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The Wire: Duck and Cover

"You can get anything you want." –Diner Waitress

Only you really you can't, sure you can have her or another drink or an order of scrapple, but not what you really want and need. The episode starts with Jimmy McNulty indulging in two of the three vices that he had so recently promised his wife he no longer needed. The third, I hope you will recall, was police work.

This opening tailspin sets up the theme of another great episode which manages to weave a great continuing crime story, beautifully realized characters and these overarching themes together without ever seeming contrived. This week, as our title suggests we find everyone seeking cover as who they are and what they have done begins to come down upon them (and of course there is the duck portion of the title that oddly enough is a real duck).

Let’s start with Zig, a character for whom I have expressed less sympathy than he perhaps deserves, who chooses to embrace his clownish nature. He has gotten his butt kicked by Maui both in terms of brains (through pranks) and then physically. He obviously acts as he does to cover the hurt of being made to look a fool by Maui and others. And just as McNulty can be one spectacular drunk, Zig can charm and amuse, and make everyone else feel good with his antics. But also like McNulty, the cover is temporary at best.

Of course it's not just the big things that are raining down on our characters, it’s all the little nonsense as well. It's Frank's inability to locate bills, and Herc and Carver hustling for "Fuzzy Dunlop's" money, and then having to haul the air conditioner and do house cleaning for Judge Vanderwal in order to get warrants signed. Honestly the episode felt just like real life at times.

And then there is Frank, slowly catching on that his cover isn't covering him the way it once did. The flagged phone is the clue, and like all the best of The Wire characters, Frank doesn't let a seemingly insignificant detail slip past him. Once you add in Beadie’s lie about Fairfield Terminal, an observant man knows he is in trouble.

And it's about time too, because at this point the detail has developed something close to a full picture of what is going on. Prez, Russell and Freamon have the system with the containers and the smuggling including a line into the computer. Kima and McNulty are at the door of the human trafficking, and even Herc and Carver have added to it by linking the Sobotka family to the drug trade (thanks to Fuzzy of course).

And maybe more significant for him, Frank's brother knows he is dirty and shines a great big light on it when he refuses to accept a graft position. No one needs cover quite like Frank and it's nowhere to be found. Ironically, as clever as he is, it is his attempts to find that cover that actually points the detail to the Greeks. Things are unraveling fast for Frank.

Finally, the duck. As a duck myself I do not recommend trying to drink with longshoremen, but Ziggy sure knows a good bit when he sees one. Clearly though, foresight is not his strong suit.

Bits and Pieces

So here’s something nobody else has ever written about The Wire (and I consider that something to say given how much innocent ink has been spilled for this series). I suspect I know the source of many of the characters, stories, and details that Simon and company used for the second season.

Back in the 1950s, an obscure girl reporter (as they were known at the time) was working the waterfront for the Baltimore Sun and wrote a column full of colorful stories and an occasional longer piece about the people and place (and later hosted a television program about the port). The story in this episode about the homing pigeon and the Dutch tanker that Mr. Diz tells Ziggy is from one of those columns. The reporter Helen Delich (later Helen Delich Bentley) also wrote some great longer pieces about the tight-knit Polish stevedore and longshoreman work gangs. She describes the tight exclusive groups whose fierce loyalty to one another made Baltimore incredibly efficient, insular, and less subject to labor disruption than most U.S. ports. But my favorite article was one called "Stevedore Boss," published in 1950. It describes Pete Schmidt, a slightly pudgy and mercurial boss known for his rough exterior and underlying kind and generous nature. Known as one of the few stevedores who can keep the books, Pete bemoans the uncertainty of the work and the strains of the life as a stevedore. All of this 50 years before Frank Sobotka echoes the same complaints.

Now you might say, interesting but how would someone ever become aware of such obscure sources? Well, as fate would have it, Helen Delich Bentley did not stay with the Sun. She moved on to join the Federal Maritime Commission which she eventually chaired, became a member of congress, and is still at age 90 consulting on Port and Maritime matters. The Port of Baltimore was, in 2006, renamed the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore. So, any deep dive on Baltimore’s port turns up not only her name, but also her early writing and television show "The Port that Built Baltimore" that brought the Port to life for people who might never have cared about the waterfront. Whether he arrived at it directly or through the spread of her stories into the lore of Baltimore, Simon was clearly drawing strongly on his predecessor in journalism who worked the beat 50 years earlier.


"How come they don't fly away?" –Ziggy

(this week’s epigraph is a particularly poignant one, because it captures a lot of the hurt that different characters are feeling and their vain desire for an escape. A couple of other Ziggy quotes frame that hurt)

Ziggy: "Bad advice! You motherfuckers gave me bad advice!"

(his way of saying he can take a joke, even if he is really having trouble doing so)

Ziggy: "Now, I may not be able to see through all the bullshit in here, but he can. So if you will, I'd like a stiff one for myself, and one for my counselor."

(and Zig’s advice to his duck, and maybe advice he should have taken sometime back himself)

Ziggy: "Pace yourself, you're drinking with longshoremen tonight."

(a few by and about McNulty are illustrative in the same vein)

McNulty: "I mean, who am I, Captain Chesapeake? I need to get off that boat, Bunk. I need to do a case. I mean, if I'm not gonna... I'm no good for..."

Bunk: "Cause Elena didn't open up the door for your ass, you just gonna let all this shit fly out, huh? Come on, Jimmy. Lighten up."

Bunk: "Jimmy McNulty, when he ain't policing, he's a picture postcard of a drunken, self-destructive fuckup. And when he is policing, he's pretty much the same motherfucker, but on a good case, he's running in front of the pack! That's as close as the man comes to being right."

Kima: "Takes a whore to catch a whore."

(and a couple from others not happy with their lot)

Carver: "Good thing I took the sergeant’s test."

Bunk: "Lieutenant, I was under the impression that when detailed against his will to some backwards-ass, no-'count, out-in-the-districts, lost-ball-in-tall-grass drug investigation, a veteran police of means and talent can wear whatever the fuck he damn well pleases."

(finally an important thought about the crime down at the docks)

Prez: "Not as careful as Barksdale's people were."
Lester: "This ain't West Baltimore, they're on their phones because they don't expect us to be on 'em."

Jess Says

As entertaining as it was to watch the Detail really starting to pull their case together --- naturally, just as the investigative trail they inevitably leave behind catches the attention of their target --- for me, this episode comes down to the sad parallels between Jimmy McNulty and Ziggy Sobotka. As Ben notes, both men are completely spiraling as they try to cope with their inability to contribute by steering into the skid of everyone’s underwhelming expectations. McNulty goes on a hardcore bender to dull the pain (and yet still manages to find some pretty young thing who’s willing to screw his brains out, even when he’s fall down drunk and bleeding), and Ziggy decides to fully embrace the role of “the fool” with his drinking duck routine (that poor, poor animal).

The difference is that McNulty actually has people who recognize his good qualities, right along with his bad ones. People who see his pain, understand his needs, and are willing to go out on a limb to help him. Whereas Ziggy is pretty much surrounded by people who only see him as an absolute fuckup and imbecile. People who either prey on his weaknesses for a good laugh, or treat him like a destructive child who needs to be kept out of harm’s way. Ziggy wants so badly to prove that he can handle himself and to earn his own keep, but the weight of his failures and his growing recognition of the way everyone sees him is starting to take its toll. That scene between him and Nick in the truck was particularly painful. “What are you some kind of badass now?” Nick’s just trying to look out for his cousin, but it’s his lack of belief in Ziggy that clearly stings the most. Especially given that Nick swooped in and took over Ziggy’s drug game --- after being so judgmental --- and is doing it a hell of a lot better than Ziggy ever did.

By the end of the episode, thanks to his friends and colleagues, McNulty is back on a good case and doing good work. He’s contributing again, and it allows him to get himself right enough to walk away from Beadie’s before he hurts her and the team. To act on his better instincts, instead of his worst. But Ziggy’s still adrift, playing the sad clown and leaving an animal entrusted to his care in a potentially dangerous situation. Doubling down on his worst instincts as he struggles to find himself, because he doesn’t have anyone who truly recognizes his pain or what he needs to get right.

And more bits and pieces…

I can’t top Ben’s fascinating observations about the source material for this season, so I’ll just note that Ziggy calling the duck “Steven L. Miles” made me laugh. Mr. Miles was the local “bus bench” or “ambulance chaser” lawyer who had ads all over the radio and television when I was growing up, so I loved the reference.

So Rawls apparently granted Daniels’s request because he wants the fourteen murders cleared. Is that because he wants the departmental stats to look good, or because he occasionally has a shred of decency? Hard to tell with him.

The Upshot

3 of 4 hard-drinking ducks


  1. This is why I love reviewing stuff for this site, despite knowing a fair number of obscure things, I had had no idea where Steven Miles name had come from until Jess told me. You learn something new every day.

  2. What I find so good about this episode is the glimpse we get that several of our characters have aspects that we have not yet seen. All of them make the people involved much more real and much more complex.

    I agree that the scene with Ziggy is wonderful. Until now, he has appeared almost buffoonish, but here we can see that he is able to charm a bar full of guys who were recently rooting against him. He manages to get these guys buying rounds -- for a duck. While I agree with Jess that the whole thing is inherently sad, I do admire the fact that he gets these guys on his side -- even if it is just for a moment or two.

    Frank is the most interesting, at least to me. Until now, I have seen him as not all that bright. He has been making decisions, bad decisions, solely to save a union that we can all see is doomed. Yet here, he becomes suspicious and does what is arguably the right thing -- goes to the Greek with his suspicions. I also like the way he stands up to the Greek. While I'm not sure it was the wisest course of action, it takes guts. I find myself with a new respect for the man at the end of this hour.

    But, the most heartwarming is McNulty. At the beginning, he is at his lowest point. Yet, one day back on a "real case," and the angels of his nature take over. He realizes that Beadie is more like Elena than she is the waitress and he does the right thing -- walks away.

    Another great review! I knew that the port was called HDB, but never bothered to find out why. Fascinating.

  3. That poor duck.

    A relief for McNulty, though, who was on a self-destructive path that wouldn't have gotten him all the way to retirement working on that boat. I think Rawls has a teeny teeny tiny (channeling Rachel Maddow) infinitesimal bit of decency in him. Maybe. I really, really liked Bunk going to bat for him.

    Fascinating stuff about Helen Bentley, Ben. I know so little about Baltimore.


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