‘The Wire’ Rewind: Season 3, Episode 8 – ‘Moral Midgetry’ (Veterans edition)

Once again, we’re spending Fridays this summer revisiting season three of HBO’s “The Wire” (you can find my reviews of the other four seasons on the siderail of my old blog) in two versions: one for fans of the show who have seen it all the way through, and one for people who haven’t gotten that far and don’t want later episodes and seasons spoiled for them. This is the veteran version; click here for the newbie-friendly one.

A review of episode eight, “Moral Midgetry,” coming up just as soon as you meet my partner…

“I look at you these days, you know what I see? I see a man without a country. Not hard enough for this right here, and maybe – just maybe – not smart enough for them out there.” -Avon

When season two originally aired, many fans of the first season were displeased that Stringer, Bodie, Omar and the rest of the drug characters had been back burnered in favor of telling the story of Sobotka and the stevedores. Even last summer when I revisited that season, many “Wire” veterans who had seen the whole series and understood how the pieces of the port story fit into the larger picture said they found the second season frustrating and/or disposable, and that they wanted to get back to the Barksdales already.

I love season two, but in watching season three again, I’ve begun to understand the mixed feelings some of you have for it. “The Wire” is not just about the cops vs. the Barksdales. Season two established that and season three confirmed it. (I’d argue that Bunny’s creation of Hamsterdam is this season’s dominant storyline.) The show is bigger than Jimmy and Stringer and Avon at this point.


… it’s unmistakable that Stringer Bell is one of the show’s greatest, most original, most charismatic characters, and that Idris Elba is giving a knockout performance, and that Wood Harris is right up there with him playing the somewhat more familiar role of Avon. And when you watch an episode like “Moral Midgetry” climax with those two physically and emotionally pounding on each other – Avon scoffing that Stringer is too soft for The Game, Stringer boasting that he had D’Angelo murdered, then taking advantage of Avon’s shoulder wound to prove he has some brawn to go along with his brains – it’s easy to want the series to give us more, more, more of B&B, even if it means limiting the time spent on the docks, or at City Hall, in Cutty’s basement, etc.

What an incredible scene. What patience it took on the series to get us there. Avon had to be in prison for all of season two so Stringer could get used to having sole authority, could begin moving behind his best friend’s back to found the New Day Co-Op, sic Omar on Brother Mouzone, and arrange D’s murder. Stringer had to be that comfortable for Avon’s return – and his insistence on being a soldier and not a businessman – to cause him such distress, just as Stringer had to be in power long enough to create a new business model for Avon to react so strongly against. McNulty had to take his sweet time finding out about D’Angelo, and visiting Donette, for word to eventually filter back to Brianna(*) and make Stringer realize that his best, only move is to confess to Avon and convince him it was necessary.

(*) And speaking of incredible scenes, how about McNulty rightly holding Brianna’s feet to the fire for putting her son in a position to be murdered? Brianna manipulating her son into backing out of his plea deal is one of the coldest, cruelest deeds perpetrated by any “Wire” character, and yet it’s so rare on this show to see the bad guys held emotionally accountable for their deeds. Wee-Bey and Avon go to prison, but they don’t care about what they did; it’s all in The Game. But Michael Hyatt’s searing performance as Brianna shows just how much guilt she deservedly feels for choosing business over her son, and provides a cathartic moment for all of us who came to care about D’Angelo, and to feel betrayed by what happened to him.  

That Stringer has come to this point is a result of a plan sprawling beyond his expectations. He never assumed any cop would care enough to realize it wasn’t a suicide, didn’t expect that prison would have made Avon so eager to reassert his manhood and endanger the Co-Op and his attempt to become a wealthy developer with Clay Davis’s help, thought he could keep Donette’s mouth shut, etc., etc.

That kind of arrogant belief in a shaky plan is also causing problems for Avon, who has badly underestimated Marlo Stanfield, assuming an independent could never stand up to the mighty Barksdale machine(**). But Marlo is even more disciplined than the man Wee-Bey once accused of “going past careful” – Marlo likely wouldn’t feel the need to be in the car for a hit on an enemy, leaving that mess to Chris and Snoop – and his people smarter and better-trained than anyone Avon has on the payroll. Stringer couldn’t buy Marlo, Avon can’t outfight him or trap him. How do you stop this cold, unflappable little army?

(**) Again, much of this season was constructed as an Iraq war allegory, here with Avon as a military commander overconfident in his ability to defeat an insurgency that’s smaller but more ruthless. So when Slim Charles warns Avon of the danger of fighting two wars at once, does that make Omar into Afghanistan?

Bunny’s plan for Hamsterdam was born of desperation rather than arrogance, but last week’s episode and this one are reminders that Bunny, like Avon and Stringer, didn’t really think his idea through. He moved the drug traffic away from the salvageable neighborhoods, yes, but he never thought about what might happen to the kids, or the junkie squatters, or the drug dealers working without guns and therefore vulnerable to bandits.

But Bunny’s eyes are being opened, by Carver (who’s embracing the experiment more than you might have expected him to), and by the Deacon – who calls Hamsterdam “a great village of pain, and you’re the mayor” – and suddenly his attempt to improve quality of life for the citizens is becoming as much about doing the same for the dealers and the fiends. The jobless kids are now auxiliary cops with bikes and radios (even if they’re using those in part to order food), and friends of the Deacon’s are working on needle exchanges, organized athletics and whatever other social program they can think of.

Even as the scope of Hamsterdam expands and improves, there are already signs that the whole program is in danger. Carver’s on board, but other cops like Herc and Colicchio are seething over it and threatening to drop a dime to the press or department brass. And Burrell, Rawls and even Tommy Carcetti are starting to notice the drop in the Western’s crime statistics. Bunny warns the man from the school of public health that this is likely a temporary state of affairs. Someone is going to find out why crime is down in Bunny’s district, and soon. And then what?

And what becomes of the Barksdale/Bell partnership now? They’ve been friends and colleagues for so long, but they’re drifting in opposite directions, and now Avon knows that Stringer murdered his nephew, and has also suffered the humiliation of losing a fight (even while injured) to the man he always viewed as too soft for the real soldiering. Avon has always been the strong one, but we end the episode with Stringer standing and superior while Avon sits in pain. How long can this relationship last, particularly with both Marlo and the MCU still coming after them?

Some other thoughts:

  • Jim True-Frost gets some very funny moments in this episode as Prez shows off how good he’s become at research and electronics work, and it’s rewarding to see how far his relationship with Lt. Daniels has come since the first season, when Prez was the dumb screw-up whose gun had a light trigger-pull. Then, Daniels couldn’t wait to get rid of this hump; now, Cedric likes and respects this smart and dedicated investigator enough that he can gently tease him in front of others.
  • Herc, on the other hand, doesn’t have Prez’s computer skills, and in fact knows less about them than the robbed dealers who quickly master the face-making software, then let Herc hijack it so they can build composites of hot women, rather than the men who ripped them off.
  • McNulty’s belief in his superiority to others manifests itself in his attempt to play good ol’ boy for the small-town Virginia cop he assumes is a bigot, which leads to Jimmy’s hilariously mortified reaction at seeing that the guy has a black wife and partner, and then Kima’s pricless “For real?” reaction when the cop tells her that McNulty’s an ass. (For the young’uns, “Buford Pusser” was the stick-swinging redneck sheriff hero of a series of ’70s movies called “Walking Tall.”)
  • Having scratched the itch with Bunk, Omar has wisely moved over to robbing dealers on the other side of town, showing an ability to escape his tiny geographic comfort zone that many of the dealers can’t. (Remember Wallace’s confusion when D’Angelo started talking about restaurants that were on the east side?) And though we see another group of bandits ripping off dealers in the opening scene, Omar looks at Hamsterdam and sees what to any rational thief – particularly one who had been working the other side of town for a while and didn’t know much about this crazy new police initiative – would be a trap.
  • Carcetti’s political education continues, as Terry D’Agostino schools him on the difference between winning and argument and winning over voters. Particularly funny is seeing Tommy at the subcommittee meeting accusing Rawls of massaging the stats and Rawls unabashedly lying that his department would never do such a thing.
  • Clarence Clemons returns as Roman, here revealed to be a friend of the Deacon’s, and the man who  helps Cutty finally figure out his purpose: to set up a boxing gym for the local kids. It’s a very impressive turnaround for Cutty, who went from directionless, to backsliding into crime, to directionless again, to recognizing that he needs to build a life dedicated to helping others in some way.
  • Also, the woman running the needle exchange program in Hamsterdam is Fran Boyd, one of the three central figures of Simon and Ed Burns’s “The Corner.” (Khandi Alexander played her in the miniseries.)
  • Nice to see Agent Fitzhugh again, and to see that no one in the MCU holds him responsible for inadvertently tipping off The Greek and blowing the port case.

And now we come to the veterans-only section, where we discuss how events in this episode played out down the line:

  • In retrospect, it’s obvious what a masterful long con Clay and Andy are running on Stringer, but I’m curious how many of you could tell at the time, versus how many only realized it when Maury explained things to Stringer.
  • This is essentially the end for Avon and Stringer, who will begin undercutting and betraying each other until String ends up dead and Avon in prison.
  • Omar’s brief visit to Hamsterdam shows Dante’s continuing frustration at how Omar treats him like a know-nothing kid. Those feelings, coupled with his brief abduction by Brother Mouzone, will end that relationship.
  • This episode introduces one of the show’s great rewards for viewers who pay close attention. Dee Dee, the nervous young white woman (played by Richard Price’s daughter Genevieve Hudson-Price) who buys the eighball in Hamsterdam, will turn up again briefly in season four, now working as a prostitute, and then again in season five at one of the NA meetings Bubbs goes to. A little character arc in three brief scenes over three seasons.
  • It’ll be strongly implied in seasons four and five that Chris has military training, but you can already see that discipline at work in how he and Marlo work together, and how he sets up the counter-attack against Avon’s botched ambush.
  • It’s also funny, in light of how infamous she’ll become on the west side in the later seasons, that Snoop can still function as an innocuous lookout, because of course who would notice or be threatened by the little tombow with the cornrows?
  • In trying to keep the other Western cops from ratting out Bunny, Carver points out that he’s always had their back no matter what they did. But in the fifth season, he’ll recognize that Colicchio has gone too far and refuse to protect him from his own uncontrollable temper.
  • Though Prez gets to be a master geek in this one, it’s a little painful in hindsight, knowing what’s coming for the guy in the next episode. And speaking of which…

Coming up next: “Slapstick,” in which Omar’s grandmother goes to church, Cutty works on his gym, and Jimmy and Prez go for some take-out.

What did everybody else think?

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