by Ben P. Duck
Do you ever have one of those days where you feel like a rat in a maze or maybe more appropriately here a hamster on the wheel. Because this episode is full of folks on that wheel, running hard and getting nowhere, only the thing is that some of them are aware of it and some not so much. The title of the episode captures this perfectly, “Hamsterdam.”
I always watch these episodes twice before starting to write the review, because I sometimes feel that a greater theme emerges when you already have the details of the storyline (It’s a bit like mythology, there’s the story and the meaning of the story). This strategy really pays off with this episode. The episode really seems narratively to focus on the police, but on the deeper thematic level, this is Cutty’s episode.
We open with the character hitting a heavy bag, hard work and great for expressing frustration physically. This is the episode where Cutty has to choose between the righteous but grinding work of going straight, or returning to the game. These worlds are in sharp contrast early on in the episode when we see him in the back of the lawn company pick-up staring at those men who are clearly in the game riding around in the comfort of a tricked out SUV. Then the metaphor of the lawn mower as a simple object which he doesn’t know how to make work in a simple life he doesn’t know how to live. The lawn company owner describes that life in sharp detail. When Cutty makes his decision he is instantly more at home and displays a level of competence and confidence that have been missing from the character to this point. In the final scene as he is led off by the women Bodie has arranged you can almost hear the words to The Wire’s theme echoing in his actions “Now don't pay heed to temptation, for his hands are so cold, You gotta keep the Devil, keep him on down in the hole.” Chad Coleman provides a really superb performance in this episode with probably half the lines of any of the other major players.
But let’s not neglect the narrative either, because it's picking up speed. Let’s start with Bunny Colvin. Here is a man clearly on the edge. Like a lot of characters we have met, he cannot quite bring himself to say “to hell with it” and cash out. If he could he would just take the job at Johns Hopkins (incidentally I don’t know any academic types who use the word “tinkle”). So he plows ahead with his “legalization”, in the form of the free zones, despite literally everyone on both sides of the legal line thinking that this is a terrible idea.
And speaking of apparently terrible ideas, Carcetti is running for mayor. He sure talks a great game, but we have already seen that he is incredibly ambitious and (at least in personal matters) very selfish. Whether he can upset the applecart of the Baltimore Democratic establishment remains to be seen, but given the racial politics of Baltimore the idea of him running is only slightly more radical than Colvin’s plan.
Meanwhile, it’s certainly not business as usual either for the Barksdales. We begin to see that the planning on that side is much more far-sighted than on the police side. The goals that Stringer has been working towards all along are starting to come into focus, and Avon’s efforts to get out of jail (seen throughout season 2) pay off in a parole hearing win. Even on the street the dealers have again switched up communications strategies with burner phones. The Street just seems to be smarter than the police at any number of levels.
If some of these folks know they are on a hamster wheel and are looking at a way off, poor Bunk is just plain stuck. As experienced as he is, there is no easy way he is going to locate Dozerman’s lost pistol. He knows it, his fellow officers know it, the dealers know it, and the viewers know it. But he just keeps working away at it.
This is the episode where things are really starting to happen for season 3. The Wire is a slow burn show and each season has had a few warm up episodes and this one is no exception, but by the end the pieces are in place for season.
Bits and Pieces
The episode title, as I mentioned above, seems freighted with meaning and yet the name of episode itself has been in dispute. In some sources (and when originally aired) it was “Hamsterdam,” on some DVD releases and even on HBO Go in 2015 it is listed as “Amsterdam.” For a show where every word seems to be carefully placed and considered, this really seems like an odd point to be in contention. The name itself has become synonymous with urban areas left to fend for themselves, so whether they meant it or not the term has taken on a life of its own.
Also, can you imagine how tough you have to be to run a school in inner-city Baltimore? I completely believed the scene in which the principal silenced the young dealers during Colvin’s gymnasium meeting. This is probably my favorite scene in the whole episode.
Why you got to go and fuck with the program? – Fruit
(This week’s epigraph expresses beautifully the feeling of everyone encountering the new plans of some of our main characters. Here’s the full conversation made all the better because nobody in the discussion actually believes it’s a good plan)
Herc: You guys fucking braindead? Whad'ya say?
Dealer: Yo, chief how you gonna come up here and try to game us? Say what? I'm sayin' ya actin' like we retarded or somethin'.
Herc: Better we put a foot in your ass?
Dealer: Least we'd understand it.
Herc: This ain't a trick, shitbird.
Dealer: Look, we grind, and y'all try to stop it. That's how we do.
Fruit: Why you gotta go and fuck with the program? All due respect.
(and here is how the zone gets dubbed Hamsterdam)
Herc: Vincent Street is your Amsterdam in Baltimore.
Carver: You go down there, we don't give a fuck. You stay here, you go to jail.
Dealer: I ain't goin' to no Hamsterdam.
(these sentiments were well expressed well, but I thought Colvin’s first speech set the tone for the episode)
Police Spokesman: Look, I know the problem seems insurmountable. But we are making progress. Take a look at this chart.
Colvin: Ma'am, it pains me that you cannot enter your own front door in safety and with dignity. The truth is, I can't promise you it's gonna get any better. We can't lock up the thousands out there on the corners. There'd be no place to put them even if we could. We show you charts and statistics like they mean something. But you going back to your homes tonight we gonna be in our patrol cars and them boys still gonna be out there on the corners deep in the game. This is the world we've got, people and it's about time all of us had the good sense to at least admit that much.
(Love the police view of Stringer going legit)
Freamon: Seems that Stringer Bell's worse than a drug dealer.
Prez: He's a developer.
(worth mentioning that McNulty remains a pain in the ass, and he’s pretty much cool with that, not that we didn’t know about that)
Lester: You put fire to everything you touch, McNulty then you walk away while it burns. I got nothin' more to say to you. Nothin'.
(as demonstrated when Greggs brings the whole thing up again)
Greggs: This thing with Lester? I feel like shit about it.
McNulty: Well, you get used to it.
(finally Cutty’s journey, though expressed in few words really is the emotional heart of the thing. First, the straight and narrow)
Cutty: You put it behind you, huh?
Landscaping Boss: Some can't. I'm just sayin': You wanna stay on the straight ain't gonna be no big reward to it.
(and then the game)
Cutty: Game done changed.
Slim Charles: Game's the same. Just got more fierce.
(and Bodie delivers the final verdict)
Bodie: He home now.
While the last episode showcased the potential dangers of single-minded focus, ‘Hamsterdam’ gave us the flip side: the potential benefits of staying the course against all advice. Where Ben sees a bunch of terrible ideas, I see a collection of potentially worthwhile efforts and guys who are going to have to work hard and ignore what everyone else says to make them happen.
McNulty deservedly got reamed out by Lester for being a self-centered, disrespectful asshole and for stubbornly refusing to let go of Stringer Bell as a target. But by the end of the episode, both McNulty’s and Lester’s digging had yielded a potential new angle on how to take Stringer down. Nothing is certain yet, and McNulty only has a few days to really turn it into something, but it seems that his dogged pursuit may very well lead to some potential benefit.
Meanwhile, Colvin is learning that if he’s going to make his paper bag plan work, he’s going to have to double down. Hard. Because, as Ben says, all the players --- cops and slingers, alike --- are fairly comfortable with the old system, and no one seems overly interested in changing up the current dynamic. Moreover, the slingers have no respect for police authority and don’t trust the police to mean what they say --- understandable given what we’ve seen of the patented Western District Way. As we saw in both the opening community meeting and the later school gymnasium debacle, the breakdown in the system seems to be a hopeless situation. With so much resistance and bullshit to overcome, the only chance Colvin’s plan has is stubborn refusal to give up.
Carcetti, too, is going to have to be focused and obstinate if he wants to bring his own plans to fruition. As noted, no one believes a white man has a shot in hell of getting elected mayor in Baltimore. So if he’s going to make it happen, Tommy is going to have to keep his own counsel and refuse to back down.
And yet. While the power players are buckling down and keeping their eye on the prize, there’s Cutty. Wondering exactly what the prize is for an ex-con trying to commit to the straight life. He’s putting in the hard work, day after day, and for what? Plenty of frustration and precious little gain. I don’t get the impression Cutty really wants to play the game anymore. It’s changed too much for him. But when he sees the players rolling around in relative comfort with sweet rides and all kinds of rewards for the risk, it’s hard to accept the notion that an honest day’s work is its own reward (especially if it barely pays enough to scrape by). Unlike the man running the landscape crew, he’s not ready to move past the idea that you need a fancy car to have a good, decent life. He wants more for himself. He wants the girls and the highs and the “respect” that comes with carrying a gun. Right now, he’s like Bubbs trying to steal that clock radio back in his stock boy days --- looking around, seeing the “good stuff” others have, and deciding he wants it for himself. Even though he probably doesn’t really need it.
And more bits and pieces...
Colvin: “I’m tired of the bullshit.”
Mello: “Tired make you lose your mind?”
We learned some more interesting tidbits about Marlo this week. He’s got himself a stone-cold, hardcore past in which he killed a witness. Do his new, seemingly less violent ways represent a change in attitude or merely a change in approach?
So, Avon got his parole. That really is bullshit.
3 out of 4 souls that couldn’t keep the devil down in that hole