“Come at the king, you best not miss.”
Apologies for such a long gap between essays – the day job has turned into a day and night job over the last month and half or so. I’m back in Minneapolis now, so I’ll be diving right back into my coverage of the best show ever.
I know people who’d argue that Seinfeld is the best show in the history of television. I’d strenuously object for a number of reasons (not the least of which is this Danny Hoch story). I often think of Seinfeld as the anti-Wire (not in terms of quality – it’s a great sitcom, to be sure): where the former is the “show about nothing,” The Wire is the show about everything, arguing, in a nutshell, that to understand any aspect of big city living, you need to understand all aspects of big city living. That level of understanding is, of course, an impossible pursuit, which is probably why so many folks find it easier just to worry about Seinfeldian minutiae. The world is too big for us to have any meaningful control over the big picture, the argument goes, so why not focus on the small things we can control: minor imperfections, small hiccups in our everyday ease and comfort. It’s simpler, and often more productive, to complain about our inability to find our car in a parking lot than about the impossibility of stopping the drug trade.
When you’re engaging in this kind of tunnel vision, what you’re actually doing is creating a system, a means of framing a larger conversation into something more manageable. Most cop shows frame their conversations around the problem of solving an individual case: Person X committed Crime Y and is therefore a bad guy, Officer Z’s job is to capture the bad guy. The root cause of the crime is unimportant because the system is reductive – if you did something bad, you’re bad and deserve to be caught. It’s the way the police system works in real life too – digging deeper only leads to problems, because you start to discover things that the system can’t control.
For example: Regular Baltimore police do buy-and-busts. They stay on the street level. It’s not entirely effective – it doesn’t stop the drug trade, doesn’t stop the violence – but it works within the framework of the system the city has created. The goal of the buy-and-busts is not to stem the tide – it’s just to bust the dealer. The system that has been created is one that frames the conversation in a very particular, manageable way: there are drug dealers. We can put them in jail. The more we put in jail, and the faster we put them there, the better we’re doing.
McNulty’s detail (and yes, Daniels runs it, but it’s McNulty’s) tries to disrupt the system. They realize that the conversation needs to be reframed. There are drug dealers because there is a drug supplier somewhere. There’s someone who runs this crime organization. If you find the head of the organization, you get a whole ton of dealers off the street, and you stop the murders that come along with that drug trade. But you can’t find that head with buy-and-busts. You need to dig far deeper. So they do. And what happens when they dig deeper? As Kima says “we thought we were gonna come up with drugs – got money instead.” They realize that the path towards finding the head is not through the drugs, but the money – because the head knows that there’s a system in place too, and he knows that by staying out of potential buy-and-busts, he can’t be caught. So they follow the money (and here’s where we finally get to episode eight).
Following the money leads the detail to someone who’d never get caught in a buy-and-bust, and he happens to be the driver for Clay Davis. And suddenly, one step removed from the simple, contained, buy-and-bust system, the detail has discovered something unexpected and much more difficult to control: possible political involvement and corruption. Yes, the detail is trying to stop street level crime, but they’ve stumbled across the unspoken and overwhelming dirty secret at the heart of the system: street crime can’t really be stopped without implicating folks in powerful places, and that’s why these conversations need to be framed small. Burrell states this fact in so many words: “I asked you to put a charge on a drug dealer.” He wanted his employees to handle a very specific situation in a very specific way within a very specific situation. Instead, he got sprawl. His employees – who are detectives, meaning that their very job is to dig deep – dug a little too deep, poking a hole right through the wall of the system’s delicate infrastructure.
The challenge for Daniels and his team is to know exactly how well his bosses actually want them to do their jobs. Bosses don’t get to be bosses because of exceptional skill at doing the job; they’re elevated because of their skill at managing the system. And therein lies the problem: the police system was created to solve the crime problem, which was, of course, the ultimate mission of the police department. Over time though, the mission of the police department became to best serve and maintain the system. The system can best be maintained by focusing only on what it can control. Clay Davis is not something the system can control.
Whew. I’m not sure I even (a) said what I actually wanted to say there, (b) made any sense, or (c) actually addressed the episode at all. So I’ll do that now with three quick hits:
*The scene with McNulty and his kids in the market says so much about this character: he’s trained his kids to play front-and-follow so effectively that he can put them to work in actual criminal investigations (and they know to get a plate number) – and he’s so obsessed with the job that he sees nothing wrong with that. He cares about the kids enough that he panics, deeply and truly, when he can’t find them, but he’s so self-absorbed that he can’t even describe what they’re wearing.
*Even when Wallace is all but destroyed – getting high and sleeping all day – he’s still the parent in his household, helping the runts with their math homework. And it’s a truly great scene: the kid can’t do math out of a textbook, but put the word problem in the form of a question about the count, and he can rattle it off in his head, because if the “count be wrong, they fuck you up.” There’s nothing at stake in the American education system (ah, that word again), so failure becomes an easier and more seductive option. And of course, that’s all just set-up for season four.
*And then, just as you’ve watched eight episodes of deep social commentary, eight episodes of systems breakdown analysis, of interconnected relationships and other heady intellectual goodness, you get a legitimate, jump-out-of-your-seat visceral moment: Stinkum and Wee-bey go to kill Scar, but Omar gets the drop on them, killing Stink and wounding Bey. We’ve added a whole other kind of layer of tension here, the reminder that yeah, we’re thinking about structure and institutions, but there are still guns involved, which means, yeah, everyone’s in constant danger of being shot. The Wire may be a high-culture novel, but it’s also a low-culture action movie.
But take a closer look at what’s actually going on in that shootout: Stink and Bey are off to claim new territory the way they always do: roll up on someone weaker, take him out, take over. The Barksdales have a system, and it works. But Omar – Omar’s something their system can’t control.