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Wire Watch: The Weakest Among Us

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this, make sure you watch last night’s Wire. And catch up on any news about white tourists missing in Aruba.

McNulty and the audience learn some fun facts about corpses and postmortem injuries. / HBO: Paul Schiraldi

So there’s the spoiler-y thing I couldn’t tell you ahead of time about season 5. McNulty’s scheme to invent a serial killer seems to already have gotten some people worried–David Simon acknowledged that it sounded ridiculous at first blush when he told me about it–but having seen the following five episodes I can tell you that I’m satisfied with how it plays out on the police end of the story. (I have a little more problem with how it plays out on the newspaper end, the phony killer story being where the two worlds become intertwined, but for now I’ll stifle.)

More important, though, the twist is perfectly in keeping with both The Wire’s history and its themes. As Simon said in my interview with him, The Wire is partly about refuting the heroic-individual tradition of storytelling. It’s tempting, in a story about failing cities and social systems, to say that one bigger-than-life person with a bigger-than-life plan can throw a Hail Mary pass and make big change overnight. But over and over again in The Wire–Hamsterdam, Bunny Colvin’s school reform, the surprise election of a white mayor in a black city, Stringer Bell’s attempt to make drugs a white-collar-style business–we’ve seen that audacious plans get dashed against self-perpetuating systems.

Now here’s McNulty, the reckless guy with a history, as Bunk says, of “giving a f___ when it ain’t your turn to give a f___,” throwing the long ball. “There are no rules,” he concludes. “The f___in’ game’s rigged.” Too rigged for him to right, maybe.

This is not a spoiler. I’ve only seen seven episodes, so I don’t know where McNulty’s plot finally ends up either. But we all know the history here, is all I’m saying.

I’m interested in what you think so far. In the meantime:

* The exchange between Gus and the managing editor comes close to summing up Simon’s whole beef with newspaper journalism. Gus wants to show the “context” of influences that mess up poor kids’ lives. His boss wants a simple picture of how “Dickensian”–i.e., miserable–they are, and hang all the blame on the school system. Gus argues, reasonably, that this is too narrow a focus. “It’s like you’re up on the roof showing where a couple shingles came loose, and meanwhile a hurricane came by and wrecked the rest of the damn house.” But to be fair, Simon gives the boss the best retort against his own argument. “I don’t want some amorphous series detailing society’s ills. If you leave everything in, soon you’ve got nothing.” He’s clearly the bad guy here, but honestly he has a good point. Now OK, you could say The Wire is the best refutation of this argument–but you can include a lot more in a five-season TV series than in a five-part newspaper series. (What can provide that context is _the whole paper_, day in and day out, not any one story.) The real point may be simply that there are some things newspaper series can’t do, period, and for that we need things like The Wire.

* Speaking of newspapers, we see Scott striking out, so to speak, on a baseball feature and making something up, and Gus starting to grow suspicious of him. This would make Scott the Jayson Blair of the story and Gus the Jonathan Landman–the skeptical middle manager whose B.S. detector goes off but whose doubt goes unheeded by his bosses because the kid is such an effective suckup. To be honest, I was surprised Simon would go with a Blair-like reporter in his Sun story, because it seems to undermine his focus on failed systems rather than the One Bad Apple theory. But we’ll see where this goes.

* The streets: Marlo is straight-up scary. When he first rose up to fill the Barksdale vacuum, to be honest, I thought he was boring in comparison. But he’s a far more efficient and terrifying leader than Avon ever was, and Jamie Hector give icy menance to his silences and understated looks. More on that in a later episode. In the meantime, we saw Michael run up against the totalitarian regime of paranoia Marlo has established: “You need to stop running your own mouth,” Snoop warns him when Michael questions why Junebug needs to die. Marlo’s the Stalin of Baltimore.

* “Pro forma. From the Latin, meaning ‘Lawyers jacking each other off.'”

* “Ever noticed how ‘mother of 4’ is always catching hell? Huh? Murder, hit and run, burnt up in rowhouse fire, swindled by bigamists?” One thing this season gets absolutely right in the newsroom is the black humor of reporters. (Which apparently is not unlike the black humor of cops.) Also, the waking up in the middle of the night, terrified of having made some embarrassing screw-up,

* “I just throw up once or twice and go to work.” “The Western District way.”

* Loved the bit about wanting to do a hit “West Coast style”: “Drive by. That’s how they do it. Drop a m_____f_____ and not slow down. Like Boyz N the Hood. S___ was tight, remember?” Followed by Snoop finishing the job after every shot misses from the car. “In B-more, we aim and hit a n_____.”

* Finally: McNulty driving off angry, then shown long range kicking his car on the parking garage roof–nice. McNulty stubbing his toe in the process and hopping on one foot in pain–perfect. Yet, he never learns to stop kicking, does he?