Episode: “Unconfirmed Reports”
Opening quote: “This ain’t Aruba, bitch.” —Bunk
Uh, really, Jimmy McNulty? Even for regular viewers of a show that isn’t afraid to show its characters at their worst, the sight of our beloved McNutty taking a swig from a flask, crossing himself, and strangling a corpse was a little hard to bear. The episode did its best to build McNulty’s frustration — showing his game attempts to get the FBI onboard the Marlo investigation, his anger when the Feds demur, and his impotent rage at getting stuck with a dispatch car with a flat tire. By the time McNulty disembarks the city bus outside the abandoned house inside which the body rests, we’ve been primed to expect some kind of snap. But cramming the kind of character development that The Wire usually handles over the course of a month into a single episode does this already dubious plot development no favors; when McNulty announces that he intends to fool the press into thinking Baltimore has a serial killer preying on white homeless men — and a dubious Bunk backs away — it feels as though The Wire’s writers are almost as desperate as their leading man.
Clearly McNulty’s crackpot scheme is meant to be this season’s version of Hamsterdam, the drug-free zone that Bunny Colvin established in Season Three — a Hail Mary idea that a single officer, driven mad by institutional incompetence, comes up with in one last attempt to change things. Hamsterdam was a little easier for us to swallow, though, baldly schematic as it was, because (a) it actually was a good idea, not a horrible one, (b) it wasn’t, you know, fraud, and (c) Bunny Colvin wasn’t drunk when he came up with it.
Meanwhile, over at the Baltimore Sun, the lines are drawn as clear as can be. Ambitious young reporter Templeton — who’s already declared his intentions to abandon the paper for the Post or the Times as soon as he can — gets sent out to Opening Day at Camden Yards in search of a colorful front-page story, and comes back with a shady-at-best line of hokum about a kid in a wheelchair hanging around outside the park hoping for tickets. Needless to say, caricature-of-a-good-editor Haynes is dubious, while caricature-of-a-bad-editor Whiting eats it up with a spoon. We were so annoyed by this well-diagrammed turn into Jayson Blair territory that we crossed our fingers the entire second half of the episode, begging David Simon to throw those of us who watch The Wire for complicated plot developments a bone — please, please let Templeton wheel that kid into the Sun newsroom, just to prove that (this time, at least) he’s not making shit up? Alas, no such luck.
We gripe, but the episode was still full of small pleasures: the return of Avon Barksdale, who smoothes Marlo’s introduction to the Greek with an eloquent “Fuck them East Side bitches”; Lester Freamon spending his nights listening to soul and staking out Marlo; Whiting misusing “Dickensian,” thinking it means simply people living in squalor; a downtrodden Bubbles finding a little bit of purpose in life doggedly scrubbing a pot in the soup kitchen. Even Steve Earle made an appearance as Bubbles’s sponsor, and we love Earle’s acting on this show: He’s showy, reedy, and half-incomprehensible, but we think he’s just playing himself. That said, his version of “Way Down in the Hole” that serves as this year’s theme song is the worst ever. Let’s hope it doesn’t presage the decline of the show itself.