Let’s start with the ending.
Stylistically, The Wire has never been particularly flashy or self-conscious, which owes something to its roots in no-nonsense, unembellished journalism. Its creators openly resent the “purple prose” of Scott Templeton-types who favor empty style over hard truth, and it’s rare to see the show indulge in poetic sequences when the straight dope will do. So the sweet “Goodnight, Moon” coda that ended tonight’s episode stands out for its surprising theatricality, a rare and touching moment where the show removes itself from the fray and looks at the city from above—at the po-pos, the hoppers, the scammers, and the thieves. I wonder if David Simon and company would have allowed any other writer to end an episode with such a flourish, but this episode was written by the great crime fiction author Richard Price, and the man deserves a little leeway.
During the “Goodnight, Moon” sequence, it struck me how closely The Wire’s M.O. resembles Price’s novel Clockers, with its perfectly balanced and sympathetic depiction of protagonists on both sides of the law—a hard-living detective with a young child at home and a low-profile drug dealer who soothes his bleeding ulcer by drinking his weight in Yoo-Hoo every day. For the show to pause from its larger story threads to spend time with Kima as she tries earnestly to connect with the child she’s neglected is very Clockers-esque, a reminder of how the job can consume things that are more important. It seems doubtful that occasional visits and a piece of cheap, shoddily constructed furniture will cement Kima’s place in this child’s heart, but the effort is heartening given what we know about her. The “late-night tuck-in” scene is a cliché in cop dramas, but in Clockers and here, Price infuses it with real emotional resonance.
I have extra respect for the Kima subplot, because with the series heading down the homestretch, there are a lot of major story developments in need of attention. Sometimes, it’s not easy for a show to pause for a “Goodnight, Moon” moment when it’s got so much else on the plate. First and foremost, there’s McNulty and Lester’s homeless serial killer scam, which has finally come to full flower. After failing to draw much attention to a bunch of dead vagrants the city never cared about in the first place, McNulty (with a major assist from Sun’s resident fabulist Templeton) finally sexes up the details enough to get the headlines he needs to open up the tap for he and his cohorts. And what a boon: With the city willing to fork out unlimited money for overtime, surveillance vehicles, and whatever gizmos are necessary to close the case, McNulty finds himself BPD’s chief financial benefactor, throwing resources to his comrades and tucking it all under the wide umbrella of the homeless murders.
How long can this charade possibly last? It’s a classic case of “be careful what you ask for”: With the city rapt by a serial killer on the loose, McNulty has been put in charge of a “red ball” operation that people, you know, expect him to solve. Even Jay, who was making jerk-off motions over his “weak shit” not long ago, has been breathing down his neck about finding the missing homeless guy and working the murders from every angle. Meanwhile, McNulty is playing Santa Claus to the other guys in the department, granting them all the support they need to turn red names to black, with the added bonus that they won’t spend too much time thinking about a serial killer that doesn’t exist. The situation is completely out of control, and he and Lester are face with the seemingly impossible task of bringing Marlo to justice quickly (those cryptic cellphone images of watches are thus far a bafflement) and making the homeless murders case disappear. Meanwhile, real lives are being affected, like the parents of the poor missing guy who imagined their son would succumb to addiction, and not die as part of a biter’s sick masturbatory fantasy.
The more this crazy McNulty scheme develops, the more I love its absurdist grandeur, much like I loved Bunny’s similarly cracked and inspired Hamsterdam experiment in Season Three. If nothing else, it’s worth its weight in Bunk reaction shots: The eye-rolling, the exasperated sighs, the occasional McNulty dressing-downs, the bull-headed determination to crack the Stanfield case with good old-fashioned police work. Bunk has become a great audience surrogate in a way, because we need someone else to acknowledge that McNulty’s behavior is just as insane as it looks.
Just as the attention for the homeless murders is a double-edged sword for McNulty, so it is too for Templeton, who is getting all sorts of mileage out of his role in the center of the biggest story in town. Having McNulty contact Templeton pretending to be the killer was a masterstroke, if only for Templeton’s utter shock in getting the call (“That was him.” Long pause. “Again.”). Templeton couldn’t be happier that the story has “legs,” despite pretending to feel that the killer is somehow exploiting him for his nefarious purposes. (Leading to a great retort from McNulty, who is happy to play along: “I’d say it’s working out pretty well for both of you, isn’t it?”) But having a liar like Templeton on such a high-profile story rankles Gus, who doesn’t like his indulgent writing and more than that, doesn’t trust that his reporter is telling the truth. Gus is getting very close to exposing Templeton as a fabricator, and that will bring the roof down on everyone—on the Sun, for printing bogus stories; on the police department, for pursuing a phantom case; and on city officials, for presiding over the whole embarrassing fiasco.
And speaking of embarrassing fiascos, how about the Clay Davis trial? After so much build-up, and the resistance from the mayor’s and the state’s attorney’s office to allow the case to go federal, the whole case collapses in a heap. “What the fuck just happened?” indeed. You have to love Clay’s “silver-tongued bullshit,” and he was slinging it beautifully this hour; if last week gave us some indication of his charm and political resiliency, this week was a master class in jury-swaying Johnnie Cochran shit. Clay’s defense doesn’t hold water, of course; the idea that he’s taking money from a hoops charity and distributing the cash to his needy constituents shouldn’t survive under scrutiny. But it’s a fine gambit for a jury this easily persuaded by a slick storyteller like Clay. What I loved most about the trial is how thin it made the state’s attorney’s case look: One bum witness and a grandstanding politician was all it took for the entire case to fall to pieces. And now that Clay has been exonerated, it’s payback time for the many naïve souls who left him for dead.
That’s all for now. I realize I haven’t commented at all on Marlo and Omar, but I’m sure there will be plenty to say about them in the coming weeks. Let me leave you with this admonition: Don’t talk about future episodes in the comments section. I realize that many of you are experiencing the show via OnDemand, so you’re a week ahead of others, but please respect the wishes of those who want this to be a safe space to discuss the episode at hand. I try to delete inappropriate comments when I can, but in the absence of a true moderator, I can’t always delete them fast enough. Speculation about what might happen in the future is fine, but out-and-out spoilerage is not welcome.
• How great were those scenes of Kima putting together furniture? If I had a nickel for every swear word I’ve unleashed doing the same thing in college and in bachelorhood (marriage has brought me decent furnishing, for once), I could buy myself a steak dinner.
• McNulty on the screwy logic of dispatching a rookie to do the critical work of canvassing the city’s homeless shelters: “He’s ask the extra question. He’s hungry.”
• “You’re doing good here, boss.” “What did you call me?”
• Omar’s decision to shoot one of Marlo’s boys in the head may have the strategic value of smoking out the boss, but it’s a fine example of his code in action. When the kid claims that he wasn’t present at Butchie’s murder, it’s a detail that essentially meaningless: “What was you gonna do if you was there? Riddle me that?”