Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Wire: The Third Season

Each season of The Wire has taken on a different generic template. Season one approximates the form of TV cop dramas, while subverting many of those show’s conventions. Season two was a classical tragedy, with a doomed hero. Three is a form of melodrama, with simmering emotions and warring factions in constant conflict. The show has maintained its ultra realistic style and plotting, but with an increased focus on characters and large scale conflicts, it’s become something more epic.

The character who owns this season is Stringer, torn between his increasingly powerful position in the legitimate business world and his connections to the street. Before Avon gets out, everything is going smoothly, and he seems to be forgetting about drugs for the most part. He’s still got the co-op going, but he’s created a situation where he is distanced enough that he’s not at risk. He just makes money and doesn’t have to worry about coming under attack from the law.

Around episode five or so, there’s a moment of calm, where everyone seems to have gotten what they want. Stringer is overseeing a booming business and ‘Hamsterdam’ is apparently a success. The idea of ‘Hamsterdam’ is fascinating, a microcosmic society, a ghetto within a ghetto with its own societal rules. Colvin created his own city, and through these episodes, it seems to be working pretty well.

The thing I love about the treatment of ‘Hamsterdam’ is that we’re not allowed to fully embrace or dismiss it. Clearly it has helped clean up the corners and reduce crime, but at the same time, it’s created a society without any sort of encouragement to get out of drugs and lead a legitimate life. In isolating all the dealers, including kids, the police have basically given up on an entire generation. They will support themselves, but they won’t ever be anything more. The most harrowing sequence is Bubbles’ journey through ‘Hamsterdam’ at night, a decadent, run down red light district without any hope, people destroying themselves while the police just look on.

I can certainly understand what drives Herc to call the Baltimore Sun, it’s the gut reaction most people would have. The police sanctioning the sale of drugs in this awful, awful place, it should obviously be shut down. At the end of season one, we saw Herc denouncing his old run and gun tactics, but he seems like the kind of person who became a police to rough people up.

Carver is more introspective. Rather than look on in frustrated disgust at the job he’s forced to do, he starts to embrace the community that Colvin created. It may be a bad place, but he is given access to the community, and the ability to make a change in some peoples’ live.

Ultimately, the message of the season is summed up by the woman at the council meeting, talking about how she used to know the name of the cop on her street, and could just talk with him. Colvin says that’s what police should be, a part of the community, making a difference, and that’s the lesson he passes onto Carver. While the season on the whole has the same heavy darkness, seeing Carver at Dennis’s gym at the end is a wonderful moment. Even if Hamsterdam is shut down, he can still help and try to work with these kids.

Dennis’s arc is another highlight of a season that’s just totally on. He’s someone who’s been in the drug game his whole life, and as an ex con, not many options are open to him, so it would make sense that he’d backslide into drugs. It’s hard to watch him crawl back to Avon after trying to go legit, but expected. The surreal party scene reflects how overwhelmed he is. This world of decadence isn’t the disciplined place he left, the people he works with aren’t soldiers, they’re addicts too, willing to kill for any reason.

Both he and Avon have an old view of the game. Avon certainly has his problems, but he’s very disciplined. In his absence, the drug organization has fallen into decadence and sloppiness. At his homecoming party, he’s talking with state senators about the opportunity to make millions, but what catches his attention is two low level dealers who are high. He doesn’t have the same vision as Stringer. Stringer wants to be a legitimate businessman, he loves speaking with powerful people and styles himself to be a part of that world. Avon wants to rule the streets, to hold his corners and take out his rivals.

The central divide is between the soldier and the businessman. In season one, there wasn’t much competition and both Stringer and Avon could have their way. It was a perfect relationship, but now they’re pulling in opposite directions. Stringer doesn’t need the streets anymore, Avon doesn’t really want to be a legitimate businessman. He’d rather live in a bunker than in the high rise apartment Stringer bought for him.

Ultimately, they’re each holding each other back. In a really fantastic bit or writing, they betray each other, sharing one last drink before their doom. On the bonus features for the season, David Simon talks about how the Barksdale story was only supposed to last one season, but the actors were just so good that he brought them back for more, and watching the show, you can certainly feel a pull between the greatness of this story and the overall mission of the show. In season two, the point of the season was the dock story, but I always wanted to see more the Stringer stuff. Here, the Stringer and Avon stuff has less to say about the condition of the city than it does about the personal lives of these two characters.

For me, it’s the most compelling stuff the show has ever done, soaring even further over the top when Omar and Brother Mouzone team up. The attack on Stringer in his construction site was full of the sort of filmic spectacle the show usually skips over. It was like a western, with Stringer pushed to the edge and gunned down in a haze of smoke. Visually, it’s amazing, and I think it works really well, but I could see how someone feels like the show is leaving realism behind and becoming more self consciously artificial. Still, I think that keeping that omniscient point of view at all times can be a bit distancing. We care about Stringer, and want to understand how he feels when he’s dying, not just see it in a cold, detached manner.

Stringer had essentially become a legitimate businessman, but he couldn’t quite sever ties with the street, and that’s what dooms him. His most rash moment is when he seeks a hit on Clay Davis. There, the old gangster comes out. On a rational level, he knows it’s foolish, but he still does it just because that’s the only way he can think to respond to something like that. It’s from that moment on that everything starts to collapse for Stringer, we see how he’s been played and it’s a short road to police informant and death. I feel like he blames Avon for what happened on Clay Davis, his war with Marlo taking away his legitimacy as a businessman, and that’s why he sells him out to Colvin.

The very fact that Stringer goes to Colvin is evidence of the success of Hamsterdam. It created a dialogue between drug dealers and cops. By giving the dealers a fair shake, keeping their word, they do create a kind of order, evidenced by the scene where they actually turn in a murderer to the cops to protect Hamsterdam. There was a dialogue there, and now it’s all been lost for the political gain of Tommy Carcetti.

Throughout the season, Carcetti is kind of a sleazeball, but we get the sense he does care. His trip to the Western with Colvin is one of the most emotional scenes in the whole season for me, the contrast between the community meeting now and what it was at the beginning of the season. Colvin knows that his plan is working, but is aware of its impending doom. While he says he doesn’t really care what happens after he retires, doing something so radical indicates he does have a strong desire to create change, and is willing to risk his reputation on it.

Carcetti sees the success of Hamsterdam and is amazed. Even in the harrowing community itself, there’s drug testing and actual attempts to help these people on their terms. But, placing his own political gain over the interests of the community he sells it out to the media as a way to attack the mayor. One of the most devastating scenes of the entire season is Carcetti’s speech to the council, where he attacks Hamsterdam and spouts a bunch of rhetoric about wanting to make the communities safer, and do things a better way. It’s a stirring speech, worthy of the applause. The great irony is that we know Carcetti has just doomed the only policy that’s actually been working, and is now putting the Western back to business as usual. He has chosen his own political gain over the welfare of the city, and couldn’t be happier about it.

The fall of Hamsterdam is one of the saddest scenes in the series. Over the course of the season, we’ve watched the construction of an entire society, it’s not a perfect one, but it’s getting better. However, the police roll in and destroy it all in a day. The contrast between the news reports about the place and what we actually know about it is where a lot of the power comes from. The media paints things in Manichaean shades, while the reality is a lot more complex. It was a radical idea, too radical for our current social system to consider. Mayor Royce knew on some level that it was the right thing to do, but couldn’t make it work, and after he’s finished talking about it, he realizes just how ridiculous it was to try to make it work.

Part of what makes Hamsterdam seem so full of potential is how it brought some of the show’s most kind and good hearted characters to the fore. The detail does some good over the course of the show, but it always seem to be a futile battle. The Deacon is the first character we’ve seen who doesn’t have a strong self interest, is just interested in helping people. He’s the one who brings attention to the awful conditions in Hamsterdam and starts to rebuild it into a better community. His mentorship of Dennis is a really powerful arc, and I was so happy to see Dennis actually make it out of the season alive and doing good. He has the chance to influence peoples’ lives for the best, that’s one of the legacies of Hamsterdam. I hope we see him and Carver working together again in the fourth season, if anyone really understood what Colvin was trying to do, it’s Carver, who has completely reassessed what police work can be. It’s not about fighting a war, it’s about making a community better.

After all this, I haven’t even touched on the show’s main character, McNulty. This season, the detail faded into the background, and it wasn’t a problem. The most interesting stuff with McNulty was the way he took on Kima as a kind of apprentice, showing her the tricks he’d used as a younger married guy. I love the dynamic between the two of them, even as it’s clear that he’s leading Kima down a bad path.

By the end of the season, he’s sought to change things. After getting used by Teresa, who increasingly seems like the most despicable character on the show, he decides to change things. In addition to Teresa, the scene in Stringer’s apartment is one of the most important for McNulty. He’s spent three years of his life chasing a guy who turns out to be a well read, erudite man. He might have been involved with drugs, but that wasn’t his real interest. I feel like McNulty felt Stringer was pretending to be legitimate as part of some larger scheme. Seeing the apartment, he realizes that Stringer was a smarter man than he’d ever be, and eliminating him is essentially meaningless.

So, he goes back to Beatrice Russell, a more down to earth woman, and resumes his position as a beat cop. He wants to help people in the community, and have the chance to have an actual life. He’s reached the limits of what police work can give him, as Lester says, he needs something more than the case.

Kima is on a different side of that arc, she’s immersing herself in police work and infidelity to mask the fact that she feels trapped by a baby she never really wanted, and a relationship that doesn’t do anything for her anymore. I have a lot of affection for Kima, but looking at what she’s doing from an outside perspective, it’s pretty awful, and I think things are going to start crashing down for her over the next couple of seasons.

And, amidst all this, most of the other characters get good stuff too. Bunk kind of disappears from the back half of the season, but his speech to Omar while looking for the gun is a phenomenal scene, breaking through Omar’s self mythology and point out the kind of guy that he really is. When Omar throws the guns into the river at the end of the season, it’s clear that he’s weighing the morality of his actions in a different way.

So, this was a really fantastic season. It’s ambitious and complex, and does a remarkable job of balancing the series’ huge cast. Unfortunately, it also marks the end of the show’s most consistently rewarding plotline, the Bell/Barksdale saga, and the loss of the show’s best character, Stringer. But, the cast is so deep, it shouldn’t be a huge problem. Once the fourth season comes out on DVD next week, I’ll find out.


MJ said...

It's fascinating that you see the season as genre instead of setting.

The western take on season 3 with the Avon vs Stringer showdown and the Deadwood-esque Hamsterdam creation is something I had not previously considered.

I'm interested to hear your take on season four!

Patrick said...

The second season is definitely about setting, but other than that, they all take center in some way around drug markets. While the school in season four is a departure, the characters within it are drawn from the street. It's not as big a departure as if we had seen kids from more stable homes going in and interacting with the street kids. That might have been a good story, but it would have likely been harder to integrate into the show. In the case of season three, it's basically the sequel to season one, but the Hamsterdam stuff and the political storyline keep it feeling fresh.