By Andrew Johnston
"Buyer's market out there"
"Transitions" is what I think of a true "fan's episode" of The Wire: From beginning to end, it's jammed with scenes that exemplify everything people watch the show for—rich character interaction, crisp dialogue, dry humor, righteously indignant muckraking and complex wheels-within-wheels plotting. It's also the kind of episode that can only be done at this point in a season, when there's still time for events to play out in all manner of ways before groundwork has to be laid for the finale. Such episodes often fall a little too early to feature seismic, game-changing events, but that's definitely not the case here.
The title refers, of course, to the journalistic art of the seamless segue from one paragraph to another--and while, like most of the season's titles, this one comes from the vocabulary of journalese, the episode itself somewhat ironically has less Sun action than the three that preceded it. At least it seems to—this week's events on the streets, at city hall, in police HQ and at the Western District station house represent the culmination of so much long-term plot and character development spanning several seasons that the Sun scenes can't help seeming like weak sauce by comparison.
The two principal transitions, of course, are Rawls' temporary elevation to the commissioner's office (with Daniels taking over as Deputy Commissioner for Operations for a few months of grooming before being handed the top job) and Marlo's coup against Proposition Joe, which both makes Marlo the king of the East Side and leaves "the Greek" with no choice but to do business with him. I'm sure a substet of Wire fans will float the theory that it's actually Marlo, and not Joe, who takes a bullet in the final scene, but that's wishful thinking. I mean, come on—is David Simon that cheap? The second that next week's "React Quotes" hits HBO On Demand (where it should do better than usual thanks to viewers who don't want to be forced to choose between The Wire and next week's Super Bowl), the theory will deservedly die quickly.
Spooked by his ex-wife's concern about the dirt in Burrell's possession, Daniels goes to the commissioner to swear that he had nothing to do with the effort to oust him. Before Burrell has the chance to use the incriminating evidence—which apparently proves that Daniels was part of a corrupt Eastern District drug squad during his early days on the force—he's persuaded by council president Nerese Campbell to go quietly and accept a cushy private sector job that will pay him just as much, if not more than he was making as Baltimore's top cop. It's a blatant bribe, one that is somehow bizarrely legal, much as the loan that allows Rhonda Pearlman to nail Clay Davis with the "head shot"—something "every kid with a starter home" does, as Lester Freamon points out—is bizarrely illegal.
There's a great shot toward the end of the episode of Daniels smiling with satisfaction as he visits his new office, but his happiness would naturally be short lived if he knew that Campbell now has the dossier, which he presumably believes to be out of circulation as a result of Burrell's failure to use it. It's a pretty safe bet that we haven't seen the last of the folder—but with no other viable African American candidates for the commissioner's office in sight, expect Campbell to use it as a means of keeping Daniels in line rather than getting him out of the way.
In the wake of Butchie's death last week, we learn a little more about his background—apparently he wasn't born blind but rather lost his sight to a bullet shortly after he took to playing the game. Joe, who knows everyone remotely connected to the drug trade—he really is a classic center-of-the-web intelligence broker, like Conan Doyle's Mycroft Holmes or George R.R. Martin's Littlefinger—appears to be the only one of the current players (apart from Omar, of course), visits the gangsta florist we've seen before and purchases a flower arrangement accompanied by a message that could double as a dying curse hurled toward Marlo: "Woe to them that call evil good and good evil" (that's Isaiah 5:20, in case you were wondering). Joe, as we learn in his ensuing conversation with Slim Charles, is well aware that Cheese is in business with Marlo behind his back, but he claims to be wary about taking premature action against members of his own family. Instead of moving directly, Joe tells Slim he's going to take a few steps back until the Omar-Marlo feud settles down, allowing Cheese to run his business in the meantime—implicitly putting Cheese in Omar's line of fire. When Omar later demands that Slim take him to Joe, Slim swears up and down that Joe had no complicity in Butchie's death. Cheese's name is not mentioned (Slim may not know that Cheese steered Snoop and Chris toward Butchie), but Joe's unfaithful nephew is nonetheless now at least #4 on Omar's revenge list, and ought to be looking over his shoulder at all times—at least unless, God forbid, Marlo & Co. somehow manage to take care of Omar first.
Joe doesn't really sign his own death warrant until the next co-op meeting, at which he rules against Cheese and in favor of Hungry Man in a territorial dispute (in a great continuity touch, the strip-club owner who cut the shady deal with Nerese Campbell in "More With Less" identifies himself and tells some of his side of the story at the co-op meeting). The scenes that follow are among the most powerful depictions of treachery and gangland justice in the annals of filmed crime drama, up there with Fredo Corleone's inadvertent betrayal of his brother (and Michael's subsequent revenge) in The Godfather Part II and the execution of Tommy DeVito in GoodFellas when he thinks he's about to be made. As the meeting breaks up, there's a great shot of Joe and Marlo facing each other in profile, with Joe's massive gut symbolizing the distance between them. "You need to focus a bit more on working with people," Joe tells Marlo, before the younger dealer walks away with a sneer on his face.
Even so, Joe continues his mentorship of Marlo by setting him up as Maury Levy's newest client—and, in a great display of what makes Joe Joe, we see him bond with Herc over their mutual contempt for Earvin Burrell, who was a year ahead of Joe in high school. Even as Joe continues his efforts to reshape Marlo in his own image, Marlo continues to move against him by having Chris and Snoop offer Hungry Man as a gift to Cheese, one that more or less literally comes tied with a bow (for his part, Hungry Man reacts the way any of us would to getting shanghaied by Chris and Snoop: "Man already shit himself, and we ain't even get started yet," Snoop marvels with a laugh. "Get a gift, give a gift," Chris counsels Cheese, essentially sealing Joe's fate.
When Marlo and his lieutenants visit Joe at home in the final scene, Marlo delivers a line that's both a withering dismissal of Joe's patronage and a clear-eyed assessment of his own character: "I wasn't made to play the son." Indeed, when Marlo arrived on The Wire, he was already a fully-formed evil, and his ability to hold sway over volatile personalities such as Snoop and Chris stands as ultimate proof that he's a natural-born leader. Up to his literal dying breath, Joe attempts to bargain his way out of trouble; in response, Marlo offers perhaps the most chilling display of his charisma yet as he coaxes Joe into accepting death without resistance.
Another arguable transition—a much more subtle one—is the continued growth of Ellis Carver into a stand-up officer and, more than likely, Daniels' spiritual successor. At the top of the episode, the man with the worst haircut on television, Western District patrolman Anthony Colicchio, attempts to bust Michael and his corner boys, only to walk into a trap: The bag in which he expects to find Michael's package turns out to be full of dog pooh. Michael (wearing an all-too-apt "Ghetto University" t-shirt) and his pals may not be holding, but they still succeed in pissing off Colicchio enough to haul them down to the station house under arrest for harassment.
Carver (who you'll recall made a futile attempt to take Randy Wagstaff under his wing last season and spare the lad from foster care) sides with Michael and will have nothing of it. "I've seen some stupid shit in my day, but even by Western standards this rates a whole new category!", Carver barks, before announcing his intent to bring charges against Colicchio over the incident. Carver's decision displeases his old pal Herc, but he sticks to his guns. In addition to showing his continued evolution as a man and a police officer, the incident could also be construed as marking another stage in the transition of the Baltimore Police into being an African American-controlled institution (a transition that, in the Wire universe at least, has been taking place from the top down). To Colicchio, Michael & Co. are "fucking yos", but a black cop like Carver is able to see their behavior for what it is, which is just boys being boys (though Michael proves he's further along the road to manhood than his baby face suggests when his crackhead mom asks for help finding work and he tells her he's not going to pay her to be his mother).
At the Sun, Scott Templeton displays his work ethic (or lack thereof) by going to interview for a Metro job at the Washington Post while Alma Gutierrez busts her ass doing real reporting to help the Sun get the scoop on Burrell's ouster. The Sun gets that story, but budget cuts on the courtroom front result in them losing out on the perp walk that Rhonda Pearlman sets up for Clay Davis. All of Davis's scenes are fantastic and a testament to Isaiah Whitlock Jr.'s brilliance as an actor. The Davis who shows up to testify, deeply humbled, is a man we've never seen before, and it's breathtaking to watch Whitlock as Davis first takes the stand, inspecting the evidence against him as if the paper was contaminated with Ebola, and then turning on the Clay Davis persona we all know the second he steps in front of the cameras that are waiting for him outside the courthouse. The Wire's criminal failure to receive any Emmy nominations for season four makes it extremely unlikely that the television academy will recognize Whitlock, but I'd argue that few actors on The Wire are more deserving (though of course there are strong cases to be made for André Royo, Michael Kenneth Williams, Robert F. Chew and Wendell Pierce—hell, you could fill the all the Supporting Actor slots twice over with Wire regulars and still leave out a ton of amazing actors).
This week's opening quote is attributed to Scott Templeton, in reference to his failure to get hired at the Post, but it could just as easily apply to how it's a buyer's market out there for Templeton's bullshit, as well as for the lie McNulty is peddling. The "buyer's market" line is also delivered by Lester's old partner (still stuck on patrol as a result of getting screwed over by Rawls, we're told), who Lester has surprisingly little difficulty persuading to provide him and McNulty with access to a fresh corpse. The bogus serial killer may be McNulty's baby, but Lester takes point on the matter this week, persuading McNulty to visit a homeless camp in search of potential "witnesses" in the hope of creating an alibi that will keep anyone from suspecting that the killer is a fake. McNulty's enthusiasm for the scam remains undiminished, as we see when he carves defensive wounds into the fingertips of the "victim". Indeed, the glee with which he tells Beadie about the case almost makes it seem as if McNulty is starting to believe his own lies. Rather than the hoax, I'd say the definitive proof of how unhinged McNulty has become is his increasingly voluntary estrangement of Beadie, a woman who is clearly one of the best things to ever happen to him. Beadie's speech about how she never believed the "McNutty" stories until he fell off the wagon is, however, unfortunately tin-eared and well below The Wire's usual standards (as well as unworthy of Amy Ryan's formidable talent). Given the amount of awesomeness that David Simon and Edward Burns cram into this incredibly dense episode, though, I'll gladly forgive them for whiffing one measly scene.
With so much of the blog punditry about this season centering on the Sun storyline and the debate over whether David Simon's treatment of the paper comes down to sour grapes (you know it's getting out of hand when the Brits start chiming in), it's refreshing to have come across a source of discussion that's 100% free of Sun-related content: Sudhir Venkatesh's weekly accounts for The New York Times' Freakonomics blog of watching the show with a group of fellows who have actually played the game. Venkatesh has assembled a gallery of real characters alright, but half the fun comes from the censorship the transcript goes through to meet the Times' standards . "But white folks [who write the series] always love to keep these uppity [characters] alive," says Orlando, a retired Brooklyn gang member, speaking of Prop Joe during the roundtable on "More With Less". Some of Venkatesh's reportage is so colorful ("I knew that f----t would come back," Flavor rejoiced, beer spilling down his arm. "Get his a--, Omar. Get Marlo, that little b--ch.") that at least one commenter over there has accused him of pulling a Stephen Glass/Jayson Blair (or Scott Templeton, if you will) maneuver. To my mind, that's high praise—because as I see it, a reporter can't be charged with making shit up unless he's doing a really good job.
In the latest of the many essays that he's been publishing in lieu of interviews, David Simon describes a season two dust-up with then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, who was threatening to rescind the series' permits to film in the city after he was displeased (as the Sun's Jay Spry would diplomatically cast it) with the first season. The timing is interesting insofar as the encounter may have influenced the creation or characterization of Carcetti, a transparent O'Malley analogue who made his first appearance during the third season. In the piece, Simon mentions the real people behind a number of other characters, but in this case he leaves it to his readers to make the connection themselves.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.