The Wire's Rust Belt
"They used to make steel there, no?" - Vondas, 'Undertow' S2E5
Nicholas Sobotka hunches forward, holding hands with the chain link fence. With eyes stinging with tears he overlooks the dilapidated grain elevator towering over the docks. It is destined to be razed for condominiums. A standing fossil illustrating the past glory of the Baltimore pier. Rapid shots of rusted industrial buildings flash one after another in quick succession in the episode's closing montage. A fitting send off to a season focused in chronicling the erosion of the working class.
The Wire showcases all the trappings of a post-industrial city. While the disenfranchised turn to both sides of the drug market, the law enforcement bureaucrats and politicians chase headlines and stats. In an attempt to police what they view as a “culture of moral decline”, efforts on the other side of the law just thrust the cycle of corruption further that is inherent to the system. However, the second season carves out its own unique perspective of this decline compared to the rest of the series.
The sophomore season of the show pulls us out of the project towers and low rises of its freshman year on HBO and brings us to the Baltimore docks. The freshened intro sequence we are greeted with from the jump is updated with wide shots of the shipyard in action. We see trailers being raised and lowered onto semis and stevedores downing their morning sorrows with a fine pilsner before first shift.
The classic theme “Way Down In the Hole” is reverted to its original rendition by jazz singer Tom Waits. His gravelly voice and strained shouts echo of Louis Armstrong. The saxophone that peeks over the bass line sounds almost like a ship blaring its horn. For an artist once described by the New York Times as “the poet of outcasts”, there could not have been a more fitting theme to score the underbelly of Baltimore. It hints at a new theme for the season’s plot. One that I believe most purely encompasses the show’s depiction of a rust belt city.
It begins with bureaucracy. When a shipping container of thirteen dead women is cracked open and an additional "floater" turns up in the Chesapeake Bay, every department and agency pawns the burden of responsibility off onto one another. The pedantries of jurisdictional lines reigns supreme over moral duty.
An Unholy Union
Local 47 of the International Brotherhood of Stevedores is The Wire’s version of the International Longshoremen's Association. With these blue collar laborers we spend a lot of time throughout the season, learning the union politics
of lobbying shoeboxes full of cash that keeps the industry’s faint pulse alive. The occasional smuggling helps to make ends. Seniority ranks above all on the port, with working hours being kicked up to stevedores with the most tenure. But those hours are scarce when there are no ships coming in to be unloaded.
Frank Sobatka’s idyllic vision as leader of IBS Local 47 is to return the Baltimore docks to their former glory. He is a man with the weight of a changing future on his chest. Honest in his loyalty to the betterment of his union, but willing to smuggle for Mediterranean mobsters and bribe city official’s in order to accomplish this dream.
The inconvenient geography of the Baltimore harbor makes it far less economical to dock at than other major east coast shipyards. The decades-long trend of manufacturing jobs moving away compounded this. Baltimore was not to escape the slow crawl of oxidized iron that frost industrial cities from lower New England to the depths of the Midwest. It is referred to with a depressed charm by us inhabitants of the region as the “rust belt”.
We’re introduced to Frank in his office fit out of a shipping container, Brenda Lee serenading from the radio, idling by with his closest comrades, Ott and Horseface. From just the right angle it appears like a mob boss with his consigliere and a trusted capo. Frank had been lobbying hard for the canal to be dredged, doing so would widen the passage for larger ships and more frequent routes. Thus creating more work for the boys on the docks. But he must battle the opposing tide of those who would rather rebuild the grain pier instead, a much less ambitious project but with higher likelihood of political support. He’s deadlocked in political limbo.
Chris Bauer turns in an underappreciated performance as Frank Sobotka. He conveys the feeling that his character sits upon a house of cards, the gnawing stress of captaining a union on the brink of collapse. But he balances it with restrained calmness, almost like a front for his men. But such calm can give way to brilliant explosions.
"You know what the trouble is Brucey? We used to make shit in this country. Build shit. Now we just put our hands in the next guys pocket." - Frank
So it is organized crime that offers the way out of the economic struggle for Frank. Turning to “the Greek” to smuggle his various illicit wares from across the Atlantic. This fatal relationship sets the hook for the season in the first episode. That shipping container of dead women was a tragedy of human trafficking. Mail order brides who never made it to their wedding night.
The container of note was spotted on the off chance by a quiet port administration officer. Beadie Russell’s routine usually consists of an uneventful patrol on the docks with her headphones on, occasionally teasing Frank about stolen TVs and missing containers of vodka. She is a single mother, raising two kids between shifts after their father left for opportunities anew. Her character provides a working class essence to the side of law enforcement. In her eyes you can see both weariness, and the window into a determined spirit.
Priced Out Of Point
Frank’s nephew, the street smart Nicky Sobatka, represents the new generation of longshoremen. He sits at the bar and listens to the vet’s war stories of romanticized pre-regulation labor standards. He lives by the same code that most do in the shipping district of Locust Point; drink, sweat it out on the docks, and drink again. But from helping his uncle with small rip offs for the Greek, he soon carves out his own path in the heroin game. He was cautious, hesitant, and felt it was his last option as a breadwinner to his girlfriend and baby girl. What makes his arc significant to the season’s theme was there was no zeal to enter the perceived glory of the trap game that can attract White youth.
There is a certain self awareness exuded when he dresses down his plug Frog for fronting something he is not.
"First of all - and I don't know how to tell you this without hurting you deeply, but first of all - you happen to be white. I'm talkin' raised on Rapolla Street white, where your mama used to drag you down to St. Casimir's just like all the other little pisspants on the block."
Although as he continues to berate the wannabe banger, he creates the sense that he feels his methods are above the ways of black culture. Describing himself as "Locust Point IBS Local 47 white", who "Doesn't work without no fucking contract." It is a fascinating cross roads of race and identity when the poor white are too driven to desperation, as there will always be a social urge to place others on the rung beneath them.
We witness the process of gentrification play out in real time. Nicky and his girl are attending an open house for a property in Locust Point. The realtor (McNulty's ex-wife in some great character continuity of her profession) awkwardly attempts to tell the story of the house. But it was Nicky’s Aunt’s old home, as he points out to her, and it's nowhere close to its original price range. In fact as the agent softly relays to him, it's technically now in the redrawn borders of Federal Hill, no longer a Locust Point address.
It is a changing time, changing neighborhoods, one that prices out those at the bottom of the ladder.
A fuck up with charm. The kind of guy to tattoo his own name on his knuckles. Probably enjoyed Dane Cook as it is 2003, but that's not canon. Being the son of Frank Sobotka can carry its own pressures on the docks, and he does fit a lot of spunk into his skinny frame.
Actor James Ransone captures in full form the derailment of Ziggy. His cigarettes are smoked with the air of bated breath, dripping with a naïve confidence despite finding himself the punchline of every joke from his hard-nosed co-workers. As he slips further into crime with his cousin Nick, his unmeasured actions draw the watchful eye of the older cus. He is introduced as a classic example of nepotism in the workplace, and further exemplifies crime in the pursuit of short term status. None the wiser to wear a fur-collared leather jacket worth two racks alongside working stiffs on the pier.
At times the viewer may be pushed to annoyance with Ziggy, purposely led to feel distaste for the kid as his actions grow more petty and ill-advised. But that character construction to the audience is effective. If you follow Ziggy until the season’s end you will witness the closure of an arc so dizzying in its vulnerability, so immersive in the raw weight of a man's choices, that the presence of Ziggy will be lasting in your memory.
In taking us to the docks The Wire achieves a much different vibe for its second season. Though it is not a complete departure from the show in terms of what the writing is attempting to say, the theme of a city in decline and the corruption and economics that drive the status-quo are as present as ever. The creative choice to give focus to the murky and complex politics of unions and local government felt as if it were carving out its own unique story to add to the challenged lives and hardened struggles of The Wire's Baltimore. To create drama from a new setting within the show’s confines was an aesthetic gamble. But one that pays off to the future viewers of this sincere time capsule of life in rust.
"When you walk through the garden, you gotta watch your back."