Undertow (The Wire)

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The Wire episode
Episode no. Season 2
Episode 5
Directed by Steve Shill
Story by David Simon
Ed Burns
Teleplay by Ed Burns
Original air date June 29, 2003 (2003-06-29)
Running time 57 minutes
Guest appearance(s)
Episode chronology
← Previous
"Hard Cases"
Next →
"All Prologue"
List of The Wire episodes

"Undertow" is the fifth episode of the second season of the HBO original series, The Wire. The episode was written by Ed Burns from a story by David Simon & Ed Burns and was directed by Steve Shill. It originally aired on June 29, 2003.


Title reference[edit]

The title refers to the tide effect that traps unsuspecting swimmers; a metaphor for Frank Sobotka's inability to extricate himself from the smuggling operation despite his desire to.


Vondas makes this comment as a veiled criticism of Frank's caution in pursuing further deals with The Greeks' organization when faced with a police investigation. The season's theme of industrial decay is also thereby continued.


Starring cast[edit]

Although credited, Frankie Faison and Deirdre Lovejoy do not appear in this episode.



The Jane Does[edit]

Colonel William Rawls questions detectives Lester Freamon and Bunk Moreland about their case. He tells Freamon he has been detailed to the Southeastern district and recommends that Bunk bring in a fresh detective.

Bunk, Beadie Russell, Ray Cole and Mackey serve grand jury summons on checkers at Frank Sobotka's union who worked on the Atlantic Light, the ship that delivered the container that the dead girls were found in, including Johnny "Fifty" Spamanto and Thomas "Horseface" Pakusa. Sobotka is enraged that the detectives believe he knew anything about the girls.

The grand jury prosecutor informs Bunk that the hearings brought little information. Out of options, Bunk quizzes Russell about informants in the docks and is disappointed when she has none. Later, Russell visits an old flame in Sobotka’s union named Maui. She sounds him out about becoming an informant while he tries to reinitiate their relationship. He refuses to give her information on his fellow union men but offers a tip – the union computers may be useful in tracking containers.


Bubbles visits the marine unit to find Jimmy McNulty. McNulty is out on a boat and Claude Diggins radios him to return to shore. Bubbles reports that he has tracked down Omar Little. McNulty gives him some money and Bubbles persuades him to give him more after he rants about how dangerous the task of locating Omar for him was.

McNulty brings Omar in to be interviewed by ASA Ilene Nathan in preparation for the upcoming Marquis "Bird" Hilton trial. Nathan is surprised at Omar’s candor and history, but she calls him a sociopath and worries about putting him on the stand in front of Maurice Levy. She gives McNulty a voucher to buy Omar some more appropriate clothes for a court appearance (saying that he should get something "with a [neck] tie").

Omar shops for clothes, for his potential court hearing as a witness against Bird. McNulty visits the federal building (where the Immigration and Naturalization Service office is being converted to a Department of Homeland Security office) and asks Special Agent Cleary if he can interview any vice suspects to try and ask them about the girl he found in the harbor. Cleary finds some girls being held in New Jersey, but finds it hard to understand McNulty’s desire to ID the girl. They begin to interrogate them, however they get no response due to them not promising the women protection from deportation upon identifying one of the murdered women.

Sobotka detail[edit]

Lieutenant Cedric Daniels meets with Sergeant Ellis Carver to offer him a position in the detail. Carver cannot understand why Daniels would consider him after he betrayed him when they worked together on the Barksdale case (as revealed in the final episode of season 1). Daniels tells him that he thinks he will not try anything similar as he has caught him once before. His condition for Carver is that he will not be recognized as a sergeant and will report to detective Kima Greggs. Thomas "Herc" Hauk is overjoyed to be working with his old partner again.

Daniels briefs his new men. He orders DNRs and finance investigations to be done quickly to placate Major Valchek. He puts Greggs, Herc and Carver on drug trade around the port and Herc is pleased that he might get to do some undercover work for once as the port dealers are largely white. Freamon arrives and impresses the detail by recognizing a photo of Sobotka – he tells them of the link to the Jane Does case.

Major Valchek receives another photo of his missing surveillance van at a port in San Diego and dusts it for fingerprints. Greggs asks him about using the van and he tells her it is "on loan to the Southwest," an allusion to the southwestern part of the country.

Greggs, Carver and Herc begin making hand-to-hands around the port. Greggs and Carver set up a surveillance post in a vacant apartment. Carver watches Frog berate another dealer for spending too much time with his girlfriend. Greggs is annoyed that Herc is taking a long time to prepare. Herc arrives and shows off his props to his colleagues. They find the dealers in the port area much less organized than their old targets in the Barksdale organization.

Barksdale trade[edit]

Donette visits D'Angelo Barksdale with their son Tyrell and tells him that Stringer Bell has been supporting her and has plans to look after D'Angelo when he is released. D'Angelo is cynical about their motivations and tells Donette it is about business.

In the "Pit", an addict disparages the drugs sold to him and Poot Carr tries to restrain his dealers from beating the man. Puddin calls Bodie Broadus over from his tower. Bodie realizes that the problem is with their product’s low quality and says that someone needs to tell Stringer.

Stringer attends his economics class at the Baltimore Community College and asks his teacher, Mr. Lucas, for advice about selling an inferior product in a competitive marketplace (without revealing that his product is heroin). Lucas tells him to decrease prices to increase market share, possibly even operating at a loss. He warns Stringer that the product will lose credibility if the price is continually low, and mentions the case of Worldcom's name change to escape low consumer credibility. Stringer meets with Donette at home and she reports D’Angelo’s troubled state of mind.

Stringer visits the prison and discusses the problems with their product with Avon. He tells him that the East side dealers Proposition Joe and Petey Dixon have the best product. Stringer asks about D'Angelo and Avon says he has to "find his own way". Stringer suggests that they put some property in D'Angelo's name to give him something to come home to. Avon tells Stringer that D'Angelo has taken a lot on for them. Stringer assures him that he has been fair.

Stringer hosts a meeting with many Barksdale dealers, opening with the remark "You have all heard of WorldCom?" and soliciting ideas to solve the organization's problem. Poot calls for a name change, Shamrock proposes different color caps for the drug vials and Bodie Broadus suggests dividing up the towers to create a fake competition.

Dock business[edit]

A white dealer called Frog makes sales in the Eastside. Ziggy Sobotka arrives to collect money from him. Frog's count is short and he tells Ziggy that the stash was stolen. Ziggy threatens him but Frog remains indifferent. As Ziggy goes to drive away he is blocked in. Eastside lieutenant Melvin "Cheese" Wagstaff harasses Ziggy for the money he owes him. Cheese is far more effective at intimidating Ziggy than Ziggy was with Frog. Ziggy offers his new leather jacket as partial payment but Cheese is unimpressed. Cheese has his men beat Ziggy and they take his car, telling him that if they have not been paid by Friday he will be dead on Saturday. Frog is on hand to see the whole encounter.

Nick Sobotka views a house with his girlfriend Aimee. Elena McNulty is the realtor. He argues with her about the area name. The asking price seems beyond Nick’s means; Aimee suggests that they rent somewhere.

At Delores' bar, Ziggy relates his problems to Nick, who chastises him for getting involved with drugs. Nick refuses to help Ziggy initially but when he realizes Ziggy is in danger and has no other way out he tells Ziggy he has already given his share of their takings stealing from the docks to Aimee for an apartment.

At The Greek's café Nick reports the summons to Sergei "Serge" Malatov and Spiros "Vondas" Vondopoulos and requests that they put their smuggling on hold on behalf of Frank Sobotka. Vondas assures Nick that the Jane Doe investigation will find only dead ends. Nick tells them that Frank wants to meet with The Greek himself. Vondas asks Nick about smuggling chemicals, Nick asks what they would be used for and Vondas tells them that it is just business.

Nick and La La visit Cheese to negotiate Ziggy’s debt. Nick asks for the car back so that Ziggy can sell it to raise the money. Cheese offers another week and shows Nick that they have torched Ziggy’s car. La La drives Nick to give the bad news to Ziggy.

The Greek discusses the police investigation with Vondas. The Greek refuses to meet with Sobotka but tells Vondas to double his payment. Sobotka is dismissive of the offer and angry that The Greek would not meet with him. Vondas points out the closed steel factories, leaving Frank to ponder the fate of his union if he cuts his ties to The Greek.

Ziggy and Nick look up the chemicals that Vondas asked them to obtain on a library PC. They find that they are used for processing cocaine. Nick confronts Sergei and Vondas assuring them that he is happy to deal as long as the chemicals are only used for narcotics and not, as he feared, for explosives or weaponry. They tell him that they will triple their payment if Frank agrees to continue working with them, but Frank is defiant when confronted with the offer the following morning. [1][2][3]

First appearances[edit]

  • Frog: An East side drug dealer who sometimes works for Ziggy Sobotka
  • Cheese Wagstaff *: Nephew of Eastside drug kingpin Proposition Joe and a feared lieutenant in his operation.

References and notes[edit]

  • ^ Cheese's given name was originally listed on the HBO website as "Calvin" before being changed to "Melvin".
  1. ^ "Episode guide - episode 18 undertow". HBO. 2004. Retrieved 2006-06-22. 
  2. ^ David Simon, Ed Burns (2003-06-29). "Undertow". The Wire. Season 2. Episode 05. HBO. 
  3. ^ Alvarez, Rafael (2004). The Wire: Truth Be Told. New York: Pocket Books. 

External links[edit]