And now we’re almost to the end of our trip back through season three of “The Wire.” As always, we’re doing this in two versions: one for people who have seen the series from beginning to end and want to be able to discuss it all, and one for people who are only as far along as these reviews (or maybe a bit further) and don’t want later episodes and seasons spoiled for them. This is the veteran version; click here for the newbie-friendly one.
This week’s episode is “Middle Ground,” written, as each season’s penultimate episode was, by George Pelecanos. As a bonus feature, I interviewed Mr. Pelecanos about the experience of writing this one (and the series’ other gut-punching penultimate chapters, so newbies may not want to read it just yet). My “Middle Ground” review coming up just as soon as I steal a badminton set…
“Us, motherfucker.” -Avon Barksdale
“Us, man.” -Stringer Bell
They did it.
They actually did it.
Those magnificent bastards killed Stringer Bell.
And by “magnificent bastards,” I refer not to the marvelously larger-than-life duo of Omar and Brother Mouzone – a Marvel Two-In-One team-up so grand that only the combination is believable in taking out such a towering figure in the series – but to Pelecanos, David Simon, Ed Burns and the rest of the creative team for having the heart, the guts and the patience to pull this off.
Yes, “The Wire” had spent these first three seasons proving over and over that it would not be following the playbook you usually get with series television. It came back in season two with half the season one cast sitting on the margins, and season one co-lead D’Angelo was bumped off halfway through that year. Then the show came back in season three with all the port characters vanished, with the Barksdales back in prominence, but laid on top of them and the Major Crimes Unit new worlds in the Western District and City Hill. “The Wire” was never going to be bound by what was popular, but what seemed to fit this sprawling story of an American city in decay. And so long as Simon and Burns considered Baltimore itself to be the show’s real central character, no one else was truly safe.
But still… they killed Stringer Bell.
Though this was the first season where Stringer could legitimately be called a main character – McNulty and D’Angelo were the leads of the original Barksdale arc, and Stringer and company took second position to the port gang in season two – he was always one of the series’ most compelling figures, thanks to the screen presence of Idris Elba and to the vivid, unique design of the character. TV had seen plenty of charismatic drug lords before, but never one quite like Stringer. He was a man who wanted the financial rewards of the drug life, but none of the other standard trappings. He viewed himself not as a drug dealer, but a businessman, one who found a way to make a fortune on the only career path he found open to him, and one who up until his dying moments was trying to both transform and transcend The Game. He wanted out, but before he left, he, like Bunny, wanted to find a way to change The Game into something that made more sense, business or otherwise. He wasn’t a hero – he ordered Brandon’s torture, arranged Wallace and D’Angelo’s murders, and was responsible for plenty of other heinous acts – and his motives were never as pure as Bunny’s (he wanted The Game changed to protect himself from the law), but he was a vastly more complicated, and at times sympathetic, figure than the menacing hood we took him for when he showed up in Judge Phelan’s courtroom back in the series pilot. Viewers may or may not have had him as their favorite character, but few would argue that any other person on this show symbolized what “The Wire” was about more than Russell Bell.
So even though “Wire” viewers should have known by now to never get complacent, it’s still shocking to see Stringer trapped by Omar and Mouzone, unable to talk or buy his way out of trouble, and finally accepting his fate and inviting them to get on with it.
Yet watching the brilliant “Middle Ground” – which Pelecanos understandably calls his favorite of the episodes he wrote for the series (my heart still leans towards his season 4 & 5 contributions, but they’re all damn close) – it feels like the episode, and the season, could have climaxed in no other way.
Earlier in the season, Avon mocked Stringer as a man without a country, and here we see Avon’s taunts come to life. Maury Levy explains that Clay Davis has been hustling him this whole time, and Stringer wasn’t as savvy a businessman as he’d always believed. Stringer’s inability to shut down Avon’s war with Marlo has severed the organization’s relationship with the co-op, and that in turn has placed Avon in a vulnerable enough position that he has no choice but to give up his best friend to the vengeance-seeking Brother Mouzone. (If his crew were still getting Prop Joe’s package from The Greek, maybe Avon feels safe in defying New York.) And his attempt to play at being a more ruthless drug lord by setting up Omar to eliminate the Brother Mouzone problem turned out to be far too clever for his own good, as it creates a bond between two unstoppable killers who both have good reason to want Stringer Bell dead.
As Stringer sees the world he built slipping away from him – and makes the desperate move of tipping off Bunny to the location of Avon’s safehouse so he can finally stop the war and get back with the co-op – Idris Elba is, simply, fantastic. As, for that matter, is Wood Harris, first in the scene where Mouzone makes his threat to Avon – and Avon, having been presented the final piece, immediately assembles the picture of what Stringer was up to while he was in prison – and then in one of the best “Wire” scenes ever (which automatically makes it a contender for a Best TV Scenes Ever list), when Avon and Stringer share each other’s company for the last time on the balcony of Avon’s gorgeous condo.
Stringer knows he’s set up his friend to go back to prison, and Avon knows he’s about to send his friend to his death, but neither man knows what the other has done. So for the first time since right after Avon came home, the two appear at ease with each other – Stringer trying to be magnanimous in victory, Avon trying to give Stringer one last good time before Mouzone comes for him – but eventually the tension overtakes the play-acting. Each man can sense something’s wrong, but they can’t tell if it’s their own guilty feelings about what they’ve done to each other. (Avon even quotes “It’s just business” at Stringer, only a few scenes after Stringer has used it on Bunny Colvin to explain why he’d send his friend to jail.) As I said to George in our interview, it feels like something from “The Godfather Part II” – only if Al Pacino and John Cazale had spent 36 hours building up their characters instead of 6. The scene itself is amazing, but it’s the years we’ve spent building up to it that makes it really resonate.
So Stringer is betrayed by his partner, and by his own ambitions and tunnel-vision (yes, even Stringer Bell has a more narrow perspective of this world than we do), and he dies, appropriately enough, inside one of those downtown lofts with which he hoped to build an entirely different life and legacy. Before he dies, though, he finally gets a face-to-face meeting with Bunny Colvin, who has been trying to reform The Game in his own way, and who seems on the verge of being betrayed by his own superiors.
What feels particularly tragic about what seems on the verge of happening to the Hamsterdam experiment is that almost no one in power who’s found out about it is particularly against it in theory. Mayor Royce, political hack of all hacks, seems genuinely energized by the possibilities of what Bunny has created. Rawls admitted last week that what Bunny did was kind of brilliant – albeit also insane and illegal. Carcetti looks like he’s starting to be convinced by the tour Bunny gives him of the new golden age of the Western District. Royce’s chief of staff is against it, but he has no real power to do anything. The fly in the ointment is Ervin Burrell, who himself isn’t even particularly against the idea – because Erv would have to believe in anything other than his own self-preservation to be against anything else. But because he thinks that way, and because he’s spent so much time in the orbit of Clarence Royce, he can’t imagine that Royce would be thinking any other way. So he automatically assumes Royce’s stalling is part of an attempt to blame Burrell for this fiasco, and sets in motion a plan that will likely blow up any attempt to make Hamsterdam legitimate and permanent.
Stringer, in his brief conversation with his fellow reformer, suggests, “Looks like both me and you trying to make sense of this Game.” Both of them are doing what Royce claims to be in his Hamsterdam meetings: looking for a middle ground that will allow a type of reviled criminal activity to be viewed as something else, in the name of some greater good. (For Stringer, that greater good is a larger bank account and freedom from prosecution; for Bunny, it’s selfless.) But the world that men like Avon Barksdale and Ervin Burrell, or Bodie and Herc, know is a black-and-white one of wars and soldiers, and anyone looking for non-existent middle ground is going to get crushed by one side or the other. Stringer’s reform plans ultimately lead him to the same end suffered by Wallace and countless other soldiers without a fraction of his ambition. Where will it lead Bunny in the finale? Anyone who’s been watching “The Wire” for these past 36 hours can’t have a good feeling about that.
Some other thoughts on “Middle Ground.”
- Stringer’s death – and our knowledge that it’s coming – also renders immediately hollow the MCU’s big victory in finally getting his voice on the wire discussing drug business with Shamrock. Jimmy has spent three years waiting for this moment – as have we – yet it’s all moot. Judge Phelan tells Jimmy to let it go, and though it’s hard to entirely take those words seriously from a man who barely even remembers Stringer’s name, despite being the one who helped create the original Barksdale detail, he’s making the same point that Lester and so many others have tried to get through to McNulty this season. The job will not save him, especially since it won’t let him put the bracelets on the man he’s been obsessed with all this time.
- Jimmy does, at least, have the detective’s savvy and self-respect to realize that Terry D’Agostino is just pumping him for information on Hamsterdam, and to walk away from a sure thing in bed out of solidarity with his old commander. (I imagine Terry would’ve slept with him even if he didn’t give up a single detail, but there are just some things you don’t do, even if you’re Jimmy McNulty.)
- Though these George Pelecanos Episodes are understandably remembered for the terrible things that happen to characters we care about, they usually have some kind of redemptive moment or subplot within them. Season one’s “Cleaning Up” had Lt. Daniels standing up to Burrell and Clay, while season two’s “Bad Dreams” completed Beadie’s transformation from bored clock-puncher to solid detective with her tail job on Vondas. Here, the feel-good moment involves Cutty, who seems to finally be getting through to his kids in general, and to Justin in particular. It’s a distinctly “Wire”-scale win, though: Justin gets his butt kicked by the younger, better-trained fighter, but he doesn’t give up. In just a short period of time, Cutty has instilled enough pride in him that he can see this as the beginning of his education, not the end. It’s a moral victory for Cutty as much as for Justin.
- It’s also funny to see Cutty making this big sales pitch to Avon – pushing so hard, in fact, that Avon starts to get annoyed – for what is an enormous sum of money to him and the gym, but what turns out to be pocket change to Avon Barksdale.
- If you’ve read Pelecanos’ books – particularly the Derek Strange/Terry Quinn series – then you know the man is a big Western fan, and therefore it’s not a surprise to see Omar and Mouzone’s first meeting be styled to resemble a Spaghetti Western showdown (and also to feature loving discussion of each other’s model of gun, another Pelecanos staple). And, as Pelecanos says in the interviews, the original cut by director Joe Chappelle was even more blatant in this. I used to wonder if the pigeons in the loft were meant as some kind of John Woo homage (though Woo preferred doves), but apparently there were just a lot of pigeons congregating at that location.
- Speaking of Chappelle, I don’t know if it was his choice or Pelecanos’s, but I love the way Carcetti’s tour of Hamsterdam itself is shown entirely by the camera sitting tight on his face as we hear the sounds of the place bouncing around his ears. We know what Hamsterdam is by this point; what matters is the reaction of the man who may get to decide its fate.
- A few weeks ago, I noted that Fitzhugh was still well-liked by the MCU in spite of how he inadvertently torpedoed the port case. Some of you reminded me that only Daniels learned of it at the time, and here we get confirmation that Cedric never told anybody, instead holding onto that info as a chit so he can get Fitz’s federal help in speeding up the wiretap process for Stringer’s phone.
- It seems a distinctly “Wire” touch that the miraculous trigger-fish machine that will help the MCU close the noose around Stringer is gathering dust in a BPD basement, with not even its attendant knowing it exists.
And now we come to the veterans-only section, where we talk about how some of the developments of this episode will play out in the finale, and in the two seasons to come:
- Stringer’s tip to Bunny will put Avon back in prison, even though his death renders moot his desire to get back into the co-op.
- Stringer’s last words will be repeated by Bunny Colvin as he faces his own firing squad at Comstat.
- Here, Bubbs meets Sherrod, whom he will mentor throughout the fourth season until he plays a role in Sherrod’s tragic end.
- Perhaps as a tribute to his re-imprisoned former boss, Cutty will not abide by Avon’s instructions to keep his picture out of the boxing gym.
- Jimmy’s discovery of the trigger-fish machine in the basement will be echoed by Prez’s season four discovery of the pristine, unopened computers at the middle school. The school system, like the police department, got this valuable technology, then promptly forgot it existed.
Coming up next: “Mission Accomplished,” the end of season three and the end of my out-of-sequence reviewing of this brilliant show. Damn.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org