Digital Polyphony

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The Wire: A Look Back (Pt 2)

Posted on July 27, 2011 at 1:52 AM

The Wire: A Look Back (Pt. 2)

Now on to Part Two of my love-fest rambling of The Wire looking at Seasons 2 and 3. Be aware of spoilers if you haven't seen the series, I absolutely recommend watching them first to prevent all that, and also note that these little haphazard look backs are only scratching the surface. Most characters and a good number of smaller sub-plots I'm not even touching on.

Season 2:

(In which we learn about ports, dockworkers, smuggling and all our characters try to find new jobs)

At the end of Season One, we saw the entire division headed by Cedric Daniels fall apart. They threw out the die and got snake eyes. We see where the rest have landed, some in homicide (Lester and Bunk, a hell of a team in my mind), some in narcotics and McNulty...well, McNulty's on a boat.

Just look how happy he is to be on a boat.

Yeah, Rawls had it out for him at the end of Season One and put him right where old police go to die. But there's something brewing on the ports of Baltimore and it all come ahead when a container full of dead women is found. drawing in McNulty, meeting Beatrice "Beady" Russel of the port police (they team up to try and solve the case which nobody wants to solve) and the entire port and dockworkers that have corruption going back decades. The season mainly focuses on a larger syndicate of smuggling, Russian mobsters, corruption of the dockworkers union (minor in comparison to the very police looking to take them down), and the lack of overseeing and policing the docks as a whole. 

Even though the blue-collar world of the dockworkers has assumed the main focus over the inner-urban black community, the message is still the same: these are poor people stuck in a cycle they can't get out of. Drugs and alcohol are rampant, they police themselves (which means there's a law that only they follow) and crime is just a way of life. Like the first season, these men (and women to an extent) aren't entirely bad people. You'll get to know them and understand where they're coming from, even when they are breaking the law. The Wire always paints a portrait that's more than just a shallow caricature of our assumptions. 

Omar Testifies, Stringer rethinks the Game with Prop Joe and the catalyst for the port investigations for Season Two: dead bodies in a container.

The story of the urban-city world we started with in Season One isn't done with, though. Stringer Bell is working behind the scenes, making deals, trying to turn his empire to legitimacy as other crews make their way up, notably Prop Joe. He talks with Avon Barksdale in prison, but Avon still thinks he's running things, as well as D'Angelo Barksdale who's also in prison and rethinking his way of life. Stringer is working with other dealers and crews in secret.

Oh, and Omar. Yeah, he's still around too. He almost wasn't, though. Omar was only supposed to be in the first season, but people and the creators loved him and the performance so much, he ended up lasting all five seasons. We're better off for it. 

It's hard to write about Omar, though. On paper, it's very simple: he's a stick up guy going around and robbing drug dealers. That's his thing. But what that doesn't say is how much of a presence he is and commanding of a persona he exudes from the screen. His arc is simple, yes. His story straightforward. But character, his depth and everything else that makes Omar more than just a word on a page of a picture is where the strength lies. 

I was listening to an interview the actor, Michael K. Williams, gave about the show and his character, shortly around the time President Obama noted that Omar LIttle was his favorite character in fiction. He said something along the lines of the one defining trait that represented omary: sensitivity. Omar is a sensitive, respectful and understanding human being. He'll listen to you, understand your problems, help you deal with them even by simply talking it out...but if you cross him he'll shoot you in the face with a shotgun (his trademark weapon of choice to the point that he becomes more a myth or an urban legend of Baltimore).

The entire reason for the Major Case Unit to be reassembled boils down to a childish Stan Valchek on the left and his hatred towards Frank Sobotka on the right. Frank, as you'll find, is the center of EVERYTHING...yet he's not the guy they really should be investigating

McNulty isn't stuck on that boat for long as soon the team is reassembled (though McNulty the last of the pieces Daniels goes for, so it takes a while) and you get a great sense of satisfaction in this season: the crew coming home. It took a handful of episodes, but to have them all walk in and give a smile to each other is something that will make you giddy. It's too bad they're reassembled not because of the container of dead women, but because of the agenda of an asshole: Major Stan Valchek who's in a feaud with the dock untion president, Frank Sobotka. Both are pretty morally corrupt, often act like children, but the difference is that Frank is a hard man with a hard life and he has little to really show for it...Valchek is making his life miserable over (and get this) a fucking stained-glass window in a church. He wants his stained glass window representing the police force in one part of the church, but Sobatka already claimed the area.

Like McNulty excited on his boat, just look at how happy Bunk is to come home to the Major Case Unit. On the right, we have Ziggy and Nick Sabatka planning to get in over their heads and try and claw out of the dockworkers life.

The dockworkers life is hard and goes for generation after generation. Frank Sobatka's son, Ziggy, and his nephew, Nick Sabatka, look to go into business for themselves. They see Frank, he has money, they know that some containers "dissapear" so they start looking to smuggle in goods for the Russian mob, headed by a man only known as The Greek.

The Greek doesn't get his hands dirty directly, though, so his mouthpiece is Vondas, played by Paul ben Victor who, I swear, looks like a young Robert Davi. His muscle here is Sergi, your typical Russian muscle who's name may or may not Sergi.

Vondas, front/center, is the right-hand man of The Greek (glasses). They hold no allegiences to anyone, just keep their money and supplies coming or they're slit your throat, cut off your fingers and chop your head off...and I'm not being hyperbolic here either.

So what's happening here? It's a comedy or errors, if you want to get technical. The Unit is reassembled, Cedric Daniels again the head guy, to keep an eye of Frank Sobotka. Valchek has no evidence, he just wants him scared a bit, only assuming Frank actually is doing something illegal. Thing is, his son and and nephew are doing something illegal. Frank kinda-sorta knows about it but looks the other way. As the Unit investigates Frank, they come to know about the Russians and the smuggling, the girls brought in as prostitues, the FBI investigating further (with a turncoat agent to boot) all leading up to their discovery of this man known as The Greek. They went in with nothing, and came out with a huge case.

Except The Greek is a shifty bastard, and his pal at the FBI is keeping tabs on this investigation. He can't do anything about Frank, but he can protect The Greek at all costs. In the middle of all this is Ziggy and Nicky, and both start down one path, and diverge hugely as the season goes on. Ziggy gets more antsy, into drugs, wants more money and makes huge mistakes. Nicky is a smarter, more patient person and starts making deals with The Greek directly, making even more money in the process that he helps Ziggy out with when he can. Ziggy, whether it's through jealousy or just stupidity, feels he can do the same. The result: he kills a man associated with the Greek after an argument of about stolen cars.

The scene of his brutal rampage is damn difficult to watch. The Wire, very candidly, shows it all in one shot as Ziggy's mind begins to race, he enters the store and just blows the guy and his associate away. He walks, staggers, back to his car, and absolutely breaks down. The handling of this scene was one of the most memorable moments of the entire series.

Like a lot of characters, you will loathe Ziggy through 90% of Season Two, but you will find yourself caring for him at the flip of a switch after a pivotal moment.

Meanwhile, Frank is looking to talk to the Greek directly as he's found out he's being tapped/followed. The Greek's FBI friend, though, gets wind that Frank is going to turn on them (which he is as he's been approached by the BPD numerous times). We get a fade to black, though, and nothing gory or grueseome when it comes to Frank. We don't need to see "how" they kill Frank. We can imagine it's probably not very nice, going by what they've done to people in the past, but Frank dies. Between Ziggy in prison and Frank dead, Nicky is the one that looks to bring the Greek down and begins to make a deal himself, but it's too little too late and The Greek and his gang, other than Sergi, get away.

A collective sigh everyone, or as Clay Davis says "sheeeeeeee--it."

Two seasons in a row, they don't get their man. At least not entirely They wanted The Greek here, they wanted Stringer Bell in season one. Still, they exposed a major syndicate and got their man, Frank, even though he certainly didn't deserve the fate he ended up with. So, technically, Daniels did as he was told by Valchek and now has a permanent Unit for Season Three, where we pick all this up and they look to bring down Stringer.

Speaking of Stringer Bell, let's see what he's been up to during all this:

This was no boating accident.

Oh...he had D'Angelo killed in prison. Well...that's that, then...

D'Angelo already was foreshadowwed to break ties with the Barksdale crew in Season One, his mother being the one that kept him from doing what his heart really wanted to do (get out of The Game, so he ended up not turning snitch). Yes, his mother is a pathetic and disgusting woman who I can 100% say I have no pity for whatsoever. Stringer gets word of this and D'Angelo, really one of the best characters in the show, is shockingly killed off and it made to look like a suicide. Avon, his uncle, is unaware of Stringer's orders and is oblivious to the murder entirely despite that he and D'Angelo were in the same prison together.

Avon, perhaps through clouts of emotion, starts putting in orders around Stringer because he feels the East Side crews, notably Prop Joe, are getting too close to the West Side and moving in on territory. Stringer, as mentioned, is secretly working with Prop Joe behind Avon's back. The result, for a few episodes here and in next season...Brother Mouzone.

Think Omar, Mouzone is just as intelligent only well-spoken and with a snazzy bow-tie.

In another turn of a comedy of errors, with people unaware of everything else, Stringer hears about Mouzone and hires our man Omar to stalk him and take him out. If there's anyone to do it, it's Omar.

But there's no showdown. Not like you'd think. Omar gets to Mouzone with ease, shooting him in the gut, but something stops him from finsihing it off. Omar starts to realize something...he's been played. Mouzone starts to realize it too. But that story is for another time, and Omar saves Mouzone's life.

What Season Two manages to do is show parallels of factions. Much of the stories of the Dockworkers and the Police run side by side. Union corruption is equated to police corruption, the two heads in Valchek and Sobotka are juvenille children at best, yet they run massive organizations (especially Sobotka). It's about how these supposed fully-organized institutions impact the lives of those udner them, whether they realize it or not, and how, perhaps, the wrong people are pulling the strings. The story of Omar and Mouzone I just brought up is a simple example of this parallel as well, and it sums up the "being played" theme of Season Three nicely.

It's also about being "stuck" in life. The projects in urban areas or the dockworkers or people stuck doing jobs they don't want to do or even in prison, and I think the final image of the season is nice symbolism:

The struggle of the trapped lower class. Nicky knows he'll never get out.


Season 3:

(In which we return to the new project and learn about legalizing drugs to make the world better and how politics are bullshit).

You know those good and bad sides and their subgroups? Get ready to add a shade of gray to it as the "good" side is about to become a hell of a lot more bureaucratic as we look deeper into the structure of law enforcement and government. Within the good group and the police side of things, a new  area or two develops: those that want to create a long-lasting change and have an impact and the officials who keep that from happening because they feel it can't. Those that feel they can make a change are Tommy Carcietti of the city council and Major Colvin, a commanding officer in the western district where Season One's poverty-stricken project towers rose high in the sky. Those are gone now, and the city has become worse for it. There's also Odell Watkins, a prominent figure in the community, however he's only a figurehead and wants change but doesn't do a lot to make it happen.

Those keeping this down are your mayors and your police commissioners who feel the numbers game is all that matters. It's a political game that is meant to reflect the and parallel the "game" that is played on the street. The Season, though sometimes a bit on the nose in that regard, manages to pretty much show how it's all more same than different.

Two major characters to keep track of this season: Major Howard Colvin and, though he has appeared in pervious seasons, Police Commissioner Ervin Burrell. One thinks outside the box, the other wants to skate by on the broken system.

This season was certainly one that stuck out. Well, they all stick out, but this one actually creates a theoretical situation. The projects have been destroyed, the towers from the frist season, and now the drug dealers and corner boys venture out to other parts of the neighborhoods. Major Howard Colvin, a new character this year, due to pressure from the bureaucrats and their screwed-up numbers game, tries an experiment: make the sell of drugs tolerated, but only in certain blocks of his district. This gets drug dealers off the corners of otherwise good neighborhoods, good people back out on the street and leaves the dealers and fiends to their designated areas that nobody lives in.

And you know what? It works. In fact, this season's detailing the elements of doing such a project so well that many thought it had to have been based on a true story – some crazy police captain in a district of Baltimore more or less legalizing the sell of drugs behind the back of his commanding officers (Police Commissioner Burrell and now-Deputy Commissioner Wiliam Rawls). As long as we don’t see it, it doesn’t exist, right?

His theory and view is interesting, to say the least. You aren’t going to stop drugs. The war is lost. All the Reaganisms and DARE programs in the world won’t stop it. So, to him, putting them in a dark corner, away from the good of the city, is a good way to at least not be constantly exposed and putting lives of children and other youth in danger.

That is until you see the living hell they’re in. Where there’s drugs, there’s addicts, and the addicts take up shop in these little blocks of abandoned, vacant homes that have no electricity or running water and the result is a disgusting piece of humanity all in one area. Colvin counters this by having medical personal and charities visit the area, but there’s such a mass of dealers and addicts that no dent can really be made.

Tommy Carcetti will become a pretty important character, starting this season as he's on the City Council, we then follow his campaign and eventually his stint as Mayor of Baltimore. It traces the fall of idealism that succumbs to bitter reality in just a few years.

This is all intertwined with the “numbers game” of politicians as we also come to learn about the new Mayoral election for the city, how politicians make promises and rarely keep it and the bullshit they lay out there to give the impression that things are better than they really are. Tommy Carcetti is head of the City Council and by the final few episodes the leading candidate to run for mayor. The reason is that this reveal of this "plan" completely destroys incumbent mayor, Clarence Royce's chances. Carcetti looks to discuss reform, that this happened under Royce's watch (the Commissioner Burrell siding with Carcetti to protect himself when Royce threatens him) and it all sets the dominoes to fall in Seasons 4 and 5 as Carcetti campaigns and, soon, wins the election. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

The B Story is the drug dealers themselves as we move back to the inner-urban story a little more, but this time Stringer’s attempt to turn things around, Avon getting out and clashing with that and the rise of Marlo, who will come to be a major player in Seasons 4 and 5. We get the first wiff of Marlo venturing out on his own and taking over here. He's an interesting character to say the least. He's bright, but laid back and casual - unassuming, almost, to everything that's going on around him. Truth is, he's probably thinking five steps ahead of least until Omar returns doing what Omar does best.

Just looking at the two, you can see the difference in philosophy. Stringer is the business minded, Avon still working the streets when he's out.

Stringer welcomes Avon with open arms once he's out, but Avon just can't grasp the idea that Stringer is turning legit. Of course, Avon still isn't entirely in the loop either when it comes to deals with Prop Joe, the co-op (kind of a "band of dealers") that is forming and the idea of "clean" money. Avon is straight from the streets, he doesn't think the way Stringer has. Stringer goes to class, learns business and is slowly dissembling the Barksdale crew. Avon, though, wants Barksdale as strong as ever. It's his name, afterall.

The result is the two turning on each other. Stringer gives info on where to take down Avon to Colvin, who in turn gives it to the Major Case Unit, Avon gives info to a certain friend. Brother Mouzone, who is back in town. Stringer made the mistake of trying to kill Mouzone, threatening Barksdale's ties to New York entirely, and now that Avon knows, he gives Stringer up to Mouzone to make it right.

And just to be safe, Mouzone hires one extra gun to be sure...and one that has the right to take Stringer down too. You can guess the end result: shotguns, handguns, and Stringer laying in a pool of blood in one of his so-called "legitimate" buildings he's renovating.

Omar and Mouzone...BFFs4Life

The victory of taking down Avon was bittersweet. It didn't bring the Unit Stringer as Stringer was now dead. Still, after three seasons, this was a good little victory for the unit. It will be short lived as Marlo takes over and he becomes their next target for the next two seasons.

There's one major sub-plot I would be remiss to not bring up, though. In episode one we're introduced to Dennis "Cutty" Wise as he leaves prison. He's given an offer by Avon (Avon not released yet for a few episodes later) to be hired muscle. Cutty has been around for a while, former boxer, former gangster who's more than earned his amount of respect. But now, over a decade later, he's learning The Game has passed him by. He tries desperately to get back into it, tries to be the Soldier he once was, but hes developed quite a conscious over the years in prison. As the turf war with Marlo Stanfield begins to take off, he's shown his intelligence in planning and executing hits on Marlo's people.

Yet, it wears thin. He starts to hesitate, think twice....things he never used to do, and he ends up finding comfort doing landscaping duties as he tries to think of a new direction. He goes on to work on opening a Boxing Gym for kids, and by Season Four has turned it into a great youth center to get kids off the street.  Cutty truly cares about the kids he takes in. He talks direct with them, about the street and the game, and works on getting them to overcome their problems. For some kids, it works, others it's still not enough...but he accepts the fact that he at least tried.

Cutty's story doesn't intertwine that much with the main plot, but it incorporates the entirity of the season's main themes.

Much like the Omar/Mouzone subplot of Season 2, Cutty's subplot puts the theme of the entire season in a nutshell: redemption and reform.  The Major Case Unit is looking to redeem it's past misdeeds, and even though they built the case, Stringer is wound up dead thanks to Omar and Mouzone's revenge. Still, they succeeded at least as a moral victory. This opens the door for Marlo in Seasons 4 and 5, which will become their main focus. It also shows the reform saught on the administrative level, with Colvin battling the system and trying something new,  Commisioner Burrell  worried more about image than anything and Carcetti looking to completely turn things around on the city council and as he looks to run for mayor.

I found this season damn impressive, even if the old cast seems to be a bit on the backseat - though not as much as they will be in Season 4 where the cast number explodes and you have a ton of threads and factions to keep track of. McNulty is still doing what he does best, making you love him as a cop but hate him as a person. Bunk is interesting in that he is sitll working mostly homicide, but we see him reach out to Omar directly. Omar lost a member of his crew in a shootout and they have one of the best scenes in the season. Two great actors right there, folks. Lester Freamon is also figuring some things out as his Unit begins to realize the reason they're having trouble tracking crews and gangmembers is the use of "burner" cell phones - disposables they buy throughout the state and throw away once the minutes are up. Kima, Herc and Carver are all still doing what they do best, playing things on the street level, but Herc seems pretty cynical to the whole "experiment" that Colvin is doing in his district and Carver trying to become a figure in the community, help the youth and maybe contribute to more in the poverty-stricken areas than just being a police officer.

In another life, Omar and Bunk might have been good friends.

The biggest attribute and focus of this season is the character of Colvin who, out of all the characters for all the seasons, is the one person who I felt actually did something to try and change the situation in West Baltimore, his district. He actually cared and did more than just juking numbers – he looked to better the lives of those he could, unfortunately he didn’t realize the ‘write off” he was giving to those that were in need. They might have been lost causes...but he didn’t have the right to determine that and send them to their fates.

Out of all Seasons, Seasons 3 and 4, though being the more convoluted and complicated in terms of narrative (and some characters almost footnotes), really have the most to say about the institutions that make up our cities and society. Season 3 is a return to the projects, but is also a foreshadow to the elements found in Season 4 as we look at the educational system and the Season 4 and 5 arc of governments and bureaucracy and the new mayor, Tommy Carcetti.

Now let's get ready for our final entry in Part Three: a political-fueled Season 4, stories of City Hall, mayoral elections and the crumbling school system and the wrap-up of just about everything with every character in Season Five.


Prepare for a Senator Clay Davis Sheeeeeeit Storm next time 'round.

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