The Wire’s Chris Partlow looks around him and sees an organization getting used to things being a certain way, and with that the first creep of indiscipline and hubris. Chris (Gbenga Akinnagbe) runs the muscle for Marlo Stanfield’s West Baltimore drug trade, but, like Slim Charles did for fallen kingpin Avon Barksdale, he adds the value of a sense of proportion and history. Marlo (Jamie Hector), otherwise sober and circumspect, is feeding a gambling habit, which Chris reminds him is getting expensive. When Marlo ends a business meeting at the rim shop by suggesting that Chris might need to kill his poker nemesis if Marlo keeps losing, the distaste in Chris’s eyes recalls Slim Charles’ response late in Season Three when Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) arrogantly ordered him to kill a state senator who’d picked his pocket. Slim Charles (Anwan Glover) bucked at the sloppy logic. “Shit, String, murder ain’t no thing,” he clarified, “but this here is some assassination shit.”
Marlo emerges from his latest poker game into the Sunday morning glow and reasserts his prerogative after having his ass handed to him. He buys a bottle of water and baldly swipes two lollipops in front of the market’s security guard (Phillip Burgess), who rubs his head and follows Marlo out to the sidewalk to exercise some self-respect, summing up the point of the confrontation by declaring, “I’m here.” “You want it to be one way,” Marlo repeats until Chris arrives to fetch him, “but it’s the other way.” Marlo salves the sting of his loss by commissioning the murder of the security guard, a deed Chris and his partner Snoop execute with all the enthusiasm of co-workers slogging through busywork they know doesn’t have to be done. “What he do again?” Snoop (Felicia Pearson) asks on the stakeout, having trouble keeping all the hits straight. “Talk back,” Chris answers, his tone slightly mocking the slip in standards. After they finish disposing of the body (via their usual strategy, boarding it up in a vacant row house), Snoop holds up the guard’s shiny badge like a pelt. Irritated at the immature gesture, Chris tosses the souvenir away. Snoop misses the notoriety stripped by their covert and anonymous methods, prompting her to sheepishly admit, “The trouble with doin’ it this way, disappearin’ ’em and shit: nobody knows.”
Marlo views his running poker match as a sort of tutorial, a way to glean strategic wisdom from the older players (in contrast to Mayor Royce’s card game, in which the invited fundraisers grudgingly throw hands so the mayor can have some extra “walking around money” to put on the street come election day). During one high-stakes hand, Marlo’s chief rival gently taunts him about his youthful taste in cars, instructing him to use his potential winnings to buy a Lincoln Town Car so he can ride around with dignity. Marlo loses the pot but maintains his resolve. “One day soon, I’m walkin’ out with a Rolls, hear?” The adversary (David Fonteno) rakes in the chip pile and quips, “Way you been goin’ to school up in this here room, son, I suspect you gonna walk outta here with Morgan Fucking Freeman to drive it for you, too.”
This relationship is one of a series of complex mentorships running through The Wire. Bubbles (Andre Royo), a heroin addict and honest entrepreneur, is acting guardian for Sherrod (Rashad Orange), an eighth grader who hasn’t been to school for three years. Bubbles convinced Sherrod to go back so he could learn math to help Bubbles run his business selling convenience items out of a shopping cart, but Sherrod is ill-prepared for the schoolwork and already skipping out in the first week. When Bubbles asks the assistant principal, Marcia Donnelly (Tootsie Duvall), whether Sherrod can go back a few grade levels to make up for missed time, she explains how the system works in overcrowded public schools where maintaining control is the primary goal, telling him flatly, “Your nephew has been socially promoted.” At night, Sherrod pretends to do homework by candlelight in the vacant room they share without electricity, trying to play off a dictionary and an algebra book as study companions. Bubbles goes along for the moment, feigning, “So you read from the small one and answer questions in the big one?” but he’s starting to see the futility of his efforts.
Michael (Tristan Wilds), another eighth grader, has several suitors for the role of mentor. Cutty (Chad L. Coleman), an ex-con with a boxing gym, is trying to get Michael, who hangs around the perimeter of the gym with his buddies fooling with the heavy bags and such, to train seriously as a boxer under his tutelage. When one of the boxers fails to show for a sparring session, Michael asks if he and a friend can get in the ring for one round. Cutty concedes, on the condition that Michael spars with Cutty instead, telling him over the jeers of his friends, “I’m a show you as gently as I can how much you don’t know.” Michael’s sunken look quickly turns to relish at the opportunity; like Marlo (who overrides Chris’s objections to his poker losses by acknowledging, “Learning them ways requires some patience”), Michael knows he has to be willing to take the occasional beating to get where he wants to be. Later, Cutty takes Michael and another young aspirant from the gym to a night of prizefights and sits between them pointing out the subtleties of the game. Afterward, when Cutty drops off the other boy at home and prepares to do the same for Michael, Michael bolts from the van, claiming over Cutty’s protests, “I’m good from here.”
Michael may be ashamed to let Cutty see where he lives, but Chris and Snoop are keeping close tabs on Michael’s home life at the behest of Marlo, who sees in Michael the makings of a future drug dealer. From a distance, they watch his front door in the early morning as the adult male of the household drinks on the stoop while a woman bitches at him. “Fucking Huxtables and shit, man,” Snoop comments. After school, Michael walks his third grade brother home, sets him up with a snack and gets him started on his homework with words of encouragement while the adults bicker over control of the remote. Chris and Snoop, meanwhile, go looking for him at Bodie’s corner, where Michael once worked as a runner. Bodie (JD Williams), an independent dealer who is strong-armed into joining Marlo’s fold, tells Chris that Michael was just a temp working off a debt and wants to know why they’re asking about him. “Never mind you ’why’,” Chris coldly retorts. “’Why’ ain’t in your repertoire no more.”
The dealers know the kids, and the kids know the cops. When Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom), a retired policeman participating in a research project on juvenile violent behavior, walks down the hall at Edward J. Tilghman Middle School (where Michael and Sherrod attend), a sixth grader passes him without a second glance and announces, “Yo, he police.” Roland Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), himself a former cop who is now a math teacher at Tilghman, fares no better at hiding his association with the police. On a Monday morning, he attempts a discussion with his class after agonizing all weekend over how to delicately frame an incident where one girl cut another girl’s face in class on the previous Friday, a useless gesture given the kids’ regular exposure to violence. “Yo, my head got a big old gash,” Namond (Julito McCullum) blurts out to a ripple of laughter (another girl offers a more practical take over the buzz of voices in passing period: “If you start shit, you can’t complain how somebody finish that shit”). The intended lesson dissolves completely when one of the students tells the others that Prez was a cop, at which point they all demand to hear details of Prez shooting someone, deriding his protests that police work is about more than carrying a gun (and still unaware that he left the force after mistakenly killing an undercover cop).
The institutions in Baltimore cross breed. Or, as Deacon (Melvin Williams) puts it, “A good church man is always up in everybody’s shit. That’s how we do.” This justification responds to the suspicions of Cutty, who, though not a churchgoer, is a regular recipient of Deacon’s inside dope on job openings in the community. This time Deacon comes to the gym (itself given legs through Deacon’s political connections) on his way to Sunday services to tell Cutty, who is still landscaping as a day hire, about a union wage job as a sort of custodian at Tilghman. As when Deacon brokered Bunny’s role as “liaison” for the violent offender study, he lays out the terms with a hint that the position has already been arranged and isn’t merely a suggestion.
The church is a source of votes as well as jobs, and with the primary approaching and the polls showing a decline in his base, Mayor Clarence Royce (Glynn Turman) has redirected his campaign at the black vote. When his handlers get too obvious with the Afro-centrism, Royce offers in exasperation, “You want me to start wearing dashikis, go all Marion Barry and shit?” His closest opponent in the race for mayor, City Councilman Tommy (Aidan Gillen), isn’t expecting many black votes, but those he gets he knows will likely come from the affirmation of the pulpit, so he visits an interfaith council of ministers to make his pitch. His campaign team sees the trip as misdirected energy, but Carcetti holds firm with the backing of his deputy campaign manager, Norman (Reg E. Cathey), who allows, “At least they get to see a beggin’ ass white man on his knees. Always a feel-good moment for the folks.” Even the drug dealers defer to the church on certain grounds. In Season Three, Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) made a pair of underlings buy a new church crown for Omar’s grandmother after they shot holes in the one she was wearing during an ill-advised ambush of Omar as he escorted her to services. It was the least Avon could do given his staff’s flagrant violation of the longstanding Sunday morning moratorium on drug-related gunplay.
A temporary reprieve in the violence doesn’t make life much easier for the homicide detectives, who view so many dead bodies through a clinical lens that their collective sense of humor bears hard to the macabre. When Detective Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), the most recent refugee from the disintegrating Major Crimes unit, gets transferred to the homicide division, her most pressing training is in how to deflect the relentless spate of puerile practical jokes perpetrated by her new colleagues. She accompanies veteran Detective Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) to a murder scene, where he makes a preliminary inspection of the body then invites Kima to take a look for herself, teasing, “It won’t bite.” When she spots something in the victim’s hand, the other detectives pass her tweezers, which she uses to extract a note that reads, “Tater killed me.” “Is it typed?” Bunk asks in mock seriousness. “’Cause that would hold up a lot better in court.” Everyone except Kima falls out laughing. As a newcomer and a female, Kima takes the usual ration of shit, though her known status as a lesbian at least inoculates her against conventional sexual harassment. Her training protocol is to tag along with experienced detectives for a few months, but that plan is scrapped when Commissioner Burrell (Frankie R. Faison) personally assigns her to replace the seasoned detective who was working a politically sensitive case involving a murdered witness, a gambit intended to delay progress on the case and protect Burrell’s ally, Mayor Royce (who failed to claim matching funds for a witness protection program), until after the primary election.
Burrell’s ploy to pull a skilled employee off a job for ulterior motives is a regular institutional practice in Baltimore, as when the school system reallocates resources to milk government funding. When Cutty reports to Tilghman to claim his “custodian” job, he learns that the position is really as a truant officer, paid for out of the janitorial budget. He heads out in the “roundup van” to start collecting students off the street, but one boy stands his ground, nonchalantly informing him, “I was just in school on Friday, so I’m fat ’til October.” It’s at this point that Cutty learns from his partner that the school gets a certain amount of money for each student who attends one day in September and one day in October. The charade reaches its cooperative apex when the other truant officer calls out to a group of kids spending their day breaking bottles in a vacant lot, “Alright, which one of y’all still needs your September day?”
Barry Maupin is a contributor to The House Next Door. Wire recaps run after each episode’s Sunday night cable premiere. For more writing about the series, see “On The Wire” in the sidebar at right.