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The Wire: Slapstick

"A new friend makes himself known." –Fortune cookie

And a tragic comedy it is, and tragic in an almost classical way as the fundamental flaws of many people and things (even the city itself) conspire to bring many people low. At the same time the errors are often so obvious that it's hard to believe anyone would make the mistakes, except for the characters who do.

From least serious to most, let’s start with McNulty and D'Agostino. Even McNulty could see they had nothing in common except for sex. When he tries to watch the political talk show she was enjoying and can’t last beyond the first minute, it is evident on his face. He knows that what is important to her is not important to him. Yet onward he pushes, determined to find the connection that just is not there and the result is the very awkward cooling of the formerly heated affair.

Why does he do this? Perhaps the immediate reason is in reaction to Lester’s admonition that there has to be something beyond the case and the job, but the greater reason is that McNulty is always searching for something to fulfill him and is always acting when he should simply be at rest. The character is never satisfied, while sure of his own brilliance, and inevitably hurting himself with both.

Meanwhile, Dennis meets the bureaucracy of the city of Baltimore in a big way in his quest to open his boxing gym, and it has him on the ropes in no time. The whole endeavor is comedic because trying to do the right thing approaches the impossible without assistance of powerful people in the city. It points up one of the tragic flaws of the whole city, the elaborated system of politically connected folks makes it possible to do great things but it is also the basis of all of the corrupt dealings that (an increasingly unhappy) Stringer Bell and Clay Davis are involved in. There is a game (on top of the street game) that must be played to do anything and it is comedic/tragic in its scope and outcomes. But at least Dennis did get his permits, so there is hope.

And then there's Carver, making some bad choices and moving bodies in an attempt to keep Hamsterdam afloat. It is obviously the wrong thing to do, but Carver has become a true believer in Colvin’s program. He acts in the moment, but in a manner that cannot possibly survive scrutiny. Colvin's willingness to step up and really turn up the heat on the dealers of Hamsterdam is the only thing that saves him in the short term. His actions, though, may have doomed the whole experiment as it drives Herc to "drop a dime" on the whole affair to the Baltimore Sun.

Stringer has his own flaw, his ruthlessness, and here the consequences begin to grow in scope and potential. The violation of the Sunday truce to try to kill Omar and the execution of D'Angelo both threaten to bring significant blowback on the Barksdales, and one has to ask "to what end?" D'Angelo had walked back from his decision to testify and seemed to be prepared to do his time. Brianna knowing something was done has put someone far more dangerous close to the core of the Barksdales than anything D'Angelo might have done. Similarly, the potential gain from violating the rules of the game to make an attempt on Omar's life can only lead to Omar seeking revenge in the bloodiest and messiest way possible. But Stringer's short-sighted ruthlessness, perhaps driven by his fear of being seen as weak, has sown the seeds of serious problems.

And finally. Like so many well-written pieces of fiction, when you look back over this episode the foreshadowing of the tragic shooting, by Prez of an undercover officer, is obvious. Lester's speech to McNulty of their needing to be something beyond the case and the job seems to apply to Prez as his tenure with the Baltimore P.D. seems to be drawing towards a close. His fortune cookie speaks very ironically as Prez meets a new friend and mistakenly kills him. The tragedy here is that Prez was always a disaster as a cop, in the way that anyone outside the unit defines a cop anyway, and doubly a disaster when on the street. He has acted foolishly when he shot up his own car, when he led others into a confrontation that left a boy half blind, when he punched Major Valchek, and finally when he shot without warning. A "natural born police" has to act in the moment and correctly. Prez might be a good guy and really smart, but in the moment his judgment always fails him. The writer’s great success is getting us to forget this between each incident.

Bits and Pieces

So a few thoughts (and links) on fine dining, women’s hats, and rules of the game:

Georgia Brown's was and is something of a prototypical D.C. restaurant. D'Agostino mentions it was more popular in the Clinton years, reflecting the southern accent of that administration. This is largely because it feigns "everyman" southern cuisine in a ridiculously upscale environment. So at some level it is the perfect place for McNulty and D'Agostino to meet (just not to connect).

Those Sunday church hats, colloquially "crowns," are indeed a hugely elaborated and important item for African American women in the region, and god help anyone who messed with them. (Here’s a good book on the subject: Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry.)

The Sunday Truce, like the "Detective’s Wake" back a few episodes, was an invention of the show’s writers. It was a fun plot device, but like the wake it has taken on something of a life of its own. There is considerable belief among people in and around Baltimore that it exists and continues to function. To be fair, I have no idea if anyone on the streets actually believes in it, but its violation continues to draw comment (as in this crime tracking blog from 2012.


"...while you're waiting for moments that never come." –Freamon

(the epigraph for this week refers to a discussion between McNulty and Freamon on a Sunday at work, a discussion which seemed all about McNulty’s obsessions, but ends up applying across the board in the episode. It’s a little long but the conversation is worth reading)

McNulty: "We're good at this, Lester. In this town, we're as good as it gets."
Freamon: "Natural police."
McNulty: "Fuck yes, natural police."
Freamon: "Tell me something, Jimmy. How exactly do you think it all ends?"
McNulty: "What do you mean?"
Freamon: "A parade? A gold watch? A shining Jimmy-McNulty-day moment when you bring in a case so sweet that everybody gets together and says, 'Oh shit, he was right all along. We shoulda listened to the man.' The job will not save you, Jimmy. It won't make you whole; it won't fill your ass up."
McNulty: "I dunno. A good case..."
Freamon: "...ends. They all end. The handcuffs go click and it's over and the next morning it's just you in the room with yourself."
McNulty: "Until the next case."
Freamon: "Boy, you need something outside of this here."
McNulty: "Like what? Dollhouse miniatures?"
Freamon: "A life, a life, Jimmy, you know what that is? It's the shit that happens while you're waiting for moments that never come."

(explorations in dark comedy #1, Dennis has everything but...)

Deacon: "All you gonna need is the permits."
Dennis: "Permits?"
Deacon: "Yeah, permits."

(explorations in dark comedy #2, shooting at a church going lady)

Slim Charles: "On a Sunday morning y'all try to hit a nigger when he takin' his wrinkled-ass grandmoms to pray. And you all don't hit the nigger, neither. All y'all kill is grandma's crown?"


Avon: "A Sunday truce been around long as the game itself, man. I mean, you know what I'm sayin', you can do some shit and be like what the fuck, but hey, just never on no Sunday, man. I mean, it's just like people was talkin' on us and all and the stories are getting bigger and bigger. Like, I swear to god, Fatface Rick heard that our people went an' shot Omar granny's in the ass on purpose, and all that. And pulled their dicks out and pissed on her crown an' shit."

(and finally, McNulty)

McNulty: "I'm saying next time. We talk some, then we fuck our brains out. It's different for girls like me."
D'Agostino: "You need to be cuddled, McNulty?"
McNulty: "No, but we make a date I don't feel like I have to charge by the hour."

(go with your inner whore McNulty, you’ll be happier)

Jess Says

This is a somewhat unusual episode of The Wire, in that it feels structured more to tell a single story over the course of an hour, rather than just the latest beats in the season-long story. It does the latter, of course, but it also feels unusually focused on Jimmy’s arc over the hour and his painful realization that not only won’t the job save him, it is truly all he has.

There are echoes of Lester’s warning to Jimmy in several threads – including the Deacon’s concerns about Hamsterdam in the face of Colvin’s impending retirement and Carver’s efforts to pervert justice to protect the Major’s experiment – but, for me, it looms largest in the tragic downfall of Prez. It is hard to process what happens with him this hour, because of the all too painful resonance with the current state of police-community relations in this country. The lack of proper procedure, the racial overtones – "I didn’t give a shit he was black, or whatever ... Or maybe I did. How the fuck do you know if that’s in your head or if it’s not?" – and Prez’s unfortunate history on the job make it difficult to completely absolve him and view it as a clean situation. Certainly for the wider community of the show.

But for viewers and Prez’s current coworkers, it is still a terrible gut-punch. He was doing so well in this new capacity on the job! He was genuinely doing investigative work that few others on the force had the stamina or mind for, even if he wasn't necessarily well-suited to the other aspects of police work. His turn around in season one was a wonderful revelation, and he was so in the zone last week! Even this week, he's in on a Sunday morning, working hard with Lester to collect evidence. To see it all end like this feels every bit as tragic as Wallace's and D'Angelo's deaths for me.

But, as we learned in those cases, sometimes you can’t escape your past. Ben is absolutely right that we can forget from episode to episode where Prez was at when he started with this unit, but sadly our forgetfulness doesn’t erase that past. To bring the late D'Angelo to the fore once more: "You can say you somebody new, you can give yourself a new story, but what came first is who you really are, and what happened before is what really happened." The job will not save you.

Prez: "Lieutenant. Tell Lester I’m sorry."

The Upshot

4 out of 4 crowns knocked off for no good reason

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