Monday, December 24, 2007

The Wire: Season Four: Part Two

The other major plot thread this season was Tommy Carcetti’s ascension to Mayor of Baltimore. When he first appeared in season three, you got the sense that Carcett was power hungry, but did have a legitimate desire to help people. However, in the third season finale he sold out Hamsterdam to the press, and used it as the opportunity to give a speech condemning Royce’s handling of crime in the city. That was the moment when Carcetti died for me, spitting hollow words about the desire to change things when he had just shut down something that was working to change everything.

In the early days of this season, Carcetti is simply obnoxious, whining like a child as he’s shuttled between campaign stops. It’s interesting to compare this view of campaigning to something like The West Wing, which holds that essentially good people rise to the top and the political process works. Watching this show, it’s clear it doesn’t. In our system, people need money to win elections, and with money comes obligations. There’s also a vast network of influence, by making concessions to them, you can win elections, but also prevent your ability to change things. Royce is irrevocably corrupt to outside eyes, but he’s really just doing what he has to do to survive.

All the bureaucratic structures in the series are self sustaining. People will reinforce the status quo because that helps to rise to power. People who really mess with things, like McNulty or Colvin, wind up ostracized and powerless. In theory, it all leads up to Carcetti, he has the power to change things in Baltimore, but the system is constructed to prevent real change. Carcetti has so many groups to satisfy, he can never do the right thing, he has to do the thing that will offend the fewest people.

When Carcetti is running behind Royce, he has no faith that he can win, but a skilled performance at the debate changes that, and sets him on the path to victory. One of the things that’s implicit in the presentation is the fact that most people don’t watch the debate, they just hear the media coverage after. That one sound bite of Royce waffling on how to deal with the murdered witness is going to get replayed endlessly and doom his campaign. We are now more about political theater than real political coverage. Al Gore sighing during the debate gets more played than the actual issues discussed, and we can now see where that kind of media coverage gets us.

Another really effective scene along those lines was Carcetti’s refusal to speak to the media at the witness’s funeral. He’s ostensibly doing it because he doesn’t want to turn the scene into political theater, but in this case, not saying anything is much more powerful than anything he could say. He gets political points for going to the funeral, and also gets political points for not being ‘tacky’ about it. Is this what makes a good mayor?

When Carcetti does become mayor, he rapidly falls further and further from anything resembling good government. It all goes back to the idea someone planted during the campaign, that he could run for governor in two years. In the later episodes of the seasons, becoming governor becomes the primary motivation for everything he does. His ambition goes to his head and gets in the way of the fact that he can actually do good things in the present. His advisor Norman tries to council him, but the man is already gone. The saddest moment is Carcetti hearing from his wife that she knows he’ll do the right thing, right before he does the completely wrong thing.

Carcetti goes to beg for money in Annapolis at the same time as Colvin goes to present his findings. Whereas he would once have done anything Odell Watkins wanted, now he’s already gone, psychologically and literally in Annapolis instead of running his city. Colvin’s plan goes unheard, rejected because it would look like tracking and play poorly in the suburbs during an election. Carcetti rejects the money from the state because that would look bad in the election. Rather than take a political hit to help kids, he prioritizes his own career, with the misguided reasoning that he’ll be able to do more good for Annapolis. Didn’t he shut down Hamsterdam because he’d be able to do more good as mayor? When will it end, will he sell out Maryland to become president?

I can certainly understand why Carcetti can’t govern well. As the old mayor says, he has to eat shit from so many people, he can’t help but think about what it would be like to be in a position of more power. However, the more power he has, the less freedom. The reason Colvin can do something like Hamsterdam or the corner class is that he’s out of the spotlight. No one hears about Hamsterdam for months, but if Carcetti was to try something radical, it would come out immediately. The thing is, sometimes doing the right thing is more important than political success. If he decided to just do the right thing, he might not get elected, but he could make a big impact. However, the definition of the right thing is very nebulous. Was Hamsterdam the right thing to do? In some ways yes, but it also had a lot of downside. Things are not so easy as right and wrong, but one thing’s for sure, Carcetti is placing his own ambition ahead of the city.

Elsewhere, this season was arguably the most devastating for Bubbles. The worst moment for him was when McNulty doesn’t understand he’s trying to get clean and basically forces him back onto drugs in season one. However, the repeated beatings get pretty close. He had found a kind of equilibrium on the streets. He may not be thriving, but he’s got his cart and is at least earning a living. However, his financial success makes him a target.

On the street, the only law is violence. He can’t turn to the police to stop this guy because they don’t care about him, and approaching them might get him in even more trouble. Basically, Bubbles has to take it. He is not strong enough to stand up to this guy and he’s either got to give him his money or get beat.

The whole season sends Bubbles on a really hellish journey. He attempts to help Sherrod get at least some basic knowledge, and one of the saddest scenes is when we find out that Sherrod doesn’t even know how to read. The way I read it is that Bubbles came from an at least somewhat stable family, and went through school until he got hooked on drugs. The drugs pulled him down, away from the life he once led. We get a glimpse of what that was in season one when he goes out to his sister’s.

He’s clearly a smart, charismatic guy, but the drugs pulled him down, and now he sees Sherrod going down that same path. Bubbles is one of the few people on the show with a high level of self awareness. He knows he’s just a dope fiend, and selling stuff from the cart is an attempt to at least own that and take control of his destiny. He doesn’t want to beg. However, as long as he’s on the street, as long as he’s using, things can’t go well.

He’s also a victim of Herc’s campaign of fuck ups this season. One of the most interesting pieces of the season is watching what power does to Herc. After rising to sergeant because he caught Royce getting a blowjob, he uses his power to fuck over everyone he comes into contact with. He’s a user, he uses Bubbles for information then lies about his plan to help him. It’s hard to watch the scene where Bubbles thinks he’s one step ahead of the guy, only to watch Herc ignore his call and doom Bubbles to another beating.

The sad thing is Herc doesn’t even realize he’s done anything bad. To the end, he’s ranting about how he was the one who got screwed during the season. We got a sense of how bad Herc could be during the Hamsterdam stuff, when he leaks Colvin’s experiment to the press to try and shut it down. He doesn’t understand this kind of policing, he’s all about the rip and runs, not considering the human damage left in his wake. The end of the season implies that he’s off the force, but I’m sure we’ll see him doing something next season.

Things go even worse for Bubbles when, predictably, inevitably, Sherrod ends up taking the ‘hot shot’ and dying. At this point, Bubbles is completely broken and just needs to get out. He’s lost another friend and wants off the street, even if it means going to jail. So much happens in the finale, it’s easy to forget about the opening, but the Bubbles interrogation is a perfect dance between humor and total sadness. It may be Landsman’s finest moment, as we watch his usual cynicism completely crack when he sees Bubbles’ hanging.

This leads to one of the most painful scenes in the series, when Walon goes in to talk to Bubbles in the detox facility. As a viewer, I’m right there with Kima, unable to go in and talk to him. He is completely broken at this point and it pains her to watch, even from behind glass. I was really surprised to see Walon back, but it was a great touch and is a good way to bring things full circle. It’s a devastating end of the season for Bubbles, and another year of absolutely incredible acting from Andre Royo.

Looking at the fifth season promos, it seems that we start with Bubbles in NA. Will he kick drugs? I think everyone watching the show wants it to happen. I know I do, but at the same time, will the show give us that? Would the world give us that? Some people do get out, and I like to think that Bubbles will. In the past few seasons, he seems less addicted than before, drugs have lost their allure for him, and the lifestyle has worn him out. I think he’ll really try this time, and with the proper support, hopefully he can make it. But, it’s hard to say.

It’s a testament to the writing that I can think about the character in terms of psychology more than as just a pawn to be moved around by the writers. They’re not going to do what’s most shocking or pander to the viewers, I think they’ll give the character the ending he would have in reality. It could go either way, but recovery from drugs is something we haven’t seen yet on the series and I hope we get it.

On top of all this goodness, we’ve got what’s ostensibly the main plot of the series, Marlo Stansfield’s bodies and the struggle to discover them. I still don’t think the Marlo crew can match what Avon and Stringer were to the series. Those two characters absolutely owned last season, and were what held my interest during the uneven second season. When I saw Stringer die, I was wondering why it had to happen, couldn’t he stick around? There was plenty more story for him. I still think that’s true, it would have been fascinating to watch Stringer rise up through the ranks and become more a part of the legitimate political game. The fanboy in me would love to see a parallel universe what if story in which Clay Davis doesn’t screw over Stringer, and Stringer eventually becomes a city council member or something like that.

However, it’s perhaps the highest testament to the show that they can lose the two most compelling characters and still deliver arguably the best season yet. Marlo still isn’t that compelling, the real attention grabbers on that storyline are Chris and Snoop. Snoop is just off the wall, I love her accent and distinctive style of speech. Any scene with the two of them was fantastic, and despite her frequently comedic antics, they never lost their menace. I don’t know what’s scarier, Chris’s total intensity and commitment to what he does or Snoop’s seeming indifference to the murders.

Either way, the murders in the vacants are visually fantastic, and offer a perfect mystery for our crew. From the hilarious opening scene where she buys the nail gun on, Chris and Snoop are professional in a way that puts even Avon’s season one organization to shame. For the show to work, the MCU needs a foe who’s just as skilled as they are. One of the problems with season two was the fact that Frank Sobotka was so incompetent, there was no question he was going to get either caught or killed. With Marlo, it’s harder to say, and even though the bodies are eventually found, and Freamon knows who killed them, it’s impossible to prove it.

As I was talking about earlier with Bodie, Marlo is a different breed of gangster. His entire crew loves the violence. With D’Angelo, and even Stringer, you got the sense they respected the police, they understood it was all part of the game and would only go after someone they knew had flipped. Marlo changes things by killing anyone who’s even touched by the police. He knows his weaknesses and is not going to let any of them be exploited. However, his total coldness causes problems for the everyday guys out on the street.

I suppose Marlo is trying to create a network of people he trusts. He feels the Barksdale guys are soft, and that’s why he’s eager to take out Little Kevin or Bodie. He’s building up his network from the bottom by buying the loyalty of the kids on the street. If he pays off the kids, and kills any witnesses, he’s going to create a mix of loyalty and fear that will allow him to run the community how he wants it. After killing Bodie, he puts his own man on that corner. Marlo is like Wal Mart, coming into the community, wiping out the mom and pop stores and exerting central control over every aspect of the game.

One of the most brilliant things they did by focusing on the kids this year is that those four kids’ stories function as the hypothetical backstories for many of the kids on the show. Looking at Bodie or Poot, we can imagine they were like Dukie, brought into the game because it was convienent, and then they wound up spending all their lives there. Avon or Stringer were probably part of a similar street crew, moving up from hoppers to run everything. The most obvious parallel was Chris and Marlo, both victims of childhood abuse, and we get a disturbing view of Michael’s potential future in Chris’s total soullessness. It’s a cyclical thing, all the hopes and the dreams of these kids get crushed along the way, leaving them on those corners with no hope of ever leaving. Bodie died on his corner, do we have any reason to believe things will be different for Dukie?

Along with Marlo’s rule on the street, we his involvement with the co-op. It’s always a joy to get more Prop Joe, the smoothest talker on the show. Prop Joe is working a whole bunch of deals at any time, and I’m thinking he’s going to be taken out by Marlo next season. Marlo joined the co-op for Prop Joe’s connections. He’s going to learn everything he can from the guy, then kill him and take over his organization. If the theme of the show is generational change, the older guy’s got to go and Marlo’s got to ascend.

However, the wild card in all of this is Omar. After getting set up and sent to prison by Marlo, Omar’s got a reason to target him. The end of the season implies that he’ll be leaving Baltimore, however, I’m assuming he’ll be back and will likely feature in the campaign to take down Marlo. This season, Omar filled in for Freamon, doing long term surveillance, piecing together the nature of the co-op and ultimately robbing them for a couple million dollars.

The season leaves us with three major players outstanding: Prop Joe’s co-op, Marlo’s crew, and the Greeks. I was shocked to see Spiros back, but bringing the Greeks in would be a great way to take everything full circle, and clear the way for a truly apocalyptic battle. Marlo wants to circumvent Prop Joe and go through the Greeks himself, but it’s unclear if they’ll be up for that. Simon said that this story was a two season story, so we’re basically at a stasis point here, nothing is resolved and next season’s going to have a whole bunch of story to go through.

And, going up against all these drug dealers we’ve got the Major Crime Unit, which is now back in action, thanks to the efforts of a newly empowered Daniels. Daniels is being groomed for the commissioner spot, and his lunch with Carcetti in the closing montage is a clear indicator where things are going. Daniels buys into Carcetti’s “morning in Baltimore,” and the question now is whether Daniels is going to be able to take power without getting corrupted by it. Every other authority figure on the series has lost their sense of right and wrong when given the opportunity to advance politically. Will Daniels revert to season one bureaucrat mode, or is he going to continue to fight the good fight?

Most of the police characters don’t have much to do this season. Kima and McNulty continue their parallel character tracks, even though they’re separated this year. Both have essentially given up on trying to make a difference and decided to enjoy life rather than obsess about the job. In McNulty’s case, he’s barely on the show, popping up in about half the episodes and staying in the background most of the time. The implication is that the policing and his alcoholism are the same addiction. He goes cold turkey on both, and is able to create a happy homelife with Beattie.

However, the end of the season puts this health into question. He’s drawn back into action, and next season, he seems to be on the job and off the wagon. I’ll be happy to see the crusading McNulty back. After season one, he didn’t seem like an essential character, but I loved seeing him and Bunk working together, and I want to spend more time with him. The same is true for Kima, I hope their partnership from season three is revived, and they can help each other keep their lives together.

Freamon and Bunk are still Freamon and Bunk, always fun to watch, but not really changing. One of the things I love about the show is the way the characters really care about what they do, but they treat it as a job. If Bunk can solve the case, fine, if he can’t, he’ll still walk off and have a beer and go about his business. I saw Zodiac a few weeks ago, and the portrayal of police work felt totally false next to The Wire. There, we got the same old clichéd detective, or cartoonist, who becomes so obsessed with a case, he loses touch with his life.

Now, you could argue this was the same arc we saw with McNulty and Kima last season. But, the difference is, the case and their catting around were wrapped up in one inextricable union. The case was freedom from domestic bond, and that was the addiction, not some need to solve the case in and of itself. It’s refreshing to see people in fiction who treat their job like a job, not an obsession. Zodiac was just so clichéd when you look at it next to The Wire. Watching the show makes you realize how much of what we see in fiction is genre shorthand, people who behave like they’re in a movie, not like people in the real world.

So, that pretty much covers the season. It did a wonderful job of setting up the final year, with all kinds of factions moving around, trying to take each other down. It’s tough to speculate, but after watching this season, I’m confident they’ll deliver something spectacular. The show’s scope has continued to expand as it’s gone on, and the addition of the schools gave this season a really special, deeply emotional impact. The season finale in particular was full of one overwhelming scene after another, it’s a work that lives up to the unbelievable level of hype circling around it.

Probably the only issue I do have with the series is David Simon’s slightly condescending tone when talking about it. Listening to the commentary on the last season, it gets a bit warying to hear him talk about how they’re not doing what a ‘tv drama’ would do. Yes, the show is better than pretty much everything else in television history, but it still is a TV drama. The Wire and Heroes may be worlds apart, but being a TV drama isn’t inherently bad. What I do like is hearing him talk about what he’s doing couldn’t be done in a film, and that’s he’s consciously aware of the power that four seasons of backstory gives to the show.

TV may have its issues, but we’re in a golden age right now, and even those TV dramas Simon cracks on are much better than their equivalents twenty years ago. I really hate it when people say I don’t watch TV, or ask why TV sucks so much now. People, you don’t say I don’t read books because the National Enquirer or Us Weekly exist. Reality shows and shitty formulaic dramas are as removed from The Wire as those aforementioned pieces of writing are from Dickens. And, I really hate it that people treat reading a book as somehow inherently superior to watching a TV show.

Cinema is the medium that most accurately reflects our world, it can capture in a lens the full range of senses, and when used properly, it can do things that no written word can. Sadly, so few people take advantage of what the medium can do, we’re led to believe that books must be better. The Wire is a defining work of our time, and one day, will be canonized as such, along with its fellow longform TV series like The Sopranos, John From Cincinnati and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I’ll be blogging season five episode by episode as it airs, and am really excited to see it. Having a new episode of something like The Wire every week makes it a lot easier to get through the work week, it’s like having Christmas once a week for ten weeks. So, get the RSS feed ready, I’ll have more on The Wire soon.

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