Bad Cop, Good Cop

Stick with what you know–Herc

At the heart of “The Pager,” there is a lengthy sequence that alternates between four unrelated storylines that all take place on a single Friday night in Baltimore. One is all business (Avon and Stringer’s plans to take over new territory) and one is all personal (McNulty’s ill-fated, drunken attempt at constructing a bunk bed for his sons). The other two scenes show the challenges of keeping the professional out of the personal (D’Angelo’s date night with Donette) and the personal out of the professional (Herc and Carver’s failed attempt to flip Bodie).

Together, they form a slice of life on one night in the city, illustrating a variety of situations that its citizens find themselves in. I will discuss each scene separately over the next four posts, and I am starting with the scene that takes up the longest stretch of time in the sequence: Herc and Carver’s interrogation of Bodie.

It is a long sequence, Round 2 in the epic battle between the Batman and Robin of the Narcotics Division and the ambitious hopper who wants to be king. It is a continuation of the scene in the previous episode, when Herc and Carver fantasize about breaking the case by intimidating Bodie, only to get to Boy’s Village just after he “discharged” himself. After they unnecessarily storm Bodie’s grandmother’s house, they finally catch their target in the most obvious place, perched atop the orange couch in the middle of the Pit. The ensuing interrogation and the long wait after illustrate how easy it is to slip from the professional to the personal, even (perhaps especially) if you aren’t even trying.

After the arrest, we rejoin the scene with Herc and Carver preparing to question Bodie, who sits cuffed into the interrogation room to their right. It is reminiscent of the scene in “The Detail,” when McNulty and Bunk discuss the best strategy for interrogating D’Angelo. The Homicide partners choose “the deuce,” meaning they have several methods at their disposal. The Narcotics partners, on the other hand, only seem to have one trick up their sleeve–the classic detective cliche Good Cop, Bad Cop.

A quick look at this entry from TV shows just how heavily-used this interrogation technique is in our culture. It is where one cop plays the intimidator and the other plays the protector. It works by playing off of a double-psychological trick, evoking both fear and comfort in the witness. So when Carver sets up the same strategy, he takes the part of the good cop, with Herc playing the bad cop. “I ain’t even gonna be playing,” Herc says, not realizing that he is also subtly admitting (depending on how you interpret the word “bad”) that he is a genuinely bad cop. As with the D’Angelo scene, the detectives approach this interrogation as both a performance and a game.

The game seems to be going well at first. Carver plays the good cop effectively. He takes off Bodie’s cuffs and sympathetically lays out the list of problems that Bodie faces after hitting a cop and escaping Boy’s Village. Bodie’s reply is savvy– “Man, I’m 16, alright, what the fuck they gonna do to me?” As with the other young hoppers who got picked up in the raids, Bodie knows enough about the law to know that he won’t face any significant jail time.

So Carver shifts tactics, building up a more immediate fear: the fear of physical pain. He says that Mahone is Herc’s uncle, and that the vengeful nephew “wants off the leash on this one.” “And I suppose you at the other end of that leash?” Bodie asks. He sees exactly where this is going. The dog-on-a-leash metaphor is perfect for Good Cop, Bad Cop. It plays off a classic propaganda device, one exploited by politicians and other leaders for centuries (for an example, look no further than LBJ’s infamous “Daisy ad”). First, you create a threat that evokes fear in your target. Then, you offer yourself as the only thing that can save the target from that threat. Finally, the frightened target will do whatever you want them to.

For Carver, it seems to be working, too. Bodie starts to look scared, and when Carver says “I don’t want to play it that way. You see, I know about coming up hard and all,” Bodie even begins to look like he trusts his interrogator. He looks sincerely flattered when Carver says “you know, you remind me of me,” and it seems like they are making a true connection. Carver leans in and asks “what do you want?” Bodie hesitates a second before saying, “I want…for you to suck my dick.”

This triggers a beatdown. With Carver now the bad cop, Herc has to step in and break the fight, taking on the role of good cop. But after Bodie’s hilarious reply “You supposed to be the good cop, dumb motherfucker!” (one of Season 1’s funniest moments) all bets are off. They have been reduced to Bad Cop, Bad Cop.

It is a brilliant reversal, particularly on Bodie’s part. He already stated that he didn’t fear jail, and he clearly has no fear of taking a beating either. Therefore, the subtle psychological manipulations of Good Cop, Bad Cop are useless against him. Worse, Bodie is smart enough to know the game from the beginning, and all of his scared looks and feigned interest are themselves part of an act. By playing along with Herc and Carver’s performance, he is able to defuse it and turn it into a new one that he controls.

This reversal is not just a takedown of these two bad cops, it is really a takedown of the entire genre of interrogation-room drama, where clever cops outwit the criminals and coerce them into a confession. In fact, Herc and Carver’s reliance on this tactic seems to suggest that they are not so much detectives as they are guys who clumsily play out a fictional version of detective work that they learned from watching too much TV (at least, the sort of TV shows that The Wire was consciously devised to oppose).

If the first half of this sequence is a thorough takedown of the Good Cop, Bad Cop cliche, the second half suggests at least some possibility of how it can be reworked into a real investigative technique. It happens by accident, when Herc and Carver try to bring a newly-bloodied Bodie to Juvenile intake, only to realize that they have to wait several hours for the midnight pickup. The detectives, already defeated, are now reduced to the role of Bodie’s babysitters.

We check in on them three more times, and interestingly, each occasion shows an increased level of friendliness and understanding between detectives and hopper. There are no more police games to be played. Bodie is not going to talk, and Herc and Carver seem to have had their fill of beating him, so they order sandwiches and play a game of pool. First, Bodie agrees that the sandwiches are superior to “chink Bob’s” food, a classic case of bonding over the essential human experience of eating. Bodie then comments on the detectives’ pool skills and says he plays. “I’m better with two hands,” he offers, and for a second time, they uncuff him.

When we return, Bodie has lost his second game and $60 to Herc and Carver (their one victory of the night). He brushes it off, saying “that may your whole damn salary, but I clock that shit in minutes.” They are no longer professional adversaries. Now, they are just some buddies playing a game of pool and talking shit about how much money they make. The scene ends with a brief flare up when Bodie says to Herc “fuck you and your tightass advice,” and just when it seems like Bodie is in for another beating, he respectfully offers a compliment on the sandwiches, and the tension subsides.

There is an interesting symmetry here. Bodie claims that he would have beaten Herc and Carver in pool, if only he had more time. He was running a classic hustle on them, a technique as old and timeworn as the Good Cop, Bad Cop that started the sequence. Of course, both attempts were failures.

Herc’s advice to Bodie, “stick with what you know,” is good advice, but it is also advice they should take themselves. The problem is, as cops, Herc and Carver don’t know much. Their attempt at Good Cop Bad Cop fails because they don’t realize that they need to understand somebody’s psychology before they can psychologically manipulate them (as an example, McNulty and Bunk succeed in breaking D’Angelo because they see his sensitivity).

In the first half of their encounter, Carver’s apparent connection to Bodie is a fake, just some lines in a pre-scripted dialogue. This is doomed to fail.  It is only later, when Herc and Carver are forced to spend time with Bodie, that they actually begin to connect to him, and even come to like him (if only a little). Just like Bodie’s hustle, good detective work takes time to develop, and you need to be bad before you can be good. The problem is, not everybody gets to the good part. In the case of Herc and Carver, it will end up taking them years to become good detectives, if they ever get there at all.

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