Once again, we’re spending this summer revisiting season 3 of “The Wire” (you can find my reviews of all the other seasons on the siderail of my old blog) in two versions each week: one for people who have seen the series all the way through and want to be able to discuss how stories progressed down the line, and those who haven’t gotten to the end and don’t want to be spoiled on further developments. This is the veteran version; click here for the newbie-safe one. (My veteran’s review of the previous episode is here.)
A review of episode two, “All Due Respect,” coming up just as soon as I invest heavily in petroleum jelly…
“And it hit me… This is what makes a good night on my watch: absence of a negative.” -Bunny Colvin
There are two things you can count on around this point in any season of “The Wire”: nothing much will seem to be happening (even though the foundation is being laid for so many stories), and things will feel especially dark (even though we have no idea what darkness is yet, and won’t until we get Pelecanos’ed near the end of the year).
Season three is in a bit of an unusual position in that it begins with the MCU already up and operating without interference, but even here we see that their powers aren’t limitless, and their progress can still be halting. They overhear Cheese talking about killing “my dog” on the wire, assume the “d-a-w-g” spelling and burn their wiretap in hopes of getting Cheese to flip on Prop Joe, only to learn he meant “dog” in the literal sense. They appear to shut down the war between Chese’s crew and the group who fixed the dog fight, but scare everyone on Prop Joe’s side of things into ditching their tapped cell phones, wrecking the investigation before it gets anywhere near Stringer Bell.
In City Hall, Tommy Carcetti is making inroads towards helping the cops, but he admits to only doing it out of boredom and ambition, and Burrell will only let him in so far.
And over at the Western district, Bunny Colvin continues to be disheartened by how little Herc and Carver accomplish with all their bluster, and by the silly stat games he and his men have been ordered to play in order to appease Carcetti, and by the new proctological approach Bill Rawls has taken to Comstat. So when Detective Dozerman is shot during a completely pointless undercover operation, Bunny decides it’s time for radical measures. We don’t learn exactly what those are (by this point, David Simon and company had built up enough trust with their audience that they could make us wait for an explanation of Bunny’s master plan), but we get some sense of what he’s after with the speech about the paper bag.
That speech is taken from a memorable passage of “The Corner,” the non-fiction book Simon and Ed Burns wrote about the year they spent on a drug corner on Fayette and Monroe. The paper bag metaphor doesn’t match up perfectly with the drug war – the sale and consumption of alcohol weren’t themselves crimes (only drinking from an open container in public was), whereas there’s a long list of different laws broken every day in the drug culture that the cops would have to ignore were a paper bag for junkies to exist – but it’s close enough and illustrative of the series’ larger point about micro solutions vs. macro ones. Had the Dozerman buy been successful, what would have been accomplished? Nothing. The dealer would have gone to jail and someone else would have taken his place. The institutionalized approach we see the average cop on this series (here represented by Herc and Carver) take is to focus on the tiny picture that’s staring them in the face and ignore anything that might improve the bigger picture. Working on the big picture is hard, and it ruffles feathers, as we saw with how the original Barksdale investigation imploded in the later stages. It’s much easier for Herc and Carver to focus on taking down the Bodies and Poots, even though nothing ever comes of it. They may shut down the corner for the 30 seconds it takes them to drive by, but as soon as their car is gone, business resumes.
Bunny Colvin knows this, which is why he suspends all hand-to-hand buys. His officers, who have grown up in this dysfunctional police culture, are too myopic to get it, so they’re upset that he’s deprived them of what they think is their best weapon against the hoppers and slingers. Bunny has a few months to go before he retires, which has left him feeling both invulnerable to fallout and in desperate need of something that will make him feel like his career meant something. And so he takes out a paper bag, and comes up with a way to apply it to the problem in front of him.
We don’t know what he has in mind yet, but as Lester (once again uttering a mission statement for the series) puts it, “All good things come to those who wait.”
Some other thoughts:
- After making a season two cameo as the prison English teacher who discussed “The Great Gatsby” with D’Angelo, Richard Price became a writer on the series. Perhaps as a coincidence, or perhaps as Simon’s final bit of enticement to get the guy on board, Price gets to re-introduce Omar, memorably putting him in old man drag as he, Dante, Kimmy and Tosha take out a Barksdale stash house. Of particular note is the moment where Omar breaks from his usual anti-profanity stance to repeat the soldier’s cry of “Oh, shit!” back to him. Since those weren’t his words initially, I guess exceptions can be made.
- Bodie spends much of the episode looking for Marlo, the soft-spoken rival crew leader whom we briefly glimpsed last week in the incident that cost Bubbs and Johnny their pants. As played by Jamie Hector, Marlo’s already a different breed of gangster from Avon or Stringer – calculating, unemotional but, judging by Bodie’s reaction to him as he casually swung his golf club around, no less dangerous – and his willingness to go to war with the Barksdales says he doesn’t scare easy.
- Nice moment in the scene where McNulty visits Donette and she tells him to put Tyrell down. McNulty means well here, but given the culture in which Donette was raised, and what happened to Tyrell’s father the last time this particular cop came into their lives, can you blame her for not wanting the man anywhere near herself or, especially, her child?
- Once again, it’s sheer pleasure to watch Rawls play inquisitor at Comstat. For all of the guy’s pettiness and grudge-holding, he is a very, very smart man and the Eastern commander was woefully unprepared for him. Some of the measures the department is enacting are ridiculous, but no police commander should ever attend such a meeting with such a poor command of the facts from his command, no?
- David Simon has said that, unsurprisingly, many rappers wanted to get parts on the show, but that Method Man was the only one who actually came into the office to read for the part and to ask about the character. He’s great in this episode: so amusingly cocky as Cheese enters the dog fight, then confused and betrayed when his dog loses, then hurt when he thinks the cops are taunting him about it, etc. The MCU is fairly passive in this episode, mainly listening and reacting to what Cheese and his crew are doing, so Method Man has to carry a good chunk of the hour, and he does it nicely.
- Bunny’s friend Deacon Melvin is played by Melvin Williams, an ’80s Baltimore drug lord whom Ed Burns helped put away as part of a long-term wiretap case, and who was the clearest inspiration for Avon Barksdale.
- The paper bag speech isn’t the only one lifted from a book from the writing staff, as Price repurposes a brief scene from his “Clockers” to show Herc and Carver’s hilarious, awkward encounter with Bodie and Poot at the movie theaters. This would not be the last time Simon would ask Price to use a scene from that book in the show, and in this case it improves on the original, where the incident was being described at a later date. More fun this way.
- Herc and Carver also give us the great comic gift that is the Gus Triandos running gag. What makes it especially funny is that there is absolutely no reason for Herc to play along, since he knows Carver’s setting him up for mockery, and since the Olsen twins scenario will never actually come true, and yet he does, in part because he’s dumb but mainly because it’s the sort of thing bored co-workers do to pass the time. Bonus points to Domenick Lombardozzi for the pornographic Laura Petrie impression.
- We saw signs last season that Kima wasn’t on board with Cheryl’s maternal desires, and things are only worse now that the baby is here and Kima still feels no connection to him. When she comes home to find Cheryl and the boy asleep in their bed, you can see that this no longer feels like Kima’s home, and so she runs out to the local lesbian bar to do her best McNulty impression.
- McNulty, meanwhile, strikes out with Ronnie Pearlman – given the pathetic failed booty call he tried with her last season, can you blame her? – and she instead hooks up with Cedric Daniels. There were some scenes in the first season suggesting that the two had a strong workplace friendship, but because Ronnie was so tied to Jimmy, and because Cedric is just out of his marriage, this one still took me by surprise.
And now we come to the veterans-only section, where we talk about how some of the parts of this episode will play out later in the season, and in the seasons to come:
- Though Poot is unimpressed with Herc and Carver’s predictable talk about the new generation being worse, we’re about to see with Marlo – and then with the likes of Kenard – that it is, and that the street is capable of producing new soldiers who don’t even have Poot or Bodie’s vague sense of morality.
- Justin, the kid who doesn’t understand Herc is mocking him about his sideways cap, will become one of the fighters in Cutty’s boxing gym.
- We already knew that Valchek was politically connected, and that he wasn’t afraid to challenge Erv Burrell, but as we see him play power broker here between Burrell and Carcetti, we see the groundwork being laid for Stan’s eventual, laughable promotion to the top job.
- In addition to a more expanded look at Marlo, we get our first look at Vinson, the rim shop owner who advises him and handles his money, in the same way Blind Butchie does for Omar.
- Dozerman’s missing gun will, of course, become a terrible, pointless burden for The Bunk.
- Kima and Cheryl will only grow more distant, while Daniels and Pearlman will become one of the show’s strongest, most functional couples.
- Omar and his merry band’s increasing boldness when it comes to the Barksdales will come back to bite them very, very soon. And speaking of which…
Coming up next: “Dead Soldiers,” in which Omar and company bang out, Bunny explores real estate, Bunk is faced with an impossible task and “The Wire” pays tribute to a fallen soldier.
What did everybody else think?