‘The Wire’ Season 2: The Power of Paper

This post covers Episodes 1-3 of the second season of The Wire. For next week, we’ll discuss episodes 4-6.

If the first season of The Wire began with a focus on hands, the second season takes as its most important image paper. Even though the show introduced all of its main characters in the previous season, it has to reorient us to their new positions, and images of paper, both as slang for money and in its literal form, are a critical part of situating old players and introducing new ones.

We begin with the cops, and the bills that change hands between the man running the party on the Capitol Gains and McNulty, miserably assigned to the harbor patrol but not seasick enough to miss the opportunity for a reasonable bribe when he sees it. Kima’s consigned to paperwork, sighing “Fuck me, I still cannot type.” Daniels is stuck shuffling evidence in paper bags in the basement dungeon. Prez is staring at new printouts of photos tacked to a new bulletin board in a new detail office, this time a lonely building out by the water supplied by his father-in-law, Southeastern District Commander Stan Valchek.

Paper is the means of communication amongst criminals, too. Bodie notes down mileage and hands the tally to Stringer, who’s filing other pieces of paper in his pockets. We meet Blind Butchie in his capacity as bank, his most notable characteristic his ability to hear the count correctly. Omar and Dante first meet Kimmy and Tosha when they beat the men to a chance to rob a drug crew—Dante and Omar ambush the women and forge their partnership with them as they sort the bills from the heist into neat piles. In prison, D’Angelo’s transitioned from running the Pit crew to keeping the library neat, but he doesn’t have a sense of which currency is most valuable. “What do you like better? Ultimate Spider-Man or Regular Spider-Man,” a young prisoner asks D while he’s at work. “What’s the difference?” D’Angelo asks him, only to get a “Man, I gotta teach you everything” in response. And on the docks, Frank Sobotka lets stacks speak for him as he desperately tries to prevent defections to local 47, and Johnny Fifty and Ziggy Sobotka exchange slips of paper.

Paper means so many things here. To only be able to push paper is a sign of shame and restriction, in Daniels’ case, an unfair punishment from the department he has tried so hard to serve, in Kima’s case, an act of resentful loyalty to Cheryl, surrounded by a pile of paper of her own in the form of baby books. It can make you, as in a sergeant’s exam, or take your life away, as in the separation agreement McNulty’s wife sends him so it can speak the words she cannot bring herself to utter. To be able to make or share it is a source of pride, though one that can be badly misplaced, as when Ziggy, fatally unable to read any situation correctly, even from the beginning, declares “You know what, Dolores? I made money today” after he and Nicky steal a truck from the docks and sell the contents, prompting her contemptuous “Yeah? What ship came in?” It contains secret knowledge that cannot be spoken immediately out loud, like the note in Stringer’s pocket, the note from Johnny, which Ziggy can speak as soon as he’s far enough away from Johnny that Johnny can’t be traced to the information within it. And it’s a symbol of the value that can lurk in the mundane, as when McNulty sees the news report of the women found in the shipping container in the papers he and Bunk are using to protect the interrogation room table from their crab lunch.

That randomness, the chance that lead Jimmy to this new information, is particularly important. Watching this season again, I was struck by the extent to which Stan Valchek’s selfishness and his petty rivalry with the stevedores over who gets prominent placement for their donated church window end up doing some good. In The Wire: The Musical, the chorus sings “There are complex problems / Inherent in the bureaucratic institutions of the state / But there’s no one to blame / It’s a vast array of personal interests that conflict in a way that undermines the overall system.” But part of the point of The Wire is that goodness is as random as badness. If Stan, in a fit of pique, hadn’t demanded Daniels be put in charge of the detail, Burrell might well have let Daniels walk out the door and on to a legal career. Inertia, for better and for worse, is a more powerful force than meritocracy. Taking the effort to keep Daniels in house lets Burrell preserve the larger inertia that is sweeping him towards a commissionership.

And Valchek may not have convinced Prez that it’s better to adhere towards the vision he laid out for a younger man: “I think you’re going to take the Sergeant’s exam next month…you’re going to make sergeant. Then you’re going to come out here to the Southeast where, because of your father-in-law, you’re going to be assigned a daytime shift in a quiet sector. Then you’ll take the Lieutenant’s exam, where you’ll also score high…If you’ll just shut up and listen to me, you might actually have a career in this department.” But giving the detail some heft is an easier way to keep Prez from fighting that vision, and keep him from doing anything that might keep him from progressing towards those high scores on those tests, and the badges and stripes that go with those particularly powerful pieces of paper.