“Thin line ‘tween heaven and here.”

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.

The Desk

Before getting into the main themes of this episode, the opening scene deserves some recognition. As metaphors go, it is anything but subtle. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile.

Herc is struggling to move a desk through a door. Carver shows up and gets on the other side to help him from there. They are soon joined by McNulty and Sydnor, but all four of them are unable to budge it.

“It’s caught on something Lieutenant,” says Herc as Lieutenant Daniels arrives. Daniels removes his jacket and gets in to help as well.

Lester Freeman, occupied in crafting his toy furniture, looks on but offers no help.

After some time they all sit back, defeated.

“At this rate we’re never going to get it in,” says Herc. It is at this point, of course, that they realize the desk is not impossibly stuck, they are merely all pushing in opposite directions.

This little vignette mirrors the larger-scale efforts that this team is involved in outside of the office. One officer alone is almost helpless, but without the proper communication, an entire squad can be even less effective.

In Herc’s words: “I could move it a little bit when I was alone. It must have got wedged in the door somehow.”

But this does not paint a hopeless picture. It just shows the team to be poorly organized in their roles. Herc spends much of his time in this episode and others complaining about having to take orders, but as this scene proves, he is the last person who should be in charge.

Aside from this commentary on the team as a whole, this scene also offers a valuable insight into the character of Lester Freeman, identifying him as something of a sage.

He looks on knowingly as the others exhaust themselves in their hopeless task. One might be tempted to call him lazy, but this is not the case. Would the desk be moving if he were grunting alongside them? No.

One also might question the fact that he does not speak up and identify the problem, but it is in his silence that Freeman demonstrates his sage-like character the most. He recognizes that it is not his place to sort out the problems of the rest of the team. They will learn far better by bumbling their way through this experience on their own rather than by having him point out their flaws. Furthermore, they will not resent him.

He practices Taoist non-action, displaying the virtues identified in Tao 37:

It is possible for the myriad creatures
to transform naturally, of their own accord.
It is possible for the myriad creatures to embrace their selves.
The way is stillness.
If only lords and princes understood this and so practiced non-action.

Sometimes silent observation is far more fruitful than arduous efforts. It’s no coincidence that later in the episode it is Lester, still toying with his tiny furniture, who suddenly provides the team with D’Angelo Barksdale’s pager number. While everyone else was fighting over how to go about solving the problem, Lester was solving it.

The Thin Line:

The theme of this episode, as defined by the quotation, is barriers, borders, dividing lines. It is a somewhat vague theme, broadly explored throughout the episode. Amongst the barriers investigated are those of loyalty, socioeconomics, and those between personal and professional lives, etc.

Put another way, the episode is about the different worlds that we simultaneously occupy as we live our lives. The episode does not confine itself thematically to specific borders between specific worlds, but plunges deep into examining as many as possible in a very short amount of time. As a result, the theme is quite difficult to recognize immediately, even with the opening quote to guide us.

The quote itself is spoken by Bubbles as McNulty is dropping him off on a corner in a seedy neighbourhood, but if we are to make sense of it, we must also look at the events leading up to the scene.

Kima Greggs asks McNulty if he could drive Bubbles home. He agrees to do so, but has to stop off at his son’s soccer game first. This detour takes both of them — most notably Bubbles — across one of the borders mentioned above.

The following exchange warns us just how out of place Bubbles will be at a suburban soccer game:

“Where in leave-it-to-beaver land are you taking me?”

“I’m late for something. I’ll drop you after on the way back downtown.”

“What are you late for?”


“Suck what?”

When they arrive at the soccer field where McNulty’s son is playing, Bubbles gets out of the car, squinting almost as if he hasn’t seen the sun before. The scene before him is completely alien: clean, regulated, without threat. The soccer field is the very picture of middle-class American life.

When Bubbles is introduced to McNulty’s ex-wife, she won’t even shake his hand and barely looks at him. He has clearly strayed beyond one of his boundaries into a world that does not want him.

After a brief altercation with the ex Mrs. McNulty, the image of privileged children running on a sunlit soccer field dissolves and is replaced immediately by McNulty’s car pulling up on a dark corner in the projects. There are children here as well, but rather than playing an organized sport on a manicured field, they amuse themselves by running circles around their mother as dogs and sirens wail in the distance. The fact that night has fallen during the ride from one place to the other serves to accentuate the juxtaposition.

“This good for you?” McNulty asks, apparently struck by the same displacement the viewer has just experienced.

“Uh huh,” says Bubbles, giving him a look that says he has noticed the same thing. “Thin line ‘tween heaven and here.”

The statement itself is resistent to specific analysis. One might argue, for example, that Bubbles is overtly calling this place hell, and suburbia heaven. It could also be argued that he’s not making such a distinction, instead commenting on how — while this place might look like hell — it is closer to heaven than an outsider can see.

For the purpose of this discussion, the value judgments tempted by the use of the heaven/hell imagery should be ignored. The primary focus should be the fragility of the thin line that separates different worlds from each other.

Though we have not yet gotten deep into the character of Bubbles, we will later learn that he does have family that exists on the other side a border, away from the drugs and the crime. As we watch him struggle with addiction, we realize just how simultaneously fragile and powerful the line that separates him from relative happiness actually is. At times, the line seams ethereal. At others, it is like a brick wall.

It’s important to remember that what Bubbles said was used at the opening of the episode and is therefore meant to guide our viewing of everything that happens. Therefore, confining the analysis of the quote to the specifics of his life is only one small piece of the puzzle. We must look at everything.

If you look for it, the aforementioned theme is everywhere in this episode. One of the more heartwarming examples, oddly enough, involves Herc.

Extremely frustrated with the way Bodie keeps evading them, Herc and Carver storm into his grandmother’s house cursing, making threats and treating her like a criminal. On the way out of the house, Herc pauses, clearly recognizing that he has unwittingly crossed a line. He apologizes to the woman and begins treating her as a human being. He even goes so far as to speak to the woman in her language, referring to her grandson by his given name, rather than by his street name.

This is one of several instances in  this episode in which a character’s personal and professional worlds are held up next to one another for comparison. As Herc converses briefly with the woman about her grandson, these worlds become clear. In one world, the boy he pursues is Bodie, the low-level drug dealer who is wanted for assaulting a cop and fleeing a juvenile correctional facility. In another, he is Preston, the troubled young man whose grandmother is having difficulty raising him  in the absence of parents.

The viewer can see that the experience has affected Herc. Whereas his cohorts stumbled through the scene without even realizing that they had crossed the thin line, Herc was granted a moment of clarity in which the pessimistic veil of law enforcement fell away and he glimpsed the humanity that it concealed.

As McNulty puts it at one point in the episode, “Every now and then we visit the projects. They live here.” In saying this, he is simply pointing out why witnesses might be reluctant to come forward. Really, the comment can be applied to explain crime and addiction as well.

But it is not only criminals and drug addicts that occupy multiple worlds, as the scenes chronicling Kima’s home life show. During the day she confidently strides through urban warzones, surveils clandestine dealings, etc. At night, she sits with a highlighter and a textbook trying unsuccessfully to make sense of the very laws she spends her days enforcing. Seemingly, her girlfriend is trying to push her from the professional world she currently occupies into another, safer one. Clearly, only one of these worlds suits her.

In addition to these professional worlds, we get a glimpse into her personal life — an insight that is made all the more poignant when McNulty shows up on her doorstep unannounced. Whereas Kima and McNulty can spend the days together as cops, joking comfortably and enjoying each other’s company, their off-hours exchange is awkward and painful to watch.

McNulty has crossed a very real border without even realizing it —  a habit he, of all the characters in The Wire, falls into almost constantly.

Much like the knight from the last episode, Jimmy McNulty is seemingly oblivious to the restraints that operate on everyone around him. In fact, more than just hopping casually from world to world, McNulty seems intent on straddling the lines, ignorantly attempting to occupy several incompatible worlds at the same time.

Proof of McNulty’s inability to recognize the invisible — but very real — barriers that surround him is readily available as we watch him bring a drug-addicted police informant to a family soccer game, not even having the foresight to ask Bubbles to wait in the car. (Warning: Extremely minor spoiler in next sentence) It becomes even more apparent when, several episodes from now, he actually lets his sons tail Stringer Bell in a supermarket.

Even within the police department McNulty frequently crosses lines. Chain of Command, a rigid system of prescribed hierarchal interaction, means nothing to him and he is frequently reprimanded for going over the heads of his superiors to bend the ears of judges and FBI agents.

As a result of his frequent line crossing, it is clear that McNulty is not completely welcome in any of the worlds he splits his time between. His wife refused to shake hands with Bubbles at the soccer game, but that slight could be considered quite minor when we compare it to the hostility with which she treats McNulty himself. His other world, that of the Baltimore Police Department, is barely any better. While he might be a good detective, Major Rawls is actively out to get him, even attempting to coerce Detective Santangelo into spying on him.

He has intimate knowledge of the criminal world, as evidenced by his discussion with Bubbles and Kima about No-Heart Anthony but, of course, as a police officer he is unwelcome in that world as well. To top it all off, he shares with Bubbles the disease of addiction. Just as Bubbles’s heroin addiction has played a large role in deciding which side of the line he lives on, McNulty’s alcoholism is constantly threatening his welcome in the worlds he inhabits, both personally and professionally.

Nevertheless, when we see him perfectly in his element, operating appropriately in one particular world, we can see just how effective McNulty can be. Our example of this is the so-called “Fuck Scene,” in which Bunk and McNulty essentially work a cold crime scene whilst using nothing more than the word “fuck” to communicate with each other.

People often rave about this scene as if it is meant to show the versatility of the word “fuck.” Despite the obvious virtues of this word, I think focussing on “fuck” itself is to miss the point of the scene. To me, the word they use is fairly unimportant. They could be saying “damn,” or simply grunting or whistling and it would still work. What the scene shows is how two people who complement each other perfectly can communicate without really saying anything. Essentially what we are seeing is two men who are so at home in this situation and with each other that they can communicate and perform a complicated mental task without even really saying anything. It is almost as if they share one mind.

Amidst this more abstract analysis, we shouldn’t forget that the scene shows just how easily essential details at a crime scene can be missed. It also shows how supremely important the initial work done on the crime scene actually is, since the two detectives are able to recreate the events of the night with little more than a few pictures and some notes from the coroners office.

Thematically speaking, however, the scene serves merely to show that, while McNulty is little more than an unwelcome guest in most of the many worlds he spends his days stumbling through, here he is at home. Police work is his true calling. Most of his troubles are merely the result of his unrestrained pursuit of this calling.

A fitting conclusion to our thematic discussion is the story D’Angelo relates about the very crime being investigated in the aforementioned scene.

According to D’Angelo, he crept up outside the victim’s window and tapped on the glass with his gun. From the bright interior of her house, she couldn’t see through the glass to the dark exterior. As she leaned up to the glass to get a better look, D’Angelo shot and killed her.

Here, in all its allegorical glory, is the theme of the episode. Two very different worlds, so close as to be almost touching, are separated by an extremely thin, fragile barrier. To the victim, the safe, bright interior of her home seems completely removed from the rest of the world. Nevertheless, the dark, dangerous world still lurks on the other side of the glass which, for all it does to obscure her view, does nothing to protect her.

So it is with the thin lines that separate the different worlds we occupy. Remaining ignorant of the borders and the worlds that occupy the space behind them leaves us helpless and confused, like the girl who got to close to the glass… or a drunken McNulty standing in Shakima Greggs’s doorway… or Bubbles at a suburban soccer game.


You may think me crazy or obsessed, but I can’t help mentioning a possible allusion to the previous episode’s chess theme.

When Bodie arrives in the juvenile detention centre, the guard tells him to “report to bunk A7.” Someone as obsessive as me can’t help but make the chess connection, since the spaces on a chessboard are denoted by letters and numbers.

Investigating further, I realized that square A7 is actually one of the squares on which pawns begin the game. This didn’t make sense at first until I realized that, when Bodie asks the guard if there’s anyone from his neighborhood around and is informed that he is in fact surrounded by troubled youths from a rival territory.

There are only two situations in which a pawn would be on space A7:

1) It is the beginning of the game and the pawn has yet to move.

2) The pawn has made it almost the entire way across the board and is about to become a queen.

The latter situation makes the most sense, considering that Bodie is among enemies just like the ambitious pawn that must step into enemy territory in order to succeed.

Bodie makes a the straightforward move of a pawn and simply walks out of the facility. He then steals a car and drives back to the pit. Though he has a long way to go before he could be considered to be on a level with Stringer Bell, the quick trip home in the stolen car is reminiscent of a queen’s movement.

Of course, I could be grasping at straws. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting thought.

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

5 Responses to ““Thin line ‘tween heaven and here.””
  1. This is great. I really enjoyed reading your take on The Wire and the line “Thin line between heaven and here.” You provided a lot of insight.

  2. Lesego says:

    This is such fantastic reading. It also changes the dynamic of watipching the wire nearly 15 years on.

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