Monday, January 07, 2008

The Monday Evening Wire. Just a Step Behind.
Episode 51, "More With Less"

by Cuyler Ballenger


Season five opens with Bunk, eyes wide, looking just to the right of the camera. He confidently nods and asks, "You see now?" It's time to pay attention in Baltimore.

A year has passed since the twenty-two dead bodies were removed from the "vacants" and there's still no one to pin them on. Marlo (with Chris and Snoop of course) and his ever expanding crew, including now-major player Michael, remain in control of the west-side, stationed from the same abandoned playground they occupied last season. Marlo, sitting (if it can be called that, its more of a lounge chair posture really) between his seat and the stone wall behind him, is approached by a disgruntled head of a smaller crew he supplies. Though he barely opens his mouth, the message Marlo sends is clear: if you're not happy about your pay, take a cut; if you don't want to take a cut, "tool up" and wait for Chris and Snoop. Wherein Snoop chimes in with her only line of the episode, "and we'll be brief with all you motherfuckers. I think you know."

The exchange is seen through binoculars by the plain-clothed McNulty as he shoots the shit with Dozerman, who occasionally snaps shots of Marlo. They seem bored, though comfortable. As do Kima and Sydnor, who watch from a not so inconspicuous red van, and Lester, in a little red Escort, wearing Chucks. They've all been doing this for a year and as Sydnor points out, "this guy never slips." The Major Crimes Unit knows Marlo's routine, his face to face with anyone who needs a word, his endless messengers on scooters, and his daily trips to some remote Baltimore site for a brief exchange with Chris. They seem to have him covered, surrounded. But Marlo, the relentless worker he is, knows they are watching, and, backed by his intricate network of soldiers, he appears calm, patient. He wears the crown well, and he should: it's all he's ever wanted.

A year into office Mr. Mayor still doesn't look quite big enough to sit in that chair of his. After not accepting the money-for-embarrassment exchange from Annapolis at the end of last season, Carcetti is -- from the get-go -- struggling to balance his city's needs. His main concern, for the moment, is that the schools need more money. Budget cuts are already in effect, but it's not enough; there needs to be less and less spending, as Carcetti explains in a meeting with Ralws and Burrell. The entire Baltimore police force haven't received overtime pay in almost five weeks, there's not much more that can be cut, except it seems, the ongoing investigation of the twenty-two homicides a year ago, the only national news Baltimore has attracted in some time. Although this season has apparently shifted its focus away from the schools, their impact is still felt as education takes priority over policing the city. And with former students like Michael and Dukie now running their own corner, the proper allocation of funds seems an impossible task. "Truth to power, Norman, isn't that what I pay you for?" Carcetti asks his right-hand-man. Its a sad question because the answer has always been, and most likely will always be, that there is no answer in Baltimore. Carcetti, too, slouches in his throne. Unfortunately, this isn't because of his comfort in control.


Any season premier is faced with the challenge of scope. What should be included? what left out? And because The Wire focuses on a different aspect of the city each season, the challenge is that much greater. Major characters Carver and Herc are shown in their new positions only briefly. Carver's promotion offers him the difficult task of running the west side beat with a group of rowdy, underpaid, and therefore unmotivated, officers -- a group more concerned with their pay than the reasons for getting paid. Carver's overall demeanor is as intense as in the past, but with full attention on policing his police. What he actually is doing in the field goes unmentioned. Herc, now a self titled "martyr" because of his termination from the force at the end of last season, finds lucrative work as a P.I. for sleaze bag defense attorney Maurice "Maury" Levy. In one poignant scene of corruption Herc seemingly buys a friendly round for his former partners Carver, Dozerman and Colicchio which turns out to simply be a way to get some info on a guy his boss plans to defend. With Carver's hands tied up just trying to keep his force in a meeting, Dozerman's crew about to be dismantled and Herc's sudden allegiance with "the other side," this season five premiere does, at least, provide a picture of the sense of hopelessness and helplessness that the law enforcing powers that be assume as the status quo. (Just to mention briefly, to mirror the screen time: Bubbles is clean and again living in his sister's basement. And there has been no sign of Omar, neither in this episode nor in the previews for next week; Simon is sticking to the formula and saving him for episode three.)  

What we are given, though, is the press. Specifically the Baltimore Sun. Even more specifically, the incredibly intriguing city editor Gus Haynes. Interestingly, the Sun office appears, other than Haynes and a few others (journalists Jeff Price and Alma Gutierrez), to have a similar lack of motivation and a general unhappiness akin to the BPD. Budget cut meetings are top stories while the memory of last year's murders begin to fade. You get the sense that in this office running on deadlines -- filling page space is priority number one, reporting the news a far trailing second. And as a distant fire burns black smoke on the east-side, two reporters watch from within their top story office with limited concern and even less interest. What the role of the press will be in this final season remains largely unclear. What it seemingly won't do, is find stories, but with a weakened police force and dismemberment of the major crimes unit, stories will no doubt find them.

This season marks the beginning of the end for The Wire, and in a show largely concerned with police work, one would think loose ends will be tied, cases will be closed. Its a show that is asking us to look closely now, to pay attention to details, because, as Haynes tells Gutierrez, they matter. I have found today the practice of writing a weekly episode guide a particularly difficult one. Being just as in the dark about what is to come as the journalists at the Sun, it makes sense for me, too, to be alert to detail. And in that light I want point out some of the small things that got me really excited for the next nine weeks. The co-op meetings seem to have relocated to a hotel conference room, a more professional setting initially tells me Prop Joe is running a tight[er] ship. Marlo's entrance into the meeting, though, disturbs that thought. He may not be content with just the east-side. And if Marlo's behavior in the meeting isn't enough to prove that, Chris stealing the picture of old Sergei, sentenced to life back in season two, may further reveal their desire to cut out Joe and create a direct line to the package. How this is going to be stopped when the disconnect between the top and bottom is as large as ever remains a mystery. Case in point: just as Chris enters the courthouse to retrieve the picture of Sergei, Major Daniels is discussing with state attorney Pearlman his inability to keep the Stanfield detail alive because of the budget cuts when he is interrupted by Chris himself. "Excuse me, ya'll know where the clerks office at?" Criminal or civil? Pearlman asks back. "Criminal, definitely." Its as if Chris is inadvertently reiterating Bunk's opening question. Ya'll see now? The answer, of course, is no.

Oh and little side note, here at the end. I don't want to comment yet on the Steve Earle cover of the Tom Waits theme song. I don't think it's fair to judge it for at least a couple more weeks as each season brings a new attitude that the songs in the past have captured well. Ugh, fuck it, its terrible right?

Bubbs working hard

"The Bigger the lie, the more they believe." -- Bunk


  1. As I said on the House recap a little earlier, and as I said last night, it's kind of an uh-oh opener for me. That said, I agree that it's still a little early to throw it on the fire: will have to see how it plays out, right?

    Also: I'm happy you are doing this, Cuyler. Maybe we can start a conversation here, too, about the show's merits and what it has to say pro and con about us, about the city, and, yes, about race. I've stayed away from that but it clearly plays a roll in its success (so many black actors! so cool!). I mean, it's pushing at shit a little better than somebody like Katt Williams, right?

  2. Steve Earle's cover? At last, a version worse than what Tom Waits recorded.

    The season premiere was pretty draggy, and I blame Mr. Simon, who took sole credit for writing last night's episode. All set up, all the time. And the same dour 'isn't the world a fucked up place?' vibe.

    As much as I love these characters (and the great actors who bring them to life) I want more than doodling in the plot department.

    Last night played like a soap opera, and may be the worst episode in the history of the series.

  3. Yea commenting both on the triumph of the show we see and the show--as--show is something I would really like to discuss further, maybe towards the end of the series. I mean, Felicia Pearson has a book out, wow!!

    But in looking only at last night's episode, I saw this amazing pessimism in what it means to live and work in _the [troubled] American city(s)_. What are the risks involved for any and all parties who desire to play a role in the future of B-more? fuck, McNulty has to rekindle his love with the bottle. Does that necessarily mean the show takes a pessimistic stance on the struggling city? I dont think so. thoughts?

  4. I thought it was a pretty good episode. A pretty good season premiere, as Cuyler said, since it had a big scope and a lot of stuff to get through. The Steve Earle cover set off some alarm bells for me, too, Ryland -- and I like him a lot as a song writer! But Virgil: the Tom Waits cover is no good? It's the best! He wrote the song, you know. I know, I know, the Blind Boys were good, too, but the only one I ever want to hear on my headphones is the Tom Waits original. But this isn't about the show, I guess. Back to the show.

    It's way cool you're doing this weekly recap thing, Cuyler. I don't think I could. I think I'd only like to write something about the whole thing. I mean, how could you write about Season Four without getting all expectant every week? Don't a lot of these weekly things get way too prediction heavy? I bet it's a totally weird column to write. How much do you recap the events of the episode versus how much do you speculate versus how much do you interpret is a lot to do! Especially in 1000 or so words! So, good job. I guess I didn't talk about the show again. I'm tired, tho, so it's cool.

    I guess Omar doesn't show up to episode three in each of the other seasons so we'll get two fewer hours of him. Lame. I just hope he doesn't get killed. Butchie, too. And I could give a fuck about the press. Even if Clark Johnson is kinda sexy. I'd rather watch Michael and Dukie raise Bug while contending with Marlo and Chris and Snoop. That'd be a whole show in and of itself. (Wait a tic! Snoop wrote a book?! Gotta get it -- got, gots to get it get it.) But, yeah, I guess it's better to save the judgments til it's done. Still, nice work, Cuyler. Look forward to the rest of your project!


  5. I forgot to say a tangent that Katt Williams may not be challenging stereotypes but he's fucking funny. "And some soccuh shooose. ... WHERE SHE GOIN?!!!?"

  6. Claire, I like all the versions of DOWN IN THE HOLE except for Waits and Earle. Tom Waits is the most over-rated singer/songwriter of his generation. He writes great songs, then fucks them up with his neo-Armstrong vocal stylings. Mr. Waits, get an office in the Brill Building and spare us your voice.