“Dope on the damn table.”

If you wanted to take the entire Wire and spin it on its head, you’d retell the whole thing from the perspective of Rawls. In The Wire, he’s a bad guy—the bad guy. He’s a good cop (he’s clearly never lost his ability or passion) who has learned to play the careerist game. He’s bought into the system. He’s a bottom line guy (especially clear in later seasons), a guy who sees the world in black and white extremes. If, at its core, The Wire is a show about Jimmy McNulty’s attempts to change the way the Baltimore Police Department operates (and yes, that’s what this show is, at its core, about), then Rawls is everything against which Jimmy rebels. He’s a dick, plan and simple.

Flip things around to his side though, and you’ve got an entirely different story. Rawls becomes a hardworking natural police who’s gone through years of assholes like Jimmy McNulty who think they’re bigger than the department. He’s got an understanding of entirety—there are reasons why the system needs to set up distance, needs to adhere to procedure. There are reasons why it’s better to be friends with politicians than enemies—better one’s career, yes, but also for the ongoing (relative) success of the BPD. Rawls is a complex man (we’ll talk in season two about the tiny little moment that could, if you let it, blow everything you think you know about the man entirely out of the water) doing a difficult job, facing resistance from both below and above.

I bring this all up here because my favorite Rawls moments come at the top of episode eleven. The episode begins with a swarming crime scene, every officer who has ever known Kima in place, ready to do anything they can to catch the killer. And of course, they’re all in the way. When Rawls gets to the scene, he immediately asks Landsman (who’s in charge, this being both a homicide and a cop shooting, and therefore an instant “Red Ball” top priority – you should be reading Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets to get caught up on terminology and power structures) what he needs. Landsman references the swarm, and Rawls jumps right into action: if you’re not essential to this investigation, get the fuck off my scene. It’s heartless. These cops may have lost a friend; how can you talk to them this way? How can you tell them they can’t stick around and help? Rawls has absolutely no problem telling them. He’s a no-nonsense commander of men. That’s what he brings to the table. Sometimes, that’s exactly what’s needed.

Meanwhile, our hero McNulty is a basket case. From his perspective—maybe even from the perspective of The Wire, Kima’s shooting is his fault. His detail. His case. His personal pissing match with Stringer Bell. His relationship with the judge. His wire. He’s the arrogant white guy, always out of the line of fire by virtue of his skin color, and his desire to prove that he’s smarter than the system may have just gotten one of the few cops he respects killed. He’s broken, and all you can imagine is him spending the next ninety-six hours alternating between stalking the killers and drinking himself to death.

Rawls hates McNulty. Rawls, in point of fact, blames McNulty for the entire existence of this whole operation, and has had his mind made up for a long, long time to screw McNulty as deeply and painfully as he possibly can when this is all done. But there’s work to be done. And the result is my favorite Rawls scene in the entire series (with the possible exception of that tiny, unexplainable season two moment): he rips McNulty to shreds for being an asshole, but informs him in no uncertain terms that this shooting is not his fault. And Rawls believes it. Yes, McNulty brought this nightmare of a detail into existence, but that doesn’t make him responsible for a criminal shooting his partner. There’s bad police work, there’s a lack of communication and respect for the chain of command—those are internal sins. This is the work of a criminal, and that’s far, far worse. And it becomes clear exactly what role Rawls plays and why he has to play it the way he does: he’s the voice of distance, the guy who has to play by the numbers so the department can function in times of emotional crisis.

It comes down to experience, really. All the experienced members of the department are able to swallow large chunks of that emotion to get back on track. Lester orders Herc, Carver, and Sidnor back onto the rooftops—if someone makes a call about Kima from one of our tapped phones and we miss it…well, let’s just say that can’t happen. Burrell, in a rare showing of accountability, owns up to the disastrous buy/bust as his call—this isn’t a time to play political games. The Commissioner’s response falls somewhere between measured and rash: he demands that detail put “drugs on the table,” basically turning for the moment into Avon after Omar’s robbery. Disrespect like this, in the eyes of powerful men, calls for an immediate and aggressive show of power. It’s about dick size, really: we’ve got to let them know that ours is bigger than theirs, even if it costs us the huge case we’ve been building in secret. And that’s the thing about dick size contests: it’s not about actual size. It’s about perceived size. A series of busts that culminate in a photo op with little pile of confiscated cocaine and heroin on the table lets the city know that the BPD isn’t taking this lying down.

So they make the busts and they take the pictures and there’s more dope on the table than there’s been a long time…and it’s absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. And the wires immediately go dead. And the case is done. And they ultimately didn’t get a whole bunch of anything. Well…they’ve got String and Bey for Brandon’s murder (through Wallace), but we’ll come back to that in a second.

In the midst of all this chaos, this episode features a series of tiny little moments that I could write about forever, but I want to take special care to mention just one. McNulty, in his haste to get back on the trail of the shooters, sends Bubs back into the projects as an informant (McNulty being McNulty, he’s oblivious to the fact that Bubs is trying to get clean and shouldn’t be anywhere near drugs). McNulty even gives Bubs twenty dollars as payment upfront, knowing (in his mind anyway) that the cash is going straight into the pocket of a Barksdale dealer. No matter how many times I watch this sequence, it still kills me—I just know that he’s right, and that Bubs is headed straight back off the rails. And no matter how times I watch this sequence, I always break into a big goofy smile when Bubs returns to the detail’s office, gives them the information he’s obtained…and pulls out the twenty, still unspent, but bunched tight as humanly possible, a clear visual manifestation of the plain and simple willpower that it takes to keep that twenty dollar bill clenched in your hand. It’s a temporary sigh of relief, every single time.

And you’re thankful for moments like that, because this is, after all, The Wire, and heartbreak is just around the corner. This episode ends with a truly amazing shot—Kima in her hospital bed. It’s not amazing for its visual composition (it’s just her in the bed) or what happens in it (nothing—I’m telling you, it’s just her in the bed), but for what it makes you remember: right around this time last episode, one of the main characters got shot, and you’re still not sure she’s going to live, and even while that’s hanging in the air…we haven’t checked in with her at all this week. And you didn’t even notice, because so effing much is happening. And Kima might still die. And that would break your heart.

But the true heartbreak of the episode comes immediately before that shot, when Presbo, in one of his last chances to listen to the wire, overhears Wallace on the phone with Poot, making plans to come home. It’s heartbreaking for two reasons: one small and one impossibly, unpredictably large. Small first: Pres marks the call as non-pertinent, and for him, it drives home the finality of it all—we’re never going to get anything pertinent off these phones again.

Now large: Wallace can’t go home.
You know Wallace can’t go home.
You know it when you watch it the first time.
You know it triply when you’ve seen the whole first season.
You know that he should know he can’t go home.
And the killer, which is both a bad and good choice of words, is that there’s really nowhere else he possibly could go.

More on this—a lot more—next episode.