood Harris is always so uncannily good in this role, even if not in the episode we can feel Avon‘s mind hovering. And he‘s got his people and connects way closer than Bell will ever be able to, with his stupid business college stuff.

Thank you Alan for having this thread still open. Don‘t know if you pop around to monitor the posts though, but, whatever, I‘m 10 yrs late, so w.t.f.