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Baltimore Confidential

The Third Season of The Wire Unveils a Stunningly Complex—And Accurate—Portrait of a City

By Bret McCabe | Posted 9/15/2004

He walks around looking like a visitor from another planet. Passing a desolate city field he looks sullenly around like he doesn’t recognize a single thing. Just released after serving 14 years in the Maryland Correctional Institution, Dennis “Cutty” Wise (Chad L. Coleman) walks toward a barren block of rowhouses, a virtually endless series of boarded-up doors and windows. All except one, which reads e. wise on the mailbox. His mother greets him at the door, and he disappears inside.

This wordless sequence from the premiere of Baltimore-based The Wire’s third season, starting this Sunday, Sept. 19, on HBO, says more about this one character, the world he’s returning to, the world he came from, and what is going on in this neighborhood than pages of exposition could convey. And it’s a near-silent outline of what is at stake this season: community. Where the 2002 debut season assayed the drug war from both street and law sides, and the 2003 season portrayed what happens to blue-collar workers when their economic foundation crumbles, the first four episodes of the new season that HBO made available for review map out story arcs about how and why neighborhoods turn out the way they are. In a word, it’s politics, but on The Wire nothing is that simple. Everything has a backstory, every player has multifaceted motives, and nothing ever turns out as planned.

The series returns at the top of its game. The Peabody Award-winning drama corrals a fearsomely talented writing and directing team for this new season—writer/co-creator/producer David Simon, co-creator/writer/ex-Baltimore Police detective Ed Burns, writer George Pelecanos, directors Ernest Dickerson, Tim Van Patten, and Ed Bianchi, are joined by novelists Richard Price (Clockers) and Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) and directors Agnieska Holland (Europa, Europa, Cold Case) and Alex Zakrzewski (Oz). The show itself moves quicker and sharper right out of the gate. The season premiere opens with the demolition of the Franklin Terrace Towers, the prime market where the employees of drug lords Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) slung dope and cocaine in the first two seasons. Addressing neighborhood residents, Baltimore’s African-American mayor, Clarence V. Royce (Glynn Turman), informs them that “reform is not just a watchword in my administration, it’s a philosophy,” before he ceremonially detonates charges that bring down the high rises. A billowing dust storm of progress gathers and sweeps through the streets as they fall, coating the gathered onlookers in a thick, blinding, and choking cloud. It’s played as simple action-reaction, to be sure, but in this Baltimore nothing is ever simple or merely what it appears. With this season, The Wire can no longer be ghettoized as just another cop drama. It’s crafting one of the most complex portraits of a city in popular culture today.

“Drugs, that’s a force of nature,” says a deacon to Maj. Howard Colvin (Robert Wisdom), the commanding officer of the West Side division of the Baltimore Police Department who is six months shy of his pension. “That’s a force of nature. That’s sweeping leaves on a windy day.”

The resigned metaphor fits squarely into the show’s realistic worldview, but this new season takes it out of the institutional hierarchies of the drug trade and work force and applies it to the sprawling nebula of a whole city. Colvin is a new character this season. The CO to regulars Sgt. Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam) and Detective Thomas “Herc” Hauk (Domenick Lombardozzi), he’s been around long enough to know what kinds of actions can be changed on the streets and what can’t. He’s talking philosophical with the deacon because of the increasing violence in his division and the command mandate recently levied by acting Commissioner Ervin Burrell (Frankie Faison) and Deputy Commissioner William Rawls (John Doman): Hold the annual number of murders in the city to 275 or under, and lower the felony rates across the city by 5 percent, or be replaced. Burrell is cracking down on his COs because the mayor is getting bullied on crime by an ambitious white city councilman, Thomas Carcetti (Aidan Gillen).

In the end it’s the low men on the totem pole—the beat cops and detectives, the corner standers and drug runners—who endure the pressure of what transpires behind closed policy-making doors. Six months of wire taps from the special investigative unit headed by Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) has yielded no evidence tracing street-level handlers back to suppliers Stringer Bell or Proposition Joe (Robert Chew), and the DA’s office may start pressuring Daniels to charge what he can. Meanwhile, the dealers have adapted to the surveillance, talking in code when using cell phones and talking prosecutable specifics only face to face. Bell, in fact, is trying to implement a different business model, one focusing on product rather than real estate. He sends his lieutenants out to meet up with territory controllers to work out supply deals, realizing that it’s the violence that brings the unwanted attention. No bodies, no cops; no cops, no jail.

The ambitious scope of this third season portrays the interconnected knots of local politics, law enforcement, and criminal worlds—and does it with a crafty verisimilitude. The Baltimore of The Wire is primarily African-American, where the day-to-day living is rough and the cops who perpetually work buy-busts see their arrests back on the street a few days later.

All it takes to upset this frighteningly accepted balance is a little push by somebody who may just be bored. Councilman Carcetti meets with Burrell to discuss how he can help the acting commissioner; it’s a meet loaded with slippery politics and racial tension. The African-American Burrell needs to remain loyal to the African-American mayor if he hopes to have the “acting” removed from his title. The white Carcetti knows that his chance for real political power in this city is a long shot, but he’s a charismatic young hotshot from a political family with long, deep ties. And he may be vainly ambitious enough to take a run at a sitting black mayor in a city where the voters are majority black by hammering the mayor on a point that ignores color lines in the media: crime. The city is losing thousands of residents a year to the counties, and it needs to show that it’s doing something about crime.

The similarities to the former councilman Martin O’Malley’s successful 1998 mayoral run are wonderfully unambiguous, lending The Wire’s meetings between politicians, law enforcement brass, and policy-makers the feel of candid portraits not meant for voters’ eyes. That these people are just as flawed, vindictive, scheming, and questionably motivated as drug dealers and beat cops is one of the show’s beautiful admissions. Whether the decisions made and actions taken are good or bad depends on which side you’re on, because instructions from on high are still just the boss’ orders. Either can get a man killed.

Such real-life ambiguities don’t end with The Wire’s plot lines. That deacon reassuring Maj. Colvin that he’s fought the good fight is played by Melvin Williams, better known to some Baltimoreans as “Little Melvin,” a near legendary local gangster profiled by Simon when he was a reporter at The Sun.

Melvin’s cameo is a reminder that The Wire’s characters are so fully formed because they’re created by writers with the firsthand experiences of journalists, detectives, and novelists. And their sincere affection for them—and lack of moral judgment—gives the show a sympathetic, hard-cutting life few TV shows or movies touch. They’re characters the writers knew and have been bouncing around their brains for some time.

For example, a 1996 Simon teleplay for NYPD Blue called “Hollie and the Blowfish” included a character named Ferdinand (Giancarlo Esposito), a snitch who makes his living by ripping off drug dealers. Split him in half and he becomes The Wire’s street-living informant Bubbles (Andre Royo) and the streetwise Omar (Michael Williams), one of the most complex characters of the small screen. The fearless gay hood who robs dealers’ stashes, Omar is one of The Wire’s more captivating and menacing personalities. He’s also the show’s moral center who best understands the “game,” the word both criminals and cops use for the roundabout life of the drug trade.

Calling it a game also captures the show’s offbeat sense of humor. The Wire would be depressingly unwatchable if it were only interested in drugs and murder. That its characters are surrounded by the game but exhibit a sidesplitting comic sense is the incandescent humanity that makes The Wire such a pleasure. Herc and Carver are those cops accustomed to bending the rules to suit their will, but they also banter about which guy they’d sleep with in order to have their sexual fantasy fulfilled while working buy-busts. The show’s co-creator Robert Colesberry, who played Det. Cole and who passed away in February, receives a fitting memorial in episode three, maybe the most hilarious solemn moment television has ever witnessed (where else are you going to see former Baltimore Police Commissioner Ed Norris puking on the sidewalk?). And in the second episode, Omar gets one of the best entrances since Orson Welles flashed but an arched eyebrow and smug grin in The Third Man.

It’s a gloriously witty moment that leads off one of the show’s typically intense episodes, and the unpolished movement from droll wit to debilitating despair paints The Wire’s reality as one presciently close to life as it’s lived. Cutty is shaping up to be the character whose story could hurt the most because you’ve seen him on the street. Like young dock worker Nick Sobotka (Pablo Schreiber) from season two—a guy smart enough to know that his union job has no future but without the options to break out of his neighborhood—Cutty feels trapped between crappy and crappier. He wears his criminal past in his rigid posture, able to observe a drug-corner operation and discern who’s running the show, but his wet brown eyes pool with the realization of 14 years wasted on the inside. He doesn’t want to return to the bad old things, but he knows he’s not going to save enough money to climb out of his hole working day labor out in the county. Maybe, just maybe, he’s old and wise enough to play the game and get out before it’s too late. The harsh suspicion you have while watching him move through his old neighborhood, though, is that his fate probably has nothing to do with how he plays the game, but how a city’s amorphous systems of power make the game play him.

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