The Return of Alan Sepinwall’s Writeups on The Wire

Nobody did "two men talking on a bench" like The Wire.

“Looks like you and me both trying to make sense of this game.”

“Speak your mind, Russell.”

— Stringer Bell and Bunny Colvin

Good news Wire fans! It’s the Summer of 2010, and that means television critic Alan Sepinwall is finishing his fantastic episode-by-episode writeups of The Wire. Sepinwall began his writeups during Season 4, which he covered as it aired. He continued the series when Season 5 aired in early 2008, and then went back to Season 1 at the start of that summer, followed by Sobotka, The Greeks, and the docks in Season 2 last summer.

His writeups of Season 3, the middle piece of the Wire puzzle, has now begun! The links are at his What’s Alan Watching blog, though the stories are running on I will post links at this spot each week, along with an excerpt (and probably an appropriate picture, because why not?).

Adjourn your asses.


ED NOTE: Sepinwall posts duel versions for each episode, one for show veterans, one for new comers. I am going to post the veteran ones; the corresponding “newbie” links can be found on each episode page.

Episode 1: Time After Time


Or look at Stringer’s address to the troops about the folly of fighting over turf instead of sharing in profits “like businessmen, make the profit, and later for that gangster bullshit.” Again, this is Simon and Burns using a central character to lecture both other characters and the audience on how the world should work, but it never feels like a lecture because the scene has one of the series’ most inspired, hilarious gags: educated, pretentious Stringer has decided to conduct the meeting according to Robert’s Rules of Order, which provides opportunity for lines like, “Chair ain’t recognize yo’ ass” and “Do the chair know we gonna look like some punk-ass bitches?” Bodie and Poot are ignorant and obstinate enough that the scene would have been funny even without the etiquette running gag, but with it? An all-time TV comedy moment.

Episode 2: All Due Respect


Season three is in a bit of an unusual position in that it begins with the MCU already up and operating without interference, but even here we see that their powers aren’t limitless, and their progress can still be halting. They overhear Cheese talking about killing “my dog” on the wire, assume the “d-a-w-g” spelling and burn their wiretap in hopes of getting Cheese to flip on Prop Joe, only to learn he meant “dog” in the literal sense. They appear to shut down the war between Chese’s crew and the group who fixed the dog fight, but scare everyone on Prop Joe’s side of things into ditching their tapped cell phones, wrecking the investigation before it gets anywhere near Stringer Bell.

Episode 3: Dead Soldiers


Carcetti, on the other hand, exists in that quintessential “Wire” grey area. His actions are improving things for the cops, but as with McNulty in season one, he’s doing it to show off and make himself seem important. He ignores Burrell’s request to not get him in trouble with Royce because he thinks he’s clever enough to pull it off, but he underestimates how much the Mayor values and demands loyalty. Like Jimmy, he has no problem stepping outside his marriage, but with the added twist that he’s narcissist enough to enjoy watching himself in the bathroom mirror even as he’s having sex with a gorgeous redhead. As with Omar’s raid on the stashhouse, Tommy doesn’t experience blowback directly, and because Burrell doesn’t suffer nearly as much as Tosha, Tommy doesn’t seem ready to stop his game anytime soon.

Episode 4: Hamsterdam


What he can’t tell them, though, is that he does have a solution in mind, and unfortunately for him, that solution doesn’t work out as well in reality as it did in Bunny’s head. Nothing on “The Wire” ever comes easily, or quickly, so of course the slingers and hoppers wouldn’t understand or believe the cops’ explanation of “Hamsterdam”. As Poot tried to tell Stringer in the meeting in the season premiere, and as Fruit tries to tell Herc and Carver here, there’s a way that The Game is played, everyone is used to it, and no one is interested in trying anything different. Bunny ultimately scoops up as many street-level dealers as his men can find and tries to explain the new world order to them, but they respect him far less than they do the school principal (quieting only when she addresses them, and then heckling Bunny once he’s back at the mic). How does a smart, mature man like Bunny deal with a completely upside-down world that produces these boys? Early in the episode Lt. Mello suggests Bunny’s lost his mind, but maybe insanity is the only proper response to West Baltimore.

Episode 5: Straight and True


We get a sense of this from the opening scene, where Bubbs is explaining his new snitching business model to Johnny, and Johnny simply doesn’t want to hear about it. Johnny has been taught (ironically, by Bubbs) to believe in the same stupid, backwards code of the street that the cops, the dealers and the fiends all have come to accept as a way of life, and any suggestion that there’s another way to do things is met with some combination of confusion, fear and outright hostility. Bubbs has finally figured out how to make money in The Game, by snitching and selling t-shirts, but all Johnny wants to do is keep running capers and risking beatings or worse.

Episode 6: Homecoming


Avon is so fixated on the Marlo problem that he barely hears Stringer’s attempt to tell him about Hamsterdam, and we see that Marlo is the next generation of Avon. Avon admits that he never expected to live long enough to have to worry about the kind of opportunities Stringer puts before him, and Marlo tells his advisor Vinson that he doesn’t care if his reign is short, so long as he gets to take his turn wearing the crown. There were complaints when Marlo was introduced that he wasn’t as charismatic or colorful as Stringer or Avon, but that’s the point. He’s the end product of the culture those two helped create. Stringer and Avon grew up in the world that Bunk did, and so they remember a life where drug trafficking didn’t dominate. They have outside interests, be it upward mobility or family. Marlo cares about nothing and no one but playing The Game until he’s crowned the winner, and Jamie Hector does a nice job with his stillness and understated delivery of showing just how dangerous that kind of tunnel vision can be.

Episode 7: Back Burners


The MCU spends much of the episode focusing on the Barksdale crew’s use of pre-paid burner phones, and we see that Stringer has set up a system for buying new burners with the same level of care and paranoia that he’s brought to every other part of the organization. Bernard’s orders are to buy no more than two phones from any location, and to cover a fairly wide territory, all so that if the cops somehow do find him buying a phone, it’ll only be a couple and won’t in theory lead elsewhere. (And, as Lester points out, getting a wiretap up is an almost impossible task.) But when you introduce Bernard’s impatient girlfriend Squeak into the equation, and when you have Stringer delegate oversight to Shamrock as he tries to be hands-off with the drug stuff, problems arise. Squeak doesn’t want to spend time following the rules, and when she sees Shamrock throw the receipts out without looking at them – a move Stringer never would have made, or at least not before the door closed – she pressures Bernard into taking shortcuts. And the last thing you want to do when Cool Lester Smooth is on your trail is to take a shortcut to anything.

Episode 8: Moral Midgetry


What an incredible scene. What patience it took on the series to get us there. Avon had to be in prison for all of season two so Stringer could get used to having sole authority, could begin moving behind his best friend’s back to found the New Day Co-Op, sic Omar on Brother Mouzone, and arrange D’s murder. Stringer had to be that comfortable for Avon’s return – and his insistence on being a soldier and not a businessman – to cause him such distress, just as Stringer had to be in power long enough to create a new business model for Avon to react so strongly against. McNulty had to take his sweet time finding out about D’Angelo, and visiting Donette, for word to eventually filter back to Brianna and make Stringer realize that his best, only move is to confess to Avon and convince him it was necessary.

Episode 9: Slapstick


Prez is a relatively minor character in “The Wire” scheme of things, but how good is Jim True-Frost when called to serve in this episode’s second half? He’s fantastic in the scene where Daniels tries to reassure him in Landsman’s office (as is Lance Reddick, for that matter), and Prez is lost in despair because he knows there’s no fixing it. It’s a great moment because of how much these two have been through, and the weight of that. Daniels saved Prez’s career after the Kevin Johnson incident, and while Prez has done a lot of good as the MCU’s research expert, maybe everyone involved would have been better off if Daniels hadn’t interceded back then. (Certainly, the plainclothes cop would have been.) And then we see Prez at the end, standing in the middle of the MCU office – a unit that wouldn’t exist without him pushing Valchek during season two, and that wouldn’t have been as relatively successful as it was without his work with Lester – and it pains him to realize he’ll likely never be in there again, even though he doesn’t want to be a cop anymore.

Episode 10: Reformation


The arrival of a reporter in Hamsterdam forces Bunny to confess to his plan at Comstat to a very displeased Burrell (and a horrified but amused Rawls). Avon’s war with Marlo has generated so much law-enforcement heat on dealers across town that the co-op is threatening to kick out the Barksdale crew – and that in turn pushes a desperate Stringer to drop a dime on his friend and partner to Bunny. And Stringer himself is in a world of trouble now that a healthy Brother Mouzone is back in town and looking for all the men responsible for him taking a bullet to the gut – which means Omar has plenty to worry about, too.

Episode 11: Middle Ground


Stringer knows he’s set up his friend to go back to prison, and Avon knows he’s about to send his friend to his death, but neither man knows what the other has done. So for the first time since right after Avon came home, the two appear at ease with each other – Stringer trying to be magnanimous in victory, Avon trying to give Stringer one last good time before Mouzone comes for him – but  eventually the tension overtakes the play-acting. Each man can sense something’s wrong, but they can’t tell if it’s their own guilty feelings about what they’ve done to each other. (Avon even quotes “It’s just business” at Stringer, only a few scenes after Stringer has used it on Bunny Colvin to explain why he’d send his friend to jail.) As I said to George in our interview, it feels like something from “The Godfather Part II” – only if Al Pacino and John Cazale had spent 36 hours building up their characters instead of 6. The scene itself is amazing, but it’s the years we’ve spent building up to it that makes it really resonate.

Episode 12: Mission Accomplished


This season was the story of two would-be reformers in Bunny Colvin and Stringer Bell. (Three if you count Carcetti, but we’ll get to him in a bit.) Both had spent a long time working on opposite sides of The Game. Both recognized the rampant, calcified stupidity that had enveloped their respective sides, and for very different reasons (Bunny to make his district better before retirement, Stringer to increase his bank accounts and decrease his risk of prosecution) both came up with a new way of running things. Both stopped looking at The Game as a war and started approaching it in a different way – Stringer as a business, Bunny as a public nuisance to be contained rather than crushed – and ultimately found a way to strip The Game of much of the violence that attracts the attention of cops like Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon in the first place.

And what did their more peaceful approach get these two visionaries? Stringer was executed inside one of the buildings he was hoping to use to build a life for himself outside The Game (and in part due to sins he committed in the name of reform). Bunny discovered that his invulnerable retirement was anything but, as he was extorted by Burrell and Rawls into resigning in disgrace, at a much lower pension level, and with his cushy private sector job taken away in the bargain. Hamsterdam is done as the department goes back to business as usual, and while the co-op still exists, Stringer’s empire died along with him, and his neighborhood is now run by violent independent Marlo.


2 Replies to “The Return of Alan Sepinwall’s Writeups on The Wire”

  1. Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you penning this write-up plus the rest of the site is very good.

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