Saturday, May 30, 2009
Every season of The Wire ends with a quiet cataclysm, a massive breakdown on both sides of the law that drastically alters the direction the show will later take. Yet these events, despite their epic impact, are dwarfed by a world that functions as if all these players never even existed. Even a microcosm like Baltimore slides further into decay unfazed by all the deaths, drugs and arrests that accompany every storyline. David Simon and his writers let neither the characters nor the audience bask in a sense of victory, as the real world does not allow such luxuries. The situation can only worsen, and any personal sense of accomplishment is soon buried under the world's indifference.
The third season finale was particularly devastating for the many characters who populate Simon's world: Major Colvin's Hamsterdam crumbled, an initially successful experiment that went horribly, horribly wrong, and with it went Colvin's career as well as clean streets in the rest of Baltimore. The Barksdale organization dissolved under the weight of betrayal and a massive police crackdown, resulting in the death of one beloved character and the arrest of many more. The dissolution of the Barksdale clan ensured Marlo Stanfield's rise to power, and he sets about creating a monopoly throughout the new season.
The end of the Barksdales also shifted the Major Crimes Unit severely. McNulty, satisfied with the bust, returns to life as a newly-sober patrolman and plays only a tangential role throughout this new set of episodes. Daniels inherits Colvin's position as much for his race as his competence, which is unfair as Daniels has more than proven himself by now, while Kima moves into Homicide. Only Bunk and Lester Freamon continue to slave away at the MCU, now pursuing the growing Stanfield organization.
But Marlo doesn't offer the same thrill that Avon and his crew did: Bunk and Freamon bemoan the fact that their new target doesn't burn disposable cell phones as quickly as their old foe, but the dealers also never discuss anything more serious than minor trafficking. Strangely, murder rates are down, and anyone who does die cannot be traced to Stanfield. This seems even odder when you consider the character of Marlo, a borderline psychotic who spent most of last season viciously forcing his way into Barksdale territory to make some hostile takeovers. Then we see two of his soldiers, Chris and Snoop, take a man into a vacant house, execute him, then board up the place. No witnesses, no body, no problem. Soon we learn that Marlo is every bit the sadist he was last season, but he's not as dumb as the cops think.
The new drug trade is one of three main narrative threads that tie the overall message of the season together, one that serves as the flip side of the economic decay. This season is all about morality, and how memories of the past -- a part of which is, naturally, the first three seasons -- serve to embitter its victims and beget even worse conditions. The transition from Barksdale to Stanfield reminded me strongly of Michael Corleone's ascension to his father's throne: Avon, though vindictive and a self-confessed thug, knew how to make friends and buy allies, and he treated loyalty like family. Though Stringer ultimately called a hit on a family member, he always tried to know beyond shadow of a doubt that the organization was in danger before condemning someone. Marlo, in contrast, is a loner; he has no family, treats his soldiers like soldiers and survives on a cold sense of rational evil. Anyone Marlo even suspects of snitching will soon be the owner of his very own boarded-up vacant home. It's certainly no Godfather-ripoff, but it displays with shocking clarity how dark the business is becoming even compared to its inherently seedy nature.
The second thread takes us in the opposite direction from the streets and goes right to City Hall. We met ambitious yet conniving councilman Tommy Carcetti last season, where he used Hamsterdam's failure to catalyze his budding mayoral campaign. Carcetti becomes a major player now, as his campaign opens up the political side of Baltimore to its closest inspection yet. Carcetti seems less like an arrogant prig this season, as the stress of the primary campaign against incumbent Royce takes its toll and makes him more sympathetic. Then again, he might only seem better by comparison: Royce always wore his corruption on his sleeves, but the deluge of new politicians only serve to reveal that Royce's ilk, though more exaggerated than the rest, is the rule, not the exception.
Even as Carcetti comes to believe his own rhetoric as his city tours engender a sense of civic responsibility in him, he still knows how to play the game, and much of his scenes involve setting himself up to be a white mayor in a black town. He looks for competence in his positions, but he and his advisors constantly consider the race of any potential ally. Meanwhile, Royce uses his access to big funds to run devastating smear campaigns. After the election ends, the backroom meetings only get more devious, as old alliances are severed and new people receive promotions. The politicians reflect the decline of Baltimore and, to a greater extent, America as they do everything in their power not to keep the city clean but their reputation. They pressure the police to keep crime rates down so it looks good for re-election. As the cops cannot handles the horrific crime rate as is, they simply do not pursue any lead that does not actively fall in their laps, allowing rape, burglary and murder cases to go unprocessed, which really only allows crime to increase.
The final strand, and the backbone of the season, concerns the next generation. We follow a group of neighborhood kids, the children of Barksdale dealers and common users, as they duck school and rebel when a truant officer finally brings them in. Chief among them are Namond Brice, Wee-Bay's son, who must deal on the corners practically because her mother demands he live up to his father's "example"; Randy Wagstaff, who unwittingly plays a part in one of Chris and Snoop's executions and spends the rest of the season under suspicion as a potential snitch; and Duquan "Dukie" Weems, a bright young boy who wears fetid tatters as his family pawn all of his possessions for drug money and don't pay utlities bills for running water. There's also Michael Lee, whose mother is also a junkie and who cares dearly for his brother, doubly so when their shady father returns after a years-long absence.
In class, they meet their new math teacher, Prez, freshly discharged from the police force due to the scandal over his accidental shooting of a fellow (black) officer. Prez hopes to really teach these kids but soon learns that the schools, like the cops, must "juke the stats to make the government look good. They don't teach the class, they teach the standardized tests, as one knowing teacher advises. But Prez deviates from curriculum in an attempt to find a bridge with these children, most of whom have already resigned themselves to a life on the streets. They shout profanity at the teachers, disrupt any exercise and some even attack each other with weapons.
As Prez attempts to relate real-world scenarios to appeal to the children, Bunny Colvin also finds himself at the middle school, and it appears he's not entirely out of crazy schemes. Along with a group of counselors and psychologists, Colvin proposes separating the calmer students from the ones exhibiting behavioral problems, allowing the teachers to have a more productive classroom while studying and helping the more rambunctious kids. Last season, Colvin addressed the elephant in the room when it comes to the drug trade by proposing a semi-legalization of the practice, and here he confronts us with the brutal truth of No Child Left Behind: it has failed our children miserably.
The depiction of the children demonstrates that the sins of the father are passed on to the child: Namond's twisted mother uses her husband's name to get her son prime corners to shuffle product, and she becomes infuriated when Namond shows any inclination that he hates dealing. The increased violence both terrifies and hardens the boys, and Colvin soon realizes that many of the kids in his special program use school as a safegrounds to practice their street attitude: the worst that can happen in class is suspension and expulsion, but it can toughen them against authority figures to keep them alive on the street.
Each of the main boys carries so much baggage and spends so much time teetering on the edge of falling into a life of crime that, unlike previous seasons, no one character serves as the personification of the message of that season. Dukie is the only one who clearly could have a successful future, but extreme poverty forces him onto the corners and his insecurity prevents him from making the most of his intelligence. Randy and Michael live in fear of incurring Marlo's wrath, and they react to it in wildly different ways. Of the main boys, perhaps Namond comes the closest to fully embodying the themes of the season; the only one of the group placed in Colvin's program, Namond tries desperately to act tough and deal to please his mother, but slowly he comes undone and wee see the child's potential, as does Colvin.
And through it all, there's still Bubbles, the backbone not only of the first season but the entire series. He's back to using full-time, but he also attempts to care for a young man he finds on the streets named Sherrod, going so far to put him back in school. Bubbles, erstwhile the most innocent and endearing of the characters, faces the increased coldness of the world as he must deal with a vicious addict who beats and robs him almost on a daily basis. Eventually Bubbles can't take it anymore, and we see him resort to drastic measures.
Aside from the depiction of the moral decay of American life, the fourth season of The Wire widens the scope to its most ambitious level yet after the third season narrowed things down back to the cops vs. dealers original format. It posits that the government's aid programs, though they come from the right place, became disastrous in their execution. It has not ensured every child a good education, it has condemned the smart ones to flounder with the children who need such programs to stay in school. Simon does not point the finger at any one party but instead highlights the flaws of the system, which self-perpetuate and expand with each dumbed-down, increasingly violent generation. In contrast to the scale of the season, the finale, the masterful "Final Grades," ends on the show's most personal note yet: previous seasons of The Wire used conflict as a microcosm for crime in America, but here the tables turn. This season takes the overarching themes of the first three seasons (drugs, economic hopeleness, government) and applies them all at once to the characters as if to dump the weight of the world onto them at last. Ergo, it comments on everything that's happened before while still devoting time to moving in a bold new direction. They even manage to end on a shot of a crossroads without seeping into cliché. Angel's fifth season might still hold the top spot in my personal list of television favorites but, as objectively as I can state, the fourth season of The Wire is the single best piece of T.V. ever produced.