Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Dark Knight Strikes Again

Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns has become a piece of comics cannon, it’s the comics equivalent of Casablanca, justly hailed and lauded from inside and outside the comics world alike. So, fifteen years later, expectations were high for the sequel. Dark Knight Strikes Again is a work that’s far removed from the closely controlled original, a messy, expansive and insane work. It’s also a masterpiece, easily my favorite Miller work, a reimagining of the superhero for a post Dark Knight/Watchmen world that turns the grim and grittiness on its head by just going completely over the top. It takes a lot to really baffle me, but this work had me constantly asking what the hell is going on, and loving it.

Dark Knight Returns is about the encroaching, increasingly powerful media of the 80s. At this time, media meant TV news, and the work was primarily about the way society perceives the rebirth of Batman in the age of Reagan. It’s a great, great work, and I think it’s still extremely relevant today. Strikes Again is just as politically and socially relevant as its predecessor, but in a totally different way. Rather than try to replicate the world of today, it’s all about taking the changes in information and society and projecting them into the crazy future world of the DCU.

Rather than the closely controlled panel grids of the original, we’ve got a messy mix of media personalities all calling out for our attention. The officially sanctioned voices clash with rogue broadcasters in a cacophony of chatter. The voices are more extreme, all against vague electronic backgrounds, the internet incarnate.

Miller’s art is much freer this time, frequently drifting into abstraction. I love the style he’s got here, the energy of the panels. Things drift out of reality, starting with the great sequence where Carrie Kelly, now Catgirl, rescues the Atom. I love how Carrie changes costumes throughout the work, like Miller had too many cool looks to limit himself to one, or maybe he just got tired of drawing the spots, who knows.

Batman himself changes looks too. I love his first appearance here, wielding massive gloves for no apparent reason and whooping Superman to a pulp. I still haven’t read All Star Batman, but this incarnation of Batman practically demands to be referred to as the Goddamn Batman, or perhaps even the Motherfucking Batman. He’s the ultimate badass, disrupting the entire societal power structure and loving it. The intensely angsty character of Dark Knight is largely gone, replaced by a joy-filled, sadistic bastard. I love the opening sequence of chapter two, in which Batman assaults General Cornell Starbucks and confesses “My young charge enjoys herself more than she should. So do I.” No more “Sides aching, back on fire, I’m too old for this.” Batman is back and he’s just totally lost it.

I love works where creators just totally indulge their whims and tell stories that mesh together a massive series of messy, cool moments. This work is barely coherent, and certainly not as precise as Returns, but it’s such a rush, I don’t even care. There’s a ton of ideas here, a lot to analyze, but what takes priority for me is the sheer energy of the work. Batman ends the book by saying “I was sentimental – back when I was old.” That sums it up so much, this isn’t the nostalgic, conflicted Returns, it’s the glittering birth of a new world. Batman is reborn and he’s not feeing the pain. I love the way Miller draws him in the last chapter, his face a mess, the ears of the cowl sagging over, and joy in his eyes.

One of the things that amazed me about the work was the way Miller kicked it up a notch with every chapter. We start with batboys, the Atom surfing the internet, Superman beaten to a pulp and Batman kicking him out of the cave. From there, things go progressively crazier, culminating in a last chapter that blew my mind on almost every page.

When Alan Moore tried to reinvent superhero comics after Watchmen, he retreated back to the old patterns. He tried to revive the wonder and awe of the Silver Age, but books like Supreme and Tom Strong don’t really provide a new paradigm. We’re at a point where Tom Strong is enjoyable, but it’s not substantial. Kirby’s work, which is so frequently lauded in those comics, was not based simply on cool stuff and fun, there was great darkness there, but also a liberated craziness. In following Watchmen, many creators became bound by the need for realism, to shun the ‘comic booky’ things and try to be grown up.

This work presents a new paradigm, in which the grim and gritty world of Dark Knight is fused with the total insanity of Jack Kirby’s best work. Moore, though I love him, is never good at infusing his works with chaos. This work feels a lot like a Morrison comic, a furious collection of ideas spinning so fast it threatens to fly off the rails at any moment. I found myself laughing a lot while reading this comic, not because it was bad, but simply because it’s so insane, I’ve got no other way to react. I can definitely see Miller himself sitting around laughing as he draws the pages, just loving the ideas he’s come up with, and it’s a contagious enthusiasm.

What is this new paradigm? The work is essentially about heroes deciding that they no longer need to be bound by the rules of the ruling establishment, they’re free to remake the world as they see fit. It’s an interesting message, particularly considering Miller’s politics. 300 has been criticized as a fascist work, I don’t think that’s quite the case here. Sure, you could read it as an almost master race allegory, saying that the Kryptonians among us shouldn’t be bullied around by the weaker rulers, they should claim society and remake it in their image.

But, that would hinge on there being an exclusionary message in the work. I don’t see that, it’s more about understanding that we hold the power, we can fight for a good cause and not sit back and watch corporations and lying presidents take control of our world. At the end of chapter two, Batman tells the masses to “Pull on your tights -- and give them hell.” It’s a call to revolution for everyone.

Using that logic, the superheroes are the societal leaders, the ones who set the agenda for the masses. Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are so fearful of what the leaders can do, they serve their agenda and remain silent. Superman in particular is so totally impotent at the beginning of the work, serving his worst enemies to protect the bottle city of Kandor. Batman’s beating pushes him to the edge and sets up one of the work’s most notorious scenes, the Superman/Wonder Woman cosmic fuck. I love the scene, the over the topness of Wonder Woman asking “Where is the hero who threw me to the ground and took me as his rightful prize?” It’s totally ridiculous, but it’s also exhilarating.

I can understand why people would have such a problem with the work. Dark Knight is hailed for its realism, for its groundedness. A lot of people have issues dealing with fantasy, they would say nobody talks like Wonder Woman talks in that scene. That’s true, but fiction isn’t about creating reality, a work like this is about building its own world, and in this world, that’s how people talk. It’s a heightened reality and as such, when Superman and Wonder Woman fuck, they hit 7.8 on the Richter Scale. It’s particularly notable that they flip over an aircraft carrier, those weapons are puny compared to the power held by the two of them, they can remake the world without opposition from the existing order.

Diana tells Clark that she’s pregnant immediately after that scene, it’s a moment that ties in with Lara’s appearance later in the story. Is she actually pregnant now? I don’t know, but it works on a metaphorical level, they have once again gained the ability to give life, to create the world they want. She tells him “You could populate a planet,” and in the end, that’s what they start to do, they make a world liberated from the oppressive order, where all can be heroes.

The work feels very relevant to the world we live in, particularly the post 9/11 reality created by George Bush. Bush was the perfect president to serve the larger agenda of the military-industrial complex. He’s a programmed president, just as much as the hologram we see here. And General Cornell Starbucks could just as easily be Admiral Steven Halliburton. And, even when he’s proven to be fake, people still like him. “Who cares if the president doesn’t exist? He’s a great American!” And, mid-way through the work, 9/11 happens, an alien attacks the country and Superman has to save us.

Only, Superman fails. The assault happens and chaos descends on the world. It is in this chaos that Batman begins his plan, to enlist the people, destroy the existing social order and rebuild it with the help of his superpowered compatriots. Lara is the only one who sees this at first. Clark and Diana have been prisoners of the existing social order so long, they forgot the power they have. For them, the connections they have in the world prevent them from acting. Clark wants to protect Lois, he wants to protect Kandor, but Lara realizes that trying to save Kandor is really destroying it. The bottle city is a great metaphor, aren’t we all in a kind of bottle created by society? Would we rather preserve the bottle and go on living small, insignificant lives, or burst the bottle and explode forth to remake the world. This desperate attempt to preserve what we have now may be precisely what’s stopping us from evolving.

That’s what Batman understands, he is the avatar of chaos in this work, instigating everything that follows, bringing the heroes back and starting the process of waking up the world. This is a work about revolution, about a character who’s not happy with fighting crime, with suppressing symptoms, it’s about seeking a cure for our greatest societal ill, destroying the corporate masters who enslave us and rising up to demand a new and better world. Batman isn’t actually in the book that much, he’s there mainly to jumpstart the other characters. I love the scene where hologram Batman calls out Clark, then says “I’tll be a bitch if we screw this up. Good thing we won’t.” This is the goddamn Batman.

The work that this book reminds me most of is actually The Matrix: Reloaded. In both cases, the original was a tight narrative that became an instant classic. Then, the sequel lost sight of traditional narrative and became a mix of totally over the top action and interesting philosophical ideas. In a lot of ways, that’s what I want most from any work, an exhilarating rush while you’re reading it, and a lot to think about after.

As the third chapter winds to its close, the cosmic hits. Green Lantern engulfs entire planet in his hand, and Lara merges with the citizens of Kandor to destroy Brainiac. This is what a superhero comic should be, really mindblowing, chaotic action. I remember watching action movies as a kid and loving those chaotic, layered climaxes, where everything spun out of control. That’s what this is, things in a mad rush of ideas and images, almost too much to absorb. It’s never ironic, it’s not retro, it’s taking that grim and gritty world and infusing it with the insanity of the Silver Age. The two are not mutually exclusive, that’s what this work proves.

Another moment I absolutely love is crazy messed up Batman telling Luthor “Heads up. That window behind you is about to explode. And you’re about to die.” He’s such a badass, totally tortured, but still leaning back and watching Hawkman rush in and crush Luthor’s head with a mace. Then, fucked up Batman tells him “Way to go, kid! That was great!”

But, the Goddamn Batman’s got one last mission, defeating his old pal, Robin. The implication here seems to be that Robin was holding him back, he didn’t have the guts to change the system, so Batman replaced him with Carrie Kelly, who does share his desire for revolution, and love of sadistic violence. Things spiral further into insanity when Batman cuts off Robin’s head, and the head tells him “Damn you, I love you!” Batman calls him pet names, playing on the whole homoerotic thing, before shoving him into a lava pit.

Old Dark Knight would have died here, as he says “This…would be a grand death…couldn’t ask for any better.” That Dark Knight was tired, and seeking to go out as best he get. This Batman doesn’t want to die, he’s just started a revolution and he’s ready to see it through. That’s what I love about the final page. He’s blown up the past, those are all just symbols, baggage. It’s the idea that matters, the revolution inherent in these heroes. On a metatextual level, you could see the whole work as Miller calling for people to discover the revolutionary impetus that created all these heroes. Superman was fighting exploitative factory bosses as much as he was fighting criminals, it was about social justice, but that got lost along the way with the giant pennies and the robot tyrannosaurs.

Here, Batman says fuck that. “I was sentimental – back when I was old.” It’s a perfect summation of the work. He used to be dying, now he’s better, he takes a beating and keeps on going because he’s going the fiery spirit of a young man. It was society that was killing him and now that he’s liberated it, he’s ready to go back to work. You could argue that Batman isn’t so much a man as a spirit, he was being oppressed by the society, close to death, but now he’s surged back to life. He killed the ultimate tie to his past, Robin, and now he’s ready to build the future. It’s a perfect closing line.

For me, this work is easily the best comic of the 00s by someone not named Moore or Morrison, and one of the greatest comics of all time. It’s messy, and joyous and crazy and exhilarating. Reading it is reading a revolution, a call to arms. More than anything, it was a rush to wonder what the hell Miller would bring out to top what’s come before. After chapter one, I thought there was no place crazier to go. I was wrong, Miller tore our society a new one with this book, and I think it’s going to take a while for us to catch up. I just wish the Batman of this book would come into our world, wake up the heroes and take the power back from General Cornell Starbucks and his illegitimate government.

My Blueberry Nights

I’ve been waiting a long time to see Wong Kar-Wai’s new film, My Blueberry Nights. It debuted at Cannes and suffered numerous delays on its way to American theaters. So, I took a detour to Hong Kong DVD. The film has been unjustly maligned by a lot of critics who just don’t understand how Wong Kar-Wai makes films. The reason I love his works isn’t because of the narrative, it’s the way he’s able to create moments like no one else. The images he captures, the feelings he creates, he speaks the language of film in a totally different way than virtually anyone else, and that makes every film of his an absolute joy to watch.

The American setting is certainly a change for WKW, at first it is a bit weird to actually hear his poetic dialogue spoken in English. Some initial exchanges come off a bit unnatural, but give it a couple of scenes and you get in the groove of the film, a place where people speak in flowery metaphors and simultaneously say exactly what they’re feeling and dance around the subject with great skill.

WKW’s previous film shot outside Asia, Happy Together, was consciously about the experience of living somewhere different, culminating in Tony Leung’s triumphant return to Hong Kong. This version of America feels like it’s in the same place as his previous films. Jude Law’s cafĂ© could be right around the corner from the Midnight Express, and Norah Jones’ Lizzie could easily be the sister of the slightly unhinged Faye Wong character from Chungking.

So, you could argue that this movie is a retread of what he’s done before. Many scenes felt like echoes of his previous films, particularly Chungking and Fallen Angels. The thing is, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. This is WKW’s genre, tales of lonely people moving through cities, seeking connection. I absolutely loved his two 60s films, but it’s nice to see him mix things up and do a movie set in the present, with some of the visual energy of his 90s classics.

If you describe the narrative of the film, it doesn’t sound like anything particularly special, a woman tries to get over a breakup by traveling across the country. It’s in the execution that almost all the value comes from. Christopher Doyle is missing from the project, but his spirit is still here. It feels like half the shots in the movie are shot in the low shutter speed style I named “The Chungking Effect.” The Chungking effect is used to isolate moments, to seemingly freeze time and immerse you deep in the world. The colors in this film are just unparalleled, it feels like neon streaks just hang in the air everywhere we go. Motion blurs and abstracts, it’s absolutely gorgeous.

The visual peak of the film for me is the almost indescribably beautiful conclusion to the Natalie Portman segment of the film, as perfect a moment as film can create. Driving away from Las Vegas, Lizzie and Leslie wave to each other from their cars, the camera perched on the hood, we can see their faces, their emotions. The sun is setting, colors fill the air and Lizzie says something like “I tried to learn to not trust people. Thankfully I failed.” I generally speak about WKW as a visual filmmaker, but he has a way of cutting through the bullshit that we all speak and saying these profound human truths. I loved the sentiment of that phrase and it just cut through me at the end. It was an a really powerful conclusion to the story, a perfect filmic moment.

My one complaint about the visuals in this film has to do with the editing. The cutting speed is a bit quicker than I’d have liked. At times, it feels like he cuts between the beyond real WKW shots and more conventional cinematography, there were a number of times I found myself wanting to linger longer in a beautiful image only to be quickly taken away. That problem arises most during the early scenes with Jude Law and Lizzie, but recurs occasionally throughout. This might be a first viewing problem though, once I see the film a few more times, I won’t need to linger on those images as much.

Watching this movie really shows you what film can do. Virtually every movie, from the most mainstream garbage to Oscar winning acclaimed movies, speaks with the same old Hollywood grammar, focusing on using the images in service of the narrative. That’s a valid approach, but it’s not the only way. Wong Kar-Wai doesn’t use the images to tell you the story, he uses them to make you feel the story, to linger in the emotional moment and engulf you in the world of the film. The only other director doing this is Terence Malick, the two of them speak a totally different language, and it makes their films among the best in the world.

I speak a lot on here about how TV has surpassed film as the primary visual storytelling medium. That’s indisputably true, no two hour movie is going to match the narrative or character complexity of a work like The Wire. But, TV is a less precise medium, when you’re doing a sixty hour story, it’s impossible to make every shot a great one. In a two hour movie, it is possible, it’s possible to create an overwhelming mood that just can’t exist on TV. This movie uses what only a film can do, and that’s why it’s so satisfying an experience. There are so many breathtakingly gorgeous shots in this film, it’s the best shot film I’ve seen since either The New World.

Rather than delve into the story, I’m going to talk about a few scenes that I really loved. Other than that driving scene I mentioned earlier, my favorite scene in the movie is the brief interlude with Jeremy and Cat Power, a.k.a Chan Marshall, a.k.a Katya in the movie. This scene has such a feeling of import, of many years of emotion, and you really feel what the two of them are feeling. Chan reminds me of Tori Amos, she’s got this really zen, Earthy feeling about her. There’s no anger there, just an acceptance of what happened. Norah Jones was generally strong, but had a couple of shaky moments. Chan is right on the entire time and delivers my favorite performance in the whole movie. There’s something so soothing in the way she carries herself, and that scene alone keeps the Jeremy character in the emotional foreground, despite the fact that he’s absent for so much of the film.

Another really exciting moment for me was the sudden appearance of Frankie Faison, a.k.a The Wire’s Burrell. I literally exclaimed “Burrell!” when he appeared. He’s got a sleazier vibe here, and does a nice job. That whole section of the story, with the morning/night parallels was classic WKW.

The structure of the film is designed to show Lizzie that holding onto pain and sorrow only causes sadness, allowing her to free herself from pining for the guy and get together with Jeremy. The movie feels like it could be slotted into that year long gap in Chungking Express, where Tony Leung waits for Faye to return from her journey. It’s about Lizzie growing up and expanding her world. To do so, she has to deal with some very troubled people. She sees the pain in Arnie, the refusal to move on, and realizes that she could become the same. Life gives us pain, but we have to turn it into something better.

I loved the totally different feel of the diner and the bar in those scenes, the optimism of the day and the sad desperation of the night. I’ve heard some people cracking on Rachel Weisz’s performance in the movie, but I think she’s great. Wong Kar-Wai movies have a different kind of acting than others, one where the emotions float a bit closer to the surface, and I think all these actors do a great job with it.

And, Wong Kar-Wai is able to make people look beautiful and glamorous in a way no other director can. I love simple details, like Lizzie’s straw hat, Leslie’s red glasses, the way the hair falls over Sue Lynn’s eyes when she speaks to Lizzie at the end. He makes Norah Jones look like the most beautiful woman in the world, and at times, the saddest. WKW once said there’s nothing so compelling as a woman crying, and the way he shoots her, that’s true.

The casino section is another great one, pitting the totally cynical Natalie Portman character against the gullible and trusting Lizzie. I think the poker scenes have a touch of clichĂ© about them, we’ve seen this kind of material before, but I love the second half of the story, when they’re on the road, and Leslie finds out her father has died. It’s the kind of moment that only WKW can do, she doesn’t behave like a normal person, her total disbelief that he could be dying heightens the emotional impact of what’s happening. I really like the scene where her and Lizzie lie in bed together and try to understand each other. I’ve already mentioned the closing bit, where they drive away from each other, but it deserves a repeat, it’s just unbelievably beautiful.

Watching a WKW film set in America makes you realize how much he transforms the places he shoots. His New York looks more like the fantasy Hong Kong of his previous movies than the place I live in, the blurred subway cuts through a city that feels a block over from the killer’s apartment in Fallen Angels. Even when he gets out of NYC, he keeps things inside, there’s not that much distinctly American about the environs. It’s the same dreamspace.

The one element of the film that feels distinctly American is the music. WKW uses music as well, if not better than any other director around, but this film felt a bit underscored. I’m not as big a fan of the rootsy American sound he’s got here as of the hyperpop scores for Chungking and Fallen Angels. I loved the scene set against Cat Power’s “The Greatest,” but there were a number of moments where I would have liked a bit more music.

Ultimately, this is a Wong Kar-Wai movie, and it has all the greatness that entails. People still have this misconception that great films must be about weighty things, about death and destruction and history being made. But, the emotional journey of a single human being can be as profound as any of those things when you’re allowed to emotionally engage with that journey. WKW shoots this film in such a powerful and engulfing way, it makes virtually every other film out there pale in comparison. I’m sure a lot of reviews will compare the film to the sugary, but substance free confection of the title, but in this case, the style is the substance because the style is what gives the film its emotional heft. Told in a ‘traditional’ style, this wouldn’t be a particularly notable movie, but a WKW movie is about the moment, not the arc, and the moments here are as wonderful as anything he’s captured on film.

So, he’s far beyond pretty much every other filmmaker out there, how does this film stack up against his own work? I don’t think it’s his best work, it lacks the total emotional devastation of 2046, and can’t quite match the reckless pop energy and exhilaration of Chungking and Fallen Angels. I’d say it’s closer to something like Days of Being Wild. Unlike a lot of people, I think 2046 is one of his best movies, but it was so consumed in a specific aesthetic, it’s nice to see him scale back and do something else. I’d been waiting for this one for years, and I wasn’t disappointed at all. He’s still the world’s best filmmaker, and in my opinion, the best filmmaker of all time.

With no new project yet confirmed, it could be a while before we get new WKW. What I’m really waiting for now is that new cut of Ashes of Time. I love that movie so much, but I feel like I haven’t really seen it, due to the unbelievably shitty DVD transfer of the only available version. Hopefully they’ll get that together, and get Blueberry a theatrical release here in the States, I’d love to see it on the big screen.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Wire: 'Late Editions' (5x09)

“Late Editions” has pretty much everything The Wire does well, and for the first time, I’m really feeling one episode away from the end of the show. It could certainly go on, and I’d love to see more, but it feels like a satisfactory ending is one episode away. Regardless of what happens in the finale, this episode really nailed it, an instant classic full of moments that are absolutely devastating.

Typically, The Wire gives us a moment near the end of the season where everything looks up. It doesn’t bode well for our characters that the moment here was about five minutes. Marlo got busted, but hanging over everything is the destructive hammer of McNulty’s lie, and the fact that the real crimes could be erased by the shady investigation.

But, let’s take a quick look at people who are actually doing well. If you’ve been reading these reviews all year, you’ve probably noticed that virtually every one ends with I’m really missing Colvin, so seeing him back was a joy. It made me really happy to see that Namond is still on a good track, nailing the debate contest and making Colvin and the Deacon proud. We don’t get any real time with Namond, but just watching him up there tells us everything. He’s left the corners behind and is flourishing under the care of Colvin.

Colvin himself is clearly proud as well, which makes it all the more devastating when he runs into Carcetti outside the debate. Carcetti’s greatest strength is his talk, when he speaks, you believe he can change things, you believe that he wants to make the world a better place. However, when you look at his actions, it’s clear he’s only out to advance himself. Colvin watches Carcetti talking about jumps in third grade test scores, and knows it’s all a lie. The test scores don’t measure achievement, on a sliding scale, the numbers can tell you whatever you want them to.

Carcetti speaks to Colvin and apologizes again for the Hamsterdam incident. Colvin looks deeply hurt here. My reading of the scene is that he’s not really mad about Hamsterdam. Hamsterdam was an experiment by a man on the way out, Colvin knew it would never last, but he was just trying to do the best he could with the time he had. He had nothing to lose, so he tried to do the right thing. Obviously, there’s some ill feelings about Carcetti betraying him, but it was going to crash down eventually, Carcetti only expedited the process.

I think what grates on Colvin here is Carcetti hailing progress in the schools, when he wouldn’t even consider the plan he developed last season. Namond is a walking testament to what Colvin could do in the schools, and comparing Namond’s fate to the fate of his three friends, it’s clear that the school system is deeply broken. Carcetti doesn’t understand this, he doesn’t even remember Colvin’s plan, and the fact that he’s so completely ignorant of the reality of what’s happening is what grates Colvin. Robert Wisdom is brilliant in the role, showing so much pain on his face without saying anything.

I’m assuming this is the final appearance of Colvin, and if so, it’s an appropriate sendoff. He wasn’t able to change the system, but he was able to save Namond, and that means a lot. There are still a lot of wounds from what happened, but he’s given up trying to save the world. I still hold out some hope that Dukie will somehow find Namond and get rescued, but that is unlikely. Other than Stringer, Colvin was my favorite character on the show, and it’s great that we got just one more scene with him.

Bubbles also gets a strong wrap for his five year arc. I’m sure he’ll be back next week, checking out the article on himself and perhaps even getting to make that mac and cheese for his sister, but that scene at the NA meeting was really the end. He tried to get clean once before, but he hadn’t reached bottom yet. As we saw on The Corner, it takes a lot to convince someone to get off drugs, and the end of season four was certainly a bottoming out points for Bubbles. I think the single most devastating moment in the show’s entire run may be Bubbles in the psych ward, completely breaking down when Walon goes in, too painful for Kima to even watch.

But, thankfully things go well for him this year, and he’s able to overcome the temptation and stay clean. I love the speech about being at the park because it lets you see how he started down this path. Sitting outside, smoking a little herb, that sounds like a nice day. But, for some people, it opens a door that leads to heavier addiction and the gradual dissolution of all bonds they’ve got. He’s fallen so far over the years, and in that moment, he makes the realization that the drugs will never feel like they used to. You’re always chasing that first high, and he can never find it again. I’m glad they didn’t show his temptation because it would have been almost too much to take. He’s been through so much over the years, and after the end of season four, I think he’s earned the right to some happiness.

So, things are looking up for a couple of our people. But, pretty much every other character is caught up in a web of interlocking decisions that will proceed to destroy all their lives. One of the things I love about the show is looking at the consequences of one individual’s decision on the other characters in the show. The best example is watching the way that Herc’s mishandling of Randy leads to Randy’s entire life being destroyed. There was no malice there, just stupidity and unintended consequences. This episode sees some good motivations put people in very uncomfortable positions, and it all starts with the takedown of Marlo.

It was great to see Marlo and his gang lying on the pavement, Lester gloating at him with the clock. That moment was a bit weird, the extended glances between them certainly let Marlo know that Lester was the one who took him down. Will he target him next week? Either way, McNulty has now gotten everything he wants, the wire tap worked, Marlo has been taken down, and his organization is in chaos.

I absolutely love the scene in the jail cell, where Marlo rips into Chris for not telling him about Omar. Marlo now has something to prove, and he’s eager to get out on the streets and take down whoever tipped off the cops about the phone code. We’ve never actually seen Marlo do anything without his muscle, so it’ll be interesting to watch him out on the streets without Chris or Snoop, assuming he gets out somehow next week. I seriously doubt we’re ending the series with Marlo in prison as he is now, Marlo has to go back out and prove he isn’t a punk. Are we going to see the co-op take revenge on him? Michael? He’s a target now, and I’m hoping we finally get to see whether Marlo can actually fight as well as he can order murders.

The takedown of Marlo leads to the dissolution of the family that Michael, Dukie and Bug have created. The Snoop/Michael car scene is an instant classic. Michael plays her and uses the exact tactics she taught him earlier in the season to kill her. It’s simultaneously a satisfying scene as a viewer, to watch Michael, a character we like, save his life and take out the charismatic, but morally despicable Snoop.

However, in saving his own life, he loses a piece of his soul. He is a killer, and it’s impossible to know whether he can ever come back from what Chris and Snoop have taught him. The scene with Michael dropping off Bug was really powerful, with a reverse Godfather homage. Michael doesn’t even think of going in to his aunt’s house, he’s too far gone, the gang world has him and the door shuts him out of the nice suburban home his aunt owns. Namond’s story gives you hope that things will turn out okay for Bug, but it’s still hard to watch Michael so totally cut off from any chance of a normal life.

It brought me back to that moment where Michael is talking with Prez and seems so close to telling everything, but holds back. The reason Michael got into all this was his stepfather, he drove Michael to Marlo, when he should have went to Prez or Cutty. It was the culture of addiction that put his mom in such a bad state, that made her bring this man into her home. That’s the one Chris and Snoop killing that’s perhaps justifiable, and it’s the one that brings them down. I see a poetry in it, Chris put his DNA, his soul, into that killing. He could have done it professional, but he chose not to, and it’s the one that brings him down. Everyone slips up, and that was his one mistake.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with Michael. He could come back and go after Marlo, but I don’t see him actively choosing to kill Marlo. But, can he just run away, disappear? What’s left for him? Nothing really, there’s no good options. And the same is true for Dukie.

It’s interesting that this episode aired the day after the Academy Awards because this single hour is better than any movie that got an award there, it’s a testament to the power of long term serial fiction. The Wire and The Sopranos, among other shows, have redefined what cinema can be, you talk about movies not being as good as they used to be, well look on TV, this is everything that people hail about 70s cinema and so much more. And, can you really say the showy awards bait performances the Academy honors match the total immersion in their roles that these actors have. I can’t imagine them as anyone other than the characters, and that’s the greatest compliment to an actor. It really bothers me that you still see people saying TV sucks now, there’s no good shows when arguably the two best shows in the history of the medium have both aired within the year. It’s like going out there in 1942 and saying movies suck, the same year that Citizen Kane and Casablanca got released.

Michael and Dukie have been through so much, and we’ve been right there with them. When Dukie brings up the day with the ice cream, it feels like a lifetime ago. I remember who these characters were then, and they were so different. Namond has been saved, Randy and Michael are cold as steel warriors, but Dukie’s future remains uncertain. I hate the symmetry of Bubbles getting off dope as Dukie wanders into the junkman’s hovel and sees him shooting up.

The question now is, what the hell can Dukie be? He’s got absolutely no one left, no home, no family, with no job and no options. How can he be anything but a dope fiend? There are no easy answers, and it’s devastating that someone with so much potential should be totally broken down. For all his awful actions, Marlo provided a stable rule on the streets, a new Marlo will rise eventually, but in the meantime, peoples’ lives are thrown into chaos. Dukie is an unintended casualty of the Marlo bust, what the police did here destroyed his and Michael’s lives.

I really can’t hail that car scene enough, I think the kids’ acting this season has been at times shakier than what we saw last year, but this episode, they both totally nailed it. Even more than any of the characters who were there in year one, I find myself feeling the weight of history on these two. When Michael says he doesn’t remember the day with the ice cream, I’m wondering, is he lying or does he really not remember? Is it too hard to admit that he was once that person, that he has changed so much, or have the events of the past year so warped him that he has lost memory of those times. I think Dukie would go with him anywhere, Michael is all the family he has, and that’s part of why it’s so hard to watch him walk into the stables.

It’s a testament to the episode that I’ve just barely scratched the surface. Let’s hop over to the police, where McNulty finds out he should have been careful what he wished for. A lesser show would have an old Jewish man telling the tale of the golem, who was summoned for vengeance and wreaked havoc after his job was done. McNulty now starts to realize what he did to everyone else in the department when he’s forced to waste his time chasing bullshit, to keep up appearances.

The scene at the train tracks with Lester is one of the most telling in the episode. I’d still love to learn more about how Lester is dealing with this, the scene indicates he has moved beyond the moral conundrum and is just happy to get his job done. He’s working on his own scam on the ultimate scammer, Clay Davis, the fake serial killer is just one part of his mission to follow the money. He’s also taking a joy in the work that McNulty lacks. We even find out that Chardene is still in the picture, a great throwback to year one.

The train track scene has Lester as a funhouse mirror reflection of who he’s become, slobbering drunk and morally bankrupt. That was the guy who created the serial killer, and now the sober McNulty has to deal with the fact that he wrecked his life and may soon be going to jail. It would be a tough call to make for sure, but you could argue that he told Kim and Beattie hoping that he’d get caught. At this point, he recognizes he’s messed up, and has to deal with the consequences.

Kima diming on McNulty is a tough choice, I don’t know that I’d consider it the right one, but it fits with where her character’s going. Season three was a kind of bottoming out point for both her and McNulty, he mentored in the way of the dog, and I think McNulty’s relationship with Beattie helped set her on the path to caring for Elijah again.

At her core, she is ‘good police,’ she is not as jaded as McNulty and Freamon and is not willing to turn on the system. We saw that in season one, when she wouldn’t lie about her shooter to Bunk, and we see it here. She has seen what the serial killer did to the family of ‘his’ victims. McNulty’s was not a victimless crime, and she does not want to be the one responsible for perpetuating the lie.

Her actions set up an impossible moral conundrum for Daniels and Carcetti. Revealing that the serial killer is a fake totally destroys the credibility of the department, even more than the Hamsterdam scandal. It kills Carcetti’s chance to be governor and loses the public trust. Is this something the public should know, or is it better to live in ignorance, to laud the Marlo drug bust and let the serial killer quietly slip away? It reminds me of the end of Watchmen, where Rorshach dies because he won’t let Adrian’s utopia built on a lie go on. Who’s going to be the Rorshach of this piece, the one who won’t back down. If Carcetti refuses to go public with the serial killer, will someone go to the press? Will that finally make the season long newspaper story arc worth its screentime?

It baffles me when people say they’re so disappointed in what Carcetti has become. He’s been a sleazy politician from the beginning, and the character sold himself out in season three when he gave a speech condemning drugs right after shutting down Hamsterdam. Since then, it’s been the same loop of using his potential future power as justification for his awful actions in the present. How many times will he sell out Baltimore to advance himself? Looks like this serial killer thing will be one more time.

But the question remains, does anyone really benefit from the serial killer being exposed? Is there some intrinsic value to the truth, or is it better to go in ignorance? Kima believes that the truth matters, and I think Daniels does too, but are they willing to risk their lives and careers for it? That’s the question, what is it worth to do the right thing?

In a lot of ways, that’s the core question of the series, on the police side at least. Early on, McNulty constantly clashed with the powers that be, trying to get his investigations to happen, and eventually realized it was all a waste of time. Stringer Bell was busted and it didn’t make much of a difference, Marlo rose up in his stead. There’s the classic line “Who were we chasing?” Colvin realized the cost of doing the right thing when he lost his pension after Hamsterdam. Was it worth it?

This brings us to Carver and Herc. I like how they’re still friends, despite having gone is such opposite directions in life. Carver can appreciate Herc as a friend even if he knows just how bad the consequences of his actions were. I felt like Herc might have been done, his final action on the show the delivery of Marlo’s number to the police. But, he’s back to instigate the big fuck up that will tear everything down here.

He tells Levy that they had a wiretap, setting up the presumed dismissal of all the evidence on Marlo as illegal. What was Herc’s motivation here? I like to think it was the same dumb obliviousness that ruined Randy’s life, he wants people to like him, to think he’s valuable and when Carver wouldn’t give him that, he sought approval from Levy. Herc is a really interesting character because he’s so dumb in some ways, and so oblivious to all the damage he’s caused over the course of the series.

Another instant classic scene is Lester and Clay Davis at the bar. Lester uses his leverage to shake down Clay and get a picture of the bigger political machinations underlying the entire series. We get a nice throwback to Stringer and an understanding of how the system actually benefits from the drug game. When people like Marlo and Stringer are making money, it’s going through the lawyers to the politicians. When they get busted, the lawyers make money, ultimately, they’re serving the same masters as the taxpayers. The system is designed to encompass everything, so even illegal activity is funding the system that seeks to destroy them.

This episode is already being hailed as one of, if not the series’ best. I wouldn’t put it quite up there with ‘Final Grades’ or ‘Mission Accomplished,’ though it’s certainly close. The newspaper stuff again is just good, while the rest is great, so unlike ‘Final Grades,’ there are a couple of scenes that don’t feel as emotionally intense and vital. But, it’s undeniably an instant classic, easily the best episode of the season and one of the best all time.

And, it leaves us with one episode left. While I’m looking forward to the fallout on the serial killer, and Marlo taking it to the streets, Rocky V style, I think what I’m most looking forward to is finding out what happens to Dukie. If he gets to talk to Prez, what can he say? What can he be? Will anyone walk away clean, or are Namond and Bubbles the only happy endings? Will Michael meet up with Cutty again? Will the final montage give us a last glimpse of everyone, or just the season five characters? The story won’t definitively end, because life doesn’t definitively end, but I do feel like we’re ninety minutes away from a satisfying conclusion to the story.