"Middle Ground" is the eleventh episode of the third season of The Wire. It is the thirty-sixth episode of the series overall. It premiered on December 12, 2004. The episode was written by George Pelecanos and directed by Joe Chappelle.
Mayor Royce says that they need to find a "middle ground" as a way to keep Hamsterdam alive but avoiding political suicide.
- "We ain't gotta dream no more."
- ―Stringer Bell
As told to Avon Barksdale in regards to how much they have accomplished in their endeavors.
Brother Mouzone catches up with Omar Little on his way home. The two have a tense standoff at gunpoint, and discuss how Mouzone found Omar and their capabilities and weapons. Mouzone assures Omar that Dante is still alive and did not give him up easily. Eventually, Mouzone puts up his weapon and tells Omar that he has something to ask him.
At the police department Deputy Commissioner William Rawls suggests that they could sidestep major political fallout from Hamsterdam if they close it down now. Major Reed checks with Major Torret that they are ready and asks what city hall are waiting for, prompting Acting Commissioner Ervin Burrell to phone the Mayor's office.
Mayor Clarence Royce and his Chief of Staff Coleman Parker are in a meeting with their health commissioner (played by former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke), a public health academic and State Delegate Odell Watkins. Burrell is left on hold and when the Mayor does speak to him he tells him that the police are not to do anything as the mayor's office regroups and rethinks the situation. Rawls then asks Ervin to explain the mayor's meaning and Burrell claims Royce's stalling is an attempt to put the police department in the "Guillotine." Burrell believes that Royce is planning how to distance himself to have the "Hamsterdam" blame fall entirely on the police department and decides to spin it against the mayor's office. Rawls asks if he is going to the Baltimore Sun newspapers with the information but Burrell states that he is leaving that to a contact. Burrell then calls councilman Tommy Carcetti. Royce also disgusts Watkins by pursuing the idea against his recommendations.
Parker is adamant that the Hamsterdam scheme must be shut down immediately. Parker knows that Burrell called for authorization to do so. Royce demands that they at least talk about sustaining the project and using a different name. Royce is given support from the health officials who claim that from a public health perspective, Hamsterdam users are participating in Needle Exchanges, On-Site HIV and drug testing, with many users even considering drug treatment. They state that authorization from the mayor's office could increase their on-going works. States' Attorney Steven Demper talks about sustaining the project as a law enforcement strategy to better investigate high level drug dealers. Delegate Watkins however, is with Parker in being most opposed to keeping Hamsterdam afloat. Watkins warns Royce that as soon as the media exposes Hamsterdam, Royce will lose support of the ministers and several city hall officials, and then will be subject to action from both the state government and department of justice. Royce continues listening to ideas feeling that with a 14% decrease in felonies city wide, he can spin the Hamsterdam situation to his advantage.
Burrell meets with Carcetti in a darkened bar and tells him all about Hamsterdam. He spins the story so that the blame rests with the Mayor's office for the intense pressure they have been putting on the department to reduce crime. Carcetti wonders why Royce has not moved to close down Hamsterdam yet. Burrell explains his fear that Carcetti will use him as a scapegoat. Burrell asks Carcetti to give the story to Gray as he hopes to endear himself to the new challenger for Mayor now that he is burning his bridges with Royce.
Carcetti discusses the story with Theresa D'Agostino. She suggests that the police commander responsible Major Colvin may want to talk about the story if Burrell is painting him a villain. Carcetti manages to get Colvin's cell phone number by calling his office.
Carcetti has little luck contacting Colvin so eventually visits him at home. Carcetti asks for Colvin's side of the story to counter Burrell's explanation. Colvin gives Carcetti a tour of the Western district showing him the impact his efforts have made. They visit empty drug corners, the district headquarters and view real police work being done in catching a felony church burglar. Colvin then takes Carcetti to a neighborhood council meeting where they hear that local community policing is once more possible in the Western district. Carcetti sees from this that most of the residents are happier and safer from Colvin's experiment. As they leave, Colvin asks why Carcetti is so interested in his district as he is unsure of his motive in coming to the place. Colvin then points to a former funeral parlor that was once segregated for Whites only before the neighborhood experienced a demographic shift. He then tells Carcetti a story about the owner, Mr. Stryker, who refused to service Blacks. Colvin claims that in his days kids asked Stryker if he would ever serve Blacks at the funeral parlor and Stryker claimed that he would under the condition he could "bury them all at once." Carcetti is sickened by the response unsure of why Colvin is amused until Colvin explains that he respected Stryker's honest racism as unlike most people Colvin always knew where Mr. Stryker stood. Finally Colvin shows Carcetti Hamsterdam itself after showing him the "good" that had occurred from his experiment, it was time for Carcetti to see the "ugly." Carcetti questions Colvins motives in embarking on his scheme and Colvin says he wanted to try something different for dealing with the drug problem. Carcetti sees open drug dealing and is told by Colvin to explore the area on his own as it's a journey he must travel if he wants to reach those in this neighborhood. Carcetti leaves West Baltimore unsure of what to think about Colvin's experiment. He is sickened by the drug sanctioned areas but intrigued that the Westside citizens are much happier and safer than they have ever been due to Colvin's rescalvaging of the district.
Stringer Bell meets with his attorney Maurice Levy to discuss the lack of return he is seeing from his political contributions to Senator Clayton "Clay" Davis. Levy tells Stringer he has been "rainmade" - Davis is taking the money for himself instead of for the bribes he has told Stringer he is using it for. Levy furthermore explains that there are no bribes in the development business, every contractor who is awarded money is done so on a passing of specifications and that Clay Davis is a "gonif" with a reputation for pocketing bribes that should not have been worked from the beginning.
Stringer angrily looks for Avon Barksdale. He is enraged when Slim Charles's new soldiers keep him from his partner. With Avon yet to arrive Stringer tells Slim Charles he has a task for him - kill Clay Davis. Slim claims that while he is willing to murder known enemies, the death of Davis requires the skills of a professional assassin and may be beyond his reach. Avon arrives at the beginning of the conversation but remains in the background listening as Stringer attempts to coerce Slim to undertake the hit. Avon then enters the room and mocks the fact that Stringer wants to hit a Senator. Avon says that killing a "downtown" man like Davis would incur the wrath of the state police and federal government and would require a "Day of the Jackal"-type assassination in order to successfully pull it off. Avon says that if Stringer has lost money then he should handle it like a businessman rather than like a gangster, and that the financial losses are Stringer's responsibility, not the organization.
Stringer calls and arranges a meeting with Colvin. He offers Colvin more information about Avon. Stringer claims that Avon is like his brother but he cannot let him continue his war with Stanfield. Stringer tells Colvin that he came to him because of his reputation as the man who created Hamsterdam. He tells Colvin about Avon's wartime safehouse and gives him the address, Stringer insists that his actions are merely business. Meanwhile Avon is in a barbershop getting a haircut. Brother Mouzone visits him and tells him that he has learned that Stringer set him up. Avon offers to pay for Stringer's actions with money. Brother Mouzone tells Avon that money will not settle the debt and that Avon must maintain his word and reputation to continue dealing with New York. Avon is forced to give up Stringer to appease Mouzone and maintain his business.
Avon and Stringer meet up for a late night drink. Stringer apologizes for not dealing with Marlo Stanfield sooner. Avon is nostalgic about the shoplifting days of their youth. Avon asks Stringer to dream with him and Stringer tells him they don't need to dream because they own so much now including real estate. Stringer tells Avon that he can't drink too much since he is visiting the development site the following day. Avon asks him what time Stringer plans to meet with the property developer so that he can tell Mouzone where to find him. Stringer is confused why Avon would ask him about the time he is meeting and stutters to answer. Avon tells Stringer to relax more and Stringer says that he will as soon as things settle down but he claims he does not take his work too seriously. Avon sarcastically confirms that it is just business. Stringer worriedly eyes Avon. They embrace and depart for the last time.
In Hamsterdam, Bubbles continues to make his living supplying young dealers with T-shirts from a shopping cart. A young homeless boy questions Bubbles about his income and then suggests that he try selling hoodies now that the season is changing. Meanwhile Bubbles last protegee Johnny is continually getting high in Hamsterdam. He notices Bubbles now working with the homeless boy.
Dennis "Cutty" Wise has built a small following for his community boxing gym including sometime drug dealers Justin and Spider. The children using the facility are wary of the equipment because it is in a state of disrepair. Seeking funds for the gym Cutty visits Bodie and asks him to arrange a meeting with Avon. Cutty explains that he didn't feel right approaching Avon directly because of the way he left things with him.
Avon meets with Cutty at his base of operations. Cutty gives him a sales pitch and talks about Avon's boxing past before Avon eventually tires of his efforts. He asks how much money he needs to which Cutty hesitantly states $10,000. Avon and Slim Charles erupt in laughter and then gives him five thousand extra, much to the surprise of Cutty, before telling him to take care of his young charges. With the new equipment in place Cutty's boxers are eager to spar and he offers to organize a match with another gym. At the sparring match Cutty's boxers are bested by much smaller boxers but Cutty gives them respect for lasting through each round. In particular he congratulates Justin for his attitude and heart.
Major case unit
Lieutenant Cedric Daniels updates the investigative board with a photo of Barksdale lieutenant Shamrock. McNulty, Freamon and Caroline Massey man their wiretapped burners. They record a call between Shamrock and Bodie Broadus - Bodie asks for a face to face meeting with "the man" who they assume is Stringer Bell. However there is no phone call from Shamrock's phone to Stringer to arrange the meeting. Freamon and McNulty later explain to ASA Rhonda Pearlman that Stringer has isolated himself from the rest of the phone network by only talking to Shamrock and providing Shamrock with a separate phone for their communications. Freamon suggests that they can have everyone in the Barksdale organization from Shamrock down on a conspiracy charge with a week of monitoring these wiretaps but to collect evidence against Bell and Barksdale they need to pluck cellphone numbers out of the air. This comment prompts McNulty to leave.
McNulty arranges a meeting with Fitz to discuss the possibility of doing exactly what Freamon suggested. Fitz tells McNulty that the equipment he needs is already available to city police because of a homeland security grant. McNulty retrieves the machine from the police department basement. McNulty and Freamon set up the machine in a vacant apartment opposite Stringer's photocopying business. They record all cell phone numbers using the nearby tower for signal. They narrow the field back at the detail office by tying specific times that Stringer would be on the phone to their data by monitoring calls to Shamrock.
While the detail is monitoring him Stringer gets a call requesting a meeting. He changes the SIM card in his cell phone so that he can call back on another number. Shamrock then calls Bodie to tell him a meeting has been arranged. This gives the unit their baseline set of call data. Next Stringer uses his business number to call Colvin on his cell phone and Lester notes the call. He checks with McNulty who recommends they wait and see what the connection gives them.
Officer Massey gives McNulty a message from D'Agostino. Shortly afterwards Freamon pins down Stringer's cell phone number. Both McNulty and Freamon are worried that the cell phone may not last long and they simultaneously contact Daniels and Pearlman. Daniels calls in a favour from Fitz to get the wiretap organized by the end of the day cutting through potential delays from the wireless companies. Phelan signs the wiretap affidavit and recognises Bells name from the previous investigation. Phelan still faces animosity from McNulty and tells him to let it go for his own sake. Fitz delivers on his promise by lying to the bureau stating that Bell's given name is "Ahmed", a name that the bureau on principle associates with counter terrorism.
McNulty meets D'Agostino for dinner. She claims she is there to renew their relationship and then quickly begins to probe him for information about Hamsterdam and Colvin. He sees through her feigned interest in him and walks out of the dinner.
The next day the unit records Stringer talking to Shamrock. Shamrock mentions contract killers on the phone, although Stringer notices his mistake, the unit have the evidence they have worked hard for.
When Stringer arrives at the development site Omar and Brother Mouzone are waiting for him. They burst into his meeting with Andy Krawczyk and kill his bodyguard. Stringer tries to run, fleeing up the staircase. Krawczyk cowers away from Omar who simply walks after Bell. Bell is trapped between Omar and Mouzone and tells them that he is now clean and offers them money to let him go. Omar tells Stringer that Avon gave him up because of his duplicity. Stringer admits there is nothing he can say and as he asks them to get on with it at which point they open fire. Outside the window of the floor where Stringer is killed is a sign for B&B enterprises.
- This episode marks the first appearance of Kurt L. Schmoke as Baltimore Health Commissioner. Schmoke is a real life former mayor of Baltimore and has strong views against the drug war and in favor of drug decriminalization. He acts as an advisor to the fictional mayor after a rogue police major has legalized drugs in a portion of the city and his characters feelings mirror his own politics.
- Stringer Bell
- Stringer's Bodyguard
- "Middle Ground" received the show's only Emmy nomination to date, for writers David Simon and George Pelecanos in the category Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series. Following the shows nomination Variety printed an article with anonymous member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences explaining why they thought the show was not recognized in more categories. They postulated that the shows complex narrative made it impenetrable to first time viewers, that the location meant that the cast and crew were "out of sight, out of mind" to voters and that there is little connection to the drug markets of Baltimore for the majority California based voters. Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle has cited the lack of Emmy recognition for the show as "an egregious oversight." Salon have written that the show is typical of the crime dramas that the Emmy awards have recognised in the past and called the lack of recognition "a sad case." David Simon suggested the lack of recognition was due to the shows small audience, however, Salon refuted this and postulated that one of the major factors in winning an Emmy is having a recognisable producer who draws blocks of votes from his contacts in the industry - something The Wire lacks.
- Episode guide - episode 36 middle ground. HBO (2004). Retrieved on 2006-08-09.
- "Middle Ground". David Simon, George P. Pelecanos. The Wire. HBO. 2004-12-12. No. 11, season 3.
- Margaret Talbot (2007). Stealing Life. The New Yorker. Archived from the original on 2012-09-04. Retrieved on 2007-10-14.
- Real-life politics leak into tonight's 'Wire' episode. Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (2007). Retrieved on 2007-10-16.
- Stuart Levine (2005). Voters explain why they're not high on 'The Wire'. Variety. Retrieved on 2007-10-16.
- Tim Goodman (2007). Tim Goodman on the Emmy nominations -- better, but what about 'The Wire'?. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved on 2007-10-16.
- James Verini (2005). How Emmy works. Salon.com. Retrieved on 2007-10-16.