“What happens when you ain’t around to translate?” Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom) asks Deacon during this week’s episode of The Wire after they meet with a pompous university professor who is considering Bunny as a research partner for a clinical study of repeat violent offenders. Bunny’s claim not to speak the language of the social scientist belies his 30 years as a Baltimore policeman, during which he negotiated with groups of drug dealers and manned the podium at COMSTAT meetings while the upper brass hounded him over crime figures. Deacon (Melvin Williams, the real-life Avon Barksdale of the eighties) shrugs off the call for an interpreter. “Don’t play ignorant on me, Bunny. You can back and forth with any of these guys.”
Bunny needs the work, having lost, in succession, the full pension due a retired police major, his golden parachute running security for Johns Hopkins (both casualties of his experiment, “Hamsterdam,” to legalize drugs in his district, which yielded both a 14% drop in violent crime and a massive political shitstorm), and his security job at a downtown hotel (the result of his failing to give special treatment to a “friend of the hotel” who beats up a hooker). The academic is Dr. David Parenti (Dan DeLuca), who seeks a liaison to the corner, his own training being insufficient for navigating, as he calls it, ” the urban environment.” Go alone, Bunny agrees, “and they sell your tenured ass for parts.” Parenti’s project aims to study rehabilitation options for criminals ages 18 to 21, that is until Parenti interviews an actual 18-year old in custody and encounters a level of menace that sends him scurrying from the room. “Look,” he bargains, “I’m ready to acknowledge that, um, 18 to 21 might be too seasoned.” Hoping to sidestep the cycle where the subjects only spark the outside world’s attention after they enter the justice system, Bunny steers Parenti’s project to Edward J. Tilghman Middle School, where they might find subjects more receptive to a little social engineering.
Former detective Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost) experiences his own translation problems as Tilghman Middle’s new math teacher. During homeroom period on the first day of classes he can’t even manage the seat assignments. Not that he lacks the capacity; though he entered the Major Crimes unit in season one an alleged knucklehead, he turned out to have an uncanny aptitude for number puzzles and deciphering knots of obscure dialogue off the wire (he proved the first by dissecting the code on the corner boys’ pagers, the latter by reciting the garbled opening lyrics to “Brown Sugar”). Prez is due a taste of what drug magnate Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) went through in season three when he tried to recast his craft in another arena (real estate development), only to get “rainmade” by State Senator Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and his superior handle on political bribery. For Prez, having the vocabulary isn’t enough; the math and language skills don’t convert from the wire room to the classroom.
Randy Wagstaff (Maestro Harrell), on the other hand, is in his element. Walking to the first day of eighth grade with his friends, he notes Prez’s unfamiliar Polish name on his class listing and lights up at the opportunity. “Yo, he new and white,” Randy chirps. “We got it made.” He shows technique from the opening bell, enthusiastically introducing himself to Prez, calling for quiet among his classmates, and jumping to Prez’s defense when the other students bog down a simple math story problem with suspicious and irrelevant questions. The ruse gives him cover to swipe a stack of hall passes, which he uses to escape to the lower grades’ cafeteria to sell candy, gaming the system of color-coded uniforms by wearing the other grades’ colors in layers under his shirt. Prez has the detective pedigree, but Randy is the master of this mode of operation.
Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) rules his own cottage industry robbing stash houses and drug dealers, discriminating among targets based on who the king of the moment is. He lives with Renaldo (Ramon A. Rodriguez), his boyfriend and stick-up partner, in a boarded-up row house, more to disguise his whereabouts than for any lack of resources. When he wakes up to discover his supply of breakfast cereal tapped, Omar heads out in his pajamas, pausing to yank a campaign poster off his building (the coming election having no bearing on his existence). As he strides up the alley, the neighborhood children scatter in all directions and holler his name, a warning tinged with glee. On his way back from the store, he stops to light a cigarette and a bag of street-ready vials comes sailing down from an upstairs window. The deal is consummated on brand recognition alone; whoever mistook Omar’s intentions would rather give up the stash than risk Omar’s gun in his mouth. Though the fear for the dealers is legitimate, Omar runs his business by a strict code: he turns his gun on players only, never a citizen. This distinction reaches comical proportions when he tracks Marlo Stanfield’s (Jaime Hector) re-up to a mini-mart, where Omar robs the package from the clerk at gunpoint, then takes the time to pay for his Newports. As Omar explains to Renaldo over breakfast, “It ain’t what you takin’, it’s who you takin’ it from, you feel me?”
Officer Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) keeps hearing from everyone where his niche is supposed to be, professionally and personally. He’s traded in his quixotic quest for mind-blowing cases (and casual tail) for a set schedule as a uniformed patrolman and a cozy domestic set-up with Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan), the Port Authority officer from season two, and her two young kids to whom he’s just “McNulty.” He helps prepare a modest family meal to share with Detective Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce), McNulty’s ex-partner in homicide and tag-team adultery, who arrives toting a “double digit” bottle of wine. Bunk angles to replace dessert with a night of unattached drinking; Jimmy hesitates, but Beadie encourages him. “She trusts you,” Bunk gathers with astonishment when Beadie goes to check on the kids. Still, Bunk has trouble making out the new Jimmy. The two lean against Bunk’s car drinking Rolling Rocks and Bunk poses a metaphorical conundrum regarding a chain of fried-fish joints called “Lake Trout.” “No lake, no trout…all dressed up like something it ain’t.”
McNulty’s change of environment is voluntary, but Bodie Broadus (JD Williams) and Slim Charles (Anwan Glover), two holdovers from the busted Barksdale drug regime, have new business circumstances foisted on them. Boadie, using Slim Charles as his middleman supplier, has transformed an off-brand corner into a busy strip with quality dope and attentive service, but the increased traffic draws the interest of Marlo, who arrives on the corner with his muscle in tow, recognizes Bodie as a “rightful hustler,” and lays down his terms with his usual brevity. “Two choices: start taking our package or you can step off.” Bodie knows if he walks away he gets nothing from what he’s built and if he starts peddling Marlo’s weaker product his numbers won’t hold. Incensed by the no-win hand, he barks at Slim Charles, “I’m standing here like a asshole holding my Charles Dickens, ’cause I ain’t got no muscle, no back-up. Shit, man, yo, if this was the old days….” A resigned Slim Charles cuts him off. “Yeah, now, well, the thing about the old days—they the old days.”
A bigger problem for Slim Charles than losing Bodie as a sub-contractor is a group of New York dealers that is systematically gobbling the east side real estate, chasing off the local crews. The top Baltimore dealers, minus Marlo, meet in a conference room at the Holiday Inn under the guise of the “New Day Co-Op (Tomorrow’s success stories start today),” with Slim Charles now holding the seat assigned Barksdale’s ruined legacy. There, they spitball solutions to industry issues, sounding at times like a conclave of independent booksellers fretting over the encroaching menace of big-box retailers. “Me personally,” Slim Charles offers, “I think it’s time Wal-Mart went home.” They vow to band together to hold their territory, even encouraging Marlo’s participation against the interlopers.
Meanwhile, Marlo is doing Marlo’s bidding, keeping an eye on new talent as he expands his reach. During his visit to Bodie’s corner, Marlo spots Michael (Tristan Wilds)—the eighth-grader who refused the goodwill cash that Marlo’s lieutenants spread among the neighborhood children—working as a runner for Bodie’s crew. Intrigued that Michael would turn down a handout on principle when he needs the money enough to work for it, Marlo remarks to his henchman, Chris Partlow (Gbenga Akinnagbe), that Michael’s “good signs” bear watching. “Big paws on a puppy,” Partlow concurs. Marlo isn’t the only figure of influence to notice Michael’s potential, setting up a tug-of-war over where his talents will be directed. Cutty (Chad L. Coleman) recently made Michael a failed offer to be his personal boxing trainer after seeing him hit the heavy bag at the gym, while Bodie desperately wants to retain Michael as a runner (the one who fetches the drugs from the stash and makes the actual handoff some distance away from the point of sale) for his unflappability. When a wily trio of buyers tries to con Michael into giving up more product than is due, he never relinquishes control. After the biggest one strikes a threatening posture, Michael calmly warns, “You need to rethink what puttin’ a hand on me is gonna get you.” He turns to the others and caps the charade. “You can thank your friend here for snatchin’ away y’all highs.” Despite his natural aptitude, Michael has no ambition to rise in the game. He considers this a temp job taken only to pay off his and his third grade brother’s school clothes, and wants to quit now that school is starting. Bodie genuinely can’t understand the strategy, circling Michael while he makes his pitch. “C’mon, man, what the fuck you wanna go to school for? What you wanna be—astronaut, dentist…?”
Like Michael, Detective Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) bumps up against the larger forces of an organization. Lester is the architect of an asset investigation that connects major players in the city’s political and drug establishments, culminating in a raft of subpoenas issued weeks before an election. Deputy of Operations Rawls (John Doman), furious over the political damage to his ally, the mayor, replaces Lester’s absentee Major Crimes supervisor (who unwittingly allowed the subpoenas to go forward) with his “Trojan horse,” Lt. Charlie Marimow (Boris McGiver), a hatchet man sent in to shut down the investigation from the inside. Marimow, the kind of guy who uses phrases like “24/7/365,” not only aborts the drug asset trail, he puts a deadline on Lester and the team’s meticulously constructed wiretap case against Marlo’s outfit. When Lester objects, he buys himself a meeting with Rawls, who reminds Lester of his “gift for martyrdom,” referring to a time early in his career when another Deputy Ops banished Lester to the Siberia of the police department, the pawn shop unit, for thirteen years (and four months) for refusing to back off of a politically sensitive case. Lester grudgingly requests a transfer out of the unit rather than subject his colleagues to the blowback his rectitude would surely hasten. He knows institutions aren’t in business to nurture or to squash the talents of individuals; they’ll do either according to their purposes. Their ultimate mission is self-perpetuation.