“And then he dropped the bracelets…”

Episode 10 of The Wire opens on a drug-free Bubbles sitting on a park bench, struggling to come to terms with his new status as a recovering addict. Over the course of this simple, but powerful scene, he goes through several different emotions in quick succession.

As children play and families stroll, Bubbles sits in the sun watching them. He looks at the happy faces and notices the wind blowing gently through the trees. He looks down at himself, marvelling at the clean clothes that he wears.

If we look closely, however, his relaxed posture seems more forced than natural, his outfit seems more like a costume than his own clothing. He seems overwhelmed by the simple beauty of the scene, quietly muttering, “Lord,” in disbelief.

This awkward reverie comes to an end when he notices how the ominous trappings of his old life are waiting just off to the side in the form of drug dealers and addict friends.

In the face of these threats to his sobriety, he seems suddenly and understandably overtaken with worry. He may be sitting on a park bench in clean clothes, but his face still bears the marks of his addiction and he seems unable to get comfortable in his pose. He knows just how close his old life is.

All this time, the children in the park have been playing with bubbles, and the symbolism is not wasted on Bubbles himself, who watches them with a look of intense concentration. As the colourful orbs float gently through the air, their fragility mirrors his own. His worry seems to deepen as he watches them pop one by one. Just as the children’s bubbles are surrounded by branches, hands and blades of grass that might pop them at any time, so is Bubbles surrounded by the drug culture that threatens to draw him back into his addiction.

He is, at this moment, realizing what all recovering addicts realize at some point: that getting clean is only the first step in a long and difficult struggle. He is realizing how much he has to lose, and how difficult it will be to keep it.

This fragility, along with the loss that it implies serves as one of the central themes of this episode.

The theme is developed subtly throughout the hour, as we see things like the seemingly invincible Omar nursing a bullet wound and Judge Phalen worrying that carelessly throwing his weight around on the Barksdale case may have jeopardized his career.

The message is simple: No matter how strong or safe you seem, you are always vulnerable.

This point is brutally driven home at the end of the episode with the shooting of Kima Greggs in a buy-bust gone wrong. This moment is all the more dramatic because the operation isn’t even hinted at until 45 minutes into the episode, when Burrell suddenly puts his foot down and demands results.

Compared to the normal, methodical storytelling in The Wire, this sudden dramatic development might feel tacked on, or even lazy, if we weren’t aware of the theme of fragility. In serving this theme, the shooting goes a long way towards illustrating just how easily catastrophe can strike anyone.

We are tricked into spending much of the episode focused on Bubbles, worrying whether or not Kima will help him in time to prevent a relapse, only to find ourselves blindsided by the fact that it is, in fact, her that gets “popped.”

By calling this episode, “The Cost,” the writers are implying that this crisis is not just some simple accidental loss, but actually an transaction of sorts. “Cost,” after all, tends to imply an exchange in which one thing is paid for with another. So what did the city of Baltimore get in exchange for the shooting of Kima?

This is the most frustrating question to answer, because we know that the goal of this whole ordeal was to get a minor bust on some street-level thugs. Burrell insisted on this plan of action because of the system’s need to see immediate superficial results, and it should be fairly obvious that such a triviality was not worth risking Kima’s life.

When we pursue this line of thinking, we find that, behind the theme of fragility, looms one of the central themes of the entire series: The inadequacy of the system in which the characters are entrenched.

The final moments of the episode restate the key aspects of this theme beautifully.

We begin with a chaotic montage of the crime scene, filled with individuals and their emotions. As Kima lies bleeding on the ground, McNulty kneels over her, checking her vital signs and trying to get a response from her. Carver kneels on the sidewalk with a panicked look on his face, holding his head in his hands. Daniels screams desperately into a radio trying to get backup and first-aid to their location, a task made all the more difficult by the street signs, which have been rotated to cause confusion.

As Kima’s friends and coworkers fret over her in the street, we hear the calm, detached voices of the dispatch operators, a testament to the remote coldness of the system that caused this crisis in the first place. Fittingly, the final image of the episode is a piece of aerial footage taken of the scene by a helicopter. Filmed from such a remote location and stamped officially with the date and time, it is the perfect image to illustrate the detached sterility with which a bureaucracy necessarily views its components.

This is where the episode’s guiding quotation comes in.

The quote, “and then he dropped the bracelets…” comes from the story Kima tells to explain why she loves being a cop. In it, she describes one of her first days as a rookie. Frightened and inexperienced, she finds herself wrestling a perp in a parking lot by herself. While she struggles to subdue the man, a legendary Baltimore cop walks past and says, “Here you go, Rook,” dropping a set of handcuffs and walking away.

For Kima, this is a story about discovering her strength. The nonchalance with which the cop dropped the handcuffs seemed, to her, like a vote of confidence. He knew she could handle it, and indeed she could.

But this story, which drives Kima’s passion for the job, is mirrored in the events of her shooting and the aftermath, only here she isn’t abandoned to her strength, but her weakness.

As is generally the case in The Wire, when we are shown time-stamped footage, it is an indication that we are looking through the eyes of the system itself. It is the system that is now sauntering by Kima as she lays on the ground struggling to stay alive. The bracelets have been dropped again, but this time Kima needs the help.

This help, in the form of backup and medical aid, is literally lost in a maze of what they thought were familiar streets, a fantastic metaphor for bureaucratic red tape and inconsistencies.

We are left with the message that each and every person within the system is a slave to its imperfections. The very system that is meant to empower, as in Kima’s story, actually exposes their weaknesses and leaves them to suffer the consequences alone.

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