Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew) has been trying for the better part of two seasons of The Wire to get Marlo Stanfield (Jaime Hector) to join his New Day Co-Op, a coalition of Baltimore’s drug honchos, but his various approaches all fail until he demonstrates to Marlo what’s in it for him, the magic equation that runs through all the show’s ad hoc alliances.
The co-op was devised as a way for the city’s drug wholesalers to operate in a mutually beneficial environment, sharing intel, muscle, and supply connections on the understanding that they stay away from each others’ established markets and the spotlight of violence that always accompanies beefs over corners. The arrangement is undermined, though, when Marlo, the biggest player on the West side, opts out, stealing real estate with old-school strong-arm tactics. Prop Joe’s arsenal of carrots (his superior dope that comes straight off the boat uncut, and the umbrella protection of influential associates) holds no sway over Marlo, who doesn’t need the good stuff when he’s got all the best corners and the muscle to protect them himself.
Prop Joe, with his trademark brevity, patience, and savvy, turns to his remaining asset—human intelligence—in a complex scene where he gives Marlo a far richer understanding of what an alliance might yield. Prop Joe tells Marlo that he knew ahead of time that Marlo’s high-stakes poker game would be robbed, but withheld the information, coyly explaining, “A man learns best when he get burnt.” He then offers evidence more tangible than street-level hearsay of his intelligence network, showing Marlo a packet of confidential grand jury summons for the crew of an unaffiliated rival dealer to be executed in the coming days. Piqued by the high-grade goods, Marlo inquires whether Prop Joe has heard anything about the video camera an underling found trained on Marlo’s outdoor meeting space. Prop Joe seizes the upper hand: “Had no incentive to listen.” Marlo’s eyes flash with recognition of the moment’s arrival: “You do now.”
Allying with rivals to thwart a third party is the cold calculus of the city’s politicians as well. With the primary a week away, Councilman Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) is running second in a three-way race for mayor when he learns that the investigation into a murdered witness has been hindered by the replacement of a veteran detective with Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), a rookie homicide detective only recently transferred in from the wiretap squad. Obviously, Carcetti wants to leverage the scandal against the incumbent, Mayor Royce (Glynn Turman), who is already vulnerable on the issue of witness protection; but the tricky mathematics of demographics lead him to feed the scoop to his third-place opponent, Councilman Tony Gray (Christopher Mann), who can take the bigger bite out of the mayor’s base as a fellow black candidate (addition by subtraction). Gray is suspicious of the gift, having been burned before when his former friend Carcetti jumped into the race, but Norman (Reg E. Cathey), Carcetti’s deputy campaign manager and the self-confessed “devious motherfucker” who hatched the scheme, sets Gray straight: “Look, Tony, you ain’t gonna win, so the only question is whether you want to lose with 24% of the vote or 28%. You bring the numbers up, you look good for the legislature, maybe a congressional run.”
The police department is itself rife with cynical political maneuvering, as anyone within sniffing range of a better job toadies up to city hall. The higher they rank, the more odious the affront to their better instincts. Commissioner Ervin Burrell (Frankie R. Faison), whose tenure depends on Royce’s continued employment, is behind the attempt to sabotage the witness investigation as political cover for the incumbent. Deputy of Operations Rawls (John Doman), Burrell’s “loyal subordinate,” positions himself to succeed the commissioner whatever the outcome of the mayoral election, first by whitewashing the scuttlebutt over the detective switch with sure-handed damage control on behalf of Royce, then later by privately informing Carcetti that the mayor’s most influential grassroots organizer has broken with the campaign (the latter tidbit coming courtesy of Rawls’ spy within the mayor’s security detail). Maj. Stan Valchek (Al Brown) leaks company secrets to Carcetti since he has no truck with Royce, telling him with a wink after his latest revelation, “Remember, anything you need.” Sgt. Thomas “Herc” Hauk (Domenick Lombardozzi) abandons his post on a stakeout to make campaign calls for Royce, Herc’s meal ticket ever since he saw the mayor getting blown by his secretary. Herc brings enthusiasm, if none of his superiors’ chops, to his pandering, asking a black likely voter over the phone, “When do you think the last time a white man voted for a black man when there was another white man in the race?” Sgt. Jay Landsman (Delaney Williams), ever amused by the gamesmanship, chomps on his fast food lunch as he explains bureaucratic reality to Kima, who feels humiliated by getting assigned to the murdered witness case, only to be replaced by the original veteran detective and told to lie about it as the scandal breaks. “Now, I didn’t like it when they came to me and told me to dump Norris,” Landsman admits with rare seriousness, “but dump him I did. And it’s not like I want to carry water for them now that they’re pretending they never told me to do any such thing, but carry the water I will. And in the end, when everyone else in this unit is buried and beshitted, this detective sergeant will still be standing.”
“Carry the water” is also how Rawls describes to Carcetti his role in the current administration, a term suggesting grunt work that’s beneath them but necessary. Landsman and Rawls, like most of the grownups on The Wire, understand what they want from the world around them and will bend over to get it. The kids, on the other hand, know neither, sucking them into the self-fulfilling dichotomy of “corner kids or stoop kids” proposed by Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom). Their options leave them in a sort of self-respect Bermuda Triangle, as when Zenobia (Taylor King) gets reprimanded in math class for not doing her work. “I want to,” she tells Prez, her teacher, “but I ain’t got no pencil.” Prez (Jim True-Frost) hands her his stubby pencil from behind his ear and turns back to the chalkboard with a satisfied grin. Zenobia briefly regards the pencil then shoves her desk clean in a spasm of disgust, declaring, “I don’t want no damn welfare pencil.”
The kids don’t understand what’s happening around them, so they fill in the blanks with their imagination. In the opening scene, several boys sit around at night in an urban version of the campfire story and theorize about what becomes of the people who get marched into vacant houses by Marlo’s enforcers but never come out, their notions ranging from zombies to spies to dead. “Nah,” Donut (Nathan Corbett) counters with equal assurance, “there’s dead and there’s special dead.” Nearby gunshots provide a respite from the mystery as they analyze by ear the weapon’s likely caliber, a subject about which they actually know something. Having worked each other’s fears to a hair-trigger, they bolt at the approach of a “zombie” lumbering down the alley, who turns out to be nothing more than a runny-nosed addict with a junkie shuffle.
So far in season four of The Wire, each episode has closed with a shot of one of the quartet of eighth-grade boys at the center of the show trying to wrap his mind around his reality. In the final scene of the season’s fifth episode, a trio of the boys investigates one of the vacant houses in question on a rainy night, led by Dukie (Jermaine Crawford), the one with both the worst life and the best grasp of his existence. He pulls off a piece of plywood marked with a reminder (“If animal trapped, call 410…”) that an animal, unlike the moldering bodies inside, has some recourse. Dukie illuminates a body by candlelight, which the others examine and acknowledge is dead. “He dead, they all is. Feel better?” Dukie asks sourly. “Donut wrong, yo. Ain’t no special dead. There’s just dead.”
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.