“Dope on the damn table.”

The cold open of episode 11 of The Wire picks up almost exactly where episode 10 left off. It is perhaps the first time we see such direct linear continuity between episodes, and there is good reason for this.

Whereas episode 10 spent most of its run-time building towards the climactic shooting of Shakima Greggs, along the way exploring themes of fragility and bureaucratic alienation, episode 11 spends its entire 56 minutes reacting to the shooting.

It is no surprise, then, that the theme of episode 11 could loosely be described as “reactions.”

The episode uses the many different reactions to the shooting as tools with which to further dissect the layered bureaucratic organization of the Baltimore Police Department.

When a dealer or a junky gets shot, the establishment barely bats an eye. When a witness gets shot, as in episode 1, substantially more people pay attention. When a police officer gets shot, the collective reaction of society is monumental.

As such, however regrettable it is to see a police officer shot, it offers a particularly poignant opportunity to observe pronounced reactions, simply because it is an event that automatically elicits an extremely dramatic response from some, and demands it from others.

In showing us many different reactions side-by-side, the writer’s of The Wire are, in effect, providing us with a vertical cross-section of the system, allowing us to peep in on the various levels of the bureaucracy and the underworld beneath it to witness first-hand how each reacts to the situation.

The purely emotional response is embodied in this episode by Carver and McNulty who, each in their own way, react so emotionally that they leave reason behind.

Carver’s misguided emotional response is displayed in his exchange with Freamon at the crime scene:

Freamon: “Let’s get to work.”

Carver: “Fuck you.”

Freamon: “We got a wire up on some motherfucker who just shot a cop. If somebody talks or someone gets on the wrong phone or says the wrong fucking thing about what happened here tonight, where the fuck do you want to be?”

At the beginning of this exchange, Carver appears to have convinced himself that the best way for him to support Kima is by pacing around the crime scene dramatically, so much so that he actually takes offence at Freamon’s suggestion that he do his job.

Freamon, whose speech causes Carver to do a complete u-turn in his thinking, can be seen as a representative of a more reasoned, logical approach (which seems to be rare amongst the police). He is not without emotion, as evidenced by the profanity peppered throughout his speech, but he shows enough balance to realize that the best way to channel the anger and anxiety is in trying to catch the criminals who shot Kima — especially at this key moment so soon after the shooting. This approach is effective, getting the police some substantial leads pointing towards Wee Bey and Little Man.

McNulty, like Carver, is also frozen by his emotions during the aftermath of the shooting. As the sly architect behind the entire investigation, he feels as if Kima’s blood is on his hands. It certainly doesn’t help that, due to his attempts to save her, his hands are literally coated with her blood. His extreme distress is conveyed perfectly when he speaks the closest thing he has to a catch-phrase, “What the fuck did I do?” without a hint of the usual sarcasm.

When his guilt gets so bad that it causes him to vomit into a trash-can at the hospital, it is Major Bill Rawls who comes to his rescue. It is one of the most profane and heartwarming moments in the first season, if not the entire series:

“Listen to me, you fuck. You did a lot of shit here. You played a lot of fuckin’ cards. You made a lot of fuckin’ people do a lot of fuckin’ things they didn’t want to do. This is true. We both know this is true. You, McNulty, are a gaping asshole. We both know this. Fuck if everybody in CID doesn’t know this. But fuck if I’m going to stand here and say you did a single fucking thing to get a police shot. You did not do this, you hear me? This is not on you. […] And the motherfucker sayin this, he hates your guts McNulty. So you know if it was on you, I’d be the son of a bitch to say so. Shit went bad, she took two for the company. That’s the only lesson here.”

Bill Rawls, often painted as something of a villain or, at the very least, a stooge of the bureaucracy, is actually a source of inspiration in this episode. In fact, when Rawls first arrives on the scene at the start of the episode, he behaves exactly as one would expect a good superior to behave. Rather than contributing to the confusion, he actually cuts through it, ordering away all the unnecessary officers and even going so far as to twist the faulty street signs back into place with his own hands. For all his faults, he is doing what he can to introduce some organization into the archaic and labyrinthine system that governs the police force.

In a way, Rawls bridges the obvious gap between the rank and file officers and the bureaucratically removed top brass. At the press conference near the end of the episode, he appears in full regalia with Burrell and the Police Commissioner (both of whom are portrayed as completely disconnected from the streets), but spends most of the episode being an effective leader in a crisis. More than anything, his actions in this episode remind us that the lines the writers have been drawn between the different bureaucratic levels of the police force are themselves blurred by human individuality.

The rest of the top brass are shown to be remarkably removed from the street-level realities of the city they are meant to police.

For the purposes of this episode, the Police Commissioner embodies bureaucratic alienation. He is only shown in his fancy ceremonial outfit and never performs anything but meaningless superficial acts.

He arrives at the hospital with Burrell, obligated by his position to show his support when an officer is injured in the line of duty. This show of support is proven to be just that when he angrily declines a request to say a few words to comfort Kima’s girlfriend, sending his deputy, Burrell, instead.

Carver’s observation that “he can always pose for the funeral,” highlights the empty superficiality of the Commissioner’s presence at the hospital.

Burrell is shown to be only slightly less removed than his superior, awkwardly putting has hand on Daniels’ shoulder and talking to “Kima’s girl” when the commissioner refuses. Burrell also seems to let a sliver of humanity show through his bureaucratic mask when he admits that it was his order that put Kima in harm’s way. This sliver is quickly obscured, however, when he continues on to say that the department’s response will be to raid the known drug houses in order to show the public that they are taking the shooting seriously. He plans on showing the public a lot of “dope on the table.”

If it wasn’t so frustrating, it would almost be funny to watch his self-satisfied posturing as he gives the order, which is, of course, merely an amplified version of the order that got Kima shot in the first place. In an attempt to make up for his prior mistake, he is asking for even more officers to be put in danger just so the department can parade a negligible amount of drugs in front of the public as if it were Barksdale’s head on a stick.

Worse than the small-scale bust of the night before, this raid will do little but ensure that Barksdale and Bell re-think the way they do things, effectively negating all the work the detail has put into building a case. The decision to raid the known drug stashes is almost poetic in just how inappropriate a response it is to the shooting.

Daniels, who began the season blinded by his career path, now sees how damaging this system is to the very work it is supposed to be doing. He shows this frustration by muttering the titular quotation of episode 11: “Dope on the damn table.”

When Major Forester tries to calm him down, telling him that Burrell is right that they have to show the criminals who they are, Daniels responds: “Yeah? And who the hell are we?”

His comment gets right to the core of the major themes of bureaucratic inefficiency and alienation. Those in charge talk about the police force as if it is a unified organization with some sort of shared identity, but their actions do nothing but show their ignorance of the overall structure. Far from being a unified force, the organization is clearly made up of a series of self-interested factions.

The episode ends with the Commissioner posing with confiscated guns and drugs, proudly making a speech about how the criminals have heard the message. Down in the basement, the detail knows that the people who really benefit, the real criminals, aren’t hearing the message at all. The dope on the table represents only a minor setback for Barksdale and Bell. For the detail, the setback is substantial. Knowing this, the detail depressively accepts that any meaningful progress the’ve made will be negated by these events.

Finally, it is interesting to note the response of Barksdale’s crew to the events of the last episode. The situation is unique in that Kima’s shooting affects both sides negatively, and while their reasons for being upset are different, neither the police nor Barksdale’s crew wanted a cop to get shot. In fact, even as the cops are searching for the perpetrator, Stringer Bell has already sentenced him to death for bringing the unwanted attention. Obviously, when Stringer says, “Little Man gotta go,” he is not trying to punish Little Man for his crimes. He is merely cutting a loose end that has become too big to tie up. Nevertheless, all motivations aside, Little Man is punished.

It is worth recalling the dichotomy that exists between the top-heavy bureaucracy of the police department and the streamlined hierarchy of the drug ring. Unlike the people at the top of the police department, Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale have a refined understanding of every level of their organization.

This episode is about reactions, so it is appropriate to note how the reactions of an organization can be seen as manifestations of its fundamental characteristics. The Baltimore Police Department reacts chaotically, sending empty gestures in every direction but the right one, while Barksdale and Bell prioritize their issues, dealing with the problems with surgical precision. Little Man dies, Wee Bey goes into exile, Savino eats a minor drug charge, and Barksdale is covered.

Obviously, this is not meant as praise for the actions of Barksdale’s crew, but merely its organization. Theirs is a sophisticated and streamlined system, but the price is having to exist in a harsh reality where your life, rather than merely your job, is in constant jeopardy.

D’Angelo’s experience with Wee Bey is a good example of how harsh the realities of the criminal organization can be. D’Angelo actually believes that his uncle has ordered Wee Bey to execute him, but his unfailing loyalty (and perhaps weakness) stops him from even objecting as he willingly drives himself to what he fully believes is his own execution.

This chilling obedience to the chain of command reflects the obedience of the police officers who are obligated by their position to follow orders that put their investigation — not to mention their lives — at risk.

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