Is the best episode ever of the best TV drama ever QED the best single TV episode of all time? That’s not a philosophical conundrum I face where “Late Editions” is concerned, since my pick for the best series of all time is The Sopranos. Those who believe The Wire to be the finest series in the history of the medium, however, are going to spend a lot of time debating the question, since after two viewings it’s pretty clear that “Late Editions” is The Wire’s single best episode. I’m in a position to say this since I’ve been fortunate enough to see the series finale—which isn’t to say that The Wire’s final episode is a disappointment, just that it’s not as good as “Late Editions.” Obviously, a lot of “Editions” serves to set up the finale, but the two episodes are not so tightly connected that “Editions” can’t be discussed separately, and without fear of spoiling the series finale.
As a big fan of George Pelecanos, I was thrilled to see his name attached to the teleplay credit for “Editions”; of the acclaimed crime novelist trio that has contributed scripts to The Wire (the others being Richard Price and Dennis Lehane), Pelecanos has always been my favorite, and his particular gift for dialogue is in evidence throughout the episode. We begin with Lester Freamon contemplating the clock code that Sydnor cracked last week, a code that quickly leads the younger cop to a spot in the boondocks where Marlo’s crew is about to take delivery on an enormous shipment of pure heroin. In the first of many great scenes that Lester scores—in a lot of ways, this is really his episode—he goes to Daniels and says he’s been investigating Marlo using resources from the Clay Davis case. I’m sure I’m not the only person who thought Lester was going to come 100% clean and reveal the truth about the serial killer, perhaps taking all the “credit” for the scam in order to spare McNulty. Instead, he leaves Daniels with the impression that he’s done nothing seriously inappropriate, and Daniels quickly signs off on the arrest of Marlo and his gang (Snoop, however, is able to avoid arrest because she’s at Levy’s office at the time of the sweep). Of all the great throwaway moments in the episode, one of my favorites is one of the most simple: The “uh-oh” tone of voice with which Pearlman asks “why?” when Daniels asks her if she’s sitting down before (off-camera) telling her that Marlo’s about to fall.
Marlo’s arrest is one of the few developments that doesn’t turn out to be too good to be true: No sooner does Dukie turn up than we see him being pressed into stealing scrap by the junkman who hired him last week (a literal junkman, as we learn at the very end). Daniels’ new job proves to be equally problematic when his balls are put in a vise by Carcetti’s chief of staff Michael Steintorf, who demands that he and Rawls cook the crime stats to produce a 10% drop in violent crime—or else. The situation makes Daniels the first of several characters who are faced with a choice between staying true to themselves or repeating the decisions that formed the fate of another. Daniels therefore stands at the brink of becoming the next Burrell, much as Michael, per Snoop’s final speech, is poised to inherit Omar’s mantle. Lester, generally a relatively sober fellow (though by no means a teetotaler), celebrates Marlo’s arrest by stepping into Bunk’s traditional role as McNulty’s drinking buddy.
Lester has always been the cop most inclined to see the big picture where the drug trade is concerned, so I was a little surprised by the suggestion that he had never before considered the role that Baltimore’s sketchier defense attorneys play in financing the business. The scene where Davis spells it all out for him, however, is classic. His blackmailing of Davis turns out to be the ultimate extension of his plan to use anti-Davis resources to take down Marlo, and it leads to the intriguing revelation that the courthouse leak is a level above Prop Joe: Levy bought the leaked documents before turning around and selling them to Joe. Still, the coolest part of the scene comes when Pelecanos goes into the realm of “fan service” by having Davis reminisce about how he scammed Stringer Bell.
I was dearly hoping for a return appearance by Bunny Colvin and Namond Brice before the end of the season, and their visit didn’t disappoint. Namond’s participation in a debate tournament, describing how little the U.S. is doing to combat the spread of HIV in Africa, shows that Bunny is as effective a foster father as one would expect him to be—and given the precariousness of Dukie’s position at the end of the episode, it’s damn nice to see that at least one of the kids from Season Four is unquestionably on the right path. Carcetti’s apology to Bunny for how he handled Hamsterdam didn’t seem quite in character for the mayor (or at least didn’t seem fully motivated), but so be it.
What I loved the most about the episode—and which motivated me above all to proclaim it the best Wire ever—are the episode’s two big speeches: Marlo’s monologue in jail and Bubbles’ speech from the podium at the NA meeting. Marlo has seldom so much has raised his voice in the past, so it was fascinating not just to watch him lose his cool but to see what could make him do so. Omar, it seems, had more insight into Marlo’s psyche than was apparent at the time—if Snoop hadn’t kept her boss from learning that Omar was calling him out, Marlo would have most likely fallen to him. Marlo’s seething anger at his name being taken in vain allows Jamie Hector—already a very intense actor—to display a fury we hadn’t seen before, and it’s mesmerizing. Bubbles’ speech was arresting for different reasons—essentially, it’s the climax of a character arc that began in his very first appearance, and it’s hard to imagine a better final outcome for him. It was genius of Pelecanos and Simon to keep Bubbles’ moment of doubt offscreen—even before he started to tell the story, it was clear he didn’t fall off the wagon that day, but that made me no less inclined to pump my fist in the air when he said that he didn’t get high when he couldn’t contact anyone else in the group.
The least progress toward a final resolution came on the Sun front, where Gus expanded his investigation of Templeton’s manufactured quotes and stories but little else happened. As a result, I’m going to keep most of my thoughts on the newspaper story line on ice until the finale airs, since so much of this episode’s Sun action is pure set-up. And little enough happened with McNulty that I’m going to refrain from diving into his activities as well.
I’ll wrap things up by asking a question that left me stumped after both my viewings of the episode, and which also left our illustrious host and publisher scratching his head: Why does Herc tell Levy that the cops are running a wire on Marlo? Under the circumstances—with no evident leak in Marlo’s gang to serve as the source of the clock code, nor with there being any good reason for the police to even have Marlo’s number—doesn’t that come awfully close to self-incrimination?
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.