“Put that on your lap, fool,” Zenobia (Taylor King) tells Darnell when he tucks his napkin under his chin at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. “You see anybody else up in here lookin’ all Fred Flintstone and shit?” Darnell (Davone Cooper) snatches the napkin from his chest as the waitress recites the exotic dinner specials, his look recalling a chastened D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.) from Season One of “The Wire” after he mistakenly grabs the display dessert. “Zenobia, you want to take a picture of the restaurant, right?” their chaperone, Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom), asks on the way out. She hands off her camera but joins the other kids in a deflated trudge back to the car. Bunny salvages the moment by snapping a picture of the sign with nobody in it.
The dinner is reward for a trio of eighth graders who win a contest of teamwork in a special program at school. Namond (Julito McCullum) rides shotgun and a brash assurance into the alien surroundings. As they park before dinner, he asks about the music on Bunny’s stereo (Billie Holiday) and offers a snap appreciation. “Yeah, I’m like that—you be thinking I’m all ghetto and then I flip it,” Namond crows, and Bunny’s smile and expectations flare. Back in the car after dinner, Namond seeks out a rap station, cranking it over Bunny’s objections and finding a defiant comfort amid a volley of bitter recriminations between Darnell and Zenobia in the back seat. Bunny removes his classy wool hat and sets it on the dash, a sour surrender of the evening’s promise. “They not fools,” he tells a colleague at school the next day. “They know exactly what we expect them to be.”
Even the aging players have a settled sense of place. When Old Face Andre (Alfonso Christian) ultimately fails to convince the police that Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) committed the murder of a female taxpayer (a frame-up staged by Andre’s drug boss as payback for Omar robbing him), survival dictates he split town altogether. Andre runs only as far as he can envision (a few miles to the other side of Baltimore), and his narrow perception costs him his life. When Det. Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) springs Omar from the bogus rap, he recommends Omar catch a northbound train to avoid the same fate. “Baltimore’s all I know,” Omar contends. “Man’s gotta live what he know, right?”
Det. Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) visits her ex-lover Cheryl (Melanie Nicholls-King) and the son they once planned to raise together. Kima looks around the home she fled and absorbs the makeover. “Place looks great,” she offers to defuse the awkwardness. “Even the toys look like they belong.” Kima hands Cheryl an envelope with her delinquent child support but keeps looking at the little boy. Cheryl’s new girlfriend, Nancine (Brandi L. Davis), walks in and, after a tense introduction, offers a polite but proprietary “Sorry the place is a mess.” As Kima is leaving, her station in the family is crystallized when Cheryl tells her son, “Say ’bye’ to Aunt Kima.”
Prez (Jim True-Frost) left law enforcement to become a middle school teacher but finds the two worlds depressingly similar. He sits in a staff meeting in which the boss hands down a new curriculum that amounts to one giant crib sheet for the No Child Left Behind standardized tests. “Juking the stats,” he interprets for the teacher next to him, Mrs. Sampson (Dravon James). “Making robberies into larcenies, making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and majors become colonels. I’ve been here before.” Mrs. Sampson reconciles the parallel schemes of illusory progress with a resigned simplicity: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Her sentiment finds another voice in Poot (Tray Chaney), who emerges from prison and surveys the altered landscape of the drug scene. Upon discovering that his old partner is now dealing for a rival drug lord, he shrugs, “Shit, one boss same as the next, man.”
Det. Sydnor (Corey Parker Robinson) is starting to sense the human toll of police work that serves a personal agenda. He dealt with the unsung foundational work of the Major Crimes unit—rooftop surveillance in the summer heat, undercover drug buys as an unwashed junkie, meticulous asset research—often to see the results stashed in a desk drawer if an investigation became politically inconvenient. The new mandate of volume busts, though, yields a hurried and haphazard approach he knows will never fit together all the pieces of a complex criminal underworld. Sydnor joins the “rip and run” poster child, Det. “Herc” Hauk (Domenick Lombardozzi), in an interrogation of a street-level dealer, Little Kevin (Tyrell Baker), whom they hope will implicate his boss in a murder. Kevin can tell they haven’t done their homework and gives up nothing, causing a frustrated Herc to overplay his hand. “You were part of the fucking set-up. We know, ’cause we have a witness who puts you right in there,” he divulges. “Yeah, we do. You know right where that body is.” As Herc spills the full extent of their ignorance, Sydnor’s sick expression reflects more than Herc’s ham-fisted technique; he’s thinking of the peril they’ve just created for Randy (Maestro Harrell), the only person who could know of Kevin’s participation.
Herc’s ex-partner, Sgt. Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam) is cultivating a different approach from the strong-arm tactics that isolate the police from the street-level intelligence they’ll need to net the dealers of consequence. He instructs his underlings to roll up on Namond’s drug crew but calls off the pursuit when the boys scatter. When the other cops object, Carver clarifies the strategy. “I like to think that until the handcuffs actually fit, there’s still talking to be done.” He catches up with Namond and his boys the next day at Cutty’s boxing gym and lays out the bargain: “This is me telling y’all as plain as I can—you guys had your one chance.” They ridicule the threat of jail but slink out with what they know is a gift.
Cutty (Chad L. Coleman), an ex-con who has put the game behind him, watches the scene with a bemused look. He and Carver first forged a wary respect in the chaos of Hamsterdam with their respective attempts to lure the underclass of young boys away from the open-air drug bazaar. They talk now of Namond and discover a mutual connection to his father, Wee-Bey (Hassan Johnson), that meets from opposite ends; Carver recalls arresting him once, prompting Cutty to recount his own jailhouse memories of Wee-Bey with a twinkle of nostalgia until he remembers who he’s talking to and gathers himself. Carver takes in the ambience of the busy gym—a living testament to Cutty’s transformation—and flashes him a kindred smile.
The men offer alternatives, but the boys in the neighborhood carry a deep suspicion of legitimate benefactors. The home life of Michael (Tristan Wilds) turns upside down when his mom’s boyfriend (Cyrus Farmer) returns after several years in prison. Michael confronts the disruption with an icy animosity born of past sexual abuse (“Ain’t got a forgiveness to your soul,” the man hints). He solicits solutions from Randy and Dukie (Jermaine Crawford) on the way home from school but rejects Dukie’s suggestion that he seek help from his boxing coach, Cutty, whom Michael suspects has similar designs on him. “I don’t know, he just too friendly, you know?” Michael elaborates with growing agitation when a skeptical Randy brings up Cutty’s reputation as a ladies’ man. “Everybody just too motherfucking friendly.”
Michael opts to engage his remaining asset: the standing offer from drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield (Jaime Hector) to join his organization as a soldier-in-training. Michael and Dukie walk in silence to the perimeter of Marlo’s outdoor meeting place. Dukie’s accompaniment isn’t tacit endorsement of the decision; he fixes his gaze on Michael for signs of a last-minute reversal. Michael speaks briefly with a security guard, who leads him across the threshold. Michael looks over his shoulder at Dukie as he enters, and just before he turns away, Michael’s coat flaps open, as if from inside his pocket he’s waving a discreet goodbye.