Look Before You Leap

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"Look Before You Leap"

I had some doubts about The Wire‘s mojo after Episode 8, but Episode 9 has me completely back on track. For a while now I’ve been a little puzzled by political debates about “teaching to the test” when school systems implement test-based accountability metrics. Number 8 handled this question in a way that I found dramatically clumsy. Episode 9, however, by hewing to the time-honored “show me, don’t tell me” dictum made for better television and even has me semi-convinced of its political point, so kudos. The scene with the kids at Ruth’s Chris was fantastic (as was the dice) and, in a typically Wireish fashion served to nicely underscore the point Prop Joe was making about Baltimore players’ dubious notions of what “running away” would entail — lots of people are conceptually trapped by the Charm City Game, almost literally incapable of imagining what it would mean to get out of a bad situation even when they recognize that the game is likely to kill them. I continued to be a bit puzzled by the action in the Hall — discussion of which will get spoiler-y and I know some friends of mine haven’t seen the episode so it goes below the fold.


Even before it was specifically noted and dramatized, it seems to me that Carcett’s basic political problem was fairly clear. He’s a white mayor in a black town, elected on a fairly narrow plurality of the vote. He needs to fear that a strong black challenger will emerge and boot him from office. The logical candidate for this is the City Council President, a youngish attractive African-American woman. Fortunately, Carcetti has a simple proposition he can make to her — he wants to run for Governor in 2008, as outlined in Episode 8. To do that, he needs a successful tenure in office. The City Council President’s good will would be very helpful in giving him the sort of successful tenure that could put him in Annapolis. Fortunately, their interests should be completely aligned on this issue since, if he becomes governor, the mayor’s office becomes vacant and, according to the city charter she immediately becomes mayor.

As we see in Episode 9, she seems to have a different plan. Her idea is to make his life a living hell, make him a failed Mayor, and then beat him in 2010. Again, though, the good news for Carcetti is that his plan would be better for both of them. All he needs to do is make this explicit to her, in a semi-private way, before the two of them have a big, contentious fight at a meeting. Instead, though, he plunged blindly into the meeting, has the fight, then makes these points to her later in a very hostile tone. Don’t either of them know how to play this game?

Similarly with Carcetti’s interactions with Burrell. If he knows he can’t sack the man in the short-term, why not try and play nice for at least a bit while trying to keep maneouvering to put himself in a position to fire him. All indications are that Burrell would have liked to try and kiss up to Carcetti. Instead, he tipped his hand super-obviously while leaving the chief in charge to spend the next weeks and months fucking with him.

Back to praise — the Herc, Carver contrast is delightful. I also think this little counterpoint makes an excellent point about the logic of these kind of situations which is that one guy who’s doing his job badly can easily do more harm than a single cop who’s doing his job well is able to compensate for. I think there’s political relevance here to ongoing discussions of counterinsurgency. To make tasks as delicate as those go well, it’s not good enough for most of the units in theater to be handling themselves properly. Essentially all of them need to be doing a good job. At a minimum, malfactors and missteps need to be sufficiently rare that it’s feasible to correct problems quickly and swiftly remove people who can’t learn from their mistakes from their jobs.

In policing terms, it’s much easier to get a useful informant killed than it is to cultivate one and this holds true up and down the line of tasks requiring interpersonal trust and understanding. These are precious commodities, easily wrecked through thoughtlessness.

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