Hot off "The Wire"

Join Salon staff as we discuss Episode 6 of "The Wire."

By Salon Staff
Published February 11, 2008 7:46PM (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!

Lauerman: Before we get to the real star of this episode -- let's just call him "Donald" -- let's review some of the multiple highlights:

  • Nancy Grace doing a vivid impersonation of Nancy Grace, vampiric sensationalist who sucks every bloody crime story dry of its last ounce of drama. I'm sure someone in Grace's camp assured her that "The Wire" is a brilliant crime show (Like "Law & Order" but on HBO. You know, classy!) and that it would create great cross-branding. Instead, it's a sly little casting coup. Grace participates in a brutal send-up of herself, probably thinking it would be just a harmless walk-on like Larry always does, but its self-laceration on par with gossip Hedda Hopper's cameo playing a ghoulish gawker in the final scene of "Sunset Boulevard." Delightful.

  • Carcetti's terrific speech on the homeless murders – angry, inspired and motivating. Did Obama write that? And I enjoyed his baffled surprise later when he learned it could fuel a run for a bigger office. Imagine that, sticking up for the weak makes good politics!

  • The show's pokes at Whiting's constant, pretentious references to "Dickensian" storytelling – that's exactly the sort of puffery newspaper editors throw around to hide their unquenchable award lust. But to poke back at the show (or at least Gus): Wouldn't using a homeless serial killer as a peg for a big series on the homeless be too good an opportunity to pass up? You have a gripping story, reader interest and an important subject. I agree with Whiting: Dump the school story for another year!

  • The terrified cries of "Omar! It's Omar!" echoing down the street after he hijacks, and blows up, Marlo's money.

That brings me to the bleakest turn the show's ever taken, and I'm just not sure what to think about it. It's one thing to manhandle a bunch of corpses, it's another to screw around with the living. No matter how many sad gazes McNulty lays on the pitiful homeless man he renames "Donald," he's turned toward real darkness here. How much you want to wager that the poor guy gets a better prescription, loses his disoriented case of the shakes, and fingers McNulty as his kidnapper? That might be the most positive way this story ends.

More to the point, Simon and Co. have done something really dangerous here, turning his swashbuckling anti-heroes into amoral hucksters. And that's not criticism -- I'm gripped by it. I think it's powerful because we understand exactly what led them to this point. The obvious Iraq War metaphors in this season aside (Scott Templeton's not just Jayson Blair, but Judith Miller, too!), there's something incredibly brave about making the good guys the ones driven mad enough to cook evidence and create illegal wiretaps -- and now, run roughshod over the lives of innocents. I have no idea how they're going to work this out, and I'm genuinely sad to see McNulty and Freamon embrace their dark sides like this, but I think this season has shaped up to be as uncompromising in its realistically grim depictions as any of the previous ones, and might even be building to an even bigger point.

Havrilesky: Didn't you think for a minute, when McNulty first spotted Donald, that he might kill him? I was a little worried, I have to admit. Even though he only conveniently relocated him to DC, the scene where Donald is fumbling for his sandwich makes it painfully clear that we're supposed to experience McNulty's latest outrageous maneuver as deeply, horribly wrong. McNulty's gone off the reservation completely, and Freamon is too caught up in the freedom provided by such an elaborate deception to see how ethically questionable their actions have become.

It makes sense that Simon would use the good guys to demonstrate the slippery slope of trying to subvert an inherently corrupt system. He did this with Bunny Colvin's Hamsterdam in season 3, to some extent. After years of being oppressed by civic institutions that range from neglectful to downright injurious, free-thinking, stubborn individuals will naturally take matters into their own hands and rationalize away collateral damage as a lesser evil than those evils caused by working within the system. As Freamon explains to Sydnor when he showed him the illegal wire tap on Marlo's cell phone, ""When they took us off Marlo this last time.... I regarded that as illegtimate."

This outrageous turn of events, which will surely bring disgrace on both McNulty and Freamon, still doesn't feel like a stretch to me. That said, I would've cut that scene where McNulty is drunkenly blathering to the statue. We get it. McNulty is cr-cr-crazy! The scene didn't fit with the subtlety of this series, and would be perfectly at home among those DVD outtakes you watch after the fact and think, "Whoa, that was a little too on-the nose, wasn't it? Glad they left that one out!"

But there were tons of great scenes in this episode, as always. I loved how Bunk and Greggs discovered that the evidence in the Marlo murders was ruined by a clueless temp in the crime lab. How nicely does that dovetail with every shockingly mediocre workplace you've ever had the misfortune of inhabiting?

And I loved that Rawls sets up Daniels to get slaughtered at the homeless-serial-killer press conference, only to have Daniels hit it out of the park as Carcetti looks on approvingly. And minutes later, Daniels discovers from a smug Rawls that Carcetti doesn't intend to change a damn thing, despite his big talk? Heartbreaking! How long will an idealist like Daniels be physically able to toe the mayor's line, when he knows it's all bullshit?

The rise of Marlo in the wake of Prop Joe's fall was also riveting. I kept wondering why the other guys at the co-op wouldn't just take Marlo out, but I guess he's their link to the Greek's product now, so they have to play nice. Everybody, from the guys in the newsroom to the guys in city hall to the guys on the street, must take their marching orders from bad, bad bosses.

Koppelman: I thought that for more than just a minute, Heather. And if McNulty had killed that man, the show would have lost me right then and there. But I really liked where they went with it ultimately -- the pathos in the Larry/"Donald" scenes really got to me, as it clearly got to McNulty. You begin to see that McNulty finally realizes the consequences his actions are having; it made me think, actually, of the scene from last season where Carver banged his steering wheel and screamed when he dropped off Randy at the group home. McNulty's clear hesitation, the sense that he might at any minute grab his pawn and drive back to Baltimore, made the episode for me. I agree with Kerry, though -- Simon's walking a very narrow tightrope in making McNulty and Freamon so amoral.

And speaking of pathos: That scene at the beginning where Omar was bandaging his own leg was killer. Hard to watch, primarily because Michael K. Williams, who plays him, really does a great job. I agree with Marlo, though: Omar's jump just don't seem possible. But, man, the interplay between Omar and Marlo, the machinations of both, is some of this show's best stuff in a while, I think.

Finally, I'm really interested to see where this plot about the leak in the courthouse is going to go, and who it's going to trace back to. I have to imagine this is no red herring; it's been set up for so long. So I'm hoping we see some important character get involved somehow.

Hepola: I'd been wondering about last season's corner kids -- that is, the ones who haven't been spit-shining their homicide skills -- and hoping that maybe somewhere, outside the frame, Randy and Namond were making out with girls, giggling, and otherwise enjoying an adolescence safely out of the game. So I was heartbroken to see Randy appear this episode, dead-eyed and thuggish. Of all the kids from season four, Randy was the one with the wit and what seemed to be an irrepressible spark, but as he slammed a kid against the wall while strutting up the stairs at the boys home, it was clear that the battle for his soul had been lost. No one ever did look out for Randy; his coda is damn bleak.

Meanwhile, I'm feeling a bit cheated by the fabulist character -- so cheated, in fact, that I still haven't bothered to learn his name. Even in his lies, this guy feels like a hack. I think of compulsive liars as more elegant, more resourceful and cunning than responding to legitimate questions with responses like, "Pshhht, I don't think so." His deceit is paralleled by that of McNulty, but I find McNulty's game more challenging, more exciting to telegraph. (Like Heather and Alex, I thought Donald was bound for the morgue and a tidy red ribbon.) As some have pointed out, we here at Salon are a bit more familiar with writing than we are with solving crimes, and for that reason, maybe we're being too hard on Mr. Fabulist. But I still think there's something lopsided about these parallel storylines: McNulty is ingenious, and that kid is a rube. Although I do give him credit for squeezing out a decent story on the homeless, which prompted a satisfied Gus (ever the quotable one) to give this nifty summary for what makes good copy and, for that matter, good TV: "I like how you didn't overwrite it. No extra color. No puffy adjectives. Just tight, declarative sentences."

By the way, I'm surprised none of you bastards have mentioned that the guy yelling at the ribbon-cutting ceremony sure did look like one of the dock workers from season two. Commenters, am I crazy?

Manjoo: In the final thirty seconds, you keep waiting for McNulty to turn back and save Donald, don't you? As he walks to his car he looks back three times, and that last time I thought he'd give in, he'd go back, he'd call off this crazy plan. Yeah, Alex, he does seem to be recognizing the consequences of his actions. But so far, he's not acting on that realization -- and does anyone think he will? I don't.

That Freamon line that Heather points out -- "I regarded that as illegitimate" -- was, for me, the soul of this episode. Both McNulty and Freamon know that what they're doing is wrong; each of them has thought about the difficulties and the repercussions, they've gamed it out. But they've been so thoroughly abused by the system that they really don't see any other way. As I said last week, I find this whole storyline a little bit of a stretch, but even so I think their leap across the moral line would be a fitting end to this show.

Hey Kerry, I'm glad you thought of Obama when watching Carcetti's speech. I did too -- but I couldn't help interpret the comparison, if it was intended, as a dig. Like Obama, Carcetti is a gifted speaker with a great disdain for politics as usual. He's inspiring -- last season he got me, at least, believing that he'd change everything, that he'd give Baltimore the new day it deserved. (I almost bought this T-shirt!)

But change didn't come. As Daniels is just now starting to realize, Carcetti's all talk, and unwilling to do anything that might help the city if it also hurts his maneuvering for higher office. Let's not forget that the reason the city is broke is Carcetti's refusal to take the state bailout for the schools (so that he could do well in the governor's race). Is David Simon telling us to be wary of politicians who promise a new day -- that inspiration doesn't count?

I'd been hoping to see Randy again, but now I wish I hadn't. The reappearance only confirmed for me that what happened to that kid is that saddest of all this show's many miseries.

And Sarah, you're not crazy, that was Nick Sobotka. Just like his uncle Frank had long worried, they're turning the docks into condos and office space.

Salon Staff

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