“And then he dropped the bracelets.”

This is the episode where Kima gets shot.

If you didn’t know that, you probably shouldn’t be reading this essay. And I’ll warn you right now, in two episodes, I’m going to start the essay by announcing the big thing that happens in that episode, and it’s the big thing that happens in this whole season, and it’s easily the single scene that transports The Wire from one of the best shows ever to pretty much the best show ever (with later seasons jumping its reputation even far beyond that). So if you’re reading ahead, slow down. Watch the damn show. You won’t possibly be disappointed.

Episode ten all builds up to Kima getting shot, and it’s a direct result of systemic breakdowns through the Baltimore Police Department. The attack takes place during a buy-bust ordered from above – everyone on the detail knows that Orlando can’t lead them directly to Stringer or Avon, but the brass feels that nabbing even Savino will serve as a win for the department. Of course, the Barksdales aren’t going to trust Orlando nearly enough to do a deal with him, even on the lowest level, so Kima is all but being sent directly (and consciously) into a trap. The irony, if it’s right to call it that, is the department’s willingness to throw one of its own into the line of fire for the sake of finding a way out of an investigation that threatens to shine light on the misdeeds of the higher ups. I’m reminded as I write this of the old question about the Republican party: why are so many poor people willing to vote against their own best interests for the sake of the rich? I haven’t completely fleshed out the entire parallel to this scene, but on the surface at least, it feels like the same basic concept. It can be difficult to put self-interest ahead of the interests of the system, even when you’re being asked to take great risk.

The shooting itself is an orgy of tiny breakdowns, Murphy’s Law illustrated to an almost comical extent. Kima is in the car for two reasons: to wear a wire so the back-up can stick close, and to keep a gun in arm’s reach in case things go wrong. The latter plan, we’ll later learn, falls apart due to human error: not enough tape to keep the gun in place underneath the seat. The former is foiled, poetically enough, by Savino’s strict adherence to the Barksdale rules: he gets in the car, turns up the music, and won’t engage in any conversation that might allow Kima to communicate with the rest of the detail. Add to that the simple twisting of street signs (specifically to make the cops’ jobs harder, although not specifically for this moment – an argument for the Broken Windows theory, perhaps?) and the underfunding that prevents the Baltimore Police Department from conducting any technological tracking of their people – we’ll later see such technology used to track a suspect for a bust, but not here to protect an officer’s life – and it’s a complete recipe for disaster.

(Strip away all this intellectual nonsense, and the scene works for what it is: shocking, visceral, emotional. Omar/Bey set the action movie stage back in episode eight, but that was one of our “heroes” attacking the bad guys in a noble revenge plot. This is a good cop {and a female cop, at that} getting mowed down. More importantly, it’s one of the characters that we really fucking like, and as of right now, we don’t know if she’s dead or not. And if you haven’t finished this season yet, I feel that it’s my obligation to let you know that it’s only going to get worse.)

The irony, of course, is that while this ill-conceived plan to bust a lowly legit front (who is, by definition, clean and unable to roll on the higher-ups) is unfolding, the case is already being cracked wide open. Wallace has turned. On Stringer. On Wee-Bey. On everyone (except D’Angelo. “D been good to me,” Wallace explains – he doesn’t say that D is clean, just that his loyalty won’t allow him to put him in for anything). And here’s what I love about this sequence: we never see the confession. It goes against one of the cardinal rules of dramatic writing (“show, don’t tell”), but it’s brilliant for what it does show: Wallace in the interrogation room, sleeping peacefully for what is probably the first time in weeks, if not much longer. The confession’s not what matters here. We’re watching a kid get out of the game, clear his conscience, and fall into the kind of deep sleep that comes with sheer relief. It appears, for a second, that everything’s going to be okay. Maybe, as Herc might say, the good guys have won.

And that feeling lasts for about a second, because you remember that this can’t end well as soon as McNulty says “problem is, what do we do with him now?” It’s a win, a major win for the force, but there’s no plan for a way to protect Wallace. There’s no system in place.

And when you’re on your second (or fifth) viewing of the whole show, you realize that we’ll be right back here in season four with Randy and Carver.

That was just a tiny spoiler. Half a spoiler, maybe.