The great advantage of serialized television is that the characters have a history and that history enriches the present in ways that no episodic, Law And Order-type show could possibly do. Perhaps to their detriment in the ratings department—the current season had its lowest-rated premiere ever—David Simon and company are constantly building on the past, sometimes with payoffs that reference events from several seasons before. (Like Season Two and “The Greek” tonight, which I’ll talk about a little later.) That sense of the larger picture, of a story that constantly evolving and adding new layers, is part of what makes The Wire the best show on TV.
Case in point: Bubbles, perhaps the most tragic of the show’s many tragic characters. When Bubbles stands up to speak at the Narcotics Anonymous meeting in tonight’s episode, we know the things he can’t talk about. We know about what happened to his old buddy Johnny (Leo Fitzpatrick) and we know what happened to his eager protégé Sherrod, whose demise last season left him in a pit of despair from which even a battle-scarred survivor like him may never emerge. I can’t imagine how his scenes tonight—especially that speech in front of the NA group—would play to someone new to The Wire, but they were devastating to witness in the context of the show as a whole.
Bubbles has a good sense of humor about himself, so he gives his knowing audience all these self-deprecating details about being bombed out and having people treat him like a lamppost or a scarecrow. All the while, we can see his sponsor—played nicely by the musician Steve Earle, who certainly knows of addiction, and also performed this year’s take on “Way Down In The Hole”—getting frustrated with him for stopping short of full disclosure. But even 15 months later, Bubs can’t bring himself to deal with the past. What’s the point, really? Will talking about what happened to Sherrod really exorcise that demon? Currently, he’s reminding me a little of more benevolent version of David Thewlis’ character at the end of Mike Leigh’s Naked: A husk of a man determined to press on anyway, even if he’s permanently hobbled. I thought that brutal shot of Bubs in the psych ward at the end of Season Four would be the last we’d see of him—it felt like a natural coda to me—but having him revived for this last season makes him seem almost like a ghostly presence. He has nothing to live for, but the man won’t die.
Meanwhile, the problems and personalities at the Baltimore Sun are starting to come into focus. Within the cloistered world of professional journalism, where everyone (including myself, I’ll admit) logs onto Romenesko multiple times a day for a little inside baseball, there’s been a lot of hubbub about David Simon (a former Sun crime reporter) using the show to settle scores and air grievances. Some critics—including, ironically, the TV critic at the Sun—have been less kind to this season in part because they feel that Simon is making himself too plain. I suppose I can understand where they’re coming from, but I’d suggest that journalists are a little too invested in that world themselves to see the big picture that Simon and his writers are laying out here. Or maybe they simply see as cliché what outsiders might take as revelation, like the way hospital workers roll their eyes at ER.
That said, the setup at the Sun does seem a hair broad for a show of The Wire’s caliber, but still rich in particulars that no show about print media has ever even attempted. We see that Clark Johnson’s City Desk editor Gus is the personification of the noble, fastidious newspaperman, the sort who wakes up with a start at 1 a.m. worried that he let the tiniest factual error slip past him. (It didn’t.) We can also see that Tom McCarthy’s Scott is the sort of slick, ambitious comer who isn’t above finessing (or outright inventing) the facts to get a juicy story through. And with a fatuous Executive Editor running the show—a man who doesn’t care to get bogged down in the murky complexities that tell the whole story—the newcomer thrives (temporarily, anyway) while the Old Guard takes the hit. Again, it’s a little broadly conceived, but as usual, the devil is in the details.
Tonight, Scott’s “Opening Day” story revealed him to be a fabulist of Stephen Glass-like proportions. Glass, for those of you who don’t remember, was a young New Republic writer whose writings for the magazine were found later to be loaded with fabrications or invented from whole cloth. It was a tremendous embarrassment for the magazine, and was later dramatized quite effectively in the film Shattered Glass. Here’s the thing, though: Glass specialized in lighter-side-of-the-news stories, cute little vignettes that cleansed the palette of the heavy world affairs reporting and editorials that composed the bulk of the magazine. The details of these stories were extremely hard to verify—which helped Glass get away with it for so long—but it should also be said that they were inconsequential, just like Scott’s lame “EJ” bit for Opening Day.
It’s pretty clear, however, that Scott will soon graduate from petty Stephen Glass-like fabrications to something closer to what Jayson Blair did for The New York Times, which was far much more damaging, because he was reporting on real news. And I’m guessing that Simon’s point goes back to the “More With Less” theme he introduced in Episode One: That because newspapers have to operate with fewer resources (including editors and fact-checkers) than in the past, it’s very difficult to maintain the standards that guys like Gus hold so dearly. As much as the institution of journalism was rocked by the Glass and Blair scandals, that doesn’t mean that newspapers are now better equipped to weed out these scoundrels. Quite the opposite: When you don’t have the resources, important stuff starts to slide—like an investigation into the 22 dead bodies in the vacants, say, or well-qualified teachers in the public school system.
The dissolution of Major Crimes last episode is already taking its toll on the crime situation. With no one around, Marlo’s gang is back to doing its murderous business; the moment he notices the coast is clear, he orders a backlog of hits, from a corner crew that isn’t getting with the program to a guy named Junebug who simply talked shit about him. He also wants Omar dead, though even his cold-blooded right-hand Chris shivers at the thought of that confrontation. (While we, of course, shiver in anticipation of one of show’s greatest characters returning to the fold.) We also see why Chris pulled the file on Sergei last week: Hungry to gobble up the market—including the territories run by East Siders like Prop Joe—Marlo seeks out Sergei as a means to connect with “The Greek,” who could aid his plan for citywide domination. As usual, Marlo is presented as a creature of pure, malevolent ambition; at this point, he’s more of a walking metaphor for unbridled, unthinking capitalism than a human being who’s capable of compassion or loyalty or even a bit of joy. (Asked how he is—by a deal-brokering Avon Barksdale, no less—he can only reply, “The game is the game.”)
And now finally to McNulty. He and Lester modestly request “two or three weeks’” worth of investment from the Feds in closing the case against Marlo. When they don’t get what they want—thanks entirely to Carcetti’s abrasive treatment of U.S. Attorney’s office—he and his bottomless flask search for other, less conventional options. In trying to figure out how to “turn on the faucet” again, a couple of lightbulbs go off in his head: First when he and his cohorts are grousing about how they’d have all the money in the world if hundreds of white people were killed in Baltimore every year (or just one white girl like the tourist in Aruba that snagged headlines a year or two ago). And then later, when a fellow officer tells him that the bruise marks, like the ones that indicate strangulation, can be created post-mortem on a fresh body. Eureka! With a little finessing, all in front of a disbelieving Bunk, McNulty invents himself a serial killer that “preys on the weakest among us.”
I can’t wait to see where this is headed, but if Scott from the Sun winds up reporting on McNulty’s fake serial killer, the irony will make my head explode.
• For the second week straight, the show opens with a brilliant monologue, this time from an addict who confesses to turning tricks (and far, far worse) to get money for her next fix. There are some that peg Simon as a hopeless cynic, but it’s speeches like that one that show how much he cares about the real people who suffer from the failures of the city’s institutions. When Lester talks about the Clay Davis corruption case a couple scenes later, his line about showing “who gets paid off the tragedy and fraud” drives that point home nicely.
• Then again, Lester really wants to nail Marlo, too, and it was great to see him staking out Marlo’s crew after hours, confident that he’ll catch them in a mistake. Simon isn’t really known for rewarding such heroic efforts, but it would be nice to see Lester’s hard work pay off.
• McNulty: “Pro forma… for the Latin meaning ‘Lawyers jacking each other off’”
• Love the “West Coast”-style drive-by where nobody gets hit. Works if you’re trying to look cool, not so much if you want to kill anybody.