Breaking Down The Wire

A New Day in Baltimore?
Talking television.
Nov. 27 2006 5:51 PM

Breaking Down The Wire

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Hi Emily:

Great to hear your thoughts on this week's episode, and to get a chance to hash out the details of my current favorite show on television. I was surprised to hear you characterize this episode as "a bit baffling," as I found it to be one of the most spellbinding in an already white-hot season. I do agree with you that Michael's behavior has been shocking, and deeply unsettling; I believe, though, that The Wire is a show that constantly seeks to undermine our assumptions. Michael's fall from grace is merely one more domino in a long chain.

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For most of us, a lifetime of up-by-your-bootstraps conservative mythmaking and reformist political advertisements have convinced us of the absolute truth of two beliefs: that success in life is a matter of personal responsibility, and that political change is simply a matter of will and moral force. The Wire, a didactic show in the best possible sense, has dedicated its fourth season to proving the absolute falsehood of both those statements. Operating in its traditional point/counterpoint format, this episode toggles between the light and the dark, between restrained optimism and systemic pessimism. The show trades in metaphors of light and dark, but we know (at least those of us more familiar with David Simon's moral universe) that, this being wintertime, the light is exceedingly short-lived.

Mayor Carcetti, having swept into office with an enormous mandate (Democratic voters do outnumber their GOP counterparts in Baltimore by a 9-1 ratio, after all), is intent on implementing his reforms as quickly as possible. Marching into heretofore underachieving city agencies, Carcetti informs them of problems he has discovered in his citywide sweep—leaky fire hydrants, abandoned cars, and the like—without providing addresses or any other identifying information. And so we have a very un-Wire-like montage of the city at work, and working hard, making the small efforts that contribute to a cleaner, healthier city.

That reformist pragmatism extends to Carcetti's attitude toward the police force. Having promised a safer city during the campaign, the mayor appears intent on fulfilling his oath. That means no more arrest quotas, and no more policing by numbers. "It's a new day in Baltimore," the ascendant Col. Daniels tells Lester, and the harried cops, having been prevented from adequately doing their jobs by bureaucratic rigmarole and the political expediency of their bosses, are heartened to discover a new attitude taking root. We still don't quite know what to make of Carcetti; every time we think we have him pinned down—principled dreamer or machine hack?—he surprises us, acting contrary to our expectations. But even taking into account his early successes, the compromise of Carcetti's political ideals looms large in his future; a decision must be reached about the fate of Herc, who made the mistake of roughing up a minister he pulled over, and something must be done about a budget crisis left to Carcetti by the outgoing mayor as a surprise gift.

A similar series of surprisingly counterintuitive events has been set in motion with our younger protagonists, who disconcertingly slip out of reach just when their schools and their teachers seem to be gripping them the tightest. Namond, Dukie, Michael, and Randy have each gone their separate ways this season—Dukie the most studious, Namond the most rebellious, and Michael and Randy falling somewhere in between—but Michael's summoning of Marlo to dispatch his mother's boyfriend has seemingly put an end to youthful pursuits for him and tipped the foursome over toward a life on the margins. As you pointed out, this episode's most surprising development was Michael pulling a gun on the vicious Officer Walker. The Wire is a show that rarely traffics in visual embellishment but does so here, ending the sequence with a shot of the four boys, their backs turned to the camera, moving steadfastly away from the light and into the rapidly enveloping darkness. The light of a new day may have dawned on Baltimore's famously benighted bureaucracy, but that light has seemingly arrived too late for our young heroes—Michael in particular. David Simon revels in the cutting irony of ignorance, having Bunny playfully roughhousing with Namond in the school hallway, commending him for his rapid academic progress the night after he has assaulted a Baltimore police officer. Simon has stated that "this season is to take argument with those who feel that if you're born without privilege, but make the right set of choices, that you will be spared. To do away with that bit of national mythology." Simon has fulfilled his promise; no child, regardless of family life, personality traits, or scholastic diligence, is spared here.

Another ironic blind spot is uncovered in this episode. A few weeks back, Herc had pulled over Chris and Snoop, ransacking their SUV for clues while missing the most important one: the jumbo-size nail gun sitting in a crate in the trunk. This week, the details of Herc's police stop become known to Lester, and the puzzling lack of West Baltimore bodies is finally solved. "Get a crowbar," Lester tells a flustered Bunk, as they stand in front of a boarded-up row house. "This is a tomb—Lex is in there." The camera zooms in on Bunk (another out-of-character visual frill on this famously no-frills show), approaching his face before cutting to a wide-angle shot that frames him against the looming backdrop of the abandoned homes where months of drug-war casualties have been interred. Bunk groans and mutters "fuck me" to himself as the show's exit music rises. We have a feeling that Bunk won't be the only character to pace in circles and mutter to himself in what remains of this season.

Saul

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York City.

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