David Foster Wallace, the brilliant, troubled writer who took his own life in 2008, spent part of his final months watching The Wire. According to this account, he called it “the best writing being done in America today,” and you can assume that the painfully-self-conscious Wallace included his own writing in that pool.
This affinity for The Wire should come as no surprise to anybody who has read enough of Wallace’s writings. Like those works, The Wire is concerned with the ways our fragmented postmodern world causes despair, addiction, and social devastation. Wallace was also obsessed with logic puzzles and paradoxes of the type which infest the show. One of my favorite examples comes from Broom of the System, Wallace’s first novel, where he describes a game of chutes and ladders slightly different than the one most people played in their childhood.
“The chances of falling into chutes increased as you climbed more ladders and got higher and higher. A long and tedious climb up ladder after ladder until the End was in sight was usually nixed by a plummet down one of the seven chutes whose mouths yawned near the base of the golden ladder at the top.”
This is another maddening, unwinnable game. As the player gets closer to his goal, the obstacles increase, which makes the goal itself theoretically impossible to reach. Foster wrote Broom of the System long before The Wire came out, so I imagine that he had a flash of recognition as he watched the struggles of Daniels, the middle manager who stands on top of one ladder, but remains a few tantalizing steps away from that coveted golden ladder, a ladder that is so close he can almost feel its rungs slipping out of his grasp.
In fact, Freamon states this explicitly, and with identical imagery at the end of “The Pager,” where, for the first time, he challenges the middle ground that Daniels has been trying to occupy with the Barksdale investigation. Freamon gives the speech emphasis by his refusal to sit as he delivers it, but in his honesty about both his own history and Daniels’ future. He starts by taking full responsibility for the chute that he slid down 13 years (and 4 months) ago. “I ain’t bitched. It was me that put me there.” He acknowledges the decision he made, and how he chose to take a path that led to the dungeon of the Pawnshop unit.
Then he forces Daniels to acknowledge his own motives on the force and how they clash with the needs of the detail. “Now, I know you’re serious about climbing that career ladder, and I know how slippery it gets the higher you go.” Daniels wants to make rank, but the higher he goes, the more obstacles he has to face. This is particularly the case in a hierarchy, where the pyramid structure means that there is an ever-diminishing amount of space the higher you go up the ladder. This is why Cantrell, who joins Daniels on the “short list for major,” is always in the back of Daniels’ mind, even if he is physically absent from the show for a good 11 episodes. He is a reminder of all the other “company men” who would be thrilled to step over a plummeting Daniels and take that one open Major position.
Daniels spends the first five episodes of the show trying to balance the needs of each of his worlds, the one he rules and the one that rules him. By “The Wire,” though, the politics of the situation become too complex, so this middle ground no longer habitable. After McNulty and Kima tell him about Rawls’ order to put a warrant out on D’Angelo, he has to make a choice.
Their demand that Daniels step up for the case may force him into a decision (“It’s put up or shut up time, Lieutenant,” McNulty prods), but his instinctive drive for self-preservation makes him hold on to his neutrality. His initial response, “why come crying to me?” is eerily similar to Herc’s oft-repeated complaint “why me?” In both cases, the men are trying to duck responsibility for a task that has fallen to them. With Daniels, though, the problem is not laziness. It is his loyalty to a system which he hopes to one day rule himself. “He ranks me on this,” he says, explaining why he won’t challenge Rawls. “Chain of command might mean nothing to you, McNulty…” It is interesting that he cuts the sentence off here, walking out on his disappointed underlings. It should end with “…but it means something to me.” Perhaps the fact that he leaves that unsaid shows that he is starting to doubt whether chain of command does mean anything to him.
McNulty takes Daniels’ abrupt departure as proof that he is unwilling to help (“What did I tell you,” he says to Kima), but as it turns out, Daniels does fight for the case…sort of. He asks Rawls to hold back on the warrants. It is a friendly conversation, with both men sitting on the same side of Rawls’ desk like equals, but they are not equal and they both know it. Rawls is a step above Daniels on the ladder, and his tone shows a total awareness of that power. “I can’t tell you how to run your case, Lieutenant,” I can only run my own.” It all sounds so simple and, well, reasonable, except that the two cases do overlap. The way stat-obsessed Rawls runs his unit has a major impact on the way Daniels runs his.
Daniels tries to throw a hail mary. “I’m asking, as a favor.” He acknowledges that he has no power, and instead, he appeals to Rawls charitable side, which, of course, doesn’t exist. “In that case…no. Sorry.” Rawls clearly enjoys the ease with which he dismisses Daniels. This easy wielding of power is one of the reasons why so many people are clamoring to climb to that level.
A real change in Daniels’ approach only comes later in the episode, when Omar begins to describe Brandon’s abduction and McNulty and Freamon link these events to the pages they intercepted the night before. In a rage, McNulty storms into Daniels’ office, slams something on his desk and says “He’s on you.” McNulty holds Daniels accountable for Brandon’s death. Whether this is fair or not, the accusation shifts the conflict from a power issue to an ethical one.
The rest of the episode follows Daniels as he proceeds to work his way up the ladder to try to stop the warrants. First, he follows “chain of command” by going to his direct supervisor, Major Forrester, a man who can challenge Rawls from the same rank. Forrester emphatically refuses. “No. I like my career, thank you very much.” Once again, we have a direct link between challenging ruthless authority and jeopardizing a career. Even Majors are afraid to upset the delicate balance of power.
So it is a bit of a surprise when we see Daniels putting his own career on the line for the case, fighting Rawls a second time, only now, the fight takes place all the way at the top of the ladder. Presumably, Daniels went directly to Burrell, who sits eating his lunch at one end of the conference room table while Daniels battles with Rawls at the other end.
At first, Rawls seems to be in control, comfortably leaning back in his chair, interrupting Daniels and finally asserting “I’m charging three murders.” Daniels fights back, stating that this will end his case, and to make matters worse, none of the charges are strong enough to stand. Rawls responds with an unrealistic speech about how they can strengthen the case after they arrest D’Angelo, and leverage it into an arrest on Avon. It is another one of Rawls’ funny little pre-scripted monologues (“then we go home like good old fashioned cops and pound some Budweiser”). It is also pure fantasy, on the order of the one Herc and Carver concocted about Bodie.
Suddenly Daniels snaps. “This is bullshit!” He stands up and begins to vent his anger on Rawls, exposing the destructive short-sightedness of this strategy (and citing McNulty for good measure). Burrell steps in, always one to protect chain of command. He plainly states “I have no love for your wiretap,” specifically citing its financial cost. He sees the arrest of D’Angelo as a quick and cheap way to end the case.
Daniels, regaining his composure, makes one final plea. “If Major Rawls is right, then he will be just as right a month from now. And if the wire doesn’t give us a case, then he can charge all the murders he has. We lose nothing. But if he’s wrong. If he can’t convict or the Barksdale kid doesn’t flip, then it’s too late to do anything else. Avon Barksdale changes up his pattern, and the wiretap dies. And at that point, there isn’t going to be a thing that you or me or Rawls here is going to be able to say to that goddamn judge.”
The scene ends there, but it soon becomes clear that this was the winning argument. The case will go on. It is a well-earned victory, too. He fought the chain of command on three fronts. First, he was fearless, asking for the meeting in the first place and refusing to back down to Rawls’ power play. Second, he was logical, arguing convincingly that “we lose nothing” by waiting to charge D’Angelo. Finally, and most importantly, he was politically savvy. Probably the most important word in his speech is the last one. He evokes Phelan’s title as a reminder of the one person who both cares about the case and also sits a rung or two above Burrell. It is a savvy reminder of the entire motivation for doing the case in the first place.
The episode ends back down in the basement, where Daniels informs McNulty and Freamon that the murder warrants will be put on hold. McNulty is gracious and sincere, saying “thanks” before leaving. Then, Daniels’ trip up the ladder and down the chute ends where it began. Freamon steps up and asks “it cost you?” Daniels doesn’t answer.
McNulty and Freamon leave Daniels alone in the dark office, where the slow, mournful tones of Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine” underscore the thoughts that must be circling through his mind and the unuttered answer to Freamon’s question. Of course it cost him, maybe more than he even realizes. He made an enemy out of Rawls and extended a case that Burrell plainly wants to be done with.
But then he goes to pack up his desk, where he picks up the thing that McNulty dropped there earlier in the episode. It is a stack of photos. He flips through them and drops them back at his desk, and only then do we see what he was looking at. Photos of Brandon’s mutilated corpse, stretched out across the hood of a car.
This is the real cost, the guilt he feels when he considers the fact that he could have possibly prevented this, if only he got up on a wire a day earlier. He feels responsible for this death, and that responsibility, not power, is what made him fight his way up the chain of command. If that battle did cost him, if it sent him tumbling off of that golden ladder, then perhaps the decision to fight also created a new, ethical ladder. It is a ladder that has few perks, and gives him no power, but it just may be the only way he can sleep at night.
He shuts the light and the episode ends just as it began, with the image so horrifying that both of the men who behold it with will be haunted by it for a long time to come.