“This is me, yo, right here.”

Amidst all the tying of loose ends that naturally pervades the final hours of a complex season of television, deeper meanings and themes can often be obscured by the inevitable flood of plot development and resolution.

In the case of the first season’s penultimate episode, titled, “Cleaning Up,” this effect is amplified by Wallace’s murder, an event that effectively overshadows everything else that happens in the hour.

Emotionally speaking, it is without a doubt the most significant occurrence in the entire season. As an audience, we are meant to connect to Wallace’s murder emotionally, but to focus on this alone is to miss the larger picture of which it is a part and to reduce his death to little more than a random element of the plot, rather than a key component in an elaborate, 13-episode statement.

If a theme can be identified in “Cleaning Up,” it is a broad theme. For our purposes, we will call it “choice,” a theme that can be broken into several different sub-themes of choices relating to loyalty, morality, duty and maturity.

Two of the most significant signs pointing to this theme are easily missed.

The first takes place on the stairs leading up to Wallace’s apartment as Poot and Bodie follow him up to the room in which they will kill him. After Wallace has disappeared around the corner, Poot pauses at the bottom of the stairs, as if to keep watch while Bodie does the job. It is obvious, however, that he is actually trying to avoid being directly involved in the murder of his friend. As Bodie reaches the top of the stairs, he motions with his head for Poot to follow. Reluctantly, Poot does as he is told.

The second also takes place in a stairway, and is a mirror image of the first. McNulty and Daniels have just arrested Avon Barksdale and are exiting the building. They have been forced to leave Stringer Bell to go free, despite having explicit knowledge of his position in the organization, as well as the role he must have played in orchestrating Wallace’s murder. As Daniels prepares to usher Barksdale out of the building, McNulty pauses at the top of the stairs, looking back towards Bell. Daniels, from the bottom of the stairs, motions with his head for McNulty to follow. Reluctantly, McNulty does as he is told.

In the first instance, Poot, who is trying to keep his distance, is ushered deeper into corruption by Bodie. In the second, McNulty, who is no doubt considering how he might use the complete absence of witnesses to personally punish Stringer Bell for his crimes, is drawn away from potential corruption by Daniels. In both cases, however, the choice is made freely, as both Bodie and Daniels continue around their respective corners without waiting to see if their unspoken instructions are followed.

As in the example above, Lt. Daniels stands out in this episode as a sort of beacon of moral consistency. The arc of his character has carried him from his alleged days of corruption in the Eastern District, through his early-season turn as a bureaucratic stooge, to this episode, in which he makes the conscious decision to choose his duty over the betterment of his career.

His role as the moral guide of the episode can be seen from the very first moments of the cold open. Having heard an uncharacteristically candid McNulty admit that this case was just his way of exposing the system as the flawed mess that it is, Daniels explains why the overall futility of the case does not necessarily mean it is pointless. In fact, there are many reasons — most notably the injured Kima Greggs — to pursue the case as far as possible.

It almost sounds, in this opening scene, as if Daniels is talking about faith. Whether or not the system can actually support what Daniels and McNulty call “good police work” has very little bearing on the value the case creates for those they would call “good police.” The case may be utterly meaningless in terms of actually punishing corruption, but it has provided much-needed meaning for many of the officers involved.

Aside from Kima, who cared enough to put herself in harms way, this case has captured the imaginations of several others as well. Daniels himself has seen his own moral development come about as a result of his involvement in this case. This case has given the painfully inept Pryzbylewski the means to reinvent him as a skilled and engaged member of the force. Sydnor, at the end of the episode, says that this case represents the best work he’s ever done, and that he regrets leaving it unfinished.

From McNulty’s perspective, the justice that his friends are chasing can never be caught, but while he may not be a believer himself, who is he to rob others of an ideal that gives them meaning and direction?

We can see a clear line being drawn between justice and morality. Justice is but a vague ideal that means something different to each one of us. The fault of the system is that it incorrectly assumes justice to be a concrete and well-defined goal. Morality, on the other hand, is a personal set of ideals, the “code” that “a man must have.”

Daniels is telling McNulty that, yes, the system is broken, but he doesn’t have to be. There is a morality separate from justice, and it is his to choose. In this case, that means not robbing the others of the goal he convinced them was so worth fighting for.

Daniels’ morality is never more evident than in his conversations with Burrell. In these scenes, Daniels’ situation offers a very loose parallel to Wallace’s in that, professionally speaking, he will be eliminated if he is seen as a threat.

Burrell (not to mention Senator Clay Davis above him) embodies bureaucratic corruption in this episode, threatening to expose Daniels’ own corruptions if he doesn’t commit to larger ones.

The discussion between Burrell, Daniels and Clay Davis shows us that the deputy is not stupid, but willingly complicit. It isn’t simply that his position demands the type of superficial results that his dope-on-the-table attitude aims at, but that he is actively attempting to prevent the investigation from reaching his influential friends. His role in this episode is to show Daniels where he will end up if he chooses his career over his morals. Whether it is power that brings corruption, or corruption that brings power, Burrell and Davis stand as proof that the two are inseparable.

We are also reminded of the alienation that comes with bureaucratic power as Burrell proves that his elevated position also blurs his vision. So, when he attempts to cripple the detail by removing the members he sees as most useful, he leaves Freamon and Pryzbylewski, the two men best equipped to work the wire. It is a somewhat meaningless victory, given that the wire is essentially dead at this point, but the brief smirk that crosses Daniels’ face shows that he sees what we see, and makes his decisions accordingly.

This brings us to Wallace and the choices that lead him to his death. While it is not only his choices that bring about this outcome (think of Stringer’s decision to have him killed, Poot’s decision to send him bus fare, etc.), it is his choices that are the most tragic to recount.

Wallace is still in his adolescence, perched at that fragile point between boy and man, and whereas it took Lt. Daniels years of living with his youthful indiscretions to finally find his moral footing, the mistakes of Wallace’s youth will be the last he gets to make.

Most directly accountable for his death is the choice to return to the city and take up his old life. That this is a mistake of youth is evident from the fact that it was not the result of hours of serious reflection, but boredom. After being moved from his bustling inner-city life to the comparable vacuum of an old woman’s house in the countryside, the boredom was extreme enough to make Wallace forget why he left in the first place.

Ideas of youth and maturity play very important roles in unpacking the events of Wallace’s death. Bodie, in particular, seems to focus on the idea of manhood both during the murder, and in the hours leading up to it.

When Bodie points the gun at Wallace, the boy immediately starts crying and wets himself. Bodie, appearing disgusted at what he sees as childishness, angrily lectures him about being a man. His criticisms, considering the shakiness of his hand, sound less like genuine disgust and more like a plea for Wallace to act like a man to ease Bodie’s conscience. It is clear that Bodie wants to shoot a man who is weak, a man who made a mistake, not a helpless and confused child.

Seeing Bodie’s response to Wallace’s fear gives new meaning to the earlier scene in the restaurant where, when confronted by Bodie about whether he is a boy or a man, Wallace chooses man. After this declaration, Bodie and Poot exchange an uncomfortable but knowing glance. In light of Bodie’s anger as he points the gun, we have to wonder whether he might have reconsidered the murder if Wallace had claimed that he was still a boy.

But Wallace, despite his rough life and his role as a makeshift father figure to the children he cares for, is still very much a boy. This is evident when he first enters the empty apartment and automatically assumes the children are playing hide-and-seek. This also recalls Episode 3, in which he and Bodie were playing checkers with chess pieces, confusing one game for another. In this case, he is confusing a game for The Game.

Bodie’s shaking hands and hesitation betray that he, too, is struggling in the moment. In the end, it seems that it is only Poot urging him to pull the trigger that causes Bodie to fire the first shot, leaving Wallace gasping and bleeding in the corner. It is then Poot who takes the gun from Bodie’s hand and finishes the boy off.

It is strange to think that Poot, who actually ended up being the more efficient killer, was driven to this by the sympathetic urge to lessen Wallace’s suffering. It smacks of McNulty telling Bunk that, “When it came time to fuck me, you were very gentle.” Even in the act of murder, we can detect varying degrees of twisted morality.

Nevertheless, the fact that it took both Poot and Bodie to commit the murder tells us that perhaps neither could have performed the act themselves. While they may be somewhat harder than Wallace, they are still barely hard enough for The Game.

If the theme of this episode is choice, then this sub-theme of maturity teaches us that growing up, much like physical maturity, is not a choice, but a process that is largely out of our control. This is a lesson that The Wire teaches us again and again, pointing out to us the ways in which we are created by our situation, rather than the other way around.

This is, I think, the essence of the episode’s caption: “This is me, yo, right here.”

On the most basic level, the comment simply represents Wallace’s choice to return to his old life. He makes the statement with something akin to nostalgic pride, but the real message is far more disheartening.

In a society that functions by routinely compartmentalizing people, all but dooming them to lives of crime and poverty, you are, in many ways, inseparable from your location, your position, your role. And so, Wallace surveys the pit and the surrounding neighbourhood and announces, “this is me.”

Immediately after his murder we meet his mother, Darcia Wallace, and learn that she seems to care more about ten dollars than she does about her son, a fact that explains much about how he wound up working for Barksdale in the first place.

More interestingly, however, we learn that “Wallace” is not his first name, but his last. In fact, we never actually learn what his first name is. This realization gives the impression that we never really knew him. It creates a distance between the viewer and the character and connects Wallace’s story to those of the countless nameless youths who are living some version of it.

Wallace was, in many ways, eaten by the city. In an episode about choices, one can’t help but notice what little choice he actually had. He was, as we were told earlier in the season, just a pawn, and as D’Angelo said in his chess lesson way back then: “the pawns, man, in the game, they get capped quick.” Poor Wallace was just too young and naive to realize that D’Angelo was talking about him.

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