The Wire: Reformation

“Slow train comin'. Reform, Lamar, reform.” – Brother Mouzonne

Murder in the background, drugs still on the street, the towers are down but the game goes on. Will things change, can they be changed, or are all the promises fundamentally empty for the dark corner of the American experience portrayed on The Wire?

Season 3 is heading towards its conclusion and the cost of the reforming visions of each of the characters is beginning to become apparent. The result is choices some will regret and others will accept. Brother Mouzzone’s return is an opportunity to step back and see what has been accomplished since his last visit, and frankly the record does not look so good. His reference to a “slow train coming” is a metaphor for an inexorable force (sometimes the Second Coming) which generates great and ominous disruption and sweeps away the old (also the title of Bob Dylan’s 1979 Christian album).

The most obvious reform is Bunny Colvin’s Hamsterdam project and the cat is about to be fully out of the bag. It's an interesting observation by the writers that the only way either the newspapers or downtown Police establishment know that anything is happening is when someone comes out and tells them. The ComStat scene where Colvin reveals what has been happening is a wonderful character study of the police characters involved. Colvin struggles to take full blame/credit, and to not deflect it to anyone even accidentally. Rawls can see the brilliance of the plan but ever the pragmatist knows the effort is utterly (career) suicidal. Burrell’s anger and fear are beautifully realized in the ComStat room, the office scene with Colvin, and finally in the mayor’s office (where he realizes that as thin a defense as it may be he can only reiterate Colvin’s argument). The whole episode beautifully puts a lie to the idea that the policing is about really reducing crime.

Stringer Bell’s brave new world seems on the verge of collapse in large measure because his New Day Co-Op is actually working. The problem is Avon just cannot stop. He is, by his own admission, just a gangster and sleights and insults must be answered. As smart as he has been, he is endlessly baited by Marlo into greater violence. When he displays a grenade and talks about its kill zone, it's clear that he cannot live in the world Stringer wants to build. That Stringer would sell him out to the police though, that tells us we have entered altogether new territory and it's territory that Stringer is visibly upset about entering. Perhaps the price is just too high.

Carcetti is wondering the same thing. He is fast approaching the inevitable betrayal of his friend, Tony Gray, in order to leverage himself into the Mayor’s office. D'Agostino has made it clear that this is the path into office but despite all his ambition Carcetti still knows what a betrayal looks like. He is asking himself if this is what it takes to be a leader in Baltimore, a theme echoed in each of the “reform” projects of the episode.

Meanwhile, Dennis (who I still want to call Cutty) has his boxing gym open, not pretty mind you but open. The trouble is the kids he wants in the gym are suspicious and wild and are going to test him long before he is allowed to test them. I love the way he approaches them humbly in the end, open and without pretense, and is able to connect with them. It is one of the few hopeful moments in an episode full of morally ambiguous decisions.

And finally, the Major Crimes Unit’s pursuit of the Barksdales rolls on. Thematically, Lester’s plan doesn’t fit with the broader issues of the episode, but as a series of scenes and plans it is riveting police procedural work.

Bits and Pieces

It’s impossible to write this (retro) review in April 2015 without noting that as it's being finalized that there is civil unrest in Baltimore after the death of a black man at the hands of the Baltimore Police. I was watching this episode as it unfolded and Colvin’s speech to Carver could have been written in response to the incident. It was particularly poignant when he said:

“You call something a war, and pretty soon everybody gonna be running around acting like warriors. They gonna be runnin' around on a damn crusade stormin' corners, slappin' on cuffs, rackin' up body counts. And when you at war, you need a fuckin' enemy. And pretty soon damn near everybody on every corner is your fuckin' enemy and soon the neighborhood that you're supposed to be policin' that's just occupied territory.”

Poignant because this was written more than a decade ago, and (still) here we are.


Call it a crisis of leadership. - Proposition Joe

(This week’s epigraph is about whether those with the big ideas can actually make those ideas reality, are they willing to pay the price and take the risk. The longer quote appears below)

Proposition Joe: Got a quorum an' took a vote that says if y'all don't quit this war we of a mind to shut you out. And when I say out, String, I mean out the package. The boys don't want to extend the good shit if it's gonna keep you and your peoples out on them corners bangin'.
Stringer: What about the boy? What the fuck he say?
Proposition Joe: Vinson say Marlo willing to talk if he can keep his corners. Now, hear me on this, String, we ain't no ingrates. We all recognize your contribute to the co-op. But the feeling is this: it ain't right for you to be at the head of our table when you can't call off your dog. Call it a crisis of leadership.

(Maybe if Stringer explains it to Avon just one more time)

Stringer: You know, Avon, you gotta think about why we got in this game for, man. Was it the rep? Was it so our names could ring out on some fucking ghetto street corners, man? Naw, man, there's games beyond the fucking game. Avon, look, you and me, we brothers, B. We ain't think we make it this fucking far, but fuck if we ain't standing here right now, with the whole world at our feet. The whole world, man, not these fucking corners. The whole world, B.

(some more of Colvin’s speech to Carver, it really was too long to go all as one quote but here is one more particularly good bit)

Colvin: Look, the point I'm makin', Carver, is this soldierin' and policin', they ain't the same thing. And before we went and took the wrong turn and started with these war games the cop walked a beat, and he learned that post. And if there were things that happened up on that post whether there be a rape, a robbery, a shooting he had people out there helping him, feeding him information. But every time I come to you, my D.E.U. sergeant for information to find out what's going on out there on them streets all that came back was some bullshit. You had your stats, you had your arrests, you had your seizures. But don't none of that amount to shit when you talking about protecting a neighborhood now, do it? You know the worst thing about this so called drug war? To my mind? It just ruined this job.

(I think Colvin may actually have essentially “come to his senses” during this scene and realized just how far out on a limb he really was)

Banisky: You're telling me all this is an enforcement strategy.
Colvin: What the hell else could it be? I mean, you think we'd actually let this happen otherwise? Come on, Banisky. I mean, look, look at this mess.

(A quote which epitomizes what I love about Rawls. He is really sharp but, unlike Colvin or McNulty or Carcetti, he is just playing the game from the police side. Avon Barksdale would completely get him and how he behaves, but it’s not because he doesn’t realize there are other ways. No wonder McNulty hates him.)

Rawls: Bunny, you cocksucker, I got give it to you, a brilliant idea. Insane and illegal, but stone fuckin' brilliant nonetheless. After all my puttin' my foot up people's asses to decrease the numbers, he comes in and in one stroke, gets a fuckin' 14% decrease. Fuckin' shame it's gonna end our careers, but still.

(And finally the kind of leadership that Baltimore needs both then and now)

Dennis “Cutty” Wise: … I'm lookin' for you.
Justin: Why somethin' come up missin'?
Dennis: Came past to apologize. I'm new at this coachin' thing. An' I got us off on the wrong foot. I ain't gonna leave it between us, you thinkin' I gave up on y'all.
Justin: Motherfucker's memory weak as shit. We the ones bailed out on him.
Dennis: Anyway, I'm here now.

Jess Says

Really great thoughts this week, Ben. I don’t actually have much to add. As you say, we’re pushing towards the endgame of the season now, and lots of really big chickens are coming home to roost. Colvin finally confessing at the ComStat meeting was probably the highlight of the hour for me, and it had some really great aftermath. I loved that the crime statistics and the letters from the community actually gave the higher ups a moment of pause. Even while recognizing the shitstorm Bunny had brought to their doors, they couldn’t deny that the “legalize drugs” strategy seemed to have some genuine benefits. Mayor Royce was certainly tempted. It’s really too bad that the plan couldn’t work.

Colvin: “Soldierin’ and policin’, they ain’t the same thing.”

I, too, was particularly struck by Major Colvin’s instructional conversation with Carver in this episode. The police-community relations aspects of the season continue to have powerful resonance with the real world. Especially this week, as Ben notes. But to end on a lighter note …

Caroline: “Damn, Calvin. You know I got the bingo tonight.”

Caroline and Lester running the undercover operation on Squeak and Bernard is one of those funny moments from the series that has always stuck with me. Lester is great in his slick “Cool Lester Smooth” get up, and I just love the look he gives Caroline after she says this line.

The Upshot

3 of 4 Motions Passed by an illegal Criminal Conspiracy

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