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Monsoon's "The Wire" Notes - Episode 54

“The Wire” Episode 54 – TRANSITIONS

Notes and observations

Please be advised that this episode of “The Wire” is available only HBO On Demand and will not air on HBO until Sunday, January 27th at 9pm. The material below includes spoilers, so please do not read further if you do not want to know what happens in episode 54.













Episode 54 (tagline: “Buyer’s market out there” – Templeton) is one of those Wire episodes that is more about setting up explosive scenarios than actually depicting explosive action. (Though the ending is certainly haunting and startling.)

It begins with Tony Colicchio (Benjamin Busch) and another narcotics detective staking out a corner observing a young boy openly placing a lunch bag under a stoop, which they assume is filled with drugs for sale. They roll up and make everyone present get up against the wall. Soon Tony (the hot-headed police with the faux-military jackbooted flat-top) retrieves the paper back and sticks his hand inside, only to find that there is actually feces inside, and he has been the butt of a childish prank. In his anger and embarrassment, Tony begins slamming the boys against the police van and wantonly arresting them for little apparent reason. Soon Carver arrives and questions why it is necessary to block traffic in all directions with this police action. Just then an African American motorist asks insistently—but politely—that one of the police cruisers be moved so he can get where he’s going. Tony attacks the motorist, pulling him halfway out of his driver’s side window, before being restrained by several other officers. Most troublingly, I was not surprised by such openly unethical and racist conduct.

Later in the show, Carver tries to coach Tony on how to write up the report and informs Tony that he had been beating on a teacher who was trying to get to an after-school program. When Tony asks why the teacher hadn’t said that, Carver snaps back, “He didn’t have a chance.” Tony’s anger again boils to the surface when he says of the teacher, and the idea of writing a report explaining his actions, “Fuck his ignorant ass.” It’s difficult to think of a more poignantly ironic statement in the history of the show—an African American teacher trying to get to an after-school program is beaten by an unhinged cop, but the teacher is the ignorant one.

As a result of his actions and lack of contrition, Carver informs Tony he’s going to write him up for “excessive force” and “conduct unbecoming.” Toward the end of the show, Herc comes by to have a beer with Carver in the squad lot and tries to intervene on Tony’s behalf. Herc—who is predictably friends with Tony—tells Carver that Tony is facing suspension and all but asks Carver to reconsider. Carver then tells Herc about the situation involving Randy from last season, when Herc was supposed to deliver him the boy as a witness, with tragic consequences. Carver sums up how dramatically different his and Herc’s paths have diverged by saying, “It all matters. I know we thought it didn’t, but … it does.”

On to the newsroom, where Scott Templeton is discussing with Alma whether he should take the “Preakness piece” or the one about a firefighter’s death to his interview with the Washington Post. While Templeton is focused on his interview, Alma is excited by rumors she has heard that Mayor Carcetti will be firing Burrell today. Again a contrast is evident here: Scott is dedicated to furthering his own career, while Alma is focusing on doing good journalism.

Since the show is constantly being compared to a novel, I’ll apply a literary term here: foil. Foils are characters that are opposite in nature, and whose contrasting characteristics highlight these traits in one another. An example from the literature I teach is in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: while Hamlet is pensive and unwilling to take action—he thinks but does not act—Laertes is hot-headed and rash—he acts before he thinks. Laertes’ impetuousness serves to underscore Hamlet’s lack of action, and vice versa. Foils in “The Wire” off the top of my head include Carver and Herc (one dedicated and responsible, one not); Scott and Alma (one a career-focused fabricator, the other an eager and passionate journalist); Gus and Whiting (one of whom yearns for the days when journalists were allowed to do their jobs, the other a corporate automaton with his head up his arse); the examples are many. The idea with foils is not that one character is all good and the other all bad, but simply that there is some aspect of their behaviors and natures that provide a striking contrast. This topic might be an interesting one to parse further on the message board.

Templeton’s interview at the Washington Post is a disaster. In it, we learn that he started out at the Wichita Eagle, then went to the Kansas City Star for three years, and has been at The Sun for two years. The interviewer (I’m unsure of his position at the paper) says of his feature article, “Your feature work is a little raw, language-wise,” meaning that Scott’s writing is too colorful, peppered with colloquialisms and flowery adjectives. Scott says that his editors encouraged him to write that way, but that “I prefer to write it dry,” meaning just the facts, with plain prose. We know this to be utterly false, of course; not only does Scott like to write florid prose (referring to Oriole Park at Camden Yards as a “Colosseum”) but that he also likes to invent quotations and perhaps even people altogether. Scott also shoots himself in the foot when the interviewer notes that “The Sun’s a fine paper” and Scott replies, “Before the cutbacks, maybe,” after which the interviewer notes that The Post is still scooped by The Sun on occasion. Bashing one’s current employer is unattractive in interviews—and seriously diminishes his own value: if he works at what he thinks is a shitty rag, what kind of experience will he bring to us? Scott is told his résumé will be kept on file and sent briskly on his way. (When Alma later asks him how the interview went, he delivers the episode’s tagline: “Buyer’s market out there” and adds, somewhat unconvincingly, that “The Sun’s not so bad.”)

In the ensuing newsroom scene, one of the reporter’s chairs has an “I’m union and proud!” sticker on the back, which was a nice touch. It’s the attention to detail, as always, that makes this show what it is. (The “Fill-It-In” puzzle books on Prop Joe’s table later in the episode are another one of these seemingly throwaway touches that enhance the show’s naturalism.) Alma and another reporter are struggling to get comments or confirmation (even off the record) from police and government sources about the commissioner’s imminent firing, again underscoring the value of veteran reporters and their well-cultivated sources. Twigg, who is packing up his desk on his last day, gives the younger reporters a “gift” by placing a call to one of his sources (was it Stan Valchek?) as the e-dot deadline approaches.

At Carcetti’s “grip and grin” press conference, with Burrell and Daniels standing behind him, the mayor pays bureaucratic, politically prudent tribute to Burrell on his “retirement” while Gus, watching in the newsroom on television with a group of other reporters, “translates,” giving up the true meaning behind Carcetti’s pedestrian statements: “He feared and hated me, and I merely wanted him dead,” which sounds like Gus is quoting someone, but I can’t figure out who. When Carcetti talks about Burrell’s having played a role in “making Baltimore a safer city,” Gus quips, “don’t stray from the Inner Harbor,” and finishes off Carcetti’s speech with “It took a while, but I finally put his ass out to pasture.” When the mayor presents a plaque to Burrell at the end of the news conference, Gus says, “Plaques for hacks – prerogative of any big city mayor.” Gus Haynes is every bit the world-weary cynic, and Clark Johnson plays him with aplomb.

Soon, Managing Editor Thomas Klebanow, who has observed the tail end of Gus’s remarks, asks where the paper is with the story. Gus tells him that Twigg was the one who could “work department sources” and that a “veteran in the cop shop is what gets us over on a story like this” but, he adds sarcastically, “fuck if we didn’t buy ours out.” Klebanow’s response, which manages to be condescending while seeking to defuse the employee’s anger, will be familiar to anyone who has dealt with a hard-headed, perpetually-missing-the-point member of middle management: “I understand you’re disappointed with the cutbacks, but civility is important. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about your profanity. … A collegial atmosphere is essential.”

Immediately thereafter, the local news shows Clay Davis’ “perp walk,” orchestrated by the state’s attorney, leaving his Grand Jury testimony. (His comments to the assembled television reporters are vintage, oily Clay Davis, who composes himself quickly after being badly shaken when Rhonda reveals some of the evidence they hold against him.) Gus is dismayed to see a story on TV that his own paper has missed completely. When he calls over Bill Zorzi, who covers the Federal courts for The Sun, Zorzi reminds Gus that the paper no longer has daily city court coverage. Zorzi tells Gus facetiously that he’d be happy to take on the city courthouse coverage as well. “In fact,” he generously offers, “why don’t you just stick a broom up my ass and I’ll sweep the floor while I’m at it?” Great line, oft-repeated, can’t find its origin for the life of me.

Scott’s going to help Zorzi run down the Clay Davis story and play “catch up.” Gus closes the scene by lamenting the fact that when the state’s attorney leaked the fact that Clay Davis would be leaving his Grand Jury testimony (“setting up a perp walk”), the newspaper did not get a phone call. “All they care about is the video,” he grumbles.

The next newsroom scene is in the tradition of the “evacuate” scene in episode 51, and is one of the reasons I’m loving this season, as someone familiar with the journalistic profession, as an English teacher, and as a lover of language. A copy editor asks Gus to take a look at the “fifth graph” (paragraph) of Alma’s article about Burrell. It reads, “The mayor, incensed by the commissioner’s performance,…” Jay reads the copy and says “to incense is to inflame with wrath; it speaks to obsession. Is that the mayor’s state of mind?” Jay suggests they use “galled, vexed, annoyed—safer still, displeased.” This sort of back-and-forth banter and debate was more common in newsrooms of old, but is increasingly rare at today’s understaffed, overworked newspapers with high turnover. Gus admiringly says to Jay, “You’d take the crab out of crab soup,” by which I think he means that he’d cut anything unnecessary or errantly cited.

Gus also gives Scott a rare “atta boy” for his work on the Clay Davis piece, which is not likely to be his choice of words when it comes out that Scott has been cooking his articles.

(A possible error I noticed, which doesn’t happen often on “The Wire”: I thought Alma had the byline on the Burrell article, but when Landsman is reading the paper, it’s difficult to read but I think it’s Roger Twigg on the byline.)

Near the end of the episode, Prop Joe brings Marlo to meet with Levy to discuss his finances (namely, laundering and hiding them more effectively, it would seem). Sitting in Levy’s office reading the paper is Herc, now an investigator. Marlo looks at Herc and asks, “you ever find that camera?” and Herc replies, “it cost me the job.” Herc is such a clueless dolt that I actually enjoyed the fact that Marlo needled him here. As Levy meets privately with Marlo, Herc then makes small talk with Prop Joe about the fact that Burrell is out as commissioner. Prop Joe says, “Ervin was a year before me at Dunbar. He was in the glee club.” Pressed further, Joe says Burrell was “stone stupid.” “Dunbar” refers to Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Baltimore, named after the African American poet (the school’s sports teams are even called the Poets).

Continuing with Prop Joe, who had a strong presence in this episode… He begins the episode in a flower shop, purchasing a funeral arrangement—foreshadowing if I’ve ever seen it—for Butchie. The card, according to Joe, should read, “Woe to them that call evil good, and good evil. Your true and loyal friend, Proposition Joe.” It’s an approximation of Isaiah 5:20: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Who to those who are wise in their own eyes, and clever in their own sight!” Aside from its obvious implications to “The Wire” universe, sending that card to Butchie’s funeral not only sent a message to Omar that Joe was not involved in Butchie’s murder, but also sealed his fate with Marlo.

At the end of the episode, Prop Joe thinks he’s going to go away for a while to get out of Omar’s path, but Chris and Marlo emerge and it becomes clear to Joe that he is to be killed. In true fashion, his final words are, “A proposition, then…I’ll just go away, and you’ll never see me again.” Marlo assures Joe that he could no more change what he is that Marlo could. Then, in one of the most chilling scenes on the show, Marlo speaks in almost soothing tones to Joe, who sits before him at the table: “Close your eyes, relax. There now, breathe easy,” at which time Chris points a gun at the back of Joe’s neck and pulls the trigger. Marlo’s eyes—cold, remorseless, soulless—gaze dispassionately at Proposition Joe’s body, and the episode ends.

Judging from the previews—was that Snoop and Omar having a shootout, with Omar ducking behind a couch?—the next episode will be breathtaking.

Posted on Monday, January 21, 2008 at 10:15AM by Registered CommenterMonsoon Martin in | CommentsPost a Comment | References1 Reference

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