Rewatching ‘The Wire’: Partners

This post is a discussion of the first three episodes of the third season of The Wire. Next week, we’ll discuss episodes four through six.

The moment from the beginning of the first season of The Wire that’s lodged most in political and historical memory is Bunny Colvin’s speech about the paper bag. It’s true that his insight that there’s never been a paper bag for drugs and the genesis of Hamsterdam drive the core action of this season. But while the bureaucracy’s inability to tolerate Colvin’s innovation is the major theme of the season, it’s also valuable to examine how bureaucratic actors can enable each other in doing harm. We may spend a lot of time watching street-level partnerships evolve, bend, and sometimes break in The Wire, but the partnership between Burrell and Rawls, and the work they do in the CompStat room this season, is just as important.

Unlike the street partnerships, there’s a clear power imbalance between the pair. Burrell has the power to promote, to play politics, but it also makes him vulnerable. “What makes you think they’ll promote the wrong man?” he asks Daniels, to whom he’s promised much and is late on delivery. “We do it all the time,” Daniels tells him coolly. Carcetti offers Burrell opportunities, telling him “We’re losing 10, 12,000 residents a year to the county…The Mayor’s acting like a ten percent bump in the murder rate is business as usual…If you were smart, you’d come to me when the Mayor shorts you.” But much of the first three episodes of the season involve Burrell trying to figure out whether to accept his offer, and when he does, how to play it effectively.

Rawls and Burrell work so well together because the former makes space for the latter. Rawls gets to be profane and aggressive, opening up wounds Burrell can slip into and deliver death blows. “I don’t care how you do it. Just fucking do it,” he declares in explaining CompStat’s plan to put a hard limit on the number of murders Baltimore will report for the year. When Bunny asks them “How do you make a body disappear?,” Burrell gets to be comparatively elegant, telling him: “If you want to continue wearing those oak clusters, you will shut up and step up. Any of you who can’t bring in the numbers we need will be replaced by someone we can.” When Marvin Taylor reports that even though “I deployed my resources per your instructions…They move, sir. Every day. They’re going to sell their drugs somewhere,” it’s Rawls who informs him “They all tell me you lack a fucking clue,” and Burrell who smoothly relieves him of his command. It’s Rawl’s who throws a crude temper tantrum at Colvin, telling him, “What I got instead is some half-assed ‘I wish we were doing better’ platitude that’s meant to fool maybe a six-year-old girl into thinking you’re doing your job. But she’s left the room. She’s asking the stripper if she can have your job because she sure as shit doesn’t want yours.” And it’s Burrell who transforms that crudeness into something more elevated. “If the felony rate doesn’t fall, you most certainly will,” he tells Colvin. “The Gods are fucking you, you find a way to fuck them back. It’s Baltimore, gentlemen. The Gods will not save you.”

Watching the two men is a fascinating reminder that bureaucracy doesn’t only produce complication, duplication, and incompetence. It can be a tool of cruelty, both within the ranks, and to the people the bureaucracy works on. Rawls’ cruelty can be effective, as we saw in his management of Jimmy McNulty’s reaction to the shooting of Kima Greggs in the first season of The Wire. But here, it’s being used to browbeat, to obfuscate, and to cement a culture of lying. The glimmers of hope from the bureaucracy in these episodes are small: the possibility that someone else’s loss in a Parks Department layoffs could mean an opportunity for Cutty, the reminder in death that a police “was called. He served. He is counted.” CompStat itself is a scandal. But the means by which it’s enforced are spirit-crushing on their own.