Frustrated by the lack of funding for the police, McNulty messes with a crime scene to suggest a serial killer is loose; meanwhile, a hotshot reporter invents a handicapped Orioles fan
Clark Johnson, The Wire
Credit: Paul Schiraldi

”The Wire” recap: Fooling the public

Last week’s season-premiere episode got my blood pumping again after all those months of Law & Order reruns. And as traditionally is the case with the second and even third episodes of a season of The Wire, this episode was like hitting page 50 in a really killer novel. It was time to turn down the heat a little and do some artful setting up for the long road ahead.

Last night’s epigraph — ”This ain’t Aruba, bitch” — was delivered by a slurring Bunk at the bar. All those black bodies found in the rowhouses aren’t enough to warrant a continued investigation, and Bunk, McNulty, and Lester tried to drink away their disgust. Perhaps if those bodies had been white; better yet, if just one of those bodies had belonged to a white teenage cheerleader who had gone missing on an island spring break. Now that would warrant front-page news despite being a cold case for months now.

This was one of those episodes that a fan would want to listen to again just on tape, driving in a car down a farm road at night. There were a handful of lines that could have served as the damning epigraph that begins each hour. The assistant DA threw up her hands to McNulty, pleading not guilty about the shafted Marlo case. ”Rules are rules, Jimmy,” she said. ”There are no f—ing rules,” he spat back. ”The f—ing game is rigged.” Or Bunk, a fatter and seemingly happier man than his cracked partner ever could be, chiding McNulty for his professional curiosity: ”There you go,” he said, ”giving a f— when it ain’t your turn to give a f—.”

McNulty wants to get those rotting bodies some peace, or at least he doesn’t want to be told that he can’t. After seeking out the help of his fed friend — and engaging in some cute chain pulling in the parking lot — he realized that he’s going to have to play dirty like he likes it to revive some city interest in the case. A chance encounter at the morgue taught him that dead bodies can be messed with after the fact in ways that could suggest foul play when there was none. So, after slugging on a bottle to numb his nerves, our fair Jimmy choked and otherwise mistreated a corpse. If some dead black men from West Baltimore can’t get his department’s and the media’s attention, surely a serial killer on the loose will. McNulty’s a dirty dog, an antihero in ill-fitting pants, and could any of you ladies out there look in the mirror and say you wouldn’t be a sucker for his wretched charms yourself?

There’s another dog out there, though this one deserves a kick in the chops. Scott over at the paper is a pasty, hungry, two-bit fraud, and Gus knows it. Baseball season is on, and the big man wanted a tearjerking curtain-raiser to run on the front page. (This same editor wants a narrow-minded, context-free series that paints in purple prose the ”Dickensian lives of city children.” Boy, would he have choked on the copy Simon and company churned out last season about a castrated system that failed broken kids.) Scott, that yick-yack, wanted a portrait of an old tobacco-chewing fan who lives for the game but, in a series of depressing shots of an eager journalist bothering uninterested ticket holders for a quote (”f— baseball!”), came up empty. So that sorry squirrel cooked up a story about E.J., a kid in a wheelchair after a stray bullet robbed him of his legs, a lost boy without parents who just needs nine innings to make it through another dreary day. Dang, no photo, and no last name, but those are the breaks, right? Gus smelled a rat, but the boss man cared only that it was a soppy read. Fry him, Gus.

There’s so much dark humor over at The Baltimore Sun, and rich, vibrant characters to mine. It’s a great credit to Simon, himself a former newsman, that he waited so long to dive into muck he knew so well. Take the smokers’ corner, where news vets marvel that it’s always mothers of four who end up in their leads. Or innocent bystanders, they’ve got the damnedest luck. And where, wondered a potato of man, are the statuesque blondes from yesteryear’s stories? That scene was killer, as was the one with Gus waking up in a panic at 1 a.m., terrified that he’d transposed some statistics. When Gus called over to the night desk manager — he of the evacuation bon mots from last episode — the image of a couple old farts shepherding the paper to bed, hours after all the slick youngsters had vacated the premises, was downright romantic.

NEXT: Avon calling

Look at me, waxing on like an old fart myself, burying the lead that Avon is back on the scene, a kingpin from jail. A sight for sore eyes, he surprised Marlo, who thought he’d arranged for a simple meeting with the fearsome Russian Sergei. Marlo wants to cut East Baltimore out of the loop, and he needs the Greeks to help him. But first he had to send 100 large to Avon’s sister (a woman whose cold ferocity rivals Snoop’s). And we got a brief look at Clay Davis, who popped into the commissioner’s office and whinnied at him like a stuck pig. Meanwhile, dear Michael, his shield of anger popped by the sight of a young boy his brother’s age fleeing gunfire, looked like he was heading for a crisis of conscience. Why, he had asked Snoop and Chris, did they have to kill someone simply for talking trash? The fact that he’s asking such questions should give us both fear and hope. Maybe he’ll escape the world of Marlo, or maybe he’ll simply pay for needing and wanting a different life.

Which brings me finally to Bubbles, who doesn’t seem sure what type of life he’s meant for. ”Wouldn’t you rather serve?” the kindly man at the soup kitchen asked. Nah, he’s not ready to put on a public face, not for the folks hungry for revelation at the AA meetings and not for the men and women looking for lunch. Life seems too hard and raw for this man, as it does perhaps for all of us who have been sucked into this world. Poor Bubbles, trying to eat his lunch and block out a woman threatening her young child. Poor Kima, who, when confronted with a scared, blood-spattered little boy in a closet, snatched him up and cradled him to her breast. Poor Lester, happily cocooned in his stake-out car, munching on chips, waiting for clues, listening to the blues. But this is The Wire, and the song was ”Piece of My Heart.” And in the background, a careless mother dragged her child up the street, tossed him in the house, and left him there alone, wailing behind a screen door, open to the Baltimore night. It’s a wonder we all keep coming back for more.

But what did you all think? Did your adrenaline cool a notch in this set-up episode? Did I correctly understand McNulty’s machinations with the corpse there at the end? Can Steve Earle act? Is Michael going to make a break for it? Will we ever see Prez again?

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