On The Wire, everyone’s in school. But when it comes to learning, Baltimore’s cops, teachers, street hustlers, politicians, and students all have at least one thing in common: they reject instruction they deem irrelevant to the job at hand. A sequence early in Season Four’s premiere, “Boy of Summer,” bounces between training seminars for public school teachers and police officers, who listen impatiently as droning bureaucrats with slick slide show graphics offer news they can’t use. The teachers and cops, fed up with the charade, pelt the speakers with real-world problems and derisive wisecracks about the value of the lessons. At the precinct house, when the government envoy prattles about emergency procedures in the event of biochemical agents, Sgt. Carver (Seth Gilliam) interjects a dose of perspective. “Them al-Qaedas were up on Baltimore Street planning on blowing up the chicken joint,” he volleys to guffaws from his fellow officers, “but Apex’s crew jacked ’em up, took the camels and robes, buried their ass in Leakin Park. Least that’s what I heard.”
Those who bring the specialized knowledge to deal with a complex environment, on the other hand, engender quick respect where it might not otherwise be forthcoming. Early in the episode, a group of 13- or 14-year old boys gather in a vacant lot to try to capture what they think is a white homing pigeon, which they hear might fetch several hundred dollars from Marlo Stanfield, an emerging drug kingpin with a bird habit. They’ve tied a string to a stick that props up a box over some food, and the bird they desire comes near the bait but flies away when a bottle breaks nearby. The boys accost Dookie, the runt of the group who threw the bottle to squash a bug, and batter him with insults. When they walk away, Randy (Maestro Harrell) stays back to give Dukie a chance to explain himself. Dukie (Jermaine Crawford) tells him that their prey wasn’t a homing pigeon, and when he elaborates by describing the metal band around the leg of actual homing pigeons, Randy’s posture shifts from one of disdain to pride that his friend possesses such valuable information. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, Snoop (Felicia Pearson), one of Marlo’s assassins, shops a hardware store for a more reliable nail gun, which she uses to board up her victims in vacant houses. She describes the drawbacks of her current tool to the salesman, who patiently details the merits of various nail guns until Snoop knows which one best suits her purpose. Hearing that the price is $669 plus tax, she peels off eight hundred-dollar bills from a roll and tells him to take care of the sale and keep the change. When the salesman, flummoxed by her generosity, hesitates, she declares, “You earned that bump like a motherfucker.”
If useful knowledge on The Wire is valuable currency, then those who know what can’t be taught sit in high demand. In another juxtaposition of the public schools and the police department, middle managers make stopgap personnel arrangements in back-to-back scenes in a losing battle to cover the holes in their fading institutions. As the principal and assistant principal of Edward J. Tilghman Middle School try to figure out who can supervise lunch, much less teach math and science, former detective Roland Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost) reports for duty as the new math teacher. Prez lacks certification to teach, and the beleaguered assistant principal doesn’t even bother to introduce herself until he informs them that his last job was as a cop in the city. No matter that he left the police force in disgrace; his experience dealing with violent and unpredictable elements automatically vaults him to the head of the new crop of teacher recruits. A parallel scene goes down at the police department as Maj. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) and his top assistant, after a meeting spent bemoaning the lack of qualified officers, practically beg one-time detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) to abandon his uniformed radio car patrol and join a short-handed special case squad. McNulty politely declines, having found temporary peace as a beat cop after growing disillusioned with detective work’s 24-hour grind, oppressive chain-of-command rigidity, and powerlessness against the top brass’s penchant for folding cases that reach too close to Baltimore’s power elite. Daniels knows McNulty’s disgust, having been burned himself by McNulty on multiple occasions, and yet he’s still desperate for his services, because McNulty possesses a passion and genius for tracking down the city’s top criminals that few others can muster.
Throughout the course of the show, The Wire has charted with a wary eye the role of institutions in the life of Baltimore, and none has been skewered with as much pure cynicism as the city’s political theater. Councilman Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen), having decided in Season Three to launch a bid for the mayor’s office, now finds himself four weeks out from the Democratic primary in a race against incumbent Clarence Royce (Glynn Turman) that is beginning to look unwinnable. Royce is imbedded in the pocket of the city’s real estate developers and raising money at a staggering clip, including under-the-table contributions well beyond the legal limit. But Carcetti’s main hurdle in his mind is being a white candidate in a majority-black city. A pair of exchanges with Norman (Reg E. Cathey), his black deputy campaign manager, disavows Carcetti of his victim status. In the first, Carcetti rides in the back of an SUV after a long day campaigning and fishes for hope. “You really think they’re gonna vote for the white guy?” Norman, from the front passenger seat, replies bluntly, “Black folk been voting white for a long time. You come correct, we listen. It’s y’all that don’t never vote black.” Later, exasperated by his handlers’ positive spin on his tepid poll numbers, Carcetti fumes, “And by the way, who can tell me when the fuck did the sixth district become 64% black?” Norman again sets him straight. “’About five years ago in the last redistricting. Mostly, as I recall, to give your ass more white votes over there in the first (district).”
Candidates or cops, the characters leaven the stress with a running braggadocio, usually jokes about sex acts with each other they’re going to have, could’ve had, or have already delivered. Carcetti comes home midday to change his sweat-soaked shirt, and when he gets back in the SUV, his driver scolds him for burning six minutes of valuable campaign time. “Six?” Carcetti ponders in disbelief. “Shit, I coulda got laid.” Over in the homicide division, Detective Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) watches ex-partner Lester Freamon walk away after conferring on a murder case. Bunk turns to his new partner and boasts, “Look at that bow-legged motherfucker. I made him walk like that.”
The stories may be bullshit, but the affection is real, not least because Lester (Clarke Peters) gives Bunk the name of his shooter, gleaned from a separate wiretap investigation. The victim is Fruit, one of Marlo’s top lieutenants in his growing drug empire, a turn which perplexes the detectives, since they haven’t been able to tie any bodies to Marlo’s syndicate in several months, and the first related victim is one of his own men. Bunk wonders, “How do you hold that much real estate without making bodies?” The answer is that Snoop and her hit-man colleague, Chris Partlow (Gbenga Akinnagbe), run a disciplined shop, minimizing blood splatter and decay odor and entombing the bodies in Baltimore’s omnipresent vacant row houses with the aforementioned nail gun. Marlo keeps his profile low by applying a lesson learned from the demise of his predecessor, Avon Barksdale: it’s the bodies that bring the police. When Fruit’s crew vows to avenge his death by wiping out the whole crew of the shooter—an independent dealer named Lex whose beef with Fruit was over a girl, not business—and taking their corner, Marlo (Jamie Hector) shakes his head at their lack of foresight. “What I want with some off-brand hilltop corner?” he theorizes. “And why I need to be stacking bodies when everyone know no one trying to war with us?”
Marlo’s acumen for knowing who not to kill and hiding those he does has kept him out of the sights of the police thus far, but Lester, the resident master of the wiretap’s possibilities, is building a case against Marlo from the street level up, puzzling out the drug operation’s web of conspirators by tapping their cellphone network. Lester, unaware of the rotting corpses in the vacants, views the investigation as a pedestrian one with a mathematically inevitable conclusion. He and Detective Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) are essentially running the unit themselves under the nose of their clueless lieutenant, whose head is already in retirement, and they exploit the freedom by chasing the Barksdale money trail from a year ago on the sly. The two principals from that case are out of the game (Barksdale in jail, Stringer Bell dead, betrayed by each other), but their assets reach into every corner of the city, including key political figures, and Lester can’t stomach letting the case die with Bell.
Off the grid sits Bell’s protégé, Bodie Broadus (JD Williams), virtually the only street-level soldier left from the Barksdale enterprise. He oversees a dead corner and a ragtag team of castoffs and nepotism hires, who execute what business they see with an imprecision that drives Bodie nuts. He learned the game in West Baltimore’s low-rise housing projects and jumped through the ranks to run the tower projects by showing tight managerial skills and savvy even his police adversaries grew to respect. Now, driven from his previous real estate by Marlo, Bodie is grinding to reenter the action at the echelon he’s earned.
Though Bodie may be relegated to the bush leagues for the moment, the game swirls on, sucking in passerby whatever the innocence of their intentions. Randy sells candy bought at a discount from a Korean grocer, working a cart near drug corners or dice games. One of Lex’s crew buys some Skittles and bribes him with the change to go tell Lex that his ex-girlfriend (the one he shot Fruit over) wants to meet him at the playground. Later that evening, Randy learns that Snoop and Chris killed Lex on that trip to the playground. That night, as Randy sits on his front stoop on an otherwise empty block, a slow zoom captures his look of cold resignation at where this summer, and life in this neighborhood, is heading. One day he’s throwing urine-filled balloons with his pals—the “Boy of Summer”—and the next he’s setting someone up for murder.
Barry Maupin is a contributor to The House Next Door. For an organizational chart of recurring characters, click here. For more writing about the series, see “On The Wire” in the sidebar at right.