Hot off "The Wire"

Join Salon staff as we discuss Episode 3 of "The Wire."


Salon Staff
January 21, 2008 5:50PM (UTC)

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 to spotlight 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!

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Lauerman: Lots to cover this week, and yet it's hard to not start off with what we're all probably thinking: Holy Honey Nuts, Omar's back!

But first, we saw McNulty's crazed serial killer plot lose steam, then pick up when Lester -- to Bunk's horror -- signed on to play along. Note that Bunk warns McNulty ominously at the beginning of the episode, "If you keep on with it, I'm gonna rat you out." As hard as it is to imagine, that might be one way for McNulty to go down. And don't we all agree he's probably going down this season?

The news room story line seemed a lot stronger to me this week, beginning with the extremely realistic staff meeting announcing the downsizing. Whiting's speech, from the wistful reference to the paper's past glories to the dark allusions to sinister outside forces ("Chicago"; that awful "free Internet") and the dubious promise to "do more with less," really captured the complete hopelessness of those grim announcements. I think Simon and crew really get the tone of the newspaper world, from Alma rushing out a 5 a.m. to see her first front-page byline to the maudlin, Mencken-quoting bouts of nostalgia old news types have a habit of indulging in. And the infuriatingly moronic story choices -- an empty, feel-good feature headlined "Skydiving Firm Takes Flight" shows up on Page 1 instead of a triple murder; insider police department dish ranks over a possible serial killer -- seem exactly right for a newspaper suddenly trying to figure out what it's supposed to be.

That said, the evil Scott may be the most one-dimensional character ever to appear on "The Wire." Muttering about laid-off "deadwood" in front of Gus and Roger Twigg? And the scene showing him concocting the phony quote for Twigg's story -- he picks up the phone and then slowly puts it back down while glancing sideways, a fiendish look on his face -- is so cartoonish, it needed the "Dramatic Chipmunk" score.

Speaking of scores, reader Weirdsmobile called the new "Down in the Hole" version "like some kind of malfunctioning machine caught in a self-destructive loop that's breaking it apart, but it can't do anything but play that same loop over and over until the bitter end. In other words, a great aural representation of the season itself. Genius!" Yes, what Weirdsmobile said!

OK: On to Omar. So Marlo will end up luring him back. Still, it sure was nice to see him lolling about (the Dominican Republic?) with Reynaldo in his Panama hat and puka shells, passing out candy to cheering kids like royalty. Sure he's a thieving, murderous thug -- but boy do we love him, not just because he's a great charismatic character, but because he really is the only character completely free to follow his own moral compass. Maybe that's his appeal to Barack Obama, who recently said that Omar was his favorite character on the show -- and then qualified that by saying: "That's not an endorsement. He's not my favorite person, but he's a fascinating character."

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But you know, following a moral code doesn't do anybody any good on this show, and in that creepy season trailer, where Marlo menacingly tells someone to "close your eyes, breathe deep" before a gunshot rings out, I wonder just whose misplaced sense of justice will seal their fate. Omar? Michael? Prop Joe? Who?

Havrilesky: That trailer is seriously creepy. But then, every single shot of Marlo is creepy. In the words of Jimmy McNulty, "Marlo's an asshole! He does not get to win, we get to win!" Spoken like a true tragic hero who's about to go down.

I agree that the scenes with Sneaky Scott using his powers of imagination to come up with react quotes are pretty cartoonish. "Twigg's not the only guy with game around here!" he tells Gus. Apparently they cut the part where he throws his head back and laughs evilly. Muhahaha! All he needs now is a black cape and a pencil-thin villain's mustache. But isn't Tom McCarthy the perfect guy to play such an ambitious, sniveling weasel? We've all worked with smug little opportunistic pudwhackers like that before, and not just at newspapers or magazines -- I think there might be one in every office in America.

My favorite moment, aside from that quick comical exchange outside the courtroom ("I'm the vice president of a major financial institution!" "Who the fuck isn't?") had to be Carcetti's guy Norman Wilson and Sun editor Gus Haynes having a drink and toasting, "From one whore to another." Next, we cut to McNulty getting busy with a whore on the hood of his cop car (Was she a prostitute? Or was she just one of the prettiest sluts in town, one with a voracious appetite for stumbling drunk cops? Sure, McNulty's sexy, even when he slurs, but ... does he really get that much action when he can barely stand up? I think we need some former cops and/or former drunks to weigh in on that one [in polite, somewhat restrained terms, if possible.])

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Of course, McNulty is pretty smooth when he's not wasted. "I have a boyfriend, detective," Alma Gutierrez mutters when they're at a diner together. "Really?" McNulty growls, undaunted. "Is he bigger than me?" The beauty of McNulty is that whether he's getting recklessly inventive at work or ruining his home life, it's pretty tough not to cheer him on.

There's no one to cheer on this season on the streets, at least not until Omar comes out of hiding. It is remarkable, though, what great lengths Prop Joe is willing to go to in order to help Marlo. Obviously Prop Joe fears Marlo -- with good reason. Marlo may be the most frightening character in the history of "The Wire," and that's saying a lot. But Prop Joe's not about to help him find Omar. "Why in the hell would I want that motherfucker back?" he snaps when Marlo leaves, but that bad seed nephew of his has other ideas.

And what do you make of the contrasting reactions Daniels gets when he tells his girlfriend and his ex-wife about his promotion? Pearlman cheers, but his ex warns him to watch out because she knows that Burrell has dirt on Daniels (and her, which makes her affection look like an act of self-preservation).

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Ultimately, this episode is all about power shifts: Twigg forgives Gus and says goodbye to a long career at the Sun, Burrell falls, Clay Davis is falling fast and Marlo is making big moves, going straight to the Greeks and pulling Omar out of hiding. Oh, and the look on Omar's face when he finds out about Butchie? Heartbreaking. He has such big, sad eyes for a ruthless killer!

Manjoo: Here's a theory about Scott: His character feels off because his sins are just too small to rank. Sure, to us in the news business, making stuff up is a cardinal offense. But Scott shares the screen with drug dealers, murderers, sleaze-bag pols and incompetent, thuggish cops. By the fifth season of "The Wire" we've steeped so long in shameful shit that making up a "react quote" seems about as transgressive as eating meat on Fridays.

What you get, then, is Scott as a sideways-glancing Dr. Evil calling out for a "Dramatic Chipmunk" score: The writers have got to juice up the drama to let us know that what he's doing is really, truly terrible. Which, in some ways, it certainly is, but it's not like he's, you know, breaking kids' fingers for stealing cars.

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But I'm less troubled about Scott than you two seem to be. Not every character can be as real as Bubbles or Omar; sometimes you need these evil-incarnate dudes just to push the plot forward. Think of Rawls in the first season -- until Greggs gets shot and he counsels McNulty, he was just a straight-up asshole. (And BTW, is anyone else on tenterhooks for a big revelation about Rawls' homosexuality, hinted at, masterfully, at the end of Season 3?)

I'm with you, Kerry, on the news room plot. That layoff scene, as you say, was just perfect (and perfectly timed: The same faceless Chicago corporation that owns the Baltimore Sun just fired James O'Shea, editor of the Los Angeles Times, over -- what else? -- budgetary disagreements.) Last week we saw Gus waking up from a nightmare that he'd messed up a fact; this week, it's Alma rushing to check her story on the front page. Who among us hasn't done that?

Omar looks so happy, doesn't he? I'm sorry to say this, but I think that must mean he's going to die in the coming battle with Marlo. The man steals from drug dealers for a living: His luck can't last forever.

Koppelman: No one else is gonna say it? Fine, I will: Poor Butchie. The torture scene was awful to watch, and I'll miss him -- always a good guy, considering his line of work, and a good character. One guy I will not miss is Clay Davis. If he goes down in this corruption investigation, as it looks like he will, I'll be a happy man. He's deserved it for so long.

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Am I the only one who's just bored by the whole McNulty fakes a serial killer thing? It's exciting in some sense, but I just can't force myself to believe it, and the key for me with this show has always been its essential realness. First off, I don't know that I can see any cop -- even Jimmy McNulty -- going this far, and I sure as hell can't see Lester Freamon going along with it. Sure, Freamon's always been willing to tweak a boss or two, but remember a while back when he went off on McNulty and Kima Greggs for bucking (then Lt.) Daniels? And now he's going to get in on a felony or two? It's not just disappointing; it's surreal.

I agree with Farhad and Kerry about the news room scenes. I thought they were strong this week. I detect a strong sense of David Simon in Twigg. Veteran cop reporter, knows everything and everyone, taking the buyout to go work on the proverbial Great American Novel. And then there are the verbal clues: In the scene where the buyouts are announced, Gus throws around the word "tumescent" (engorged, another reporter explains to Twigg) to describe the top editors' reaction if they were to win a Pulitzer and lo and behold -- according to Mark Bowden's essay in the Atlantic, this is how David Simon described the Sun's top editors: "Whenever they hear the word Pulitzer, they become tumescent. They become engorged." I thought I saw in that barroom scene Simon himself forgiving whoever is the basis for Gus' character, and I bet that guy knows it, too.

Hepola: My esteemed colleagues, I agree with you on so many points: News room sequences? Compelling. Fabulist reporter? Too black and white. (Rawls is gay? Need! Details!) McNulty flashing his badge while banging a hot slut/high-class prostitute in the parking lot? Hilarious. You know, he's a mess, but I'd totally do him. I wouldn't even charge premium rates.

But I'm with Alex on a key point: This episode strains credibility. I don't find the serial killer sequence boring, but I find it difficult to believe that Lester -- Lester, so long the moral center of the show -- would hop onto this crazy train with McNulty. Obviously I'm not the only one who finds these plot twists outrageous; Bunk had to pull off 20 different shades of incredulous in this episode. And speaking of Bunk, this looks to be his season. He had the first line, and I wouldn't be surprised if he had the last. He's the only voice of reason these days. As I see all these lies piling up -- the serial killer fiasco, Clay Davis' hot water, the kid at the Sun, making up quotes -- I'm reminded of Bunk's line from the first episode: "The bigger the lie, the more they believe." Maybe I'm reminded of that line because they play it on the teaser every time I watch on-demand.

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Three other scenes stand out this week, probably because "The Wire" so rarely leaves the broken-down streets of Baltimore: Marlo in Antilles, like a bull in a tiki bar; Michael and Dukie at Six Flags, acting like the carefree teenagers they should be. (Last week, there was some rumbling in these pages about Michael's fate, and I'm here to tell you I can't even think about it. It was agonizing enough watching his conscience blister over last season; I can't stomach the idea of him dying, or perhaps worse in this damned, heartless world -- living.) And Omar, happy as we've ever seen him in his little island cocoon, bitching about the lack of Honey Nut Cheerios and not even killing anyone. Awwww. But now his happiness is shattered, and we wait for his cruel revenge. I've got a knot of dread in my stomach, people, which reminds me of another thing about Greek tragedies: Knowing that our heroes will fall doesn't ruin the surprise -- it makes anticipating the thud that much worse.

Miller: The only thing I'm loving about "The Wire" so far this season is the Marlo story line. However psychopathic he may be, he's still smaller than the Game, and he's just beginning to bump up against his own profession's glass ceiling. He doesn't know how to launder money, doesn't feel comfortable with bank accounts, thinks he can swagger his way into a relationship with the Greek. Stringer Bell's attempt to go legit may have been doomed, but Marlo's seeming belief that he can keep rising indefinitely without getting "civilized" (as Prop Joe puts it) could be equally ill-fated.

As for the rest of it, I'm finding the newspaper story line a bit "West Wing"-ish, with too much of that expositional, "As you know, Bob ..." dialogue I associate with Sorkin, who's always trying to teach you something. What I've loved about "The Wire" before this is how utterly real it's felt, how so little was explained to me: Just drop the audience in the pool and let them figure out how to swim. At least the scenes with the cops still manage to convey what the situation is without resorting to having the characters tell each other stuff they must already know. But, man, I really do not buy McNulty's wacky serial killer scheme; I can't even see how it would kick funds to the Marlo case -- wouldn't the department simply divert resources to catching this (nonexistent) killer? I thought Jimmy was a lot smarter than that, as evidenced by his antics during Season 1, when he set the whole series in motion by telling that judge about the intimidated witness.

I'm always waiting to see Omar again, but somehow, the balance is off. He used to be the only truly romantic character in the show; everyone else was drawn with scrupulous realism. That made Omar OK, fun, a dash of good ol' American entertainment in a show that was otherwise completely uncompromising about not giving us larger-than-life characters designed expressly to make us love them. But this time out, so many of them seem to be doing little more than carrying water for some cause or other. Sure, I like Gus -- how can you not like Clark Johnson? -- but he's not exactly a multidimensional character like Cedric was in Season 1. I'm just not sure I believe in him, or many of the other newspaper men. I appreciated the Laura Lippman cameo in the first episode, though. (She's married to Dave Simon.)

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Oh, and I love Carcetti. I believe that he wants to accomplish some good, and also that he will not sacrifice his own political future to do it; that he's a terrier when it comes to the governor and he's not entirely wrong about that, but that the city is paying for it. I like a character who walks the line. God only knows, he's a lot better mayor than Royce was.


Salon Staff

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