Okay folks, as promised, I’m going to finally completely my blog coverage of “The Wire” – aka The Greatest TV Drama Ever – with weekly reviews of the show’s third season (which was the last to air before I began blogging). As with seasons one and two, I’m going to do every post in two versions: one for veterans who have seen every episode from start to finish and want to be able to discuss how events from these episodes played out later in this season and the seasons to come, and one for newbies who are seeing them for the first time and don’t want later episodes and seasons spoiled for them. This is the veteran version; click here for the newbie review. (You can find links to my reviews of all the other seasons on the side rail of my old blog.)
Spoilers for the season premiere, “Time After Time,” coming up just as soon as I roll past K-Mart…
“Mistakes have been made. We will learn from those mistakes. ‘Reform’ is not just a watchword within my administration. It’s a philosophy.” -Mayor Clarence Royce
In season two, “The Wire” moved from the projects to the docks, in a move that seemed a jarring detour to some and a bold statement (that the series is about a lot more than cops vs. drug dealers) to others. Season three puts Jimmy and Lester back on the hunt for Stringer Bell (albeit in a roundabout way, since the Major Crimes Unit is trying to get to him via Prop Joe’s crew), but “Time After Time” makes clear early and often that this isn’t a retreat back to safer territory but part of the series’ continued expansion.
The MCU can chase the Barksdale crew again, but “The Wire” wants to look at the drug war as part of a broader picture than we saw in season one. We get to match the MCU, and Stringer and Poot and Bodie do their business, but we also get the perspective of a more conventional Baltimore PD district. We see maneuverings involving Rawls, Burrell and City Hall that (for now) have nothing to do with what Lt. Daniels is up to. And in Cutty we get to see what the contemporary drug game looks like from the perspective of a man who hasn’t been in it for 14 years, making him a dinosaur to the young hoppers who rip him off.
As with all seasons of the show, the key themes are summed up in the opening scene, in which Mayor Royce gives a self-serving speech about what the demolition of the Franklin Terrace high-rises says about his commitment to reform, while Poot laments the destruction of a place that holds so many memories – even if, Bodie points out, they’re often memories of girls who gave him venereal diseases. Royce proudly depresses the plunger to bring the towers down, but no one calculated how much dust and debris would be kicked up, and soon the photo op turns into a filthy mess.
Without giving too much away for the sake of the newbies, season three will be about the challenges of trying to bring reform to both sides of the drug war, and it will be about how decisions made in remote places of power affect everyday folk down on the ground, and it will at times be a pretty blatant Iraq War allegory(*). So we get Royce delivering empty platitudes about his campaign’s commitment to reform and fighting drugs, even as Stringer Bell will later tell his soldiers that the business will do just fine without the towers. And we get Bodie mocking Poot for making the same mistake over and over no matter how often he gets burned. And as the towers come down, we get an image very much like the plumes of dust and smoke that filled lower Manhattan on that horrible morning of 9/11/01.
(*) And I should say here that this show tends to really complicate the usual No Politics commenting rule, and this season should do that more than the other four, between the Iraq parallels and some of the reform methods we’ll see in later episodes. You can’t discuss this show without discussing its politics on some level, but I’m going to ask you for two things, and I’m going to be really vigilant about policing and deleting any comments that don’t follow along: 1)As much as you can, try to focus on the political material within the context of the drama; and 2)When you feel like you have to address a specific point David Simon and company are making, keep it civil. You can disagree with Simon, you can disagree with the characters, and you can disagree with your fellow posters, but if you can’t do it without being hostile, your comment’s getting deleted. Feel me?
This is a world where the powers that be don’t think things through. A world where the foot soldiers on both sides of the law (be they Poot or Herc) have been trained in a broken system where they only know the wrong way to do things. A world where the crime rate has gotten so bad that Royce and Burrell would view it as a major PR coup if they could hold the murder rate to a pathetically high total of 275. A world that’s so far gone that a corner boy would try to sell drugs to a uniformed police district commander, and only recognize the man for what he is after Bunny Colvin puts his hat on.
Anyone who wants to implement actual reform to this cracked, dysfunctional world is going to need a whole lot of patience and far more stubborn optimism.
But the wonderful thing about “The Wire” is the way that Simon, Ed Burns and everyone else never let the show descend into a simple political screed. “Time After Time,” as with all the show’s episodes, features a lot of anger, but it’s anger wrapped up in some very finely-crafted entertainment.
It would be easy to just have Colvin stew over the man-hours wasted by an oblivious Herc and Carver on meaningless arrests. Instead, we get to see the two idiots in action, committing a fortune in man-hours and equipment into chasing the runner they already knew would be a decoy, and with Herc blasting Isaac Hayes’ iconic “Theme from ‘Shaft'” throughout the chase. (And the song is made funnier through strategic quoting by Herc, and by the way the scene follows the show’s music rules so that we only hear the song when Herc’s car is nearby.)
Or look at Stringer’s address to the troops about the folly of fighting over turf instead of sharing in profits “like businessmen, make the profit, and later for that gangster bullshit.” Again, this is Simon and Burns using a central character to lecture both other characters and the audience on how the world should work, but it never feels like a lecture because the scene has one of the series’ most inspired, hilarious gags: educated, pretentious Stringer has decided to conduct the meeting according to Robert’s Rules of Order, which provides opportunity for lines like, “Chair ain’t recognize yo’ ass” and “Do the chair know we gonna look like some punk-ass bitches?” Bodie and Poot are ignorant and obstinate enough that the scene would have been funny even without the etiquette running gag, but with it? An all-time TV comedy moment.
That meeting provides our first glimpse of one of our new players, Slim Charles (played by Anwan Glover), new muscle brought in to help fortify the Barksdale crew, and the episode introduces (or in one case reintroduces) several other figures who will be key to this season. As with any new season of the show, it takes a while to get used to the new characters, so for simplicty’s sake, here’s the breakdown:
Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin (Robert Wisdom): We met him briefly in season two’s “Stray Rounds,” where he was the commander on scene after Bodie’s shootout with a rival crew led to a dead little boy. He’s commander of the Western district, which covers the part of town where Stringer operates, and he respects police fundamentals (like an innate sense of direction) in a department where the only thing anyone seems to understand is reputation and disrespect.
Dennis “Cutty” Wise (Chad L. Coleman): Feared Barksdale soldier from the ’80s, legendary for calling 911 on himself after committing the murder that sent him to prison for 14 years, and now adrift in the 21st century game. Just as Carver laughs at Bunny’s compass lecture behind his back, the drug dealer who steals Cutty’s stash and lies about it mocks him for demanding a police report number like anyone who ran that scam back in the day would try to do.
Mayor Clarence Royce (Glynn Turman): Like his close police ally Ervin Burrell, he’s wedded to a way of doing things that has less to do with what’s right than with how they’ve always been done.
Councilman Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen): Chairs the subcommittee that oversees the police department, he aspires to higher office than appears possible for a white man in a predominantly black city. His gambit to turn Burrell into an ally fails, so he works the media to make Burrell (and Royce) look bad.
Lots of new faces to learn (though fewer than at the start of season two) and lots of stories set in motion. As always on “The Wire,” it will be funny, it will be frustrating, it will be heartbreaking, and it will be great. Can’t wait to plow through it all with you.
Some other thoughts:
- Sydnor was the only season one character of note not to pop up at least briefly in season two (heck, even Augie Polk was part of the first iteration of the Sobotka detail), but he makes a quick return here, turning up in the first scene after the opening credits and again proving to be a good undercover operative. Bubbs taught him well. The MCU also gets a new addition in Detective Caroline Massey, who often seems more interested in clipping coupons than anything else, but who has an even better ear than Prez for translating talk heard on the wire.
- Speaking of the credits, this season comes with yet another version of “Way Down in the Hole” sung by The Neville Brothers, and replaces all the dock imagery from season two with scenes of construction, campaign posters and other pictures that we’ll get to see as the season moves along.
- In addition to the return of Bunny Colvin, we get the return of his second-in-command, Dennis Mello, played by the real Jay Landsman, possessor of arguably the thickest Bawlmer accent on the series.
- Great little moment on the prison ballfield where all play – and all conversation – stops so that Avon may cross the field unmolested. That, my friends, is power.
- Things are a bit more unruly at the other ballgame we see over at Camden Yards, as Jimmy lets himself get bent out of shape over Elena sitting in great front-row seats with a potential new boyfriend, while a frustrated Bunk has to leave early to work a murder on his day off.
- We knew Lt. Daniels’ marriage was over at the end of last season, and it’s interesting to see that Marla stuck with that decision in spite of the Sobotka detail’s overwhelming success (from a career standpoint, at least). But it also says something about Cedric that he’s willing to pretend they’re still together to help Marla’s foray into politics, to repay her for all the years she stood by him as he was climbing the ladder with the department.
- Ahhh, Bill Rawls. The man is an ass and a bully, but he is far, far from a stupid one, and he is the last man you would want to try dissembling with during a Comstat meeting, because he will rip your lame story and rationalizations to shreds – and, so long as it isn’t one of our guys being shredded, it will be fun to watch him do it.
And now we come to the veterans-only portion of the review, where we talk about how events in this episode will play out over the season, and in some cases over the seasons that follow:
- Kind of incredible (and a testament to the show’s patient storytelling) that Marlo Stanfield, who will become a huge thorn in Avon’s side, and then the MCU’s major adversary in the final two seasons, is introduced in what’s little more than a walk-on here, as the leader of the crew whose car gets dented by Bubbs and Johnny’s runaway shopping cart. Note that even in this first appearance, he’s the cold, efficient, emotionless Marlo we’d come to know so well; he doesn’t care what happens to Bubbs and Johnny one way or the other, just so long as it happens quickly so he can get to where he needs to be.
- The issue of Prop Joe’s family tree was asked about in my season four and five blog posts, and again when I looped back around to season two for the introduction of Cheese, so let’s clear it up once and for all. The MCU is betting Drac will be promoted because he’s Joe’s nephew “on his mother’s side” (which in the street world is a bigger deal), but instead Drac complains that “off-brand” Cheese gets the bump – only Cheese will be revealed in later seasons to also be Joe’s nephew. Since Joe talked in season two about all his burdensome kin, I had always assumed that he had many nephews and cousins running around the organization screwing up but surviving thanks to nepotism, and David Simon confirmed this when I asked. The idea is that the MCU had learned that Drac was Joe’s nephew but had no idea that Cheese was as well, and so they put their money on the wrong relative. No change in plans; just one big family. Or, as Simon puts it, “You’re allowed to have more than one relative. In fact, in East and West Baltimore everybody seems to be everybody’s relative. That’s the joke of the police logic. They guess nepotism, but it’s a wider field than one corner boy.”
- Carver’s “You do not get to win, shitbird! We do!” rant will be echoed by McNulty (on the subject of the aforementioned Mr. Stanfield) in season five.
- Wheelchair-bound Odell Watkins will become instrumental to Carcetti’s mayoral campaign, and we see here for the first time the seeds of the complacent attitude that will lead to Royce’s stunning defeat.
- Ronnie Pearlman’s concern about Lt. Daniels’ living arrangements are the first hint of the relationship that’s coming between them.
- Oh, Bunny. Do not EVER ask what a man like Bill Rawls can do to you, because Rawls will find a way to show you. He’s going to spend a lot of time this season talking about how invulnerable his major’s pension makes him. And he will be proven wrong, dammit.
- And the season-long running thread about the beer cans on the roof is one of my favorite little (no doubt drawn from real life) touches on the show.
Coming up next week: “All Due Respect,” in which McNulty goes looking for D’Angelo, Herc and Carver go to the movies and Bunny Colvin teaches us about the importance of paper bags.
What did everybody else think?