David Simon’s The Wire is high on all lists of unmissable television. I’ve heard many people describe season 2 as the weakest season. I completed it over the weekend and hope this is true, if only because it was riveting.
Season 2 is a masterpiece of ensemble drama (spoilers ahead). It has the advantage of the previously introduced characters we’ve grown to love and loathe, but Frank Sobotka, union leader for the Patapsco docks stevedores, singularly embodies Simon’s grander ambition for the overall arc.
Chris Bauer is perfectly cast as the caring and careworn stevedore boss through whom we grow to understand how the venal corruption at the heart of the city’s political class forces him into corruption of his own; both to fruitlessly line their pockets in the hope that he can secure essential dredging that will boost the competitiveness of the docks for shipping business, but also to support his men struggling to survive with the meagre work the faltering docks provide.
Bauer is all righteous anger and awkwardly expressed emotions, embodying in the stevedores’ old fashioned machismo a sentimental metaphor for twentieth century blue collar America and its challenges in the twenty first. He delivers some big lines with gusto that leave us in no doubt as to the point Simon wants to make. “We used to build shit” summarises the problem Frank finds America in, though he makes the point that it isn’t so much him he’s worried for, it’s the future for the next generation. Late on in the series he’s asked how he could be helped, and asks instead where the help was over the twenty five years the docks slowly rusted, depriving the area and those in it of the industry relied on for so long.
This is of course a problem for the west more generally as both robotics and the global economy send America’s heavy industries and manufacturing more generally to the wall. Apple don’t make their phones at home. Like many others, they employ factory workers working in near slavery conditions in China. There are parallels as I write this, with Tata Steel’s current travails at its foundries in Port Talbot and Scunthorpe in the UK, as China dumps steel below cost on the global market (and the British government helping finance it for a decade to boot ((http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3533082/Millions-loans-Chinese-firms-crippling-UK-steel-Company-handed-40m-deal-help-cut-pollution.html)) ).
Frank Sobotka is thus both an elegy and a warning, but Simon’s crystal clear that warning will go unheeded in the series finale’s montage.
Simon’s brilliance as a screenwriter isn’t just in taking Frank and making him the mouthpiece for the American working class, which he does on a fairly transparent level. He layers it by giving Frank a son struggling to find his purpose. Ziggy is a fragile and haunted young man driven to a multitude of stupid acts through his easily wounded pride. I saw Ziggy as a metaphor for a post-industrial America, re-inforcing the message we’re hearing from Frank, living proof of his concerns. Ziggy’s sensitivity, with a background suggesting a drug addicted mother and a father with too much time for his union buddies, fuels a helpless rage, made the worse by his steadier cousin Nicky’s more pragmatic response to deprivation of turning quickly from working crimes like Frank’s, to becoming a drug dealer.
Arguably, making Baltimore out to be a choice for its poor working class of either crime or welfare is simplistic. But Frank is the moral anchor specific to season 2, his message and his place in the wider tapestry linking together the petty games played by the high ranking police officials and the politicians, along with the FBI, the drug gangs, organised crime and our favourite special investigation unit. Sobotka’s donation of a stained glass window to a church that police Major Stan Valchek had hoped he could provide provokes Valchek to put Lt. Daniels’ detail on Sobotka. That plus a body shipped out of the river start the dominos falling as Daniels’ team uncover Sobotka’s shady dealings at the sharp end of a very large and powerful crime cartel, its effects rippling out through the lives of Frank’s family.
As the forces unleashed by those first dominos gather around an increasingly frightened and desperate Frank, a tragic and entirely predictable sequence of events plays out with a memorable montage. Because of his decency, Sobotka’s final moments, walking to certain death hoping to do something right for his son, are perfectly and rightly faded out. In a season unafraid of graphically depicting violent deaths, Sobotka’s dignity is masterfully underscored.