Eighth-grader Michael (Tristan Wilds) slams the cupboard and moves to where everybody in the house can hear him. “Where’s the Rice-a-Roni?” he demands. His mom (Shamika Cotton) ignores the question in the front room, so he asks again, louder, and squares for the coming nonsense. You fed it to a hungry looking boy? You cooked it for him? Oh, you just gave him a raw box of Rica-a-Roni. She drops the play and says she has to go out. She pulls her coat tight and waits. Michael sighs and turns his body to hide what’s left of the welfare money he pulls from his pocket. He hands over her drug allowance, minus what he estimates she sold the groceries for. She whines and strikes a toothless defiance (“You a hard child”) but relents.
Michael has become the dramatic center of The Wire, the common thread in a tangle of storylines on a show that balances dozens of them without favor. He’s the object of a triangular tug-of-war among men looking to mold a successor; the best friend of each of his friends; and—because he has to be for his little brother—the best father in a neighborhood largely without them. Michael is the purest embodiment of one of this season’s central themes—the need for somebody to step forward and lead.
Baltimore Mayor-to-be Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) is preparing to helm a different dysfunctional family. His campaign promise to tackle the issue of violent crime compels a re-examination of the drug enforcement strategy and the command structure of the police department. Carcetti dons a bullet-proof vest and rides along with a street-level narcotics unit, which breaks into teams and wagers over who can make the quickest busts, ultimately netting a teenager holding only his small personal stash and a gullible passerby on his way to work who falls for a $10 bribe to make a small purchase for the narcos. Carcetti seeks the private counsel of Maj. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), who joylessly summarizes Carcetti’s field trip before even hearing the details: “You witnessed a waste of time, money, energy and, in a few cases, talent.” The department’s second-in-command, Deputy of Operations William Rawls (John Doman), vilifies the program of quota-making low-level arrests in his sit-down with Carcetti, claiming, “I’ve been fighting this bullshit for years,” in spite of the fact that he disabled the only unit performing the kind of high-end casework he now advocates. Rawls makes his move, implying to Carcetti that the system would change if he were put in charge. Commissioner Ervin Burrell (Frankie R. Faison) can feel the ground shifting under his feet, prompting a visit to Rawls to “regroup.” In an exquisite scene of few words and long stretches of silence, the two men convey a rueful recognition of their calculated partnership’s inevitable collapse.
The homicide squad, still bitter over its involuntary role as fodder for mayoral politics, isn’t so eager to be led. Det. Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), having solved the investigation her inexperience was meant to hinder, shifts the rookie tag onto an unwitting Carcetti when he wanders into the homicide office kitchenette in search of coffee during another observation mission. “No, no, no, fuck that,” she pounces when he pours the last cup. “You finish a pot, you make the next one.” Later, she and others pretend to study files until Carcetti tells them to just do what they normally do, a provocation they variously answer by working on an outside hobby, looking at porn, and reclining. Carcetti approaches a trio of detectives arguing about a case next to the master homicide list and takes in the grim role call. “Lotta names,” he laments. “Too many.” “No, we’re good with it,” Det. Michael Crutchfield (Gregory L. Williams) cuts him off, a nonsensical reply meant to scuttle any further discussion and allow them to slink off and finish their conversation in private.
Carcetti is keen to meddle, but knows what to leave be. When a DNC official (Darla Robinson) suggests Carcetti fold the public schools into his reform package to fortify his viability for higher office, Carcetti’s expert advisor, Norman (Reg E. Cathey), bats the idea down. “We get involved, start talking shit, it becomes our mess,” he explains. “Gotta respect the depths.” The feeling is mutual for the school system, as when area superintendent Ms. Sheperdson (Sheila Cutchlow) warned in a previous episode that a special program for troubled kids needs a low profile. “Nothing that gets anyone upset, you know?” she clarified. “There’s an election going on, and we don’t want to put our schools in the middle of that mess.”
The special program in question finds its focus when Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom), a former cop now participating in the social research project, speaks up after observing a group of ten middle-schoolers. “This right here, the whole damn school…it’s training for the street,” he deciphers. “You all come in here every day and practice getting over.” When Bunny asks them what special skills make for a good corner drug dealer, the kids come alive for the first time, eagerly shouting answers over one another. One of the chorus distills the dogma with a grin: “If you stupid in the ’hood, you get killed. That’s the only way.” Bunny—happy for a burst of progress whatever the subject—encourages a class exercise to formulate a corner boy manifesto.
For real, Chris (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and Snoop (Felicia Pearson) drill the fundamentals into student assassins, who are shaping up to Snoop’s delight. The minions of drug boss Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) are bulking up to oust some New York trespassers from the turf of cross-town counterpart Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew), ascertaining natives by their knowledge of local club music. Prop Joe reciprocates the borrowed muscle by tracking down the unit of Sgt. Thomas “Herc” Hauk (Domenick Lombardozzi), Marlo’s chief pursuer. He succeeds by simply calling the department and asking for him, posing as various professionals (Attorney Sydney Handjerker, Dr. J) through the chain of transfers until he connects with Herc’s current unit—an uncharacteristically crude ploy for a man whose intelligence network can intercept pending grand jury indictments.
Herc’s campaign to “get wood” on Marlo is mostly a bid for leverage to recover his stolen surveillance camera before its absence triggers the wrath of his supervisor, Lt. Marimow (a deliciously dickish Boris McGiver); the role of justice is incidental to the chase. For Detective “Bunk” Moreland (Wendell Pierce), though, justice demands a confrontation with his colleagues in homicide who pin the murder of a female taxpayer on Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), a suspect whose history of violence invites a less-than-rigorous scrutiny of witness testimony. “This ain’t the motherfucker who came up with 62 ways for the peanut,” Crutchfield cracks dismissively. But Bunk knows the witness is lying, because Omar—though a killer and thief—plies his trade by a strict code that forbids citizen victims. Bunk convinces Crutchfield’s partner on the case, Det. Vernon Holley (Brian Anthony Wilson), to revisit the scene and question the story’s veracity. As Bunk punctures the tale of Old Face Andre (Alfonso Christian), the mini-mart proprietor who fingered Omar from a photo array to settle a debt to Marlo, Vernon’s expression struggles throughout to reconcile the open rebuke to his professionalism with the realization that he’s been had.
The homicide detectives squabble among themselves but maintain a resolute loyalty to the unit. When their commander, Col. Raymond Foerster (Richard De Angelis), succumbs to cancer, they all gather according to ritual at an Irish bar for a rousing wake of drunken singalongs, the body laid out in dress blues on the pool table. In a tandem sendoff, Chris and Snoop sprinkle lime powder over a pair of corpses in a vacant row house, the residue of Prop Joe’s territorial dispute. “Here, let’s pray,” Snoop suggests. “Here we lay a couple New York boys who came too far south for their own fucking good. Fucking Yankee Pride at now, you fucking bitches?”
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.