Next week, we’ll finish the first season of The Wire. As always, if you want to discuss beyond the episodes we’re covering here, please label your comments for newbies.
There are a lot of things that take place in episodes ten and eleven of The Wire: the beginning of Bubbles’ attempts to get clean, Wallace’s inability to escape the pit completely, and Omar’s Proposition Joe-brokered parlay with Stringer Bell. But all of these threads pale in comparison to Kima’s shooting, the finest long setpiece The Wire put together in its first season, and one of the most impressive things it does in the entire run of the show.
The Wire is obsessed with hands—they take the place of faces in the credits sequences, dominate the opening of the pilot, and give characters like Bubbles their characteristic physical tics (in his case, straightening the buttons on his shirts). And it’s what characters do with their hands that tells us how deeply they are feeling about Kima’s shooting in the light of duty. After Daniels and McNulty remove Kima from the car, Carver crouches on the ground, his hands on his head—we can’t hear if he’s keening or screaming or crying, but it’s clear he needs to physically hold himself together. Landsman’s hands are up in the air as he tries to communicate to Rawls what he needs after the scene is swarmed by representatives of other departments. At the hospital, Daniels’ hand covers his mouth as his eyes flicker open and closed, an act of control that prevents him from speaking in any way that might be over control. And after Bubbles is beaten in interrogation by detectives who believe he must have had something to do with Kima’s shooting, which no one has bothered to tell him about, he covers his eyes as he demands to “I want to talk to Detective Greggs…To McNutty, then. This shit ain’t right.” He’s been abused and humiliated by these men, and is about to be dealt a worse blow by McNulty, who will ask him to go back to the places he used to cop in Kima’s service, but he will not let his tormenters see his reaction. Bubbles can deny them that, at least.
So much of this eleventh episode of The Wire is also about a failure—or a refusal—to see. Bubbles is only one victim of mistaken identity. The police commissioner walks up to the white detective working Kima’s shooting, and assuming he’s Daniels, who is standing right there, “Lieutenant, I know just how you feel. This is the toughest job a police commissioner has to do. I’ll never get used to it.” When Carver goes to Kima and Cheryl’s house to deliver the bad news to his partner’s partner, Cheryl assumes he’s a random visitor or perhaps a workman: she misses that he’s come to see her because she doesn’t read Carver as a cop. Once they’re at the hospital, in attempting to explain that Kima’s family is another woman, Carver stumbles for the words to make Burrell understand. “Officer Griggs has a girl?” Burrell asks, confused. It’s Daniels who steps in with a convenient evasion, telling him that Kima has “A roommate. The family’s in Richmond. Driving up first thing today.” Cheryl, forgotten in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, overlooked in the waiting room, is rendered emotionally invisible by the need to keep Burrell comfortable.
In this awful moment, the men who create clarity for and give purpose to the wounded, confused people working under them achieve a special luster. Lester snaps Carver and Herc out of their rage and pain by reminding them that “We got a wire up on some motherfucker that just shot a cop. If somebody talks, somebody gets on the wrong phone and says the wrong fucking thing about what happened tonight, where the fuck do you want to be?” This episode is also one of the first times we see why Rawls has risen so far in the department. He gives Landsman precisely what he needs, space to do his job, and the mandate to “Give these bastards no chance to fuck up in a meaningful way.” He stands on a step stool and fixing the street signs that were turned around. And he puts sense to a self-centered McNulty, who is asking himself “Couldn’t talk, couldn’t breathe. Nothing. She went into the ambo that way. What the fuck did I do?” After McNulty vomits in the hospital while the recording of Kima’s shooting is being played, Rawls sits him down and delivers a lecture on the workings of the universe. “Listen to me you fuck. You did a lot of shit here. You played a fucking cards and you made a lot of fucking people do a lot of fucking things they didn’t want to do. This is true. We both know this is true. You, McNulty, are a gaping asshole. We both know this,” he explains. “But fuck if I’m going to stand here and say you did a single fucking thing to get a police shot. You did not do this, you fucking here me. This is not on you…Believe it or not, everything isn’t about you. And the motherfucker saying this, he hates your guts, McNulty. So if it was on you, I’d be the sonofabitch to say so. Shit went bad. She took two for the company. That’s the only lesson here.” Rawls may be angry and vindictive, but he also is one of the few people who bother to expect that McNulty act like a human being. Daniels can order McNulty to stop drinking, telling him “Put that away. Put that away and work the case.” But he doesn’t see McNulty as clearly, with as precise venom as Rawls does.
And just as some men step up to the occasion, others fail: the weaknesses of systems and individuals are strikingly, tragically clear, even as Kima’s future remains in doubt. Carver sees the commissioner clearly for the first time when he demurs when asked to talk to Cheryl, bitterly remarking “No problem. If we lose her, he can always pose for the funeral.” D’Angelo and Bodie see the risks of managing business by assassination. “How you gonna shoot a police? ain’t no percentage in that,” D’Angelo muses. “I guess some of these niggers ain’t got no common sense,” Bodie tells him. “Lots of heart, but no common sense.” And McNulty, as always a purist, thinks he sees how the system works, and wanted to burn Ronnie and Phelan clean. “If only half you motherfuckers in the state’s attorney’s office didn’t want to be judges, didn’t want to be partners in some downtown firm,” he spits at Ronnie after a meeting with Phelan. “But no, everyone stays friends, everyone gets paid, and everyone has a fucking future.” I can understand why his guilt might have turned his thinking self-destructive. But just a few episodes ago, he was mourning the potential loss of his badge at Rawls hands. In Baltimore, the struggle is to find a future that you can live with, and that’s worth living for.