The Pager as Monolithic Celebrity

The foundation of your case, Detective–Pearlman

After a month of grappling with Daniels, exhausting other investigation strategies, and trudging through a swamp of paperwork, McNulty finally gets his pager. It is an exciting turning point in the investigation. The pager promises a glimpse into the secret communication techniques of the Barksdale crew, marking the first real access they will have to such privileged information.

But when the pager finally arrives, it does so with an odd sense of anticlimax. The scene begins with Judge Phelan and his assistant arriving late to meet McNulty, Kima and Pearlman to finalize the paperwork and set up the clone. The Judge gets lost in the basement’s labyrinth, ending up by the loading dock and “deep storage,” before finally finding the detail. Even when they get there, Phelan goes to the wrong door and can’t get in at first.

But the physical maze is nothing compared to the maze of paperwork the group has to navigate in order to make the pager clone legal. The five members of this meeting busily pass around thick stacks of documents and quick-witted banter (“Sends a message” “And the message is…” “…Out of sight out of mind.” “Spoken like a true troglodyte”). In a great series of shots, we see disembodied hands signing some papers and passing around others, and in the middle of all of this, barely visible behind all of the paperwork, we get our first fleeting glimpses of the pager.

While all of this paperwork may seem like absurd bureaucratic distraction, it is absolutely essential to their task. When Kima complains about the “dead trees behind this nonsense,” she receives a lecture on the law from Pearlman. “The foundation of your case, detective. You lay it in right, you can build on it. You lay it in wrong, everything else falls.” Of course, Pearlman is right, and the construction metaphor is fitting (the show will come back to this image many times). Before the detail can put the pager into play, they need to have a solid legal footing. This is important not only because it lays the groundwork for more advanced surveillance, but also because it ensures the civil rights of a group of people who, at this point, are only suspected of crimes.

McNulty and Kima swear a quick oath which Phelan turns into a mock wedding, forever binding the two detectives in their love for the job (Kima is not amused). Then, another shot of the pager sitting on the table, teasingly visible before disappearing behind another stack of papers, as if it is flickering into existence. Finally, McNulty gives a quick tutorial: when D’Angelo gets a page, so do they. Then, he turns it on, says “let the game begin,” and lays it on the table, surrounded by two concentric circles: the first, the paperwork; the second, the five keepers of the law, watching their new toy. The camera slowly zooms to heighten the anticipation, but nothing happens. Phelan sums up everybody’s disappointment with a wisecrack: “Celebrities always seem much smaller in person.”

It is a funny line, but it also perfectly sums up the way everybody views the pager. The device really is a celebrity of sorts (it is also the title of the episode), and the analogy is instructive. A quick glance at any magazine rack in any grocery store shows that we are a celebrity-obsessed culture. We spend time and money looking into the personal lives of these select elites, the rich and beautiful. What do they wear? Who is pregnant? Who is breaking up? Perhaps our fascination is not with the celebrities themselves. We don’t really care about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (except when she makes clever use of burners) as people. We care about them as images. They are really tools, images that promise to satisfy our collective desire to peek into a world that is not our own. We want to know about the personal lives of people we will never meet, perhaps because we hope that we will gain some sort of deeper truth about ourselves.

In the world of The Wire, the pager offers the possibility of a similar truth. After all, four episodes worth of wrangling has led up to this, and the result is this tiny,  inert black box. It has a magnetic pull, like the monolith from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and like that mysterious slab, this device seems to promise of divine, otherworldly insight (of a sort). But reality sets in. Looked at up close, the airbrushed celebrities are just flawed people like the rest of us. The pager is just a piece of plastic, and a pretty obsolete one at that.

Throwback or not, this device is the first glimpse into the interior workings of the Barksdale crew. Before this, the investigation is all public, exterior. They had to rely on photos taken outside of vacant houses and staged transactions made in the light of day. This pager promises more. It has the power to give the detail specific, concrete data on how and when the crew communicates. It is a much richer source of information.

But even this turns out to be a disappointment. When the numbers finally do start coming in, they are unintelligible. Freamon immediately realizes that the Barksdales are using a code to mask their messages. That is the problem with foundational information. In order to get real intelligence on the crew, the detail needs to root itself squarely in that reality. The Barksdales’ terrifying celebrity status in the Westside is no longer important. The detectives need to reduce the crew to the raw data of their communications. This is the foundation that Pearlman is talking about.

But once the detail reduces the illusion to the basis of raw data, they need to then build it up anew, into a more solidly-grounded version of reality, one with enough rooting in legality and fact to eventually build a convincing case against the Barksdales.

In other words, they need to reverse the reductive process that turned McNulty’s holy grail into a beeping plastic box and the powerful Barksdale crew into a series of numbers. So it is fitting that the first steps above ground are taken through the initiative and creativity of Prez, who also reveals himself to be more than he seemed in this episode.

It is a great moment of revelation when Prez offers the ingenious “jump the five” solution. During the first few episodes, he went from reckless danger to useless space filler, but with the pager problem, he suddenly reveals his true potential. It is interesting that his first steps are almost invisible. He walks in as Freamon briefs Daniels on the code, and his curiosity gets the better of him. He asks a question or two about how the pager works, and then remarks with that boyish grin of his “Spy shit. Very cool.”

Later, when he proudly explains how he figured out the code, he directly references an inspiration that was visible but overlooked the whole time: word search puzzles. “I thought, I could do the same thing with the numbers.” While Prez’ spy games and word searches seem like idle wastes of time, they turn out to be a lot more than that. They are tools in disguise, simple activities that train him for the higher-level skills of surveillance and decoding. Once the code has been deciphered, the detail can begin laying in the framework for the ground floor of their investigation.

The problem is that they are only at the beginning. The pager tells them what numbers are calling D’Angelo, and who he calls back, but that is extremely limited information. It shows structure, but little else. The next step in the investigation gets stated overtly at the end of the episode, when Freamon lays it out before Daniels. He says that they need a wire. Only when they can gather voices and words will they ever be able to put track the drugs and the money enough to build a real case.

In this way, the pager, like Kubrick’s evolution-sparking monolith or our culturally-iconic celebrities, point the way to a deeper level of understanding in an unexpected way. All three are tools, forms that direct the gaze upward to illusory ideals before facts and reality bring them tumbling down to earth. The Monolith becomes a simple boar’s bone. The exalted celebrity turns out to be just another person. But this deconstruction of ideals becomes the foundation that will enable us to rebuild the illusory image into a more practical, life-sized model.

Follow The Wire Blog on Twitter at @thewireblog

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.