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I put fingers to keyboard about 20 minutes after finishing the next-to-last episode of The Wire, and about the only complete thought I can form is: Damn.

As in, Damn — that was one of the finest episodes of television I’ve seen in the long time. And in a long history of brilliant episodes of The Wire, maybe the most affecting. Just moment after moment of fantastic acting meeting up with superb writing (courtesy of George Pelecanos this week) that left me pretty well speechless.

Rather than a straight recap, I want to focus on several of those moments, which are going to stay with me for a good long time. There will be some plot discussion in there — McNulty and Freamon’s shenanigans, while they got the desired result, are about to come crashing down — but I encourage you to hash it out further in the comments.

Here goes.

Bubbs. Throughout the series, Bubbs (the outstanding Andre Royo) has been a reflection of what Baltimore’s drug culture can do to a person. Yet he’s never let the heaps of misfortune that have fallen on him (and that he’s brought on himself) completely wipe away his humanity. So to see him at the meeting, celebrating the anniversary of his sobriety, and to listen to him talk about things both good (those days in the park) and bad (Sherrod’s death) brought tears to my eyes.

"Ain’t no shame in holding onto grief, as long as you make room for other things too," he says. If anyone deserves even a glint of a better future, it’s this man. And even though his sister didn’t make the ceremony — it doesn’t really seem hard to blame her, given what we know of Bubbs’ past — it feels like there’s at least a chance for a warming in their relationship too.

Marlo, Lester and the takedown. It’s no stretch to believe that Jimmy and Lester’s scheme is going to blow up in their faces, somehow, in next week’s finale. But to see the good guys actually get the upper hand, however temporary and tainted, really felt good. This was the most complete sweep the cops have ever made on the drug trade, capturing $16 million worth of dope and corralling nearly every important member of Marlo’s crew, including the man himself. The silent look that passed between Lester and Marlo as the detective picked up the phone, and then the clock, was a serious hell-yeah moment.

Of course, it’s not going to last. Not after Kima goes to Daniels and tells him about the phony killer, the falsified reports and all the rest of the mess. (I’m interested to hear your take on Daniels and Pearlman’s reaction to the phone ringing in the evidence room: Relief that it did, or further distress about the web of deceit?)

The arrests also led to perhaps the scariest side we’ve ever seen of Marlo. There’s never been any question about Marlo’s ruthlessness, but to see him start to boil upon hearing about Omar’s taunts — he even lashes out at Chris, his most trusted man — showed just how deep that streak runs in him. "My name is my name!" is how he punctuates his monologue. Avon loved the game, Stringer sought to elevate it and Prop Joe was all about the deal. Marlo, though, doesn’t seem to care about anything more than his rep, to the point where even a suggestion of crossing him can get someone killed (see Junebug et al). Which brings us to:

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Michael.
If Bubbs’ speech was one of the more uplifting moments in Wire history, the end of the episode with Michael, Bug and Dukie was among its most heart-breaking — which is saying something. Even though Marlo and Chris are pretty certain that Michael wasn’t the reason they landed in jail, they’re not willing, as Marlo puts it, to bet their futures on it. Michael has absorbed Chris’ lessons well, though, and after Snoop feeds him a bogus story about a job that night, he stakes her out and discovers that he’s a target. The homework lets him get the drop on Snoop — who’s actually a little admiring of his work — and make a getaway.

In the two gut-wrenching scenes after that, Michael drops Bug off with an aunt, then lets Dukie out at the junkman’s haunts. The scene with Bug is tough enough, but we know that the kid is probably going to be better off in a safer neighborhood with an adult to look after him. Dukie’s parting, though — framed by the long, dark space between the rows of buildings, with a guy shooting up in a doorway at the end — echoed the end of last season a little bit, with Prez watching despondently as Dukie worked a corner with Michael. Again, damn.

Freamon and Davis. Once again, the meeting between these two men, who do nothing but sit in a bar and talk, was absolutely riveting. Davis tells Lester that if he wants to keep going up the food chain, he needs to be looking at lawyers like Marlo’s man Levy, explaining how he and others funnel drug money into real-estate developments, political contributions, whatever: "There’s a lotta people need a dollar now and then," he explains. (And though it’s not entirely relevant to the current matter, it was amusing to watch Clay recall how he soaked Stringer on the condo development from season three — which, he points out to Lester, only happened after Clay convinced Stringer not to involve Levy.)

Davis also finally gives up a piece of information that convinces Lester to keep his corruption case away from the feds: Levy has a mole at the courthouse. Davis doesn’t know who but suspects it’s someone with ties to the grand jury, which would explain how Prop Joe had all the grand jury transcripts and how he and others managed so well to stay clear of the law.

A few other notes from "Late Editions":

  • Namond was always my least favorite of the four kids featured last year (a sentiment I imagine is shared in most quarters). Still, to see even one of that quartet escape the life they were born into is a great thing — and it was good to see Bunny Colvin again as well, giving Carcetti one last stare-down and telling him, "I guess, Mr. Mayor, there’s nothing to be done." Which, by the way, Carcetti deserves — he’s using the city as a prop in his campaign for governor rather than trying to actually fix its problems.
  • Not much from the Sun this week — and not much was needed, given the huge events elsewhere. But Gus is tightening the web around Templeton, systematically shooting holes in his fabrications from the homeless-vet story to the "react quote" about Daniels back-stabbing Burrell. As my colleague Alan Sepinwall (who, by the way, will deliver a host of Wire-related material this week) points out, Gus is working his case the old-fashioned way, just as Bunk did his.
  • Herc, I just want to smack. How screwed up is this guy’s compass if he helps take down Marlo with one hand — passing his cell number to Carver earlier in the season — and may help free him with the other by telling Levy about the meeting with his old partner? Either the guy really is that dense (for which you could make a strong case, I suppose) or he just doesn’t care anymore. Either way, his actions tonight are pretty well indefensible.
  • Loved how HBO used Clay Davis’ "Sheeeee-it" to inform us that the finale isn’t going to be available ahead of time on demand.

What did you think of this week’s Wire? Best ever? And how are you dealing with the fact that only one episode remains?