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The Wire: Straight and True

"I'm not around the way no more." –Stringer Bell

This episode featured some of the best McNulty moments of the season as he follows Stringer Bell, his growing frustration and annoyance apparent in his expression and body language. These scenes culminate in the confrontation in the copy shop, and they highlight the central theme of the episode which is "playing it straight" (or "by the rules," or "staying on the straight and narrow" or something similar). There is nothing more frustrating to McNulty than Stringer’s apparent move to do just that, especially as both the audience and McNulty know he is neither going straight nor being true. So there is a deep irony in the title and pretty much everything that is happening in the episode. And it does seem possible that Stringer may not be "around the way" enough to get caught.

Another notable couple of others are also struggling along with trying to play by the rules. Councilman Carcetti, sitting in his crappy little shared office with Councilman Gray in worn out shoes, seems to want to play it straight and true. He is talking about what we in the business call "good governance," where you do the thing to improve the quality of service and life in your area of authority. But, are his good intentions real (this has been a major point of debate between Jess and I)? He is trying to do things the "right" way, and brings his concerns to the Mayor only to have smoke blown up his ass and be sent on his way. Is he another good person who will be corrupted by the way things must be done to succeed in Baltimore, or is he an ambitious plotter who talks a good case but is really about self-interest? As The Wire is never simplistic, he is obviously going to be a bit of both and presumably we will never know for sure.

And speaking of characters who may or may not be good people, there is Cutty. It seems apparent at this point that he is not going straight but wants to remain true to something. What he is trying to remain true to is a good question, I think most simply he wants to stay good at some level. He is trying to go straight, but the climb is a hard one. He is trying to be good in the eyes of Grace, to win her back or at least win her respect, but there just seems no way to do it. He even wants to be a good soldier for the Barksdales, doing what must be done but without excess or unnecessary cruelty, but it seems obvious that the work is by its nature a cruel combination of terrorizing the weak and hurting those who cross him. His final scene in the episode has him walking backward into the shadows, an obvious but effective metaphor to his journey so far.

Comstat continues to play with what is "true." It does reveal facts, but we hear from the police that the "truth" is that it leaves the police doing small things rather than tackling big ones. It does focus us on foolish bureaucracy (more cops working the day shift when more crime happens at night) but simultaneously means that everyone focuses on counting arrests instead knowing why there is the need for so many arrests in the first place. It illuminates a specific tier of "truth" while making other parts even less clear.

All of this, though, merely frames the emergence of Stringer’s new world. It is a world of co-operatives for drug purchases, no "beefing," and acceptance of a compromise in Colvin’s "Hamsterdam" solution. It is a world where drugs are traded and used without the violence that reaches out and involves those outside the game, or at least that is the theory. The change is made all the more evident as Avon emerges from prison and we see the contrast with the world he left a mere two years earlier. Can it really be a world where the criminal world gives way to a world which may still be "grey-market" but is mostly straight? We already know McNulty doesn’t think so, but his opinion may be less important than Marlo’s who clearly still lives in the old world and sees little value in the new one (why that is remains to be explored).

Bits and Pieces

A quick bit of experience from the real-world life on the streets (or at least at an intersection of the street and bureaucracy). A bit which almost certainly also rises to the level of TMI for many. I was really interested in the drug testing scenes with the parolees and should say that in my experience it’s nowhere near so easy to fake your test. As a drug-counselor for parolees (in a previous lifetime), I had to oversee these sorts of "donations" for clients. We had the task of watching directly as the pee went in the cup. This is every bit as awkward and fun as it sounds, but it did make it more difficult for people to fake the results. Difficult, I should add, but not impossible, a fact I discovered to my chagrin when somehow a client of mine managed to substitute a cup mostly filled with Listerine despite the fact that I watched him pee in the damn cup. To the present day, I don’t know how he managed this feat, but I was the subject to considerable ribbing from more experienced counselors as a result. Why he bothered is another open question because what little urine was present came back positive for a half dozen drugs including heroin.


"I had such fuckin' hopes for us." –McNulty

(this week’s epigraph, from the first scene I mentioned and the conversation which also produced the quote I used to open this review, is one of the better ones this season. When taken out of context, it reflects the feeling many of the characters had for their relationships with other characters in the present situation. Hopes that seem likely to be dashed. Here’s the full conversation)

Stringer: "Officer."
McNulty: "Detective, String. You remember? Bird trial, Detective McNulty."
Stringer: "You want something copied, man? Search warrant? Court papers? Anything I do to help, you know?"
McNulty: "I ain't seen you around the way."
Stringer: "I'm not around the way no more. You wanna find me, I'm right here."
McNulty: "Right here, huh?"
Stringer: "This an' some real estate I'm workin' on is all. You know? More than enough to occupy me, really. Say where you livin', man?"
McNulty: "Where am I living?"
Stringer: "Well, if you thinkin' a comin' downtown I got some condos about to come on the line in eight months. You say the word, I'ma hook you up something nice down there by the hippodrome. Loft apartments. Real nice."
McNulty: "You disappoint me, String. I had such fuckin' hopes for us."
Stringer: "Have a nice day, officer."

(Johnny and Bubs debate doing the right thing, in this case: snitching)

Johnny: "I mean, there's gotta be rules or else things get fucked up."
Bubs: "Ain't no rules for dope fiends."

(there is doing things by the book, and doing things by the book. Here is a quote that reflects that although Stringer may be determined to fool others, that he is not fooling himself. Also the hilarious end to the wonderful scene of organizing the drug-buying co-op)

Stringer: "Motherfucker, what is that?"
Shamrock: "Them Robert rules say we gotta have minutes for a meeting, right? These the minutes."
Stringer: "Nigga, is you takin' notes on a criminal fucking conspiracy. What the fuck is you thinkin', man?"

(not fooling McNulty or the unit either, but there seems little they can do about it)

McNulty: "He tried to sell me a condo."
Freeman: "Cocksucker."
McNulty: "Might as well join the Rotary. Take up golf or someshit."
Freeman: "He's runnin' with the hounds though I'll bet his heart is still with the fox."
Prez: "Stringer's out of the game?"
McNulty: "Mr. Bell has become the bank."
Prez: "The bank?"
Freeman: "The bank plays it legit, he generates a good bit of honest income. But at the same time, his money finances packages that he himself will never touch. He won't go near the street. He's insulated from the every day operations on the corners. The money that comes back is then laundered through enough straight business investments that there's no way to trace it. A player gets to that point, there ain't no way in hell a working police is going to tie a can to his tail."

(not so apropos of any of the main themes, Bunk’s Sisyphusian quest for a lost gun had another wonderful moment)

Prisoner: "I'm hearin' the boy, Dink, got that man's gun. Now, I ain't sure yet if that Dink be Dink Dink or Inky Dink or maybe Fat Dink. Then again, it might be Flat Nose Dink. No, wait that can't be him, that Dink dead."

(and again, not everyone seems to want to live in the new world)

Marlo: "Tell our people to tool up."

(and one last thought on the way the world treats you)

Cutty: "This ain't how I thought it was gonna play."

Jess Says

I know most people don’t think of The Wire as a comedy, and there’s certainly good reason for that, but one of the things that I love about the show is that it recognizes there’s ample room for hilarity right along with the depressing tragedy. It is a portrait of life, after all, including all its ludicrous idiosyncrasies, and urban lives and systems have just as much room for humor as for failure, heartbreak, violence, and death.

‘Straight and True’ is a nice little example of how the comedy of life in Baltimore rests comfortably alongside the tragedy. This episode is stuffed with comedic beats, from Jimmy using his kids’ Open House to pick up hot chicks to him subsequently getting the "slam, bam, thank you, ma’am" brush off; to Major Colvin fondly recalling "Bushy Top" to the delight of Jimmy’s current colleagues; to Bunk having to sit through yet another pointless, frustrating, and funny interview sequence with the potential prison snitches (recalling last season’s interviews with the non-English-speaking Atlantic Light crew).

But, by far, the elements that had me laughing the hardest at their sheer absurdity were Stringer’s and Major Colvin’s new approaches to the business. It’s sort of sad that trying to cut the violence out of the game ends up seeming bizarrely humorous, but the New Day Co-op meeting in the hotel conference room --- complete with one of those little event signs and Shamrock’s attempts to take meeting minutes --- was damn funny. And I could not stop chuckling at Herc and Santangelo rounding up customers for Hamsterdam. Johnny’s perplexed delight at being aggressively marketed to by dope slingers while the cops stand idly by was a thing of beauty. "I hear WMD is the bomb."

And yet all this humor never feels out of step with the seedier and more painful side of this world. Even as we chortle at Johnny’s wonder at Hamsterdam, we acutely feel the struggle of Bubbs and Cutty to cope with the ugliness of the game. Both men are increasingly disenchanted with the trappings of their current lives and may be approaching their breaking points. As Ben says, Cutty may not be ready to put in the work Grace’s deacon requires for the straight life, but he seems none-too-pleased with what the game requires of him either. His expressions as he looked at himself in the mirror at the drug-testing site and later as he watched his cohorts viciously beat the dealer were quite telling. Meanwhile, Bubbs opts to walk out on Johnny before reaping the reward of the scam with the guy on the ladder, deciding he’d rather resell tossed out t-shirts to the hoppers and information to Kima to get by. He’s still a dope fiend, but more and more he’s finding he needs to approach that life in a way that lets him find a little more peace within himself.

Re: Carcetti, I don’t think we’re really on different pages at this point. I definitely found myself pondering the boundaries of Tommy’s sincerity in this episode. When talking to Councilman Grey, he seemed to be genuinely upset about the dead State’s witness and the general state of crime in Baltimore, but I just kept thinking about how earnest he seemed last episode telling the folks in the bar that he would never do anything to risk his marriage and his family. He’s very good at lying while appearing sincere. Where is the line between truth and lies with Carcetti? Between public service and self service? As you say, it’s probably always "a bit of both" with him.

The Upshot

3 out of 4 downtown condos that I could really use a deal on

1 comment:

  1. Oh, Stringer, Stringer .. never underestimate Avon! Yes, Avon is about ‘being a man‘ as a gangster, but much more than than, he needs to be The Man. He the one giving and taking, he the one doing favors or not, he the one to be adored, followed, obeyed, and be in awe of, he the MAN, man! So while he might enjoy the girls, he‘s not comfortable with Bell giving them to him in this new apartment, also from Bell. Nah nah nah, this is spelling trouble big time. Be-au-ti-ful-ly played by Elba and Harris!! Duel of the giants, with barely any words or gestures, it‘s all there. Oh boy.


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