“Ain’t never gonna be what it was.”

Season 2 of The Wire is often lamented by fans as the weakest in the series. This complaint, I think, arises due to the viewer’s sudden immersion in the strange and remote world of the Baltimore docks. Whereas the coming seasons exploring the school system or the newspaper mesh seamlessly with the Baltimore we were introduced to in Season 1, this foray into the shipping industry is significantly more alienating than the others due to its geographic and professional isolation.

If we see past this feeling of alienation and focus instead on how Season 2 contributes to the overall argument of The Wire, we find that this season is not only strong, but absolutely essential. The docks are isolated, yes, but the vessels of commerce (both legal and illegal) that connect them to the Baltimore we know carry the very lifeblood of the city.

Before the first credit sequence even rolls, the cold open provides us with thematic imagery that will guide our viewing through the next 12 episodes and beyond.

A casual viewer might watch this opening scene, in which McNulty and his new partner are seen towing a stranded luxury boat to safety, and think it is only meant to show the the trivial duties to which McNulty has been assigned as punishment for his actions in Season 1. If, however, we take the time unpack the symbolic content of the scene, we see that the show is making a very particular statement about the ills that plague contemporary American society.

McNulty and his partner happen on the floundering vessel while they are patrolling Baltimore’s shipping channel. Passing the countless piers and warehouses, the two men discuss how they both had family members who used to work in the area, but had been laid off at some point in the past. Many of the facilities they pass appear to be in some state of disrepair or disuse, so when they come across the pleasure boat, “Capitol Gains,” which hails from a port in Washington D.C., it is the only sign of activity in the channel.

McNulty boards the vessel and finds the captain worrying over the controls, unsure of what is wrong with the engine. In the background, a luxurious party is in full swing.

The captain accepts McNulty’s offer of a tow, but the party’s host approaches and says that they aren’t done with the festivities yet. When McNulty tells him they can’t be allowed to drift aimlessly in the shipping channel, the host hands him some money and asks to be towed somewhere out of the way where they can continue their merriment.

The viewer is clearly meant to draw parallels between the partygoers and America’s political and economic elites. Surrounded by their peers and isolated from reality, their lavish lifestyles continue on in wilful ignorance of the fact that their party is broken at a fundamental level and is actually obstructing the channels of commerce. While they have all the food and drink they need to distract themselves from the fact, they are stranded in a vessel that, for all its extravagance, is not capable of being propelled by its own power, but must be dragged along by the working class, represented here by McNulty and his partner.

The scene ends with the brightly lit boat-party raging on into the night, the only sign of activity in what should be a thriving port.

As the opening credits begin, we are not greeted by the familiar strains of “Way Down in the Hole” by The Blind Boys of Alabama, but by the lurching, gravelly version of the same tune as performed by Tom Waits. David Simon’s choice to use the same song by a different artist — a practice which will continue in subsequent seasons — is a subtle message to the audience that, while the territory trodden by the coming season will be somewhat unfamiliar, it is simply a different approach to the same theme, the same issues from a new perspective.

It is worth mentioning that this version of the song is actually the original, written and recorded by Tom Waits in 1987. This fact is not insignificant given that this season deals primarily with the more foundational aspects of Baltimore as embodied by the working class, and the shipping industry.

After the opening, we hear Roland Pryzbylewski speaking with his father-in-law, Major Valchek, about his career trajectory. When we first see Pryzbylewski, we see him as Valchek does, through a mock-up of a stained glass window which allows us only a segmented view of his face.

Pryzbylewski struggles to explain that, after years of being an inept cop, he has finally found something he is good at and wants to pursue. Valchek, who is more concerned with assembling the component parts of a stained glass window, barely seems to hear him.

When Valchek does finally speak to Pryzbylewski, it is only to completely discount his wishes and instead describe his son-in-law’s career as he has envisioned it. This proposed career, filled with nepotistic promotions and an implied familial servitude, has obviously been predetermined by Valchek with little or no thought for Pryzbylewski’s own wishes.

As hinted at earlier by the vision of Pryzbylewski through the stained glass, we realize that Valchek does not see his son-in-law as a fully formed, unique indiividual, but as a fragmented set of pieces that must be trimmed to fit into Valchek’s own political agenda.

For Pryzbylewski, being misplaced in the work force is nothing new, but whereas he began the last season in blissful ignorance, he is now, like the audience, painfully aware that he is being mismanaged and underutilized. This imagery, of course, does not apply only to Valchek and Pryzbylewski’s relationship, but also serves to show, more generally, how the system is blind to the realities of its component parts.

The new world into which the viewer is plunged this season revolves around Frank Sobotka, the secretary treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Stevedores. We are introduced to him through a heated discussion with a fellow union member over the union’s lobbying priorities. Sobotka wants to push for the monumental goal of having the entire canal dredged, while the other man wants to tackle the more realistic goal of re-opening the defunct grain pier before it is replaced by condos.

Already we can begin to see parallels with last season, in which McNulty and other members of his detail were boldly trying to take down the big players in the drug game while their nearsighted superiors pushed for superficial arrests of low-level dealers.

This scene also gives us our first taste of a new vernacular, the specialized language and slang of the Baltimore docks which, much like the street-language of the last season, is almost incomprehensible on the first listen.

Just as the first episode of Season 1 introduced us to the Baltimore Police Department and the Barksdale crew by showing them dealing with similar issues in parallel, this episode helps to further acquaint us with the dock workers in a similar fashion by chronicling the way in which each of the three different organizations deals with the loss of an important item.

On the police side, it is evidence from last season’s William Gant murder case that is lost. The picture painted of their organization by this vignette is one of ineptitude and indifference. The simple, but essential, task of filling out an intake form was carelessly botched, a mistake that now threatens to undo months of work. This sense of indifference is only reinforced by the clerk’s reaction when he bluntly informs Bunk Moreland that there is “no evidence,” as if there is nothing that can be done to rectify the situation. The fact that the clerk only participates in the large-scale search through the inventory reluctantly, and at Daniels’ insistence, reminds us of just how little some police department employees care about the jobs they are paid to perform.

For the criminals, the misplaced item is a shipment of drugs, and the care and exactitude with which they approach the issue stands in stark contrast to the not-my-problem attitude of the police force. Not only has Bodie been given explicit instructions by Stringer Bell (so explicit that Bell is aware when a detour causes the car’s mileage to be 3/10ths of a mile long), he is also shadowed by men tasked with ensuring that nothing goes wrong with the delivery. Through this extreme vigilance, Bell can be certain that the problem was not the fault of his crew, but of the supplier. In the end, the drugs were not misplaced, but deliberately withheld by an equally careful supplier who doubts the viability of Barksdale and Bell’s organization.

Finally, we see physical loss as it manifests itself on the Baltimore docks where, over the course of the episode, one container is lost through a mistake by Ziggy Sobotka, and another — this one filled with dead bodies — is purposely “lost” in the stacks to conceal its existence. This presents the docks as a hybrid of skill and stupidity, wherein the proliferation of genuine mistakes is exploited as a mask for practiced deception.

These depictions of misplaced items call out to the larger theme of the episode, which is — as defined by its title, “Ebb Tide” — loss and recession. The term, “ebb tide,” refers to the receding or outgoing tide, which begins with the high tide and ends with the low. This imagery of gradual descent from an elevated position is seen in many places throughout the episode.

We see it on a more personal level for characters like Daniels, who was a contender for a major’s position last season but is now in a basement cataloguing evidence; McNulty, who went from being a homicide detective to patrolling the harbour on a boat; and “the king, “Avon Barksdale, who is now confined to a prison cell following his arrest.

Most notable amongst this episode’s losses is the declining state of Baltimore’s shipping industry. This fundamental aspect of the theme is captured by the epigram, “Ain’t never gonna be what it was,” a statement made by one of the older stevedores while he and his companions reminisce about the good old days.

The strange irony of the nostalgic display from which the quote is taken is that the senior union members are fondly remembering the way things used to be by describing how incredibly difficult and dangerous they were.

The message, perhaps, is that even brutally hard work is better than scarce or nonexistent work. From this perspective, while the elders are describing how bad they used to have it, it is in fact the younger generation who truly have something to complain about, since there is precious little work on the docks these days, and even less for those without seniority.

But whereas the title’s reference to tides would imply that this movement is cyclical and will inevitably be replaced by the rising tide, the titular lament, “Ain’t never gonna be what it was,” implies otherwise. We are left to wonder whether this is, in fact, a tidal movement, due to rise again when the time is right, or a permanent and inevitable decline into ruin.

Continue to enjoy the other essays in this series here. Our essays on Season 1 are also available as an e-book.


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