It's called "The Dickensian Aspect," but to me much of this seg of "The Wire" seems to explore the mystery of how life, and death, are influenced by random elements, chance encounters and moments of opportunity seized and exploited.
Mayor Tommy Carcetti (played by Aidan Gillen, pictured above) stumbles across homelessness as the Big Issue that could carry him to the governor's mansion. Det. Jimmy McNulty happens across a hard-luck homeless beggar who is unknowingly recruited to take part in the plot to squeeze more coin for police work through the concocted homeless serial killer. Scott Templeton for once actually does some real reporting, and finds the satisfaction comes with pounding the pavement.
As much as all these characters are inveterate operators and schemers, in "Dickensian Aspect," written by David Simon and Ed Burns and helmed by Seith Mann, the character portraits become that much more rich because we see them working largely on impulse, and more important, we see what impulses and instincts rise to the surface when confronted with situations they can use to their advantage.
The characters that buck this theme in the seg are dope kingpins Marlo (pictured left) and Omar (pictured right). Marlo here is playing Michael Corleone in the first hour of "Godfather II." He's carefully plotting his takeover of the five (or more) corners, putting his capos in place and laying down the law to others in the collective. (There's a great scene where Marlo, never one for sentimentality, dispenses with the murder of Proposition Joe and another dealer, appoints their successors, announces there will be no more meetings, ups the bounty on Omar's head and announces that the price of "the brick" is going up.)
Marlo's every move is plotted and protected by his muscle -- and part of the tension of course is that we know at some point there will be a slip up, some fraying in the cocoon he's spun around himself. He's either gonna get got by madman Omar or a few determined Baltimore cops who haven't forgotten that Marlo's behind the largest string of mass killings in B-more history.
Omar, on the other hand, is fueled by psycho-vengeance, a type of dope more powerful than anything offered on the corners.
He's not incapacitated by his madness -- in fact he's quite resourceful and organized. After miraculously surviving the shootout in the condo of one of Marlo's lieutenants, Omar pulls off another amazing stunt by surviving a jump from a seventh-floor patio and disappearing into a basement of the condo building. He sets his broken ankle with a towel and turns a broom into a makeshift crutch, and then hobbles off to seek more revenge. And it's clear that he's put some real fear into Marlo and his crew. "That's some Spider-Man shit," Marlo sez as he surveys the scene of Omar's mysterious disappearance. Great acting by Michael K. Williams as Omar, who made viewers feel his desperation, sweat and the searing pain of a broken ankle while he was trying to pull himself together in that basement.
Meanwhile, Mayor Carcetti appears to have juiced his future political prospects with his impassioned statement ("We will be judged what we provided to the weakest and the most vulnerable in our city") at the press conference on the search for McNulty's serial killer stalking the homeless, a passion mostly because he was pissed off about the minuscule press turnout earlier in the day for his unveiling of a redevelopment plan for a waterfront area of the city.
In that scene, there's a heckler that interrupts the news conference, slinging insults at the "yuppie from Washington" developer that is behind the "New Westport" redevelopment. The developer guy (whose name I didn't catch) brushes the heckler off as "nobody" when Carcetti asks about it, but of course we all know there's gotta be something to this. Not many wasted words or scenes in this show.
Loved how in the scene that follows the press conference Carcetti and his staff are slow to realize how good he was at the press conference. Hizzoner's top aide Norman Wilson isn't sure how it's going to play -- you can tell that by the quizzical look he gives Carcetti as he launches into his speech at the press conference. Later, Carcetti's still mostly annoyed at how much attention the serial killer thing is getting the national media.
"Fuck already, how many shit balls are there," Carcetti says, bemoaning his problems with the schools, cops, budgetary issues etc. But a little while later, probably after making some calls to others for their thoughts, Norman assures Carcetti that it played very well and that "the spirit was on you." In an instant Team Carcetti starts plotting how to use the homeless issue against the mayor's Republican rivals.
Over the Sun newsroom, where stuffy editor James C. Whitting has thrown over the schools project in favor of a full-court-press on the "Dickensian aspects" of homelessness, Templeton (played by Tom McCarthy, pictured left) is still insufferable and spouting false modesty for his fakery on getting a call from the serial killer. As is the natural course of a media frenzy, the Sun starts getting media requests for Templeton to go on air.
When Templeton feigns concern about the propriety of him doing media -- "I'm just not all that comfortable having myself in the story like this" -- you can just feel his colleagues wanting to smack him for his dis-ingeniousness. When Templeton winds up on Headline News with the always over-the-top Nancy Grace calling him "Baltimore's Jimmy Breslin," you can almost hear the gagging sounds in the Sun newsroom. But the bosses love it because it's getting the Sun national attention. It's so true that these media-saturated times, the measure for reporters of a really good story or scoop is how many other outlets pick up the story, and how many of them credit your paper as the source.
To the credit of "Wire" scribes David Simon et al, Templeton is not a 2-D villain (as much as I've come to love hating him). He does have talent as a writer. That's demonstrated in city editor Gus Haynes' praise for the legitimate story that Templeton reports on the Iraq war veteran after his "night out with the homeless." (Memo to white reporters hitting the mean streets of any major urban center: Don't go out to talk to people in the hood wearing a Kansas City Star T-shirt, as Templeton does. Might as well scotch-tape a bullseye on your back.)
McNulty's big move in this episode is finding an unwilling recruit to help further the homeless serial killer narrative. (I had to watch these scenes twice to understand exactly what was going on.) Det. Lester Freamon finally figures out through his illegal wiretap of Marlo's cell phone that Marlo and his team are sending cell phone photos to communicate with their dope suppliers and others. Freamon needs more special equipment to intercept the photos.
At first, McNulty (pictured right) balks, realizing how deep he's already in, but his innate creativity kicks in when he sees a hard-luck beggar in the street who clearly needs regular medication to stay on planet Earth. In an instant, McNulty dreams up a plan to send Templeton photos of a prospective victim and say they're from the serial killer. When Freamon suggests it's kinda like kidnapping, McNulty has his moral cover already in place. He tells Freamon he asked the guy if he wanted $100 to go have dinner, and he "didn't say no."And yes, McNulty has tucked a C-note into the guy's tattered jacket.
McNulty's emotional conflicts in all of this are so well rendered by actor Dominic West, with glances and grimaces. We feel his unease rising, but the renegade in him keeps telling him that he and Freamon are too close to bagging Marlo to drop out now. The scene with a tipsy McNulty complaining to a statue of ? (I think it was George Washington but not positive) is priceless.
McNulty's disapproving partner Det. Bunk Moreland has perhaps the most colorful line in this seg: "My heart pumps purple piss for you," he tells the medical examiner when he's pressing for lab work on year-old murders. Everything, of course, is backed up because of budget cuts. Bunk's reaction to McNulty's crime spree is to double-down on honest, shoe-leather police work on the Marlo Stanfield murders.
The most heart-breaking scene of this seg comes when Bunk goes to visit the messed-up-beyond-belief mother of Michael (who's not in this seg at all) to push her for info on a murder case that Bunk suspects may be related to the Marlo killings. Bad enough that the inside of her apartment is strewn with trash, cigarettes -- all kinds of filth.
But it's the shades of gray around her eyes and mouth that really cause shivers (a combo of great makeup work and a great perf by the actress). She looks like she's slowly decaying. You can see the mixture of pity and revulsion on Bunk's face as she tries to shoo him away from her by implicating her son as being deep into dirty business with Marlo et al.
This moment really is Dickensian -- "Bleak House," on crack.