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The Wire: Back Burners

McNulty: "The bosses don't know, huh?"
Colvin: "Fuck the bosses."

An episode with a doubly clever title, it refers at an obvious level to the "burner" phones being used by the Barksdales to elude eavesdropping, but simultaneously all the things that have been pushed from sight. These are things either too unimportant for anyone important to care about or too difficult to solve (or a bit of both). But for an episode that’s about things ignored or out of sight, a lot does happen.

Let’s start with what’s simmering along on the back burners: protecting witnesses, McNulty’s insubordination, punishing the guilty, and the whole of Hamsterdam.

The first, protecting witnesses, is clearly one of those pots that will cook until it is done. One begins to sense how Theresa D'Agostino, Carcetti’s new manager and perhaps ill-advisedly McNulty’s new love interest, is going to begin to really make waves. She has brought a political acumen and ability to position Carcetti for his mayoral run that seems way beyond the run-of-the-mill Baltimore machine. The issue of protecting witnesses is primed to explode, but (as Jen Carcetti points out) is also an issue that is going to be left until someone else dies.

McNulty has apparently burned his final bridge with Daniels. Going around Daniels to get the Major Crimes Unit back onto Stringer Bell and the Barksdale organization was effective, but it did not fool the lieutenant for a minute. Still, McNulty's exit has also been back burnered for the moment, pending the arrest of Bell (and presumably, by the end of the episode, Avon Barksdale as well). All tied up in this is the selective application of justice, Kintell Williamson (no doubt a bad guy) gets a pass so the Unit can chase the Barksdales, though by the end of the episode one has to question the point of that effort as justice clearly has not been done with Avon’s release. (Shouldn’t someone have mentioned this to someone, maybe Pearlman, someone?)

Before I finish this list of back burnered street scenes, let’s take a detour into the personal: Kima’s relationship with Cheryl. Kima may be a good cop, but she’s not much of a partner in raising a baby. At the same time, anyone who has kids has had those moments where they cannot believe how their life has unalterably changed.

Then there’s the experiment that is Hamsterdam. It’s beginning to look like something that works from the viewpoint of the statistics that come across Major Colvin’s desk, but the view is considerably less cheery from the perspective of Carver and the other police maintaining order, and from Bubbles’ perspective it's positively hell on earth. I reflected on all the views of the free zone and am concluding that from what we have seen to date, all of these perspectives can be correct. It really is effectively reducing harm district-wide but it’s not pretty. It’s as if all the remaining harm to everyone who is involved has been concentrated down to a few square blocks. If it’s out of sight (on a back burner), the whole thing seems like a pretty good idea, but it is clearly going to be a hard sell when everyone sees just how ugly it gets.

Speaking of burners, we haven’t even touched on the actual phones. The scenes with Bernard and Squeak out buying the burner phones were great examples of how a small thing neglected can easily enough turn into a big problem. It’s not quite clear how, but with Freamon beginning to understand the phone system, it seems like only a matter of time before he cracks the system whose security is being compromised by Squeak’s desire not to spend all day in the car.

Special "not on the back burner, getting the attention needed" section: Cutty deciding to really try to make it the hard way and Omar trying to make amends for some of his failings. As with everything in the episode, though, trying to do the right (or even the better) thing "do cost."

Bits and Pieces

One of the real joys of watching The Wire is just how smart the show is. Let me explain that statement a bit though, because it is greatly overused in describing television. Series often gain that title for sharp writing or great acting, but that fall a great distance short in terms of veracity and understanding of how the real world works. Let me contrast this episode of The Wire with another show I love: Breaking Bad. Specifically, let’s talk about drug economies and harm reduction. The Wire demonstrates an almost encyclopedic understanding of the urban economy of drug dealing for everyone from the children through the top-level bosses. They see the connection of the police as parts of the community and their limited role in maintaining order and enforcing law. And they understand both the allure of "harm reduction" strategies and on how they do not alter the fundamental ugliness of addiction. Which is where I quibble with Breaking Bad: they never quite got that economy at all. Drugs don’t have to be good to sell big, they only need to be cheap and available (the secret is addiction). Walt really was way more trouble than he was worth. When addicts will sell their mothers for meth which had been cut with drain cleaner, then purity is nice but not necessary. The Wire is a graduate course in drug culture, while Breaking Bad (although often a lot more fun to watch) is unfortunately only "TV smart."

And don’t get me started on the political economy of The Walking Dead.


Butchie: "Conscience do cost."

(this week’s epigraph, which follows up on the discussion below between Butchie and Omar. All of which just reinforces my opinion that Omar may be a predatory motherfucker, but he is a very entertaining character)

Butchie: "You just bumped up against a clever police is all. Course he's gonna try to shame you with the dead girl or some mess about children lookin' up to Omar an' his sawed-off. All he can do especially since you backed down what he had for a witness. He workin' you with guilt, boy."
Omar: "Yeah, but that fat man gave me an itch I can't scratch, Butchie."
Butchie: "Everybody in this world does what they gonna do. Me, you, that police. Everybody in this world got their own place. An' a man in your line of work start worryin' about how other people see you playin' the other people, instead of to hisself, he gonna get dead."
Omar: "I still feel like I owe somethin', Butch."
Butchie: "I had an uncle down Carolina, he dead now but I remember he was grieving real hard, real hard over chasin' his lady friend away. So he put himself to punishment. Took a knife to his little finger then his ring finger. With them all bloody on the table, he pulled up short. For the rest of his life I remember him sayin' the bitch weren't worth more than a pinkie. But it was too late then. You can try that if you have a mind."
Omar: "I dunno, Butchie. A little somethin' less dramatical. Ya feel me?"

(the episode’s opening exchange, which sounds like a statement of strength but is really an admission of limitation)

Colvin: "All quiet today?"
Carver: "Keepin' it like that, boss."
Colvin: "We rule where we stand."

(Carver and Herc struggling with the reality of Hamsterdam)

Herc: "It's like one of those nature shows where you mess with the environment some species gets fucked out of their habitat."
Carver: "Did you just use the word habitat in a sentence?"
Herc: "I did."

(Carver pointing out that no plan is perfect)

Carver: "I dunno, boss. If there weren't so many fucking kids down here I might be okay with it."

(and Bubs trying to sort Johnny out)

Johnny: "Naw, man, look around you. Soldier's paradise, man. I'm a Viking, Bubs."
Bubs: "You a Viking?"

(relationships, not easy)

Kima: "Well, I figured you had everything under control on the homefront."
Cheryl: "What the fuck is wrong with you? What's with the sarcasm? How come you can talk to everybody else but me? You really want to know? I'm listening."
Kima: "I miss us."
Cheryl: "Do not blame that baby. Do not do it."
Kima: "I'm not blamin' anybody."
Cheryl: "I didn't do this by myself. We discussed it, all of it."
Kima: "We talked about it, yeah. But I didn't have as much to say about it as you."
Cheryl: "And why not?"
Kima: "Because you, you wanted this. I didn't want to disappoint you on it."
Cheryl: "I don't think I could be more disappointed than I am right now. You need to go."

(politics, not pretty)

D'Agostino: "Rip him now? With the primary next September? Tommy, no one's gonna remember a dead witness a year from now? Better if you go to Royce, confront him, not angrily give him a chance to explain. Or maybe take action. If he does do something, then a problem got fixed and you can feel special for helping. If he doesn't, you sit tight."
Carcetti: "I don't know."
D'Agostino: "Maybe you document your meeting in a letter expressing your concern and regret. Then you're set if the next witness gets killed. Win-win."
Jen Carcetti: "Unless you're the witness."
D'Agostino: "I know, you're right. But he's taking on a two-term incumbent. It's all gonna be ugly from here."

(most hopeful conversation on The Wire in three seasons)

Cutty: "I just, I've had this feelin' for a long time and it's like I'm standing outside myself watching me do things I don't wanna do, you know? Jus' seein' me like I'm somebody else but never ever bein' able to stop the show. I'm tired."
Deacon: "It's Cutty, right?"
Cutty: "Naw, man. Dennis."

Jess Says

It’s interesting that this one felt so momentous to you, Ben, because I left it feeling like it was mostly a "piece mover" episode. Introducing or advancing some elements that seem like they are leading to later payoff (Carcetti with Royce and the witness program, the guy purchasing all the burner phones, the Major Crimes detail switching targets and learning about Hamsterdam); wrapping up some lingering threads (Dozerman’s gun, Kima’s fallout with Cheryl); and continuing to spool out fallout from previous developments (Cutty working with the lawn man and visiting the deacon, Marlo and Barksdale beefing over corners, the detail learning that Avon got paroled). Yes, I know that all the pieces matter, but this particular week didn’t leave me feeling like I had overmuch to say.

What has lingered with me the longest after watching, is the depiction of the negative consequences of Major Colvin’s little Hamsterdam experiment, which Ben also highlighted. When all this started, "I think I might legalize drugs" was played as a crazy and somewhat comical notion that might just work to improve the situation in the Western District. But now we are seeing that achieving improvements in some areas of the district means accepting some fairly extensive negatives in others. Bubbs' visit to Hamsterdam at night was harrowing, and it was terrifying to consider what might happen to him, particularly if he followed Johnny into that drug den. The daylight view of the "free zones" isn’t much better, with all the young former hoppers wandering around aimlessly, instead of returning to school. "You mess with the environment, some species get fucked out of their habitat." Carver tries to right the situation by imposing an unemployment tax and setting up a basketball net, but that effort dies a quick and ignoble death. At the end of the day, Major Colvin’s attempt to "make the job matter" isn’t necessarily creating a scenario any better than the one he was trying to fix. As Ben says, it’s just another way of shifting the stats, making real problems invisible, and accepting the notion that some lives matter less than others.

Sydnor: "Someday, I’m gonna work for a real police department. Just to see how the fuck they do it, you know?"

It really does seem like Jimmy finally burned one bridge too many with Daniels. That brutal, unblinking stare that Lance Reddick unleashed was a thing of terror-inducing glory!

Stringer just can’t duck the ghost of D’Angelo, can he? Good.

I know Ben already included this one, but I’m going to repeat it, because it was such a lovely little grace note to follow up on Cutty’s momentous decision from last week:

Deacon: "It’s Cutty, right?"
Cutty: "Nah, man. Dennis."

The Upshot

4 out of 4 disposable "burner" cell phones


  1. I so agree that Bub's visit to Hamsterdam after dark was frightening. Creating the free zones feels like it's the right thing to do, but it does have a cost. Those kids in that dark place, wow. I'm with Carv there.

    Stringer losing his temper with Donette actually freaked me out. He's usually so cool and calm, and you know he's losing it because Dee's mother Brianna is going to figure it out.

  2. Stringer is under pressure, and every move he makes is wrong and shaking up things even more. Soon, cat‘s gonna be out the bag. Donette not feeling so safe with String now, is she? Avon found himself a new devoted right-hand man named Slim, so String better watch out. Wear a helmet, mos def, yo!!
    If The Wire is formed after Greek mythology, Bubbles is Cassandra, having the gift to foresee the future, but nobody listens.
    The story arch with the white t-shirts is sooo small yet so good! And it works in this black dystopia of drug hell, where Bubs finds his friend - and they were really friends, sharing the last yellow top. But now .. very sad. Bubs cannot even shout out his tees any more, it‘s kinda stuck in his throat. All blackened out.
    So, it‘s Greek, and it‘s also Dante Alighieri‘s vision of hell, and Omar has a Dante all of his own, who has already inflicted death on a loved one and broke up their little stick-up gang. And it‘s no fun any more for them.
    Love the couple who buy the burners though! Comic relief and great talent there. Gimme more!!


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