“…thin line ‘tween heaven and here.”
Episode four is strange. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that episode four is not a very good episode. In fact, there’s a real possibility that when this little blog project is all said and done, I’m going to look back and call this the worst episode in the history of The Wire. Of course, we’re talking about the worst episode in the history of the best show in the history of television, so there’s still tons of goodness, including one of the most iconic scenes in the show’s early days.
That scene, of course, is the “fuck” scene, a call back to Simon’s original Homicide true crime book, the earliest inspiration for both this show (and Homicide the TV show before it). In the book, Simon remarks (and I’m paraphrasing here), that it’s pretty much possible for two homicide detectives on a crime scene to engage in an entire conversation using only the word “fuck” (and its various permutations) and convey all the information and emotion they could possibly need. And that’s exactly what Bunk and McNulty do while retracing the steps of a poorly investigated murder. It’s remarkable as a police procedural; we get to witness two brilliant investigative minds in the process of discovering the truth of how a crime was committed. And that’s the beauty of the use of language here. It’s like we’re watching good subtextual theater, where the words don’t matter. By relying only on “fuck” to tell the story, the writers allow language to get out of the way of the police work, even while that language remains obtrusive and gimmicky (and admittedly, it’s laid on way too thick here – the “fuckity fuck fuck”s are more than we need). What the language is really doing is giving us the opportunity to follow the policing on our own, to put it all together at the same time the cops are.
The real beauty, of course, is that we actually know more about this crime than the cops do, because D’Angelo (in his need to show off and establish himself as a tough guy pillar of the Barksdale clan) has already described, in great detail, this exact killing to Bodie, Wallace, and Poot. At the time, we don’t even know if the story is true – why wouldn’t Avon put Wee-Bey or one of the real killers on this? D’Angelo’s incredibly fractured language certainly doesn’t help lend him an air of authority (and the more I think about it, the more I think D’s language is entirely intentional – it sounds stilted because he, the character, is awkward and out of place). But D gives the single detail – the “tap, tap, tap” against the glass – and it all snaps into clarity when McNulty reconstructs the crime right down to that same “tap, tap, tap.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how McNulty and Bunk come to be reworking an old, cold crime scene to begin with. It comes, like most things on The Wire, out of a bureaucratic imperative. Landsman digs through an open file, discovers that a distant, almost tangentially related witness had mentioned a “D” as a possible shooter in the cursory and ineffective first canvas of the scene. “D” could be “D’Angelo,” Landsman reasons, and is more than happy to stick McNulty with the old case. It’s passing the buck. It’s dumb luck. Sometimes, both of those things work, especially if you combine them with solid police work.
This episode (again, maybe my least favorite episode) contains three other superb moments that only become superb in retrospect, after having watched all five seasons. First, we get an absolutely great shot after Lester explains how he’s traced D’Angelo to his pager. McNulty looks on in amazement, realizing that there’s another natural police on the detail to go with him and Kima. More importantly, more subtly, and more beautifully, in retrospect, is the glimpse of Presbo in the back of that frame, nodding, impressed, learning right there in that second that there’s more to being a cop than being a tough guy. You can trace Presbo’s entire evolution back to this moment – he gains admiration for Lester and his way of solving crimes, which leads him to understand and appreciate the need to break codes and look for patterns, which leads him to be a teacher, which leads us to season four, which happens to be the best thing that’s ever happened on television. So yeah. It’s an important two seconds of screen time.
Second, and this is super brief, and I’m only catching it this time around after having seen season five, but the reason that Lester gets bumped down to the pawn shop in the first place has to do with the power of the newspaper editor. It’s not a direct correlation with the events of season five, but the implication is clear: the guys who report the news are responsible for public perception and therefore carry a whole lot of weight. We’ll revisit this in season five.
Finally, in the same scene where Lester reveals his past to McNulty, he also dishes out some sage advice (again, a rough paraphrase here, emphasis added): “when they ask you where you want to go, and they will ask you where you want to go, don’t answer.” Problem is, they’ve already asked. He’s already answered. His path to the boat (and our path to season two) is clear. The first time you watch the show, there’s no way you fully appreciate how screwed McNulty already is. Once you know his fate, it’s clear that every single step of this journey matters.