Hot off "The Wire"

Join Salon staff as we discuss Episode 5 of "The Wire"

Published February 4, 2008 7:43PM (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!

Koppelman: Once again, I felt somewhat let down by this episode, especially since last week's was so good. And the sad thing for me is that just about everything about this episode was "The Wire" at its best -- Omar's long wait, Bubbles' desire for punishment, Clay Davis' thrasing about -- but the continued McNulty/Freamon make up a serial killer plot just kills everything for me. I could deal with it last week, when it was muted behind Marlo's continuing machinations, but this time it was just way too up front for me.

But this episode did have some great moments. Maybe I'm just a nerd (maybe?), but I liked the two sneaky references to David Simon's "The Corner" that got slipped in. Waylon, Bubbles' sponsor, works at the same crab house depicted in "The Corner" miniseries, and if I'm not mistaken, that was the real Fran Boyd drawing blood for Bubbles' HIV test. (Her son DeAndre played Brother Mouzone's assistant/bodyguard Lamar.) And I'm glad we're seeing more of Michael and Dukie -- the interplay between them has been one of the best parts of the season. I just wish we could get a glimpse at Randy and Naimond.

Finally, I will give the fake serial killer plot one thing: At least this time everyone above McNulty and Freamon is acting in good faith. Earlier in the show, the problem with the bosses was that they were just incompetent. Now, their hands are genuinely tied, and the wall thrown up against the investigation is not of their own making. It's another side of the causes for paralysis in city governments, and good for Simon et al. for exploring that.

Hepola: Alex, you mentioned a real-life cameo, which has always been one of those easter eggs of "The Wire," a show that rewards careful viewing. But I want to talk about a cameo that's become trouble for the show -- musician and ex-junkie Steve Earle as Bubble's AA sponsor. The man has the acting abilities of a muppet. He acts with his hands, with his head, with his toes. I realize recovering addicts are twitchy, but Earle looks like he's jonesing for the bathroom. And his limited ability makes it all the more difficult to pull off 12-step speak about how we need to let go of our shame and take an honest inventory. David Simon must think it's cool that a seasoned sonofabitch like Earle wanted to be on his show, but what's wrong with trained actors? (For those keeping score at home, by the way, I bagged on Steve Earle's theme song this season AND his acting ability. I am so not invited to the Earles' annual Christmas guitar jam.)

A few other scenes stood out this episode: a fleeting glimpse of Chris, the assassin's assassin, playing sweetly with his daughter; McNulty not paying for the paper but sneaking in to steal his copy (and we wonder why the industry is dying); and the hilarious response of the young reporter when told to do a story on the homeless. "Where am I gonna find homeless people?" It's Baltimore, dipshit.

Manjoo: Yup, this one was definitely a disappointment over last week's. A few episodes ago Alex, I think, hit on the main problem with the McNulty serial killer storyline, its dramatized-for-TV unrealism; it feels more like a yarn Dick Wolf, the "Law & Order" creator, clumsily "ripped from the headlines" than like a tale David Simon and his fact-obsessed co-writers dug up on the real city streets. It's TV, not HBO.

That sense was especially powerful this week. I did enjoy the newsroom scene in which McNulty and Scott the fabulist reporter discuss the implications of the serial killer phone call that each of them knows is fake. But this kind of dramatic irony -- is that what you call the device? -- felt like a departure from four seasons' of "Wire" storytelling, more pyrotechnics than gritty street drama. Worse was the part where Freamon and McNulty go over how they'll switch the serial killer wiretap with one for Marlo. Even Herc wouldn't have tried something so stupid.

But of course I'm burying the lead here. Omar! What happened to Omar!? Guesses, anyone?

Sarah, you really think Steve Earle's that bad? His acting didn't stand out to me either way, actually. And I have to say -- I'm warming to his version of the song. Not that I like any version very much; in the endless war between "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" for Best TV Show Ever, one of the few categories I give to "The Sopranos" is Theme Song. Alabama 3's "Woke Up This Morning" is unbeatable. Speaking of music, though, the one good thing about McNulty going back to the bottle is more bar scenes, which means more great jukebox music. Picking "Everybody Wants to Rule The World" for the background to McNulty's first encounter with Scott Templeton felt very right.

Even a bad episode of "The Wire" has got some unforgettable scenes. For me, this time, it was Cutty telling Dukie that in the rest of the world, "not everything comes down to how you carry it in the street." Dukie's response just breaks your heart, doesn't it? "Like, how do you get from here to the rest of the world?"

Havrilesky: Sweet Jesus, this is a tough crowd. Given what we know about the backgrounds of McNulty and Freamon, how isn't it plausible that they'd go to great lengths to nail Marlo? And how does that one storyline make it impossible for you to enjoy the other threads of Simon's story? You people need to log a few hours watching shitty TV with me so you'll remember the difference between a story that "seems a little farfetched" and the sorts of deeply, absurdly stupid plots found in most procedural dramas.

That said, I think McNulty and Freamon could march into Carcetti's office with bombs strapped to their bodies and I'd still enjoy this show from start to finish. It's just been too good for too long not to suspend whatever disbelief you have and give Simon the benefit of the doubt.

I also loved Dukie's line about the rest of the world, Farhad. What a direct sock in the jaw to those who expect inner city kids to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become captains of industry through sheer determination alone. Dukie's total befuddlement about how to get out of his situation is just heartbreaking.

MILLER: I''m with Farhad and Alex on the serial killer story line. This episode offered more of an explanation of how McNulty expects his cockamamie scheme to work -- Lester will pass off the information gleaned from the wiretap switcheroo as coming from an anonymous informer -- but they both know that in that case it can't be used as evidence. And, as should have been obvious from the start, the scam McNulty's running is far more likely to pull real detectives off of real murders. Besides, won't he eventually have to produce a killer?

I didn't weigh in last week, but I've been thinking since that if this were a David Milch show, I'd have no doubt that Marlo's name had pointed, literary significance. Marlo doesn't resemble Christopher Marlowe, but he has a lot in common with the main character in Marlowe's first great dramatic success, "Tamburlaine the Great (Pts. 1 & 2)" Based on the 14th-century Mongol conqueror, Timur, Marlowe's Tamburlaine is a creature of pure ambition who arrives seemingly out of nowhere and subjugates most of the known world, grinding assorted potentates under his feet (literally -- he forces one defeated emperor to act as his footstool). Like Tamburlaine, Marlo really only wants one thing -- to exercise his will without impediment of any kind. However clever and ruthless the other drug lords in "The Wire," they all have other desires, whether it's the basic gangster hedonism of Avon, Stringer Bell's hunger for legitimacy or Prop Joe's hankering to play Woodrow Wilson. Marlo simply wants to rule, for its own sake. We've yet to see him with a (real) girlfriend, or at home, or even spending the money he's acquiring hand over fist. Last night we saw him suggest a celebration, but it's hard imagine him actually relaxing with Chris in Atlantic City.

What's terrifying about Marlo is what was terrifying about Tamburlaine (both Marlowe's fictional character and the actual historical figure, Timur the Lame): he is willing to do absolutely anything to win -- "His resolution far exceedeth all," says one of the characters in Marlowe's play. For Tamburlaine, this includes persuading a man to usurp his own brother to seize the throne of Persia, then double-crossing him to become emperor himself. He arrogantly starves and torments his captives, harnessing a couple of vanquished kings to his chariot and indiscriminately slaying women and children. He fills up a lake with the drowned burghers of Babylon and punishes the mayor of Damascus by having all the city's "holy virgins" skewered on spears. These atrocities are no exaggeration, by the way; the real Timur like to build huge pyramids out of the skulls of his beheaded victims. The fearsome reputation of the Mongol chieftains -- who mercilessly slaughtered entire populations if anyone among them offered the slightest resistance -- was one of their most effective weapons. Marlo's many killings are investments in the same sort of reputation.

Of course, this kind of power -- the power of comprehensive terror -- is hard to maintain indefinitely. When Marlowe's Tamburlaine boasts "I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains,/ And with my hand turn Fortune's wheel about;/ And sooner shall the sun fall from his sphere/ Than Tamburlaine be slain or overcome" -- you know he's setting himself up for a fall (even if it took Marlowe two plays to get him there). What finally brings him down is, apparently, the wrath of providence. Besotted with his own power and boasting that it exceeds even that of God," Tamburlaine defiantly burns a pile of sacred books, including a copy of the Q'uran. By the next scene, he's stricken with a "distemper" and soon drops dead.

I doubt Marlo will die of a bad cold, but I expect he will fall by the end of the season, and the cause will be the repercussions of some seemingly minor act of hubris, creeping up on him unawares. Could it be something as insignificant as a pilfered camera?

By Salon Staff

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