Because this is a holiday week, we’ll take episodes ten and eleven of season one for next Monday. As always, if you want to discuss events beyond these episodes, mark your comments as such.
“You follow the drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers,” Lester Freamon says in episode nine of The Wire. “But you start following the money, and you don’t know where the fuck it’s going to take you.” These episodes both undermine that idea and reinforce it in unexpected ways. Omar trades drugs to Proposition Joe, at this point an entirely unknown figure to the task force, to advance his revenge on Avon, a transaction so emotionally and financially unpredictable that the police never could have anticipated it, but that none the less has enormous repercussions for the Barksdale empire. Following the money leads Lester and Kima to Shardene, but it also leads Herc and Carver into error, driving a wedge between them and Daniels, and telling us as much about them as about Avon. And Bubbles’ attempt to scam a corner crew leads him to discover that they’re selling baking soda in place of heroin, and an arc that proves that finding addicts isn’t actually beside the point, depending on the relationships you forge with them afterwards. Following and followers are fluid things here, and these episodes reveal how little the investigation has turned up, and can turn up even operating at peak capacity.
Bubbles and Omar both try to steal drugs in this set of episodes, and their experiences reveal that while Lester might be right that money is the key to a criminal prosecution of Avon Barksdale, it’s a theory that has limits to its utility when it comes to curing what ails Baltimore. Bubbles, following Johnny to court-ordered AA meetings, finds himself unexpectedly moved by the testimony of Waylon, a recovering addict who tells the meeting “It’s good to be clean anywhere, even Baltimore,” a suggestion that the line between heaven and here could be demarcated by Bubbles’ addiction. He continues to use, panicking after he successfully makes off with a stash that turns out to be worthless. “I nearly got killed behind this caper, you know,” Bubbles tells Johnny, who informs him that “It’s all in the game, Bubs.” But Bubbles is questioning whether he needs to succumb to that logic, and makes for his sister’s house, who promises him blankets on the couch in the basement, but warns him that if he starts up the stairs to his little piece of heaven in her kitchen, she’ll call the police. That caution’s notable, particularly given the absence of a particular police officer from this arc. It doesn’t occur to Bubbles to reach out to Kima for help, and I’m curious how she’d react if he did, given how much utility she gets out of his continuing credibility as an addict. Both she and Johnny assume the rules of the game are fairly constant. Bubbles is considering opting out altogether.
While Bubble is a fairly minor player in the game, Omar is a much more volatile variable, and an illustration of the fact that the drug trade breeds motivations more complicated than those governed by markets. Omar is dismissive of the risks of snitching, telling Kim and McNutly “Anybody got a problem with me spending time with y’all, I’d be much obliged to stick a gun up in his mouth.” He goes after Bird both for personal reasons and because he doesn’t like the man, explaining, “Bird trifiling, basically.” He hangs out with junkies, but gives them their drugs for free and takes care of their children while they’re on the nod. Omar introduces new commodities into the market, trading hugely valuable caches of drugs for information from Proposition Joe. He’s a manifestation of the reasons that markets don’t behave purely rationally, and as such, he’s a risky ally for the task force, and proof that not all key transactions are conducted in cash or reinvested in real estate and political contributions.
In these three episodes, the police are also divided into two groups, one that gives in to whim, superstition, and luck, and another who act as they’re expected, and reap the rewards and disappointments. In the former group are Santangelo, McNulty, and Herc and Carver. Santangelo, faced with a choice between clearing a murder or informing on McNulty, takes the advice of Landsman, who sends him to a psychic. “I don’t joke when it comes to Madame LaRue,” Landsman promises. “She has an unexplainable gift in matters of death investigation. She transcends the rational.” The consult doesn’t work, but luck is in Santangelo’s favor in a joke on Landsman, and a much bigger joke on Rawls. Santangelo’s luck becomes, to a very limited extent, McNulty’s, only in that he learns his job is on the line before Rawls would like him too. Another gamble of McNulty’s, having his children tail Stringer Bell at the Farmer’s Market, nets him a license plate number, but reveals what an inept father he is when they get lost. “I don’t know what the fuck they’re wearing,” he tells a lost and found clerk at the market. We know McNulty’s capable of piecing together information when it suits him to, so there’s something ugly in this scene—his vulnerability here is of his own making. McNulty handles a drunken, adulterous Bunk with more care than his own sons.
Lastly, there’s Herc and Carver, who take $22,000 off Wee-Bay. Herc proposes skimming from it, but Carver talks him out of it, explaining “say we turn in 20, and then this afternoon on the wire, the bosses hear we took 30. Didn’t think of that, did you?” They’re punished for their bad thoughts, though, when two of the bundles of cash fall in their wheel well and Daniels gets the impression that they’re skimming. They’re rewarded for playing less than by the book later, though, when a dull afternoon on the roof leads them to take a ride. What they discover is another one of those non-market motivations that they haven’t factored into their equations: the basketball game for geographic bragging rights, which has lured Avon out of obscurity and made him identifiable.
There’s something perfect about the fact that Avon taunts Daniels after the game, not knowing that he’s been identified, and identified by men Daniels just warned “This doesn’t happen. Not with me. Not with my unit.” For all Daniels has more restrictions on his actions than Avon, and obligations to a longer game, in that moment he seems like a deadlier man. Avon has a ways to fall. Daniels has further to rise.
And Daniels has two detectives working for him who play to type and expectations, and are rewarded for it. Kima and Lester previously identified Shardene, the dancer in Orlando’s club who’s been living with D’Angelo as a civilian. And like William Gant, she’s one who seems loyal to her own moral code, and her own set of sentiments rather than to D’Angelo’s lifestyle or his money. When they bring her in to the detail office, Shardene’s charmed by Lester’s toy furniture. “My sister had a dollhouse when we were done, but nothing as nice as these…Do you have a house for them?,” she asks Lester. When he says no, she remarks, “That seems kind of sad. You should have a house for them.” She still thinks good things should happen, even when they mostly don’t. And she’s still capable of being shocked when Kima shows her what’s been done to her friend. D’Angelo can’t anticipate either that she’d find out what he and Wee-Bay did to the dead woman, or that Shardene would react so badly. “I don’t look like trash to you? I don’t look like something you could roll up in a rug and throw in the trash?” Shardene asks him on the way out of the door and out of his life, dealing another blow to D’Angelo’s damaged worldview. The expectation of decency beyond mere facade is a powerful thing. And however it’s defined, both Omar and Shardene suggest that it can destabilize the market that both the cops and dealers participate in.