“Ain’t easy civilizing this motherfucker,” said a weary Proposition Joe about Marlo last week, when the steely young dealer came seeking counsel about what to do with all his money. It was a funny line then, because Marlo isn’t a worldly type; when the kid appears later in the Caymans, trying fruitlessly to communicate with a French bank teller, he looks so out of place he might as well have been on Mars. But now that poor Joe is gone, coldly dispatched by the man he naively considered a protégé (or even a son), the same line takes on new meaning. Joe’s mistake was in believing that civilization—as represented by the co-op of East Side and West Side drug dealers that convened regularly in a hotel conference room—was possible in world of dishonorable men.
It’s always odd to feel a twinge of sympathy for a character like Joe, a guy who has spent much of his life feasting off the misfortune of others. But much like Bode’s heartbreaking fall last season, the show granted Joe some shades of nobility and decency, which in this increasingly immoral universe is equivalent to softening him up for the kill. “A man got to have a code,” as Omar once said, and Prop Joe was always a low-key operator, more inclined to run the business quietly and efficiently than make any aggressive power plays. You’d think he’s been around long enough to recognize Marlo as a threat, but Joe seemed genuinely confident that eventually he’d pacify the young upstart and bring him into the fold. (“You need to focus a little bit more on what can be gained by working with people.”) It’s sadly ironic that all of the things he was doing for Marlo—like teaching him how to launder money through phony charities and Caribbean banks, or introducing him to his sleazy lawyer (“he excels at putting our limp dick money to work”)—were really just handing him the keys to the kingdom. The codeless Marlo isn’t the sort to appreciate such good faith gestures, much less reciprocate them with loyalty. He just keeps absorbing power.
And yet, isn’t Marlo a little vulnerable too? Can such a narrow-thinking thug continue to thrive without paying for his hubris. Joe may have fatally underestimated Marlo’s ruthlessness—all while paying respect to Omar’s “skill set”—but he took a longer view of the drug business. Joe patiently nurtured his network of suppliers and dealers, and tried not to ruffle any feathers unnecessarily. In contrast, Marlo has been stirring the hornet’s nest from the jump, arrogantly assuming that he and his crew are bulletproof. Looking ahead, he’s got Omar to worry about in the immediate future, not to mention the police and possibly others (Avon, maybe?) who are anxious to dethrone him. By his own example, Marlo now presides over a kingdom where all rules and loyalties are out the window. Perhaps his reign of terror will be enough to cow his enemies into submission, but as cagey as he is, he lacks Joe’s wisdom and patience, and I have to believe he’ll pay for his hubris.
And speaking of unlikely twinges of sympathy, how about a little for Burrell? He and his interim successor Rawls have spent decades cooking the numbers and preventing good police work from being done, but did he really deserve to go out like that? With all the money poured into the schools and no resources left for the police department, Carcetti put him in a position to fail and that’s exactly what he did; the mayor even acknowledges privately that he’d put Burrell in an impossible position, but someone must take responsibility for those lousy crime stats, and it’s certainly not going to be him. The scene where Burrell silently stalks Daniels with a golf putter—shades of The Untouchables—is a great one (thanks for that, Templeton), but even better is the passing of the torch to Rawls. He’s wise to the commissioner’s role in pursuing whatever shortsighted initiative the mayor promotes, whether it amounts to effective policing or not. “You will eat their shit,” in other words.
Of course, Burrell gets his golden parachute for going down quietly when he might spill the beans on Daniels’ past. (Narise advocates the golden parachute plan to keep Burrell quiet, but what do you make of that long look she gives Daniels’ file? Does she have plans for him down the road?) I loved the whole (shit-eating) public charade of the plaque ceremony for Burrell, especially as Gus deconstructs it in the newsroom. (“He hated and feared me. I wanted him dead.”) Simon and his writers—in this case, his chief collaborator Ed Burns—really have fun unpacking this sort of coded language and getting to the heart of the matter, which is what great drama does.
Elsewhere in the episode, McNulty and Lester set to work on establishing their serial killer by employing one of Lester’s old partners to alert them to the unattended bodies of dead vagrants. Some have been alarmed about this subplot taking the show off the rails, but I defer to Alan Sepinwall in advising people to take it in the right spirit—a desperate, flagrantly illegal, downright farcical attempt to shake up a system that isn’t really working. It’s this season’s Hamsterdam. (It should be said also that The Wire, dark and serious as it is, can be one of the funniest shows on television, too. It laughs to keep from crying.)
I’ll leave the newspaper intrigue for another week, if only because myself and other media types have perhaps dwelled on it disproportionately. Besides, Scott was too busy fumbling his Washington Post interview to make up reaction quotes this week. “I prefer to write it dry”? Puh-leese.
• A great episode for Carver, who demonstrates once again the price exacted for doing the right thing. His speech to Herc about how “It all matters” boils the entire series down to a three-word thesis. The city and its institutions are a living organism in The Wire, and the show is constantly showing how one mistake or misjudgment—like the made-up back-stabbing line in Scott’s article or Herc’s screw-up from the previous season—can have far-reaching and poisonous effects.
• “Hey you ever find that camera?” Marlo twists the knife. (And if Herc is going to play a significant role this season, perhaps he’ll twist back.)
• So Lester gets the “headshot” on the Clay Davis case, and politics wins again, with the States Attorney refusing to prosecute a piece of evidence that might make the case federal. Nice to see all areas of the government working so harmoniously in pursuit of justice; this is Carcetti and the governor revisited.
• Omar: “I’m gonna work them. Sweet Jesus, I’m gonna work them.”
• More with less, cont.: “You want one reporter covering two courthouses? Fine. Why don’t you just shove a broom up my ass and I’ll sweep the floor while I’m at it.”