‘The Wire’ Rewind: Season 3, Episode 5 – ‘Straight and True’ (Newbies 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 newbie version; click here to read the veteran-friendly one.

A review of episode five, “Straight and True,” coming up just as soon as I take notes on a criminal conspiracy…

“I swear to God, come Monday, your world and mine ain’t gonna be the same.” -Bunny

“The Wire” season three is about the challenge of trying to bring reform to something as futile and destructive as the drug war, and in “Straight and True” we see two huge leaps forward in reform campaigns being attempted on both sides of the law. Bunny finally manages to get Hamsterdam up and running by targeting the middle managers and not the grunts, while Stringer and Prop Joe unite most of Baltimore’s major drug kingpins in their New Day Co-Op, which aims to share the wealth that comes with The Greek’s tremendous product, while avoiding the kind of violence that attracts the attention of cops like Jimmy McNulty.

Two different men, two different approaches, but the same basic philosophy: people are going to sell and buy drugs, so why not try to keep the violence and other collateral damage from that business to a minimum?

But while both Stringer and Bunny make big inroads in their respective reform campaigns, they still live in a world where too many other people don’t want, don’t understand and will try to fight that reform.

We get a sense of this from the opening scene, where Bubbs is explaining his new snitching business model to Johnny, and Johnny simply doesn’t want to hear about it. Johnny has been taught (ironically, by Bubbs) to believe in the same stupid, backwards code of the street that the cops, the dealers and the fiends all have come to accept as a way of life, and any suggestion that there’s another way to do things is met with some combination of confusion, fear and outright hostility. Bubbs has finally figured out how to make money in The Game, by snitching and selling t-shirts, but all Johnny wants to do is keep running capers and risking beatings or worse.

Early in the episode, Bunny’s people all try to act sympathetic about the apparent failure of Hamsterdam, but he can tell they’re all relieved his insane plan didn’t work so they can go back to business as usual. Comstat gives him the brainstorm to make it work, and that in turn leads to one of the most surreal, hilarious scenes of the series, as Santangelo ferries the junkies to Hamsterdam, where they emerge from the dark jail wagon looking like they’ve just fallen down the rabbit hole into Wonderland(*). But while Carver starts to play along, it’s clear that Herc is steaming over being deprived of the ability to pointlessly kick in doors and knock heads.

(*) That scene features one of this episode’s two contenders for Funniest “Wire” Line Ever, when Santangelo helpfully tells Johnny, “I hear the WMD is the bomb.” Like the episode’s other contender – Stringer berating Shamrock for taking notes at the New Day Co-Op – it comes from the endless stream of comic riches that comes from adapting high-class behavior (a wine steward’s recommendation, Robert’s Rules of Order) to the drug world.

And while Stringer and Joe get most of the city’s dealers to join the co-op, they don’t get all of them. Marlo – who has already declined to attend Bunny’s Intro to Hamsterdam 101 – listens patiently and quietly to Stringer’s sales pitch about money and cars and peaceful co-existence, but as soon as Stringer’s gone, he tells right-hand man Chris Partlow to get his people ready for war. Stringer wants to be a businessman in a business where nearly everyone else – even the lowly fiends like Johnny – think of themselves as soldiers. Where Stringer thinks he’s impressing Marlo with talk of easy financial success, Marlo (who holds the meeting in a rathole that’s the exact opposite of the condos Stringer is developing downtown) sees a weak man who doesn’t want to fight him, and who therefore might be easy to take out.

And then there’s the wild card that is the newly-paroled Avon Barksdale. After his homecoming party, he and Stringer talk about their childhood dreams: Stringer wanted to own a few grocery stores, while Avon wanted to get an AK-47 and become a master criminal. Stringer has found a way to achieve his dream on a much grander scale by working it into Avon’s, but these two partners and old friends still want different things after all these years. Avon is bored to tears talking real estate with Clay Davis and Maury Levy (though, in fairness, he’s also desperate for some female companionship after a few years inside), while Stringer took advantage of Avon’s time in prison to reorient their business without Avon’s knowledge or permission. With Marlo coming, is Avon going to easily go along with Stringer’s reform plan? Or will he try to drag the Barksdale organization back to their old, bloody ways?

Some other thoughts on “Straight and True”:

  • Most of the episode’s smaller stories also deal with characters butting up against calcified, backwards thinking. Cutty is saddled with two idiotic, dope-sniffing soldiers who don’t heed his warning about beating too badly on their target, because, quote, “Bitch got to pay.” Carcetti tries to be noble and work with Royce on the murdered witness issue without trying to score political points, but it’s clear Royce doesn’t care and is just humoring him. When Bunny goes looking for anyone, anywhere in the Baltimore PD with a list of high-end dealers in his district, he strikes out everywhere except the MCU, and Carver seems baffled that anyone would even expect such a thing of him.
  • Though McNulty spent all of the first season chasing after Stringer, the two characters spent precious little time together. McNulty’s frustrated visit to the copy store, with a justifiably smug Stringer offering to sell him a condo, is more screen time than the characters have shared previously combined. It’s funny to think back to the moment in season one’s “Game Day” where Jimmy tells the other members of the detail that he doesn’t care if he ever gets a good look at Avon, because he doesn’t need to to close the case. By now, though, it feels personal, and Stringer only makes the wound deeper by coming across as so confident and invulnerable.
  • Poor Bunk. Just as he’s making progress in the Omar shootout case – and learning that Tosha isn’t the innocent civilian he first believed – Landsman has to roll up at his most obnoxious and force him to return to the completely meaningless search for Dozerman’s gun. And that in turn leads to another montage like the one with Bunk and Lester and Beadie on the cargo ship in season two, as he listens to one lying prisoner after another, including the one rattling off all the Dinks he knows (Inky-Dink, Flat-Dink, Dink-Dink, etc.). It’s a really funny episode all around, isn’t it?
  • And speaking of Omar, we see that things are not all peachy-keen in his group, with Kimmy still understandably angry with Dante for shooting Tosha in the head.
  • Carcetti’s world gets a bit deeper, as his buddy Tony Grey is inspired by him to tear into Rawls and Burrell at a subcommittee meeting, while ex-girlfriend and potential campaign manager Theresa D’Agostino takes McNulty into her bed – and then kicks him out as soon as they’re done. Funny to see McNulty’s confusion at being with a woman who’s only using him for cheap sex.
  • Though Cutty is the voice of wisdom among the soldiers in many ways, we see in his meeting with Deacon Melvin – in which he loses interest once he realizes that Grace isn’t involved and he’d have to spend time getting a GED – that it’s not that he’s used to thinking outside the box, but to making sure his box is more solidly-constructed.
  • On the other hand, the one soldier who does seem at least somewhat amenable to new thinking is Bodie, who’s taken aback by both the Hamsterdam proposal and the decent way the cops treated him on the way there, but who also is wise enough to take it to Stringer. (Yet another funny moment in an episode full of them: Stringer assumes that Bodie’s wearing a wire and tells him he shouldn’t sell drugs.)

Coming up next: “Homecoming,” in which Avon gets back to business, McNulty tries to redirect the MCU, and Bunk and Omar have a memorable chat.

What did everybody else think?