Hot off "The Wire"

Join Salon staff as we discuss Episode 7 of "The Wire."

By Salon Staff
Published February 18, 2008 7:50PM (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!

Havrilesky: Hoo, boy. Now we're starting to see why this homeless-serial-killer confabulation makes so much sense as a storyline that highlights the interplay of the police department, city hall, the street, and of course the newspaper. Now that everyone's whipped into a frenzy over one fictional murderer, it's clear how many careers can be built and crushed by what amounts to a tempest in a teapot. Suddenly McNulty's case has manpower, overtime, image-scanning computers, you name it, Carcetti's got a solid chance to be governor, and the city desk is buzzing over the story of the year. How would viewers resist the temptation to get caught up in the hype, if we didn't know it was all the result of a few red ribbons, a faked phone call and a snapshot of poor Donald?

When McNulty confesses, "This shit's bigger than I ever thought it'd be," he's mirroring the thoughts of everyone in this picture, from Landsman to Daniels to Carcetti's team to Bunk. We're witnessing the power of the press and its enormous ability to sway public opinion.

And in case anyone thinks public opinion doesn't matter, we're invited to watch as Clay Davis turns a rock-solid case against him into a common-folk-like-me charm offensive followed by an impromptu pep rally. "What the fuck just happened?" Bond asks Pearlman, who responds, "Whatever it was, they don't teach it in law school."

One of Simon's themes is the disconnect between what you learn in school -- whether it's public junior high in Baltimore, the police academy, law school or journalism school -- and the way the world really works. Which brings us to my favorite exchange of the episode, between Bubbles, who's working in a soup kitchen, and Mike, the reporter from the Baltimore Sun who's nervously looking around for some homeless people to interview.

Mike: Mostly I'm just looking for a story about what it's like for them. What life is like.

Bubbles: Hard times out here.

Mike: I can't imagine.

Bubbles: And you're gonna write a story about what life is like, huh?

Most of all, this episode highlights how McNulty's manipulation of the system grew out of his unreasonably passionate (albeit at times misguided) focus on his job. Some letter writers have asserted that McNulty is a flat, essentially self-serving character. I couldn't disagree more. McNulty is a drunk and a cheat, sure, but his addictions are a way of counterbalancing his obsessive devotion to police work. When McNulty offers to help one guy, and then ends up with a steady stream of cops who want to pilfer the resources allocated to his homeless-killer case, we see his true colors. McNulty can't say no to these people, many of whom just want to do good work and get paid for it. For all of the ethical lapses of this scheme by McNulty and Freamon, clearly they're two individuals who are consumed by their desire to get results and put the bad guys away. Idealists like that don't end up in positions of power like Davis and Carcetti and even Daniels do, because they don't know how to turn their backs on people who need their help. In David Simon's hopelessly corrupt system, idealists don't just stagnate, they aren't merely forced to accept mediocrity. True idealists are eventually cast out as pariahs or lunatics.

The ultimate tragic fate for McNulty wouldn't be losing Beadie or losing access to his kids or getting sent back to the docks or even getting thrown in jail or killed. The worst thing for McNulty would be getting kicked off the force completely. This is what he loves and believes in, which is why he's driven to such extremes to avoid simply treading water in an ineffectual department.

"Get me out of this, Lester," McNulty says. "As fast as you can." Oh, you'll be out, alright.

Koppelman: Oh, sure, Heather -- rub it in some more, why don't you? The TV critic was right, the fake serial plot is worthwhile, and the rest of us should just go back to our (shudder) day jobs.

Actually, I don't know that I'm ready to admit that much yet. You make some good points about the nature of McNulty and Freamon, but I still find their actions a stretch. As you say, they're driven by a desire to put the bad guys away, and I've yet to be convinced that these characters wouldn't have a problem crossing the lines they have and becoming bad guys themselves. So I still have a problem with the root of the plot, but I do like the way it's spinning out. (And McNulty does make a convincing serial killer in that phone call, doesn't he?) I'm interested to see what role Bunk will ultimately play in this; clearly, he's getting more and more exasperated by what's happening.

I know I said it last week, but Michael K. Williams, who plays Omar, is a fantastic actor, and I find myself anticipating his scenes every week. I know this in particular is the writers, too, but the moment when Omar kills Savino is just well-done. A man with honor we've seen again and again, Omar is still willing to literally blow a man's brains out for little reason and with no hesitation, so casually that it seemed just the period at the end of his sentence.

Finally, Clay Davis' acquittal damn near killed me. I so wanted to see his final perp walk, but I should have known better -- clearly, David Simon wasn't going to make anything that easy, and, frankly, neither would a real Baltimore jury.

Speaking of Davis, my dad pointed out to me the other day that I've been falling down on the knowledge I should have as a Charm City native. (Sheeeeit.) Davis seems pretty clearly based on former Maryland State Sen. Larry Young, who was expelled from the legislature in the late 1990's, but acquitted in his own trial. Now he's a radio host; in fact, he's the radio host seen interviewing Davis last week. (Also, if your obsession with Simon creations goes back as far as mine, Young was the prototype for the congressman on "Homicide" who files the false report about a kidnapping that leads to Pembleton's first resignation.)

Hepola: I loved this episode. And by the way, Dominic West (who plays McNulty) directed it. Apparently, he got enough extra man hours to sit behind the camera, too.

"The Wire" has always been about people who understand work much better than they understand their personal life -- like Heather mentioned, McNulty's true passion isn't his kids or the woman sharing his bed, it's police work. That's true for so many of the characters on the show, that they are defined by their job -- be it slinging on the corner, or landing a story above the fold, or nabbing a guy you know in your gut is dirty. Even the most romantic moment of the episode -- a quiet evening between Rhonda and Daniels (actor Lance Reddick, clearly benefitting from time on the Bodyflex) -- is shop talk. The cops unwinding are, naturally, at a cop bar. (Cameo of the season has to go to Richard Belzer.) This is a cast of workaholics, and I suspect it is a show beloved by workaholics as well. It's fashionable not to give a shit about your job, to be cynical and sneering that anything you do matters, but these are characters who have the courage (or foolishness) to believe that the work they do can make a difference. I loved the scene that cut back and forth between the news room and the police station as each staff prepped for battle. Of course, in this case, none of their work does matter. There is no serial killer. There is no victim. They're pissing in the wind, soldiers in a battle they can't possibly comprehend, lied to and manipulated. In case we forgot how this story was going to end, we got a little reminder courtesy Clay Davis, who brought his copy of "Prometheus Bound" (and comically mangled Aeschylus' name) to the courthouse. Behold: Greek tragedy.

I was knocked out by the show's final moments, Kima at the window of her apartment with her little boy in her lap. Kima has never really gotten the importance of having a home life, has never really gotten what slips away when their work does become their entire life, but I think it's starting to sink in now. (And who didn't feel gratified to learn that a woman who's been shot could be unraveled by IKEA furniture?) It was a touch of brilliance on the part of writer Richard Price to reimagine "Goodnight, Moon" for the scary, scarred Baltimore streets. "Goodnight popo, goodnight fiends, goodnight hoppers, goodnight hustlers, goodnight scammers." Leave it to "The Wire" to make that sentiment sound so sweet.

Lauerman: Yikes, it's hard to go this late in the lineup -- too many good points have already been made!

But yes, I think Heather wins; this season has starting to come together in a powerful way. And I'm not having any real trouble buying the behavior of Freamon or McNulty; I think we're all saddened because we've come to like and relate to them over the years, but I think their frustration explains their actions entirely. (And as readers have rightly pointed out, the serial killer plot is no less believable than Bunny's crazy Hamsterdam free-for-all in season three.)

I also appreciated the brutality of the Omar scene, Alex. They've been laying it on a bit thick with Omar and the Robin Hood act (he doesn't even care about the money!). He's a murderous thug, after all. I just wish they'd had him whistle a little "Farmer in the Dell" for old times.

I'm curious what happens next with Clay Davis. Surely, we haven't sat through that much story for an abbreviated (and not that believable) courtroom hamfest and jaunty pep rally? I hope that's not the last we see of him, or it will be an anticlimax.

I also loved that "Goodnight, Moon" riff, Sarah. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Templeton react when the "serial killer" threatened to bite him. And, sure, I suppose it was nice to see Richard Belzer as, I presume, Munch.

But the biggest distraction for me this week was Donald. As the story explodes, and that would-be snuff photo of him is plastered all over the media so that friends and family (what a wrenching scene with the parents, by the way) see it, surely it's going to be noticed very quickly in a homeless shelter in the larger Potomac region. Then, how much longer before the trail leads back to McNulty? He seemed to loiter around that shelter for a while before leaving. And as the shelter manager told McNulty, it was rare the anyone would actually bring someone in, potentially making it all the more memorable to her. To me, McNulty's perfect crime seems guaranteed to lead right back to him. Pretty lame for a detective. Unless he, in fact, really wants to get caught, and this is his way of . . . whoops, sorry. I've been watching too much "In Treatment."

Miller: Tonight's episode drove home to me that I can't get too excited about this season when Marlo's not in play. I'm not saying the serial killer story isn't consistent with this or that character or that it isn't funny or likely to produce some kind of crisis illustrative of whatever is wrong with the world Simon is portraying. But it's preposterous, in a show whose value, for me, has always been its stringent realism. It's not that McNulty's scheme is incompatible with his character, just that it's way too unlikely. It's not that it couldn't happen, but rather that it wouldn't. It's satire -- not just of how the media works but of the public's weird fixation on this exotic breed of murderer -- and I like satire, but that's not what I come to "The Wire" for. I'm sure real crime fiction writers (like Richard Price, who wrote this episode) are probably sick of having to think up new twists on the serial killer story and, if they're socially minded, are also annoyed at readers who just aren't interested in more realistic material. But instead of giving that material to an audience that's already proven itself to be interested, I feel like Simon is rubbing our noses in the stupidity of an entertainment-industry cliche instead.

I'm with Alex, though: Clay Davis's triumph by demagoguery, however, is exactly the sort of thing that would happen in a city like Ballmer. Could the jury actually believe that Davis strode his district like Senator Bountiful, handing out petty cash for Similac or funeral expenses? Or did he just manage to make them hate the uptown lawyers arrayed against him? It amounts to the same thing when people feel that ground down by the powers that be.

How much longer is Omar going to roam the streets, knocking off Marlo's thugs and calling him out? Everyone's trying to flush Marlo! Yet he's nowhere to be seen, and ditto Chris and Snoop. I pretty much expect McNulty and Scott to go down this season, but Marlo's likely fate is a complete mystery to me. Is he the new model drug lord, ideally suited to the ultracold street capitalism of the 21st century? Or is he flying too close to the sun? That's the only story that matters to me at the moment.

Manjoo: I read in the New Yorker that David Simon's next show is about jazz musicians in New Orleans, a very high-minded idea that's sure to titillate the NPR set. But this week's episode got me thinking about a way for Simon to cash in.

Three words, Mr. Simon: Clay. Davis. Sitcom.

Call it "Clay!" Think "The Cosby Show" or "Family Matters," only now the dad's a scheming, manipulative, crooked politician -- and lovable! You'll frown upon his transgressions, but you'll fall for the quick wit, the plastic face, the silver-tongued comic brilliance.

If it takes off (sheeeeeit, when it takes off), there'd be Clay Davis T-shirts and coffee mugs, Clay Davis tax and investment guides ("My world is strictly cash-and-carry!"), and, of course, catchphrase-spewing pull-string toy dolls.

Consider it, David. Because I'm telling you, no else one on "The Wire" this season has been as enjoyable as Isiah Whitlock Jr.'s Clay Davis, and this episode proves it. I too didn't see it coming, but when it came -- when Davis won over the jury with his tale of Clay-as-man-of-the-people -- the story felt perfect. Of course Davis would bring the courtroom to his side -- after all, I fall for him every week, and I know he's crooked.

I'm with Laura and Alex on the serial killer plot. Sure, such a story is possible, and the tale does, as Heather points out, serve to show up the connections between the city's various dysfunctional constituent parts. But it still breaks with "The Wire"'s commitment to what would actually happen. The story's entertaining, and I like where it's going -- but as it keeps twisting, I can't help but yelling at the screen, "Oh, come on!" And that's never a good a thing.

Walsh:I'm sorry to be late to this party but I've been doing old-fashioned newspaper work, on the road three of the last five Sundays covering the presidential primaries. I've also been reluctant to weigh in until now because, as much as I love "The Wire," I've had a hard time enjoying this season; the plot weirdnesses documented by others have distracted me, but I'm reluctant to kvetch about a creation as great as this one.

A couple of kvetches are crucial: The newsroom scenes started out pretty awful, lacking the nuance Simon captures among drugdealers and cops and school teachers and city bureaucrats. Scott Templeton seemed a terrible, unbelievable, almost unwatchable character. And the faux homeless serial killer plot has bugged me as much as many of you: I've never understood why the city would necessarily be any more galvanized by a guy preying on the homeless than by vicious drug dealers preying on the black poor.

But somehow – the sexual twist? Ah, McNulty, what a great pervert – it started to work last episode, and as the plot began to rumble and rattle forward this week, it was easy to forget my quibbling. I knew I was falling when the sight of Templeton wearing his awful "Kansas City Star" T-shirt to visit the homeless last week at first struck me as awful and unfair. But as the scene went on, and the pink cheeked fabulist got scared and ran away from a homeless dog, I chuckled, and I was hooked. This is some shameful shit – and I'm loving it again.

Even the newspaper plot has gotten a little more fun and believable, now that Templeton and McNulty have gotten so hopelessly intertwined. I've loved both times the two liars have come face to face across a conference table, with only one of them sort of knowing the truth. (Templeton faked a call to himself from the fake serial killer, and then McNulty faked a second call to the lying reporter, if you're keeping score.) I love the way McNulty can't help but pick at Templeton, with questions that could unravel his own lies. "Did he sound like the same guy?" he asks, and poor dumb Scott can't decide what to say. "No, I mean yeah, well, no," and then he adds that he had a real thick Baltimore accent. "You didn't notice that the first time?" McNulty asks cruelly.

The best scenes are still on the corner. Simon's heart is with the kids: Dukie looking at (newspaper) job listings (no Craigslist for Dukie), reading about dental office positions. "Man, you ain't even been to no dentist," Michael reminds him. When Carv arrives and pulls Michael off the corner, he reminds Dukie: "Don't forget about Bug." When Omar arrives, telling Michael to inform Marlo that he killed Savino, Michael is shaken, but the littlest boy plays the stoic, shaking his head at the hobbled Omar, "gimpy as a motherfucker."

I'd like to say the scene where corrupt Clay Davis is acquitted was convincing, but it wasn't, really. I believe his faux-Robin Hood, populist shtick might get him out of trouble; the accepted corruption of leaders like Davis is a huge part of the story of continued urban poverty. But it was hard to believe the prosecutors would be so complacent. Simon is tying up too many loose ends too quickly.

But I'm enjoying McNulty's undoing. At first, he loves granting other cops' requests for more staff, to do real police work. "Go with God," says Father McNulty the first time he's asked. By the last time, when a colleague calls him "Boss," he's done. He wants Lester to liberate him, but Lester needs eight more guys to help crack Marlo's clockface code (wtf?) McNulty's fellow situational ethicist, Clay Davis, summed it all up walking into court carrying a copy of "Prometheus Bound" by Aeschylus, which he pronounced "Promethes Bound" by "A-Silly-Us." The moral of the story, Davis tells us, is "No good deed goes unpunished." We know McNulty, and many others, will be punished; we're just trying to figure out how and by whose hand.

Salon Staff

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