Breathe Like Regular Folk: Small Dreams and ‘The Wire’

This concludes our discussion of the first season of The Wire. For Monday, let’s watch episodes 1–3 of Season 2.

For all The Wire gains its credibility from its naturalism, its first season follows a formally precise arc. It begins with Kima and D’Angelo delivering a set of lessons, and ends with Bodie, Poot, and Herc passing those lessons on to a new generation of cops and hoppers. The show goes from McNulty marveling at the pristine federal resources that are being diverted from the war on drugs to the war on terror to federal authorities who would rather pursue a political corruption case than pursue the people who contribute to the misery of Baltimore’s least empowered. This is a story about how little time good people have to pass on their knowledge, and what lessons the people under them actually absorb. And it’s a reminder of the mesmerizing power of ugliness, and the occasions when we’re surprised by joy.

“Down here we make big cases…and all that mess you call police work in the districts…that won’t fly here,” lectures Herc, the most unlikely of educators, and the least-cerebral member of the task force, lectures new cops back in his old command at the end of the season. “This is what makes cases, gentleman. Remember that.” He’s absorbed that strategy and cleverness can be useful, but hardly the whole approach that leads Kima, still confined to her hospital bed, to tell Bunk “Sometimes, things just gotta play out,” when he asks her to sign a photo array she doesn’t have confidence in.

And when he finds out that Carver and other men have been skipped over him to be promoted to Sergeant, Herc complains “It’s gotta be all the brutality complaints, which means it’s never going to matter how I do on no fucking tests.” He hasn’t seen what Daniels has — that it’s Carver’s decision to play politics and report to Burrell that won him his promotion, not Herc’s failings. “This” may be how cases are made, but it’s how careers are made, too. And those two objectives aren’t necessarily compatible. But perhaps it’s one he’ll absorb with Daniels, who, when Burrell demands officers back from the task force, demurs, telling him “I have no opinion. Take your pick.” Revealing your preferences, as McNulty learns to his sorrow, may cost you much more in the long term than it wins you in the present. But unlike Herc and Carver, Prez, who has one of the quietest storylines this season in the snatches of excitement he finds from learning his fascination with puzzles may give him value in the department in a way his impulsive, violent performance on the street never did, may have absorbed the most from his time in the detail. “I’d be careful with that,” Daniels tells him, saying in a gesture what he can’t say directly. “I understand the trigger pull used to be light.”


The finale sees Poot passing on D’Angelo’s lessons to new members of the Pit crew who haven’t yet been taught to break up the parts of a drug transaction. “The way you doin’ it, someone snapping pictures got the whole deal,” Poot lectures. “We gotta tighten up around here, yo.” But D’Angelo was snapped up before he fully developed his McNulty-fueled vision for a version of the drug game without violence, much less before he tried to implement his hazy ideas. And his lieutenants learned how not to get caught, but not how to re-conceptualize their business in any more fundamental way. In Wallace’s final days, D’Angelo’s compassion towards him was bewildering to Bodie and Poot, who expected D’Angelo to bust Wallace back down to running and require him to work his way back up. Wallace didn’t have a chance to think” about going back to Edmonson like we talked about,” before Stringer offered Bodie a chance to both advance in the organization and to re-integrate the worldview D’Angelo’s upset by killing Wallace. As Bodie struggles to pull the trigger, he tries to convince himself that by killing Wallace, he is restoring the natural order. “You’s a weak-ass nigger man,” he tells his former friend. “You should have stayed down in the country, man. You fucking brought this on yourself, man. You brought this on yourself.” There’s a hint of Bodie’s future in Wee-Bay’s eerily jaunty confession. “Fuck it, then,” he tells the detectives in interrogation. “For another pig sandwich and some tater salad, I’ll go a few more.” “This motherfucker’s just taking murders just to take them,” Bunk says, both in wonder at Wee-Bay’s callous audacity, and the trouble his confessions may cause in prosecuting actual killers, as in the William Gant case.

Against great evil are ranged modest dreams. “It’s the best work I ever did. I never worked a case like this. but it’s not enough,” Sydnor tells Prez and Lester, wishing only for the chance to do good work every day. D’Angelo hopes only to rediscover his humanity, telling the detectives “I just want to go somewhere I can breathe like regular folk. You give me that, and I’ll give you them.” But even that proves too much to ask for. It’s only the tiniest needs that get met this season, “The gift of corrected vision, courtesy of the BPD” from Lester to Shardene, a little cream in her coffee. “Protect and serve, lieutenant. Protect and serve,” he jokes to Daniels, who warns him about overstepping his bounds. In Baltimore, remembering who you are gets you only so far. And in the face of conflicting bureaucratic incentives, direct kindness is the only effective tool at anyone’s disposal. “Give her my love,” Bubbles tells McNulty, who visits him to update him on Kima’s progress, offering up the only thing he has. But even McNulty’s gestures go wrong, bringing Bubbles the money that will keep him high, and McNulty fails to understand what Bubbles is asking when he says the money McNulty has offered him is too much. All Bubbles can ask McNulty, in the end, is “Don’t tell her.”