No Stone Left Unturned: A Short Review of The Wire, Season Two

We begin season two of The Wire with the first of many stark changes from the first season. Jimmy McNulty, our schlub of a heroic, impassioned, murder-case-cracking detective, is now stationed over at the docks. He rides a boat now and, seemingly, has left the world of murder cases for good. Like Lester Freamon before him, McNulty has been banished to an unwanted position due to his unorthodox method of basically having no regard for the chain of command. Unlike Freamon—who had his dollhouse furniture to supplement income and keep his mind occupied—McNulty has trouble living this life. He was built for solving murder cases. And the viewer gets to see exactly what happens when McNulty can’t be involved in a murder case: he disintegrates, self-destructing into more than his usual number of booze bottles and having one-night-stands with several women even as he tries in vain to repair the damage his tornadic personality has wreaked on his marriage. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to us, then, that Fate grants McNulty a bit of a boon (though cruelly twisted) when he finds a floating dead woman in the harbor.

Now, the absolute beauty of the writing in this series is that I’ve just taken a bit to set up the starting position of our main character, but I’ve left out so. much. information. I’ve left out subplots and side stories, small character arcs and arguments. I know that you’ll leave out stuff like that with any short review of a television season, but the key point is that in The Wire none of that information—none of those little side stories and cutaway scenes—is wasted. Even the most mundane scenes serve to simultaneously further the overall plot and develop characters in complex ways. And so when McNulty finds the body of the woman, we’re all expecting him to get reinstated immediately into the murder unit—but instead Rawls stays an asshole and refuses him. Then when the body is linked to a shipping container on the local docks that is found to be full of dead Eastern European prostitutes, we’re sure that the resulting 13 Jane Doe cases will make Rawls bring McNulty back (I mean, I thought for sure he’d do that and stick McNulty on the cases to further ruin his career). But no. Even when, through a series of convoluted but entirely believable police politics, Lt. Daniels winds up with a detail comprised mostly of the old crew from the first season, it takes Rawls like at least half the season to allow Daniels to call up McNulty. So all of this background stuff is there developing tension and thickening the plot, making the characters into actual people that seem real, etc. The writing is nothing short of incredible and I understand why people call this the best television series of all time (and I’m only in the second season!).

But okay. I want to briefly discuss some things that carry over from the first season. I called this piece No Stone Left Unturned because I think the writers successfully deal with, like, everyone from the first season at some point in the story. You got Avon, D’Angelo, and Wee Bey behind bars in their own subplot that ends in D’Angelo’s staged “suicide.” You got Stringer Bell running the Barksdale criminal organization, shacking up with D’Angelo’s wife, ordering the hit on D’Angelo, and making deals with Proposition Joe behind Avon’s back. You got Omar coming in and wreaking havoc on Stringer’s complicated plans, as he is wont to do. And you got Bubbles descending back into his addiction. I was close to getting angry with the writing of this season toward the end, when I thought Bubbles was returning to the show just as a sort of obligation instead of as a useful plot device. But then the writers made even his short appearance matter to the plot. He turns Kima and McNulty onto the Stringer Bell/Proposition Joe dirty dealings, which I can only assume will become more important in coming seasons. And then even the lower-level guys in the Barksdale organization are given a spotlight—the kids in the pit have a solid amount of air time in this season as they progress into pit bosses and, slowly, become Stringer Bell’s favorites (maybe… Bell is a complex dude). The writers truly turn over every stone from the first season and make it all count toward a greater plot. This is something that is extremely difficult to do in any story—and I can only imagine that it is made even more impossible when one is writing for a television series with a set amount of episodes each with their own set amount of airtime.

However much I laud the writers for developing storylines from the previous season, Season Two isn’t simply (or even mostly) a rehash of the first. Instead we’re introduced to the Stevedore’s Union—presided over by Frank Sobotka. These guys have made some deals with “The Greek”—a mysterious man who helms an international crime syndicate—to lose some shipping containers on purpose. One of these containers contains the previously mentioned dead prostitutes, which is the central and case that sets off the slow destruction of everything Sobotka holds dear. (Although, in a mark of true writing brilliance, the case isn’t actually the central conflict—that honor belongs to the dispute between Valchek and Sobotka over the Stevedore’s Union putting up a stained glass window in a local church when Valchek wanted the police union to have their own window put up instead). But even though the specifics have changed, I want to talk about what I see as the pattern that the writers of this show are trying to draw to our attention with the first two seasons. That is, I want to talk about the fact that the true villains in the first two seasons—the ones who aren’t really humanized and who seem like almost pure avatars of evil—are the sort of white collar guys high up the food chain. In the first season, we know that certain corrupt politicians are bank-rolling Barksdale and are thus behind his ascent to the top of the West Side criminal element. But those folks aren’t punished—ever. In the second season, we see the Greek and his sidekick—Spyros—drinking tea out of expensive teacups in expensive restaurants while eating expensive food and drinking expensive wine and laughing even at the end of the season when they’ve had to take a loss on the whole dock-smuggling enterprise. Even after their primary muscle—the Russian-whose-name-is-not-Boris—is locked up; even after Frank Sobotka’s loose-cannon of a son has killed one of their primary associates. These men are the monsters of the show, and I think I know why. The reason we feel so strongly about the Greek and Spyros and the mostly faceless politicians in the first season is complex—but, I contend, it is not solely because they escape justice. Rather, one of the main reasons we hate them has to do with the humanization of the lower-level guys like D’Angelo and the Sobotkas, and it has to do with how the top-tier—the white collar guys—operate.

In the first two seasons, we’ve seen the “villains” like Sobotka and D’Angelo do horrible things. They sell drugs; they lose containers full of women (I mean, who knows how many of those poor women actually went through the process and, instead of dying alone in a container, ended up in sex slavery); they obstruct the work of police trying to bring to justice people responsible for murder. These are not good people. But what we learn in the process of watching the show is that they have some good motives. Though their circumstances and specifics are different, both of them (as well as Ziggy and Nick Sobotka, and all the other minor-league criminals in the show, as far as I can tell) are doing these things to better the lives of their loved ones. Frank is maybe a better example of this, as D’Angelo is shown in the first season to be a bit obsessed with flash and his own wealth (spending hours picking out the right outfit to wear, for instance). And what makes season two interesting is that Frank is simply trying to earn more work for his union brothers so that they can all make a living. He’s not even trying to get rich! He’s trying to make it possible for men to use the skills they’ve honed over decades to continue to… get by. He gets thrown in over his head, and he knows there is no excusing what he’s done (see the scene in the second-to-last episode in which he tells Ziggy “you’re more like me than you think”), but he’s trying his best to work with the only options he thinks he has.

So that’s why we end up hating the higher-ups. Not only do they use poverty as a weapon (setting up a system in which it makes sense for young black men to sling dope because it’s one of the few ways they can make good money; offering money to a union president for his silence and cooperation when they know he needs the revenue), but the way they deal with poverty is the way they deal with everything. They find weaknesses and, instead of trying to help people fix those weaknesses, they exploit them. They back people into corners because they know the instinct to survive will force those cornered people to do anything regardless of moral conviction—and they know two other things: 1) that once a person has done one illegal act, they have leverage over that person and can make him continue to do illegal acts, and 2) that when the police come cracking down on the system, it’s the ones who have actually physically done the crimes who will get punished and they—the white collars—will get away. What I like about this show is that it doesn’t shy away from these realities. I’m sure that every single viewer rejoiced when Nicky Sobotka was shown the picture of Spyros and some suited person, paused, pointed to a seemingly unimportant person in the foreground, and said “Wait a minute. That’s the Greek.” And I’m sure every viewer harbored the hope that the big bad guys were about to be taken down. But the show knows how the real world works, and the real world doesn’t conform to our hopes. In real life, the men who exploit weakness for personal gain—the men who have become so politically powerful, so extraordinarily wealthy—are not caught. (Side note: if you read history, you’ll see that these folks are sometimes caught and dealt with, but like with Bernie Madoff this is almost exclusively the case when they have harmed the money of some other equally guilty wealthy one-percenter).

If I sound bitter here, that’s a good thing. This show is supposed to make you feel bitter. The aim is to take a look at how the real world works and to see the horror involved. The writers make you understand the Sobotkas and D’Angelos (and even the Avons) even when you don’t like them, and this makes you feel for them to at least a small extent. You begin to ask yourself questions like “If I grew up in inner city Baltimore and saw people slinging dope and making bank, would I join them?” or “If I was entrusted with the livelihood of dozens of other men, and someone approached me with the amount of money necessary to make the right political contributions that would result in more work for my union brothers, would I do it?” And once you start realizing that these blue-collar guys aren’t all that different from us non-criminals—that they want the same things that we want and wind up with their backs to the wall, weaknesses exploited—you start realizing that the problem is really the system of the world. The problem is that in our societies it is more profitable to exploit people than to help them. And, like a chain reaction, that realization leads to the idea that the only way for real change to occur is for those in power—and therefore those who have benefitted the most from the current system—to decide to change the system. Obviously this leads to bitterness, because the chances of that happening are virtually nonexistent. Like the Baltimore Police Dept. in The Wire, we wind up with case after case of the same crap. Even if we solve them, more crop up faster than we can deal with. And, as the BPD’s higher-ups repeatedly express in the show, our goal shifts to just carving out the best career for ourselves—it becomes less about fixing the problems and more about learning how to ignore them long enough to maybe better our own lives. And so, subtly, we become the exploiters and buy into the system that has corrupted so many.

On that cheery note, I’ll leave you. I’d discuss a bit about the father/son themes and dynamics in this season (mostly concerning the extended Sobotka family), but that stuff is always especially emotional and I’d probably end up crying. Anyway, on to season three! Maybe the third season will show some progress for the moral development of the system itself. One can hope. One can always hope.

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