‘The Wire’ Rewind: Season 3, Episode 7 – ‘Back Burners’ (Newbies edition)

Once again, we’re spending Fridays this summer revisiting “The Wire” season three (you can find reviews of all the other seasons in the siderail on my old blog) in two versions: one for people who watched the entire series and want to be able to discuss it from begining to end, and one for newcomers who don’t want to be spoiled for what comes later. This is the newbie edition; click here for the veteran-friendly one.

A review of episode seven, “Back Burners,” coming up just as soon as you get me a Shrek Slurpee…

“If you mess with the environment, some species get fucked out of their habitat.” -Herc

“The Wire” in general is about calcified institutions and the futility of trying to impose change on them, but season three has been about what happens when people try, either on a large scale (Hamsterdam, the New Day Co-Op) or a more personal one (Cutty’s attempt to break free of the soldier life and find a new way without being a clock puncher). And “Back Burners” is largely about the ripple effects of introducing change into a system that isn’t used to it – and to showing that even people who think outside the box don’t always think everything through.

Most obviously, we see the evolution of Hamsterdam and the way the fiends and the slingers begin to conduct themselves inside its borders. In the daytime, Carver recognizes that all the kids who used to work as lookouts have become unnecessary and abandoned, and he sets out to solve the problem through a “tax initative” that he turns into a basketball hoop (which later gets vandalized) and then “unemployment insurance.” Surely, Bunny never thought about the kids when he came up with the idea – or perhaps he naively hoped they’d all go back to school once they were cut loose – and so Carver (who’s embracing the experiment in a way Herc refuses to) has to address the unintended consequence.

And Bubbs takes us on our first tour of Hamsterdam after dark, and we see that for all the good Bunny’s experiment is doing elsewhere(*), the place becomes a nightmare after the sun goes down, with dope fiends squatting in houses without basic supplies, random fights breaking out and no one ever wanting to leave. Johnny calls it a “paradise,” but he now appears to be high most of the time, where before he and Bubbs spent a lot of each day doing other things, even if most of those things were in service of the next high. Again, Bunny’s goal was simply to move the drug traffic away from the neighborhoods that could be saved, but in the process, he’s created a breed of super-junkie.

(*) And I thought it was a nice touch that the stats show crime has only gone down a few percentage points. The show already is on the side of Hamsterdam, and it would be stacking the deck too much in the idea’s favor to suggest it had suddenly eliminated most of the crime in the district.

Stringer spends much of the episode trying to manage the potential blowback from his decision to have D’Angelo murdered, because he certainly never expected anyone to see it as other than a suicide, or to care. And while he’s off yelling at Donette (a rare display of the man losing his cool) or getting advice from Maury Levy, we see that his decision to put Shamrock in charge of the phones could lead to huge problems for the organization.

The MCU spends much of the episode focusing on the Barksdale crew’s use of pre-paid burner phones, and we see that Stringer has set up a system for buying new burners with the same level of care and paranoia that he’s brought to every other part of the organization. Bernard’s orders are to buy no more than two phones from any location, and to cover a fairly wide territory, all so that if the cops somehow do find him buying a phone, it’ll only be a couple and won’t in theory lead elsewhere. (And, as Lester points out, getting a wiretap up is an almost impossible task.) But when you introduce Bernard’s impatient girlfriend Squeak into the equation, and when you have Stringer delegate oversight to Shamrock as he tries to be hands-off with the drug stuff, problems arise. Squeak doesn’t want to spend time following the rules, and when she sees Shamrock throw the receipts out without looking at them – a move Stringer never would have made, or at least not before the door closed – she pressures Bernard into taking shortcuts. And the last thing you want to do when Cool Lester Smooth is on your trail is to take a shortcut to anything.

“Back Burners” also offers some fresh perspectives on arguments we thought we understood well by now. We know why Daniels is upset at the MCU having to change targets, to the point where he tells McNulty to find a new unit once this case is done. But here we also get the frustration of Sydnor and Prez, who have actually been working Kintell Williamson all this time while Jimmy and Kima have been busy following Stringer. We didn’t get to see any of the hard work they put in – as the series expands its scope more with each season, there’s only so much we can see of what the cops are up to – but we know and like those two enough to recognize that Jimmy’s actions have consequences that go beyond Daniels’ feelings about chain-of-command.

Sydnor and Kima also provide a fresh set of eyes on Hamsterdam. Where Jimmy seems willing to go along with his old commander (particularly after Bunny expresses a McNulty-esque contempt for the bosses), Kima and Sydnor are unsettled to get a look at the grand experiment, and to have to let Bodie walk away from them with a G-pack in his hands. Unlike Herc, whom we know to be a simpleton and a lout, Kima and Sydnor are smart and flexible, but this is a hard picture to absorb. They agree to play along with it for now – mollified in part because Bunny keeps telling the lie that this is a tactical deployment, when it’s clear by now he hopes the experiment will become permanent once those in power see the good it’s doing – but their initial dismay suggests just how hard it’s going to be for Major Colvin to sell the outside world on the concept once he finishes troubleshooting all the bugs in his new system.

Some other thoughts on “Back Burners”:

  • This is the last of three “Wire” episodes to be directed by HBO jack-of-all trades Timothy Van Patten (who also has many episodes of “The Sopranos,” “The Pacific,” “Rome,” Deadwood,” “Sex and the City” and the upcoming “Boardwalk Empire” on his resume), and he goes out with a very nice shot at the end: Kima, frustrated to learn that Avon has been paroled years early, hurls her desk caddy across the room, and it flies directly at the camera lens, as if Kima called for a cut to black before Van Patten could.
  • Speaking of Avon’s parole, note that Herc has trouble remembering the guy’s name when he spots him in the SUV. Again, perspective: Jimmy, Lester and the other key detail players (and the audience) will never forget Avon, but to Herc he’s just some dope dealer he chased once upon a time.
  • We get more of a sense of how clever and ruthless Marlo is as he decides to stick to wholesaling for a while – temporarily sacrificing his rep to lull Avon into a false sense of security – and we also get to see one of his killers in action. The young woman on the back of the bike is Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, played by the actual Felicia Pearson, a former drug dealer who did time in her teens for second-degree murder. As with Melvin Williams (the inspiration for Avon, and then the actor who plays Deacon Melvin), it’s a case of “The Wire” offering a new opportunity to a former drug player.
  • Snoop’s assault on the Barksdale corner also gives us the brief impression that Poot has been killed, but he’s only (wisely) playing dead.
  • And speaking of both Deacon Melvin and new opportunities, it’s not clear at this point exactly what Cutty will do with his life, but his desire to be called Dennis again is another sign of him divorcing himself from The Game.
  • Unsurprisingly, Omar continues to feel hurt by Bunk’s lecture, but Blind Butchie convinces him to pay off the guilt by doing Bunk a favor. Omar doesn’t help him close the Tosha case (because that would involve giving up Dante), but instead uses his connections to recover Dozerman’s gun, which he leaves for Bunk gift-wrapped in the tie he wore to testify in the Bird trial.
  • Kima began the series with one of the show’s strongest, most functional personal lives. Two and a half seasons later, Cheryl is (understandably) asking her to leave the apartment. Though it would be easy to pin the disintegrating relationship on Kima’s friendship with McNulty, the foundation was never as sturdy as it seemed. Cheryl wanted Kima to go to law school and leave the police force, and she sure didn’t want her to go back on the street after she got shot. They loved each other, but ultimately couldn’t reconcile their  views of what their life together should be.
  • Jimmy’s trip to DC to find Terry D’Agostino again shows him out of his depth in her world, and also provides one of my all-time favorite McNulty lines, after the bartender explains they only have Bushmill’s: “That’s Protestant whiskey!”
  • Nice little moment where Prez gets super-excited about the burners having a speed-dial, then looking sheepish when it becomes clear no one else in the MCU (not even Lester) loves the geek stuff as much as he does.

Coming up next:

“Moral Midgetry,” in which Deacon Melvin has some thoughts on how to improve Hamsterdam, Jimmy has some words for Brianna Barksdale, and Avon and Stringer have another disagreement.

I’m hoping to stay on the Friday morning schedule with these, but as of next week I’ll be in California for a while for Comic-Con and then the TV critics’ press tour, so we may have to be flexible about when these get posted. I’ll do my best.

What did everybody else think?

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