Watching The Wire: Season Two - Episode Five: "Undertow"

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“They used to make steel there, no?”
– Spiros Vondas

Teleplay by Ed Burns
Directed by Steve Shill

Dominic West as Officer Jimmy McNulty, Lance Reddick as Lieutenant Cedric Daniels, Sonja Sohn as Kima Greggs, Deirdre Lovejoy as assistant state's attorney Rhonda Pearlman, Wood Harris as Avon Barksdale, Larry Gilliard, Jr. as D'Angelo Barksdale, Andre Royo as Bubbles, John Doman as Colonel William Rawls, Frankie Faison as Acting Commissioner Ervin Burrell, Clarke Peters as Cool Lester Smooth Freamon, Amy Ryan as Beadie "Bea/Beadie" Russell and Chris Bauer as Frank Sobotka.

Seth Gilliam as Detective Ellis Carver, Domenick Lombardozzi as Detective Thomas "Herc" Hauk, Jim True-Frost as Detective Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski, James Ransone as Ziggy Sobotka, Pablo Schreiber as Nick Sobotka, Callie Thorne as Elena McNulty, J.D. Williams as Preston "Boadie" Broadus, Michael K. Williams as Omar Little, Al Brown as Major Stan Valchek, Richard Burton as Shaun "Shamrock" McGinty, Kristin Proctor as Aimee, Bill Raymond as The Greek, Shamyl Brown as Donette, Tray Chaney as Malik "Poot" Carr, Luray Cooper as Nat Coxson, Lance Irwin as Maui, Susan Rome as ASA Ilene Nathan, Chris Ashworth as Sergei "Serge" Malatov, Jeffrey Fugitt as Officer Claude Diggins, Method Man as Melvin "Cheese" Wagstaff ,Charley Scalies as Thomas "Horseface" Pakusa, Gary "D. Reign" Senkus as Frog, Gary D'Addario as Grand Jury Prosecutor Gary DiPasquale, Jeffrey Pratt Gordon as Johnny "Fifty" Spamanto, Kelvin Davis as La La, De'Rodd Hearns as Puddin, Kevin Murray as Special Agent Cleary, Daniel Ross as Drug Dealer, Lev Gorn as Eton, Paul Ben-Victor as Spiros "Vondas" Vondopoulos and Robert F. Colesberry as Ray Cole

The Summary:

Read about house prices, white dealers and red hot cars beyond the link...

The Recap:

Frog is out on the corners of Baltimore shifting product for Ziggy, who arrives looking to pick up the takings. Frog switches up the takings, giving Ziggy a short stack and he finds that there’s only two hundred and ninety dollars to collect. It’s supposed to be five hundred, and Ziggy attempts to give Frog some attitude (Ziggy’s never sounded as white as he does here). He then gets into “the princess” and begins to drive off when SUVs block him in from front and back and he’s forced out of his car. It’s Cheese Wagstaff, he wants his money but Zig doesn’t have it. He tries to hand over his new Italian coat to cover the difference, but Cheese isn’t having any of it and takes his car instead. Ziggy is left raging on the street impotently. He's getting shafted from all directions.

Cue the credits…

Carver is meeting with Daniels in the Detail’s new office, Daniels is asking Carver to join the Sobotka Detail and Carver is unsure why he’d want him. Carver was the leak in the original Barksdale Detail and is directly responsible for bringing the case down prematurely, especially the main stash house. He’s one of the reasons why Avon got just seven years and Stringer remains on the streets. Daniels responds, telling him that because Carver tried and was caught out once – which means he’s less likely to try anything again. Daniels assigns him under Kima (despite Carver’s technical superiority) and Carver is on board. He looks thrilled to be back and as he exits he’s met by Prez, Kima and Herc. Herc is exceptionally pleased to be back working with his partner.

Bubbles is standing outside the marine unit, he stops to admire the BBQ and asks about McNulty who’s just arriving at the docks in a boat. Bubs is here to talk with McNulty about Omar, Bubs survived his meeting with Omar last episode and has a number for McNulty to contact him. Bubs then goes on to complain about what he went through, Omar isn’t delicate with the way he handles people and Bubs didn’t appreciate staring down both barrels of a shotgun. McNulty hands him a little extra money “for his pains”.

In Homicide Rawls wants to know where things are with the Jane Does, Lester and Bunk are chasing up as best they can. But then Rawls drops an additional salvo on the pair, Lester is out of the investigation and into the Sobotka Detail – this means Bunk has to partner up with someone new for the rest of the investigation and let’s be honest, Cole and his ilk are not up to the same standard as old “Cool Lester Smooth”. Lester is concerned he’s been fucked over – but Rawls assures him he it’s not that, if it was that Lester would know.

Elena is showing various people around a viewing home, most notably Nicky Sobotka and Aimee, who are looking at the house because it used to be Nicky’s aunt’s place before the previous occupants bought it. The house is way out of Nicky’s price range sadly and they leave. Aimee comments that maybe they should rent instead.

Daniels is giving the initial brief on the task ahead to the Sobotka Detail, Prez and Freamon will be running DNRs while Kima, Carver and Herc will be running hand to hands. Herc points out that the area and dealers are predominately white, so it’ll be his time on the street – something he’s looking forward to with relish. Lester himself arrives and greetings are exchanged. Lester is surprised to discover that the Detail is chasing after Frank Sobotka, as he was pushing after him over the Jane Does.

Donette has finally agreed to visit Dee and is talking to him here about how good things are for her and their son; naturally she doesn’t express just how well Stringer is “handling” her. The offer is once Dee is out he’ll get something out of the business, something legit. Dee is understandably sceptical about the offer and is convinced they’re just playing him.

In the Pit the young'uns are getting restless, some of Bodie and Poot’s rollers start to beat on a man because he refuses to buy their stuff. It’s not surprising considering how bad their product has become, Poot tells them to lay off him, but after the man gives them lip they start back up. Bodie is called in and walks past the guy who’s just been beaten badly and tossed into street – he’s a mess. Bodie then walks up to talk with Poot about what’s happened, as far as he’s concerned the guy didn’t deserve the beating, not even for calling their new line weak – because it is. Poot just shrugs and says that he didn’t do it, it was the others. Bodie thinks it’s time to call for Stringer.

Zig and Nicky are talking in the bar, Zig tells Nicky about the beating he took and admits that it was over drugs. Ziggy hasn’t managed to turn the package around and has till Friday to pay up nearly three grand. But he’s screwed up the package entirely and Nicky isn’t willing to help out. He’s already handed over his money to Aimee so he can’t help here.

Valchek has received another letter and polaroid, this time from San Diego. He’s taking this exceptionally seriously, lifting a fingerprint from the newest Polaroid when Kima arrives to ask about getting a surveillance van, a van that Valchek can’t let them have because it’s currently taking a merry holiday around the U. S of A’s ports. He lies to cover instead of admitting that he’s been hoodwinked by Sobotka.

Stringer continues his business studies class; he received an A minus on his most recent test. He then goes on to ask his teacher Mr Lucas about what to do when you have an inferior product in an aggressive market place. His options are to perform an aggressive take over of competition, or reduce prices – as long as overheads are low enough to accommodate. The other solution; drawn from a real life parallel is to change the name of the product in order to keep customer faith.

Bunk, Cole and Beadie arrive and hand a Grand Jury summons to Horseface. Bunk heads inside to hand the rest across to Frank. There’s one for Johnny 50 and we find out why his name is as it is, I’ll leave the story for you to watch rather than repeat it here. Frank then goes on to tear a strip into Bunk over this, he’s angry over this accusation and naturally so – he didn’t kill those girls, he didn’t even know they were in that can, but he’s now the person in the frame for the events and it’s his union who are receiving Grand Juries. He and Johnny 50 then demonstrate why these summons are pointless, Johnny takes the fifth “commandment” (got to love that mistake from the working man) and claims to know nothing about nothing. Frank’s used to being Grand Juried before, the Union has open records and as far as he’s concerned the Union will live through this too. But Johnny 50 is still taken down town while Frank seethes.

Omar is meeting with the DA and going over his testimony in advance of the trial. Omar clarifies how he recognised the gun and the manufacturer. Bird always used the same gun and flashed it around while boasting. The DA asks Omar to wait outside while she talks with McNulty. She’s concerned that Omar will be a problem when facing Levy (who is a complete shark), at the very least he needs to be dressed up.

Kima and Carver start surveillance on White Mike and Frog while Bunk and Bea find out the Union members don’t crack. Bunk then goes to ask if Bea has a C.I., she doesn’t – Bunk then relates the old adage “A police is only as good as his informants” and they have none.

Omar shops with McNulty for a suit, McNulty hands him the money and tells Omar to make a decision while he heads over to the federal building for half an hour. Omar doesn't seem to impressed with the selection available at his state provided price range.

Carver and Kima are still waiting for Herc to arrive; he’s apparently getting his props. After a little discussion on the radio he turns up dressed in a coat with a toothpick. He has an easy hand over and boasts a little. Carver and Kima laugh at him, hardly surprising – he always was a clown.

In the federal building we see the seal on the wall for Immigration & Naturalization taken down and replaced with the Department of Homeland Security as McNulty arrives. It’s a sign of the changing times, or at least a re-branding of “the product”. McNulty meets with Special Agent Cleary about the floating Jane Doe, Cleary is willing to help out somewhat.

Nicky is meeting with Spiros Vondras about the Grand Jury, he’s there to tell them that Frank want to pull out of operations for a little while due to the heat and assure them no-one who’s been Grand Juried will say a single word, mostly because they don’t know anything (except for Horse and Frank). Vondras tells him that as the investigation is to do with the girls and the ship is gone it’ll hit a dead end. But Vondras agrees to meet with him, Frank wants to meet with the Greek though, no-one else. Vondras then moves on to talk about the chemicals he asked Nicky about previously, Nicky isn’t convinced by Vondras’s story that the Greeks plan to sell on the chemicals here and there.

McNulty is looking at undocumented European prostitutes pulled in by the department of Homeland Security, the nearest ones he could talk to are in Hudson County. He decides to take a day and head up there, Cleary is a little amazed at this and doesn’t understand why he’s doing it. McNulty explains he’s seen what happens to unidentified bodies at the morgue.

Bea knocks on Maui’s door and he answers (Mal is the guy who ended up with Ziggy’s penis displayed on his computer at the end of the last episode), they talk a little awkwardly and then he invites her in, Bea asks if they could go somewhere else to talk. Clearly Bunk’s talk about C.I.’s has got her thinking a little.

Stringer is in Donette’s apartment, Donette tells him how Dee reacted to the offer and how she’s been treated. He’s been asking to be left alone and Stringer isn’t sure how to react yet, but he’s thinking on it.

Nicky heads out to talk with Cheese about the car, the first corner lad he talks to is pretty aggressive and quick to show that he’s packing – just in case Nicky was planning some kind of violence, and a bit of power play as well (of course). Cheese then walks up to talk with him; Nicky offers to get Ziggy to sell Princess as the money it’s worth should cover the debt. Cheese agrees that’s clever and gives Ziggy another week to play, it turns out the car is around the corner on fire. Nicky watches, seething.

Bea and Mau are having coffee and talking, it turns they have a bit of emotional history and she’s looking to work the angle, maybe flip him and get him to turn on the union. Mau seems like he’s going to be no use, he draws a hard line and then suddenly turns. Telling Bea that everything used to be recorded on paper, but these days it’s kept on computers. She holds his hand in thanks and for old times.

Nicky arrives back to talk with Ziggy on the stoop. He has good news and bad, bad is that they’re going to kill him in a week; the good is that he should cancel his car insurance. Princess is toast and we hardly knew her.

Kima and Carver watch White Mike deal with Herc, the operation is frankly incredibly sloppy and poor, but Herc is thrilled with his ‘skills’. He seems genuinely convinced that it’s his talent which is getting the goods. Carver is more concerned about his trousers, the tar roof he’s on has melted somewhat in the hot sun and that stuff never comes out of your jeans, trust me. I know. But Herc and his toothpick continue to keep making deals, even if Carver wants to stab him up with it.

In the diner the owner of the place talks a little with The Greek before he leaves Vondras to talk with The Greek. Vondras explains about the Grand Juries and assures The Greek that no-one will talk, but then says that Frank wants to meet with The Greek. The Greek is unwilling to do this and just offers more money; he prefers to keep himself removed from the business and deal through Vondras.

Avon and Stringer are talking about the product issues at County, it turns out that it’s Eastside who have the good stuff, Prop Joe and so on. Stringer’s stuck with weak stuff and having to cut it even further, the Barksdales are screwed on the product front at the moment and eventually someone is going to spot and move, Avon says he’ll get on it. Stringer then enquires about Dee saying they should make a gesture, Avon agrees.

Vondras meets with Frank down at the waterfront, Frank is not pleased that The Greek has refused to meet with him and turns to walk away. Vondras tells him that the fee is being doubled and passes on The Greek’s regrets. Frank tells him that he’s done with this and turns to look across the water. Vondras talks a little about the steel works, mentioning how they are now silent and then turns to walk away.

Ziggy and Nicky are at the library looking up the chemicals that Vondras wanted them to look up. They’re using the internet to see what the stuff is used for; they find out that it’s all used to help process cocaine. (Bet that’s a surprise to you eh?)

Bea and Bunk arrive at the docks (whistles ahoy) to have a look at how the computer system for the cans work. Frank arrives shortly and takes charge of explaining how the computer system works. He then goes to highlight just how flawed the system is and how stacks get lost, not entered or entered incorrectly. He’s providing possibilities to cover any missing items. Bunk notes that the customs seal was broken, Frank admits things get missed. He’s attributing it all to human error and covering his tracks, Bunk feels he’s being played.

McNulty is up in Jersey County to see the women they have detained there. Stringer is talking with his men about changing the name of the product, it’s time to change up the name of ‘Death Grip’ and add new caps to make it look like new. Bodie goes one further than this, suggesting that the crews in the various towers supply product with different names, creating an artificial market of choice, many names, one product. Stringer is impressed.

At the diner Nicky meets with Vondras and Boris/Sergei about the chemicals, Nicky asks what they’re used for. He tells them he knows they use it to process cocaine, Vondras’s silence tells him all, he then goes on to say he’ll have the stuff for them. Nicky has no problems with helping the drug trade, but he would draw the line at supplying chemicals for bombs. Mind you the Greeks wouldn’t be involved in bombing Baltimore if there wasn’t profit in it.

McNulty hands over the pictures of the Jane Does to girls in the cell, they want to know if they id any girls they get to stay. They don’t, so they talk a little more then hand back the photos with no information for him.

Bunk, Bea and Lester meet with Daniels about getting a cloned computer to see what’s happened on the docks and why. They plan to fold both investigations together, but Daniels isn’t willing to suck up the Jane Does as well, he wants to just flip this quickly and get out. Bunk lays the case out and Lester agrees it should be let on, Daniels sighs and finally agrees to share information, but the murders remain on Homicide - unless they find a suspect.

Frank and Ott are feeling good; they’ve got a lot of ships in and plenty of work for everyone. Nicky walks up to Frank and hands him the Greek’s list. The rate is triple the normal, but Frank’s not willing to do it. Nicky tells him the writing is on the wall and that they should take this, Frank disagrees and walks away…

“Fuck the wall.”

The Review:

“Undertow” is another episode title loaded with meaning, an undertow is an especially dangerous kind of tidal current which can catch unsuspecting swimmers and drag them under the water to drown. Plenty of people in The Wire at the moment are suffering from one kind of undertow or another; McNulty's personal quest to find the identity of the floater is one such, also Ziggy's stupidity landed him in one - Cheese is a far more dangerous individual than "White" Mike, but the individual who's probably most affected by this is Frank Sobotka who's trying to pull himself free from the smuggling and involvement with the Greeks. They are dangerous bedfellows and he needs to be careful when trying to walk away from them.

If I'm honest Undertow and the episode which preceed it are not my favourite ones in this season, The Wire is laying down a fairly important lesson with this season, you'll notice we're up to the fifth episode and there's nary a whiff of any real investigation as such. You'd think that as this is the second season the show would jump in quickly and get to the meaty part, but it doesn't. The Wire instead teaches you a hard lesson here, which to learn how to watch it. The first half of this season is essentially the set up, just like the first half of the first season was. Now the pieces are in place and we've seen the actions of the players - next up is the consequences. Personally I do like this style, but it doesn't work well when watching just one episode a week. The Wire is definately a show best watched on DVD in stretches.

So Frank's trying to dig himself out of the hole he's in by shutting down any illegal activities, but he has several obstacles to this - the main one is actually Ziggy, he doesn't realise it but Ziggy's stupidity is forcing Nicky to perform tasks for the Greeks. Which leaves the door open for them to keep operating here, and as long as the Greeks have a toe in the docks and things aren't too hot to operate they'll keep pushing.

I believe I mentioned previously just how much I like Frank and Nicky Sobotka, despite the fact that they've only been around for five episodes they are both great characters driven by a real sense of honour and nobility - at least, considering their position they are. Frank breaks the law to protect and help his Union while Nicky does it to protect his cousin and provide for Aimee and his daughter. They're both very determined individuals with a lot in common, at times it's hard to remember that Nicky is in fact Frank's nephew not his son - Nicky seems a lot more like Frank than Ziggy.

Ziggy continues to dig his hole, this time his antics have cost him the pocket on his jacket and his car. As always his solution is to first lean on Nicky and then dig the hole deeper by turning to more crime.

I am always impressed with Daniels, he's a slick customer indeed - as shown by his manuvering in this episode. He's essentially taken on the fourteen Jane Does, but set it up so that he gets the credit for the success and none of the blame for failure. It's easy to forget just how cool and collected he is and how good he is at positioning things to help his career. He might have picked up a little "McNulty" in his operating attitude last season, but he's avoided the attitude.

Trust Kima to come up with the best name for Lester "Cool Lester Smooth" is just a keeper, it's how I always refer to Freamon and I think sums him up perfectly. Remember this is the guy who snapped up Shardene Innes, a beautiful woman about half his age right under the noses of Sydnor, Prez, Carver and Herc. Not one of them had a chance against him and I say "Bravo Sir!" Natural Po-lice, and his rolling the Jane Does into the Sobotka case is a great move, because now the Jane Does can reach into Valchek's considerable influence and have a larger chance of being solved - even if the men who committed the crime are now desceased themselves (as Vondras himself mentions in the episode).

While Undertow isn't the strongest episode of the season it is a fantastic set up for the episode which follows it. "All Prologue" is next and that episode is a doozy.


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