“You cannot lose, if you do not play.”

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.

Chicken Nuggets

Episode two of The Wire’s first season, titled, “The Detail,” begins by continuing the depiction of an institution that would rather maintain the appearance of doing a job, than actually do the job.

McNulty has managed to plant a seed in the mind of Judge Phalen, one of the few men powerful enough to mobilize the Baltimore Police Department in a meaningful way. At Phalen’s prodding, a detail is grudgingly assembled to track Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell. They are given only the bare minimum in the way of facilities and supplies and their temporary office is located deep in some unused dungeon of the BPD.

The following conversation serves to highlight the situation:

D’Angelo and Wallace’s “nugget” conversation offers a clever restatement of one of the problems of hierarchical organization, a problem that is evident in both the police department and the drug organization.

Like Ronald McDonald (D’Angelo’s metaphorical representative of the “real players” behind the restaurant), Judge Phalen sits in his luxurious office while the poorly staffed detail created to suit his fancy slaves away in the basement. From their dank lair, they work at finding a way to de-bone the drug ring and serve it up as a bite-sized, easy to handle nugget that their superiors can ingest without so much as getting their fingers greasy.

In an amusing use of juxtaposition, the phrase “You missed a spot,” is uttered twice in fairly quick succession. Once it is spoken to Judge Phalen as he wipes mustard off of his tie, and once it is spoken to a detective as he mops up the filthy floor of the rat-hole office his detail has been assigned to on Phalen’s instruction. One eats a sandwich while the other wades through the slop.

Obviously, the nugget conversation applies equally well to the ground-level drug troops and their own clean-handed, privileged superiors.

No cime without law

McNulty to D’Angelo: “See, that’s what I don’t get about the drug game. Why can’t you sell the shit and walk the fuck away? You know what I mean? Everything else in this country gets sold without people shooting each other behind it.”

Since McNulty speaks this line in an attempt to guilt D’Angelo into making a mistake, it’s impossible to gauge if he agrees with the sentiment he literally expresses. It is, of course, the illegality of drug sales that make it a dramatic and violent exception to the normal rules of commerce. What McNulty fails to acknowledge is that the laws of the land, by their very existence, create criminality. Both the police department that enforce the laws and the drug trade that breaks them owe the idiosyncrasies of their respective trades to each other.

The short trip from inept to antagonistic

This episode in particular dedicates a good deal of screen time to humanizing (at times almost villainizing) law enforcement. David Simon does not want you going into The Wire with the idea that all police officers are pillars of society any more than he wants you to think all drug dealers are heartless demons.

As such, we are treated to a veritable smorgasbord of questionable activity by members of the Baltimore Police Department. Simon offers several different scenarios in which police ignore protocol. Never making it simple, he is sure to provide us with a sampler of varying degrees of offense.

While it can’t be ignored that they are dealing with a murderer, it is difficult to not feel slightly bad about Bunk and McNulty’s manipulation of D’Angelo in the interrogation room. They severely bend the rules of interrogation, continuing to question him after he has asked for a lawyer. They make up facts in order to trick him into saying something incriminating. Most people, I’m sure, would side with the detectives on this one. After all, D’Angelo is a murderer who got off without so much as community service. Nevertheless, the disregard for the regulations and protocols of the interrogation room is troubling. After all, one can imagine them pulling the same tricks on an innocent man or woman.

The episode culminates in an ill-advised trip to the projects by Herc, Carver, and Pryzbylewski. Whilst sharing beers in the wee hours of the morning, the conversation turns to drunken machoism and the three officers decide that, with the aid of their big, swinging dicks, the case can be solved by strolling into the projects and roughing some people up. Here the officers steer completely clear of the gray area between right and wrong, opting instead to leap clear over it, becoming the obvious villains in the altercation that follows.

The three so-called agents of justice yell up at the towers, threatening to harass the neighbourhood until Bell and Barksdale are exposed, acting as if each and every resident of the project towers is guilty simply because of their address. The innocent people who happen to be out on the street at the time — one of which is returning home with laundry — are forced to pull their pants to their ankles and lay face down on the ground. Meanwhile, the obvious violation of rights is called out by the occupants of the tower, who hurl insults down on the police.

Pryzbylewski, overcompensating for his naturally timid nature, hits a young boy with the butt of his gun for no other reason than — in his own words — “he pissed me off.” In an inspiring show of neighbourhood solidarity, the hurled insults are quickly replaced by bottles, a television and, eventually, bullets. The three officers are forced to flee, leaving their car to be burned by vandals. The boy Pryzbylewski assaulted, we are later told, will be blind in one eye.

The next day, Daniels treats us to yet another questionable act as he coaches Pryzbylewski on how to tell his story so in such a way that the review board will deem the force “necessary.” This act is unique among the other police violations of the episode in that Lieutenant Daniels is obviously disgusted with Pryzbylewski’s actions and furious that he is being forced by the circumstances to be complicit in the crime. It is obvious that Daniels would like nothing more than to hang the three officers out to dry. In his own words, however, “I hang them, I hang myself.”

Finally, McNulty finds himself publicly intoxicated, too drunk even to thwart an act of petty vandalism that is being perpetrated only 50 yards away. He finds himself quickly on his ass in the mud, ignored by the offenders, looking down at the badge in his hand and laughing at the situation. The message? Police are imperfect human beings just like everyone else. A drunken fool waving a badge is still nothing more than a drunken fool.

So we see, as David Simon wants us to, several different shades of questionable police activity, ranging from the arguably defensible (as in D’Angelo’s interrogation), to frustrating and understandable (as in Daniels’s self-serving coverup), to essentially wicked (as in the drunken assault on the projects). The police are not essentially good. The police are not essentially evil. Though the mythology of the police would have you believe that police officers are uncorruptible bastions of justice and good nature, they are not. They are typically imperfect individuals. That they are expected to be anything but that is one of the inherent flaws of the system.

The Wisdom of Mrs. Daniels

At the end of the episode, when Lieutenant Daniels laments his difficulties, his wife sums up the situation thusly:

“The department puts you on a case it doesn’t want. You’re given people that are useless or untrustworthy. If you push too hard and any shit hits the fan, you’ll be blamed for it. If you don’t push hard enough and there’s no arrests, you’ll be blamed for that too. The game is rigged. But you cannot lose if you do not play.”

If any of our readers wondered why a site that primarily focuses on translating the Tao Te Ching would show such an interest in a show like The Wire, that quote, with its striking similarity to lines such as “They are not defeated because they do not fight,” from chapter 22 of the Tao Te Ching should clear things up.

Her advice seems perplexing at first, until we realize that she is, in fact, advising Cedric to resign and pursue a career as a lawyer. For all the sage-like wisdom embedded in the wording of her advice, she is missing something. What she is referring to as “the game” is actually only a insignificant fraction of a greater game, the scope of which she has not yet grasped. It becomes increasingly apparent as the series goes on that — far from being isolated and above the inconsistencies of “The Game” — lawyers are hopelessly caught up in the institutional web as well. The lawyers of The Wire are in no way immune to the capricious and inconsistent system of Baltimore bureaucracy. They merely operate from a different angle, offering a slightly different perspective on what is nevertheless an inherently flawed system.

Cedric must attempt to see past the superficial advice his wife is giving him and look to the deeper wisdom of the words she has actually spoken. Whether or not he will (or even can) succeed is to be seen.


Continue to enjoy the other essays in this series here for free, or show your support by purchasing all 13 as an e-book.

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Comments
2 Responses to ““You cannot lose, if you do not play.””
  1. schonflora says:

    Great post! I especially appreciated your insight regarding the failed wisdom of Mrs. Daniels — couldn’t agree more with it! The game is not only specific to the police department but is inextricably linked to so many institutions (the law like you mention, or the media). Thus to assume like Mrs. Daniels that you can dodge the “game” of corruption by playing in another court is inevitably naive and bad advice. And like you reveal, the corruption of the Baltimore Police Department extends far beyond its bureau to a greater system of corruption …

  2. Thanks a lot! That’s kind of you.

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