There is a funny moment in the middle of “The Wire” that shows just how many characters are reaching key turning points with the Barksdale investigation. It is nine in the morning and there is already a lot of action in the detail office. Freamon briefs Kima and McNulty on the results of the first day of listening in on the phone calls, when Polk stumbles in, “lit” possibly from the night before, possibly from this morning. McNulty gets a page from Bunk. Daniels sees how drunk Polk is and calls him into his office.
The conversation between the two is short and direct. Daniels confronts Polk about his unacceptable performance: Polk has been skipping work and getting drunk, hiding behind the customary loyalty of his colleagues. “They covered for you, but I won’t,” Daniels warns. Polk asks to be sent back to the Property division, but Daniels rejects the idea. “I don’t dump people.” Instead, he offers a choice: go to the medical office and receive treatment for alcohol abuse, or keep drinking while he helps the rest of the squad monitor the payphones in the Pit. Daniels leaves Polk to stew over his options. As he thinks, we see him only through the reflection of an appropriately-foggy window. It is like he is fading out of existence.
Daniels walks back out into a suddenly-empty office, and finds only Prez, his head buried in paperwork in the monitoring room. “Where’d they go?” Daniels asks. Prez responds “who?”
It is yet another case of characters who are so immersed in their private world that they lose sight of anything outside of that world. In the case of Prez, this is a positive change, and when he asks Daniels for more filing cabinets to handle all of the paperwork, Daniels smiles in recognition of the valuable energy and dedication that this reformed hump now brings to the unit.
In the case of Prez, the change came about when he stopped straddling the line. Prior to his energizing fascination with the wire’s puzzles and his training under his mentor, Freamon, Prez was trapped between worlds. He wasn’t allowed out of the office, and he had nothing to do in the office. He was a bad detective, but his family connections prevented him (and protected him) from giving up the badge. Now, he embraces this wiretap so completely that it almost swallows him up. Or maybe it is the other way around, since the work seems to nourish the young detective’s curious mind.
Unfortunately, at that very moment, Polk is busy choosing the opposite path. He comes out, clears his throat and announces “good luck with the case.” He chooses to take himself out of a case that he can’t bring himself to connect with. It may not be the decision Daniels hoped for, but it is a decision nonetheless, and as such, it is an improvement.
But where did the rest of the detectives go? After Polk leaves, we cut to the outside of the building, where Bunk gives McNulty, Freamon and Kima some bad news–Rawls wants to issue a warrant on D’Angelo for the three murders that McNulty brought him in the beginning of the episode. They walk and talk aggressively as McNulty vents about how Rawls is willing to ruin the case to get three clearances and bring him back to Homicide. “Fucking Rawls, he’s fucking up the case to get to me.” Naturally, the solipsistic McNulty thinks this is all about him.
As the group moves further into the square in front of City Hall, McNulty continues. “I’m trying to build something here, all Rawls can think to do is stick a finger in my eye.” It is a loaded line, with the first half echoing Freamon’s epigraph and the second half reflecting Rawls threat from the first episode (we even know which finger he wants in McNulty’s eye). The reference to the eye is also a disturbing connection to the three other eyeless figures in the show: Brandon, Kevin Johnston, and (to a lesser extent) Wallace. In the world of The Wire, where observation is so essential, the removal of an eye is the most powerful symbolic attack there is.
The obvious explanation for why Rawls wants the warrants is that he is looking for the stats. That is certainly possible, but maybe McNulty is right. After all, just as paranoids can have real enemies, sometimes things really are all about a solipsist. Rawls is a sharp, reasonable man, and it is likely that he picked up on McNulty’s ambivalence about being let back into Homicide. McNulty wants it both ways–he wants to go after his own personal targets like Avon, but he also wants to fall back on the security and prestige of the Homicide department when those cases finish up. If Rawls sees this, then maybe he demands the warrants for the same reason Daniels gives Polk the ultimatum: he wants to find out where his detectives stand.
Whatever Rawls’ motive for the warrants, it is a devastating blow for the investigation just when it is starting to produce real results. McNulty runs through the potential damage: “we give up the ballistics info and the motive for the Kresson killing in the charging documents, and Avon Barksdale is gonna change up.” Kima adds “and what he don’t change up he’ll clean up.” This presents a real dilemma for the detectives, especially since they have no power over Rawls.
So, naturally, Kima suggests they go to Daniels. After all, it is his case. But McNulty has no faith in his commander, and he begins arguing with Kima about it. “He plays stiff every now and then, but he’s a good man” Kima says, defending her mentor. “Daniels has been trying to put the brakes on this for weeks now,” McNulty fires back. Bunk rolls his eyes as the two yell back and forth and bows out of the discussion with some simple advice: “look, you guys gotta make your move soon.”
Right as he says this, there is a brilliant cut to a long shot of the group talking, and in the foreground, we see the blurred image of two men playing speed chess. It is an instant call back to D’Angelo’s chess metaphor from “The Buys.” This is a strategy session to decide on a single decision in a real-life chess game. The fate of the entire case depends on which move they chose.
To reinforce the metaphor, the camera cuts to a long shot of McNulty, Freamon and Kima standing in front of City Hall in a plaza that is divided into smaller squares. The detectives are the pieces in a living game of chess, and the clock is ticking fast.
Freamon steps in as the voice of reason and says “what other choice you got, huh?” Then Kima shows her ability to think several moves ahead. “We go to Daniels. If he fights, he fights, and if he gives it up to Rawls, then fuck it, we were never gonna do the case anyway.” It is a brilliant plan, not because it guarantees a positive outcome, but because it guarantees an outcome period. Like Polk and McNulty, Daniels has been straddling his own line for the entire case. He hasn’t really been against it, but then, he hasn’t really helped much either. Now, with this one crisis, he will have to pick a side.
What makes this even better is that this is the exact same technique Daniels just used on Polk. As above, so below. Upstairs, the detectives plan to press their commander, just as downstairs the commander presses his drunk problem child. The literal, out-of-focus chess game and the metaphorical, life size chess game, all play out in the same plaza.
Game theory says that the optimal strategy means making the best available move at each particular part of the game. Sometimes, the player has to choose between two unsatisfactory options. Not every move has to be checkmate to be important. Or, to shift the metaphor a little, not every play needs to go for a touchdown. Sometimes, it is better to throw the ball away than to force a wild pass into the end zone. But games can be won or lost in the small moments like this.
And just as every metaphor has its limit, I have reached the limit of the game metaphor (for this scene, at least). The truth is, life is not a game, or rather, life is many games. There is no way to skip a turn in chess, but that is exactly what Polk, Daniels, and McNulty have been doing in their respective details. They are not willing or not capable of making a choice, so they lay low and hope that they can get away with straddling the line.
In a paradoxical way, not choosing is still a choice (just as a non-response to a text is still a response–in this case “leave me alone”). But in a real, literal situation like a police investigation, it is an unacceptable choice. That is why the push that these characters get is so important. A decision, even an unfavorable one, is better than the uncertainty when somebody refuses to choose. It is the only way to test where a person really stands. As Bob Dylan said in “Desolation Row,” “everybody’s shouting/which side are you on?”