“They don’t teach it in law school.”—Pearlman
The Wire is usually pretty good about not talking down to its audience, but early in “Took” there’s a scene in which Lester Freamon goes over the whole scheme involving the tap on Marlo’s cellphone and that on the phone of the “homeless killer” in which he and McNulty are pretty much telling each other stuff they already know. It’s a little annoying, and while I’m generally a big fan of Richard Price, I think it’s a scene that other Wire writers (David Simon and Edward Burns, for example) might not have made so obvious: Price is perhaps more used to writing for a general audience than for a cadre of obsessives; here he seems to be erring on the side of safety. It’s the one scene that feels like a clunker in an otherwise fine episode that ratchets the momentum up even further, yet manages to end on one of the most peaceful and introspective moments in the series’s run.
When McNulty calls Scott Templeton to fuck with the reporter’s head, pretending to be the killer he’s invented, it seems the game may be over for a second when Homicide’s Vernon Holley intercepts the call. It’s soon clear that McNulty intended for the call to be recorded at homicide; even so, it’s the first of several moments in “Took” in which the house of cards seems about to crash down on McNulty. At the Sun, when he meets with Klebanow, Haynes and Templeton once again, McNulty is peppered with questions from Haynes that leave him scrambling for quick answers and suggest that the city editor would see right through McNulty if he wasn’t so distracted by his problems with Templeton. When McNulty and Rhonda Pearlman meet with Judge Phelan again, the jurist observes that the killings coincided with the tough-on-crime governor gearing up for a reelection campaign. “You may want to check the governor’s alibi,” Phelan says, making a wisecrack which reminds us that there are a lot of smart folks in Simon’s Baltimore, and for every three people who accept McNulty’s scam at face value, there’s going to be at least one who can immediately tell that things don’t add up.
Clay Davis has always seemed like someone whose success is due more to his mouth than his brain, but honey-tongued loquaciousness means little without smarts to back it up. Badly hurting for cash, Davis shows his intelligence by persuading one of Baltimore’s top attorneys to represent him for well below his usual fee, pointing out that the publicity he’d get for representing Davis would be worth well more than his billable hours. Davis’s trial is one of a number of scenes in “Took” that feel like “The Wire’s greatest hits”: The limo driver’s testimony (and, to a lesser extent, that of Davis himself) echoes Omar’s moment on the stand in season two, one of the funniest scenes in the series’s history.
Even though Davis makes a fool of himself on camera by quoting from “Pro-mee-thus” Bound by “Uh-silly-us”, there are only 12 people he really has to impress, and they presumably lack access to TV. The limo driver mentions misdeeds of Davis’ that fall outside the purview of the trial, as the judge is quick to point out; but by keeping the case’s focus ultra-tight, she makes it that much easier for Davis to work his magic on the jury (comprised of 10 African-Americans, one Asian woman and one white man). The incident garners Quote of the Week honors for Pearlman; her observation that they don’t teach this shit in law school is nothing if not an understatement.
McNulty’s success with the ruse, meanwhile, certainly seems to be going to his head, as he uses the case as an opportunity to become everybody’s new best friend, throwing handfuls of overtime at his fellow cops in a manner that recalls Clarence “Bumpy” Johnson throwing Thanksgiving turkeys to a Harlem crowd at the beginning of American Gangster. McNulty is so transparently happy to be able to play the role of OT Fairy for his fellow officers that you have to think it’s only a matter of time until they realize how suspiciously unshaken he is by the supposedly disturbing case he’s investigating.
Of course, McNulty won’t evade punishment if Bunk has anything to say about it. Everyone’s favorite Homicide curmudgeon repeatedly gets in the grills of McNulty and Freamon this week, railing harder than ever against them for diverting resources from real cases such as Kima’s triple homicide (which, via an informant’s leak, she has tied to Chris and Snoop). After Carver hauls in Michael Lee (who, in another reference to episodes past, gets to deliver McNulty’s immortal “What the fuck did I do?” line), Bunk, following up on his re-investigation of the rowhouse murders, presses Michael to give up Snoop and Chris. Later, back on the street, Michael finds himself in the middle of Omar’s latest attempt to intimidate Marlo into a public confrontation. In the eyes of most, Michael is still “just a kid”, but he knows all too well that he’s descended far enough down the dark path for Omar to have no qualms about killing him, and he thanks his lucky stars (as well he should) that he wasn’t recognized from the shoot-out at Monk’s apartment.
One might argue that the scene in which Gus Haynes gives a bunch of pointers to Sun reporter Mike Fletcher is a time-waster—Gus’s credibility as a journalist has been long-since proven with the audience—but it’s still nice to see evidence of how good he is at what he does. His insights into Fletcher’s story and what the younger reporter needs to do to hone his craft lend extra credence to his sincere praise for Scott Templeton last week—as well as to his criticism of Templeton for going too far this time with his “To Walk Among Them” story, which makes the homeless sound like extraterrestrials.
Haynes’ level-headed Sun colleague Rebecca Corbett, who has also previously displayed suspicion of Templeton, again takes Haynes’ side, but that means nothing when Klebanow decides to pull rank and run Templeton’s story unchanged. While most of this week’s allusions to the past harken back to earlier seasons, this week we get parallels to scenes from just a week ago as Fletcher spends time with the homeless (and the non-homeless Bubbles) himself, in what seems like an honest, “this-is-the-right-way-to-do-it” version of Templeton’s night under the freeway. If Templeton had interacted with Bubbles, the beloved addict would surely have been reduced to a lurid stereotype in the resulting story; Fletcher, one expects, is much more likely to treat him as a human being.
In the past, there have been amusing parallels between McNulty and Kima as, once the pressure of the job ruptured her relationship with her partner Cheryl, Kima herself took to drinking and skirt-chasing. This week, Kima reenacts one of the all-time classic Wire scenes when, upon getting to spend a weekend with her son, she buys an Ikea bed and has a hell of a time trying to cobble the damn thing together while under the influence, a task that severely tried McNulty’s patience when he took a shot at it back in (I believe) season two. Kima’s struggle to turn a pile of particle board into something usable gives way to a wonderful final scene in which she lulls her son to sleep with a ghetto version of Goodnight Moon. It’s a peaceful, deeply moving moment—and, given the pace of events, probably one of the last tranquil moments that anyone on The Wire will experience for quite some time.
A couple of observations: Price and Simon throw a huge spanner into the works as far as continuity geeks like me are concerned by giving a cameo to none other than Richard Belzer, Detective Munch of Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order: SVU fame. Although Belzer identifies himself as a former bar owner—and Munch co-owned a tavern on Homicide—I’m inclined to think he’s not reprising the role. For one thing, he shares the frame with Clark Johnson, who of course played one of Munch’s co-workers, Meldrick Lewis, on Homicide.
For another, if he playing Munch, he’d theoretically be connecting The Wire to the same continuity as a vast array of other series, few of which seem like they take place in the same world: In addition to Homicide and SVU, Munch has appeared on the original L&O, The X-Files, The Beat (UPN’s short-lived 2000 series about uniformed NYPD patrolmen, starring Mark Ruffalo), L&O Trial by Jury, Paris enquetes criminells (the French remake of L&O Criminal Intent, starring Vincent Perez as a Gallic version of Vincent D’Onofrio’s character) and even Arrested Development and Sesame Street! Through various other crossovers, these series can be linked to The Simpsons, Chicago Hope and the ultimate crossover magnet, St. Elsewhere, which, via the notorious Tommy Westphall Hypothesis, theoretically takes place in the same universe as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Seinfeld, Walker Texas Ranger, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, I Love Lucy and Mayberry RFD. Given some contradictions between Homicide and SVU where Munch’s biography is concerned, it’s possible to argue that the Homicide Munch and the L&O Munch are different characters in different universes (even though the Homicide Munch has appeared on the L&O shows, one of whom grew up in Pikesville, MD, the other in New York. Yes, it’s enough to make your head spin, but such is the nature of obsessive TV fandom. In any event, my position is that The Wire takes place in its own universe, with no ties to Homicide or any other series.
The lawyer representing Clay Davis, Billy Murphy, is a real-life defense attorney, one of the city’s finest, as well as a member of the city’s black aristocracy (his great-grandfather founded the Baltimore Afro-American, a legendary black newspaper that’s popped up in the background on The Wire once or twice). In the biography on his website, Murphy describes a philosophy that leaves no doubt as to why he was Clay Davis’ first choice: “I look at it this way—a trial lawyer who isn’t able to use the full spectrum of techniques has arbitrarily limited himself. If a trial judge pushes you, you’ve got to push back. I used to say that my client is a child of God and everybody else is a son of a bitch.”
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.