‘The Wire’ Rewind: Season 3, Episode 4 – ‘Hamsterdam’ (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 four, “Hamsterdam,” coming up just as soon as I have to tinkle…

“Game done changed.” -Cutty
“Game the same. Just got more fierce.” -Slim Charles

A couple of weeks ago, I noted that season three is unique to this point in the series in that it opens up with Lt. Daniels’ unit intact and operational from jump. Four episodes into the season, though, it’s now clear that this is a less notable distinction than it seemed at first. Yes, the show doesn’t have to spend time on the usual gathering of the team scenes we got in the first two years, but the Major Crimes Unit has accomplished as little as the original Barksdale or Sobotka details had by this point in their respective seasons. They blew the wire on Cheese in episode two (and even there were taking a very roundabout approach towards Stringer), are technically assigned to work Kintell Williamson and are so behind the eightball on the state of the West Baltimore drug trade that they assume Marlo is working for Stringer, not against him.

And that lack of progress eats at McNulty, and at Lester, to the point where the two men nearly come to blows. In many ways, Lester and Jimmy are the same cop, born a couple of decades apart, but age has tamed whatever demons Lester had just enough that he doesn’t feel the need to “put fire to everything you touch” the way McNulty does. Backed into a corner, Lester will figure out how to live in that corner, where Jimmy would try to blow up the room.

It’s a hell of a scene, very nicely played by both Clarke Peters and Dominic West, and one that plays comfortably in that moral grey area “The Wire” loves so much. McNulty was our point-of-entry character, and he’s so smart and charming that we like him in spite of his multitude of flaws. Lester, meanwhile, is the wise old man who is nearly always proven right. When these two fight, and when it gets this ugly, whose side are we supposed to take? Given our investment in seeing the cops take down Stringer, I suppose McNulty – and even Lester comes around as soon as Jimmy and Kima are out the door and it becomes about the case and not Jimmy being an ass – but I love that the show was willing to go there, and to show McNulty unafraid to put even his closest allies behind his personal demons. By the end of the episode, he’s seen where he stands with Elena (preferably far away, as far as she’s concerned), and learned about the Pearlman/Daniels affair, and he’s all alone at a bar with no one to call and nowhere to go at closing time. Lester and Bunk argued last year that putting Jimmy back on real cases wouldn’t put out the fire that burns inside him, but might lower it to manageable levels. We see throughout “Hamsterdam” that this isn’t entirely the case – that in some ways, in fact, working these kinds of cases only makes Jimmy’s extremes even worse.

Jimmy, Lester and Kima aren’t the only characters battling frustration in this episode, though. Bunny Colvin suffers through a pointless community relations meeting and at least temporarily quiets the angry crowd(*) by being as candid with them as he is with Rawls at Comstat.

(*) Whose membership includes The Big Man, Clarence Clemmons, from The E Street Band. Steve Van Zandt’s not the only member of the band who can hang on HBO, right?

What he can’t tell them, though, is that he does have a solution in mind, and unfortunately for him, that solution doesn’t work out as well in reality as it did in Bunny’s head. Nothing on “The Wire” ever comes easily, or quickly, so of course the slingers and hoppers wouldn’t understand or believe the cops’ explanation of “Hamsterdam”(**). As Poot tried to tell Stringer in the meeting in the season premiere, and as Fruit tries to tell Herc and Carver here, there’s a way that The Game is played, everyone is used to it, and no one is interested in trying anything different. Bunny ultimately scoops up as many street-level dealers as his men can find and tries to explain the new world order to them, but they respect him far less than they do the school principal (quieting only when she addresses them, and then heckling Bunny once he’s back at the mic). How does a smart, mature man like Bunny deal with a completely upside-down world that produces these boys? Early in the episode Lt. Mello suggests Bunny’s lost his mind, but maybe insanity is the only proper response to West Baltimore.

(**) Interestingly, at one point the episode was titled “Amsterdam” (that’s what it’s called on the original season 3 DVD set), but is now recorded (on HBO’s website, the complete series DVD set, etc.) as the dealer’s malapropism.

Cutty, meanwhile, needs only a few weeks to lose patience with his attempt to go straight. It’s not that he especially wants to go back to being a soldier, but when even his landscaper boss admits how little reward there is to the honest life for men like them, how can he not backslide? But like Bunny, he seems a man out of time. He let Fruit hustle him out of his homecoming package and is uncomfortable with both the semi-automatic pistol Slim Charles gives him and the pot-fueled bacchanalia Slim and Bodie take him to. He’s been in prison a long time, and so he’s not unhappy with the two women steered towards him, but he still looks a little lost as the door closes.

Four episodes into this season, this is what amounts for progress: Jimmy gets a phone number for Stringer phone number (as does the equally-clever Lester) that the man only seems to use for legitimate business, Bunny has the real estate for Hamsterdam but no occupants, Cutty has a job in the Barksdale crew he’s not sure he wants, and Tommy Carcetti has announced a plan to run for mayor that everyone thinks is as foolish an idea as Bunny’s plan to legalize drugs in his district.

But this is David Simon and company laying the usual foundation for what’s to come. And, as always, what they’re building will begin to take shape quickly from here on out.

Some other thoughts:

  • We know Stringer has always aspired to use drugs as a springboard for more legitimate business, but it’s still somewhat startling to see him enjoying a power lunch with Clay Davis and Valchek’s developer buddy Andy Krawczyk to talk about developing all the real estate he and Avon were buying in season one. The man does not dream small, does he?
  • Stringer’s also smart enough to nip the Donnette situation in the bud before she goes telling someone – say, a member of the actual Barksdale family like Avon, who with Maury Levy’s help aces his parole hearing in spite of Ronnie’s strongly-worded letter – what McNulty told her. And he clearly finds her attractive enough that it’s not a complete ordeal for him to keep her quiet.
  • This one was written by George Pelecanos (but, as it’s not the penultimate episode and nothing horrible happens to anyone we care about, it doesn’t qualify as a Pelecanos Episode), and he incorporates a bit of detail from his first Nick Stefanos novel, “A Firing Offense,” as Bubbs talks about his former life as a stock boy at an electronics store. Even after all his time as a dope fiend, it’s nice to see that Bubbs still has a work ethic – and is hustler enough to ask for a bonus on top of his hourly wage in exchange for giving Marlo’s tag number to Kima.
  • Our director, meanwhile, is Ernest Dickerson, who goes outside the series’ usual house style for the party sequence at the end, which is filmed in a much more impressionist, point-of-view style to illustrate just how alien the place seems to Cutty.
  • In the first season, the Barksdale crew used pagers because Simon and Ed Burns were borrowing liberally from a case Burns worked in the ’80s when that technology was still widely-used. By season three, the show’s “‘yo tech” has essentially caught up to the real world, as we discover that guys like Marlo and Poot are now using pre-paid “burners” that they can throw out when done using, and which are all but impossible to get a tap on.
  • For the sake of the newbies, and any veterans who weren’t watching the show at the time the third season originally aired, there was some confusion when this episode aired about whether Theresa D’Agostino, the old classmate Tommy asks to run his campaign, is the same woman he had sex with after the campaign fundraiser in episode three. Though there’s some faint resemblance (hair color aside), they are not the same; the redhead at the fundraiser was just a one-night stand.
  • As Bunk continues to get nowhere in the futile search for Dozerman’s gun, we see some of the boundaries of the Bunk/Jimmy friendship. The two will help each other pick up women at bars, but Jimm’s not going to help Bunk find Omar yet again, having already paid his debt on that subject from the first season. (In fairness to Jimmy, the only way he has to find Omar is via Bubbs, and I doubt Bubbs would do that again after how Omar treated him the last time.)

And now we come to the veterans-only section, where we can talk about how some of the developments in this episode will play out down the line:

  • Poor Stringer. If he only knew how much his new business relationship with slick con man Clay Davis will ultimately cost him.
  • Interesting to see Jimmy and Lester at such odds given that they go in together on the fake serial killer scheme in season five when the brass tries to shut down the Marlo investigation. A commenter last week made the argument that in this case, Lester was responsible for blowing the Cheese wire, and therefore was willing to accept the consequences of his own actions, where in season five he’s raging against budget cuts he had nothing to do with.
  • As with his major’s pension, Bunny might not want to count on that Hopkins job just yet, alas.
  • Stringer puts Shamrock in charge of Bernard, the man responsible for buying the burners. Not that it will ultimately matter to Stringer, given what we know about what Bernard will do to the Barksdale crew, Stringer might have wanted to more closely supervise that part of the operation.

Coming up next: “Straight and True,” in which Bunny has a reunion with Bushy Top, Stringer chairs a meeting, and Santangelo plays tour guide.

What did everybody else think?

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