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The Wire: Old Cases

Kima: “It’s your turn, Mr. Brown, everybody out there gets a turn.”

If you want to know what this episode is all about, you need only watch the first five minutes as the members of the police unit try to remove a desk stuck in a doorway. The problem seems simple and yet the more people involved the more impossible the task becomes, because they are actually pushing against one another. Good intentions and effort yield no results until finally the desk is abandoned. The desk left wedged in the doorway becomes the first of the “old cases” in the title.

Another window into what the episode is all about is embedded in the quote with which I chose to lead this review. It recalls the first episodes epigraph, “when it’s not your turn.” This is the episode where we review all the moments when it’s been your turn. The title refers to the pile of old murder cases which Bunk and McNulty go through in an attempt to connect them to the Barksdale organization, but more broadly it applies to all the left-over baggage the police characters bring along with them. The words “exhaustion” (legal, emotional and physical) and frustration play a large role in the episode and those cases. At the same time, it’s in this episode that something gives on a lot of these old cases and begins moving things forward or new information comes to light that causes us to see those cases differently.

Some of the old cases are people. Detective Mahon is one, and we see the resolution of his desire to not do any police work when he takes disability retirement. He tries to convince Detective Polk to throw himself down the stairs and follow him into retirement. Mahon, a complete hump, who was useless to the detail resolves himself when his turn to get injured comes up.

Some of the old cases are personal. We learn more about McNulty and his ex-wife. McNulty cheated and is so obsessed with his job that this old case continues to hang over him. McNulty may be the “smartest guy in the room” down at the homicide unit, but he isn’t a genius when it comes to the personal.

Some cases are bureaucratic. Freamon explains his banishment and resurrection from the pawn shop unit. We begin to realize that Freamon was the previous smartest guy in the room, and his description of being asked about where he wouldn’t want to be sent to in the force exactly mirrors the same conversation that McNulty had with Rawls in the first episode.

And some cases are in fact actual cases. The unsolved “D” murder (D’Angelo has been around a while) suggest that D has had his turn to be the thug before and that his turn may come again when Bunk and McNulty quickly (and profanely) deconstruct the murder scene.

In many ways this is the final set-up episode in a show which spends at least as much time on set-up as activity, but it is also the episode in which all of the characters really begin to act. Everyone has a history and for our characters this episode was all about those lingering histories. More than this, many of these characters are the old cases themselves. The whole episode is about long-standing but ignored issues, things and people that have been irritations and which demand some kind of resolution but have no clear direction to one.

Bits and Pieces

One of my favorite scenes in the whole first season was the investigation of the murder of Avon’s extremely unwise girlfriend Deirdre Kresson. McNulty and Bunk rapidly and effectively investigate and reconstruct the murder and turn up important evidence in a period of around five minutes. They do it while only communicating in variations of the word “fuck.” They use the word, by my count, 43 times (although I’ll admit it could have been more). What is great about the scene is that I was so fascinated by how they were doing it that I had to watch it a second time to realize that they had not said anything but “fuck.” The scene could be an acting exercise in how little dialogue you really need to communicate complex ideas.

Omar as it turns out is not just the baddest bad-ass in a town full of badasses but he is also gay, between he and Kima Greggs we are seeing something which is pretty rare on T.V.: homosexual African American characters. Not only that, they are also complicated and not always wholly sympathetic characters, which is almost as important because it makes the point that they are just people like anyone else.


Bubbles: "Thin line 'tween heaven and here."
(this week’s epigraph, not in my opinion the best, points up the lack of distance between the McNulty’s life and his own and by extension between those on top and those at the bottom)

Sgt Landsman: "No, it's not funny, sir. As a matter of fact, it is a fucking tragedy, is what it is. The guy, he has come to believe that he is always the smartest fuck in the room, and you know what? It's not his fault. Let's, let's face it, he's not going to Johns Hopkins or joining MENSA, he's taking a fucking job in Baltimore Police Department. His first two years in Homicide he's in Omansky's squad, partnered with Tony Martino. Christ! It must've been months even, he was the smartest fuck in the fucking room!"

Sgt Landsman: "Hopping around like a one-legged Pigtown whore on check day."
(Beyond being a really great visually-evocative description of being way too busy, it refers to a neighborhood in Baltimore near Camden Yards that is increasingly gentrifying (as of 2013), so probably not the image they want to have repeated about their community. Then again, you would be surprised how few Baltimoreans have watched The Wire largely in protest for what is regarded as a overly harsh portrayal of Charm City).

Bubbles: "Where in Leave it to Beaver land are taking me, what you late for?"
McNulty: "I'm late for soccer practice."
Bubbles: "Suck what?"

Freamon: "I guess they just forgot about me."
McNulty: "Shit Lester, you’re back from the dead, you rolled away the stone."

A good episode where we see the potential consequences of all the things that happened in a moment or a few moments many years on. The thin line Bubbles talks about isn’t between suburban affluence and urban decay, it’s between doing the right thing and the disasters that often result from doing it.

3 out of 4 thickly stuffed file folders.


  1. I loved that murder investigation scene, too. In fact, I think it was when I decided that this series was something special. It hooked me.

  2. I really love the murder recreation scene with Bunk and McNulty, and the iconic "Omar comin'" moment (I hope that was this episode --- I watched two back to back, and might be misremembering what happened when), but the scene I keep thinking on is D telling Bodie and Wallace about the murder of Avon's "shorty" (which nicely set up the Bunk and McNulty sequence).

    There is a complete disconnect between the reason D's supposedly telling the story (to demonstrate to Bodie that he's a hardened banger) and the way he tells it. He's seems utterly haunted by what happened, and not proud of his "accomplishment." It fits well with the way we've seen him reveal himself to the audience, but it subtly undermines the image he's trying to project. (Not that Bodie or Wallace notice.)

    My only complaint about the scene is that the visual trick of pushing the focus in on his face while moving the camera back is a bit distracting.

    Loved your comment about Pigtown. Although, in the show's defense, back when it was made, Pigtown was still one of the most economically depressed areas in the city (if memory serves).

  3. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Bunk and McNulty's NSFW murder recreation is without a doubt the single greatest scene in the history of television.

  4. Mark, I love this show and I think that scene is something really special, but I respectfully disagree. It's not even the best this show has to offer.

    Time for another EW list for all of us to denigrate! :) The Top 25 greatest scenes in the history of television. All of which will only be from American television in the last 15 years. And at least 7 of which will be from popular series last year.

  5. Hey, Jess, you should do that for Doux Reviews.

    Although I think Mark may have an argument.

  6. I'm with Mark. I think the recreation scene between Bunk and McNulty is a tour de force. A lot of actors could take a lesson here -- less is more.

    Another great one is the scene where Omar helps out the young mother. A lot going on behind that scar.

    Great review, Ben. I had forgotten the bit about the desk at the beginning. While you are right that it is a great metaphor, the bit at the end always makes me laugh out loud.


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