“You and your wife, you don’t have children, do you?” Assistant Principal Marcia Donnelly (Tootsie Duvall) coyly asks Prez (Jim True-Frost) after he strenuously objects to the promotion of Dukie (Jermaine Crawford) to high school. “Not yet, no,” Prez admits. “Well, have some,” she advises.
Prez, a first-year math teacher, has lavished attention on Dukie, providing him with showers, clean laundry, and lunch, none of which he gets in a home with the utilities shut off. Ms. Donnelly, though sympathetic to his impulse, lays out the practical boundaries of their mission. “You do your piece with them and you let them go, because there’ll be plenty more coming up behind Duquan.” Over lunch, Prez gamely tries to convince a dejected Dukie that he’s ready for the next level, offering continued access to the middle school’s showers and the class computer Dukie’s had to himself for a special project, but they both know his departure marks the end of the arrangement.
Dukie walks home from school with Michael (Tristan Wilds) and tries to get in the spirit of events, remarking on the girls at the high school when they come upon his family’s belongings heaped in the street. “Dang, man, not again,” Dukie whines. He sighs and moves in for a closer look, eyeing the eviction notice tacked to the door. Michael asks if he needs any of his stuff from the pile. “It ain’t no thing,” Dukie declares with dead-eyed resignation. With Dukie’s people in the wind, Michael volunteers room at the new place he shares with his third-grade brother, Bug (Keenon Brice). They split home themselves to declare sovereignty from their crack addict mother (Shamika Cotton), who rails at the rejection when Cutty (Chad L. Coleman) comes calling for Michael. “I pop him and Bug out my ass, and now they forgot where they came from.”
Michael tries to help Namond (Julito McCullum) out of a jam, too, when Kenard (Thuliso Dingwall), the tiniest employee of Namond’s corner crew, runs game on the stash, claiming the police kicked down his door and took the inventory from his basement on an informant’s tip. “And they ain’t lock no one up?” an incredulous Michael asks when Namond relays the tale. He convinces Namond to confirm the lie by checking the hinges on the door then goes with Namond to confront Kennard. “Package up my ass, gump,” Kenard taunts, knowing Namond lacks the fortitude to press him. Michael beats Kenard to the ground and demands Namond retrieve the package to end the charade. “I ain’t wanna,” Namond repeats in a childlike tone as he backs away before turning to run.
As with Dukie and Michael, Namond’s home feeds his trouble. His mother, De’Londa (Sandi McCree), invokes the name of Namond’s father in prison upon hearing of Kenard’s caper. “Wee-Bey walked in Jessup a man, and he gonna walk out one, but you out here, wearin’ his name, actin’ a bitch,” she berates, her pink Christmas tree and gurgling exotic fish tank a backdrop to the challenge. Namond clears out, heading to Cutty’s boxing gym to make right with Michael. “Damn, yo, I feel like I could just pancake a young’un right now, you know what I mean?” he preens with a shadow combination as Michael keeps pounding the heavy bag. Namond turns to Dukie and asks to spar; when Dukie opts to jump rope, Namond calls him a “gump,” looking over his shoulder to see if Michael’s watching. Namond calls Dukie “gump” again, louder, and snatches away the rope. Dukie sighs like he’s about to endure a tired joke. Namond follows with a flurry of slurs. Michael shoves Namond against a blackboard and slaps his face—the open hand added insult to his foe’s potency—until Cutty breaks it up. Michael storms out, and Namond slides to the ground in tears. After the gym empties, Sgt. Carver (Seth Gilliam) and Cutty attempt to comfort Namond. They all connect through Wee-Bey: Carver arrested him, and Cutty jailed with him at Jessup, so they understand how the father’s fearsome rep hangs like a phantom over the boy. “It just ain’t in me,” Namond confesses, using the same words Cutty did on his way out of the game.
Cutty vents his own failures as a mentor when he shouts after Michael, “Nobody wants you in here no way!” but regrets the words almost as they come out. He goes looking for Michael that night to repair the damage, finding him on the street with some of his new associates in the Stanfield gang. He apologizes to an unreceptive Michael but receives only a warning to step off from one of Michael’s superiors, Monk (Kwame Patterson). Cutty reaches out for Michael’s arm, but Michael recoils from the connection. “Look, man,” Cutty pleads, “This here ain’t you.” Monk stands up and repeats himself. “Young man, if I was talking to you, you’d know I was,” Cutty threatens without the dignity of eye contact, his dormant warrior bravado creeping in as his control ebbs. Monk pulls a gun from his waistband and blasts Cutty twice in the leg, then stands over him and readies to finish until Michael calls him off. As Monk and the others walk away slowly, Michael kneels next to Cutty. “I’ll hang here for the ambo, a’ight?” he assures. “Go with your people,” Cutty insists, each still thinking of the other as they acknowledge their fractured relationship.
In the midst of all this, the kids prepare for the MSA, the statewide assessment test that is the obsession of a school system gasping to hold on to local control. As a special class for troubled kids drills the sample questions, the students belittle the test’s relevance to their lives. Their teacher, Ms. Duquette (Stacie Davis), frames the exam as a way to move on to the next level. “I ain’t movin’ nowhere but out this motherfucker,” Darnell (Davone Cooper) shoots back with his own assessment. “I feel like y’all schemed us,” Namond pipes up. “This class same as the ones down the hall.” The program was conceived as a way to get at kids deemed headed for the corner, but its facilitators watch as the curriculum bends to the district’s political calculations. “The kid’s right,” Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom) concedes to a dispirited colleague. “This is bullshit.”
Sherrod (Rashad Orange) never made it to the test. He pretended to study for a while to please his mentor, Bubbles (Andre Royo), but ducked out of both schools to dabble in the street. “Full time, I feel like it wasn’t me on that corner,” he proclaimed upon his return home, and Bubs relishes the second chance to instill a legacy. Bubs shares his wisdom but takes sole control of their troubles, plotting to finish his predator after he beats them both. Bubs solicits some horse sense from the crew at a stables, which offers a round of terminal remedies, from a brick to the head to formaldehyde to rat poison. “Nah, man, that stuff don’t cook up right,” one man (Joseph Johnson) cautions; his preferred poison for a heroin hot shot is sodium cyanide, available at a local metal shop. “That’s all there is to it?” Bubs asks, the idea inching toward reality. “It ain’t no thing to kill a nigger who’s already ’bout the business of killin’ himself,” the man figures. “You the one got to live with it, ’s all.”
Bubs puts the tainted vials in his coat pocket and heads out to bait the mugger—splitting off from Sherrod for the day—but never crosses the intended target’s path. He returns home to find Sherrod asleep and drapes his coat over the shopping cart from which he peddles an array of convenience items, smiling at the small profit Sherrod left on the nightstand from his own day’s work. In the morning, Bubs wakes with a head full of ideas for their renewed partnership, outlining them to a silent Sherrod until he sees his coat on the floor. Bubs rushes to Sherrod, lying dead with a vial in his hand, and wails, “What’d you do?” over and over, the question directed more to himself than to Sherrod.
Omar (Michael K. Williams) sees a bigger opportunity in the planned robbery of Marlo’s re-up gift-wrapped by the citywide supplier, Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew). Omar tails the go-between, Cheese (Method Man), and pre-empts the agenda, robbing the whole shipment instead, not just the package meant for Marlo. “All I know is, it’s a lotta gangsters out a lotta shit,” Cheese fumes, spitting out his own proposal for violent retribution. Prop Joe ponders the more immediate implications. “Lotta gangsters…need to take us at our word first. Yeah, first thing they gonna wonder about, is us.”
Det. Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) catches on to what everyone but the police seem to know already, that Marlo (Jamie Hector) is stashing the collateral damage of his west side takeover in boarded up vacant houses. At the crime scene of the first discovery, Lester tries to explain to his boss, Sgt. Jay Landsman (Delaney Williams), the perceived pattern—boards fastened with a certain type of nail, rather than the housing department’s standard screw, mark the tombs—but Landsman orders him to call off the wider search so as not to jack their year-end stats. “We do not go looking for bodies, especially moldering fucking John Does.” Lester stays after Marlo as the new de facto head of Major Crimes; he lacks the stripes but carries the authority on sheer respect. When Lester banishes the unit’s reviled boss, Lt. Marimow (Boris McGiver), whose sole purpose was to keep the investigations away from the inner sanctum of influence peddlers, the detectives watch his departure with delight. Det. Dozerman (Rick Otto) waits for Lester’s nod when Marimow, his belongings in tow, asks him to get the door. A personal mission seizes Lester, a challenge to both the department and Marlo. “They might not let me go after murders,” he professes to the assembled unit, “but they cannot stop me from chasing the drugs.” Lester can’t let the nail theory go, though, and drags Det. Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) on a drunken errand to prove it, finding a second corpse on the first try. “There is no body,” Lester declares. “Not until the bosses say there is.”
Col. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) envisions the benefits for the new mayoral administration of widening the search, which he details to Deputy Commissioner Rawls (John Doman): Pull the bodies out before the end of the calendar year and the homicides count against the stats of the previous administration, while increasing the likelihood of a relative drop in the homicide rate for the following year. Rawls, Daniels’ chief rival (at least in his own mind) to succeed the commissioner, compliments his political savvy. Daniels smiles: “I’m learning as I go.” Rawls’ eyes narrow: “I bet you fucking are.”
Mayor Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) faces a more urgent decision than who to tap for commissioner. An audit of the school system uncovers a $54 million deficit, and the various factions of city government scramble to deflect the blame. The solutions all stink: a property tax hike would anger the electorate, and a pay freeze on city workers would chump the cops, to whom Carcetti personally promised a raise. “Annapolis,” City Council President Naresse Campbell (Marlyne Afflack) suggests, referring to the governor. “You go beg his Republican ass.” At this point, Carcetti needs a spreadsheet to untangle the political calculus: accept a state bailout and relinquish local control of the schools and contractual protections for teachers while looking like a drain to the taxpayers in the D.C. suburbs, a crucial constituency for a gubernatorial run in two years; or don’t take the money and sell out the Baltimore schoolchildren. Naresse (herself a future mayoral candidate) paints the bullseye squarely on Carcetti. “Either way, I’ll probably rip you in half, the council will, too. Just glad I’m not the mayor.”
Sgt. Carver is one several cops and ex-cops taking an extracurricular interest in individual kids on the street. He feels partly responsible for Randy (Maestro Harrell) being labeled a snitch and stops by his home where he’s hiding out. “We’re gonna look out for you on this,” Carver reassures, referring to the sentry posted down the block, but Randy’s cold look indicates he’s tiring of the cops’ brand of help. Randy’s security detail gets lured away by a fake 911 call, and a pair of hooded youngsters throw Molotov cocktails through the front window of his house. Carver finds Randy in the waiting room at the hospital where his foster mom is being treated for serious burns. “I’m sorry, son,” a glum Carver offers. “I’m gonna talk to social services. We’ll get you some help.” Randy, looking older and harder, says nothing. Carver reaches for Randy but gets waved off, so he gets up and starts the long trudge down the corridor. “You gonna help, huh? You gonna look out for me?” Randy calls weakly after him. Carver turns to see Randy’s scarred and tear-soaked face mocking him, then walks away as Randy’s rising voice echoes through the empty hall. “You gonna look out for me, Sgt. Carver? Do you mean it? You gonna look out for me? You promise? You got my back, huh?”