By Andrew Johnston
"Just 'cause they're in the street doesn't mean they lack opinions"--Haynes
At this point, I doubt many folks would disagree if I described the narrative momentum of The Wire's fifth season as freight train-esque. "React Quotes" is jam-packed with incident, and while (as the title suggests) much of the action is in response to things that have gone down before, there are just as many new developments which propel us into the second half of the season on a mighty head of steam.
We begin in the park, where Marlo has taken to meeting Vondas at the bench where he and Joe held their conferences in years past. Vondas, ever the pramgatist, says a few words to mourn Joe's passing before initiating Marlo into his world by giving him a cell phone he can use for an apparently secure means of communication. (Surveillance ops long since stopped being the central theme, or even the central organizing device, of The Wire, but it's still odd to have a show with that name where there isn't some wire-tapping going on, and a good bit of what follows is devoted to once again turning Lester Freamon into someone who spends way too many hours in a dank storage room filled with electronic equipment.) Taking over that spot on the bench next to Vondas is almost enough to cement Marlo's status as top dog, but his ascent won't be complete until Omar has been dispensed with. Last season, Marlo's rise through the ranks was in many ways invisible, as those who stood in his way vanished without a trace, their bodies only turning up months later in the rowhouses. This year, Chris and Snoop have been leaving their victims where they fall, as a means of setting an example of what those who cross Marlo can expect. Kima found all of the corpses at Junebug's house in situ, and as Alma tells Gus Haynes at the Sun, one Joe Stewart was found dead in his living room, while the body of one Nathaniel Mantz was found in a back alley garage (some of the folks discussing the episode in Alan Sepinwall's On Demand thread speculated that the third victim, the domestic homicide, was Bodie's grandmother, but I heard the last name as "Bogusz," not "Broadus", and apparently the HBO closed-captioner went with "Boguss"). Are Chris and Snoop certain their guns are untraceable, or are they getting sloppy? I'd say the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
This week's episode was written by David Mills, who adapted David Simon's The Corner for HBO and who has also written memorable episodes of Homicide and NYPD Blue. This is only his second Wire (following on "Soft Eyes", Season Four's second episode), and he has a grand old time playing in Simon and Burns' sandbox, tossing out line after line of dialogue that is intensely colorful yet always true to character for whomever is saying it. Case in point: Tommy Carcetti. "How does it feel, Clay? Not much fun on the ass end, is it?," the boy-faced mayor crows as he sees a TV report on the indictment of everyone's favorite state senator. Norman Wilson, canny as ever, is quick to advise him that "you don't dance on Clay's grave until you're sure the motherfucker's dead." A lot could yet go wrong for Rupert Bond and his risky plan to prosecute Davis at the local level, but his show for the cameras is enough to persuade Carcetti that Bond is worth cultivating as a potential heir—because no matter what, he certainly wouldn't make a worse mayor than Nerese Campbell would.
Earlier, when Chris and Marlo left the park to prepare to hunt Omar, Chris said he needed to go home to say he might not be back for awhile. I expected we were going to see that Chris lives with his mom, but in retrospect I realize that might have been too much of a reprise of the situation with Omar and his grandmother. Instead, it seems, Chris is shacked up with a girlfriend with whom he has two kids. It's a humanizing touch, to an extent, but it also makes him seem like even more of a monster for being able to come home and be an affectionate dad after a long day of shooting people in the head and covering their corpses in lime.
Chris and Snoop's next stop is the offices of Maury Levy, where Chris's behavior suggests that they've been committing their crimes while using a car registered in his girlfriend's names. Levy counsels them to use a car registered to some random schmuck, in addition to providing counsel vis-a-vis Chris' gun arrest last season. On the way out the door, Marlo gives Levy his cell phone number. Not knowing of the trick Vondas showed Marlo, Levy says that if Marlo is talking on a cell, "Joe gave him to us just in time," causing him to cackle at the prospect of the massive billings that would result from Marlo's arrest.
Shortly thereafter, at the Sun, Alma tells Scott Templeton that she has a police source on the serial killer story, and the two go off to meet McNulty. Since the beginning of the season, fans have been predicting that Templeton's story would converge with McNulty's, but I expect few predicted exactly how it would happen. McNulty tells them the reporters that the killer is a sexual fetishist, but it's instantly obvious that he hasn't thought things through. Grasping at straws as he tries to come up with enough half-assed specifics to sell the story to Alma and Templeton, he basically accepts a how-to-manufacture-a-news-story lesson from Templeton in order to re-purpose the "facts" about the killer in a media-friendly package. The scene's humor is underplayed to the point of near-invisibility, but it's there, and it represents some of the first real evidence to back up David Simon's claim that this will turn out to be The Wire's most "Strangelove-ian" season.
Having played a role in convincing Burrell to go quietly last week, Nerese now turns her attention to Clay Davis, who comes into her office angrily insisting that he won't go down alone. As proof that Davis isn't fucking around, he unleashes something we've waited four and a half episodes for: His trademark Sheeeeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiiit, probably the longest such exclamation he's ever dropped. Davis must have dirt on Campbell, though, otherwise she wouldn't take such pains to convince him to (if necessary) take a hit and accept a brief prison term so he might fight another day.
If patriotism is the first refuge of a scoundrel, I've always felt that ethnic pride can only be inches behind it. In the tradition of such scandal-plagued real-life politicians as former Newark mayor Sharpe James and former D.C. mayor Marion Berry, Davis teams up with Carcetti's predecessor, Clarence Royce, to play the Afrocentrism card, arguing that he's being set up by a white-dominated media that's determined to keep blacks from attaining too much power. That said, Royce takes pains to tell Davis—through the clenched teeth of a Cheshire-cat smile—that if the state senator can't retain some degree of plausible deniability regarding corruption charges, he's well and truly fucked.
After sharing a byline on the first serial killer story, it seems Templeton is out to claim the follow-up for himself. Looking to interview the homeless, he visits the Catholic Workers soup kitchen where Bubbles volunteers, and is nonplussed to discover that most of the folks there aren't actually homeless but rather "working poor". This allows for a smooth segue to Bubbles, who we see in the kitchen washing dishes. The shelter supervisor wants Bubs to serve meals instead, and Bubbles declines. After he visits Walon at work, we realize why: Bubs is convinced he has HIV from years of sharing needles and exposing himself to risk god knows how many other ways. Walon takes Bubbles for a test, and the negative result knocks our old friend for a loop. He obviously wanted to be positive—or felt he deserved to be—as punishment for years of sinning in general, and particularly for leaving the hot shot where Sherrod could get it. Realizing he's not facing a death sentence, I expect the stakes in Bubs' battle to stay sober will rise as he flounders for something to hold onto, something to live for.
Back at Homicide, McNulty learns from Landsman that the bosses have approved unlimited OT on the homeless case for two detectives—McNulty and Kima. Horrified, Bunk drags McNulty into his "office", the interrogation room, and says that if his scam is going to take a real detective off a real case (the massacre at Junebug's house), then McNulty has truly taken his scheme way the fuck too far. McNulty clearly hoped that Freamon would be his partner in the investigation, and he quickly enters damage control mode, telling Kima to use the OT to work the Junebug case while he handles the serial killer on his own for a spell.
You'd think this would be enough to scare McNulty into caution; instead, it just makes him more rash. By this point, Herc has used his access to Levy's office to obtain Marlo's cell number, which he passed to Carver who in turn gave it to Freamon. The two detectives come up with their ballsiest scheme yet: Stage a fake call from the killer on a pay phone, use that as an excuse to get a wiretap—and then put Marlo's number and not the pay phone number on the request form. McNulty goes to the Sun after learning from Landsman that the paper has apparently received a call from the killer. Templeton has just served up a bogus story about a homeless family living in fear of the killer, but that's not enough for him. His decision to manufacture the call plays out on his face as he's approached by the tweedy reporter with whom he's supposed to tag team an education piece, something he clearly anticipates about as much as a colonoscopy. After he says the killer told him to expect a total of 12 victims--and provides a lame response to McNulty's query about how and why the killer reached him on his cellphone--McNulty picks up the ball and runs with it, saying he was called from the same area as Templeton and that the killer also mentioned the number 12.
Now that Templeton and McNulty are locked into a spiral of codependence that's more elaborate and intense than either man can imagine, McNulty and Lester proceed with the wiretap, and the episode ends with Lester intercepting a cryptic signal off of Marlo's phone. In various On Demand threads, I've seen a lot of guesses as to the nature of the signal, few of them right—which surprises me, since the trick that Vondas showed Marlo is both incredibly simple and, when you think about it, incredibly obvious. If people are going nuts trying to figure it out, though, who am I to spoil the fun?
You know it's a good episode when I'm this far into the recap and haven't even gotten to the stuff sure to spark the most conversation. In scenes sprinkled throughout the episode, Omar mounts a long and meticulous stake out at the apartment of Monk, an underling of Marlo's who has been set up as a sacrificial pawn. Omar's long, patient wait parallels Lester's stake outs, while Marlo's manipulation of Monk has very strong echoes of the way Nerese wraps Burrell and Clay Davis around her finger. The episode comes to an intense climax—one of the most intense the series has ever given us—when Omar's plot collides with the one major story line I haven't yet discussed.
Early in the episode, Dukie gets his ass kicked after a (much younger) corner kid lobs a soda bottle at his head (when Dukie tries to defend himself, older boys are quick to intervene on his assailant's behalf). This leads Michael to take Dukie to Cutty's gym for a lesson in self-defense (strangely, it seems Dukie and Cutty somehow never met during season four or during the 15-month gap before season 5). In a hugely poignant scene, Cutty tells Dukie that "not everything come down to how you carry it in the street. I mean, it do come down to that if you're gonna be in the street, but that's not the only way to be." When Dukie replies "out here it is", Cutty retorts that "the world is bigger than that, at least that's what they tell me." So, Dukie asks, "How do you get from here to the rest of the world?" Cutty sighs and says "I wish I knew".
Cutty tells Dukie that if he's not suited for the corner or the ring, he has "other skills," a point also made by Michael in the scene where Dukie asks him for a shooting lesson. The scene shows us just how far he's traveled down the road to being a merciless motherfucker, nailing targets with impressive skill and telling Dukie, like a sage from a Samurai movie, that one should never draw one's weapon unless you're well and truly ready to use it.
Even though Michael, like Cutty, urges Dukie to concentrate on his intellectual abilities, I was terrified at first that Michael drags Dukie into the line of fire—during the epic shoot-out that goes down when Omar storms into Monk's apartment, falling into the trap that Chris has carefully laid for him, you can briefly see someone taking one of Omar's bullets in the kneecap. The scene is so shadowy that at first, I couldn't be entirely sure it wasn't Dukie. Subsequent inspection, much to my relief, proved otherwise.
Even without Dukie in danger, the shootout is pretty goddamned pulse-pounding. After subjecting us to the deaths of Butchie and Prop Joe these past two weeks, for Omar to fall next would be more than any fan could take. But Omar lives to fight another day, or so it appears—it's not entirely realistic that he could survive a leap through a window at that height, but neither is such a thing unprecedented. Even if you consider it a stretch, don't forget that we're talking about the one character on the series to exude a sort of reality-distortion field that allows him to be more myth than man. Omar has been called the ghetto Batman before; a more accurate comparison might be to Marvel's Punisher, given Batman's code against killing and his rejection of firearms, but I wouldn't want to insult Omar by comparing him to a mook like Frank Castle (in a fight between the two, my money would be on the man with the scar). No matter who Omar reminds you of , there's no denying that his legend can only grow on the heels of what is surely the most daring escape in a long career filled with close calls.
A few miscellaneous notes: When Clay Davis makes his first radio appearance, he's visiting an actual African-American talk station in Baltimore, WOLB 1010AM, "where information is power!" (per the slogan on the studio banner). The DJ interviewing Davis is Larry Young, the station's morning drivetime host. The station on which Davis makes his second radio appearance is unspecified, but I'd be willing to bet it's a real life station too.
To my relief, Amy Ryan was put to much better use this week in the scene where Beadie visits Bunk at Homicide to talk about McNulty's travails. In a handful of scenes, we got to do some pretty serious catching up on McNulty's personal life, via a return visit from his kids (holy cow have they grown!) and his ex wife Elena. Since she only made one appearance last season and it's been so long since I watched any Wire episodes earlier than that, I'd completely forgotten the character was played by Callie Thorne. After four seasons of watching her torment Denis Leary as Sheila Keefe on Rescue Me, seeing her turn up here was almost as distracting as Dominic West showing up in a loincloth in 300. Almost.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.