Breaking Down The Wire

This Episode Let Me Down
Talking television.
Nov. 27 2006 3:34 PM

Breaking Down The Wire

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Hi Saul,

Good morning and welcome to Breaking Down The Wire. I'm a guest, too, so we can make this up as we go along and hope Alex and Steve won't think we screwed up their gig too badly when they come back.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

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I am a huge evangelist for this show—I've given the DVD as a Hanukkah present to more than one family member, and this fall, after watching the first three seasons courtesy of Netflix, I persuaded my principled husband to subscribe to HBO for the first time so I could watch the fourth season in real time. I know you're a big fan as well. And there's lots to discuss as the season rumbles into its final quarter. But I have to say, I found this week's episode a bit baffling, as a matter of character development, which the writers usually address with such care. Here's the question that had my husband and me shouting at the screen: Michael, what are you DOING?!?

OK, so Officer Walker, the black cop who crushed the fingers of little Donut (the tiny neighborhood car thief), is an asshole, as Jimmy McNulty says. But why is Michael so keen to take revenge and so reckless in his pursuit of it? It was nice to see him leading his friends down the street—but depressing that their common purpose was a pointless vigilante act that can only end badly for them. They went sooo too far! Michael, Randy, Duquan, and Namond found Walker off-duty outside a nightclub; scratched his car to bait him into chasing them into a blind alley; pulled a gun on him; took a big, shiny ring off his finger; and threw yellow paint on his leather jacket. Then, as he turned around to look at them, Michael pulled off the bandanna masking his face, and I'm pretty sure Walker got a good look at him. Michael's expression in that moment was almost as disturbing as his actions. He was jeering the flailing cop, which was to be expected, but he looked thrilled and wild and hardened, too.

What are we to make of this? Were we set up for this turn of behavior, which worries even Namond? (You know you're in trouble when Namond is your conscience.) I don't think so. For me, Michael's walk on the wild side came pretty much out of nowhere. Maybe the writers will make it right in the final two episodes, but for the moment, the scene and the plot twist feel like an odd glitch in the careful presentation of the kids who are the heart of the show this season. Are we supposed to think that Michael is acting out his guilt for asking Marlo to erase his mother's sinister boyfriend? Or that the boyfriend's disappearance has left him careening out of control? Or—and I think this is what's really bothering me—is the point that we don't actually know this kid and what he's capable of? Maybe, I am forced to conclude, all the loving scenes between him and his little brother don't mean that Michael will grow up to be a man of good judgment: in other words, the hero that we want him to be.

The power of The Wire is that the urban conflicts it depicts can't be sliced into neat moral categories. But does that have to extend to the kids we've come to love? Part of the genius of the season has been to show us that these eighth graders are kids, goofing off in math class and slinging their backpacks. Now I'm forced to think of Michael as a potential budding thug. Please, no!

In other action, Carcetti starts taking over the city by shaking up various departments and promising the police department that he's not going to put up with "juking the stats"—trumped-up arrest numbers. He also promises the long-suffering Daniels carte blanche in setting up a new major-crimes division. And Daniels goes for it—too naively. In recruiting Lester Freaman from homicide, Daniels tells him that "it's a new morning in Baltimore." This can only come crashing down around them, and the setup is uncharacteristically heavy-handed.

The saving grace of the episode for me was Omar. The man is a genius and I don't care how avowedly gay he is: I'm in love. Now, with a bit of sleuthing, he is doing what Freaman and Kima and the gang would presumably be doing if their bosses hadn't scattered them to the winds: learning of Prop Joe and Marlo's drug co-op (Omar explained the word to his Spanish-speaking sidekick in one of the evening's best moments) and preparing to bring Marlo down. Meanwhile, Lester and Bunk have figured out that the missing dead bodies they've been searching for are entombed in the vacant houses where Chris and Snoop stashed them. It's about time—but also worrisome, because if the cops come after Marlo's people, couldn't that spell real doom for Randy and, inevitably, for Michael as well? Looking forward to your thoughts.

Emily

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