The Wire: "Not For Attribution"
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The Wire: "Not For Attribution"

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The Wire

"Not For Attribution"

Season 5, Episode 3

Sopranos creator David Chase and Wire creator David Simon have always been conflated in my mind, not just because they’re the two Davids responsible for two of the finest TV dramas ever, but also because they’re running neck-and-neck for the title of Most Cynical Man In Show Business. On a show by the two Davids, there’s no such thing as loyalty, everyone has a price, all of society’s institutions are fatally flawed or corrupt, and acts of nobility or simple human decency usually yield little reward. They have no impulse to coddle to viewers or contrive happy destinies for their sympathetic characters; they just want to show the world as they see it, as pretty as a bug-spattered windshield.

Tonight, you really have to give the edge to Simon, don’t you? Last week, there were some concerns from the peanut gallery that McNulty’s crazy plan to invent a serial killer in order to “open the [fiscal] faucets” would take the show in a bad direction. That it was just too jump-the-shark outlandish for him to attempt such a scheme and that doing so could potentially derail the final season of this very fine show. And yet it turns out that Simon The Cynic has pulled a fast one on us: Far from flooding the department with desperately needed funding and resources, nobody gave a rat’s ass. If 22 bodies boarded up in the vacants “doesn’t rate,” then it makes sense that the connected deaths of a few strangled vagrants ain’t exactly front-page material.

Watching McNulty construct this flimsy case, with its telltale red ribbons, is funny enough, but the apathetic reception is truly priceless. He tries, God love him, to stoke the fire within Homicide—where “most of the people couldn’t catch the clap in a Mexican whorehouse”—but he’s greeted with the most hilarious fart this side of Steve Buscemi’s roomie in Ghost World, and jerk-off motions from Landsman, who probably wouldn’t be moved to action if a bullet-riddled body were splayed out on his desk. He arranges a meeting with up-and-coming Sun reporter Alma Gutierrez, but the story gets tucked inside the Metro section, buried next to a girdle ad.

The shrug of a response to McNulty’s fake serial killer reinforces Bunk, Lester, and McNulty’s barroom conversation from the week before: If you’re from the wrong zip code, nobody cares if you die. (Or, as Bunk put it so well in reference to the Nathalie Holloway case, “This ain’t Aruba, bitch!”) It’s a well-worn point, but it’s worth remaking, given the distracting obsession with cases like Holloway’s and Jon Benet Ramsey. (I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that Nancy Grace was yammering away in the background while Gus was phoning the newsroom in the middle of the night.) For McNulty, it’s a bitter, bitter irony that he can’t light the fuse on his self-destructive scheme; here’s a man who’s willing to lay his career (and more) on the line just to work the Marlo case, yet there’s no one downfield to catch his desperation heave. In retrospect, he should have known better.

The “wrong zip code” theme also played heavily into the Sun subplot as well, which suggests to me that Simon, a former crime reporter, had more than a few stories unjustly shuffled into obscurity. Alma is clearly being set up as a counter to Scott: A young, eager reporter who really does care about working a story right and serving her readership, rather than assembling hot clips for a bump to the Times or the Post. Seeing her excitement in getting that first byline front-page/above-the-fold—and her willingness to drive all the way out to the printing press at an ungodly hour to do so—was hugely endearing, but of course The Wire is all about dashing such dreams. She naively expects that her story on the triple murder would rate a big headline, but again, this particular home invasion didn’t take place in a suburban cul-de-sac. They’re “dead where it doesn’t count.” (In a nice parallel at the BPD, Kima is the lone detective working the case.)

Meanwhile, the Sun staff deals with more of the buyouts and cutbacks that have strangled newspapers in the Internet age. Newsroom scenes like the one where the suits announce the shuttering of all the foreign bureaus and the continuation of buyouts probably ring painfully true to any poor soul still working in the journalism business. And the writers lost are indispensable: For the money it costs to keep a seasoned reporter, the paper can buy “one and a half” greenhorns like Scott, and that’s what happens. I know many critics have taken Simon to task for having an ax to grind with his former profession generally and the Sun specifically, and there are certainly times when his animus leads to him to paint in broad strokes. (I’m thinking of the Executive Editor character especially, who seems little more than a fatuous tool at this point.) But the show has come closer to anything, film or TV, that I’ve seen in pinpointing precisely what’s going wrong in the contemporary newsroom; The Wire is that “amorphous” story about social ills that the Executive Editor doesn’t want, and this season has added the Fourth Estate as another critical urban institution that has failed the people.

From last week’s Stephen Glass-like fabrication of the Opening Day story, Scott seems poised to move on to more dangerous, Jayson Blair-like lies on the stories that matter. His single “react quote” about Daniels stabbing Burrell in the back is, as usual, unsubstantiated and potentially far more destructive than even he realizes. Daniels recognizes it right away as “bullshit,” but the die has been cast: Now he has to worry about how Burrell might respond with his commissioner job in jeopardy and his successor apparently active in lobbying for the position at his expense. I don’t know precisely what Burrell might have on Daniels (I seem to recall some misdeeds in Daniels’ past, but were they ever specified?), but Scott’s sexy quote may well have put the wheels in motion.

On the crime side, I think we may be seeing some cracks in Marlo’s steely façade. There was some compelling speculation on the boards last week that Marlo may be getting played by Avon Barksdale, our O.G., who might have ulterior motives in hooking him up with the Greeks. I’m pretty bad at predicting such things, so I’ll stop there, but Marlo seems more vulnerable now that he ever has in the past. He’s still a relative newcomer to the game, and as much as he’s made old-timers like Prop Joe look vulnerable at times, he lacks the wisdom, humility, and simple pragmatism to get the stranglehold on the city’s drug trade that he desires. He’s the furthest thing from a cosmopolitan guy—as Prop Joe says, in my favorite line of the night, “Ain’t easy civilizing this motherfucker”—and he’s seemingly incapable of seeing past the corners. Just like that great scene last season where Colvin takes Namond and his friends to a fancy restaurant, Marlo’s appearance in Antilles makes him seem weak and out of his element in a way we’ve never seen before.

He’s also foolish and arrogant enough to wake a sleeping giant in Omar. (Allow me a moment to celebrate here: Omar’s back! Woo-hooooooo!!!) Prop Joe knows well enough to let Baltimore’s legendary bandit stay in retirement, but Marlo can’t abide the thought of a “cocksucker” outwitting him. He’s all about settling scores, even if they pay no strategic dividends, and I’m guessing Omar will make him regret smoking him out of his Caribbean hideaway. It’s on, baby. It’s on!

Grade: A

Stray observations:

• How could I not mention Michael and Dukie’s trip to Six Flags? Here’s another painful reminder that as hardened as they are by violence and personal tragedy, they’re still just kids. Leaving the corners for a day has a price that will have to be exacted later, but those hours in the park, riding the coasters and swapping spit with suburban white girls, are extraordinarily bittersweet. You’d think that drug money might buy them a little happiness, but it’s all just a horrible grind, and something as simple as a day of leisure is all but impossible to pull off.

• You think Clay Davis is going away quietly? Sheeeeeeeeeettttt.

•  “Go home? For the love of God, I’m working a serial killer!”

• Love the irony of McNulty’s failed serial killer scheme being chased by the irony of Lester taking this germ of an idea and running with it. Lester: “We gotta give your killer a name.” McNulty: “We gotta kill again!”

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