And so we’ve come to the end not only of these reviews of “The Wire” season three, but of my out-of-sequence reviewing of the series in general. (You can find reviews of all the other seasons at my old blog.) I’ll have some thoughts on that at the end of this post, but as we’ve been doing all summer, we’re approaching each episode in two slightly different versions: one for people who have seen the entire series and want to be able to discuss how these episodes fit into the story from later seasons, and one for people who haven’t made it all the way through yet and don’t want to be spoiled on what’s to come for them. This is the veteran version; click here for the newbie-friendly one.
A review of the season three finale, “Mission Accomplished,” coming up just as soon as you get a look at my samurai sword collection…
“I just did what I did. Felt right. I’m fine with that.” -Bunny Colvin
So what – other than the season’s two most blatant Iraq war references (the episode’s title and Slim Charles’ “Then we fight on that lie” speech) – is accomplished by the end of “Mission Accomplished”?
Stringer’s dead and Avon and the bulk of the Barksdale crew are in prison, but Marlo’s package is back out on the street, Clay Davis is still in power (and a quarter-mil richer, thanks to Stringer’s naivete), Maury Levy is still collecting legal fees and the drug trade itself is largely unchanged. McNulty can’t even take any pleasure in the bust because Stringer died without knowing he’d been outsmarted, and he ultimately felt like a bigger prize than Avon. (Though he does get to take a little jab at Avon by naming Stringer as the informant on the arrest warrant.)
Hamsterdam is torn down for the sake of public relations, and because the system has conditioned Ervin Burrell, Tommy Carcetti, Terry D’Agostino, et al to assume the worst of everyone else within that system, leading to political gamesmanship when there was a chance for people to actually work together on it. Note that no one who learned the particulars of Hamsterdam was all that upset by the idea itself; they just all believed its existence could hurt them and its destruction could help them. But other than the political fortunes of Carcetti, is anyone or anything actually helped by its destruction? Yes, there was violence in Hamsterdam, and yes, Johnny OD’ed inside his dope fiend’s paradise, but the Western District outside the free zones was much improved by the experiment, and the closing montage shows how quickly things returned to the same ol’ corner culture as before.
There are small happy endings, as always. Cutty finds a life outside The Game, and finds a way to keep the gym going even after his fighters return to their corner jobs. McNulty finally accepts that he needs to get out of detective work and seems much happier walking a beat and trying to have an honest relationship with Beadie Russell. Daniels and Pearlman get to go out in public together. And if Jimmy doesn’t get satisfaction from Stringer’s death, at least Omar does.
But even with the MCU closing by far its most successful case of these first three seasons, it’s a series of tragedies, like always.
This season was the story of two would-be reformers in Bunny Colvin and Stringer Bell. (Three if you count Carcetti, but we’ll get to him in a bit.) Both had spent a long time working on opposite sides of The Game. Both recognized the rampant, calcified stupidity that had enveloped their respective sides, and for very different reasons (Bunny to make his district better before retirement, Stringer to increase his bank accounts and decrease his risk of prosecution) both came up with a new way of running things. Both stopped looking at The Game as a war and started approaching it in a different way – Stringer as a business, Bunny as a public nuisance to be contained rather than crushed – and ultimately found a way to strip The Game of much of the violence that attracts the attention of cops like Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon in the first place.
And what did their more peaceful approach get these two visionaries? Stringer was executed inside one of the buildings he was hoping to use to build a life for himself outside The Game (and in part due to sins he committed in the name of reform). Bunny discovered that his invulnerable retirement was anything but, as he was extorted by Burrell and Rawls into resigning in disgrace, at a much lower pension level, and with his cushy private sector job taken away in the bargain. Hamsterdam is done as the department goes back to business as usual, and while the co-op still exists, Stringer’s empire died along with him, and his neighborhood is now run by violent independent Marlo.
Is it any wonder that when Stringer and Bunny each face their executioners – literally, in Stringer’s case – they tell them “Get on with it, motherfuckers”? After seeing their dreams destroyed, what else would you expect them to say?
And then there’s Tommy Carcetti. Tommy entered the season positioned as a sort of third potential reformer. He’s running for mayor due to ambition and boredom, but he does seem to genuinely believe there’s a better way to do things than how Clarence Royce runs things. Yet when presented the opportunity to actually support a tangible change in Hamsterdam – or, at least, to not be a party to its destruction – he passes on it in favor of advancing his own career.
In fairness to Tommy, he doesn’t have the omniscient point of view we do. He doesn’t know that for once in his career, Royce is actually thinking of looking outside the box and trying to do something that might have more value to others than to himself. It’s understandable that he would buy into Erv’s belief that Royce is just preparing to screw everyone with the Hamsterdam news, and into Terry’s argument that the news will get out sooner or later(*), so why shouldn’t he take advantage of it to do some good down the road?
(*) Also in fairness to Tommy, we see in the deputy drug czar’s visit to Royce’s office that Hamsterdam might have been untenable even if it had the full backing of local government and a much better PR spin than was created by Tommy’s tip-off to the local news. Still, we’ll never know because the story went the way it did.
But even so, he takes the easy way out, then unofficially launches his campaign for mayor with a flowery, passionate speech at a subcommittee meeting that would be a lot more impressive if it wasn’t wrapped up in the same kind of wartime metaphors that Bunny Colvin repeatedly told us were doing more harm than good. If this is the political future of the show’s version of Baltimore, however well-intentioned it may be, is anything really going to change?
And after three seasons of this show, should we have expected anything different? “The Wire” has consistently argued that change is possible on an individual level – Cutty with the gym, or Lester escaping the pawn shop unit – but that institutions are incapable of realistic, long-term change because they’re too busy perpetuating themselves.
Earlier this season, Lester warned Jimmy, “The job will not save you.” As we’ve seen time and again over these three seasons – and will see in the two seasons to come (and that’s not a spoiler for the newbies, who should all understand the show’s philosophy by now) – no job in this city is able to save anyone. Being a good soldier got D’Angelo a long prison sentence and a belt around his throat. The stevedores union was going to crumble with or without Sobotka’s actions. Good police work provides no real satisfaction for Jimmy, puts Prez in position to kill a cop, and turns Bunny Colvin into a pariah.
Their jobs will not save these people. And with the way things have gone so far, can anything save this city? Or will it all ultimately end up as rubble, just like the wreckage of Hamsterdam that Bunny and Bubbs survey in the final scene?
Some other thoughts on “Mission Accomplished”:
- It seemed like the middle of season two was Jimmy’s rock bottom, what with the drunk car crash recreation and all. But though he’s been drinking a bit less, this season has showed Jimmy oddly sinking even lower. He alienated Daniels and Lester, and pretty much everyone else in the MCU but Kima, all in the name of getting his revenge on Stringer Bell, only for his death to render the victory hollow. Jimmy has always carried himself like the one man in the department who can see the whole picture, but his trip to Stringer’s well-appointed condo showed him how little he really understood. So it feels right for him to take a step away from detective work, particularly if it puts him in position to make a go of it with Beadie (and what a pleasant surprise it was to see Amy Ryan in this episode), when he briefly just wanted to jump her bones during the Sobotka case.
- As with last week’s fight between Justin and the little kid, Cutty’s story here features a small but important victory. Marlo’s return brings Justin and Spider and the other boxers back to the corners, but Cutty has established enough of a rapport with them already that his mere presence on their corner is enough to get them back into training. And he gets to have a very satisfying staredown with Fruit, who’s embarrassed to be in the presence of the man who spared his life. Yessir, Dennis did okay for himself in the end.
- Brother Mouzone and Omar conclude their titanic team-up with Mouzone returning Dante and inviting Omar to dispose of the murder weapons. Note the look of disappointment on Omar’s face when he gets a look at Dante’s. He saw how badly Brandon was tortured without giving up anything about him, whereas Dante just looks like he’s done a few rounds at Cutty’s gym. This is not a partnership, romantic or otherwise, with much future.
- And after briefly giving marriage and parenthood another go when Cheryl took her back, Kima quickly returns to her carousing ways. Hey, if Jimmy McNulty is going to try to be sober and faithful, someone in that unit has to pick up the womanizing slack, right?
- “Wire” season finales tend to have these circular moments that call back to events from their respective premieres to show that the more things change, the more they don’t. “Mission Accomplished” doesn’t have quite as many of those as some of the other finales, but it does offer us Rawls playing “Ride of the Valkyries” – made famous to his generation by its use in the helicopter attack sequence in “Apocalypse Now” – as a follow-up to Herc playing “Theme from ‘Shaft'” during the pathetic chase scene in the premiere. Also, the wreckage of Hamsterdam does evoke the imploded Franklin Terrace towers. And when McNulty and Bunny throw their beer cans onto the Western District roof, we finally get to see just how many cans are littered up there, a lovely image that says so much about the culture and history of this station house. (The “From the Earth to the Moon” episode about the construction of the lunar module had a similar, equally effective shot involving rubber balls that one of its characters had been accidentally tossing up there for years while building the thing.)
- Say this for Ervin Burrell: the man may not know or care much about anything but that which will enable him to survive and advance in the department, but he is also a brilliant political operative. As with the equally odious Maury Levy, you have to admire Erv after watching him steamroll Royce to get himself the full-time commissioner position.
- As mentioned above, Slim’s “We fight on that lie” speech is about as pointed as the show got in the Iraq allegory, and we later see that Marlo’s crew are just as happy to fight and live off of that lie, since Snoop and Chris are now happily taking credit for Stringer’s murder.
- The MCU didn’t really get down to business with shutting down the Barksdale crew until late in the season, yet the show did such an economical job setting up new characters like Bernard and Squeak that there was room for the funny payoff of Bernard in handcuffs next to the girlfriend who got him into this mess, muttering, “Can’t wait to go to jail!” (David Simon says he came up with the line on the set after seeing how director Ernest Dickerson had blocked the scene.)
- Say this for Mr. Bodie Broadus: he didn’t always understand what Stringer was trying to teach him and the others, but he picked up enough over the years that he was clever enough to claim entrapment due to Hamsterdam. And so he lives to sling another day, even if he no longer has an organization around him.
- The annual closing montage is set to Solomon Burke’s cover of “Fast Train,” and is particularly notable for a couple of moments: First, we see Donette crying as she copes with the news of yet another murdered lover. She wasn’t the most likable character, and Stringer was just using her to contain the D’Angelo situation, but she still got a pretty raw deal. Second, as Omar goes to throw the guns into the water, we see a Re-Elect Frank Sobotka campaign poster – which, other than Beadie’s cameo here, is our only glimpse this season of any of the players from the port case. Third, not only is Avon betrayed from beyond the grave by Stringer, but his sister walks out of the court hearing (no doubt still blaming him for his role in covering up D’s murder) while he’s busy having his first in-person interaction with Marlo.
And for the last time – since the season four and five reviews were written as the episodes aired, and therefore there’s no point to going back and writing alternate versions of them – we come to the veterans-only section, where we discuss how certain events of this episode play out in later seasons:
- A commenter a few episodes back expressed surprise that the show was in danger of not coming back after this episode, since the series seemed to have two obvious overlapping arcs: McNulty vs. Stringer Bell from seasons 1-3, and the parallel ascents of Carcetti and Marlo from seasons 3-5. And Simon and Burns had the rough ideas for seasons four and five mapped out – they even wanted to do a spin-off about the mayoral election to bridge the gap between seasons three and four so they could return with Carcetti as mayor, but HBO’s generosity didn’t extend that far. (As a result of having to fold the election back into the series proper, some other storylines like Cutty’s got shorter shrift than the creators had hoped for.) Still, it’s somewhat startling to watch this season in light of what we would learn about Carcetti and about Marlo and his people. Chris and Snoop are barely more than sketches at this point, for instance, and they would become two of the show’s most vivid characters in the seasons to come. And there’s still some hope for Carcetti here, even as he sells out Bunny, where by the end of season four he will have sold his soul for a shot at the governorship.
- McNulty’s plan to turn his life around by going back to a patrol job in the Western will work splendidly until the guilt over his role in Bodie’s death sends him back to Major Crimes, and back to his bad old behaviors.
- Bunny spends season four trying to apply the lessons of Hamsterdam – if you separate the bad elements from the good ones, you not only improve life for the latter group, but have a chance at reaching some members of the former – with the middle school project that will introduce him to Namond. (For that matter, it’s shocking to realize we have yet to meet Namond, Michael, Randy and Dukie, given how integral they’d become.)
- Bunny’s lessons, meanwhile, will be heeded by Carver, who by the start of season four has figured out all the parts of the job that don’t involve knocking heads.
- Clarence Royce, on the other hand, learns a very different lesson from Hamsterdam: never, ever, stick your neck out for something that isn’t a political slam dunk. And by going back to business as usual – which includes going back on his word to Odell Watkins about Marla Daniels vs. Eunetta Perkins – he opens himself up for Carcetti to steal his job.
- We won’t see Avon again until his brief, pathetic prison cameo in season five. His heart isn’t in The Game after Stringer’s death (and then his discovery of Stringer’s own betrayal), and Marlo’s ascent and what happens with the co-op makes him irrelevant.
- Prez goes into teaching, and I was surprised to rewatch his farewell scene with Lester. I had remembered Lester as being a bit colder to Prez, which explained why, when the Randy situation came up in season four, Prez took it to Daniels (which ultimately led to Herc’s involvement) and not Lester (whose involvement would likely have put Randy’s life on an entirely different course). But no. Ultimately, I guess Prez felt just a bit more comfortable with the man who bailed him out of so much trouble over his career over the man who became his mentor. And because of that… Randy… sigh…
- Not that the Barksdales were especially nice people, but imagine how differently things would have gone for many of our characters if the police raid on Avon’s hideout came a bit later and Slim got the go-ahead to hit Marlo, Chris and Snoop. (As always on “The Wire,” I love to look at all the what-if’s, even though the fates are the fates.)
- As Omar was waging his anti-Marlo campaign solo in season five, people kept asking, “Why doesn’t he just call Brother Mouzone to come on down to help him?” That kind of thinking missed a whole bunch of details, primarily that their partnership here was one of circumstance and convenience, not friendship. Mouzone needed Omar to confirm who set him up, and as an extra gun; Omar needed Mouzone to use his connection to Avon to get them some time alone with Stringer. They are not pals now, and Omar doesn’t have the good Brother on speed dial. Alas. As entertaining as an Omar/Mouzone vs. Chris/Snoop battle might have been, it wouldn’t have fit what the show is about or where these characters left off with each other.
So… this is it.
As I’ve often explained before, I started What’s Alan Watching? at the old site in October of ’05, which was roughly in the middle of the long hiatus between seasons three and four. So I began blogging the show with that fourth season, and when the series was coming to an end, I decided that the best way to cope with its absence from my life would be to go back and fill in the blanks from the three seasons that aired pre-blog. I did season 1 that summer, season 2 the next, and now we’re done with season 3.
And now I no longer have an excuse to write about “The Wire” for a long time. (At least until I come up with a new excuse, which may involve me being really old and wanting to convince a new generation of readers to check out some 2-D classic from the dawn of the 21st century.)
I still have plenty of excuses to watch the show, of course. In fact, after I finished watching this episode last week, I popped in my season four DVD and went straight into the season four premiere, which I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. So I have two more years of the show that I could just plow through on random slow afternoons, and I doubt I’d need much of an excuse to double back on McNulty and Snot Boogie not long after that. But because of what I do, and the way my brain works, half the fun is being able to write about the episodes after I see them, and then being able to see how others responded to it. And that’s done for now.
But it was a pleasure to be able to extend that experience for an extra three summers after show ended. So thanks for coming on the ride with me, whether you were a veteran or a newbie.
For the last time on this great, great drama, let me ask: what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org