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The Wire: Undertow

"Fuck the wall." –Frank Sobotka

In which that deadly downward pull threatens to get everyone who can't find a way out. This is the episode in which we see all the forces that threaten the lives and livelihoods of our characters really laid out in sharp relief, and in which they grasp for a way out with varying prospects for success.

We have already talked about the problems. Let’s start with Ziggy’s stupidity, as does the episode. He is not only stupid enough to decide to start dealing, he is also apparently not competent enough to actually sell a product which people cannot be without. He loses his car and his ridiculous coat, and his life may be next. What a malaka.

A much bigger problem is the Port’s marginalization because of the crumbling infrastructure, the smuggling conspiracy with its hooks deep into the local unions. Again the change in Baltimore has left the stevedores so far out in the cold that they are doing things that threaten to destroy what little they have left. Nick is living out this clash between new and old Baltimore when he sees the spiraling home costs (been there myself) that threaten to make him an outsider in his own neighborhood, and which is forcing him towards more desperate action.

The Barksdales are no better off, although we feel considerably less sympathy for them. They are isolated despite Avon’s continuing reach from prison. They have before them the ultimate crisis for drug-dealers: no drugs to sell. Also, Dee's refusal to play ball and Stringer and Avon’s follow-up discussion do not bode well for him, and it really seems to come down to whether it's all about family or all about business.

Meanwhile, the apparently hopeless Jane Doe investigation continues. McNulty (looking increasingly permanent in the marine unit) goes to great lengths to try and identify even one Jane Doe, but he has no resources and no real leads. You realize by the end of the episode that he does not seem to have anything that will help him find his way back, anymore than Bunk and Lester have any way out of the case.

But everyone is working on solutions as well (all swimming against the undertow to extend the analogy). Stringer Bell continues to be the equivocal poster boy for higher education as he executes a plan to play marketing games to keep the Barksdale territory at least for the moment. He also seems to have decided Dee has to go.

Nick (and, by extension, Ziggy) are moving towards working for the Greek in a big way, and independently of Frank. The idea of delivering thousands of pounds of chemicals to a shadowy criminal conspiracy made me as nervous as it makes them, but Nick definitely seems to be coming onboard for more criminal activity to solve his problems. Even Frank is confronted with the impossibility of his union surviving without the support of the Greek and his organization.

Beadie Russell seems to have found a way forward in the investigation around the port’s computerized inventory system, thanks to her newly developed confidential informant. The existence of the Sobotka detail with its technical expertise and love for sifting details does not bode well for the IBS. Add to this that Herc is buying drugs from every idiot white boy drug dealer in the Southeast, seems like it’s only a matter of time before he meets Nick or Ziggy.

The only one with no solutions seems to be McNulty. He describes his deeply non-nautical knot as a Baltimore knot, "never the same thing twice," and he certainly seems to have himself tangled in one right now.

Bits and Pieces

Johnny "Fifty" Spamanto says he will take the fifth commandment if questioned about the death of the Jane Does. Is it a coincidence that (in the Catholic liturgy) that that commandment is "Thou shalt not kill"? I am guessing yes, but if not then I bow down to subtle brilliance in the writing.

The Greek doesn’t think much of Little Johnny’s, so what’s the best Greek diner in Baltimore? I would recommend Sip & Bite Restaurant in Canton, but many of my friends speak highly of the Greek Town Grill next to Johns Hopkins hospital, or Samos Greek Island Grill in Highlandtown (which I think is more restaurant than diner, and yes, when these reviews are all done, I will be taking tour groups through my Wire culinary tour, reserve now).


"They used to make steel there, no?" –Spyros Vondas

(brilliant epigraph for this episode, Spyros is saying without saying that Frank’s business is crime at this point, that the rest is a hollow shell of what it was)

Sobotka: "I'm done! I'm out! I don't need nothin' more to do with you people. I don't need the trouble or the money. I got a union to run."
Spyros: "They used to make steel there, no? Smoke from the stacks. But inside..."

(Lester on the new detail)

Freamon: "Same fuck-ups in the same shit detail, workin' outta the same shithouse kinda office. You people lack for personal growth, you know that?"

(McNulty on his difficulties)

Bubbles: "Baltimore knot? What the hell is a Baltimore knot?"
McNulty: "I don't know, but it's never the same thing twice. What can I tell you, my detectin' days are over."

(D’Angelo finally gets it)

Dee: "They playin' you with that we family and it's all about love. That's how they do. When they got no more use for you, that family shit disappears. It's just about business…"

(and Avon and Stringer on Dee)

Avon: "Do it. Thing is String, what happened, happened. You know what I mean? Push come to shove, I been fair to him, ain't I?"
Stringer: "You've been fair. Too fair."

(Frank explains why they won’t talk)

Sobotka: "We didn't know shit, goddamnit! You want us to dance with a grand jury, we will! What do you say, Johnny? What do you say to any question?"
Spamanato: "I take the fifth commandment."
Sobotka: "And if they offer you immunity to testify against your union brothers?"
Spamanato: "I don't remember."
Sobotka: "Don't remember what?"
Spamanato: "Nothing."

Sobotka: "What you're forgetting, Detective, is that every I.B.S. local on the East Coast has had its ass in front of a federal grand jury two or three times already. You want to throw your summonses, throw 'em. You want to subpoena our records? Shit, you don't even need a subpoena no more. Our books have been open to the Justice department for eight years. We're here through Bobby Kennedy, Tricky Dick Nixon, Ronnie 'The Unionbuster' Reagan and half a dozen other sons-a-bitches. We'll be here through your weak bullshit, no problem!"

(Why Beadie needed an informant)

Bunk: "An informant. You ain't got no informants on the dock? Someone you could go to on this? Someone you got a history with? They say a police is only as good as his informants. Meaning, we ain't about much."

(on White boy drug dealers pilfered style and language)

Carver: "Thievin' motherfuckers take everything, don't they?"

(and the context for the quote that leads this review)

Sobotka: "It's now or never for us, I got no choice."
Nick: "Today we got ships, Uncle Frank, today. But the writin's on the fuckin' wall."
Sobotka: "Fuck the wall."

Jess says

I’m glad Ben does the heavy lifting on these, because some weeks it is nice to be able to focus in on a few small moments. This week, I was struck by the subtle parallel drawn between Ziggy and Stringer. On the surface, these two have little in common. One is a spindly doofus and the other is a physically powerful and imposing man. One seems to be a complete screw-up, and the other is very competent and successful. But the short scene with Ziggy and Nick using the computer at the library, and then Stringer's conversations with his professor and with the crew at the funeral parlor, made me think that, for all their differences, both men could be capable of so much more.

Stringer is a smart, smart man. If he would direct that intelligence into legitimate pursuits, he could potentially accomplish great things. Instead, he chooses to use his knowledge to improve the Barksdale drug trade. A trade with innumerable victims, including that poor addict that got stomped by Poot's crew for little reason. Does Stringer ever think about going legit? Is that why he started taking those business classes? Or, given his history, does he simply think that path isn’t available to him?

Similarly, despite most evidence to the contrary, Ziggy is not a complete imbecile. He clearly learned a little something about using computers and the internet in that training class he talked about. He can be taught! If he had the opportunity to hone his skills in other areas, maybe he, too, could find a way to earn an honest day's pay. Clearly, he's ill-suited for dock work and street crime. But he's not necessarily a lost cause either.

It’s D’Angelo and Wallace all over again. People who maybe had a shot at something better, but never really had the opportunity to break free (D’Angelo), or their mindset simply wouldn’t let them (Wallace). Will Stringer and Ziggy repeat the depressing pattern?

And more bits and pieces...

The scene in which Daniels explains why he’s giving Carver a second chance was nice. It’s good to see someone getting an opportunity to make better choices.

Prez’s awestruck reaction to Cool Lester Smooth already knowing Frank Sobotka was so awesome I had to watch it twice. “How fucking good is he?!”

The Upshot

3 of 4 RoRo’s in port and needing unloading

1 comment:

  1. This season feels much more claustrophobic than last. Everyone seems to be drowning (to extend the undertow metaphor) and there doesn't seem to be any way to get above water.

    This time through, I realized what an interesting guy Stringer is. The fact that he is willing to do anything to increase his knowledge, and succeed in it, truly puts him above the crowd.

    Another great review from you both! And, Ben, sign me up for the culinary tour.


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