by Ben P. Duck
Regarded by many as perhaps the best episode of the entire run of stellar episodes in a stellar series, it asks and in some ways answers the question as to whether a middle ground can be found.
There is an old joke, long repeated in my home state of Texas, that the only thing in the middle of the road is a yellow stripe and dead armadillos. This episode suggests that being in that middle space is a great way to get run over (although it also suggests that those in the middle are anything but cowards). This is because, even when everyone sees what can work, the fear of the consequences entirely justified and thus the courage to actually act has to be pretty great. The status quo is a powerful thing and serves many interests.
Let’s start with the great Hamsterdam experiment. Colvin’s courageous calm is counterpointed beautifully with the look of near panic on the face of Burrell through much of this episode. Frankie Faison accomplishes some really fine internal acting that manages to convey his desperation to viewers without really revealing it to the characters around him. Actually, everyone in this particular plotline does a nice job in communicating the degree to which the whole thing is just beyond their experience and, often, even their understanding while also not shortchanging the character’s skill and intelligence. Case in point is the conference in the Mayor’s office, in which the characters really debate the whole issue. No one is entirely right or wrong and we hear this discussed with real nuance which begins to tell you why something like this would be so hard to accomplish in the real world.
The other great attempt at finding the middle ground is, of course, Stringer Bell’s business empire. This is the episode where we see that he has been living in a world of illusion for some time and that the middle ground he has stood on is basically composed of quicksand. The Major Crime’s Unit is closing in. Bell discovers that the bribes paid to Clay Davis were all part of a shakedown and that his attempts to get ahead were pointless and expensive. Much more serious though, his ruthless but selective use of violence has alienated exactly the wrong people, and with his business empire collapsing (including his access to the Co-Op’s drug package) that his value has fallen below the value of these criminal contacts. Stringer’s betrayal of Avon to Colvin is all in defense of his middle ground even as Bell can sense it unraveling. It is an ultimately fruitless gamble. It would be hard to top for sheer quality of writing, acting and irony the scene of Avon and Stringer on the balcony looking out at the city they have “conquered,” each having betrayed the other, and each attempting to reassure each other and themselves. The final scene that follows from this betrayal is powerful and a final statement on whether the drug trade can be made into just another business.
There is more success for the characters who remember who they are and do not seek some untenable middle ground. Cutty’s story moves ahead in a very satisfying way as he is the man he should be rather than the half gangster he was trying to be early in the season. The episode does a great job portraying the kind of character building that can happen though boxing and other contact sports. (I could go on about issues of masculinity, self-esteem, and perseverance but will spare you.)
One last thought. McNulty has a good moment when he doesn’t let himself be played by D'Agostino, demonstrating for the first time in a while that he is smart and very perceptive when he doesn’t have his head up his ass.
Altogether an episode filled with great moments.
Bits and Pieces
Let’s talk about another guest star. A few episodes back we had Melvin Williams, a notorious drug dealer, playing the Deacon. In this episode we have Kurt Schmoke, former Baltimore Mayor and current President of the University of Baltimore, playing the City’s Health Commissioner. The views he express reflect the harm reduction strategies that he himself pursued when mayor, including extensive outreach and needle exchanges. As his character puts it:
“Look, I'm not a politician, I'm an academic. All I know is that from a public health perspective there are remarkable things happening in the free zones. Needle exchanges, on-site blood testing, condom distribution. Most of all we're interacting with an at-risk community that is largely elusive. We're even talking some of these people into drug treatment. And that's just what U.M. and Bon Secours have brought to the table. If this thing were sanctioned my department could put public resources into play.”
Not popular positions, but the kind of pragmatic thinking that Schmoke is known for.
Stringer Bell: We ain't gotta dream no more, man.
(Irony runs deep through this statement which is the epigraph for the episode. Just one other line reflecting each character’s desire to comfort the friend they have betrayed)
Avon Barksdale: Forget about that for awhile, man. Just dream with me.
Stringer Bell: We ain't got to dream no more, man.
(more fun and wonderfully well written was the first confrontation between Brother Mouzzone and Omar, which felt more like the collision of two forces of nature than a conversation in an alley. I love how distinctive the two characters voices are.)
Omar: So, you gonna rob me now? I need to remind you who I am?
Brother Mouzzone: Omar, isn't it? Pull it slowly. Then toss it.
Omar: Oh, I will move slow. But I ain't tossin' nothin' bow tie. So whatever you gonna do you might as well go ahead and make it quick. I knew you'd come back.
Brother Mouzzone: I trust you didn't lose sleep over it.
Omar: Worryin' about you would be like wonderin' if the sun's gonna come up. I ain't about to wild out over it.
Brother Mouzzone: I see you favor a 45.
Omar: Tonight I do. And I keeps one in the chamber, in case you ponderin'. Nice show piece you got there.
Brother Mouzzone: Walther PPK.
Omar: Hear them walthers like to jump some.
Brother Mouzzone: As will you, with one in your elbow.
Omar: That gun ain't got enough firepower to make my joint useless. It definitely won't stop me from emptyin' out half my mag.
Brother Mouzzone: You might not hit me.
Omar: This range? And this caliber? Even if I miss, I can't miss.
Brother Mouzzone: I admire a man with confidence.
Omar: I don't see no sweat your brow neither, bro.
Brother Mouzzone: I suppose we could stand here all night.
Omar: S'pose we could.
Brother Mouzzone: Or settle this once and forever. I want to ask you something brother.
Omar: Omar listenin'.
(not good news for Stringer Bell. Speaking of which)
Levy: He rainmade you. A guy says if you pay him, he can make it rain. You pay him. If and when it rains, he takes the credit. If and when it doesn't, he finds reasons for you to pay him more. Clay Davis rainmade you.
Bell: Naw, man, he got them building permits in no time at all, man. I mean, we bribing these motherfuckers. He got the city contractor's money back.
Levy: How much?
Bell: 35,000 so far.
Levy: On a quarter million you gave him?
Bell: It's for bribing the motherfuckers.
Levy: There are no bribes! You really think a state senator is going to risk his salary and his position by walking into a federal office with a briefcase full of drug money?
Bell: I seen Chunky, Chunky Coates.
Levy: Chunky Coates gets his grant money same way everyone does. He fills out applications, he makes sure the plans meet spec then he prays like hell. This is an old game in this town, and Clay Davis? That goniff was born with his hand in someone's pocket.
(and you have to love it when your best friend takes the time to say I told you so)
Avon: Naw, you a fucking businessman. You'd wanna handle it like that. You don't wanna get all gangster wild with it an' shit, right? What I tell you bout playin' them fucking away games? Yeah. They saw your ghetto ass comin' from miles away, nigger. You got a fucking beef with them? That shit is on you.
I really loved the tapestry of history in this episode. Not just the deep, personal history that weighed heavy in all the scenes between Avon and Stringer, but all the smaller moments that referenced the City’s past, the show’s past, and the characters’ pasts. The parallel efforts of law enforcement and the criminal world to take down Stringer Bell felt like the culmination of all that has come before in the series, including the Detail’s past efforts to catch Stringer, the torture and murder of Omar’s lover, Brandon, and Stringer’s assorted manipulations to cover up the sins he committed in his effort to promote and protect his middle ground. We also got lovely nods to Avon’s boxing history and his face being on the Golden Gloves poster, Jimmy’s beef with Judge Phelan, and the FBI’s internal blind spot regarding Agent Koutris tanking the Port investigation. On Carcetti’s tour of the Western District we got several stories about the way things used to be in this city. And, of course, all that knowledge of the way things are typically done in Baltimore cast a long shadow over the Mayor’s efforts to maybe make Hamsterdam work and Burrell’s efforts to make sure the Mayor didn’t anchor him to the sinking ship of Major Colvin’s experiment.
Cities have histories. People have histories. Those pasts inform all the choices made and illuminate the path ahead. The Wire’s attention to that history is a huge part of what makes its universe so rich, and what makes all that transpires in that ‘verse more deeply felt. So, even in an episode bounded by rather outsized, archetypal characters and moments, we never lose sight of the past that led to those moments. It’s always more than “just business.”
Colvin (re: Hamsterdam): “I’m glad I tried.”
4 of 4 People You Should Not Have Crossed