Monday, February 11, 2008

The Wire: 'Took' (5x07)

‘Took’ is the first episode of the season that really makes the newspaper/serial killer storyline work for me. After McNulty’s initial brainstorm, things have been going on the same level for a while, but everything’s kicked up a notch here, as McNulty’s plan finally works, better than he could have dreamed, and he finds himself lording over the entire homicide department. It’s a pretty packed episode, though even with all that happens, I’m still dreading the fact that we’ve only got three episodes left to wrap everything up.

Let’s kick it off with the increasingly debilitated Omar, who now finds himself limping around the city, barely able to move, but still inflicting terror on Marlo’s people. For the first time in a few years, we see Omar kill someone in this episode, and it’s pretty jarring. During the scene at the stash house, I was wondering, did Omar really do this, did he kill someone? But, the Savino scene at the club confirms it, he’s doing what he has to do to survive, no matter the cost.

There are a couple of reasons why he has to kill. One is the game’s changed, it’s got fiercer and it’s hard to call Marlo a bitch when you’re only wounding his people. It’s a killing world out there, and Omar has to match that level of aggression. And, because he’s so physically run down, he’s got to make a bigger statement. If he was at his old strength, he could be patient, watch them for a long time and use his network to battle Marlo. Now, it’s just one man, he can’t track Marlo, he’s just got to find him and kill him.

It’s hard to watch these scenes for a number of reasons. One, I think we’ve all come to see Omar as a kind of hero, and the cold blooded killing doesn’t mesh with that. It’s also hard to see this legend brought down to the world, hobbling around on a broom-crutch. Watching this episode, it makes a lot more sense why Simon went with such a self consciously over the top escape for Omar. That moment marked the end of Omar the legend, he was beaten in there by Snoop and Chris. Now, he’s just a man, desperate to get at Marlo any way he can. When Omar killed Savino, I said, he’s going to die. He’s lost sight of the code he lived by, and I don’t think anyone can save him now. What is he going to do if he gets his showdown with Marlo?

Omar’s run down state fits as a nice parallel with what Freamon’s become. These two guys used to be the most disciplined characters on the show, willing to wait patiently until the time was right to strike. But, like Omar, Freamon has been pushed too far. He’s given up his code because he feels the system has betrayed him, and now he’s going to do whatever it takes to take down Marlo, even though it’s likely to lead to his own downfall. He’s doing things that are outright wrong, even if it’s in the service of good, how can he justify that?

It’s been interesting to watch just how misguided Freamon’s become this season because it’s a total mismatch with the way we’ve been led to perceive the character over the previous seasons. How does this Lester match with the Lester who told McNulty he needs something in his life beyond police work? Whatever happened to Shardene, his girlfriend from season one? Like Omar, he’s been pushed so far, he’s given up on anything but taking down Marlo, and is suffering from it as a result. When McNulty’s telling you to think about what you’re doing, it’s probably time to reconsider your tactics.

And, even after all they’ve done, it’s still just one or two weeks they need to take down Marlo. That’s the line he’s been giving since the beginning of the season, but to date, Marlo’s just been too smart for him. The phone clock code is going to be tough to break, particularly because he can’t tell people what he’s using the surveillance teams for. I’m not sure why McNulty didn’t try to tie the homeless killer into the killings in the vacants last season, it wouldn’t fly in the police department, but it’d be pretty easy to put it over on the bosses, or at least raise the question that they might be connected, and open the wallet for the Marlo case.

The most interesting thing in this episode was watching McNulty getting everything he wants, and simultaneously realizing what a dangerous position this puts him in. Everyone is out looking for this serial killer, and sooner or later, they’re going to find the homeless guy in the shelter, realize that McNulty put him there, and bring him down. If not that, the longer it goes on, the more likely someone is to break and connect the killer to McNulty. What happens to him then?

I could see McNulty finally benefiting from the system then. It’s in no one’s interest for people to find out about that the serial killer was an inside job, particularly Carcetti. His gubernatorial campaign is finally getting some traction, in spite of the killer, and it’s this homeless crisis that’s helping him. Exposing McNulty would destroy his political credibility. This episode is the most interesting Carcetti stuff in a while.

In general, the episode works because it takes this one incident, the homeless guy being kidnapped, and shows how it affects all the worlds the show depicts. The police scramble to mobilize at the same time as the press, in a crosscutting scene that’s perhaps a bit obvious, but still works, while Carcetti tries to come up with some appeasement for a problem that has no real solution. In a lot of ways, fighting a war against a serial killer is the same as fighting a ‘war on terror,’ you can have all the preventative measures in place that you want, but ultimately you can’t stop just one man from performing an act of violence.

9/11 conspiracy theorists would have a fine time paralleling McNulty’s invented serial killer with Bush using the attacks to get all the money he needs for homeland security. I’d equate it with what Bush did with the war on Iraq, invent a threat to get the justification he needed for invasion, then change the story a couple of years down the line, and hope that people don’t remember what he said. In today’s media environment, the truth doesn’t much matter when there’s a concocted threat out there. The implicit point of the season is the press will jump on the latest extreme threat, the serial killers, the Iraqs, while every day, more and more people die on the streets, and no one cares. Prop Joe gets killed, it’s a couple of paragraphs, kinky serial killer guy kills a homeless man, the city is mobilized.

Simon’s point in the series is that we need to take a hard look at what’s going on at home, and stop worrying about these crazy threats. Think about what the trillion dollars spent in Iraq could have done in our inner cities. Instead, we send people over there, wreck the state, and wind up with our own people messed up like the homeless guy from last week. What baffles me is why Republicans say it’s a worthwhile cause, building democracy in Iraq, helping the people over there, while any attempt to provide domestic aid to our own people is seen as liberal money wasting, nanny state government. You can’t have it both ways. Of course, they’d say the war in Iraq is a vital front in the war on terror. The bigger the lie, the more they believe. At this point, I think it’s hard for people to conceive of just how thoroughly we were lied to and screwed with in the build up to the war on Iraq, they don’t want to see America as that kind of country.

Clearly there are some very vital themes here, unfortunately, the newspaper storyline doesn’t really play them up in the most interesting way. Do any of the scenes at the news office really add to what we could get just by catching a glimpse of the front page of the paper? I can see why they chose to parallel McNulty and Templeton, both of their lies helping out their organization, even as they threaten to bring themselves down, however, the notion of the lying reporter just isn’t that interesting to me. The real issue with journalism is the lack of real investigation, it’s just accepting what authority figures say and not questioning it.

But, even with that, I do think this was the most successful newspaper stuff yet. I’m not emotionally attached to the characters, but the conflicts were clearer and more engaging. However, I have to say that I’m never thrilled to go back to the news room. The reason isn’t so much a knock on the storyline as praise for the rest of the show. It’s like if you went to an amazing restaurant, were having an eight course meal and all of a sudden your meal is interrupted by an eggo waffle. I really like eggo waffles, and I eat them on their own all the time, but if there’s only so many courses I’ve got at this fancy restaurant, I don’t want to waste one on the waffles. That’s the bane of a last season, every moment becomes more vital as we approach the end. I didn’t mind the port storyline in season two because I knew there’d be more time for everyone else later, but it’s sad to think we’ve seen the last of so many great characters, and with time running out, I’m not looking for more Scott Templeton.

So, I fall somewhere between the two extremes of the season. I don’t think the newspaper is pointless, or a failure. I think it’s got some interesting points, and, while not perfectly executed, it’s by no means bad. It’s just that pretty good is going to stand out when you’ve got a show that’s been so consistently excellent before.

Elsewhere, we get some good stuff with Michael. I love the scene where Dukie is looking at the classifieds at the beginning of the episode. For one, there’s the humor of this kid who hasn’t even graduated high school trying to find an actual job. But, what really makes the scene work is the lack of connection to the overall plot. It made me realize what I’ve been missing most from this season is that just hanging out on the corner. Bodie rarely had a major role to play in the plot, but it was through hanging out with him that we found out what things were like on the streets. He was the everyman of the show, and his loss, combined with the faster pace of the season means we don’t get as many great moments like this.

Bunk remains the standout of the season, the only man aware that this entire homeless thing is bullshit, but powerless to say anything about it. He knows that this charade isn’t getting Lester and Jimmy any closer to Marlo, they’re still one or two weeks away, while he’s closing in. Wendell Pierce has always been one of the most entertaining actors on the show, but this season finally gives him a chance to show off his dramatic chops, and he nails these scenes. You can sense the rage in him as he watches the bullshit become more and more powerful in the department.

On top of this, we get the apparent resolution of the Clay Davis storyline. Isiah Whitlock as Davis is the season’s other standout. I love the way he seamlessly shifts between ‘public Clay,’ jovial and confident, and private Clay, scheming and deceitful. The brilliant thing is, even though I’m aware of the deception, I’m practically believing what he’s saying up on the stand. He sells it so well, with the pandering to the jury from his lawyer, regardless of whether he’s guilty, it seems like he earned that innocent verdict. I’m sure if I went back and watched Clay screwing over Stringer in season three, I’d want him guilty, but after watching that trial, I can’t fault the man for walking. It’s the same as the Carcetti speeches last week and in season three’s finale, understanding the lies behind it makes the bravado and rhetoric of these speeches almost more powerful.

I’d like to see how Lester feels about Clay walking. Does he even care at this point? He’s so caught up in this serial killer drama, he seems to have forgotten his real mission. Wasn’t he the guy who said follow the money up and up? Marlo is not the top, he’s not the real problem. I guess Lester gave up after he delivered the ‘head shot’ and O-Bond-a decided not to use it, but I’m still curious what his thoughts are about the verdict. Regardless, Clay walking doesn’t make me optimistic about the way other plotlines will resolve themselves. Clay is in many ways, the show’s master villain. If he got out unharmed, will things be any different for Marlo?

One final story was Bubbles and the reporter. It’s nice to see things looking up for at least one of our characters. I particularly like the way that the only storyline where the homeless killer is not at the center is the one that actually takes place with homeless people. They don’t care about a killer when they’re struggling everyday to survive. Four murders mean nothing when people turn up dead all the time. The real problem for homeless people isn’t the fear of being killed, it’s the fact that they’re homeless!

Well, that was a big week. Things are happening, there’s a ton of momentum and we’re moving into the final stretch. At this point, pretty much anything could happen, there’s no status quo left to protect. Many questions remain unanswered, most notably where the hell are Prez and Colvin? Will we see them again? What about Namond? And that can’t be the last appearance of Cutty, can it? Or Poot too, we’ve got to see him again, right? It’s going to be a lot to wrap up. But, either way, this episode ended on a really sweet note, with Kima finding a moment of happiness with her son, turning the dark world we’ve seen over the course of the series into a children’s book. It’s an uncharacteristically sweet ending, but it felt really right. She’s earned that moment after everything she’s been through.


Patrick C said...

I'm kind of hoping Lester gets Prez to help him figure out the clock code. That seems like Prez's forte. Didn't he figure out a similar code in season 1 or 2? I can't remember.

This episode was really jam-packed, for the first time this season I was actually surprised when it ended. I thought no way was that a full hour.

I agree Clay going free was pretty ominous. The BIG villain is either Clay or the Greek, and they aren't really on Lester's radar anymore. Once Marlo goes down, another gangster is just going to take his place.

I was wondering about Marlo killing also. Is this the first time he's killed since he made his promise not to kill anymore to Bunk? He killed a few people at the safe houses I guess. I really hope that these next 3 episodes wrap up everything nicely. When Rome ended I was content. Deadwood, and to some extent Sopranos, left me very unsatisfied.

Patrick said...

I'm always surprised that the hour is up at the end of the show, and I'm always dreading the start of the ending theme music. It really is tough to wait a week with this show. I don't want to watch the preview for the next episode, but I just need that little extra bit to get me through.

And, this is the first person Omar's killed since he made the deal with Bunk. So, it's a big change. It's striking how little control he has over things now, I don't see good stuff happening to him.

As for the ending, I haven't seen all of Rome, but Deadwood was a case where the show was cancelled and it was never meant to be the ending. I really liked the Sopranos ending, but I doubt we'll see something so arty and ambiguous here. Every season of the show, except for arguably the fourth, has ended in a way that would be a satisfying series finale, so I'm confident they won't leave us disappointed.

Parkamarka said...

Agreed with the stuff about Dukie and how we don't just hang out on the corner with any of the characters anymore. The problem with just ten episodes is that it's noticeable that every scene drives the plot forward. Obviously every scene in previous seasons has had a purpose, but you often didn't quite clock it until you watched it again; I can't quite see season 5 having the kind of revalations upon rewatching that its predecessors had.

That said, this episode was fantastic, and the best ending to an episode thus far, with Kima and Elijah. I also loved how McNulty - in trying to subvert the oppressive system - has begun to encounter the same kind of bureaucratic headaches that every other system evident in The Wire suffers under.

And yes: where are Prez, Bunny and Namond? I can't imagine the series concluding without them, but also can't see where they'd fit in at this point.