I don’t deny it: The Wire didn’t quite float my boat when I saw the first broadcast of the first episode in the Summer of 2002. Like many, I only became obsessed with the show on DVD, meaning I absorbed Seasons 1-4 by watching them in batches of two to five episodes. Because of my press ties, I received all of Season Four in advance in the summer of 2006, just as the Season Three DVDs became available; when I learned I was heading into the hospital and wouldn’t be able to watch TV for a while, I raced against time to watch the two seasons in just over a week. I offer these details to explain how my reaction to The Wire may differ from that of someone who watches the show week by week. If such a viewer finds an episode like last week’s “Unconfirmed Reports” uncommonly preachy, it’ll leave a bad taste for a full week. Viewed back-to-back, however, the preachiness seems a minor digression which fades into the background once the plot kicks back in. “Not For Attribution” is a serious plot episode, one that as such is likely to leave the “Unconfirmed Reports” naysayers pleased that the show is back on track. For folks in the press like myself, who received copies of the first seven episodes of the season from HBO, the soapbox moments felt like necessary context, at least when an episode like this week’s falls hard on the heels of the speechifying.
In my write-up of “More With Less”, I said I found the return of “McNutty” to be somewhat depressing after seeing Jimmy McNulty display some measure of personal growth over the course of seasons Three and Four. When first watching the episode, I thought perhaps David Simon was folding under pressure from fans who found a sober McNulty boring and wanted to see him in his out-of-control mode a few more times before the series packed it in. However, “Not For Attribution” and last week’s “Unconfirmed Reports” make it clear that “McNutty” is key to the story David Simon wants to tell—a sober McNulty would never come up with his crazy scheme to get his bosses to pay attention to the deaths of homeless men, and even if he did come up with the scheme, no way in hell would he be capable of acting on it without a healthy quantity of Jameson’s coursing through his veins.
“Not For Attribution”, then, basically picks up where “Reports” left off, with the inebriated McNulty forging evidence and Bunk Moreland being apoplectic with dismay. McNulty may be an alcoholic tail-chaser, but he’s by no means a dummy—doctoring old evidence to make it appear that the killer has been active for awhile is a very shrewd way to keep people from noticing how closely connected he is to the case, thereby solving the problem pointed out by Toadmonster in his comment on my write-up of last week’s episode: If every body McNulty catches is related to the bogus killer, wouldn’t people quickly grow suspicious? The way things stand now, it’s a little less likely to be the case.
In an inspired stroke, McNulty retroactively inserts the killer’s “trademark”—a red ribbon tied around a victim’s writst—into a report written by Ray Cole, the homicide detective who died between seasons two and three who was played by Robert F. Colesberry, one of the series’s executive producers, who died in early 2004. The photo of Cole that we saw at his wake has long been a staple of The Wire’s credits sequence, and invoking him now is both a nice way to salute Colesberry once more as the series enters its final stretch and a much more organic way of having McNulty pull off his scam than it would have been for him to doctor the case files of a dead or retired detective who had never been mentioned on the series.
McNulty’s big lie helps make “Not For Attribution” one of The Wire’s funniest episodes, and leaves little doubt that David Simon intends to beef up the series’s satirical side as it heads into the sunset. Comedy is generated by other sources too, such as Marlo Stansfield’s naïveté (more about that shortly), but the bulk of the laughs come from Bunk’s exasperation with McNulty’s plan. The masterstroke moment, of course, comes when Bunk calls upon Lester Freamon to talk some sense into McNulty—a decision that at first seems as though it will pay off (“Shit like this actually goes through your fucking brain?!” Bunk asks incredulously), but which backfires when Freamon offers to help McNulty pull it off. With Freamon on his side, McNulty’s chances of success are now about a thousand times higher than before, and it’s a treat to catch a glimpse of a more playful Freamon channeling his frustration (and, of course, his formidable intellect) into the scheme.
The police and city hall plots connect with the activities at the Sun this week, early enough in the season to help forestall the “College Fiction Workshop 101” vibe that Virgil P complained about in his comment last week. Scott Templeton obviously has a major role to play in the future; given that, I was very happy to see Alma Gutierrez take on a more prominent role, as I really like her perspective as a newspaper newbie. As always, the episode title is relevant to the action in several different ways, though its primary importance is related to McNulty’s manipulation of Alma and Norman Wilson planting the story about Ervin Burrell being thrown under the bus by Carcetti. I could easily devote another thousand words to the Burrell/Rawls/Daniels/Carcetti/Green situation, which is totally in my wheelhouse. I’ve always been intrigued by office politics in the world of law enforcement; Daniels’ rise feels like something Simon has been planning for a long time, and I love it when a story that has been developed gradually over the course of several seasons suddenly clicks into place. Daniels’s now-ex-wife is a character I’ve always loved to hate on account of her iciness, and I loved the scene where she advises her former husband to forego promotion lest Burrell unleash the dirt we’ve long known he has on Daniels. Compared to the other major storylines, this one is still simmering on a low flame, but I can’t wait to see how it effects the other stories when it finally reaches a boil.
The scene at the Sun where Whiting tells the staff that the Sun is closing its Beijing, Moscow, Jerusalem, Johannesburg and London bureaus is striking in terms of its timing—while the real life paper’s London and Beijing bureaus closed in 2005, the actual Sun only shuttered its Moscow bureau on December 19, 2007. The scene was not without a certain personal resonance for me, as my uncle Oswald L. Johnston Jr., a longtime international correspondent (he spent most of his career at The Los Angeles Times and retired after taking a buyout in 1992) got his first break as an overseas reporter when he was hired as the Sun’s man in Rome in the mid-’60s. Ozzie wasn’t at the Sun for a particularly long spell before going to the LA Times, but it was sobering to hear his accounts of management behavior at Times Mirror (then-owner of the LAT and the Sun) at the time of his retirement, just as I was resolving to break into the field—and that was before the Internet began to threaten the newspaper business.
Indeed, Simon lets the Sun stuff get a little sentimental this week as a line is drawn between those who really live for journalism (the old timers, plus Alma Gutierrez) and those without a true passion for the business (Scott Templeton). Templeton’s sneering dismissal of Roger as “dead wood” showed that while he’s ingratiated himself with management, he’s fundamentally a stranger to the true culture of the paper, otherwise he’d know that Roger is the kind of guy who could tell you everything about Cedric Daniels except his shoe size. Roger and Gus’s accounts of what drew them to the business are certainly misty-eyed, but in an entirely believable way. Anyone who’s spent much time around reporters can tell you that while they’re generally stereotyped as a crusty, cynical bunch, newsmen (and -women) as a whole are a very romantic lot, for good reason: no one would work so hard for so many hours a week for so little pay if they didn’t truly believe they were part of an enterprise with the power to change the world for the better.
One final note on the Sun: I’d long assumed that when Wire characters referred to “the Sun papers”, the plural was a Baltimore quirk. Even though the term isn’t explained this week, a light bulb nonetheless went off over my head as I realized why Wire Baltimorons use the “s”: Until September 15, 1995, there was a separate evening edition, so the Sun was in fact two newspapers. More than a dozen years have passed since then, but the habit of thinking of the Sun as a two-paper institution apparently lives on.
The Wire’s street characters were busy as ever this week. Marlo contiunes to move forward with his scheme to replace Prop Joe as Baltimore’s biggest wholesaler, and although he has brains, balls and the town’s most coldhearted killers on his side, it’s increasingly apparent that his naïveté could be his Achilles heel. “It ain’t easy civilizing this motherfucker,” Joe sighs after Marlo insists on visiting the offshore bank where he’s deposited his funds in the apparent belief that if he can’t see and hold his money, it doesn’t exist. Marlo’s jaunt to the islands follows another tremendously funny bit of business when he attempts to bribe Vondas into doing business with him rather than Joe. After Vondas rejects his cash because it’s literally dirty, Marlo, in an incredible display of chutzpah, goes to Joe to get a load of crisp replacement bills. Joe is obviously aware that Marlo is a potential threat, and in teaching the younger dealer the finer points of money laundering, he displays his familiarity with the time-honored “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” strategy. For all his insight into Marlo, Joe seems to underestimate just how eager Marlo is to extract bloody revenge on Omar. Cheese’s back-channel dealings with Marlo don’t bode well for Joe, may be too devoted to neutrality for his own good.
Marlo too, however, may be underestimating an enemy. He dispatches Chris and Snoop to kill Butchie in the hope of luring Omar back to Baltimore, but we all know that Omar is someone you really don’t want to piss off. After what happened in season three when Stringer Bell made an attempt on Omar’s life in violation of the Sunday truce, there’s no doubt that when Omar returns to Baltimore, he’s gonna come out swinging hard. Omar’s island hideout seems idyllic at first glance, but the sight of a busted toilet in the alleyway outside his house (as well as the state of his kitchen) makes it clear that he isn’t exactly living it up on the lam. Weather notwithstanding, going back to Baltimore could represent a step up in his surroundings.
There’s still a lot I haven’t gotten to, so in the interest of expediency I’m going to give the short shrift to Michael, Dukie and Clay Davis, whose scenes this week, fascinating though they may be, are more about laying groundwork for future developments than anything else. Michael was reticent in describing Chris and Snoop’s massacre at June Bug’s house to Dukie, though of course he wasn’t an actual eyewitness to the killings. Nonetheless, it was believable—and very affecting—for him to respond to the bloody murders by trying to be a normal kid for a day and going to Six Flags with Dukie. After their day at the amusement park, the stark contrast presented by Michael’s return to his corner hit me like a bucket of cold water. The biggest unanswered question about the season at this point is just what role Michael and Dukie will ultimately play, and right now your guess is as good as mine. As for Davis…jeez, I actually felt myself feeling kinda sorry for the poor guy, whose back is very much against the wall now (although the scene where Rhonda Pearlman grills his driver on the stand kept me from feeling too much sympathy). He’s smart enough, I dare say, that he’d only try and cut a deal with Carcetti if he was really desperate, as otherwise I expect he’d give Carcetti a little more credit for his intelligence. The bit where Carcetti shuts him down by saying that he’d already know about it if the ministers had a problem with Daniels was entertaining, but also somewhat sad given Davis’ utter helplessness.
Two final points: I’ve always loved ? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears”, one of the great garage rock anthems, and I loved the scene where McNulty stumbles out of the bathroom as it blares on the jukebox and flirts with the blonde he’ll soon do from behind on the hood of his car. For all the wisecracks we’ve heard McNulty and others make about “the Western District way” over the years, few scenes have said as much about the debauched nature of Baltimore’s police culture as McNulty flashing his badge to the uniform cops who quickly drive off after catching him in flagrante. And although James Whiting broke out his “more with less” line once again this week, his belief in clean narratives above all wasn’t reiterated in the Sun scenes. Even so, it was evoked by the scene where Syndor is baby sitting the grand jurors and we hear the prosecutors talk about streamlining the account of Clay Davis’ misdeeds so that the jurors don’t get “lost in the details”. Journalism and the law, it’s obvious, are forces that Simon believes are intended to protect the people; the sight of their agents patronizing the folks they’re supposed to be defending (which is exactly what happens when facts arrive so packaged and predigested) is among the most stinging examples The Wire has offered of urban America’s slow-motion collapse.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.