Before we get to this week's review of "The Wire" season three (and, as always, you can find my reviews of the other four seasons on the side rail of my old blog), I have to warn you that the dog ate my homework - or, rather, the MacBook ate my original, very long, obviously brilliant version of this review. I had hoped my local Geniuses could salvage the data in time, but it didn't work out. So due to scheduling problems and my frustration at having to start over from scratch, my review of "Homecoming" will be a bit shorter and rougher than it otherwise would. Sorry. My own damn fault for not backing up my data every five seconds.
As always, we're taking this trip down memory lane in two versions: one for viewers who have seen the whole series from start to finish, and one for people who aren't there yet and don't want later episodes and seasons spoiled for them. This is the newbie version; click here for the veteran-friendly one.
Spoilers for "Homecoming" coming up just as soon as you tell me if you want the Class A or the Class B uniform...
"Makes me sick, motherfucker, how far we done fell." -The Bunk
Bunk's confrontation with Omar in this episode is one of the series' most memorable scenes for many reasons. First, Wendell Pierce and Michael K. Williams act the hell out of it, whether Pierce doing Bunk's frustrated shadowboxing or Williams doing the red-eyed stare with spit dangling off his chin as Omar tries to conceal just how badly Bunk's words stung him. Second, it's rare to see The Bunk - usually the comic foil to McNulty, or else a representative of how the more traditional way of policing can still work if you're smart and dedicated and lucky enough - become so serious, and so angry about anything. Third, Omar is the only character the show ever comes close to romanticizing - everyone else has to live by the real world's rules, while Omar gets to make up his own code and be damned charming doing it - and so it's startling to have him treated not as the lovable rogue we all know, but as a blight on the community every bit as bad as Stringer or Marlo.
And in that scene, Bunk captures the frustration that so many of the show's characters feel about how bad things have gotten in Baltimore, and in America. "Wire" characters often lament the loss of the good ol' days (Sobotka talking about the glory days of the port of Baltimore, for instance), but Bunk doesn't try to paint the past in brighter colors than when he lived it. There was crime and there were bad men when he and Omar were growing up, but they were never this bad. They had standards. They viewed The Game as something they had to play, not something they necessarily wanted to, and they tried to draw a line to keep out the salvageable kids like him.
If things were bad then, they're vastly worse by this point. Marlo is colder and more ruthless than Avon (who doesn't encourage Cutty to leave the life but also respects the choice and doesn't stand in his way). Contrary to Poot's boasts to Herc and Carver, the new generation is scarier than the one before it. Bunny goes to see Mrs. Hazel, the last citizen in Hamsterdam, and she scolds him with talk of what Vincent St. was like when she and her husband moved in(*). You see the Baltimore of today, and you understand why a man like Bunny Colvin might be moved to try such an insane gambit as Hamsterdam.
(*) And her talk of how her husband bought the place with money from his factory job was a nice callback to season two's meditation on the death of the industrial working class.
And we see in "Homecoming" that so far, the crazy experiment is working. Though Marlo's crews are still operating outside the free zones, and warring with Avon's, much of West Baltimore becomes a relative paradise compared to even a few episodes ago. The streets aren't dominated by the sounds of drug markets, but kids playing, laundry being hung, gardens being tended to, etc. It's not what life once was, but it's a start.
And throughout the episode, we see clashes (some external, some internal) between past thinking and future thinking, and also see that different people have different ideas about what that future should look like.
Stringer wants to be a businessman, and Avon wants to stay a gangster, and it becomes an argument where each man has some of the high ground. Stringer's right that war with Marlo will only cost bodies and bring attention from the cops, and he's proven that territory doesn't matter as much as it used to thanks to the New Day Co-op. But Stringer is so focused on his dreams of respectability - he gets a glimpse of Hamsterdam and sees it as the culmination of his fantasies about being just another businessman, not having to worry about cops or violence - that he fails to recognize what Avon does, which is that Marlo Stanfield is even less interested in business than he is, and will keep pushing until someone pushes back, hard. It's one thing to be able to sell with bad territory, but no territory?
Avon is so fixated on the Marlo problem that he barely hears Stringer's attempt to tell him about Hamsterdam, and we see that Marlo is the next generation of Avon. Avon admits that he never expected to live long enough to have to worry about the kind of opportunities Stringer puts before him, and Marlo tells his advisor Vinson that he doesn't care if his reign is short, so long as he gets to take his turn wearing the crown. There were complaints when Marlo was introduced that he wasn't as charismatic or colorful as Stringer or Avon, but that's the point. He's the end product of the culture those two helped create. Stringer and Avon grew up in the world that Bunk did, and so they remember a life where drug trafficking didn't dominate. They have outside interests, be it upward mobility or family. Marlo cares about nothing and no one but playing The Game until he's crowned the winner, and Jamie Hector does a nice job with his stillness and understated delivery of showing just how dangerous that kind of tunnel vision can be.
Cedric Daniels, meanwhile, is at war with himself over his past and his future. He admits to Ronnie Pearlman that he turned out to be a better cop than a politician, yet he still feels a debt to Marla that he has to pay, even as it hurts his new girlfriend. And while he's doing a fine job as the leader of the forward-thinking Major Crimes Unit - and has a point when he tells Jimmy and Kima that so long as Stringer isn't dropping bodies, he shouldn't be their problem (unlike McNulty, he doesn't take these things personally) - he still lets himself get caught up in another chain-of-command argument with McNulty, and has to be forced into going after Stringer when McNulty uses his past boss to manipulate his present one. As with all Daniels/McNulty arguments, both sides have a point - Jimmy is an insubordinate ass who doesn't appreciate the man who got him off the boat, while Daniels lets his frustration over those things blind him to a good case staring him in the face - but Jimmy, as so often happens, gets his way in the end.
And Cutty, speaker of old-school gangster truths, finds out that his past life isn't what he wants his present one to be when he can't bring himself to kill Fruit. Avon is absorbed in the soldier life, but he understands what his old friend is telling him at episode's end. Slim Charles wistfully says that Cutty used to be a man back in the day, but Avon corrects him to say "He a man today."
We're now at the halfway point of the season (and the halfway point of the series, in a narrative if not entirely mathematical sense), and the MCU is only just now being officially assigned to go after Stringer. Even by the deliberate standards of previous "Wire" seasons, this might seem like an awfully slow build. But it's clear by now that the MCU's cases are no longer the series' driving engine - that Hamsterdam, and Avon and Stringer's battles with each other and with Marlo are at least as important to this season, if not moreso.
Now we get to see what happens with all the pieces in motion.
Some other thoughts on "Homecoming":
- The opening sequence with the Western cops abusing their authority at Bunny's behest to punish the non-Hamsterdam dealers is hilarious, but also interesting when viewed through the lens of all of this season's 9/11/Iraq undertones. Bunny - who does this both to push the dealers and to keep his men motivated by providing them heads to knock - is presented as the hero of the season, but here we see him encouraging the same kind of civil rights violations in the interest of a greater good that became so controversial in our world after 9/11. (And a reminder, as always, that while we can bend the No Politics rule to an extent when discussing this show, it has to be within the context of the show. Over the last few weeks, I've had to delete several comments that have had nothing to do with "The Wire" itself and everything to do with various commenters' feelings on a pet issue that was mentioned on the show. That's not okay. Focus on the show, and be respectful of each other, and this will all work.)
- I got a couple of good chuckles at material relating to the show's two most prominent gay characters, with Kima mocking Jimmy's wandering eye at the lesbian bar and Dante and Omar watching a Keller/Beecher scene on "Oz" together.
- Is the HIV fundraiser scene the first time we hear Clay Davis utter his own marvelous pronunciation of "sheeeeit"?
- Speaking of that scene, we finally see how Tommy thinks he can win an election, by using buddy Tony Grey as a tool to split the black vote enough for him to slip by Royce. Not a very nice thing he's doing to a friend, but then Tommy - other than rare humanizing moments like his ultimate reaction to why the kids put a sandwich in the VCR - is mainly thinking about himself, isn't he?
- I'm sure the scene where Avon and Slim discuss potential muscle for hire was as scripted as every other one on the show, and that the nicknames being tossed about are all lifted from actual Baltimore criminals. But there was a moment (around the time the name "Eggy Mule" was used) that I began to imagine that the director had simply told Wood Harris and Anwan Glover to improvise as many silly names as they could think of.
Coming up next:
"Back Burners," in which the MCU tries to figure out how to stop the Barksdale/Stanfield war, Bubbs takes a tour of Hamsterdam, and Cutty looks for a new direction.
What did everybody else think?