Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Wire — Season 3

[WARNING- Contains spoilers for previous seasons.]

Oh, The Wire, how I've missed thee. When I last left the streets of Baltimore, everything was, as usual, in disarray. Frank Sobotka's dealings with the Greek drug smugglers in order to keep the stevedores afloat back-fired in their inevitable way: the cops cracked down on the corrupt union, the real villains escape from U.S. jurisdiction, politicians sealed the fate of the dock workers forever, and poor Frank himself turned up face-down in the bay. I didn't know where they could go with all the new characters now scattered to the wind, but I couldn't wait to find out Unfortunately, school work got in the way, and I can't watch this show unless I'm solely focused on it. Well, the semester is ending, so I returned to my beloved crime drama to see where the Barksdales, the cops, and the stevedores would go from here.

As it turns out, I only needed to worry about the dealers and the cops. The stevedores, ripped apart by the death of their leader, the crackdown on their union and the certainty of job loss that came with the permanent closing of the grain pier, do not return this season, giving the last one a stand-alone quality that now makes me question my feelings for it. After all, the scope and connection of the show is what drew me to it in the first place. Nevertheless, if you think the abandonment of the characters of the second season signals a step backwards, boy are you mistaken.

For his part in solving the various cases related to the dock corruption, McNulty escaped his personal hell of the marine unit and found a slot on Daniels' newly-formed Major Case Unit. Partnered back with Kima Greggs, Prez and Lestor Freamon, he renews his attempts to dismantle the Barksdale organization with vigor.

However, his efforts might be wasted. With leader Avon in prison and Stringer Bell looking to escape the drug trade in favor of legitimate business, the Barksdales are starting to suffer. Still reeling from the closure of the 221 tower that served as their main hub, the dealers attempt to locate new territory to push their wares without violating Stringer's sterns views against using violence. We've seen him apply his business school acumen to the drug trade before, but now he seems to have slipped into a delusion that treating drugs like a real business will somehow provide him bridge to legitimacy.

But nonviolence and drugs simply don't mix, and soon Stringer and the dealers must cope with an upstart organization run by a violent and ambitious man named Marlo Stanfield. When the Barksdale clan moves into his territory and tries to stake a claim, he wastes no time asserting his authority, thrashing Bodie and his crew and igniting a war that Stringer desperately struggles to contain. Things only get worse when Avon gets paroled and immediately demands retribution. Stringer's protests fall on deaf ears: Avon tells his friend that he's "just a gangster" and doesn't understand going legit. But that's not the end of Stringer's woes: the truth about D'Angelo's "suicide" begins to get out, and now Bell must do all he can to keep Avon and Dee's mother from learning that he ordered the hit.

As the war between the Stansfields and the Barksdales escalates, Major Howard "Bunny" Colvin, now nearing retirement, receives an ultimatum from the higher-ups to reduce the murder rate in Baltimore to impossibly low levels to aid the mayor's re-election campaign, and he comes up with a shocking idea: round up all the dealers and the junkies, place them in an abandoned part of town, and essentially let them deal and use, provided they stay off the streets elsewhere. He enlists a handful of officers and detectives -- among them Herc and Carver, beefing up their roles significantly -- to not so much maintain order as ensure the occupants keep their wares within the "city" limits.

For a time, Hamsterdam indeed cleans up the streets of Baltimore; at a town council meeting, one woman remarks that things have calmed down so much she had a nice chat with a police officer like people used to do back in the good ol' days. Apart from a handful of police, no one knows about Colvin's little experiment, but the commissioners and the politicians can't help but be suspicious when he starts reporting massive drops in violence rates. Soon, the area dubbed "Hamsterdam" becomes a hell on Earth and, as David Simon tells it, a metaphor for the war in Iraq. The cleanliness of the Western District's streets is juxtaposed with the terrifying anarchy of Hamsterdam. With gun crime initially low and both organizations turning major profits, Colvin gets lax and believes his plan might work. Then the makeshift city begins to eat itself, transforming into a flaming pit that looks like a constant riot zone. It sets up the inevitability of failure, but the fallout is much bigger than anything Colvin could have predicted.

If the second season gave us a taste of city politics, this new set of episodes throws us neck-deep into the slimy machinations of those who can spew outrage on a dime when it comes to the drug problem but secretly admit that drug money lines the city's pockets and the issue itself gives them something to rail against. We chiefly follow rising star Tommy Carcetti, an ambitious councilman seeking to supplant mayor Clarence Royce. Carcetti does little to endear himself to the audience: he's a manipulative, smarmy S.O.B., somehow connected in all the right places and willing to pull as many strings as he can at once. Thankfully, the writers don't paint him or the rest of the local politicians entirely as heartless, two-dimensional villains, and Carcetti seems genuinely troubled when he must face the truths of the drug war, even if he immediately compartmentalizes that shock and turns it into campaign fodder.

The second season of The Wire, though perhaps not as astounding in retrospect, turned the show from an outstanding if familiar crime drama (the first season bore more than a passing resemblance to Simon's old program Homicide: Life on the Streets) to something completely unique. But this third season assures its greatness by depicting the horrific truth of the War on Drugs, even if it stretches reality to do so. Even without the stevedores, the scope expands past anything I've seen before and so much ground is covered in these 12 episodes that a review 5 times as large as this could not hope to cover everything worth mentioning. I still have to watch where the final two seasons take me, but at this point I almost feel no qualms at all calling The Wire just about the best program I've ever seen.

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