The Wire – Undertow
Season 2, Episode 5
Directed By: Steve Shill
Written By: Ed Burns, from a story by David Simon and Burns
Read out “The Wire” Project here. Read about the previous episode here, or click here to see the total coverage. Assume spoilers for the episode
After a long break from The Wire (non-cinema issues: moving apartments, overload of work, some other stuff) I was afraid if I could jump back into the show without it losing its magic. It had been over a month, and while I had not forgotten about lonely fighter McNulty, the cautious and adaptive Stringer Bell, and the moral conundrums of Frank Sobotka, I wondered if the show would start to show fatigue, just from being more of the same. But The Wire always finds new ways to not just put its characters in new places, but make us see these characters differently. Not a complete 180 or anything, but to really understand their true convictions.
But “Undertow” is one of the most plot heavy episodes of The Wire. Ed Burns and director Steve Shill have no rush of plot, and nothing revelatory or shocking happens. But small nudges reveal these characters as the police attempt to break into the port culture, a self-contained world where everyone protects themselves. When Freamon, Bunk, and Russell present Grand Jury summons to a number of workers, Frank laughs in their face almost manically. He knows these guys are loyal to the end, as long as he’s loyal to them.
But how long can he provide for them? His son, Ziggy, has already moved into the drug game, poorly of course, as he has his car stolen and torched by the thugs who lent him a cocaine. When Nick unsuccessfully tries to haggle it back, while simultaneously searching to find a house for his girlfriend and daughter (“we can rent” after seeing the price of one), he decides that heading into the drug business may be his only way off the ports. This becomes especially essential when he knows Frank, in an effort to keep police off him, keeps the “shipping business” to a low. But Frank knows he can’t protect them through good honest work. When Spiros attempts to convince him to allow three boxes to go by unnoticed, he tells Frank, “They used to make steel there, no?” Port life is dying, and Frank refuses to face the fact that he may be the last of his generation.
If Frank won’t evolve his union, it may still die because of the outside pressure. While the “gang back together plot” has lost the edge from its first season freshness, it is nice to see Carver and Freamon in the detail again, even if everyone knows the play. In Season One, there was a sense of discovery from these characters, each hiding their own little secrets. This episode, all we get is Herc playing “white trash” and acting smug about it the entire time.
However, McNulty continues to fight for saving the one girl and finding her family. An immigration officer (Mr. Shill lets us see the “Department of Immigration” logo being replaced with a Homeland Security logo) asks McNulty why he’s using his spare time to solve this case. I don’t think McNulty really knows, which only leads to a dead-end in New Jersey, but he’s fighting for something to hold on for. When we see him at his port job, we get the feeling that he knows nothing else, and thus must continue to fight.
But this episode is packed beyond that! Donette finally visits D’Angelo in prison, attempting to bring him back into the “family business.” Stringer takes lessons from his economics class in order to fix the bad product problem (“Has anyone here ever heard of Worldcom?” he asks the soldiers). Omar preps for the Bird trial and goes suit shopping. And Russell meets with an old fling in the hopes of turning him into a CI. It’s the accumulation of plots that makes “Undertow” one of the less interesting episodes, but also shows what David Simon and Ed Burns can do. We constantly cut between story after story, without any sense that we need of a main plot, or resolution to any of these. Instead, life happens.