“Come at the king, you best not miss.”

Episode 8 of The Wire is opened with the quote: “Come at the king, you best not miss.” While this is undoubtedly one of the most memorable quotes from the entire series, it is actually the official title of the episode that gives us the primary theme.

The Wire’s episodes are generally titled quite innocuously. Titles like: The Target, The Buys, The Pager, etc., all point to specific aspects of the surface narrative, but carry very little weight when it comes to the hidden currents that are the best part of the show. This is why, in the past, we have chosen to use the headlining quotes of each episode to drive our discussions, essentially ignoring the official titles.

This episode is called Lessons, and while the prior episodes have tended to have fairly well-defined themes that focus on a particular aspect of The Wire’s complexity, Lessons seems to purposely zoom out, giving us a bigger picture of the sheer extent of the complexity itself.

The result is an episode that is difficult to summarize in simple terms, but nonetheless leaves the viewer with a lot to think about.

In terms of its overall structure, Lessons is what the title predicts: a series of lessons, the most overtly stated of these being the eponymous quote by Omar.

The episode opens beautifully, with Detective McNulty and his two children stumbling upon Stringer Bell at a market. Proving once again that he has absolutely no sense of the borders that are meant to exist between things like family and work, McNulty has his children tail Bell to his car. When Bell makes an unexpected move and McNulty loses his children, it seems as if he himself is being taught a much-needed lesson in parenting.

His ineptitude in this respect, is highlighted extensively. He is, after all, a detective who makes his living obsessively watching and cataloguing the details of criminal activity, but when asked by a security guard what his children are wearing, he has no idea.

As one would expect, this lesson is completely lost on McNulty, so when we see him telling the story to Bunk later in the episode, it isn’t an embarrassing story about losing his kids at the supermarket, it’s a proud story about how great his kids were at tailing Stringer Bell.

Even Bunk seems taken aback by the cavalier attitude McNulty seems to have towards raising his children.

This vignette is the perfect introduction to this episode on lessons, and several of the many ways in which lessons can function. The young brothers McNulty have internalized the lessons their father has taught them and have become quite adept at following people without being seen. Their father, on the other hand, is completely oblivious to the lessons in parenting provided for him by the situation.

Some lessons are taught overtly by an instructor. Other lessons are less obvious and must be actively drawn from the situation itself, without an instructor pointing out the value. The latter form of lesson is clearly the more difficult to internalize.

This episode is so packed full of lessons, overt and situational, learned and ignored, that chronicling each example would put an already hefty word-count into the realm of the obscene (I say this having already cut over a thousand words from the first draft of this post.) As such, it is necessary to deal with many of the lessons only briefly, just as the episode itself does.

We see Herc and Carver studying for a promotional exam, poring over a textbook filled with bureaucratically nonsensical questions about navigating police hierarchies. Obsessed with cramming for this aptitude test, they completely ignore the lessons in actual police work that are being taught to them by their fellow officers. Oddly enough, in this particular institution, this aptitude test is far more likely to get them promoted than the actual police work they are neglecting.

They do, however, both learn a few real lessons when they are forced to split up for a time and are and paired with Sydnor and Greggs, who quickly call them out for their shoddy work and thoughtlessness.

In the next room, Lester Freamon sits by the computer, teaching Pryzbylewski the finer points of intelligent policing, teaching him to see through the disinformation to the realities beneath. Later in the episode, Freamon also imparts on Greggs his wisdom on the subject of influencing a witness.

On the criminal side, Avon takes Orlando aside and gives him a harsh lesson on understanding his role in the organization. He is meant to be nothing more than a clean name on the liquor license, worthless if he tarnishes his record with a drug charge.

McNulty tails Stringer Bell to a community college and finds that he is enrolled in a class called “Intro to Macroeconomics.” The lessons he learns there, he applies to the drug trade, as well as to the running of his front companies.

The most depressing commentary on lessons offered by this episode comes when one of the children living with Wallace comes to him for help with his math homework. The problem he has to solve involves passengers getting on and off a bus. He can’t come up with the answer until Wallace rephrases the problem in the terms of a drug deal.

When asked why he could manage the addition and subtraction in one case and not the other, the child responds with: “Count be wrong, they fuck you up.”

If we ignore, for a second, just how heartbreaking the picture painted by this scene is, we get an interesting perspective on education.

The boy is clearly intelligent enough to do his homework, but is in a situation in which the hypothetical problems presented by his math text book have little to no bearing on his actual life. His aptitudes, then, are guided by what he sees and interacts with, his only real lessons coming from the world that he no doubt wants to escape. This is something that will be explored several seasons from now when The Wire focuses its attention on the school system in Baltimore.

Lieutenant Daniels, torn between his career and his job, explains to his wife why the higher-ups are so resistant to proper police work:

“This is the thing that everyone knows and no one says. You follow the drugs, you get a drug case. You follow the money, and you don’t know where you’re going. That’s why they don’t want wire taps, wired CIs, or anything else they can’t control. Because once the tape starts rolling, who the hell knows what’s going to be said.”

The most memorable lesson of the episode, as mentioned earlier, is the one taught by Omar.

The scene begins with Wee Bey and Stinkum sitting in an SUV, planning a raid on a rival crew. Wee Bey, clearly the more experienced man, begins teaching Stinkum some lessons of his own, going over the plan and reminding him what to do with his gun and the car after they’ve finished.

As he goes through this information, he betrays his own shortcomings as a teacher when he says: “Him there, and that other fool there, they’re the only ones who might be trouble.” He is making assumptions, acting as if all the variables are visible, when in fact, the most important one is hidden from sight.

Wee Bey runs ahead and, after a moment, Stinkum follows. As Stinkum walks towards where Wee Bey is distracting the targets, Omar appears out of nowhere, killing him and wounding Wee Bey.

Wee Bey cowers behind a parked car as Omar ominously whistles “The Farmer in the Dell,” a song for children. The message is clear: This is child’s play for Omar, no more than a game of cat and mouse.

In fact, The Wire has already provided us with the accompanying imagery for this cat and mouse comparison. Just before Stinkum’s death, a cat enters the frame, coming from the direction in which Omar is hiding. When Wee Bey surveys the aftermath of the attack from his hiding place, a rat crosses the street, running right past Stinkum’s dead body. To highlight the point, the camera actually follows the rat instead of staying focused on the corpse.

Then Omar imparts his wisdom: “Listen here Bey: you come at the king, you best not miss.”

The idea, of course, is that you only have one chance to come at the king. An attack exposes you, and if you make a mistake, it may be your last. Since Barksdale’s crew started gunning for Omar, they have done little but miss, killing his sidekick and blowing up his van, but never getting anywhere Omar himself.

This is a lesson that McNulty and the more intelligent members of his detail already know. It is a lesson they have been trying to put into practice since the first episode. They are, above all else, trying to capture Avon Barksdale. Charging his underlings with smaller crimes — as their superiors continually order them to do — would be missing the king, giving away their wiretaps for charges that don’t even touch Barksdale himself and put him immediately on the defensive.

The final lesson of the episode comes in the form of a metaphor when McNulty is forced to pick up a drunken Bunk from the home of a woman with whom he has cheated on his wife. McNulty finds him in the bathroom, sitting in a pink bathrobe burning his clothes.

McNulty asks why he’s burning his clothes.

“Hair, fibers, pussy on it…” mumbles Bunk.

“Trace evidence,” responds McNulty, knowingly.

Once McNulty has Bunk back at his place, he asks: “Hey Bunk, I’ll give you that burning trace evidence makes sense. What did you plan to wear home?”

In his drunken stupour, Bunk didn’t realized that a blatant and excessive destruction of evidence has actually made him more conspicuous than he would have been otherwise.

I could have sworn this story was a true anecdote from David Simon’s non-fiction book, Homicide: A Year on the killing Streets. I tried to confirm this suspicion, but only stumbled on another blog about The Wire  in which the author has the same feeling.

True or not, the anecdote, to me, clearly relates to the can of worms that was opened when the detail began following the drug money. The fact that they were forced to return the money to a Senator’s driver without asking any further questions — far from alleviating suspicion — simply makes Senator Davis’s guilt that much more obvious. Had the driver simply taken the fall, it could have been argued that he was acting on his own. When the senator and his influential friends move to cover up the entire thing, they are — in effect — burning their clothing and exposing their guilt.

At this point, I almost feel like apologizing for the piecemeal nature of this post but, in retrospect, it seems rather appropriate given that the episode itself seems tailor-made convey the confusion that arises when on realizes just how many lessons there are to learn.

Former episodes have tried to aid us in understanding the more complex and problematic aspects of a modern society. Lessons, on the other hand, slaps us in the face to remind us that nothing is ever as simple as we hope it will be. It takes the mess of intensely complex interaction present in society and lays it at our feet so we can inspect it one disjointed piece at a time, searching for some sort of coherence in the chaos. What we find is not coherence itself, but merely more questions.


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


David Warkentin is a Toronto-based writer whose work can be found on his Amazon author page. If you do twitter,

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