by Ben P. Duck
This is the episode where we see the difference between Frank Sobotka and the other criminal leaders of The Wire drawn into sharp relief. The title refers to the bad ending to all the dreams that the union leader had for him and his. Frank wasn’t doing it all for himself, he was doing it for his people, his union and his family. All the talk of such things among the Barksdales have been shown to be empty rhetoric to justify unremitting violence and excuse their role in the ongoing destruction of their community. Frank had turned a blind eye to such things but here he discovers that he was deluding himself all along.
Frank is perhaps the best character in a season (and series) filled with great characters. They say that one should “show,” not talk, in really good film drama, this episode is characterized by both excellent exposition (some examples of which I quote below) but also some great examples of Frank acting like his best self in an attempt to somehow get his world back on track, to “get clean” as the epigraph states. He goes and does a hard day’s work on the docks. He tries to salvage his fast-sinking political efforts, but much more significantly he wants to salvage his family. To make my first point about the difference between Frank and Avon, think about this same point in the last season when Avon and his men surrendered and admitted their crimes. It was entirely self-serving , and they were painted into a corner. Can anyone imagine Avon needing to “get clean,” going out a doing a hard day’s work or taking the fall for his nephew. In fact, his actions are exactly the opposite of Frank's. I have said before that Simon is, at some level, examining why people are criminals or cops, and here we see the conclusion of a chapter on corruption. At the same time, this episode is the coda on Frank’s development that tells you what you saw was real.
And speaking of character development, Beadie Russell provides a critical linchpin to the episode, demonstrating just how far she has come in just a few months. She both capably and professionally trails Vondas (including a very exciting and well shot scene involving an observation mirror), but she also talks Frank into coming in and trying to make right some of what he has made wrong. Early in this season I made the point that in Southeast that the police are really part of the community in a way they were not in West Baltimore, it is this appeal by Russell to Frank that really shows what this means. He comes in and comes clean because he knows it’s the right thing to do, and only someone who is of the docks is going to convince him of that.
Finally, we get the confrontation between Omar and Brother Mouzone. It’s not exceptionally exciting as an action sequence, but as drama it is all we could hope for. The writing in their one scene together is really spot-on and captures both characters personal idioms beautifully. It also rang true for Omar to act as he did in the end, but one is rarely rewarded for doing the right thing on “The Wire” so we will see what happens next. The importance of this and other Omar/Stringer/Butchie/Mouzone related scenes begin to focus us back toward the central story that runs through the series in West Baltimore, even as our time on the docks is winding down.
Bits and Pieces
Although is not his first episode, it might be a good time to talk about George Pelecanos, who wrote this episode. Pelecanos is a crime writer who is very well known in the region and in particular in the Washington D.C. area. He and David Simon are reported to be good friends and his fingerprints are evident not simply on this episode but on the whole second season (for which he was also a producer). Pelecanos is a Greek American and many of his characters are from the same background including Nick Stefanos the protagonist of several of his novels. He also wrote an episode of HBO’s “The Pacific” which featured a Greek diaspora family in Australia. Thus it hardly comes as a surprise to discover him mixed up with Greek criminals in Baltimore. (He’s also cool because we live in the same neighborhood.)
I need to get clean. —Sobotka
(This week’s epigraph, I had complained that I thought these opening quotes had gotten a bit off target in the last few episodes of season 2. This returns us to form where the quote captures in a short sentence the core of the whole episode. Here is the whole exchange, which points up Frank’s realization that he has failed not just his union but his family)
Lawyer 1: We need to sit down and talk, Frank.
Sobotka: I gotta see my son.
Lawyer 2: The man's right. Let's grab a cup of coffee or something.
Sobotka: Not now, I need to get clean.
(This is Frank’s episode, where we see who he was and who he’s become, so let’s let him make his own case)
Sobotka: For twenty-five years, we've been dying slow down there. Dry docks rusting. Piers standing empty. My friends and their kids -- like we got the cancer. No lifeline got thrown all that time. Nothing from nobody. And now you wanna help us? Help me?
Sobotka: You know what the trouble is, Brucie? We used to make shit in this country. Build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy's pocket.”
(and some thoughts on his failings)
Valchek: "Big man on the docks. You don't look so big now, do you?"
Frank Sobotka: … he knew. Everything I did, the cans I let through, the money we got from that went to keeping what we had.
Louis Sobotka: God damn it, Frank! Don't let that excuse this. Not this. Uncle Frank, with the big shoulders.
(finally with Ziggy we get the clearest indictment)
Frank Sobotka: What happened?
Ziggy: I don't know. I got tired. I got tired of being the punchline to every joke.
Frank Sobotka: You had problems, you could've come to me. You could've said something.
Ziggy: You wouldn't have heard. You were always too busy dredging up the canal. Making sure the right bum got elected. Buying another round for the house.I always used to think you were working all them hours you spent away.
Frank Sobotka: It was all work, Zig, even when it wasn't…
Ziggy: … Pop when I seen what I did to that kid down at the store it made me sick to my stomach.
Frank Sobotka: That ain't you, Zig.
Ziggy: It ain't? Because the same blood don't flow for us, Pop. I mean, I wish it did, but it don't.
Frank Sobotka: You're more like me than you know. You're a Sobotka.
Ziggy: Fucked is what I am.
(and finally Frank gets it)
Russell: Stop it, just stop it. Talk to me.
Frank Sobotka: And say what? I'm sitting here trying to figure it out myself. It didn't happen overnight. I knew I was wrong. But in my head, I thought I was wrong for the right reasons, you know? There are different kinds of wrong. What're you doing here, Bea?
Russell: I'd like you to come in. Not in cuffs. Because you want to. I'm opening a door here, Frank. I can't promise you anything. Just come in. We'll start from there. You're better than them you got in bed with.
(Omar as always has plenty to add)
Omar: Been what, a year? Boy, you don't know, I been dreaming of running into you again.
Stringer: You got a focus. I give you that.
Omar: Man be like that when he got work to do. You know what I mean?
Brother Mouzone: You kill my man?
Omar: No, he's resting. I'm saying, ain't you wanna know?
Brother Mouzone: Not particularly.
Omar: About a year ago, a boy name Brandon got got here in Baltimore. Stuck and burned before he passed.
Brother Mouzone: The game is the game.
Omar: Indeed. See, that boy was beautiful. Wasn't no need for y'all to do him the way y'all did. You feel me?
Brother Mouzone: A year, you say?
Omar: About that.
Brother Mouzone: You've got some wrong information.
Omar: Man, you lying to live.
Brother Mouzone: I'm at peace with my God. Do what you will. So you know? What happened to your boy, it's not my style.
And so we come to the end of the road for Frank Sobotka. Poor, tragic, “it ain’t about me” Frank Sobotka. The final scene of this episode, with Frank walking down to meet what is almost certainly his death, is another key moment that defines this season for me. It makes me so profoundly sad to watch him making this last mistake. Especially coming right on the heels of him realizing how badly he’s screwed everything up, and subsequently trying to make right what he can. The saddest part for me is that, as Ben notes, Frank really is a man who got into the dirt for “noble” reasons. “I thought I was wrong for the right reasons.” He was just trying to do what he thought was necessary to make things better for his union, his friends, and his family. Other than the stained glass window, his actions never really struck me as motivated by power and by how it made him look. “You’re better than them you got in bed with.” (Of course, ironically, it was that gesture that initially brought down the wrath of Major Valchek, ultimately leading to Frank’s downfall.)
But despite all his good intentions, Frank completely failed to consider the potential collateral damage, or to truly recognize the messages he was sending to Ziggy and Nick. Ultimately, his dirty dealings didn’t help anyone. In fact, everyone is worse off. The union is now in serious legal trouble, and the Grain Pier project is dead because all the politicians that Frank greased are running for cover. Ziggy destroyed his life, in part because he felt like Frank wasn’t really available for him and he had to make his own way. And Nick is also in serious legal trouble because Frank inadvertently led him down the dark path, not recognizing that even a small taste of financial security might lead Nick to further criminal actions. At the end of the day, it was all for nothing. And, like Ziggy, “fucked” is what Frank is. Tragic.
And more bits and pieces...
That was David Simon in the reporter scrum when Valchek forced Frank to do the perp walk of shame!
Sergei: “Why always ‘Boris’?”
The Greek’s low profile pays off big time here, as the cops assume the man in the fancy suit is the Big Boss and don’t even notice the old man in the panama hat.
4 of 4 Last-minute Realizations of Misdeeds