Periscope Depth

there ain't no back in the day. ain't no nostalgia.

By Season 5, we’ve assembled quite a cast. We’ve got the cops – street level, detectives and command – all angling for position. We’ve got the dealers, all the way from the twelve-year-olds counting the stash to the masterminds dealing with supply. We’ve got politicians. We’ve got folks we picked up along the way, from the ports and the schools. It’s no longer just a TV show – it’s a real live city we’ve assembled.

Let’s start tearing it down, one brick at a time.

Season Five

Mayor Carcetti finishes learning the lesson he started last season: the View Never Changes. In order to scrape together $54,000,000 for the schools, he has to short the police budget something fierce. Unsurprisingly, crime skyrockets as a result. I consider it evidence of the writers’ genius that, in the process, they could make me feel sympathy for the ass-sucking, weaselly Burrell on his last day in office. “No one ever tries to tell Sanitation how to do their job …”

Clay Davis weasels his way out of trouble with some slick talk. And the writers don’t just tell us Clay has the gift of gab. Oh, no, sir. Listening to him on the radio (“can I tell it how I feel, brother?”) and at the courthouse, I half believed him myself. Why, Clay Davis just wants to spread some of the surplus of our rich city to the working family! Sorry he’s too unconventional for your hidebound besuited asses. Sorry he’s bleeding gold out of every pore in his body trying to keep West Baltimore afloat. Can I tell it how I feel?

The bloody cunning of Marlo Stanfield ramps into overdrive. He displays a remarkable naivete for the fundamentals of a criminal enterprise, but I buy it. I genuinely believe that someone raised on the street, without a formal education, could be completely ignorant of things like money laundering and offshore accounts. Fortunately, Joe takes him under his wing. Then, when Joe becomes, um, indisposed (one of the great twists of the season, by the way), Levy walks him the rest of the way.

McNulty, in a rare feat of drunken inspiration, comes up with the idea to stage a serial killing. He very quickly starts to buckle under the Weight of the Lie, generating more attention and more paperwork than he ever imagined. I had a hard time with this at first, but eventually warmed to it: McNulty has always believed that he’s the smartest man a hundred miles in any direction. He’s shown no problem stepping outside his bounds to give a case some real attention before (see: bitching to Phelan; faxing tide charts to the Coast Guard; etc). And he knows that a case only needs so much wind before it dies out and collapses in the uncleared file. Lester coming on board saved it for me, I think; he lent an air of sobriety (no pun intended) to some decidedly haphazard proceedings.

A lot of established critics loathed the Baltimore Sun storyline (a real shocker: Journalists Unhappy With Critique of Journalism; Film at 11). I didn’t have a problem with it at all. Maybe my econ degree speaks for me here, but I didn’t see Klebanow and Whiting as the cartoonish ogres that everyone else (Salon, TWOP, etc) seemed to. I saw another case of the institution steamrolling over truth – a harsh but realistic conflict between profits and justice. Same thing as juking the stats in Season 3, or the standardized tests in Season 4. I didn’t see Gus as the bleeding Christ figure that everyone else did. Sure, he takes the bullet for the sins of the paper, but he smokes and drinks and says “fuck” like a regular human being.

Templeton (edit – played by Tom McCarthy, Boston College class of ’88) … eh, the writers painted him a bit strong. Inventing a kid in a wheelchair after a day of striking out on Camden Yards interviews – that, I buy. We follow Templeton through his frustration, we wince a little at the cloying cliche of the cheat, but it makes him human. When Templeton fabricated details on what already sounded like a good story (the homeless Marine vet), I had a harder time with it. But when Alma dropped the bombshell that Templeton had never written word one in his notepad – the notepad he called attention to by screaming across a crowded newsroom at Gus – I checked out. The Wire had done such a good job in not serving us absolute villains, and then Simon, Burns and Pellecanos give us this sniveling tool. Oh, well. At least he didn’t let out a nefarious cackle at any point.

Omar goes out in the right way. His preternatural ability to set ambushes finally fails him. He jumps from a four story window and walks away – not with a limp but with a broken leg that probably sets crooked. He goes on a wild, ambitious campaign to draw Marlo out, a path that he has to know will end in his own death. Finally, he takes one in the dome when he’s not even looking. He nearly gets shipped to the morgue with the wrong name on his bag. You had to root for Omar while he was winning – but the Game always exacts the same toll.

The saga of Baltimore and the Game doesn’t come to an end in Season 5; rather, the writers simply get off at this stop. Everything comes around again. Carver becomes the new Daniels. Sydnor becomes the new McNulty (“just keep my name out of it”), although Kima jockeys for a piece of that action (“giving a fuck when it’s not your turn”). Marlo becomes the new Stringer Bell, though for how long we can’t say. Michael becomes the new Omar which, though it means an early grave for him, we have to applaud. Slim Charles becomes the new Prop Joe – and for all his talk about not dealing with the street, Vondas doesn’t quail from the musical chairs of ambitious dealers who’ve sat across from him. Valchek becomes the new Burrell (tell me you didn’t laugh knowingly at that one). Herc doesn’t quite become the new Levy, but he starts the journey – a couple years in law school and he could start representing little hoodies. Duquon becomes the new Bubbles and it breaks us all a little inside.

So who made it out of the cycle? Daniels, apparently. Pearlman, maybe. Bubbles, definitely. McNulty … ah, McNulty. McNulty’s the reckless jerk we all wish we saw in the mirror: a man who’ll stake everything – his friends, his health, his career – on a hunch. Jack Bauer, through a glass darkly. And just like Jack keeps getting in trouble in Los Angeles, no matter how much he loses, I think McNulty will find himself back in the Game at least one more time.

The season ended on a higher note than I thought it would, and for that I thank the writers. If Seasons 2 and 4 meant anything, this show had the potential to absolutely wreck me. But writers like Simon and Burns count Baltimore as part of their family. And you love your family, even when they beat you down.

  • “How my hair look?”
    “You look good, girl.”

  • Did anyone else find the quotes that opened each episode a little weaker than usual? They didn’t evoke anything. They didn’t come from strong or pivotal scenes. Episode 9′s quote, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it,” comes to us by way of Unforgiven. I think Marlo’s only moment of pure anger this season – “My name is my name!” – would have suited better. Ah, well.
  • “That sentimental motherfucker just cost us nine large!”
  • Say what you will about the Sun storyline: the writers used it to excellent purpose to show the small stakes of the Game. Neither Proposition Joe nor Omar, two of the most legendary names on either side of Baltimore, get so much as a paragraph when they die. If you consider that in line with Marlo walking up to a corner in the last minutes of the show – “you know who I am?” – the message rings clear: you do not triumph over the Game. Your name might ring out, but for how long or how far?
  • “Likely a white male in his late twenties to late thirties. He likely is not a college graduate, but feels nonetheless superior to those with advanced education … And he is likely employed in a bureaucratic entity, possibly civil service or quasi-public service, from which he feels alienated. He has a problem with authority and a deep-seated resentment of those who he feels have impeded his progress professionally. The suspect has trouble with lasting relationships and is possibly a high-functioning alcoholic, with alcohol being used as a trigger in the commission of these crimes. His resentment of the homeless may stem from a personal relationship with someone who is in that cohort, or his victimization of vagrants may merely present an opportunity for him to assert his superiority and intellectual prowess.”
  • Be honest: you got a little misty when you saw Namond holding court on stage at the Urban Debate League. Come on now. Don’t pretend. Meanwhile, I’m guessing the UDL does Parliamentary style debate, because I know from experience they know how to spread C/X in Baltimore. For real.
  • “In my neck of the woods, it’s a jungle out there. Everybody living hand to mouth. Improvising, hustling, making do with as little as you can imagine. Hell, that TV show…Survivor? Man, they want some good contestants, they need to come around Westside. And Fear Factor? Don’t even get me started. My world is strictly cash and carry. And I’m Clay Davis. My people need something, they know where to find me. Let me tell you, brother, I step out the door, hit the corner of Mosher and Pennsylvania, you better believe my pockets are bulging. But by the time I get to Roberts Street…”
  • Shardene’s still around!
  • “Goodnight, moon. Goodnight, stars. Goodnight, po-pos. Goodnight, fiends. Goodnight, hoppers. Goodnight, hustlers. Goodnight, scammers. Goodnight to everybody. Goodnight to one and all.”
  • The Pearlman / Daniels relationship bearing out makes me happy. No one promised it will last forever, of course, but it lasted this far. Each of them needed a strong partner (and a good time in the sack, too); they deserve each other.
  • “Close your eyes. It won’t hurt none.”
  • Mr. Prezbo looks good in a beard.
  • “You can go a long way in this country killing black folk.”
  • Everyone spotted Nicky at the opening of the condos on the old Granary Pier; a no-brainer. But did you spot Johnny Fifty in the hobo camp under the JFX? Hiding at the edge of the firelight? Bravo.
  • “I say this seriously: If I was laying there dead on some Baltimore street corner, I’d want it to be you, standing over me, catching the case. Because, brother, when you were good, you were the best we had.”
    “Jay, if you were lying there dead on some corner, it was probably Jimmy that done ya.”

  • I want to hear your speculation on where every character ends up three years from now. Shoot.
Tagged on: