WireTAP: A Dialogue About The Wire (Episodes 7-9)

Throughout the fifth and final season of HBO's groundbreaking drama, The Wire, we've featured an ongoing discussion of the series with TAP Online writers.  This week, Matt Yglesias kicks off our dialogue about episodes seven, eight, and nine. (If you haven't been reading, you can catch up on our discussions of episodes one, two and three, and episodes four, five and six.) Next week, we'll bring you a final installment of this discussion -- a look back at the final episode and the series as a whole.  --The Editors

Matt Yglesias: The last couple of episodes have contained many, many excellent moments that I trust reminded us all of why The Wire is the best show in the history of television. That said, at the heart of the most recent plot developments is Kima's decision to tell the truth about McNulty's serial killer investigation and this decision lies at the intersection of comparatively weak points in the show. Given how nonsensical the entire plotline is, it's hard to say whether or not anyone put in the middle of that mess is responding in a realistic way. Worse, the decision-maker is Detective Greggs, whose entire character has been underdeveloped for several seasons. Underdeveloped, one suspects, because she's a woman and the writers' seem to have a pretty sketchy level of interest in women's thinking about the world. ("Look! Kids are cute! I'm gonna change my whole approach!") On top of all that, it's an unusually short season, so there's less time than ever to explore anyone's motivation in detail.

Meanwhile, amidst a much-grumbled-about season, I feel like I haven't seen sufficient grumbling about the politics subplot. Given everything we've seen portrayed about the state of Baltimore under Tommy Carcetti, why on earth would he be considered a viable gubernatorial candidate? Two years as mayor seems like a thin resume in general, and they've hardly been wildly successful, popularity-inducing years. The plot mechanics both require the Carcetti administration to be a huge mess and him to have a serious shot at going to Annapolis, but in the real world the political system's not quite that screwed up -- to get ahead you need at least superficial successes at lower levels.

Kay Steiger: I agree with Matt that Kima Greggs' role in bringing down Jimmy McNulty is purely transactional. Someone had to tell on McNulty, and for whatever reason, they decided it should be Greggs. (You'd think it would be Bunk, which would have made for a much more interesting and tortured decision.) The thing is, and I'm getting a bit into projection for the next episode, I could've called that the serial killer storyline would unravel any substantive work in the department from the moment it was dreamed up. When a viewer can see that twist from miles, er, episodes away, that's not much of a twist. Obviously you can't use a falsified investigation to pursue a real one. You can't fudge the paperwork on a wiretap. We know this. McNulty's character knows this.

As for Tommy Carcetti, when I went to a David Simon event last week, he said Carcetti is based on Maryland's Martin O'Malley, a Baltimore mayor who fudged his crime stats all the way to Annapolis. (Simon, by the way, admits that he voted for the guy. He was the Democrat, after all.) But this isn't quite a fair comparison for Simon to make. O'Malley put in his time, serving two full terms as mayor of Baltimore before his gubernatorial run. There's no way if Carcetti were a real candidate he'd get away with running a city (poorly) for just two years and be considered qualified to run for the statehouse.

Kriston Capps: Another thing that's caused some grumbling is the memory hole that the Greek seems to have fallen through. Yglesias's standing criticism that the events of season two seem to be forgotten by the events of season five really come to the fore in the bust episode. What do Lester Freamon, et al., think they have on their hands when they catch Marlo's crew picking up the shipment? If the Major Crimes unit has internalized any single structural feature of Baltimore crime, it's that it doesn't matter if it's the Barksdales or the Stanfields or the next guys on the street. The viewer knows that the FBI leak means that the police can't get to the Greek, but there's no reason the police should want to stop gunning for the Greek. Freamon doesn't seem to have even noticed that the bust picked up a bunch of drug-suppliers who aren't part of Marlo's crew.

That's really Yglesias's gripe but I'm paraphrasing in order to address my own greatest complaint about the season: Here, in the end, they've finally introduced the element that makes police work impossible in Baltimore—the courthouse leak. (For the record, I think the leak has to be Judge Daniel Phelan, if only because the cast in the State's Attorney's office is small and he seems slimier/less accountable than Bonds' deputy, Ilene Nathan.) You have two connections to Baltimore crime—one, the media, the other, the courts—and the connective tissue between the courts and Baltimore's quagmire is more believable, more consistent with previous seasons, about familiar characters, etc. The court angle explain why the new day in Baltimore is no different from the old day in Baltimore—the careerist prosecutor won't take the headshot against Clay Davis, so Davis gets off. But the courthouse leak also shows the structure that perpetuates the drug trade no matter who the kingpin is. This is all great stuff and could have been explored without the Sun ever rising in this story—but you want to watch David Simon's show, you have to watch through his hang-ups, I suppose.

Ezra Klein: So far as the political subplot goes, there's a lot of information we're simply not privy to. What's the state of the Maryland Democratic Party right now? Do they have any other contenders? What sort of statewide coverage is Carcetti gathering? How much is this a simple overreach by a politician who fought for a position that it turns out he doesn't like? We're only experiencing the primary from Carcetti and his aides, and all campaigns look plausible when you're on the inside. Just ask Joe Biden.

But I don't know why we're spending this WireTAP grumbling. These last few episodes have been, by far, the best of the season, maybe some of the best ever! Since last we talked, Omar has been capped, shot dead by a feral eight-year old who didn't know enough to be afraid of him. Omar was a supernatural figure in our minds, and in the minds of many of Baltimore's drug dealers. But, as Kenard proved, he was just a man. And as the inattentive coroner drove home, he wasn't even a very important one. Meanwhile, Dukie seems to be moving toward a life among street people and junkies just as Bubbles finally escapes. His moment of hesitation as he saw Arabber (the junk man) shoot up was one of the series' truly heartbreaking moment. And does anyone else think that Michael, having capped Snoop and become a wanted man, might become the next Omar? One of Simon's sub-themes seems to be that the game is bigger than the players, and when it loses necessary participants (Avon, Prop Joe), it just finds new bodies to take their place.

Spencer Ackerman: My God! Someone on WireTAP has come around to the view that season five is worthy! Ezra Klein has emerged from the shadow of states' rights into the bright sunshine of human rights.

I second Kriston's assessment that Phelan is the leak, largely because I'd like to believe he overheard me muse along those lines to Yglesias on our stoop on Monday. All of Kriston's substantive reasons are correct. If The Wire got a sixth season, it ought to be about the failure of Calvert Street, with Bond and Pearlman (slightly recast, or at least shown in a different light) in the hubristic Daniels/McNulty roles, trying and failing to clean out Demper's rot and Phelan's corruption. To add the final nail in Phelan's coffin, it must be irresistible to the writers to bookend the series with him. After all, it's Phelan who authorizes the first wiretap after the Gant witness murder. Which probably means the whole thing is a red herring.

Hopefully everyone's noticed that the best episodes of every season are the penultimate ones. Snoop and Chris "hunting" Michael. "You will not pull down any more -- fucking -- wood!" The death of Wallace. The death of Stringer. And now, the death of Snoop. Why are they so good?

Because they're all written by George Pelecanos, D.C.'s poet laureate, the best crime novelist alive. David Simon and Ed Burns deservedly get the limelight. But let's not forget the brilliance of The Wire's supporting cast of heavy-hitter scribes, like Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, and Pelecanos. Pelecanos fans will recognize a few flourishes from his novels. Remember the scene at Bubbles' share session when the lady saucily says that she would've answered if he had called her for help? That's from Drama City, if I'm not mistaken. (Incidentally, also the novel that brought us -- I'm guessing here -- Cheese's poignant/hilarious dog-fighting scene from season three.) The scene at Walter Reed? You didn't think we'd get the last Pelecanos script of The Wire without a Georgia Avenue NW cameo, didja?

Snoop's death is classic Pelecanos. For ten wrenching on-screen minutes, you're convinced Michael's going to die. (Now's the part where my WireTAP colleagues call me naive.) And then Michael flips it on Snoop, and she goes to her death with bravery, vulnerability and acceptance. "You look good, girl." Someone give that man his own show, or at least publish a new novel -- it's been way too long since The Night Gardener.

Ann Friedman: Episodes eight and nine were so great they manage to overshadow, in my mind, the missteps early in the season and even some of the big-picture problems with the writing. I thought Omar's death was written really superbly. It seemed to me that he was violating his code when, in episode seven, he killed Savino just for being Marlo's muscle. Up until this point, we've never seen Omar take an "eh, f--- it" attitude toward killing someone. He usually goes into a situation planning to do someone in, or does so in self defense. Making an on-the-spot decision to kill someone who has not personally wronged him seemed to me a bit out of step with what we've come to know as his code. The moment he pulled the trigger on Savino, I was sure Simon would kill Omar off in the following episode. The scene in episode eight preceding his death, in which Omar walks past the kids who all scatter except for Kenard, was pitch-perfect. So was the fact that he was shot while just ordering a pack of cigarettes. No dramatic last conversation like Prop Joe, no confrontation like Stringer Bell, no corner firefight like so many hoppers and mid-level players. Just, "Pack a Newport," and boom.

I also loved the notion that Omar has indeed succeeded in taking his revenge on Marlo because it was well known on the streets that Marlo never faced him. The scene where Marlo finally finds out, in jail, that Omar has been saying his name on the streets was great. It was so satisfying -- perhaps almost more satisfying than it will be to see Templeton get busted for his fabrications -- to see Marlo's policy of (literally) shooting the messenger come back to bite him.

Not sure I agree with Ezra that Michael is set to become the "next Omar," but I was glad the writers stayed true to his character and wrote him figuring out what was going on, and killing Snoop before she could kill him. And yes, Spencer, that exchange before he shoots her -- "How my hair look, Mike?" "You look good, girl." -- was amazing.

Ezra Klein: I don't buy that killing Savino was against Omar's code, nor an ill-considered act. Omar had a list, in his pocket, of Marlo's men (and women). He was picking them off one by one, "coming at his people," just as he'd promised. When he finds Savino, their conversation is classic Wire. Savino protests that he wasn't in the room. "Maybe you weren't," replies Omar. "But what were you going to do if you was?" In the life Savino had chosen, there were no clean hands, no moral outs. He was muscle, and if he'd been told to come down on Butchie, he would've done it, even if it caused him to wince.

Ann Friedman: I know Omar had a list. But it seemed like he was asking everyone on that list to put the word in Marlo's ear. He wasn't necessarily killing them all... But examples of his other confrontations with people on the list are currently escaping me, so I admit to a possible memory lapse here. Still, something seemed, to me, very off about the Savino scene.

Spencer Ackerman: To get really self-referential, in our first symposium we discussed the idea that Marlo's
ruthlessness is the wages of Barksdale's poison. If that's true, and I believe it is, let's take a look at Kenard here.

Ann rightly praises the economy and thematic consistency of Omar's death at Kenard's hands. Remember what Kenard is doing when all the kids run: he appears to be dousing a cat in gasoline. In every episode of season four when he appears, Kenard is a punchline: baby-faced hustler is tougher than his peers. (Remember when he tells Dozerman, "Put me down, bitch!"?) Season five took a different approach to Kenard. He is the opposite of innocence -- in fact, a refutation of the possibility of innocence in an environment as ravaged as West Baltimore. We don't know a thing about Kennard's background -- like Snoop, like Chris, he emerges sui generic from the streets, completely feral. Or so we think: everything we in fact need to know about what makes Kenard Kenard is encompassed in the urban nightmare that The Wire has delivered to us for five seasons.

The expression on his face after killing Omar is priceless. Even Kenard knows he's crossed into the abyss. What happens now? We'll never get an answer.

Sam Rosenfeld: Positivity! I too am delighted to see this late-breaking burst of celebration overpower the usual hate wave, in a sort of inverse dynamic to the Democratic primary saga. Kay, I'm surprised to hear that David Simon is now explicitly saying that O'Malley is the model for Carcetti. In 2006, when I asked him about O'Malley parallels, he answered (with what I thought was a tone of "why-these-obvious-questions?" weariness): "It's not O'Malley. He was one of several inspirations, but [story editor] Bill Zorzi has covered politicians in Annapolis and Baltimore for his whole career. We were stealing stuff from guys whose names you wouldn't even know." And it's true, I wouldn't!

As for the debate over Omar -- I say, advantage, Ann. What we saw with Omar's return to Baltimore this season was a brilliant, unexpected, and disturbing ploy on the writers' part: first, the apogee of Omar-as-superhero -- his flying leap out the window; then, a grueling and systematic stripping of the mythic luster off the character over the course of several episodes. He hobbles around without his signature coat. He starts swearing (also in violation of Omar-code). The editing in each scene of his encounters with Marlo's crew is deliberately flat, slow-paced, undramatic -- you get none of the zing and pop of Omar's past exploits. We then see him do something that we haven't seen before -- kill a man gratuitously, purely out of spur-of-the-moment pique (a decision that is arrived at, as Ezra rightly notes, through a classic bit of philosophical Wire dialogue). Once he kills Savino, the sense of diminishment from myth to man is close to complete; getting killed by that crazy little spark plug Kenard in a corner store while buying cigarettes fulfills it. (And in one recurring newsroom feature that I think does work, this time the death of "one Omar Little" doesn't merit any space at all in the Baltimore Sun, not even the token mention given to Prop Joe.)

Matt Yglesias: I focus on griping because a bunch of people sitting around talking about how great the show is gets dull. But it's a great show. So as a compromise, let me take note of a loose thread regrettably almost certainly won't get followed up on since HBO demanded that there be only ten episodes -- what next for Delegate Watkins? Outraged by the way men (Royce, Burrell, Davis) who came up with him to form the first generation of African-American political leaders to control Baltimore trashed the city with their corruption, he threw in with Tommy Carcetti. At the end of season four, it looked like he could emerge as the eminence grise of a new cross-racial reform coalition (Carcetti, Bond, and Pearlman at the new state's attorney's office, Daniels and Daniels on the City Council and the Police Department).

Now, thanks to overreaching by Bond and McNulty plus Carcetti's endless capacity for rationalization, the machine is poised to retake possession of the city whether or not Carcetti succeeds in making it to Annapolis. Presumably they'll be out for revenge (think of what'll happen to John Lewis if Hillary Clinton manages to get the nomination) -- how does Watkins cope? Great season six plotline, but I'm never gonna see it. I suspect we will, however, see a parallel plotline as Marlo's crew locates and kills Michael once the case against them collapses in light of the illegal wiretap.

Or maybe I have this whole thing wrong. Maybe Carcetti will deem the revelation of illegal wiretapping to be a huge political boon, will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with McNulty and demand that the city council bestow retroactive immunity on everyone involved in the plot. After all, who wants to be soft on mass-murdering drug dealers?

Sam Rosenfeld: As for Kima's decision to snitch and whether that was dramatically plausible or well-handled (to quote Matt, "Look! Kids are cute! I'm gonna change my whole approach!"), I'd disentangle the personal and professional sides a bit: In her personal life, Kima has long mirrored McNulty's "the dog in me" failings and inability to sustain commitments outside the job; her newfound interest in her kid this season, prompted by looking at the child witness in her murder case, has indeed been an awkward and poorly dramatized subplot. (Though it did give us one of those great moments -- her "good night, fiends" salute to Baltimore at the end of episode seven.) Professionally, though, Kima's always been honor-bound to the rules. Recall, as TV critic Alan Sepinwall points out, late in the first season, when Bunk visits Kima at the hospital and tries to compel her to identify Wee-bey as one of her assailants even though she didn't actually see him. She demurs, saying, "Sometimes, things just got to play hard." That aside, Kay and Matt are both right that this turn in the plot comes across as arbitrary and transactional both because Kima's character has been so neglected in the past two seasons and because the serial killer plot this season has been so generally screwy and implausible that it's rendered it hard to follow anyone's relevant decisions with a sense that they're well-grounded in the characters.

(And speaking of Alan Sepinwall, I can't resist mentioning this great catch of his: The episode nine scene in jail, when Marlo at long last comes to furious life at the news of Omar's trash talking and declares "My name is my name!", echoes the scene late in season two when Vondas casually tells the Greek that Nick Sobotka knows his name, "But my name is not my name." It's the contrast between the Stanfied and Greek operations: ruthlessness borne from a sociopathic will to power versus ruthlessness borne from pure profit motive. A name's just a name with the latter; with the former -- the street culture distilled to its purest form -- it's everything.)

Matt Yglesias: It's a good point on the name/name contrast between Marlo and the Greeks (or, I guess, "Greeks" since as we know "they know me as the Greek, but of course I am not Greek"). Another reason, I think, to regret the somewhat rushed nature of the depiction of Marlo nailing down the connect with them before bumping off Joe. Does Marlo seem like the kind of guy you'd want to go into business with? Seems like something that would at least get debated a bit.

But speaking of the Greeks, is it possible that we haven't considered a wide enough array of suspects for the courthouse leak. Part of the show's grand irony is that ever since season two we've known that drug investigations in Baltimore are all drawing dead -- following the drugs leads to the Greek, but the Greek is protected by the FBI and can't be touched. Could courthouse info be flowing through federal channels? Or through the Greek? Or both? Does Levy know anything about the Greek? So many questions.

Kay Steiger: I don't mean to be such a hater. As Matt said, the last three episodes especially have been filled with some great moments. I think this is more a problem with series writing, especially one that spans so many seasons. They built up a lot of great stuff, so they had to find ways to deal with it all. Simon described colored note cards on bulletin boards representing each character and string that represented plotlines -- something similar to what we saw in season one. In the end though, some characters get more justice than others.

Seeing Namond and Bunny be a real family was really great and heartwarming. It was almost enough to make up for the trivial serial killer plot. Some of the real genius of the writers is that they're not afraid to kill of some of the most compelling characters on the show: Stringer Bell, Bodie, Omar, and Snoop. That takes real skill and guts. The characters are all, as Simon said, in a "rigged game."

Ezra Klein: I love Sam's point on the difference between a "ruthlessness borne from a sociopathic will to power versus ruthlessness borne from pure profit motive." It also reminds me of one of Prop Joe's great lines. After dragging Marlo to meet Levy, a move that helped seal Joe's eventual doom, he turned to Slim Charles and muttered, "It ain't easy civilizing this motherf---er." Problem was, Joe was trying to civilize Marlo into a world of profit, when what Marlo really wanted was a world of power. He wasn't born to play the son, no matter how large the eventual inheritance.

Also, on some level, I don't think it matters who the leak is. So long as there's a market demand, there will be someone willing to take the kickback. Reminding us of this was, I think, the reason behind Carcetti's odd apology to Bunny in the last episode. Politically, of course Carcetti couldn't protect Hamsterdam! Carcetti had no choice in the matter. But the writers were gesturing towards one of the fundamental problems of the drug war: We're imposing political solutions atop economic problems. It's a poor fit, and the parts of the market that reemerge through the cracks are violent and vicious. An economic solution would, of course, be better -- that's what Hamsterdam was. It created a market where the incentives were to compete based on product alone, rather than product and viciousness. At the end of the day, though, Simon wants a political economy solution, one that takes power into account, and can explain both Marlo's ruthlessness and the Greek's cold calculations. It's a tall charge, and I think some of the weirdness of the final season -- the need for the newsroom, and the serial killer -- is Simon and his writers providing a dramatic conclusion that can act as a stand-in for an intellectually satisfying conclusion. The show is getting a conclusion, even though what its viewers want is a solution.

Kriston Capps: For their part, the writers have offered with some hesitation their solution: jury nullification.

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