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The Wire: Ebb Tide

"When I was your age, I unloaded ten ships a goddamn day! I'd do it with one-arm after a three-hundred-pound bag of Polish dildos fell on me!" –Ziggy

Raise a shot of whiskey and toast to "better times," because these times are some distance from the best. A new season brings new settings and new characters, but the same old depressing Baltimore. This season focuses on the docks and workers in the oldest industries in Baltimore, the Port. I found that the first episode left me with so much to talk about that I felt like I was back to the beginning of the whole series. It is essentially a re-set of the series with some characters continuing in central roles.

Let’s start by catching up with our characters from season one. McNulty is right where he didn’t want to be, on the boat in the Marine unit. Some time has passed, months not years, since everyone was sentenced and it is the winter of McNulty’s discontent. We get to see him doing that job out on the water and most importantly fishing a body from the water. We also get to see him demonstrate his deep McNultiness as he manages some very clever detective work regarding that body. He then uses it to stick his nemesis Rawls with an essentially unsolvable murder, and doesn’t even try to hide that he is the one screwing with Rawls. One remembers very quickly how he got stuck on the boat in the first place.

Carver and Prez are both now in the Southeastern Division working for Prez’s father-in-law Major Valchek, who we met briefly last season. Valchek has his own little kingdom in a part of Baltimore where being a working class white man with power is not an unusual thing. Carver wouldn’t even be noticeable except that we knew him from season one, he is doing his police work as a sergeant in the division. Prez is still looking for his place. He is perhaps the most changed man in the series, serious and a lot less of a dumbass than the character we met in season one. He doesn’t want rank or career; he wants to make a difference. The potential to do so is not looking too good as the season opens.

Meanwhile back at narcotics, we have Herc, who has come to appreciate how much more can be accomplished with intelligence than with strong-arm tactics. He is also busting white guys in the drug trade, foreshadowing that we may see him in Southeast before long. Greggs is transformed in another way. We find her tied to a desk, ostensibly because her partner won’t let her go back onto the street, but I immediately suspect that as tough as she is that it may be hard to come back from being shot.

Finally, Daniels is in the basement with the evidence. It is an exile every bit as thorough and disheartening as McNulty’s adventures on the harbor. Bunk and Freamon seem to be doing well though, so there is that (and frankly after 13 years in the pawn shop unit it seems only fair that Lester at least begin the season doing well).

The Barksdales are also busy, although they are perhaps less central this season. Bodie, so hardcore and dangerous in Baltimore, goes to Philadelphia where we discover he has never been outside of Baltimore. A point made in a brilliant bit of writing about his lack of understanding that radio stations are not universal (and with a wonderful guest audio appearance by Garrison Keillor). We will get back to the Barksdales in future episodes but let’s just note that they are struggling with supplier problems and running things from prison. It is at least nice to see that all of season one’s effort have inconvenienced the Barksdale organization a little bit.

And all that just sums up our characters from last year. This year we find ourselves in different locales altogether with the city’s poor white folk, who are indeed caught in the ebb tide of their community, work life and importance. A mix of Polish, Greek and newer eastern European immigrant communities, they have been a dominant community on the waterfront for a century or so.

Frank Sobotka is a union leader who can see that his world is a dying one. He is another crooked man working for his community, a staple of The Wire. He needs money to pursue improvements to the harbor that he hopes will bring back prosperity (or at least keep his people going). He’s getting it through helping a mysterious figure known as "The Greek" with his smuggling activities, activities that carry tragic consequences. He is aided (or something) by his nephew and son, Nick and Ziggy. Nick is a man who seems together and competent, but obviously a little desperate to have some kind of life beyond the constant wait for a few days of work. Ziggy, who also works with his father, seems like a complete clown whose major skill is whipping out his penis in bars for comic effect. In a show like The Wire, this is a skill unlikely to lead to your success (sure, it's a ticket to riches on Two and a Half Men but here, not so much).

And finally, (and wow has this list gotten long) there’s Officer "Beadie" Russell. We don’t find out that much about her this episode but she ends the episode with a discovery of death at a level that is pretty shocking even by the standards of The Wire.

As with the beginning of season one, David Simon opens at a measured pace to let us begin to get the bigger picture before plunging forward into the story.

Bits and Pieces

The Port of Baltimore remains immensely important to Baltimore and Maryland, but automation and rationalization have completely altered what it means to the people who once made a living there. Baltimore really took it on the chin when the industrial economy in the U.S. collapsed in the 1970s and 1980s. Bethlehem Steel, where we learn McNulty’s father worked, built ships and made steel in the same spaces we are telling this season's story. It was at the core of industries that made Baltimore a good place to live. And then it was gone. Ten thousand workers laid off or phased out. Baltimore hasn't ever really recovered. The Port felt the impact of the same trend in changes in technology and economy, everything could be done more easily and better by less and less people. The number of ships and goods has never been higher (actually reaching record levels while The Wire was still in production) but only a tiny fraction of the people who once worked the docks are left to conduct the business of the port.


"Ain't never gonna be what it was." —Little Big Roy

(the epigraph for the episode and maybe the season, but the full conversation reveals that maybe it never was what it was... if you followed that. Here’s the full conversation)

Nick: "They sit around all the damn day talking shit about how they used to offload with shovels, and carrying fuckin' railroad cars on their backs."
Dock Worker: "'Shit, and drink whiskey with a fire hose,' says one guy."
"Fifty" Spamanto: "Go home and fuck their wives silly 'til breakfast, they was some fuckin' heroes back then!"
Nick: "Shit is thick in here tonight, gentlemen."
Horseface: "What can you do? This generation, they just don't know."
Little Big Roy: "Ain't never gonna be what it was. No indeed."

(for some reason, I feel like this one goes with the epigraph as well)

Bodie: "Why would anybody want to leave Baltimore? That's what I'm asking."

(words of encouragement and other thoughts to and on Jimmy McNulty, he may not be someone they love but he is always worth talking about)

Diggins: "It'll be spring in a couple of months."

Landsman: "It's all about self-preservation, Jimmy. Something you never learned."

Rawls: "Fucking Jimmy. Fucking with us for the fun of it. I gotta give the son of a bitch some credit for wit on this one… cocksucker."

(one more from the docks this week)

Beadie: "Just so I can finish my paperwork early, what exactly are your people gonna steal today?"
Frank: "I don't know. Couple luxury sedans, some color TVs, widescreen. Maybe a couple cans of vodka, maybe a whole container ship."

(and a final thought, apropos of nothing but too good to pass up)

Bunk: "The Bunk can't swim. I ain't too good at floatin', neither."

Let's see what...

Jess Says

Welcome to The Port season of The Wire! I remember being really thrown by this premiere the first time I watched it. As Ben says, they tried to ease us into the changes by giving us some time with familiar faces and catching us up on the current status quo for the Detail and the Barksdale crew, but the bulk of this premiere episode is spent introducing a new Baltimore setting, a new set of characters, and even a new language. Man. Just when I got used to the language rhythms of the street and the cops, they go and throw a new one at us. Even having seen this season multiple times, I found myself struggling to follow a lot of what the dock workers were saying. Time for a new immersion experience!

I really loved the numerous shots of the fallen industrial behemoths, especially in the opening sequence. Same old, depressing Baltimore, indeed, but it still makes me a bit nostalgic. My grandfather used to work in those areas, too (he was a sheet metal worker). I couldn’t help smiling somewhat sadly at the various references to the industrial areas getting turned into luxury condos. I was down in some of those outer harbor areas earlier this year and was completely shocked at how much they have been redeveloped. Luxury condos and then some. The development is great for the city in some respects, but it is really going to add an extra layer of melancholy when watching this season. A boon for some is invariably a loss for others.

As for our returning favorites, my jaw literally dropped open when Daniels showed up in the evidence room. Wow. "These motherfuckers don't play, do they?" Apparently, I forgot how harsh his punishment was for going against the bosses.

I was also quite surprised by the shift in Bodie. Not only did we get to see him uneasy and out of his element, but he seems to have had a shift in his operating perspective. "That's the first thing you think to do is fuck a nigga up, man. When your brick brain gonna realize there's more to 'dis here than just thumpin' on niggas?" He’s taking his cues from Stringer now, not Avon. Is the whole organization shifting to a new perspective?

Unlike Ben, I got the sense that Kima was really, really unhappy behind that desk, and that she very much wants to be back on the street with Herc. But she feels trapped by her promise to Cheryl. She doesn’t want to let the woman she loves down, not after everything she’s put her through. But paper pushing is not what drew her to police work, and it’s not where her heart lies. "And then he dropped the cuffs." Even after getting shot.

I didn't even notice Carver in this episode. Was he one of the guys helping bring the stained glass to the church? If so, I can’t imagine that’s what he was hoping for out of his sergeant promotion.

One quote that stood out to me that you missed was, "Hey, Zig, shut the fuck up!" I was literally yelling that at the screen just before Nick said it in the diner. Ziggy, man. He’s another really interesting character that develops in surprising ways, but he is SO hard to take most of the time. Just shut the fuck up, Zig. And put that thing away.

The upshot

4 out of 4 party boats adrift in the shipping channel.

1 comment:

  1. I remember the first time I watched this episode being absolutely stunned by the reveal of the girls in the container. I had been sure that Beadie would discover drugs. This horrible alternative just didn't occur to me.

    This time through, although I knew it was coming, the reveal is still a shock. I was impressed, however, by the courage displayed by this young cop. I'm not sure I would enter a cargo container by myself with a flashlight. Too creepy for me.

    The final shot of the episode is pure genius. The look of complete shock on Frank's face is a thing to behold. I'm sure that, like us, it never occurred to him exactly what he was aiding and abetting.

    I love the double review format! I look forward to sharing this season with you both.


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