Before getting started, a couple of notes:
1. New episodes of The Wire are available on HBO On Demand a week before they’re officially broadcast. This means that some or many of you will be privy to information in future episodes. Needless to say, DO NOT give away any spoilers in the comment section. Specific discussion of the current episode or previous episodes of the show is welcome, of course, and speculation about the future is also fine. Just don’t give anything away or I’ll delete with extreme prejudice.
2. I’m one of those annoying robots who consider The Wire the greatest drama in TV history, so unless things go completely awry in a way they haven’t in the previous four seasons, an “A” grade will be pretty rote. I’ll just be doing my best to illuminate its greatness and hopefully the rest of you can chip in, too. They’ll be a lot of discuss every week and no matter how long-winded these recaps get, I’m sure they’ll only be just the tip of the iceberg. I trust you folks will fill in the gaps.
So let’s get to it…
Among the many things that separate The Wire from other TV dramas is the way that creator David Simon eases into a season. There are never any big setpieces or incidents to grab viewers by the lapels—the one possible exception being the bodies on the dock in Season Two—but a confident, methodical patience in revealing up one story thread after another. This probably explains why some people have expressed problems getting into the show; without anything particularly attention-grabbing at the start, they have to sort through a couple dozen major players and the extraordinarily intricate plotting that binds them together.
For my money, tonight’s episode had maybe the show’s best soft opening to date—or at least since McNulty’s “Snotboogie” monologue to open the series. Bunk’s speech about how the right to remain silent is overrated sounds at first like a nugget of wisdom, but it’s the start of a hilarious gambit to pit a couple of unseasoned young hoods against each other. For the price of two Quarter Pounders, “big fries,” and McDonaldland cookies, Bunk and his cohorts are able to divide and conquer, which seems absurd on its face—as does the copy machine lie-detector test a few minutes later—but perfectly in line with the show’s general view of humanity. In the world of The Wire, there are no loyalties and everyone has a price, even if that price is a value meal at Mickey D’s. Or maybe, in the words of one veteran detective, “Americans are a stupid people, by and large.” Whatever the case, it’s entirely believable that the solidarity between these kids could be broken by so little as a mouthful of fries.
The title of the episode, “More With Less,” pretty much says it all. And what’s remarkable about the hour is that it continues coming back to that theme in every area—the cops, the drug dealers, and the journalists—while still moving the overall story forward. I don’t know a single person in the working world who doesn’t know what doing “more for less” is all about: It’s the nature of the capitalist system—and the government institutions that support it—that we’ve forced to make the most out of limited staff, limited resources, and limited pay. Budget freezes, cutbacks, and general belt-tightening are par for the course, yet the need for employees to produce under the squeeze is still there. Here, the mayor still needs his crime stats, cops still need their collars, journalists still need to put out copy, and drug dealers still have to work their corners, even if they’re getting less of a cut than they have in the past.
No institution has been damaged more profoundly by “more with less” than the Fourth Estate, and Simon, who spent 14 years as a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, knows that world extremely well. With the move to the Internet siphoning off circulation numbers everywhere—and media companies buying up once-proud papers and sucking the life out of them—journalism has suffered immensely. Needless to say, that’s a dangerous development, since good reporting is part of what protects the people from tyranny and abuse from those in power. Of course, those poor bastards who remain in the field still have jobs to do, and the episode goes into gratifying detail about how newspapers get assembled every week, as well as the salty language and rock-bottom morale that typifies the modern newsroom. Simon knows this world inside and out, from the smoke breaks where veterans air their grievances to the budget meetings where stories are pages are planned (and stories are killed) to the way that a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it property swap can develop into a major scoop.
And presiding over it all is Clark Johnson, as veteran Sun city desk editor Gus Haynes, and I can’t imagine a better person for the role. Johnson directed the first two episodes of The Wire and has done some directing work for the also-excellent The Shield, but he’s remembered best as a series regular on Homicide: Life On The Street, the groundbreaking Baltimore detective show to which all shows of its kind owe a debt. His general M.O. as an actor is exceedingly laid-back and jokey, with a seen-it-all attitude and the gallows humor to match. He plays wise men, and that wisdom is on display all over this episode, from the brilliantly funny riff where he complains about a photographer always inserting burnt dolls into fire shots to the slight suspicion when an overeager reporter (played by Tom McCarthy, an actor who also directed The Station Agent and The Visitor) pleas for reaction story on the swapped-property scandal. It’s clear that Gus will be front-and-center this season, and I can’t wait to see how Johnson will step up. So far, so very, very good.
In the face of a budget crunch, the Baltimore P.D. have no choice but to be “professional,” which Simon presents as both completely true and a line of bullshit to keep the troops from revolting. Despite not having an honest paycheck in months and stacks of worthless paper detailing backpay that’s not forthcoming, the cops have to keep on patrolling, even if it means arresting themselves for failure to pay child support. Sergeant Carver, now the SIC, gives an impassioned speech about how they need to keep working until the money starts to flow again, but it’s a transparent performance: Says the District Commander, “You gave ‘em the professionalism bit, right?” When word comes down that the broken-down police vehicles will have to be driven without repair, a couple of cops get in a fight that no one rushes to break up. What’s the point? There’s no morale left anyway.
All these problems are laid at the feet of Carcetti, who passed up the $50 million education bailout for political reasons. At the time, Carcetti didn’t want the incumbent Republican governor to embarrass him and offer the Party a cudgel with which to beat him over the head in future, so the slick new mayor took a pass on it. This means the city’s budget is tied up in the schools while all the money promised to the desperate police force has dried up. Carcetti’s grizzled advisor Norman—fast becoming one of my favorite characters on the show—fails to see the wisdom: “All that makes you is a weak-ass mayor of a broke-ass city.” For Carcetti to turn around and ask the police brass to show him the improved stats he campaigned on is one of the night’s lowest moments.
Lower still, of course, is that the budget problems mean that Major Crime’s year-long investigation into Marlo’s operation and the 22 bodies in the vacant houses is thrown on the scrapheap. It might seem impossible to pull the investigation into such an astonishing crime, but a little bit of language about putting it on hold pending future developments is enough to get it done. Never mind that a methodical investigation can’t be broken up without essentially losing the case—or, as someone notes, the fact that crime has been suppressed simply by virtue of tracking Marlo’s crew—but politics come first. Though the detectives are predictably cynical about this development (“Every day, same shit,” says Kima), they’re crushed by it, too: Poor Daniels, who really did believe he could take Carcetti’s word, is shocked that Clay Davis’ corruption case takes precedent over 22 dead bodies. And McNulty, chained once again to his cubicle in Homicide, ends the episode by kicking the desk in frustration. In the world of The Wire, caring about your job is the sure ticket to being made a fool over and over again.
The only one thriving in these tight times is Marlo, though it’s not like he derives any joy from it. Knowing how powerful he is, he could care less about sharing the wealth, whether that means squeezing a dealer into accepting a smaller piece of the pie (“He’s taking our shit 60/40. He didn’t show any heart at all.”) or refusing to contribute to Prop Joe’s relief fund for struggling East Siders. (Incidentally, I loved Marlo’s cover for entering the hotel. The cops are startled to see him head into the hotel for some action, but his real purpose is to slip into a conference room for a meeting. No rest for the wicked, it would seem.) Presumably, business is booming for Marlo, so his reasons for cutbacks are different than those at the other institutions: The kid’s a capitalist and being a good capitalist is about maximizing profits. He does it as pitilessly as any CEO might.
Okay, that’s all from me for now. I realize I’m leaving some characters off the table—Bubbles, Herc, Michael, Dukie, et al.—but these Wire episodes are so ridiculously dense that I really can’t sweat the small stuff too much. I leave you to do that on the comment board.
• McNulty is still just endlessly entertaining, from the exchange about him “closing the deal” during an undercover vice sting to his pitiful attempt to pass off drunken slurring as tiredness. I can’t decide now whether he’s more fun off the wagon or on. Tonight’s episode made a strong argument for the former.
• Nice bit of parallel dialogue: “Some day, I want to find out what it’s like to work for a real newspaper.” And later, a similar line, only with “police department” substituted for “newspaper.” Living in a second-tier city can be pretty humbling sometimes.
• “What kind of people stand around watching a fire? Some shameful shit right here.”
• “A building can be evacuated. To evacuate a person is to give them an enema.”
• Funniest exchange of the night: Showing off his fancy suit, Herc says “It puts the ‘b’ in ‘subtle.” Response: “There’s a ‘b’ in subtle?”