Hot off "The Wire"

Join Salon staff as we discuss Episode 2 of "The Wire."

By Salon Staff

Published January 14, 2008 11:27AM (EST)

Much of Salon's staff is obsessed with HBO's "The Wire" -- and we know many of you are, too. So we'll host a little debriefing session starting directly after each episode ends, continuing through the series finale. Our East Coast contributors will kick it off and our West Coasters will finish it, though we hope you'll have the final say in our letters thread, which we'll be reading and spotlighting the best posts throughout the following Monday.

Salon contributors will include: Heather Havrilesky, TV critic; Sarah Hepola, Life deputy editor; Alex Koppelman, staff writer; Kerry Lauerman, New York editorial director; Farhad Manjoo, senior writer; Laura Miller, senior writer; Joan Walsh, editor in chief.

BEWARE: Spoilers ahead!

Manjoo: I'd been a little underwhelmed by last week's episode -- a little heavy on the setup, and the newsroom scenes sagged -- but this week, man, "The Wire" is back.

The highlight for me -- I'm guessing for everyone else, too -- was the astonishing final two minutes, in which McNulty, teetering on the edge for so much of this show, coldly steps off. We've always cheered him for his skill at playing the system, but this scheme -- to squeeze money from the brass by turning the deaths of homeless addicts into the work of a serial killer -- is bureaucratic infighting from the dark side. Fix on Bunk's reaction. I'd thought the show would have a hard time ever matching the soullessness of Chris and Snoop's murder spree in the vacants, but the look on Bunk's face says we might be in for an even sorrier season here. I'm sorry I underestimated David Simon.

Two other scenes I had to watch twice. One, Marlo meets Avon. Marlo once had a security guard killed for giving him lip, but here Avon, from the wrong side of the bars, gets the better of him. "Let me help you find your tongue," he says, putting Marlo in his place. And two, Snoop's drive-by sniping. Best line of the show: "In B-more, we aim and hit a nigger, you hear."

The newsroom scenes are getting better, thanks mainly to Clark Johnson's city editor and the pretty great journo-banter. ("You know who there's less of? Statuesque blonds. You don't read a lot about statuesque blonds in the newspaper, buxom ones neither. They're like a lost race!") But it still rankles me that the story line's so pedestrian, unoriginal even. Look, it's a fabulist journalist -- where, besides at every other newspaper in America, have we heard about that before? (Indeed, the whole thing's based on Simon's own suspicions about former Sun reporter Jim Haner.)

Oh, and Carcetti? What a weasel.

Lauerman: I actually was prepared to settle in for two or three episodes of back story before the fog started to burn off on Simon's latest little Baltimore tragedy. But you're right -- McNulty strangles a corpse, and we're off!

I guess it's not surprising that the plotline getting the most ink this season from the media is the one about the media. Simon made his grudge against Bill Marimow and John Carroll, the two top editors at the Sun when he left in 1995 (who are both long gone, as well), well-known, and in a few swiftly acidic scenes in these first couple of episodes, we already get that editor James C. Whiting III (the Marimow character) is a shallow interloper from Philly interested in winning awards and keeping his friends happy, and not so much the business of covering a city, while managing editor Thomas Klebanow (Carroll) is his henchman, with a penchant for hiring pretty young things who can't write. And yeah, the Haner character -- Scott Templeton -- slides in and out of his scenes, he's so oily.

And, OK, since I'm in the media, I've been a little obsessed with it, too. There are the Marimow defenders (this is a great, cranky one by esteemed ex-Salonster Bill Wyman), a critical Simon profile in the Atlantic , and the Sun's own critic, David Zurawik, who chided Simon for making "newsroom villains ... patterned on editors and a reporter long gone from Baltimore." Simon has stoked the fire, responding to Zurawik here, and slapping at a Slate piece. (Hey, how can we piss him off so he'll write in here, too?) All of which precisely 99.99 percent of all viewers will ever know or remotely care about.

You're right that the story line seems pretty stock so far, but a newspaper actually feels like an essential part of the corrupted little universe he's been trying to portray; just another institution vital for a healthy city, and one easily compromised by the bottom line. And in a piece in today's Chicago Tribune, Simon and Marimow can at least agree that non-local ownership of newspapers (the Sun was bought by Times-Mirror in 1986, which was bough by Tribune in 2000, which was bought by Sam Zell last month) is a destructive force in American journalism. I remain hopeful it will pick up.

I'm also very fond of the new version of "Way Down in the Hole" by Steve Earle (who also plays Walon, Bubbles' sponsor).

Hepola: Kerry, I couldn't disagree with you more! I hate the Steve Earle version of the theme song. Hate. It! It's like the same bloodless lyric line repeated over and over. I don't know what he brings to that song, which is so rich and weird and interesting. Oh, we are totally going to mud-wrestle about this tomorrow morning.

As for all the insidery journalism stuff, I'm going to pass on that for now. I know you gentlemen (and my buddy Alex, forthcoming) will keep those bases covered. I will say two things, and then I'm out: I think the cub reporters look about 10 years too old, and I think Gus the city editor is my crush for this season. Oh, and I hate the Steve Earle theme song. Did I mention that?

But let's talk about McNulty. People, what the hell is going on with McNulty? Last season, he was so happy. It seemed like there was hope for him. Now he's staging a serial killing. This is not a promising character arc. Note, also, that the episode began with an addict talking about how drugs had corroded her sense of self-worth, led her down dark paths she couldn't imagine. McNulty's back on the bottle, and guess what? He's lost his friggin' mind.

Which worries me. Honestly, I begin every season of "The Wire" skeptical that I'm going to like it. It's a slow burn of a show. But I'm especially nervous about this season, because I feel that we are going to watch these characters burn and self-destruct. David Simon keeps saying that "The Wire" is a Greek tragedy. And I worry that he is pushing for results a bit, steering a little overwhelmingly toward a ruinous end. (Or will he? Simon could have the last laugh here. The man who loves defying expectations could shock the shit out of his audience and offer the one thing no one saw coming: a happy ending.)

Now, Farhad: Is Carcetti really a weasel? He's a cunning politician working with scraps, and he's discovering that the job requires more compromise and ruthlessness than he expected, but "weasel" feels harsh. Is it possible that he -- like so many of the characters here -- is just being demoralized by the system? (That is my excuse the next time I come in late to work, by the way. Joan Walsh, I have been demoralized by the system.)

Koppelman: Anyone else notice the look on McNulty's face when he went to get the bottle of Jameson from his trunk? I thought that, not what followed, was the best scene of the episode. At that moment, suddenly everything made sense. First, with the alcohol, there's the symbolism of McNulty falling back to his old ways -- further, even. And then all the foreshadowing comes together there, too: the scene in the morgue, where McNulty learns that an overdose can look like a strangulation if you manhandle the victim's neck soon enough after death, and the scene in the bar where he's lamenting the failure of anyone to care about the 22 bodies Marlo is carrying. The old McNulty is back, folks, and if he has to go back up into that vacant and strangle a dead addict to get back on Marlo, so be it. This show sure comes together well, don't it?

That said, I gotta disagree with you, Farhad, about the newsroom scene with the banter about the statuesque blonds. I wonder if David Simon and crew aren't treading a fine line here when it comes to the subtlety of their message, that maybe in this final season they'll worry about the lack of time they have left and end up whacking us over the head to make sure we get the point. They manage to pull that scene back somewhat at the end with that joke, but they were losing me when speaking in clich&ecute;s about "how a mother of four is always catching hell," about how there aren't innocent bystanders around anymore.

I do agree, though, that Clark Johnson is great in the Maj. Daniels role as the good editor at the Sun. It's great to see him back acting; always liked him as Meldrick Lewis in "Homicide." And yes, Carcetti is quite the weasel. It's interesting; when the Carcetti character was first introduced, it was obvious that he was inspired by former Baltimore City Mayor Martin O'Malley. They moved away from that for a little while, but with the naked gubernatorial ambition they've swung him back toward being directly modeled on O'Malley, who took the governor's chair in the 2006 election.

By the way, I agree with Sarah: I hate Steve Earle's version of "Way Down in the Hole." Worst. Theme song. Ever. Sorry, Kerry.

Havrilesky: Ha! I love Steve Earle's version. It's less melodious than the past versions, sure, but the twang and rhythm are just right to set the mood: soulful, droning, and dark, dark, dark.

And as obvious as it is to trot out the highly imaginative reporter and the corporate-puppet editors, particularly to those who scan Romanesko a few times a day, I think these are legitimate choices when you're aiming to reflect the transformation of the city newspaper from an honorable watchdog to a skin-deep, mass-marketed product.

I do find the newsroom scenes a little more stilted and less organic than the other scenes. It's remarkable, really, that Simon has nailed the Baltimore streets to the point where it's hard to grasp that Marlo isn't real, but in those bantering-journalists scenes, as a viewer I can never forget that it's fiction. Some of those exchanges in the editorial meeting were seriously flat and colorless.

"Look, Gus, I know the problems. My wife volunteers in the city schools!" Amazing, that a white guy could craft such spot-on street dialogue, but make other white guys sound so awkward and unnatural.

And I agree with Sarah, I don't think that Carcetti is any more of a weasel than anyone else in this picture. He's an overly ambitious, fallen idealist who loses hold of another principle or standard or shred of hope for improving the city every second that he's in office. At least he seems pained by it. Do his handlers even remind him of what he believes in? No, all they do is tell him what he stands to lose by sticking by his principles.

As McNulty tells Pearlman, "There are no fucking rules. The fucking game's rigged."

It does seem pretty clear that McNulty is going to meet a tragic end, doesn't it? I knew his happy ending from last season wouldn't hold. Damn you, Jimmy, can't you see that little gal at home is the best thing that's ever happened to you? I'm guessing that if McNulty falls to the bottle, then at least Bubs will find lasting salvation from dope. If they both go down, I'll be pissed.

Scratch that. Bubs and Omar, those are the two I really want to survive this tragic descent into hell more than anyone else. But what do you want to bet that Marlo, that soulless roach, is the last man standing? You put Marlo next to Avon and Avon looks like the greatest guy in the world -- and the smartest. I love how he pandered to Marlo's simplicity by pretending that, above all, he's down with the West side. I'd like to see Avon get out of jail and show Marlo just how down he is by taking Marlo out with brutal efficiency. But that would add up to justice, and in Simon's dark vision, you can be sure that injustice will prevail and only unscrupulous monsters will survive.

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