‘The Wire’ Rewind: Season 3, Episode 3 – ‘Dead Soldiers’ (Veterans edition)

Once again, we’re spending Fridays this summer revisiting season three of “The Wire.” (You can find my reviews of all the other seasons at my old blog.) Two versions each week: one for people who have seen the whole series and want to feel free to discuss things from first episode to last, and one for relative newcomers who haven’t seen all the way to the end yet and don’t want to be spoiled past the episodes we’re discussing. This is the veteran version; click here to read the newbie-friendly one. (Last week’s veteran review is here.)

A review of episode three, “Dead Soldiers,” coming up just as soon as a stripper delivers my stat sheets…

“Let’s bang out.” -Omar

Much of the conflict on “The Wire” stems from characters who view themselves as guardians of a dysfunctional status quo brushing up against those who want to challenge or change it. Most of the time, the guardians – be they high-level people like Avon and Burrell or grunts like Poot or Herc – don’t even want to hear about change. On occasion, though, you’ll run into someone like Cedric Daniels, who’s not violently opposed to a new way of doing things, but who doesn’t like to be pushed too far, too fast by the likes of McNulty.

A lot of the drama in “Dead Soldiers” comes from three characters making bold, cage-rattling moves. Omar raids yet another Barksdale stash house, even after it’s clear Stringer’s people are ready for him. Carcetti makes a power play to help Burrell get the police academy class Royce has been delaying for budgetary reasons. And Bunny Colvin takes preliminary steps in turning his paper bag metaphor into reality by selecting three abandoned neighborhoods in his district where drug traffic will effectively be legalized, in theory moving the crime away from citizens outside The Game and freeing up his cops to do other, more essential work.

Omar’s play completely backfires, as Tosha is killed by Dante’s friendly fire as they flee a shootout with Stringer’s muscle. Carcetti’s move doesn’t hurt him, but it damn sure hurts Burrell, who’s forced by Royce to take the public fall for the academy delay. And Bunny’s plan? It’s early yet, but we’ve seen in the first two seasons what happens to people who try to think outside the box. (McNulty spends the episode investigating the murder of one them.) He acts invulnerable when chatting up the recently-demoted Marvin Taylor, and Marvin wisely warns him, “I don’t want to think about the worst these fuckers can do. And you don’t, either.”

“The Wire” always paints in shades of grey, and while there are clearly characters we like more than others, the show never wants us to get too comfortable with them. McNulty, for instance, is charming and smart and usually has good intentions, but he has a character flaw or 12 that the show has made no effort to hide.

By far the least ambiguous character to this point in the series has been Omar. What’s not to love about Omar? He’s also charming and smart. He has his code, and therefore doesn’t curse or do harm to ordinary citizens. He has a flair for the dramatic, and a knack for getting big laughs out of one or two syllables. (Case in point: last week’s “Do tell.”)

But we see with the “Wild Bunch”-style shootout with the Barksdale people and its aftermath that Omar has pushed things too far – if not for himself, then for his people. He has reason to want Stringer Bell hurt. Dante, Tosha and Kimmy don’t. And he’s transformed them from fellow merry bandits into unwitting soldiers in a war they have no real stake in. He ducks Tosha’s question about why they have to keep hitting Barksdale houses, and it’s because he can’t admit to them (or to himself) how much he’s using them.

But after Dante accidentally shoots Tosha in the head (a far more convincing death than if one of Stringer’s people turned out to be a master pistol marskman), Omar has to face the truth. We already knew from the season one episode where Omar sees Brandon’s body that Michael K. Williams is possessor of some major dramatic chops, but he finds new reserves of despair and guilt and anger in that chilling scene where Omar sits in bed and burns his palm with a lit cigarette as mortification for his sins. He didn’t fire the bullet that killed Tosha, but his single-minded pursuit of the Barksdale crew essentially pointed the gun in her direction.

We don’t have the history with Bunny that we do with Omar, but by this point, he’s already made one of the strongest impressions any non-original character ever will on this show. Robert Wisdom plays him with such warmth and humanity, and the writers consistently show him defying stupid rules for the sake of his men (throwing the beer can on the roof last week, refusing to cook the books this week) in a way that makes it hard not to pull for Bunny, even as he’s doing something as seemingly insane as legalizing drugs in his district. He sells it to the footsoldiers like Carver as an elaborate sting operation, but the paper bag speech implied otherwise; this is just a big-ass paper bag.

Carcetti, on the other hand, exists in that quintessential “Wire” grey area. His actions are improving things for the cops, but as with McNulty in season one, he’s doing it to show off and make himself seem important. He ignores Burrell’s request to not get him in trouble with Royce because he thinks he’s clever enough to pull it off, but he underestimates how much the Mayor values and demands loyalty. Like Jimmy, he has no problem stepping outside his marriage, but with the added twist that he’s narcissist enough to enjoy watching himself in the bathroom mirror even as he’s having sex with a gorgeous redhead. As with Omar’s raid on the stashhouse, Tommy doesn’t experience blowback directly, and because Burrell doesn’t suffer nearly as much as Tosha, Tommy doesn’t seem ready to stop his game anytime soon.

Tosha’s sparsely-attended wake, meanwhile, is shown in parallel with the sprawling drunken one the cops hold for the late Ray Cole. As mentioned previously in these reviews, Cole was played by “Wire” executive producer Bob Colesberry, who died unexpectedly before season three began. Cole’s long and impressive film career is alluded to in Jay Landsman’s eulogy (there are specific references to “Mississippi Burning,” “After Hours” and “The Corner,” which is where Simon and the late David Mills first teamed up with Colesberry).

So much behind-the-scenes coverage of “The Wire” focused on the contributions of Simon, Ed Burns and the other writers, but of course “The Wire” wasn’t just a well-written show, but a beautifully put-together one, as well. It’s not easy to create and maintain the natural look and tone of the show, and Colesberry was one of the chief architects of that style. I asked Simon to write a few more words about his friend’s contribution to the series:

A consummate filmmaker, Bob created the visual template of both The Corner and The Wire.  And simultaneously, he was generous enough with his time to educate the other writer-producers in the fundamentals of cinematography.   In my case, having studied and practiced journalism, he inherited a novice who had only learned the rudiments of filming during three and a half seasons of Homicide.

I will never forget Bob explaining how to successfully “cross-the-line” with a camera move and why it was necessary to be conscious of such things.  Explaining it for the fifth time to me, when I finally understood.  He was such a good, sweet man.  And having grown up on film sets and worked with the some of the best directors in film history, he was the perfect partner for executing a complex, long-form story.   But in the end, Bob was also a great voice on behalf of the story itself, attending writers’ meetings and venturing opinions that kept us from our weaker impulses, pushing for stronger scenes and arcs.  He was interested in every facet of a project.

That he died before getting a chance to work on the remainder of The Wire, or Generation Kill, or Treme is something of a cosmic affront.  Although that is, of course, the least of it.  He died too soon, and before a lot of life could be enjoyed.  I still miss him.

But the Cole wake is more than just the show celebrating the loss of one of its chief creative forces. It’s a marvelous comic set piece (I particularly love that it’s Lester who demands the bartender put on The Pogues’ “The Body of an American”), and Jay’s speech sums up the quintessential philosophy of the show. He says that Ray stood there with them, sharing “a dark corner of the American experiment… He was called. He served. He is counted.”

“The Wire” was about counting as many people as possible from this dark corner, from the very lows of Bubbs or Cutty to the absolute highs of Royce or Stringer Bell. Tosha dies, and her friends are unable to mourn her publicly, but she is still counted – by us.

Some other thoughts:

  • Last week’s episode featured the arrival of Richard Price to the writing staff. This one, meanwhile, is the work of another great crime novelist, Dennis Lehane, best known for “Mystic River” and for the Kenzie/Gennaro series that Ben Affleck adapted in “Gone Baby Gone.” (His most recent book, the historical cop drama epic “The Given Day,” may be my favorite of his.) Lehane’s debut script for the series contains one of the show’s funniest scenes ever, as Stringer Bell rants to his underlings about the utter uselessness of a 40-degree day. I know most of you have only recently watched the episode, but I strongly advise you to go to YouTube to watch it again, because the speech’s construction, and Idris Elba’s delivery of it, is never not funny. (And the punchline with the one young knucklehead boasting that  completely misunderstanding Stringer’s analogy is always priceless.)
  • Because we have a more omniscient view of the series than the characters, we often exist several steps ahead of even the smart characters. So we know The Bunk is mistaken in assuming Tosha was an innocent bystander (which her disguise as a distraught mother contributes to), and we obviously know a lot more than Jimmy and Kima do about what Fruit is up to on the corner facing Bodie’s. Bunk, meanwhile, gets saddled with the pointless, sisyphean task of locating Dozerman’s weapon from a man possibly known as Peanut, leading to the marvelous line, “Motherfucker, do I look like George Washington Carver?”
  • Speaking of Fruit, it’s always nice to see how much the police department and the drug crews have in common, as here we see Marlo running his own version of Comstat and trying to goad Fruit to be more aggressive in dealing with Bodie. And Stringer, like some of the police brass, has his blind spots, here underestimating the headaches Marlo’s crew can cause for him.
  • McNulty is also half a season behind us in knowing that D’Angelo was murdered, though in fairness he only started looking into it last week. It’s a sad but accurate note that nobody but Jimmy seems to care about the death of one of the two lead characters of season one.
  • Jimmy continues to be a bad influence on Kima, but she at least has the self-awareness to recognize what’s happening, if not the desire to do anything about it.
  • Note Erv on the phone saying frequent “Wire” catchphrase “Sheeeit!” after Tommy inadvertently screws him on the academy issue.
  • Cutty has, to this point, been less central to the action than either Bunny or Carcetti. His problem, as exemplified by his visits to each of the twin sisters (both played convincingly by Dravon James), is that he’s not really comfortable in either of the two worlds that Bubbs once so eloquently described as “heaven and here.” He doesn’t seem to want to be in The Game anymore, but nor does he fit into the suburban county lifestyle of ex-girlfriend Grace.
  • It’s been a while since I’ve watched this season from start to finish, and I’m wondering if every episode is going to have at least one oblique reference to 9/11 or Iraq. In the premiere, the towers fell. Last week, Stringer and Avon talked about life since they fell, and here Grace’s sister Queenie compares her to Condoleeza Rice. This may be coincidence more than pattern, but it’s something I’m going to keep an ear out for as we go along.

And now we come to the veterans-only section of the review, where I talk about how certain elements of this episode would play out in the weeks and years to come:

  • The biggest piece of foreshadowing, by far, in the episode, comes when Bunk shows up at the Tosha crime scene and spies the little kids enthusiastically re-enacting the shootout. Not only will he refer to this with disgust during his memorable summit with Omar, but the kid who cries out, “My turn to be Omar!” is Kenard, played as he would be in later seasons by Thuliso Dingwall – and who, of course, would ultimately be Omar’s killer. Simon talked a bit about the genesis of this scene in the series finale post-mortem interview we did on the old blog.
  • Cutty’s ex will in season four be back teaching inside the city limits, as one of Prez’s colleagues at Tilghman Middle.
  • Jeff Price, the Baltimore Sun reporter Tommy uses for his academy gambit, will return throughout season five as part of the newspaper storyline.
  • We’ll get another Irish cop wake for Col. Foerester after actor Richard DeAngelis died in season four, and the concept will be tweaked a bit for McNulty’s “death” as a cop at the end of the series.
  • Note Burrell holding up Daniels as a shining example of policework as he’s dressing down Bunny at Comstat. Daniels will, of course, replace Bunny after the Hamsterdam experiment falls apart.

Next week: “Hamsterdam,” in which Bunny tries to implement the paper bag plan, Cutty looks for a new job, and Bubbs gives Jimmy and Kima their money’s worth.

What did everybody else think?

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