Valedictories: The Wire
Iâ€™m still reeling from the penultimate episode of The Wire, and thus Iâ€™m feeling the need to write about it. For all you not up to speed, look away now, and donâ€™t go below the fold.
Itâ€™s episodes like this that prove Simon and coâ€™s supreme skills as writers. They like foils and doublings in particular, and this episode is full of them. Daniels becoming Burrell, Freeman becoming McNulty, etc. But itâ€™s the Marlo/Michael and Bubbles/Dukie pairings in which Iâ€™m especially interested.
First, I think we need to twin Marloâ€™s monologue in jail with Michaelâ€™s failure to remember throwing piss balloons. Marloâ€™s always seemed disengaged and removed, a man of very few words, and someone who seems to just be going through the motions, as though he doesnâ€™t know why he does what he does, but thereâ€™s not much else to do, so he continues. Yet his speech in jail is electrifying, sparkling with menace, anger, and determination. Iâ€™m sure he said more in that one speech than in the season so far. So, late in the series, we finally see why you donâ€™t fuck with Marlo Stanfield, and why people fear not just Chris and Snoop, but him. Penultimate episodes would seem to be for denouement, but here we are learning so much more about the character. Yet I was also struck by how completely blinded or uncaring he was to his situation: sitting in jail, with many of his lieutenants there too, seemingly down for the count, yet what bugs him? The fact that someoneâ€™s been taking his name on the streets, and he wasnâ€™t able to respond to it. Heâ€™s lost sight of anything but â€œthe game,â€ living so completely in it. And thus, just as his perennial unmotivated disinterest suggests, here too weâ€™re invited to see him as someone who knows only the game, and cares only about the rules of that game. Thereâ€™s a corporeal disembodiment going on â€“ his body is imprisoned, and might be there for a long time, but itâ€™s his name that he cares most about. And why? I donâ€™t think he knows.
Meanwhile, in Michaelâ€™s short exchange with Dukie, we see the inklings of Michael going that way too. Whether heâ€™s chosen not to remember or whether he simply canâ€™t remember a playful moment is unclear. But either way, heâ€™s moving towards becoming Marlo, living wholly in the game. What self-respecting teenage boy would forget throwing balloons full of piss?! Iâ€™d be giggling about this well into my nineties. We see Michael on the precipice here: forgetting his past, but also forced to sever connections with his younger brother and his only remaining friend. Itâ€™s for their sakes that he cuts them loose, a noble and loving gesture (the shoebox full of money seems to be his entire earnings [from a boss who isnâ€™t likely to want to retain his services, no less], and selflessly it goes to ensuring his brotherâ€™s well taken care of), but itâ€™s ultimately the one that severs his ties to anything but the game. As opposed to Marlo’s predecessor, Barksdale, a man with a family and family duties, Marlo’s notable for having no family, no story, no friends, just, as his speech insists, a name. In Michael, then, we see the birth of Marlo, and in Marlo we see Michaelâ€™s future.
Yet as if this wasnâ€™t enough to make Dukie and Michaelâ€™s closing scene heartbreaking, we also see Dukie leaving to become Bubbles. Though Tristan Wilds was spectacular as Michael in this episode, the kid thatâ€™s impressed me the most all along has been Jermaine Crawfordâ€™s Dukie. Simon had to show us Namondâ€™s success story, and had to begin the episode with a rousing takedown of the Stanfield operation, to provide a tiny bit of joy, since all along heâ€™s been absolutely gutting us with Dukieâ€™s story, and here he foreshadowed what will surely be Dukieâ€™s final step into a life as Bubbles. Dukieâ€™s remembrance of playing with piss balloons is all the more crushing not only for Michaelâ€™s failure to remember, but for Dukieâ€™s realization that his brief respite from destitution is over. He grasps onto a lone moment of happiness in whatâ€™s been an otherwise miserable life.
Flashback a few minutes in the episode to Bubbles, whose one year clean anniversary speech focuses on exactly that: lone moments of happiness. His speech is a moment of personal triumph, but this isnâ€™t Dead Poets Society, and nobody gets up on their seats to applaud him. His sister doesnâ€™t come, since, as he says, heâ€™s left â€œa trail of fireâ€ in his path. Heâ€™s surrounded instead by a room of people who donâ€™t even know his real name (â€œMy name is my name,â€ though, as Marlo reminds us in his speech. Only an anonymous reporter knows Reginaldâ€™s). His sponsor wasnâ€™t there to help him, since he was off with friends. And the woman who interrupts his speech to say that she wouldâ€™ve helped if he called her, if anything just serves to remind him and us that he may well need her and others like her in the future still. Heâ€™s utterly alone, left only with brief memories of happiness. And his only friend is lost. After spending my life watching the Movie of the Week / Saved by the Bell version of what this speech should look like, I watched this one through tears, since his grand triumph seems so fleeting, so mitigated, so desperately lonely, nothing approaching the feel-good, heartwarming pronouncement that many a lesser writer would have made it.
Flash forward back to Dukie leaving the car and approaching the junkman, only to see him loading up, and itâ€™s hard not to see Dukie moving towards Bubbleâ€™s life.
Given how remarkable both Marloâ€™s and Bubblesâ€™s speeches were, upon rewatching the episode, I wanted to get my wife to watch them. Iâ€™ve been trying to convince her to watch The Wire, unsuccessfully so far, but I thought that these might show her what sheâ€™s missing. Yet I then realized that neither speech would seem all that massively impressive to a newbie. Theyâ€™re both so captivating, so emotionally wrenching, because they come at the end of a remarkably series. Theyâ€™re valedictories of a sort, pregnant with contextual meaning, and one needs to have been on the voyage to appreciate them.
And so this is where Simon will leave us? With Michael becoming Marlo, and Dukie becoming Bubbles. Personally, I couldnâ€™t care less about the Sun storyline, and at this point I almost donâ€™t even care much about whether the Stanfield case falls apart at the seams. Whether Templeton is fired or promoted, whether McNulty stands or falls, whether Daniels, Carcetti, and Marlo triumph or perish, we know what will become of each of their institutions. The city, the drug trade, the education system, city hall, the police, the courts: none of these will fundamentally change. McNulty and Beatty wonâ€™t have a grand old white wedding on his ten year anniversary of sobriety. Daniels wonâ€™t change the city from the ground up. Clay Davis wonâ€™t be replaced by a shinier, better type of politician. And so, as we approach the final hour, all Simon leaves us is the Bubbles and Dukie strategy of trying to find isolated, lone moments, of hope or of happiness. Yet with Randy, Dukie, and Michael where they are, even that, it seems, has been taken from us. Something tells me this Sundayâ€™s going to be painful. Yet damn good.Tags: The Wire