The Cycle Continues: A Review of The Wire, Season Four

I binge-watched the fourth season of The Wire within about a week and a half of finishing the third season. And yet here I am, something like a month later, still trying to write a review that will do justice to the absolute beauty of the story so far. The fourth season is by far—by far—my favorite (although I haven’t watched the final season yet). It is beautiful and heartbreaking and overwhelmingly sad. So let me just jump in here.

This season is sad because we finally begin to understand the systems that are involved in inner-city Baltimore. We finally begin to glean an understanding—if we truly can understand such things simply by watching television—of the impossibility of fixing the problems that are apparent throughout the show. Sure, McNulty seems to have turned his own personal life around and the changes that he made at the end of the third season seem to be permanent. And sure, Cutty seems to be doing a pretty cool thing with his gym, teaching corner kids to box and thereby making sure they spend time doing something other than selling drugs (and also learning at least a little bit of honor). But though Cutty has become a sort of father figure for these kids—many of whom have no fathers at home—we realize that this literally does nothing to improve the overall culture of the city. Nada. Zilch.

I think the best part of this season—besides the terrifying sociopathy of Marlo and his goons, who all act the part very well—is the focus on the corner kids. Instead of seeing the higher ups of an organization, we see the children who go to school during the day, get into fights, fail to learn much of anything in a broken school system that emphasizes standardized testing over actual learning, and then sell drugs on the street to make money—often at the request of their own families. At the center of this story arc is none other than Namond Brice—the son of Barksdale enforcer “Wee-Bey” Brice. Namond’s mother has plenty of money from Wee-Bey’s time with the Barksdales, as well as (it is implied) generous monthly payouts from the Barksdales as payment for Wee-Bey eating the twenty-odd year sentence he copped in Season One. But when these payments dry up on account of there, well, not being any Barksdale organization to speak of anymore, Mama Brice gives Namond an ultimatum: he better get his ass out on the corner selling drugs like his father to support the family, or else. When Namond runs afoul of the law, his mother tells the cops to keep him in “baby booking” to toughen him up rather than suspend her shopping trip to New York. As viewers, we begin to see why so many people from these inner-city areas become drug dealers and criminals. We begin to see the failure of the education system and the attractiveness of the kind of money you can make selling drugs. It’s a culture, and cultures are cyclical.

That said, there is one man hell-bent on trying to fix the system and offer Baltimore youth a viable way out. Ex-Major Colvin winds up assisting in an experimental classroom filled with all the key troublemakers in school—including Namond Brice. This classroom, I contend, is the centerpiece of the season. It is where the writers make their most important thematic points about the cycles that permeate the system. For instance, there is a moment in which the children are asked where they see themselves in ten years. It’s a simple exercise in forward thinking and planning: ask the kids for their long-term goals, then follow up by asking them about how they will make those goals into realities. The answers the teacher receives are mostly jokes about being NBA or NFL stars. And yet the real meat of the scene occurs when the teacher asks how many of the students think they’ll be dead in a decade. Nearly all of the kids raise their hands. It is at this point that we must remember that The Wire was created and written by a journalist and a cop-turned-teacher, both from Baltimore. They’re not just writing interesting television. They’re telling the story of hundreds of kids they know, have seen, or have heard about. This is tragic stuff, and it’s going on in cities all around the country. Today. Right now. There are middle schoolers in this country who genuinely don’t think they’ll be alive in a decade, and yet that’s okay to them because it’s all “just part of the game.” I don’t want to spoil too much for anyone who has yet to see the series, so I’m leaving out the absolutely heartbreaking story arc of Michael. Anyone who has seen Season Four will understand why his is perhaps the most tragic of the stories in this series.

I want to take a break from that depressing scene and talk about what makes good television, for me. One of the most compelling aspects of a dramatic series is a competent, believable, terrifying villain. In Season Four, which is (in my opinion) all about “change” manifesting in repetitions of the same systemic cycles, Barksdale’s role as the villain is replaced by Marlo Stanfield. And Marlo is a full-on sociopath. He will do anything, to anyone, at any time, provided it furthers his goal of taking over his side of Baltimore and making lots of money. He is what I imagine real-life kingpins to be—ruthless, devoid of empathy, etc. Even though he rarely does the killing in the show, he reminds me of the “Ice Man” Richard Kuklinski—and just as an aside, you should look up this dude’s interviews on YouTube if you want to see the face of a killer with frontal lobe problems who literally can’t feel empathy. The definitive Marlo scene, for me, is when Proposition Joe (a man who always struck me as the real threat in Baltimore rather than Barksdale) tries to recruit the young kingpin into the co-op Stringer created. The offer of increased protection doesn’t sit well with Marlo (“No one fucks with me now.”) and when Prop Joe tries to argue that maybe in the future folks will try to come at Marlo, the latter interrupts him by sticking out a hand for a handshake. “No one fucks with me now,” he reiterates, and the meeting is concluded. This is the point at which it is truly apparent that Marlo has overtaken the other gang rulers of Baltimore. He can dismiss Proposition Joe with a single sentence and a handshake. And so, to get back to my original point, this season’s villain is menacing in the extreme. (But, real quick, I want to make sure I say that the writers go out of their way to show that the true masters behind the scheme are the rich, white-collar dudes like The Greek—who is the supplier behind Prop Joe’s co-op, which Marlo eventually joins).

There is so much more in this season that deserves a lengthier review—the election of Carcetti as Mayor and the subsequent shakeup within the police department, a deeper discussion of Marlo’s henchmen Chris and Snoop, Colvin’s eventual pseudo-adoption of Namond Brice and the accompanying clarity of Wee-Bey’s approval, the plight of Duquan “Dookie” Weems, and especially Namond’s and Dookie’s friend Michael—but I know you probably have stopped reading by now. This is already quite a long article for a show that started over a decade ago.

I’ll sign off by saying this: my view on The Wire has progressed with each season. At first, I thought it was a good show. Then I thought it was a great show. Then I thought it was one of the best shows of all time. And after the fourth season, I’m left thinking that this might be actually the best show ever, as so many people before me have said. The character development is just unbelievably complex and good. What a journey this has been.

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.

Back and Ready

Whew, it’s been a busy couple of weeks. Leading up to closing on a house and moving all of our stuff out of the second story of an apartment and into a 70 year old house was quite the time-suck. I apologize for the lack of content and the seeming laziness. Rest assured. Content is on the way.

I’ve planned out a few drafts on some stand out christian music. There’s a podcast posting in early may and a few other podcast scheduled to record. There will most certainly be a post on film editing and at least two more Art and the Bible posts.

So our calendar is jam-packed and ready to roll-out. Get your bib on, cause the choo-choo train of creative-worship themed blog posts are coming for your mouth…

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“Small Sample Size” – Our Short Story Series

Howdy followers! 

Tonight marks the first entry of our new short story series, “Small Sample Size.” Within this series our staff of writers (and maybe a guest or two,) will write a completely original short story for the blog. The only criteria given to these gifted writers were that it had to be under 750 words and it had to have at least 2 characters. That’s it. 

You can expect this series to run for about a week and have a new story every day or two. 

We hope you enjoy it!