‘The Wire’ Rewind: Season 3, Episode 9 – ‘Slapstick’ (Veterans edition)

Once again, we’re spending Fridays this summer revisiting season three of “The Wire,” the greatest TV drama of all time. (You can find my reviews of the other seasons on the siderail at my old blog.) And, as usual, we’re doing it in two versions: one for people who have seen the show all the way through and want to be able to discuss it from beginning to end, and one for people who aren’t as far along and don’t want to be spoiled about anything after this episode. This is the veteran version; click here for the newbie-friendly one.

A review of episode nine, “Slapstick,” coming up just as soon as I do the cookie first…

“Tell me something, Jimmy: how exactly do you think it all ends?” -Lester

Though David Simon had a five-year plan for “The Wire,” he didn’t know if he would get to fulfill it, and for a long time, it looked like season three would be it for the show. (Season four debuted 22 months later, in part because it took HBO so long to decide to order more.) So perhaps it’s not surprising that, as we enter the home stretch of this season (and what could have been it for the series), a lot of characters are dwelling on how things are going to end for them.

Lester asks Jimmy the question above. The Deacon pushes Bunny to finish the job he started in Hamsterdam, and Bunny fears that project will come to a premature end because of the dead body. Prez kills a man he didn’t realize was an undercover cop, and when Lt. Daniels starts offering suggestions on how he might save his career, Prez says, firmly and sadly, “I’m done.”

And Stringer doesn’t specifically talk about getting out of The Game, but you can see that desire on his face when he finds out that the easy money of Hamsterdam may be ruined because one dealer murdered another for laughing at his shoes.

Or perhaps everyone’s dwelling on future endings simply because the present is such a series of ridiculous catastrophes. There’s the shooting in Hamsterdam, and that in turn leads to Carver’s well-intentioned but sloppy plan to drag the body out of the free zone. Stringer isn’t gangster enough to understand about the Sunday truce and gives the go-ahead for the botched hit on Omar and his grandma. And Prez, who has proven time and again that he’s a brilliant cop inside an office and a shaky one outside it, inadvertently kills a cop – and, because of his track record and because the dead cop was black and he was white, lands himself in a mess even his politically-connected father-in-law can’t fix.

“Slapstick” is (like most late-season “Wire” hours) a busy episode, but I want to focus on the Prez story for a bit. It’s the kind of story that few shows would have the patience to tell: the gradual, believable evolution of a hot-headed screw-up into an introverted investigative genius, and then that man’s career getting destroyed because he had the bad luck to volunteer for the dinner run on the wrong night.

And few cop shows have ever had a diverse enough cast to pull off a scenario like we see in the episode’s closing scenes. The MCU as currently constituted features two white guys – the two who happened to go out for the fateful Chinese dinner – and a group of diverse African-Americans, including the veteran detective who became Prez’s mentor, the boss who reluctantly covered for Prez in his screw-up days and became an affectionate father figure when Prez grew out of it, and the two cool street cops who would have been much better-served in a situation like this. We see them at the MCU office, and they all feel terrible about the dead cop, and about the jackpot Prez finds himself in, but we also see them wondering the same thing we do, and that Prez himself acknowledges to Daniels: would he have reacted differently if the man with the gun was white?

We know Prez. We like Prez. We’ve seen how he’s blossomed as Lester’s pupil, and we want to think the best of him. But we know that no one on this show is all good or all bad. (Well, maybe Marlo’s all bad, but he’s at least a product of his environment.) Nothing on “The Wire” is black or white, least of all a messy shooting involving two cops of different races. Did Prez shoot because the guy was black? We don’t know, his friends don’t know, and he’ll never know, and that’s one hell of a burden to carry on top of the larger issue that a good man is dead because of him.

Prez is a relatively minor character in “The Wire” scheme of things, but how good is Jim True-Frost when called to serve in this episode’s second half? He’s fantastic in the scene where Daniels tries to reassure him in Landsman’s office (as is Lance Reddick, for that matter), and Prez is lost in despair because he knows there’s no fixing it. It’s a great moment because of how much these two have been through, and the weight of that. Daniels saved Prez’s career after the Kevin Johnson incident, and while Prez has done a lot of good as the MCU’s research expert, maybe everyone involved would have been better off if Daniels hadn’t interceded back then. (Certainly, the plainclothes cop would have been.) And then we see Prez at the end, standing in the middle of the MCU office – a unit that wouldn’t exist without him pushing Valchek during season two, and that wouldn’t have been as relatively successful as it was without his work with Lester – and it pains him to realize he’ll likely never be in there again, even though he doesn’t want to be a cop anymore.

There’s a nice moment back in the Homicide bullpen where McNulty sits and listens to Landsman tell Vernon Holley what an incompetent goof Prez is. And nothing he says is untrue. Prez did shoot up his car, and a wall, and half-blinded Kevin Johnson, and he got saved from the consequences of all that because of Valchek. But Landsman only knows the record, while Jimmy knows the man. He’s seen how Prez has grown over the last three years, has turned his life around in the same way that Cutty is trying to improve his, in the same way that Bunny and Stringer are trying to change the way The Game is played, and he knows that all that progress has been lost because of one dumb, irreversible mistake.

Later in the episode, Jimmy goes on an awkward date with Terry D’Agostino, with whom he has nothing in common, and he ruins any chance of sex by dismissing the value of politics, regardless of party, saying, “It doesn’t matter who you got. None of them has a clue what’s really going on.” In “the Wire,” no one can really see the whole picture (though characters like Jimmy and Lester occasionally come close). They just see what’s in front of them, filtered through their own prejudices and preconceptions. That’s why a cop is dead who shouldn’t be, why Herc feels compelled to drop a dime to the Baltimore Sun about Hamsterdam, and why it seems so hard to get anything changed in this big, messy city.

Some other thoughts on “Slapstick”:

  • The failed hit on Omar leads to a lot of comedy, including Slim’s lecture about Omar’s grandma being “a bonafide colored lady,” Stringer’s own sheepishness about authorizing the fiasco and not knowing about the Sunday truce, and the two dimwits waiting in the funeral parlor for their inevitable punishment.
  • On the other hand, we get one of the darkest Barksdale/Bell scenes ever, as Brianna tries to get her brother to consider the possibility that D was murdered – which Avon knows full well, and can’t reveal for fear of hurting the business. He’s hurt she would suggest he had anything to do with the killing, but he’s now a conspirator on the cover-up, and a betrayed Brianna knows they know more than they’re letting on.
  • Carver’s plan to move the body falls apart, and inspires a frustrated Herc to place his call to the newspaper, but it’s remarkable to see that the dealers have so grown to enjoy the benefits of Hamsterdam that Stringer will arrange for the killer to reluctantly turn himself in.
  • Jimmy’s speech to Lester about the awesomeness of the MCU name-checks a bunch of real BPD detectives, including Ed Burns himself and Donald Worden, one of the more prominent characters in Simon’s “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” and the inspiration for Ned Beatty’s character on the TV show. Jimmy’s definitely adrift in his non-work life at this point in the story, though. Lester points out that the job won’t save him – it sure didn’t save Prez – Elena doesn’t want him and neither does Terry after that stilted dinner date. Is it any wonder he’s wistfully looking at Beadie’s picture on the MCU fridge?
  • One story where almost nothing goes awry this week: after an initial failure on his own, Cutty gets help from the Deacon, Reverend Reid, Odell Watkins and Marla Daniels to obtain the necessary permits to get his gym going. Chad L. Coleman does a very funny little fist pump as Cutty walks off in triumph from a day battling red tape.

And now we’ve come to the veterans-only section of the review, where we look at how events from this episode will play out down the road:

  • At the time season three aired, Prez’s story felt like an odd choice, as his absence from the MCU never really impacted the investigation of Stringer. But of course it was Simon and Burns having faith in the idea that they’d get a fourth season, and putting Prez in a position where he would become teacher to Michael, Dukie, Namond and Randy. You see in that fourth season that Prez is never going to be free of the guilt of this shooting, but he ultimately turns out to be as good a teacher of math as he was a student of Lester’s.
  • And speaking of education, we’ll see in season four that the show believes Tony Grey is right to want to run on an education platform – that if the city doesn’t worry about its kids first, the crime problem that Carcetti and Royce fight over will never get solved – but no one will pay attention.
  • Lester’s speech in the MCU office, and then Santangelo’s comments about what a favor Rawls did in busting him back to patrol, start pointing the way towards Jimmy’s late-season realization that he needs to get away from this kind of police work, and that he should give Beadie a call already.
  • This is the last we’ll see of Kimmy until Omar needs help hijacking Prop Joe’s shipment at the end of season four.
  • Stringer hears Bunny’s name for the first time when the dealers tell him about the Hamsterdam situation, and that will lead him to give Bunny the tip that will put Avon back in prison.

Coming up next: “Reformation,” in which a reporter pays a visit to Hamsterdam, Cutty tries to get kids to come to the gym, and an old friend pays a visit.

What did everybody else think?

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