“Old Cases” ends with a scene that seems out of place with the rest of the show: an intimate look into the home life of Kima and her partner Cheryl. To be fair, all scenes dealing with the characters’ personal lives feel out of place in a show like The Wire, a show which puts most of its emphasis on the professional. And yet, the truth is that for these police, the job is so all-encompassing that there is no personal life, and even the scenes that seem to be personal are really there to illustrate how the professional seeps into every aspect of their lives. This all plays out in the subtle, complex politics of Kima’s relationship with Cheryl.
There is a great moment of recognition near the end of “Old Cases,” right after the detail finally convinces Daniels to back McNulty’s pager clone plan. Daniels, who seems almost convinced, asks a simple question. “Do we have a pager number?” Freamon, who has finally entered into the general discussions of the detail, looks over at McNulty, who looks like a kid who just got busted without his homework. McNulty looks helplessly at Kima, realizing that he worked so hard to convince Daniels to commit to a clone, only to forget the crucial detail of getting an actual pager number. Freamon lets him squirm for just a second before offering the information he had the whole time: D’Angelo’s pager number.
There is a constant use of surveillance camera shots throughout the The Wire. Taken together, they create the unsettling feeling that we are always being watched. Big Brother is alive and well in Baltimore. So one of the series’ most satisfying and enduring images is the one where Bodie uses a rock to take down a camera set up by the Housing Department to monitor the lowrise courtyard. It is an iconic shot, one that earned a spot in the opening credits for all five seasons of The Wire. We watch from the perspective of the camera, powerless to stop that rock from shattering the lens and destroying its recording capabilities.
Season One’s fourth episode is titled “Old Cases,” but I have never been sure why that is plural. There is one clear “old case” that runs through the episode–the six-month-old Dierdre Kresson murder. There are a few other cases that get mentioned, like the one that gets Freamon kicked out of Homicide or the stack of cases that seem to be linked to the Barksdale organization. But none of them loom as large as the Kresson case does through the entire episode.
Landsman: At this point, I got nothing to do but think about the problems of Jimmy McNulty. Because clearly, this guy and his fuckin’ problems are standing between me and all worldly pleasure.
Landsman: First of all, it’s not Jimmy’s fault… Jimmy is an addict, sir.
Rawls: What’s he addicted to?
The police are a drug kingpin’s primary natural enemy. They are the ones who are most likely to topple his empire, putting him away for decades or even life. The Wire supports this notion by focusing on Daniels’ detail and their attempt to take down the Barksdale crew. But after the introduction of Omar’s small, tightly-formed three-man crew in “The Buys,” the Barksdales are forced to fight on a second front, one that exists on their own side of the legal divide.
Any savvy television viewer must have known from the beginning that it would come to this. All of the talk of buy-bust coming down from Burrell and Daniels had to amount to nothing, and Jimmy McNulty, who fancies himself the smartest guy in the room, had to be vindicated. After all, the season is 13 episodes long, so the audience sees any talk of finishing the case in “a few weeks” as nothing more than wishful thinking from bureaucrats who desperately hope to return to their comfortable status quo. But the show is called The Wire. Sooner or later, there was going to be some telephonic surveillance.
Poot: How did he know where the stash at? The knockos don’t know, but he do? Because some nigger’s snitching.
D’Angelo: Man, ain’t nobody got to be snitching for Omar or one of his boys to creep by and see where the stash at.
The pit boys are still licking their wounds over the stickup from a couple of nights earlier, and they are not the only ones who are want answers. A few scenes earlier, Avon and Stringer discuss the very same thing, and they conclude that D’Angelo might “have a problem he doesn’t know about.” In this scene, Poot states it even more clearly. “Some nigger’s snitching.” The idea of the snitch seems to be the go-to answer in the projects, a suspicion that arises whenever something goes inexplicably wrong.
If the cut from Bodie’s mopwater to Herc’s coffee is a sly hint at the power balance in the cop/hopper relationship, later on, the episode gives us a second powerful transition that creates a more poignant look into the line that separates these two worlds and the people who lie on either side of it.
One of The Wire’s most effective visual techniques is the way it cuts between scenes. By placing a certain image or piece of dialogue next to a related on in the next scene, they subtly reinforce a connection between different subplots or characters. One of my favorite such cuts takes place in the beginning of “Old Cases,” right in the heart of the jaw-dropping sequence where Bodie escapes from Boys’ Village.
The scene begins with a disorienting shot, a fuzzy, decontextualized look at some institutional ceiling. It slowly comes into focus before the camera cuts to reveal Bodie, just coming to from the asskicking that Herc, Carver, and Kima put on him in retribution for punching Mahone.