I know, I know. It’s been a long time since I posted about The Wire after promising you it would be a series. Well, rest assured that while I didn’t get this episode blogged about in as timely a manner as I was hoping, I did keep my original promises. 1) I didn’t watch past Episode 3 until this blog post was published and 2) I wrote this blog post just a couple days after viewing so the episode was still relatively fresh in my head.
The biggest things I remembered from Episode 2 were that A) McNulty and Kima were actually starting to work together and B) Lt. Daniels, who did seem to be “one of the good guys” after Episode 1 was more than willing to cover for the bad policing of one of his men.
Episode 3 continues this story line, with Daniels doubling down on protecting his guys. Sure, he pushes for Pryzbylewski to be stuck behind a desk rather than out on the streets, but he’s not exactly asking for him to face real consequences.
In addition, the Lieutenant goes on to make another poor decision: insisting on busts of low-level drug dealers that could potentially undermine McNulty and Kima’s work in tracking down kingpin Avon Barksdale.
This is the crux of Episode 3 and the main thing I want to talk about in this post: how the pressure to look like you’re at least doing something can be the enemy of doing something that actually matters.
This main tension that drives this episode was already established in episode 1. On one side we have McNulty, who just wants to get shit done and doesn’t really care who looks bad along the way. On the other side we have Lt. Daniels, a character who maybe does mean well, but is often too busy playing politics to focus on work that actually matters.
In Episode 3, the Lieutenant takes it one step further. Not only are his choices failing to make things better, they’re actually making things worse.
McNulty and Kima have been trying to figure out how to take down Avon Barksdale but there’s just one problem: even after several weeks they still don’t know what Barksdale looks like. Such a powerful person isn’t going to be caught slinging drugs out on the street. He keeps several degrees of separation between him and the public, making sure no paper trail leads back to him. He keeps a wall of trusted intermediaries between him and the consumers who buy drugs.
What does that mean for police? It means they have to infiltrate that trusted circle, but the problem is that trust takes time. The only way can it happen is if higher-ups within law enforcement sit back and bide their time while informants/undercover officers develop trusting relationships that can lead to meeting people higher on the drug-dealing totem pole.
But that doesn’t look good. Saying “But see! Drug arrests are up!” does. No, it’s not going to have any long term impact on the problem because the true masterminds of the operation can probably recruit new people to be their gophers on the street, but it lets the police look like they’re at least trying.
I think what fascinates me is that this conflict affects all sorts of lines of work. I know I’ve definitely worked with people whose top goal seemed to be saying “Look at me! I did a thing!” Whether or not the thing they did actually helped the organization was besides the point. Mind you, none of my jobs had anything remotely in common with police work.
The other interesting thing about this dynamic is it’s so much bigger than any one person. The conflict of “do we do the thing that doesn’t really accomplish anything but has good optics” or “do we do the thing that DOES accomplish something but has bad optics” is never going to go away. That’s why it’s such perfect fodder for tv show conflicts.
As much as my distaste for the Lieutenant is growing, I can still see why almost anyone else in his shoes would make the same choices. The cops aren’t doing what they do because they themselves are bad people. That could be fixed by simply hiring good people. These people are doing what they do because the system is broken and isn’t offering them good options. Anyone that might replace them would face the same predicament.
That is perhaps the true genius of The Wire, (though I’ve only seen three episodes so what do I know?). At this point, it doesn’t feel like the show’s antagonist can be pinned down to a single human. Even people on the drug dealing side like Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale don’t really feel like “villains,” but just business people going about their business. We have yet to see Bell or Barksdale do anything as bad as what we see the worst cops doing. Sure, it’s been heavily implied that people have been killed based on the word of Bell or Barksdale, but we haven’t seen it the way we’ve seen cops beat up civilians, and I think that’s intentional.
Instead, The Wire’s antagonist is that ever-so-abstract thing known as “The System.” It’s a system that gives good people no choice but to do bad things. The people we’re primarily asked to root for are McNulty and Kima, the ones who repeatedly acknowledge that The System is fucked and they consistently work to change it.
Oh, also, this is one of my new favorite scenes in all of tv. I don’t even know much there is to say about it… it’s just a great way of explaining the world of drug dealing to the viewer.