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The Wire: The Detail

D’Angelo: "You think Ronald McDonald gonna go down to the basement and say, 'Hey Mr. Nugget – you the bomb'."

This episode is about that basement (literally and metaphorically), in this case occupied by the eponymous “Detail”, and if the first episode of the series led us to understand that there was a pecking order and varying levels of competency among the Barksdale organization, this episode made the point very clearly that not all police or police units are created equal. It focuses on the unit that is put together to investigate Barksdale and his men.

Let’s start with the best and work our way down. Kima Greggs and McNulty clearly know their police work. Their methods differ but they are highly competent and also don’t really seem to expect the same competence from those around them. They both take the initiative, Greggs with her hat and camera surveillance (with the help of Bubbles, who deserves a lot more discussion at some point) and McNulty with the interrogation of D’Angelo, who gives up a lot because of his own doubts about what he is doing. Neither seems to see much point in either explaining or waiting around for permission. Lt. Daniels may be in the same category, hard to say at this point, but he certainly understands the police bureaucracy. He demonstrates this by getting Leander Sydnor, an up and coming officer assigned to the detail by way of reaching through the bureaucracy for a personal connection. Bunk is a pro but only tangentially connected to the detail (one is tempted to say too smart to be on it). Herc and Carver bring varying but appreciable levels of skill and courage, but quickly find themselves in trouble because they have a tendency to just go with the flow of the job. Then there are Freamon, Polk and Mahon, three examples of “useless humps” sent over from other units. Finally, there is Pryzbylewski or “Prez”, who so incompetent, stupid and reckless that he actually manages to drag other better members of the detail down into serious danger and trouble. He is also connected which has kept him on the force to this point. Or this is what we are to believe about all of these characters as they are brought together down in the basement, one of the strengths of the series so far is the characters, so there are chapters yet to be told.

The introductions of all these characters are really less about the formation of a crack unit (ala “The Untouchables”) and more a study in how work is done or not done within a bureaucracy. Daniels demonstrates this in a number of scenes. His observation that the Deputy let the unit commanders decide who to send over rather than letting him pick his own men is a great example of how you appear to work hard on a problem but effectively undercut it from day one. The units providing them won’t have to give up anyone worth giving up, and the men Daniels gets are the ones who will never leave willingly and who you would like to see gone. He also makes the point that police work is inherently reliant on money. The story of the Gant murder turning up in the paper and thus turning up the heat on the detail (and on McNulty), struck my plotting little bureaucratic mind as exactly what you could do to get more resources while sticking it to someone else. Marla Daniels, though, summed up Daniels's dilemma beautifully when she tell him that “you cannot lose if you do not play,” he tries to correct her that it’s a “you cannot win” but in a world where success is not wanted and failure carries its own odium, she may well be right. Only by systematically soldiering along and doing what’s expected (e.g. some apparent success and withdrawal) can he navigate through this.

The consequences of putting a unit like this together are on full display in the brutal debacle that finishes the episode and ends up with a child half-blind. It points up the distance between the worlds where decisions are made on how to police and where policing is actually done.

Bits and Pieces

This episode features the famous Chicken nugget discussion in which the clueless low-rise crew muse on the fate of the genius who invented the famous McDonald’s specialty. For the record, the chicken nugget was invented by a food science professor at Cornell University named Robert Baker, although McDonalds had Tyson Foods develop it into the actual final McNugget product. And although he apparently had a long successful career, he did not make anything from McNuggets which (I think) means D was basically correct in his analysis.

We open the episode with a coroner eating in the morgue. Could someone send Hollywood the memo on how tired this particular cliché is.


"You cannot lose if you do not play."
(this is the episode’s epigraph and captures the bureaucratic irrationality very well)

Marla Daniels: "The game is rigged, but you cannot lose if you do not play."

(a few more snippets of bureaucratic wisdom)

Polk: "A case goes from red to black by way of green."

Daniels: "If he sends me good police, I might get it into my head to do good police work."

(and some more deep thoughts)

D'Angelo: "Now you think Ronald McDonald gonna go down to the basement and say, 'Hey Mr. Nugget – you the bomb. We sellin' chicken faster than you can tear the bone out. So I'm gonna write my clowney ass name on this fat-ass check for you.' Shit. Man, the nigga who invented them things? Still working in the basement for regular wage, thinking of some shit to make the fries taste better or some shit like that."

McNulty: "See, that's what I don't get about the drug thing. Why can't you sell the shit and walk the fuck away? You know what I mean? Everything else in this country gets sold without people shooting each other behind it."

Four out of four government forms completed in triplicate.


  1. Bubbles deserves a great deal of discussion, yes. Great perfomance by Andre Rojo. And I love Kima and McNulty being so different yet so alike.

  2. Curse you, Ben! You are making want to pop this show in the DVD player, and I don't really have the time right now. Aargh!

    I love this initial formation of the team. It's so amusing (in some respects) to remember the team as presented at this point, knowing how the pieces will shift and be further revealed. But in some respects, that makes it harder to watch. To see the highs, knowing the lows that will come. Or to see the lows, knowing that better days are ahead. I was trying to think how to comment further without spoiling anything, but when pondering I realized nearly all the characters vacillate from highs to extreme lows. It's very interesting to meet them again for the first time, knowing the places their journeys will take them.

    I really love your final McNulty quote. It's one of the refrains that I come back to again and again while watching this series. "Why can't you just sell the shit and walk the fuck away?"

    I am greatly looking forward to that future discussion of Bubbles. I wish Andre Royo could find another role this great (which, sadly, is another common refrain with this show --- why can't Fantastic Actor X get work this good anymore?!)

  3. Jess, I agree completely with your thought about McNulty. I think the whole first season is an exploration f why it is that people can't just sell the drugs and walk away, despite many of those involved wishing it were so.

  4. I remember how infuriating I found the bureaucracy in this episode. It was just too real.

  5. Just this episode, huh? The narrow-minded and infuriating bureaucracy is one of the core tenets of the series. How did you manage to stay with it? :)

    I sort of love that even though McNulty has the admirable goal of wanting to work the case and solve/stop/get justice for the murders --- even the ones that are now off the books, that no one else cares about --- he's such an asshole about it that it makes it hard for others to work with him. It brings interesting shading to the whole affair. "What the fuck did I do?"

    I did end up making time to watch the first two episodes again, and was struck (again) by how well the series builds and develops. It's certainly a show that works just as well, if not better on repeat viewings. Plus, for all the darkness, and the frustrations of the myopic institutions, the show has lots of humor sprinkled throughout. That scene when Daniels and Kima are trying to lay out the basics for the new detail and there's all that banging in the background (reinforcing just how little the police department actually cares about this project) was hilarious. Lance Reddick is the master of the irritated and infuriated look. And his dumbfounded look of incredulous disbelief after Prez shoots the wall is a thing of beauty.

  6. Oh, and a quick correction, Ben. I don't believe it was Daniels that initially said cases go from red to black by way of green. It was Polk or Mahon (I can't remember which one is which). He was stumping for overtime pay, and Daniels told him it wasn't gonna happen unless there was work that required it. He just had to make do with his salary.

    Reason #7 you shouldn't encourage me to rewatch. :)

  7. For me, the most affecting part of this episode is the D'Angelo interrogation. Gillard (who, luckily has found good work since this show), is simply genius as the tough kid with a soul. The expressions on his face, as his guilt about the dead witness grows, are a marvel to watch.

    Of course, Bunk and McNulty are lying to him, which someone makes me care about him more. All of this followed by the scene with Avon who tells him exactly the right thing, "that ain't on you."

    Another wonderful review, Ben.


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