WireTAP: A Dialogue about The Wire (Episodes 1-3)

The fifth and final season of HBO's groundbreaking drama, The Wire, is upon us. Every three episodes, we'll bring you a discussion of the series between TAP Online writers. This week, Spencer Ackerman kicks off our dialogue about episodes one, two, and three. --The Editors

Spencer Ackerman:
Friends, we find ourselves at a point of crisis. The Iraq war nears its fifth anniversary. The global economy is somewhere between freak-out and meltdown. The Democratic presidential nomination fight is getting brutal. And The Wire -- the only TV show that matters, the salve that makes it all bearable -- sucks now, at least in the popular imagination.

Sunday is fast approaching, and ever since Episode Two aired, the consensus has been that the show's final season is a dreadful death rattle. At the screenings that Kriston, Matt, and I host, there's disbelief over both how heavy-handed the storytelling is and how thin the major plotlines of season five are. The Baltimore Sun plot -- in which a David Simon stand-in valiantly defends journalism against the ravages of clueless, avaricious editors and a fabricating star reporter -- might as well come equipped with white and black hats for the characters. Jimmy McNulty, driven over the edge by the third (!) disbanding of the Major Crimes Unit, is now tampering with crime scenes to invent a serial killer. And now he's aided by the truest Natural Police in Baltimore, Lester Freamon, who in many ways is the show's conscience. The show has, for the first time, an overabundance of exposition. No wonder that the blogs are going nuts. Over at Slate, David Plotz asked Jeff Goldberg, "don't you think this nose dive is too much, too quickly?" He meant McNulty, but he captured the critics' judgment about the whole season to date.

And he's also totally wrong, as are the season-five haters. The Wire, on its own terms, has set up a strong foundation for its finale. It's morning in Baltimore, people. Wake up and smell the coffee.

First, have you noticed that everything not McNulty and Sun-related is pitch-perfect? Having dispatched the Barksdale empire (season three) and consolidated his hold on West Baltimore (season four), Marlo Stanfield's multi-front assault on Proposition Joe is brilliant. Marlo is trying to undercut the source of Proposition Joe's power -- his Greek connection and his access to information and laundered money -- and in the process, maneuvers Joe into complicity with his own would-be downfall. When we saw Chris looking up Sergei at the courthouse, we understood the true meaning of Marlo's query last season as to how Proposition Joe knows so much. Joe is trying to co-opt Marlo, and Marlo is trying to cripple Joe. Unlike with Barksdale, however, Marlo is now going against a master strategist. This is going to be epic -- particularly as both sides gear up to manipulate Omar, who can't be controlled.

Need more? How about the show's readiness to deliver on the biggest unresolved mystery: the unnamed trespass Cedric Daniels committed early in his career that Commissioner Burrell holds as a secret weapon? Or Michael's ambivalence over Marlo owning his soul? (God, how sublime was it to see Michael and Dukie giving each other daps after impressing the girls at the water park?) Or the impact of Clay Davis' indictment, particularly as Simon showed in episode three that the rarely seen ministers – Davis' partners, Burrell's protectors, Mayor Carcetti's uneasy allies -- are awash in drug money? Or how Bubbles' possible redemption means the loss of a crucial police informant?

OK, so it's cheap to argue that the show is great, except for its two major plot points. So let's take up McNulty. Episode three brought McNulty to the point of caricature: the overwrought self-destruction from serially cheating on Beadie, drinking at 10 in the morning in the interview room, and, most importantly, tampering with crime scenes and cold cases to invent his serial killer. For Lester to jump on board with Jimmy's plan just because it might somehow wake the bosses up didn't feel like a scene. It felt like a DVD outtake.

But consider that all our disbelief, objections and disappointments are voiced by Bunk. This is a big tell. Bunk stands in for the audience, thereby suggesting that we're in for some serious misdirection. Also consider that McNulty is acting exactly how the critics accuse David Simon himself of acting. McNulty is, on the face of it, sacrificing everything that's given him the slightest bit of integrity in order to get some cheap revenge on his former bosses. Maybe, just maybe, David Simon, who's more than proven his mettle as a reporter, a writer and an artist, might actually possess an iota of self-awareness. Maybe a bunch of nervous critics and scribes and Wire fans aren't actually all smarter than the man who created the greatest show in the history of TV.

So finally: the Sun plotline. At the risk of undermining my earlier point, here I see little textual evidence to support the idea that this one is redeemable. It's unsubtle and upsetting, despite the frisson I get as a journalist over hearing The Wire's characters talk about budget lines. I'm not inclined to defend it. But two points. First, it seems that by the end of episode three -- with the buyout scene and Scott fabricating a quote about Daniels -- the good reporter-bad reporter/boss distinction has gone as far as it can go without being subject to subversion. Sunday's episode may be a test case for whether the storyline is, indeed, bullshit. Second, I was in a Wire argument with two crusty reporter friends of mine last week, and one of them liked the fact that Klebanow and Whiting are so transparently the Enemies of True Journalism. "I've worked for those fuckers," my friend said. I mostly resist his judgment, since it makes for a markedly less interesting drama. But there are some cases where an editor really is that vain, or that ignorant, or that malicious. Maybe realism sometimes demands a villain wear a black hat. Like I say, I mostly resist accepting the point, but it's something to think about.

So: who's going to argue that the show really does suck? Come at me with everything you've got. It's all in the game.

Matt Yglesias:
One of the now-standard terms in which to praise The Wire is to note that it's so much more than a cop show. I think one of the things the dismal failure of the Sun plot reveals is the very real limits to this line of argument. Season one was a cop show -- the best-plotted, best-acted, most sophisticated cop show ever, but a cop show nonetheless. Season two broadened the focus to link the narrative on the streets to a narrative of economic decline. Season three brought high politics into the picture, arguing that not only do the strictures of police bureaucracy make effective work impossible, but the strictures of politics make reform impossible. And in season four we're reminded that to understand the kids in the streets we need to understand the younger kids in the middle schools.

But on to season five, it's simply not the case that to understand ghetto crime you need to understand the decline of metropolitan daily newspapers in mid-sized American cities. Simon happens to be interested in this issue because he used to work at one, and since a daily newspaper covers everything that happens in a city it's easy to make a media plotline intersect with a politics story, a crime story, an education story or whatever else. But an intersection is not the same as a rich, thematic entwinement and the story of crime in America and the story of the decline of the newspaper from its mid-century golden age are fundamentally different stories. Crime is much lower in urban America than it was 20 years ago despite steady erosion of daily papers like the Sun; these are simply separate questions.

But as long as Simon wants to be heavy-handed in his Sun narrative, it's worth noting that he errs badly -- at least so far -- in presenting the decline of the media entirely from the point of view of those who produce the news rather than the consumers. In episode three, we learn that the Sun will be shutting down its London bureau. Sad times for those who work there. But consider the situation of a typical Baltimorean interested in some news from Europe. In 1977, they could have relied on the Sun's London bureau. Today, thanks to the genius of the internet, the London bureaux of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and for that matter the Guardian are at your finger tips. Individual newspapers are going into decline because they're facing increasing competition and newspaper chains are rationalizing their personnel. That's bad for newspaper writers, but it's good for newspaper readers.

But in Simon's telling, the newspaper seems to exist not to inform readers but to provide a venue for the witty banter of middle-aged male reporters.

Meanwhile, what happened to the uber-cautious Greek operation we saw in season two? Vondas meets, in person, with a guy he doesn't really know, in the same coffee shop they abandoned out of fear that the police were surveilling it, with a briefcase full of cash. Really? I mean, we know the cops have forgotten all about the Vondas and don't have any money anyway but it all seems a bit rushed -- Marlo could have been wearing a wire for all he knew.

Kay Steiger:
To me, The Wire's fifth season shows a division in the abilities of the writers. It's very, very hard to write about yourself well, and that shows in the newspaper subplot. They're falling into the trap of making it a morality tale: I was right and my buyout-wielding bosses were wrong. True as it may be that the newspaper industry has slowly been shooting themselves in the foot with cutbacks, it's heavy-handed way of putting it. Each episode reads like a skit in a journalism class. Don't fire your best reporters. Don't make up quotes. Know the backstory behind important city players.

In watching the early episodes of this season, what I miss most is the characters from last season that made the show great: Cutty, Naimon, Randy, and Colvin. Kima really hasn't had much of a presence since season two, and Chris and Snoop are flat, maniacal killers. Even Clay Davis isn't very interesting beyond his catchphrase, "shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeeeeet." The most interesting storylines remain about the drug dealers and addicts on the street. I agree with Spencer that the plotline between Marlo and Prop Joe is interesting. I'm glad to see they're bringing Omar back. And I can't wait to see what the do with Bubbles, who is clearly still dealing with his addiction.

The thing is, Simon and the other writers don't really have much to add to the story of the decline of the American newspaper. It's a heavily discussed topic in other places, and done with more nuance and sophistication elsewhere. What the writers do have to add is the little-discussed topic of how low-income people feel about living in a place that no one really gives a shit about. The great thing the other seasons offered was the horrors of everyday life and great satisfaction in small victories. As of yet, this season seems to have strayed far from that focus. Furthermore, they've pretty much given up on the "small victories" part of the bargain, leaving the show pretty depressing to watch. Simon thus far seems inclined to go out with an "everything's fucked" attitude. It's kinda true, but it doesn't make very good TV.

Ann Friedman:
What I find most disappointing about season five so far is, as Kay points out, the amount of time spent focusing on flat characters. I'm not that interested in one-dimensional killers like Marlo, Chris, and Snoop. I couldn't care less about Clay Davis, who pops up now and again like the silly comic relief in a Disney cartoon. The newspaper reporters -- who, as others have pointed out, all fit easily into either Good and Evil categories -- are just caricatures. And speaking of caricatures, WTF is up with McNulty? I'm not talking about the crime-scene tampering. I'd be OK with his character doing all of this over-the-top stuff if the writers gave us a more rounded look at what's really going on with him. After a whole season where McNulty focused on getting a "real life," we're back to seeing a McNulty who exists in a vacuum. They seem to have erased Beadie because they just don't have the time to deal with her.

Which gets to what is, I think, a root problem with season five. At this point, the show has so many subplots going that it's impossible to do them all justice. While a few plots from previous seasons have been let go, the writers have still got to wrangle with McNulty, Daniels, Carcetti, Marlo and Prop Joe, the Greeks, Bubs, Michael, Omar... on and on. It's a lot to cover in only 10 episodes. Honestly, I want to see them lose the Bubs story line. I'm bored. And they should devote the precious minutes they save to more air time for Michael -- not just because he's the type of character the Wire writers do best (conflicted street kid), but because he's far and away the most interesting person in the show right now.

I get what Spencer's saying about the potential for an epic finale when Marlo's plotting comes to a head and Burrell lets loose with Daniels' secrets. And I'm excited that Omar's coming back. So this season is definitely redeemable. Hey, before its over, the Baltimore Sun editors might even remember this is 2008, and deign to mention this thing called "the internet."

Kay Steiger:
I think Ann is right. Marlo has been built up as the ultimate evil street lord. Unlike Avon and Stringer, Marlo, Snoop, and Chris are flat. We don't know anything about them beyond their maniacal ability to kill. Furthermore, they're falling neatly into stereotypes of cold and greedy drug dealers. Sure, there's family history with Marlo and Prop Joe, but it's thin backstory at best. What made The Wire great was that we could identify with Avon and Stringer. They may have done bad things, but they had skill, they played by the rules, and they protected their people. Stringer was a better example of this because he was a truly brilliant business man who happened to be in a deadly business.

Part of the problem is that when they develop really good personal stories (Ann gave the example of McNulty and Beadie), they don't quite know what to do with them. The same happened with Kima and her girl. These relationships fell apart because they had to. After all, they couldn't possibly create a compelling series with interesting relationships and interesting plots. That would be too much of a stretch.

Furthermore, I've noticed a significant lack of development among female characters. True, the worlds Simon and the other writers create are dominated by men, but effort to develop the female characters on the show is half-assed at best. It's frustrating to see a show that's so great at finally giving talented black male actors interesting characters to play while leaving the women at the wayside. Most of the time, the female characters are instrumental. (Have we ever seen Bunk's wife? If we did, I can't remember. All we know is that she's, um, whatever the female version of a cuckold is.)

It's a bit early to speculate about the end of the season, but the grand message may end up being that the street provides better justice than other institutions -- police, the courts, city council -- ever could. There's definitely potential for the series to get really good, but I think ultimately it will be difficult, especially with only 10 episodes, to really do justice to everything they started.

Ann Friedman:
Amen to the lack of development of female characters! I don't care so much about Bunk's wife, but how could they not want to write a backstory to Snoop? And I still haven't totally forgiven the writers for all but dropping Kima after season two.

Matt Yglesias:
Women characters have clearly always been the show's Achilles heel. I felt this most acutely, however, in season four where the focus on kids naturally put the spotlight on their relationships with their mothers, and yet the writers couldn't really pull it off. I can't, however, see the case that Kima was all but dropped after season two -- I thought her rejection of domesticity in season three was one of the main thematic pillars of that story arc. Meanwhile, if you want to talk about long-suffering under-developed characters, you've got to pay respect to Leander Sydnor.

I couldn't disagree more, however, about Marlo, Chris, and Snoop. Yes, all three are flat and affect-less in their demeanors, but to me that only lends depth to the moments when the facade breaks. You can't really understand the characters unless you attend to those moments; recall Chris' ferocious beat-down of Bug's abusive dad and the intense pettiness of Marlo, relieving his frustration over his poor poker play by deliberately provoking the security guard into a confrontation in order to generate the necessary pretext to order his death. Stringer and Avon were brighter characters, but in their way they were colder, more calculating, more practical, more money-driven hoods. Marlo, Chris, and Snoop, by contrast, are all chasing some very strange demons -- they are, in effect, sociopaths who kill for fun and are running a violent drug organization more because it affords them opportunities to murder than they are drug dealers who kill people for money. Any backstory you could possibly dramatize for Snoop would, meanwhile, almost certainly be a disappointment: why not let the imagination run wild?

Spencer Ackerman:
Ann and Kay, I'm surprised to read that you don't care about Marlo, Chris and Snoop. They may be maniacal killers, but they're neither flat nor one-dimensional. Let me expand on Matt's points.

So the first thing we know about Marlo is his overwhelming interest in power and his disinterest in everything else. To use Kay's contrast with Avon and Stringer: the telling scene with them was in season three, when Stringer buys Avon an apartment and they celebrate all the possessions that their empire has brought them by reminiscing about being project kids who robbed toy stores. Marlo, in season four, catches a security guard staring at him at a Kwik-E-Mart, so he steals two lollipops just for the pleasure of humiliating (and then murdering) the guard, who has no choice but to accost him. Contrast clearly made.

The next question, of course, is why Marlo is the way he is, and why his organization is the way it is. And there I'd submit that Marlo is the wages of the drug game. In other words, while he's not in a literal sense the next generation of drug dealer, he is in a logical sense. The heroin and crack epidemics that Avon, Prop Joe, etc. exploit raised the stakes for survival among the younger crowd. As many sociologists have observed, crack in the 1980s (and into the 1990s in Baltimore) disproportionately affected the female population, meaning that the streets had to raise a generation of parentless children. (Avon, by contrast, comes from a drug-dealer dynasty.) What the Barksdales did to Baltimore is create the conditions for feral children like Marlo. This is why Marlo's story had to have been told in season four: in an important sense, he is one of the kids at Ida B. Wells. Relationships outside a core group -- Chris, Snoop, Fruit, the guy whose name I don't know who shot Cutty -- are purely transactional. They look at the game and place a higher value on what they need rather than what they want: Drugs and murder are ways to get money, and money is a way to get power and respect. Later for the man-toys. That's why it's hilarious when Marlo occasionally conducts his business in Rim Source. He could not care less about throwing any D's on his Cadillac.

You may not think Marlo is interesting as a character. But as a case study, he's fascinating. The show implies that what comes after Marlo -- who, as McNulty properly notes in episode three, is a mass murderer -- may be worse. That's what's at stake with Michael in season five.

Chris and Snoop reinforce the point -- or at least Chris does. I don't see how you can say Chris is a flat character. Remember the only time he breaks discipline? It's when he murders Michael's stepfather with his bare hands. Clearly something very bad happened to Chris at the hands of a father figure, and quite possibly drugs were an accelerant. (And, yeah, Chris now deals out the same horror. As Ice-T once rapped about the game, "You got me twisted, jammed into a paradox.") He has a commonality with Michael that leads to the closest thing Chris can come to compassion. This is a cold-blooded killer we're talking about. That doesn't resonate with you? And Snoop -- yeah, we need more of her backstory. We know she's a lesbian. (Bunk: "I'm thinkin' 'bout some pussy." Snoop: "Yeah, me too.") There's the implication that she smokes crack. (Chris to Michael: "Don't pay her no mind when she's on that shit.") You're right that we definitely need to know more about why Snoop is the way she is, especially considering how shallowly The Wire treats female characters. But look deeper at what the Stanfield crew represents. All the pieces matter.

Kay Steiger:
That's all very interesting thought about Marlo, but I didn't see any of that development in the writing or the show. At this point I'd say it's all speculation. I found Stringer and Avon far more compelling characters because they seemed more human to me. They both had narratives. Marlo, I find very little to grasp on to, at least so far.

As for Chris, yes, the one interesting time he broke was when he killed Michael's brother's dad with his bare hands. (I still can't figure out if Michael was telling the truth or not when he sent Snoop and Chris to kill him.) Clearly something bad did happen in Chris's past to make him do such a thing. That was a sliver of character in a vast sea of blank face. But again, Snoop and Chris just don't talk much, we don't see them much, and they tend to serve a role that is purely one of driving the plot. We don't know why Snoop kills other than if we look to her own autobiography. The writers have left us cold.

I'm not saying that I've made up my mind about which set of characters will ultimately be better. There's still a lot of time for the story to unfold. But so far I've found the bad guys pretty disappointing. Spencer and Matt, I just don't see how they're more appealing than Stringer and Avon yet.

Spencer, what I do think is interesting is that you're starting to look at this show from a sociologist's perspective. As David Simon said in an interview with former TAP Online editor Sam Rosenfeld over at my place, Campus Progress, "Those are places where money and capitalism have achieved everything they can. This is the America that got left behind." That is what made me fall in love with The Wire in the first place and that is what I long to return. Sure, there's plenty of disillusionment, but it may get so far "down in the hole" I may not be able to care enough about it anymore. Maybe I'm what's wrong with America, but writers need to capture people we can relate to make us care.

Ezra Klein:
In some ways, I think the problems with the female characters are evidence of the root problem in this season: The writers don't write human relationships well. The Wire's unparalleled success is in telling the stories of individuals interactions with institutions. And their great innovation has been to expand the definition of institution into any environment that has rules, and use that frame to show how the pathologies of the street and the schools and the police department and the city bureaucracy are parallel, and when they're not parallel, they're actually reinforcing each other.

This is classic Simon. Recall the city editor Gus's argument with the cartoonishly craven editor-in-chief during the story meeting: We can't focus on the schools alone, he said, we need to zoom out, show how the families impact the kids impact the schools impact the streets. Everything needs context, to be considered in terms of the whole, not viewed as an isolated part. If you read the Columbia Journalism Review article about Simon's fights with editors, it's the same riff. They wanted to narrow the scope, have more impact by choosing discrete problems to attack. He wanted to widen it, showcase more honesty even if it came at expense of focus.

This brings us to the problems in the season. Simon's institution is failing him. The newsroom, at this point, feels like a checklist of personal grievances and long-remembered slights. Gus is too good, the ambitious fabulist too bad, the cost-cutting editor too buffoonish. Worse, the problems Simon's pointing out just aren't very interesting. Layoffs suck, it's true. Doing more with less is a stupid slogan. But so far, what's the harm? If the schools fail, if the streets kill, if the bureaucracy corrupts, if the cops misstep, the harm is obvious. But if the newsroom cuts back? As a journalist, that's bad for me, and I can't make an argument as to why it's bad for you. But it's a more indirect problem, and Simon is, uncharacteristically, dramatizing it with an unrelated problem, which is fabulism. So the viewer is supposed to believe that the belt-tightening has resulted in lying journalist who concocted a fake disabled kid to add color to a story on a baseball game (though, as the show set up last week, a faked quote may end up pitting Burrell against Daniels, which will tie them in more directly).

The institution Simon has picked is failing him, or he's failing it. Meanwhile, the show, at this point, is overpopulated. And for reasons slightly unclear to me, Simon is making this season a reunion of sorts. So not only do we have the cops, the kids, the politicians, the newspapermen, the drug co-op, and Marlo's gang, but we're also back with Avon, Omar, and the Greeks. And since this season really isn't about their institutions, it has to be about their personal interactions (Avon extorting Marlo, say, or Omar returning out of love for Butchie). And Simon and Co. just aren't good at writing personal interactions. It's the same problem they had with the women: They never gave them real roles relating to their institutions (Kima doesn't battle the bureaucracy like McNulty does, and Carcetti's wife never interacts with City Hall), so they had to give them human storylines. And because they're bad at writing those, and they sensed that, they generally let them drop. But now, with so many characters and so little to actually say about the newsroom, those stories are front and center. And so, for the same reason the writers couldn't write women, they're proving unable to write this season.

Kriston Capps:
Character development by way of backstory is unlikely in this series. Structurally, the series doesn't afford much opportunity for backstory: no narrator, no flashbacks, and (until season five) almost nothing in the way of hand-holding expository dialog. Previously Simon has used dramatic gestures to lead viewers to certain conclusions about his characters -- sometimes to great effect. In season four we see a shadow pass behind Chris's eyes when Michael asks him to do in Bug's abusive father; the extraordinary violence Chris lends to the task is personal retaliation. Over the course of the season we've seen the broken system that Chris grew up in. Given what we are led to understand about his personal demons, the suggestion that (as Yglesias suggests) his sociopathy amounts to mere mania -- as if that were a narrative flaw -- short-sells Chris (and Marlo and Snoop), who effectively introduce the problem of evil. They aren't driven by a profit motive; indeed, their interests seem inhuman. When Marlo snookers police by staging various hookups with girls, David Simon is flirting with the audience, tweaking the viewer's desire to find some weakness in Marlo and company (if even just to predict Marlo's downfall). But that's not what those characters are there for.

But those are the accomplishments of season four, before the captains of hell skip off to the Caribbean. In season five, the fiction is distressingly similar to the truth. Far from seeming unreal, the hailstorm of corporate directives that pelt the Baltimore Sun newsroom sound all too familiar. The newspaper I write for has recently been bought by an out-of-touch corporate conglomerate, who has since purged staff, cut features, and reduced page count from 120-odd to fewer than 90. Simon's newsroom under siege is pitch perfect to my ear. That's a problem. There's less artistry and more anecdote to the threads concerning the Sun. So far, the problems in the newsroom have not proven to be the intractable structural problems that plague the streets, government, and police force. It's early yet but as a structural problem, the news doesn't hang with death and taxes.

Maybe (as Spencer suggests) Simon is tanking the show's leading man in order to make his turnaround absolutely compelling later, but McNulty's arc won't be any more believable for it. At the end of the third episode, I felt a sick glimmer of hope. No way would Lester Freamon bite; caught up on his plan, Freamon decidees to take McNulty for a ride. He convinces McNulty that the scenes need to suggest not just crime but depravity in order to attract the media's attention. Would it restore Bunk to all his fraternal glory to know that Freamon had planted in McNulty the suggestion that by tampering with dead bodies -- so to speak -- McNulty will save Baltimore? It's a prank worthy of Freamon's genius, anyway. Sadly, I don't find it any more likely than the notion that Simon has adopted strategies like intentional inconsistency and unpredictability in order to make some meta commentary about Baltimore.

Ann Friedman:
I suppose I should have been clearer: I don't want to see flashbacks of Chris or Snoop's childhood, but I would like to see more telling moments, more allusions to their past. Yeah, yeah, I know we got a little snippet of info about Chris in the scene where they kill Bug's father. Everyone has brought that up. But I want to see more cracks in the facade. I want to see more tension between these sociopaths. Something to make Marlo's gang half as interesting as Barksdale's. Yeah, yeah, I know they're sociopaths, they're cold, they don't exactly share their feelings with each other. Fine! I accept that. But this show is also supposed to be entertainment. Would it really hurt the writers all that much to give us a bit more to go on with Marlo, Chris and Snoop? That's all I'm asking.

Ezra Klein:
Like Ann, I could use a bit more with Marlo, though I think Chris and Snoop are more fleshed out. We can reasonably infer, I think, that Chris saved Snoop, much as he's "saving" Michael. There are fates worse than murderer out there. Marlo, though, is just an monstrous automaton. From the season four episode in which he meets a girl in a bar and gets a blowjob with no evident pleasure to his crazed lashing out at the security guard, there's not even been a flash of vulnerability -- or even pleasure -- behind those eyes. And that's the problem. For The Wire, the parallels are important. Avon and Stringer could have been McNulty and Lester. Marlo, though, has been made into a sociopath -- an evil we want stopped. In that way, he's an utterly aberrant character, unlike anyone else on the show. Simon, I suspect, won't stop him, and may even use him to kill off the beloved Omar, all the better to advance his nihilistic, unrelentingly grim vision. But in making Marlo the apotheosis of a particular outlook rather than, like everyone else, a character, I fear Simon has erred.

As for McNulty, I think the rapid deterioration of his character has to be understood as submission to Simon's vendetta against the newsroom. McNulty's fabricated serial killer will wind up on the front pages, because newspaper cutbacks combined with newsroom sensationalism will buy into anything. This will cause all sort of problems and dramatize the effect of an absent press. It will also destroy everything that was interesting and worthwhile about the McNulty character. I'd say it's all in the game, but I fear, for Simon, this season is more than a game. It's a grudge.