Reconstruction, Adaptation- The Wire S02,E01: “Ebb Tide”

“She couldn’t survey the wreck of the world with an air of casual unconcern.”
― Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

Like any ambitious American novel, David Simon’s The Wire is about the build — the slow boil and the careful plotting. Season Two opens not with a bang, but a whir: Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) guiding his newly assigned propellor boat through the waters of Chesapeake Bay.  A freighter is having engine trouble, so McNulty and his new partner check out the scene. The ship? An affluent party boat named Capitol Gains. Its location? Right in the middle of  a blue-collar shipping lane. Symbolism on the high seas.

He and his marine unit pal survey the scene, but McNulty can’t pull his gaze away from the shoreline – a cityscape not of skyscrapers but of empty refineries and factories – a deindustrialized elephant graveyard of broken dreams, lost jobs, and urban angst. McNulty to his colleague, Claude: “My father used to work there.” Claude: “I had an uncle who was a supervisor there…got laid off in ’78” McNulty: “’73 for my dad”. The past. An irresponsible and uncaring bourgeoisie boat wedged in blue-collar territory? The present. “Couple more months it’s gonna be spring,” Claude says. McNulty, skeptically, retorts: “Spring, huh?” Like Spring will change anything. A not-so-promising future.
In just a few lines of dialogue and shots of the shoreline, Simon tells us all we need to know about context, and, as with Season One, there will be little to no hand-holding this season.The first episode of the season covers a lot of ground, and kickstarts quite a few storylines. The plot will come hard, fast, and in various Baltimore vernaculars.
Are you up for it?

We’ve moved from the high and low rises of the Baltimore projects to the high and low tides of its waters, so gear up for a deep dive into the Season Two of “The Wire”, starting with “Ebb Tide”.

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“Careful. Everything breaks.” ~ Major Stanislaus Valcheck to Prez

Our crime-fighting force is disbanded and its members work graveyard shifts in basements, bays, and backrooms;  Stringer Bell struggles to hold Avon Barksdale’s empire together; newly introduced stevedore overlord Frank Sabotka has resorted to working with the Greek mob to pay his bills and his men (more on him later). Broken careers, empires, hearts and people. An ebbing tide promises a flowing one, but there seems to be little hope in Baltimore’s waters.

Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski might argue otherwise, though.  After the first scene ends with McNulty accepting a bribe from the captain of the affluent Capitol Gains, we follow Prez pulling his own political strings. Buoyed by his Season One ascension from word-searching simpleton to case-breaking cop, Prez talks to his father-in-law, Major Valcheck, in hopes of getting a new assignment, “I was thinking, maybe, something in narcotics.” Valchek is too caught up in his own world to tolerate such romanticism, so distracted by the stained-glass panels being brought into the room,that he barely listens to Prez. His solution to Prez’s ambitions is for the young man to just keep ascending the food chain, from sergeant to lieutenant and to forget about working “good cases”.

“Look at that,” he cuts off his son-in-law, holding up a piece of stained glass, “It’s the dove.” It’s the epitome of Valcheck’s careerist myopia. It’s fitting that (see photo above) in one of the first frames of the scene he holds a stained-glass window pane, decorated with a policeman putting a hat on a child, in front of Prez. Instead of fostering the actual love and community the pane implies, the Major spends funds to purchase an heirloom – a false representation of that community – and it blinds him from seeing his own son-in-law’s ambition. We later find out the Major is donating the glass to the church for political sway – a move also being made by the dockworkers across town.

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“Attaboy. Make the family proud.” Frank Sabotka, to his nephew, Nick (above)

After the Barksdale case’s somewhat resolution last season, the question going into Season Two was how much will we continue to focus on the Barksdale family, or will there be another main storyline, another main family?  Simon, ambitiously (and seemingly successfully), has opted not to choose.

Instead, we continue to track the Barksdales and,  in “Ebb Tide,” we’re introduced to yet another crew: the blue-collar dockworkers, or “checkers”, of the Chesapeake Bay. The union leader, and head of this particular gang of stevedores is Frank Sabotka, who is trying desperately to keep their business afloat. Desperate times have him taking bribes on the side from the Greeks. In one of the episode’s more tense moments, Frank’s son Ziggy and his nephew Nicky meet with either the Greek (the leader) or one of em’. As viewers, we’re not sure why there’s so much tension, but I assume we’ll find out soon enough. Frank’s boys help the Greeks smuggle cargo in and out of the U.S. in exchange for dough, which he’s investing (in the form of stained-glass and political donations) in an attempt to get the canal cleared enough for more ships to come through (in cool, real-life news, they unclogged it!). I know, it’s a lot to follow – but if we eventually understood the sprawl of Season One, we should be equipped to take on Season Two, no?

So Frank takes money, buys stained glass (ironically, the pastor says he didn’t even have to), and in the process ticks off the aforementioned Major Valchek — the stevedores’ glass took the policeman’s spot. It seems a small squabble, but I assume Simon’s going somewhere with it.

Back to the docks. A scene at the local bar – clearly a place where all the checkers check in after work – sees Ziggy (Frank’s son) engaging in tomfoolery (do we really need a dick scene to show that he’s annoying as fuck?), and Simon writing some decent, if predictable, dialogue that stresses the generational gap and the sheer vitriol the dockworkers are capable of spewing. They aren’t happy, and they miss the old days when they had to work hard, and actually got paid for it. Globalization is not the working man’s friend. The scene is capped off by an episode-stealing bar-band rendition of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons”. If you haven’t heard the original, it’s a blue-collar staple about an iron miner and an absolute must listen. With lines like “I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine” and “Fightin’ and trouble are my middle name,” it encapsulates the stevedores’ angst.

“St. Peter don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go / I sold my soul to the company store” stings like a Baltimore winter sea-breeze… or maybe the realization that you’re harboring 12 rotting corpses in one of your cans…

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“This shits fucked up” ~ Stringer Bell

Ah, but let’s not get hasty – there’s a bit more plot (and a couple of excellent scenes) to work through before we meet Jane Doe and Co. – first, it’s a bit with Boadie and Stringer. In Stringer’s  stead, Boadie heads to Philly in search of dope (Barksdale’s factory got raided in Season One). Along the way, we get the funniest scene of the episode (given a strong run for its money by Herc’s “Affirmative Action for White People”), in which Boadie is deeply troubled and confused by the lack of good radio music on the road, “What…the radio on Philly is different?…Who wouldn’t want to leave Baltimore?” It’s a nice moment that recalls Michael B. Jordan’s Wallace questioning, “Cricket?” in the countryside last season. Boadie’s proclamation that violence isn’t the only answer (“When your brick brain gonna realize there’s more to this shit than just thumpin’ on n*ggas?) similarly recalls D’Angelo’s behavior last season. In some ways, he’s become the placeholder in the gang after the loss of both Wallace and Dee. Simon’s subtlety shines through via the talk show Boadie’s radio lands on: “Winters kill off the weaker varieties of caterpillars…that’s of an entirely different breed…it’s not a protection against caterpillars, they eat right through it, but the warning signs are there,” it informs Boadie, and us. Winter’s here, and the warning signs along with it. Will we see the weak die out, or heed the warnings?

Boadie and the gang, in the most lackluster subplot of the lot, lose the package and are forced to go home to Stinger empty handed. Barksdale’s empire is in crisis, so having Stringer set up shop in a funeral home is an effective, if obvious, metaphor. But the scenes set at Barksdale’s newest front are carried by Idris Elba, a massive presence as Stringer Bell. Watch as, when questioning Boadie as to a possible misstep, he slyly hands Boadie his mug, turns, walks, talks to his cohort, returns, grabs the mug, takes a sip, and licks his lips before uttering, “You got answers?” The Wire is seldom praised for its acting, but Elba makes a serious case for it in this bit – hopefully we get more of String this season.

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The first of (what will surely be) many dead bodies this season,

And so we arrive at the 13 DBs. Earlier in the episode, McNulty dredges a woman’s body out of the bay. BPD manage to pin it on county, but Jimmy sees an opportunity to get some revenge. He rebelliously, deviously, tracks the tides (to the fitting tune of Waylon Jennings’ “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”) and is able to pin the case on Major Rawls’ troupe – as if to say THAT’s for calling me SAILOR BOY!

 And so the Gant murder from last season has its equivalent. It looks like this murder is going to be the entryway for our BPD task-force. But it takes another 12 for this one to truly get up and running. The episode closes with the discovery of a dozen corpses in the shipping container Frank Sabatko allotted to the Greeks. Watching his face fade to fear is a powerful image. He knows it’s his fault, but he had to take the money, ’cause he had to fight for the union, ’cause his business is suffering, and it’s the city, and the environment that’s to blame. In the end, it is the environment that causes the tides, and it is the city that is destroying everyone and everything in and around it.

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A lone cop car amidst the labyrinthine, dense Baltimore docks, our setting this season. Hopefully the BPD have an easier time with the case than we did navigating this episode.

Verdict? A scattershot episode, plot-wise, with its finger in a lot of pies. It’s probably too dense. But there’s plenty of poetry here to savor and the groundwork has been laid for the season. Oh, and bonus points for McNulty looking adorable in his Marine Unit uniform.

Stray Thoughts

  • A short list of McNulty’s new nicknames
    • Sailor-boy
    • Barnacle Bill the Sailor
    • “Matey”
    • The Prince of Tides
  • The “I (heart) City Life” bumper in Bunk’s office.
  • McNulty ends up the last place he wanted to go (the Marine Unit) after being warned last season by Lester of exactly that happening
  • It’s nice to see that not even prison glass can keep Avon and Stringer from fist-bumping.
    • A question, though: in an organization predicated on family, how did String get so high on the food chain? Just that close with Avon?
    • Visually, in the same scene, Stringer’s face reflected against the glass so it matches with Avon’s affirms and crystallizes his assumption of command
      • “Sup, Fam.” :)`
  • Who was that old guy at the counter with Ziggy?
  • Bunk in a fedora + McNulty in a flap cap = two asshats
    • Bunk is only in a couple of scenes here – an all he does is talk about Omar… will he return next ep?
    • “Well, he’s not starboard.” — “That’s port, fool.”
  • Tattoos are an easy marker for the working class…why does Nicky have the symbol for pi on the back of his neck?
  • Calling Kima ‘One of the guys’ is both weird and nice, coming from Herc
  • Frank listens to 1950s pop tunes as does McNulty…is this just Simon contrasting the jazz and rap enjoyed by the Barksdale crew? Or is there more of a connection?
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