“…when it’s not your turn.”

Note: These posts are not meant to be plot summaries, but commentaries (for a more in-depth description of what we’re aiming at, go here: The Wire). While we will make every effort to avoid including spoilers about later episodes, do not read this post unless you have watched the episode we are discussing.

Snot Boogie and The Game

The first episode of The Wire opens with a conversation between Detective Jimmy McNulty and a murder witness. Rather than transcribe it for you, I offer you this:

Having watched the entire series and returned again to the beginning, this conversation seems all the more poignant. Here, in a smart little package, is the overarching theme of season one — if not the entire five season run — of the series. It’s spelled out so beautifully that you could almost stop watching there and go home happy.

The conversation is heavily laden with thematic metaphor, which is made all the more compelling by the fact that the details of the “Snot Boogie” case — and even the conversation with the witness — are apparently accurate accounts of real events chronicled by The Wire’s creator, David Simon, in his book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.

On hearing the murder victim’s unfortunate nickname, “Snot Boogie,” McNulty laments:

“This kid whose mother went to the trouble of christening him Omar Isaiah Betts. You know, he forgets his jacket… so his nose starts running and some asshole, instead of giving him kleenex, calls him ‘Snot.’ So he’s Snot forever.”

In addition to being a broad criticism of labels in general, McNulty’s comments also describe the plight of the most disenfranchised classes of America. Born into poverty and surrounded by crime, inner-city youth are often bitterly dubbed “trouble makers” and “criminals.” Without the proper help (metaphorically speaking, a jacket to stop their noses from running), the prophecy fulfils itself and many end up “criminals” forever, stuck in the self-perpetuating cycle of the criminal justice system.

The witness’s observation that, once there was money on the ground, Snot Boogie couldn’t help but take it and run, does not translate into a representation of the disenfranchised as mindless and without control. To the contrary, it merely points out the cyclical nature of their plight. In a hopeless and desperate situation the same mistakes end up being made out of necessity, regardless of the unlikelihood of a positive outcome.

McNulty, who — for all his flaws — is often The Wire’s voice of simple logic, sees unnecessary restraints like chain of command and bureaucratic red tape as nonsensical. Always, he seeks to move past the restraints imposed on him by the institutions in which he is enveloped.

As such, he asks what he thinks is the obvious question: “If Snot Boogie always stole the money, why’d you let him play?”

On first hearing the question, the witness is taken aback, as if the thought of keeping Snot out of the game never even occurred to him. Finally he responds: “We got to. This is America, man.”

The witness’s unquestioning faith in the paradoxically faulty machine called “America” is both beautiful and sickening. The same America that would casually name a boy “Snot” for life would never think of preventing him from playing the game.

Similarly, we are brought face to face with McNulty’s mental struggle within the system. He think’s Snot’s nickname is unfortunate, but thinks nothing of suggesting that he be excluded from the game altogether — a suggestion that is quite harsh if you think of it being applied to an entire group of people. The confusion that stems from trying to be fair in an unfair system is an issue that we will see explored elaborately as the show goes on.

This first vague mention of “The Game” will echo through all five seasons. Over the course of the series, we will hear many a character utter the phrase: “It’s all in The Game.” In the above conversation, we have heard this game described aptly — a description all the more beautiful for how economically it captures the inherent confusion. America waves the flag of freedom, but those who would take part in said freedom will be summarily compartmentalized and forced into rigid schemas of interaction, regardless of their particular affiliation. The game, then, takes place both within and without the boundaries of these rules.

After the opening credits roll, we see that McNulty has not been struck by the true weight of the conversation, as he is shown laughing about it with Bunk Moreland, pleased that he got the witness to give up the murderer for the low price of “three Newports and a Grape Nehi.”

A strange dichotomy

The rest of the episode, amidst introducing characters and building the foundations of the storyline, gets us further acquainted with the system and its many flaws.

The focus is on the strange symmetry between the local drug trade and the police department that is assigned to investigate it. These two institutions are introduced to us primarily through the characters of Detective Jimmy McNulty and D’Angelo Barksdale.

The initial impression we get is of a strange asymmetry of ineptitude. Indeed it seems as if police ineptitude (or, at least, indifference) goes up with rank, while criminal ineptitude does the opposite. D’Angelo Barksdale is demoted by his watchful superiors, who have actively noticed mistakes that brought the attention of the police to their organization. Juxtaposed against this act of demotion for ineptitude, Jimmy McNulty is threatened with demotion for trying to draw attention to the criminal activity that the police are ostensibly trying to prevent.

Both organizations favour a chain-of-command style hierarchy, and the executives of both have their offices in remote and secure locations. But where the leaders of the drug ring are actively and intelligently engaged with the running of their show, even from this remote location, those in charge of the police action bitterly resent having to do their job, seemingly beholden only to whoever happens to be watching at any given time.

This, of course, calls out to the full version of the quote that guides the episode: “There you go, giving a fuck when it’s not your turn to give a fuck.”

This quote would be comical if it weren’t such a depressingly accurate take on the bureaucracies that govern our lives. While the picture that David Simon will paint with The Wire is only a rough sketch in this first episode, the mood of frustration and indifference is sharply conveyed with this quote. The detective who wishes to fight crime rather than follow obtrusive procedure is out of place. Institutionalized, quantified, measured and scrutinized, the solving of crimes ceases to have anything to do with justice (whatever that elusive term denotes) and everything to do with statistical appearance.

Though the eponymous quote perfectly describes the established bureaucracy of the police department, it seems to clash with what we’ve seen in the drug trade so far. Based on the lessons bestowed on D’Angelo by his superiors, a more appropriate quotation for the dopers would be: “It’s always your turn to give a fuck.”

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One Response to ““…when it’s not your turn.””
  1. Roy says:

    What I also love is the solemn poetry of the exchange /shakesperean writing and delivery of the language.

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