“The Wire” marks the beginning of the uneasy alliance between the detectives and the big bad lone-wolf stickup artist, Omar. It is a convergence several episodes in the making, and it finally comes together through a combination of luck, strategy, and tragedy. With the sworn officers of the law on one side and a man who commits crimes against criminals on the other, it is a pairing that is as risky as it is unlikely. This first meeting shows the potential benefits and necessary trade-offs that take place when equal and opposite entities come together.
The alliance stems from a plan devised by McNulty and Kima after Bubbles informed them about Omar’s raid on the Barksdale’s stash. They see Omar as a potentially-abundant source of information, a man who knows the streets well enough to take from the King, and one who targets the same crew they are targeting, albeit in a very different way. Their hope is that, since Omar is likely to be armed at all times, if they can pick him up, they can leverage the gun charge to get information of Avon. “See, another plan!” McNulty boasts.
They manage to track Omar down through a painstaking series of procedures. Bubbles locates the car, Kima and McNulty stake it out, and finally, they introduce themselves to Omar in the parley, the friendly-but-fruitless graveyard meeting. Omar doesn’t like the Barksdales, but he is still hesitant to talk to the police. “Personally, I don’t think the game is played that way.” Omar tells them. As a sign of good faith, at least, he tells them “Bird dropped the working man,” giving them a cryptic hint that proves just how well he knows the street.
If the police came to Omar through a slow, detailed process, Omar ends up coming back to them on of a storm of emotion. He calls McNulty and asks to see the body of his boyfriend, Brandon, and in the devastating scene in the morgue, he beats his head in agony and lets out a primal roar that suggests that all bets are off. In the next scene, it is once again daytime, and Omar is surprisingly calm. McNulty gives a slight prod, urging “pay it back, Omar, pay it back,” and Omar gets into the car. He is finally on board.
McNulty begins the interview with a rhetorical touch. Omar enters the detail’s basement office, looks around in confusion and says, “I’m saying, why we ain’t in no real police office?” McNulty replies “We’re a little like you Omar, out here on our own, playing the game for ourselves.” This establishes a personal connection. Both Omar and the detail are misfits, living by their wits outside of an established system that doesn’t want them.
Kima, who sits with pen and pad in hand and takes the lead in the interrogation, makes this even more explicit by evoking their common enemy. “I know you want to go to wherever it is you lay your head, and pick up that sawed-off you like so much, and go on the hunt…” She continues “But one man with two barrels ain’t enough, Omar. Now, you gonna do what you gonna do, but whatever else you can give us on Barksdale and his people, well that can go to hurt them too.” It is a clever speech. She acknowledges that Omar is a man of action, one who is likely set on a violent course of revenge, and she makes it clear that she won’t try to dissuade him from this. Instead, she offers the detail’s help as a sort of supplementary revenge, a way to get at Barksdale through legal channels in addition to his usual illegal methods.
The benefits of this two-front attack on Barksdale lie in the differences between the two groups. Both sides exist within systems that impose limits on their actions. For the police, those limits are set by the rule of law, which requires that they follow due process. They need to gather hard evidence that is sufficient to indict and convict the key players in the Barksdale crew. Omar’s limitations are more social. He is limited by the simple fact that, badass though he may be, he is still just one man (with both of his partners now killed), trying to fight a war against a large, organized, angry army.
So this alliance benefits each side by enabling them to step outside of their normal boundaries. For the police, they gain access to a different quality of information than what they get from the wire. If Freamon and Prez show the ability to gather small pieces of information off of the wiretap in a slow, painstaking construction, then McNulty and Kima see Omar (and their other informant, Bubbles) as sources of more informal, unfiltered information, straight from the street.
This is clear when Omar begins to share what he knows. His information relies on phrases like “everybody talking” and “I heard it might have been.” This information is hardly evidence, and so it is worthless to the detail on its own. But when Freamon matches Omar’s hearsay with the data from the series of pages that they legally intercepted when Brandon was captured, he suddenly sees the whole story, and can prove it too.
So what does Omar get out of the deal? As Kima suggests, the police have far greater numbers than Omar, as well as the power to arrest members of the crew. Omar gives this power a test drive when he gives information about Bird killing Gant. He already mentioned that he believes that Bird was part of the Brandon murder, so now he seems to embrace the power of the police, exchanging shotgun for handcuffs as a means of revenge.
There is another benefit to Omar, but it is only suggested very subtly (and it doesn’t develop for several episodes). When Freamon and McNulty realize that they pages they intercepted connected to Brandon’s murder, McNulty yells at Daniels and angrily storms out of the office. In that moment, Omar looks up and catches sight of something: the cork board, slowly filling up with information about Barksdale’s crew. It is a quick cut, followed by a shot of Omar giving a barely-perceptible nod. He files this information away for later. Like the detectives, Omar sees the alliance as an opportunity to enhance his own informal knowledge of the street with the tremendous formal knowledge reaped from the wire.
But just as there is a mutual gain, each side also has to give something up as a tradeoff. For the police, it is the fact that they are openly collaborating with a known violent criminal. This is a necessary part of law enforcement, a necessary sacrifice for more direct information, but one that is loaded with peril. There is an ethical tradeoff, which comes up when Kima leaves an opening for Omar to say he witnessed the Gant murder. The truth of that claim never gets resolved, but the doubt is enough to haunt Kima. Another tradeoff comes when the detectives unwittingly empower a dangerous man with privileged information. At the same time, they get Omar to talk by stoking his vengeful feelings towards Barksdales, but those same feelings can easily burst into uncontrollable physical violence.
For Omar, the benefits are mitigated by the social factor. The graveyard parlay shows why Omar is so reluctant to talk, and it is the same reason nearly everybody outside of the force stays silent: the stigma against snitching. Omar may play the game for himself but he still follows everybody else’s rules. He may be willing to take matters into his own hands, but he still sees the police as the enemy.
He shows his ambivalence when, just prior to giving up information, he says “What I do, I do, straight like that, so ain’t no sense in you all even troubling yourselves over that, cause man, the way I feel right now, today…” He breaks the sentence off to hold back a wave of emotion that surges visibly in his face. He seems to be struggling to justify talking to the police, and while it is a little hard to tell how that sentence was going to end, it seems like he is emotionally torn between his desire for revenge and an instinctive hatred of the cops.
In fact, both sides are a little torn about this alliance, because they both realize that this type of union is a tradeoff. Omar and the detectives play in such opposing systems, so they are able to benefit from the other’s ability to give them something they could never get on their own. In the process, this tradeoff makes the two opposites a little more similar as they come together for the common goal of ending Avon’s reign. For better or worse (or, perhaps, for better and worse), by the time they are done, the detail has become a little more like Omar, and Omar has become a little more of a detective.