Back to Baltimore: Rewatching ‘The Wire,’ Season 1, Episodes 1-3

A note on this series of posts: Some of you are watching The Wire for the first time. Some of you are scholars of the show. I’m doing my best to respond to the episodes as they’re presented me, both so these pieces will be accessible to anyone who is watching the show for the first time, and so I can concentrate really hard on seeing what I hadn’t seen before. That said, I hope this discussion will branch in many directions, so if you want to talk about foreshadowing, or watching the show after having seen it, talk away, just please label your posts as spoilery or for veterans. And I’ll be hanging out in comments, so if you’ve got questions, ask away.

As is the case in the famous opening scene of the series, in which McNulty struggles to understand the series of events that lead to Snot’s murder, much of the first three episodes of The Wire are devoted to translation between the argots and customs of a Baltimore rendered multicultural by bureaucracy and the drug trade. McNulty’s informant’s explanation that they had to give Snot admission to a game that was rigged against because, “Got to. It’s America, man,” explains why the men tolerated Snot, but not the rules of the dice game itself. No matter how much the characters learn by study or in conversation with each other, their excavations keep uncovering huge new structures to be mapped and navigated, much less understood.

We see Bubbles teaching Johnny that running a scam requires a little cash investment, lowering the price of heroin rather than eliminating it completely because: “We not burning no eleventh street chumps, here.” When they’ve obtained the drugs, the lessons aren’t over. “You got to pace that shit,” Bubbles tells his fragile protege, who rushes cons and hits. “I’m trying to give you a little game, man. You want to pretend like you know something.” When Johnny ends up in intensive care, Bubbles, an inveterate teacher, takes his skills to the detail, naming Barksdale crew members for Kima, and lecturing Leander Sydnor on the importance of losing his wedding ring and dancing on dead soldiers before he poses as an addict.

D’Angelo Barksdale and the crew he leads in the Pit are constantly bickering over the meaning of the world around them. Johnny’s attempt to scam them becomes the occasion for a debate about prestige and elevation. “Hamilton. He ain’t no president,” insists Wallace. “No ugly-ass white man get his face on no legal fucking tender less he president,” D’Angelo counters grumpily. It isn’t the first time they’ll disagree on how the world works. “The nigger who invented those things still working in the basement for regular wage,” D’Angelo will tell him as they discuss the wonders of chicken nuggets, insisting as he always does on the essential calcification of the social hierarchy. “He still have the idea, though,” Wallace says, seeing the gleam of satisfaction where D’Angelo only sees drudgery. D’Angelo’s lecture to the Pit crew about how chess works is a dual act of translation, an attempt to explain the game that also tells the audience why he’s so eager to convince the boys working under him that they should foreswear ambition. “It ain’t like that,” he explains to Bodie, who is convinced that if he gets to the other side of the board, he can win. “See, the king stay the king. Everything stay who he is…The pawns in the game, they get capped quick. They out of the game early.” He doesn’t get through: “Unless they some smart-ass pawns,” Bodie immediately insists.

Daniels is meeting with similar frustration in his attempt to educate Herc, Carver, and Pryzbylewski in the art of being decent police, something that appears worryingly inconsistent with being decent human beings. After they drunkenly (revealed in a pullback that reveals how many beer cans they’ve crushed and scattered on the ground) attempted to exert their authority in the Towers, sparking a riot and in the course of which Prez strikes a teenaged boy and blinds him, Daniels delivers a withering lecture to them about how to keep their jobs. He’s disgusted by the harm they’ve wrought, of course, the fact that they’ve put him in a position where he has to tell his wife “You don’t give your people up to IAD. You don’t do that.” But he’s also angry that they have no sense of how to protect themselves, an extension of knowing how the system works and is set up to protect even men as foolish and as violent as them.

Jimmy McNulty, by contrast, does know things. And his weakness, in addition to his drinking and his utter incapacity to manage personal relationships appropriately, is his desire to explain them. He can’t restrain himself from explaining to Judge Phelan what Stringer and company are doing in the courtroom during D’Angelo’s trial, and despite the trouble he gets in for that act of loquaciousness, he goes back for another round after William Gant’s murder. McNulty can’t resist putting ideas in anybody’s head, whether it’s the judge or D’Angelo, giving the latter a lecture on business management and asking “Why can’t you sell this shit and walk the fuck away?”

Kima Greggs, by contrast, is decidedly withholding. “If you don’t mind me asking, when did you find out you liked women better than men?” Carver asks her as they venture up to the roof to carry out a scheme Kim hasn’t explained to the younger men working under her, photographing members of the Barksdale crew in concert with Bubbles. “I mind you asking,” she tells him shortly. When she leaves Herc and Carver on the roof, even though they ask, she doesn’t explain where she’s going, leaving Herc to grumble about her behavior despite her lack of stripes, as if those stripes would make all manner of insults legitimate. And later, she teases McNulty about his visit to the pit with Bunk, telling him “Y’all weren’t the only lawmen down in the canyon today.” “Really?” McNulty says, surprised. “Where were you?” She doesn’t answer. It’s a mark of Kima’s growing trust in McNulty that later, she lets Bubbles get away with telling the detective “If you a dog, you barking up the wrong pussy.” And Kima answers the questions McNulty, unlike Carver, has the sense not to ask her. “I know I look like I could go either way,” she explains, suggesting that she might make better police because growing up gay has given her a certain kind of courage. “Once you get your ass kicked once or twice, you realize it’s not the end of the world…is there any other way to police?”

Lester Freamon is even slower to thaw, and his silences often serve to illustrate how little others know. “What the fuck is that?” Sydnor asks him of his furniture-making. “It’s an armoire. Louis XIV,” Lester tells him, deliberately giving him different information than he knows the younger man wants. “I mean what is it?” Sydnor clarifies. “A toy?” Freamon never answers. And when Lester overhears Kima reading off the list of things the detail knows about D’Angelo, his eyes light up and we see him fully engaged with police work for the first time. He may not explain to his colleagues what he’s doing, but when he reaches the stop of the stairs, he pauses, before pushing open the double doors to reveal the new world of the boxing gym. Lester’s power—all power in this world—is in his knowledge that a world exists beyond others’ imaginations, and his ability to navigate it.

Some of these spheres contain greater potential power and greater potential risk than others. “Phelan isn’t just a judge,” Deputy Commissioner Burrell explains of the level of the police department he operates in. “He’s a political entity. If he wants something, I want to give it to him.” Daniels may be able to ascend into that sphere because, as Bunk tells McNulty, “He’s black, still young, hasn’t pissed anyone off. He even has a law degree. University of Baltimore, but still.”

It’s fitting that in a set of episodes so concerned with knowledge, elevation, and etiquette that the first three hours of The Wire are full of gatekeepers who are inattentive or counterproductive. McNulty arrives as D’Angelo’s trial by way of a guard at the court who has no idea what is proceeding wear. That trial hinges on a security guard, Nakleesha Lyles, who after identifying D’Angelo as the shooter, recants her earlier statements to the prosecutors and refuses to identify him: she’s failed to do her job in the moment, and she doesn’t do it in retrospect, either. We see the guard at the entrance to Burrell’s office reading a magazine, and the bored clerk at the FBI office where McNulty goes to visit Fitzhugh. And the third episode nears its end with Omar taking advantage of the Pit crew’s sloppiness, giving the stash’s guard a bloody lip and the second-in command a shotgun-shredded knee. As the poster behind McNulty’s shoulder during Kima’s briefing to the detail reads “A small waste of material—a few minutes lots—A tiny error or mistake—each may appear unimportant—but at the end of the year they run into a staggering…which must be added to the cost of doing business!” The gatekeepers may be incompetent, but even when men like Omar burst through barriers to plunder the riches within, or police like Daniels rise above them through cleverness and a willingness to cut deals, the edifices and hierarchies still stand. Stan Valchek will not be tumbled by one favor. Stringer Bell can be stung by not defeated by one robbery. No one man is needed protect them and the institutions they represent. No one man can bring them down.