Astounding, simply astounding. The Wire’s so consistently great that you risk getting desensitized to it. Fortunately, there are episodes like “Middle Ground” to remind us what an awesome show we’re watching. The storytelling here is incredible as we watch Stringer and Avon’s mutual betrayal unfold while similar backbiting is happening between the BPD and City Hall. Virtue is a weakness on either side of the war on drugs and, much as we disapprove of the various turncoats, their decisions all have the appearance of necessity under the circumstances.
Stringer and Avon’s rooftop farewell leaves us with the certainty that these two deserve each other. All their reminiscing and talk of “us” is a loathsome cover for the betrayals they’ve already set in motion. The worst part is that they actually mean much of what they say. There’s enough emotion in their hug to make me think that these really do care about one another but that both are putting their ambitions ahead of such friendship, and we can all understand why. Avon’s relentless pursuit of the drug war really is going to cost the organization its supply, and Stringer’s continued flouting of the rules of trust and honour which govern the game really have compromised the integrity of the organization. Of course, there’s a lot of personal motivation at play here too, as both men see the other as a leadership rival (and rightfully so).
It’s easy to see why Stringer and Avon believe they have no choice but to betray their partner, but it’s also easy to see the alternatives they’ve missed. Avon could’ve kept Stringer in the loop as he brought new muscle into the organization, perhaps relying on him to help keep the violence from getting out of hand. Stringer could’ve listened to Avon when it came to Clay Davis, keeping himself focused on the world he actually knows. The problem is not that there were no other options, the problem is that men who might take such options could never have risen to the top of the drug trade. You don’t get to be where Stringer and Avon are without a hefty measure of ruthlessness, and so it’s no wonder that they fail when compromise is the correct course.
You can see the same logic in Burrell’s decision to betray the Mayor. He’s convinced that Royce is planning to hang him out to dry, and, given his view of the world, this conclusion makes sense. Burrell got where he is not by devoting himself to good police work, but by devoting himself to police work that looks good. The actual effects of Hamsterdam are less important than the how they’re perceived and, to his mind, that perception will demand a scapegoat. He’s convinced this is what the Mayor will do because it’s what he would do. In light of this, why wouldn’t he go to Carcetti?
Of course, we know that Burrell’s wrong and that if he merely put his trust in Royce he’d be fine. But why would Burrell think that when Royce’s response is so far removed from what anyone could expect? All his efforts are devoted to finding a way to keep the free zone’s active, to find some messaging that the public will accept. If all he wanted was to cover his own ass (a la Burrell) then he would merely throw the Commissioner to the wolves and call it a day. This is the first hint of altruism that we’ve seen from someone in power on this show; how could anyone see it coming?
Burrell’s betrayal illustrates why a person in power actually trying to do what’s best for the public is unprecedented. The system of nepotism in which Royce has happily participated in up until now (rewarding loyalty before ability) ensures that only unprincipled sycophants attain any power. Such people will always put their personal ambitions ahead of the public good and expect the same from everyone else. In rewarding vice, City Hall (like the street) ensures that virtue can’t be expected, even when it’s more beneficial. Royce might’ve been able to find his middle ground if Burrell had been more principled, but a principled Burrell could never have been in such a position to begin with.
This episode’s epigraph is one of the most loaded we’ve heard thus far. Stringer means that “we don’t have to dream anymore” but, in context of what he and Avon are doing to each other it could easily mean “we don’t have a dream anymore.” It’s a summation of their broken relationship and a tragic counter-argument to Martin Luther King.
An Omar and Brother spinoff would’ve completely destroyed both characters, but let’s have fun with the idea for a few seconds.
Does anyone actually doubt Carcetti’s going to use Hamsterdam to fuel his campaign?
Nice job McNulty, turning down Theresa.