You can’t spell “The Wire” without “Sobotka” — An examination of Season 2
by Jack M Silverstein (@readjack)
“You’re a Sobotka.”
“Fucked, is what I am.”
Season 4 would have been too late for Season 2.
When a new chapter of The Wire was born in 2006, 21 months after the end of Season 3, two significant story threads were already in motion: the simultaneous rise of Tommy Carcetti and Marlo Stanfield.
There were also changes for McNulty (now manning a beat in the Western), Cutty (now running his gym), Prez (out of BPD and pursuing a new and then-unknown career) and Daniels (a newly-minted major) that a new season would naturally address.
Season 4 needed to feel like a continuation of Season 3. The reason the fresh batch of school characters felt like a continuation rather than a departure is that the school story folds easily into the others.
Carcetti’s first administration-defining choice revolves around the school budget; Marlo helps corrupt Michael and doom Randy; Cutty interacts with all four boys at the gym; Prez teaches all four.
That wasn’t the case in Season 2. After spending 13 episodes learning names, faces, personalities and backstory of close to 30 characters, this unruly little show about Baltimore did (seemingly) a 180 and introduced a (seemingly) unaffiliated set of characters in a different part of the city.
For people who don’t like “the docks,” the complaints tend to echo how Fruit felt about Hamsterdam: “Why you gotta go and fuck with the program?”
Michael K. Williams has essentially said the same in multiple interviews, most recently at the PaleyFest reunion, and has always maintained that David Simon told him that branching out to the docks was the only way to tell what Simon viewed as the complete story, i.e. the story of an American city AKA the story of Baltimore AKA something greater than what was in Season 1 a melding and updating of previous Simon projects “Homicide” and “The Corner” with the casework of co-creator and former BPD detective Ed Burns.
“He looked at me with this patience in his eyes,” Williams told the crowd at Paley Center in New York, “and he said, ‘Trust me. If we go back to the projects, right back to that story line, we’re going to make this city and this story that we’re trying to build here look very small.’”
For the people who love Season 2 — and the sense I’ve always gotten is that most Wire fans do — a potentially jarring shift was more palatable in that second slot in the narrative than it would have been a season or two later, when audiences just want to charge through with the characters they know.
By taking the risk immediately, the show creators opened the door for requisite material that would threaten the story flow anyplace else. When Lester dropped what is surely the series’ epigraph (“All the pieces matter”), Simon and co. were tipping their collective hand about the forthcoming season on the docks, which itself is set up throughout Season 1, first with Landsman betting McNulty in the pilot that Rawls will make him ride the boat; then with West Baltimorians traveling to East Baltimore for their leisure time, including the spot where Poot & Wallace spot Brandon playing video games; and lastly in the introduction of the West v. East rivalry in both dope and hoops.
Season 2 feels self-contained compared to seasons 1, 3 and 4 because only two main characters return in any capacity that can be considered “co-starring” roles. The story feels removed from the whole. But it matters. For four big reasons.
- Like Simon said, it expands the city
If the goal of “The Wire” is to build an American city on television, then Season 2 gives us a crucial piece to that puzzle.
We see how the world of Season 1 was limiting — characters on both side of the law view Baltimore as simply West Baltimore, yet so much of their world is influenced by what happens on the other side of town.
The path Cedric Daniels takes from banishment in ECU to his short-lived stint as BPD commissioner goes straight through the Eastern District power structure. Marlo Stanfield’s future scaling of the Baltimore drug trade is enabled by the cooperative structure engineered by Stringer and Prop Joe and ultimately through Joe’s connections.
And while the dope that the Greeks funnel to Baltimore isn’t initially sold by the Barksdales, the examination of The Greek’s organization — including its connection to the FBI — is a reminder to viewers that in life and on the show, there’s always more to see and understand.
2. It expands the city thematically
By taking the story to people who have seemingly little to no connection with our main characters, the people we already know take on added dimensions based just on juxtaposition.
We learn more about Stringer and Avon by meeting Vondas and The Greek; more about D’Angelo by meeting Nick and Ziggy; more about Bodie and Poot by meeting Frog; more about Homicide and the detail by meeting the port police.
Later examinations of political corruption (Carcetti) and cultural corrosion (Marlo) can be viewed through the lens of not just what happens in West Baltimore or in City Hall but on the east side, with plenty of parallels to go around.
3. It advances the stories of the Barksdales and of Major Crimes
Simon was right — if the Major Crimes Unit came right back to West Baltimore, the entire storyline would feel like a repeat. Instead, by sending first the Prez/Valchek team and eventually the essential bits of the Barksdale detail into the world of Sobotka and the Greeks, the show could advance the story of the MCU while also giving viewers a safe place to latch on while navigating a new world.
As for the Barksdales, the show found a satisfying way to move that story into place for Season 3 without letting it A. overpower the docks story or B. get subsided completely in favor of the docks story.
You could actually break the Barksdale story into four, and kind of two, parts:
Part I: Season 1
Part II (epilogue to Part I): the first six episodes of Season 2, ending with D’Angelo’s death
Part III (prologue to Part IV): the final six episodes of Season 2, starting with D’Angelo’s funeral
Part IV: Season 3
4. It’s funny
With the epic fury of Season 3 coming followed by Season 4’s descent into hell, it was probably wise to give viewers the show’s funniest season to help them trek up the mountain before the two-season downslope of West Baltimore’s social erosion.
Consider that Season 2 includes…
…Bunk & Lester interrogating a stream of foreigners (with Lester doing his best Jules Winfield)
…Omar punking Levy in court
…This exchange between Bunk and Lester: “I’m just a humble motherfucker with a big-ass dick.” “You give yourself too much credit.” “Alright. I’m not all that humble.”
…McNulty’s bender for the ages (hands down the show’s funniest extended set piece)
…Horse taking Frank’s temperature on “fake tits” (“I can’t decide. Thus far I’m undecided on fake tits.”)
…The brothel raid, which opens with one of the show’s funniest exchanges (*knock knock knock* Madame: “Who is it?” Kima: “Baltimore Police.” Madame: “What do you want?” Bunk: “To lock yo ass up.”) and ends with one of its funniest images, Bunk & Kima walking in on McNulty closing the deal with not one but two escorts. (“You’re late.”)
I think much of the beef viewers have with Season 2 is with Ziggy Sobotka. They find him irrelevant at best and irritating at worst. But Ziggy is David Simon’s reminder to viewers that the ills of society extend beyond racism.
I cannot find the exact quote, but Simon has on a few occasions said that he believes class discrimination to be a larger issue than race discrimination. Understanding how someone like Ziggy can end up as a child left behind, as it were, is to understand the bigger picture that Simon sought out to reveal with the series.
I’ll leave actor James Ransone with the final word on the importance of Ziggy, and hence on the importance of Season 2, from his tweets in September 2013 about anyone who did not like his character:
When we were shooting the season, the only intention I had every day I went to work was to make Ziggy as comically ridiculous as possible. I always tried to find humor in the darkest corners of the story. So if you didn’t find Ziggy funny or ridiculous then it is my fault as a performer and I apologize to you.
However if you believe that the character didn’t fit into the show as a whole I beg to differ. He’s Fredo in the Godfather. He’s Frankie in that Springsteen song Highway Patrolman. I grew up with guys like him. I have him in my family. I was him at times in my life (sadly). He’s the dude that’s just smart enough to get what’s happening but too dumb to not let hubris dictate every decision he makes, but he’s still blood.
Look around your life. I’m sure you have your own.
Jack M Silverstein is a staff writer for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. Say hey @readjack.