Starring: Clarke Peters.
In the opening scene of the fourth season of HBO's "The Wire" (10 tonight), Snoop (Felicia Pearson), one of drug lord Marlo Stanfield's youthful lieutenants, saunters down the aisle of a Hardware Barn looking for the perfect nail gun.
While a clerk lists the pros and cons of particular tools, Snoop offers ironic observations about the product's usefulness for "jobs all over town."
Already, attention must be paid, or minor facts, like the androgynous killer's gender, will slip by in the rush of plot minutiae on what is arguably television's most character-rich drama.
It wasn't clear to this critic that the killer was even a woman until Chris Partlow (Gbenga Akinnagbe), her equally remorseless partner in the murder trade, referred to Snoop as a "she" several episodes later.
Four seasons into what has gelled into HBO's most consistently satisfying show, viewers know that if they blink, they're going to miss something.
It picks up the story one year after the end of the ill-fated experiment that legalized the drug trade in West Baltimore, and the political fallout is still being felt on the eve of the city's Democratic primary.
Mayor Clarence Royce (Glynn Turman), the city's black incumbent, finds himself fighting for his political life in what was supposed to be a lopsided race against reform-minded white councilman Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen).
Alternating between optimism and bitter realism about his prospects, Carcetti bemoans the fact that despite the power of his ideas, he still "wakes up white in a city that ain't."
Meanwhile, Marlo (Jamie Hector), the drug lord who annexed most of Avon Barksdale's territory after he was sent to prison last season, is stealthily killing his rivals.
Unlike previous turf wars, bodies aren't turning up on Baltimore's streets, giving the political establishment what it wants the most: a deceptively low murder rate at election time.
The centerpiece of the upcoming season isn't Detective Lester Freamon's (Clarke Peters) dogged pursuit of Marlo's organization as much as we'd like it to be. This time around, series creator and executive producer David Simon concentrates our minds on the tragedy of Baltimore's troubled public schools, a dysfunctional institution that feeds the city's culture of despair.
We're introduced to a quartet of middle school "cornerboys" (low-level drug dealers), several of whom happen to be as adept in the classroom as they are in the streets.
Michael Lee (Tristan Wilds) is the group's brooding leader, a fearless but undisciplined amateur boxer who consistently refuses Marlo's overtures to join his crew.
Michael's friend Namond Brice (Julito McCullum) is the insecure son of an original founder of the Barksdale crew. Troubled nerd Duquan "Dukie" Weems (Jermaine Crawford) and the entrepreneurial Randy Wagstaff (Maestro Harrell) round out HBO's version of the Three Musketeers and D'artagnan.
Presiding over the education of the boys is former cop Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), who became a teacher after leaving the force last year. Prez is stunned that complacency among his teaching peers rivals what he experienced as a cop.
Because "The Wire" is as complex a picaresque as one is likely to find this side of Dickens, it's dangerous to assume characters will follow a preordained path.
Take the odd case of Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), introduced in season one as the series' focal point and ostensible "star." Reduced to sobriety and responsible living, there's no use for the character now that Carcetti has become the show's "white conscience."
Like every well-constructed 19th-century English novel, most scenes in "The Wire" operate on multiple levels, as characters either adapt or fail to come to grips with their fate in West Baltimore's ever shifting urban wasteland.
It still isn't clear whether HBO will cancel "The Wire" after this season, but the writers have taken the liberty of laying the foundation for a robust season five, which would immediately dispel this season's anti-climatic finale.
Tony Norman can be reached at 412-263-1631 or at firstname.lastname@example.org .