“Why do you care?” Assistant State’s Attorney Ilene Nathan (Susan Rome) asks Detective “Bunk” Moreland (Wendell Pierce) as he chases her down a staircase to petition a transfer to protect Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) from a jailhouse bounty. That same question lingers right around the corner from any character on The Wire caught between the competing impulses of empathy and blinkered indifference. The job title may dictate how a guy like Bunk is supposed to deal with a guy like Omar, but Bunk still has the chance to stamp his personal code on the institution he serves.
Omar robs drug dealers, many of whom he now shares space with in the Baltimore lockup after being framed for murder. In the opening scene, Omar thwarts a sneak attack in the breakfast line, but his odds for survival remain poor given the number and gumption of potential adversaries, bounty or no. To clear an old debt, Bunk agrees to listen to Omar’s predicament, but sticks to the script. “If this one ain’t on you, another dozen probably are,” Bunk rationalizes, “and if this one goes to court, you can tell that jury how wrong it is.” Omar spells out the consequences of Bunk’s pose. “I’ll be seeing God long before I swear to Him on a stand.” On a personal level, Bunk knows the charge is suspect but holds his ground against stepping out for Omar, until Omar reminds Bunk that his role-playing gives a free pass to the real killer. Omar punctuates the injustice with the running theme of their relationship: “A man got to have a code.”
If Bunk is shrugging off his indifference, Detective Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) is slipping back into his, signaled by the first appearance of his dollhouse miniatures since season one. Then, during the Major Crime Unit’s heyday, Lester emerged from a lengthy exile to become a figure of inspiration; now, the unit sabotaged by internal politics, Lester once again works openly on his antique furniture reproductions, a sly reminder that if the department doesn’t want to make use of his prodigious talent, then he can take his services into another business. Going above and beyond the call of duty on behalf of the organization buys Lester nothing, so now he’s offering the required minimum effort and saving his free advice for his friends.
Bubbles (Andre Royo), too, is generous with his one-on-one wisdom, though his increasingly frantic search for his lost protégé, Sherrod (Rashad Orange), raises the question of who needs who more at this point. Alone in the cinderblock hovel they once shared, Bubbles goes through Sherrod’s abandoned schoolbooks and finds a drawing that shows Bubbles in mid-strut, a relic of his lapsed mentorship. Bubbles continues to operate his rolling convenience store in the service of his heroin addiction, humping his double shopping cart of sundries through the streets with the cry, “Bubs’ Depo(t), for all my people! Bubbles take care of your troubles!” But the solo enterprise leaves him easy pickings for a local mugger’s daily plunder, even as the streets are full of his customers. “What, you all don’t take care of your neighborhood store?” he shouts after the latest ambush. His bitter query is purely rhetorical; he knows the street doesn’t reward random chivalry. He finally catches up with Sherrod on a corner and extracts a promise that Sherrod will return home after his shift dealing drugs, but when Bubbles swings open the door that night to find the room empty again, his look of defeat is for more than just Sherrod.
Unlike Bubbles, eighth grade math teacher Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost) is starting to get through to some of his students, the consequence of finding the right application for the skills he offers. When some of the boys clamor to learn more about odds after they realize the knowledge can be put to use in a game of dice, Prez cracks a faint smile of recognition, since his own number skills (as he sheepishly admitted to his fellow detectives in Major Crimes during season one) grew out of his childhood fascination with games and puzzles. Prez rummages through the school’s basement storage room, taking the dice from board games for use in a new curriculum, namely craps. While he’s down there, he discovers a new computer still in its box (reminiscent of McNulty finding an unused “triggerfish” in the bowels of the police department in season three), sparking the same look of possibility he’d get whenever Major Crimes picked up a new surveillance gadget that enabled his preference for working with technology over people.
One kid getting away from Prez is Namond (Julito McCullum), an eighth grader caught between his father’s legacy as a feared drug dealer and his own innate softness. Namond may fulfill the bad dude mystique when he’s alone in his bedroom playing violent video games, but he usually wriggles out of any real-world physical confrontation with some excuse about not wanting to mess up his new clothes. He hangs around the neighborhood boxing gym, but does no more than hold the heavy bag for his buddy. When a coked-up Sherrod assaults him in a beef over a drug corner—a pitiful exchange between two boys acting out roles they have no idea how to play—Namond manages only to cover up and back away without ever posing a credible threat. The next day, he sets up his crew on a different corner against the protests of his pint-sized associates, dissembling, “This spot just as good as the other.”
Namond is one of a number of younger guys circling the perimeter of the drug trade, never all the way in or all the way out. They beg off work, then come around looking for more, ambivalent pieces in a constellation of renewable stock. Their allegiance is to opportunity, not some gangster aesthetic. They’re willing to accept an honest job, like Spider (Edward Green) handing out fliers all day for $40 or Sherrod clerking for Bubs’ scraps, but when those jobs play out, they can always step into the game.
The youngsters come and go from the corners, but Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) and Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew) anchor the trade, the cross-town pillars of a grudging alliance. The two men share a park bench, the Baltimore skyline arrayed behind them as Prop Joe helps his former competition puzzle through a plan to uncover what authority has a video camera aimed at his open-air conference space. Marlo coaxes the police into tipping their hand by staging a phony pick-up at the train station, but fails to “smoke out” what level of law enforcement is on his tail. Prop Joe advises him to steal the camera and wait to see who comes looking for it, theorizing, “It’s only federals be rich enough to lose a camera and not go to crying about it.”
The cat-and-mouse isn’t much of a contest at this point. The dealers—patient, methodical, anticipating problems before they arrive—are pulling the strings, and the source of the surveillance, Sgt. Thomas “Herc” Hauk (Domenick Lombardozzi), obliges with some reactionary flailing. Herc responds to the problems of the chase by lowering his standards as he goes, planting the camera without a warrant or authorization from his supervisor and hiring a lip reader to decipher Marlo’s conversations [“Is this legal?” a dubious Detective Sydnor (Corey Parker Robinson) asks in a previous episode as they huddle near the monitor in the van. “Don’t go Freamon on me” is Herc’s perturbed reply.] Desperate to recover the missing camera, he seeks leverage against Marlo through the testimony of Randy (Maestro Harrell), an eighth grader who claims knowledge of a murder by Marlo’s people without being an actual eyeball witness. Herc comes unhinged when Randy’s calm and truthful recollection doesn’t suit Herc’s needs, screaming, “Just say you were there!”
Herc favors action in the form of quick, street-level busts, but the “rip and run” strategy doesn’t work as a long-term solution to the drug trade, and Maj. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) knows it. At a COMSTAT meeting on trends in crime rates, Daniels demonstrates that homicides in his district are down, but refuses acclaim for the effort, quoting a piece of advice he received as a younger cop: “You should never take credit when the crime rate drops, unless you want to take the blame when its rises.” The upper brass laughs, knowing more than anyone about that trap, but Daniels is making a larger point; he’s just kicking the can down the road by pushing the trade away from volatile areas without making progress where it matters by tackling high-level cases. He decries the practice of stat-padding arrests of low-level dealers, bluntly telling his superiors that his troops have engaged in that losing strategy for so long that they don’t even know how to do the slow, meticulous work necessary to get at the biggest players.
Into this scene walks Mayor-elect Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen), who starts to take the open seat next to the police commissioner before deciding to sit next to the deputy of operations, who he greets with a warm handshake. The move sends a subtle signal that he intends to transform the leadership of the department, but he’s fooling himself about the spectrum of choices at this stage; the honeymoon will end when he takes the reins for real and has to face the political consequences of every move. When he tells his advisors that he intends to fire the commissioner as his first order of business, they all disavow the naïve notion that the newly elected white mayor can fire the black commissioner without the mostly black electorate turning on him.
Indeed, Carcetti is forming a portrait of what’s in store that undermines his concept of the job’s flexibility. Over breakfast with a former mayor(Sam Coppola) who served in the sixties, Tommy asks him why he didn’t run for a second term, smiling through his discomfort as the long-winded explanation veers into a parable about eating shit from every sect of the constituency. Later, Carcetti meets with outgoing Mayor Clarence Royce (Glynn Turman), who displays an affability and genuineness he’s never shown before, his relief over escaping the cauldron palpable.
Carcetti might never have been elected in the first place had it not been for the murder of a witness just weeks before the primary, an incident Carcetti exploited to highlight Royce’s chief vulnerability: witness protection. The mayor’s allies at the top of the police department tried to defuse the fallout by stalling the investigation’s progress. “I take it we now have permission to solve this fucking case,” Detective Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) sneers the morning after the primary, “seeing as everyone’s finished voting.” Kima seizes on the peculiar finding from the canvas at the crime scene that no one heard the shot that killed the witness. She visits the scene alone and notices with “soft eyes” the vicinity pocked with bullet holes; when Kima retraces the angle of the shots, she comes across a line of bottles, some broken, and a pile of potatoes with a single hole through each. It turns out that someone taking target practice from blocks away (using a potato for a silencer) killed the witness, and a stray bullet—the ultimate symbol of randomness—sets off a chain reaction that influences the direction of the city’s future. Detective Edward Norris (Ed Norris), Kima’s partner and the show’s resident master of the pithy rejoinder, sums up the nature of chance: “So our guy’s dead because a bullet misses a bleach bottle, and this fuck Carcetti gets to be the mayor behind the stupidity. I fucking love this town.”
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.