When season two of The Wire premiered in 2003, the scenery had shifted dramatically, widening the show’s scope beyond the corners of inner-city Baltimore. Viewers were soon made familiar with the day-to-day life on the docks, the guys who worked them, and the guys that tried to but were forced to find other ways to support their families. Showrunner David Simon based this aspect of season two on the book When Work Disappears, written by Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson. The show draws a parallel between the downtrodden dockworkers’ union and the kids dealing drugs on the corner.
We’ve already discussed the incredible character of Frank Sobotka, the equally downtrodden leader of the union, and a man desperately trying to hold onto the old ways of doing things. Sobotka, played by Chris Bauer, has turned to smuggling as a way to buy influence, not just for him, but for the workers in his union, which he shows time and again he cares for immensely. While his importance to the story cannot be understated, Sobotka’s one part of an increasingly intricate story and The Wire‘s second season, however jarring it can be to those expecting more of what the first season offered, has proven itself a key part of Simon’s overall design for the series.
The Wire, which is available to stream anytime on HBO Now, spent its sophomore season reinventing itself while keeping what it had already established as a vital part of the story, and laying the foundation for where it would go next.
It was the natural progression of the story.
After McNulty (Dominic West) spent most of the first season defying the chain of command in favor of bringing down Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), his commanding officer, Rawls (John Doman), made sure he ended up in the last place he wanted to be — night shift on a Baltimore Police boat. On a routine patrol, he finds the body of a Jane Doe floating in the water, which leads to a shipping container containing 13 dead women, he dutifully spends three hours mapping ocean currents to put the case square in the jurisdiction of the Baltimore Police Department. This not only allows him to exact revenge on Rawls, but as he explains to Bunk (Wendell Pierce), his former partner, it’s the only way the case has a chance of being solved.
McNulty’s ulterior motive aside, this also brings Bunk, Lester (Clarke Peters), Kima (Sonja Sohn), and much of the rest of the original detail into the story. It also gives the show a chance to expand its cast, including the recurring character of Port Authority cop Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan), a single mother who took the job for the salary before finding herself in the thick of a multiple homicide case.
A different kind of blue-collar criminal.
While the first season examined the toll drugs were taking on Baltimore at a street level, the second looks at the docks as a representation of a struggling middle class. “Seniority sucks,” proclaims Nick Sobotka (Pablo Schreiber), a dockworker who gets turned away more often than not when he shows up looking for work. “Unless you’re a senior,” someone is bound to reply, usually someone with seniority.
Of course, the easy answer is to turn to crime, especially with their easy access to supply, and the ability to get contraband out of the system unnoticed. Some, like Frank, use money from smuggling as a way to buy more influence as a way to help the workers in his union. Others use it as their only means to provide for themselves and their families. They’re guys who want to work and simply run out of opportunity.
The backdoor introduction of a major drug supplier.
For much of the second season, the man known only as The Greek (Bill Raymond) and his underboss, Spiros (Paul Ben-Victor), are portrayed as quiet but ruthless criminals with direct ties to the smuggling operation at the docks. They spend most of their time sitting around a small cafe, dealing with Frank as he pleas with them to give him more information when he’s smuggling “something that’s breathing” in one of his shipping containers.
It isn’t until the second season draws to a close that The Wire reveals their larger importance, starting with Spiros’ revealing conversation with East Baltimore’s Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew). As the two stare in opposite directions while sitting on a park bench, it becomes clear the Greek’s actions have been in play in the background the whole time. Having far removed themselves from any street-level violence, the Greek and his men still continue to ply their trade, always ready to shift their allegiance to a new buyer.
A look inside the prison system.
Even with the new industrial setting, the Barksdale crew is still vital to the story, despite having their ringleader, Avon, behind bars. Sentenced to seven years at the end of the first season, by the time the second season starts, he’s working out a plan to reduce his sentence, using his influence to use a drug-dealing prison guard as his way out. To Avon, prison isn’t a setback, just a temporary deterrent keeping him from getting back on the streets.
Until then, while inside his relationships with both D’Angelo (Larry Gilliard, Jr.) and his underboss, Stringer (Idris Elba), start to deteriorate. While D’Angelo tries to cut Avon out of his life, Stringer’s frustration with their inferior drug supply drives him to make allegiances behind Avon’s back, setting up for a massive fallout in the third season. As D’Angelo sits discussing The Great Gatsby at the prison book club, he explains, “You can change up. You can say you somebody new. You can give yourself a whole new story. But what came first is who you really are, and what happened before is what really happened.”