By the end of “Unconfirmed Reports”, all of the pieces for The Wire’s final season are on the board, and it becomes possible to get a pretty good idea of where things are heading: Avon Barksdale offers us a clean, concise summary of Marlo’s master plan, the “big lie” promised in the opening scene of the season begins to emerge, and David Simon’s critique of the Baltimore Sun grows even sharper. It’s a dense, rich episode with many intensely raw moments, and one which shows that Simon & Co. have a good handle on the pace of this accelerated season (three episodes shorter than seasons one and four and two episodes shorter than seasons two and three).
We begin with one of the most powerful and realistic depictions of a 12-step meeting that I’ve ever seen in film or television, in which an attractive female addict testifies that any list one makes of things he or she won’t do to get high turns into a list of things they will do as soon as the inner addict takes charge. It’s a lesson Bubbles is no doubt familiar with, but one he shrugs off as he takes to the podium, urged by his sponsor Walon to share during the meeting’s closing minutes. Bubbles uses the opportunity to joke about his addiction before going to the brink of addressing how he accidentally killed Sherrod, then abruptly pulling back. “I don’t feel nothing!,” Bubbles proclaims indignantly as he storms away after the meeting. “That was never the problem!,” Walon yells after him, and he’s entirely right.
Lester Freamon emerges as perhaps the closest thing to a David Simon stand-in as he spins the Clay Davis probe into a sort of unified field theory of urban corruption, hinting that this season could turn out to be The Wire’s own Chinatown depending on how far Simon chooses to go. Right after we see Freamon explain it all to Sydnor, we’re treated to Marlo laying out his own nearly as expansive agenda to Chris and Snoop, essentially handing them a to-kill list. The scenes that result, later in the episode, are a much-needed reminder that in addition to being incredibly vicious, Chris and Snoop are a hell of a lot fucking smarter than they look. In his meeting with his F.B.I. contact, McNulty is as confident as can be that he can pin the killings on Chris and Snoop in just a couple of weeks given the right resources, but I’m inclined to think he’s drastically underestimating them and that he’d be totally screwed even if the feds gave him a blank check.
At the Sun, we see Gus Haynes in a meeting in which the paper’s self-important executive editor James Whiting and his smarmy lieutenant Thomas Klebanow lay plans for an education series that seems intended more to impress Pulitzer judges than to actually change anything in Baltimore. Somewhat ironically, what Whiting proposes sounds sort of like what The Wire’s fourth season would have been like if it was intended more to impress Emmy voters than to reflect what Simon and Ed Burns have learned about the city’s schools from their years in the trenches. Whiting’s comments to the effect of “if you leave everything in, soon you’ve got nothing” could speak to TV writing insofar as if one leaves in all the “dramatic” elements of a script—romantic subplots, comic relief, etc—a writer can be left with no room left to deliver an actual message.
In interviews, Simon has talked fairly specifically about the Pulitzer-generating “Philadelphia model”—inspired by the work of Gene Roberts, the template for Whiting’s pal “Gene Robbins”—which was imported to the Sun by Bill Marimow and John Carroll, the apparent inspirations for Whiting and Klebanow. Simon’s comments made it seem as though he considered this model the key to the paper’s decline. However, in his letter to Slate’s TV Club last week, Simon mentions (but doesn’t name—perhaps for legal reasons?) a Sun reporter who committed a number of Jayson Blair style fabrications on Marimow and Carroll’s watch, who they were warned about but failed to discipline. The sequence in which Scott Templeton is sent to write a color piece on the Orioles’ opening-day game and returns with the story of the wheelchair-bound “E.J.” seems to make it pretty obvious that Templeton is being established as a stand-in for that reporter. The Simon-Marimow-Carroll feud has been documented all over the place in enough articles to make one’s head spin; notable ones include this Columbia Journalism Review cover story and this Esquire piece by Simon. Maybe it’s just me, but the intensity of Marimow and Carroll’s defenders and their tendency to describe Simon as someone unnaturally obsessed with the situation only makes me more inclined to take Simon’s side (of course, Simon’s track record with The Wire also has more than a little to do with it).
It’s too bad that HBO chose to advertise the return of Avon Barksdale, as advance word of his appearance kind of takes the edge off of a spectacular entrance that more than befits his villainy-seriously, it’s right up there with Darth Vader boarding the blockade runner in pursuit of the Death Star plans. Wood Harris makes the most of his minimal screen time with some killer line readings (“Fuck all them East Side bitches! That’s just the way I feel about it. I got nothing but love in my heart for West Side niggas, nothing but love—of course, you know, I got to have my taste too…”). It’s a great cameo by a character I was thrilled to see again but don’t expect to see after this, though anything’s possible. My only regret is that we didn’t get to see Marlo deliver the $100,000 tribute to Brianna before his meeting with Sergei.
From the “ask and ye shall receive” department, we get a pretty decent shot of Lester Freamon walking toward the camera at the end of the episode (as he enters his office and speaks with Rhonda Pearlman), which would seem to lay to rest A. McCann’s doubts about Clarke Peters’ physical capabilities (Peter’s gait seems a little strange in the scene outside the diner, but he seems to be moving around just fine in the office scene, which is shot from a much better angle). Lester has neat character moments throughout the episode, most notably when he’s listening to vintage R&B on his stakeout while reading a magazine about his beloved miniatures. If there’s one character on the show who I wish we had the time to learn a lot more about before the series leaves the air, it’s him.
It’s to Simon’s credit that we don’t see Chris and Snoop’s massacre of Junebug and his family and associates; when you’re dealing with that many bodies, it’s creepier to see the aftermath rather than the crime itself unless you go the “found footage” route, as John McNaughton did with Henry and Otis’s home invasion in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. The one kill we see Snoop rack up is more than disturbing enough. Michael is clearly in way the hell over his head, and given the incompetence of the kid who joins Chris and Snoop on the drive by, you can tell they’re grateful to have a protégé with some semblance of a brain. Of course, Michael’s conclusion that the killing is ultimately pointless proves that he’s smarter than his erstwhile mentors, and, as I said last week, if Michael emerges as a major player over time, he’s definitely going to be more of a Prop Joe or a Stringer Bell than an Avon or a Marlo. We didn’t need the scene where he chooses not to shoot the kid in order to reach that conclusion, but even Shakespeare played to the cheap seats every now and then.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.