Bill Rawls is a fierce major, one who strikes fear in the hearts of both his underlings and his equals. Major Forrester says he is “as ruthless a fuck as we have in this department” and refuses to challenge him. Rawls is vengeful and aggressive, and he knows how to play the game, which is probably how he became a major in the first place.
He is also one of the main bureaucratic villains in Season 1, the man obsessed with taking down McNulty, even if he sabotages the Barksdale investigation in the process. In “The Wire,” he poses perhaps the biggest threat to the case when he insists that they arrest D’Angelo for three murders, even though the evidence on D’Angelo is circumstantial at best. His management style shows how easily a shortsighted, stats-obsessed major can destroy a long-term investigation.
And yet, to hear him tell it, he is simply being “reasonable.”
After the opening credits, “The Wire” begins with McNulty being dragged into Rawls’ office by Landsman (who intervened on McNulty’s behalf two episodes earlier), who tells him to say “whatever the man wants to hear.” Landsman wants to help salvage the career of the department’s “prodigal son,” the talented-but-rebellious McNulty. Landsman hopes to bring McNulty back to the squad when he is finished with his big adventure with the Barksdales. But first, the big boss has must be appeased.
McNulty comes bearing gifts, a stack of three red folders containing possible homicide clearances, but Rawls barely looks at them. He is too busy giving a speech. It is an amusing performance, with Landsman and his comically-short tie serving as the Ed McMahon to Rawls’ Johnny Carson. It feels rehearsed, like they have done this routine before, and before the end of the season, we will see it being performed again for another returning prodigal son.
“I’m a reasonable guy.” Rawls opens. “In fact, everywhere I go, people say to me ‘Bill Rawls, you are a reasonable fucking guy.’ Am I right Jay?” To which Landsman replies “You are reasonable.” Rawls then confirms his own opinion, saying “yes, yes I am.”
Rawls clearly relishes the moment, using this routine to lay out his administrative philosophy. And it is a reasonable philosophy, but then, Bill Rawls is a reasonable fucking guy. He takes McNulty through “what we do here,” describing the rotation, and how each detective takes a case in their turn. “It is a simple yet effective way to do business in a town that has 250 to 300 cases a year.” For Rawls, who sees his job as a business, simplicity and effectiveness are ideal traits. Of course, McNulty knows all of this, but part of his punishment is sitting through this speech. It’s death by lecture.
Rawls then goes on to reasonably explain what happens when somebody steps out of the system, as McNulty has done. The problem with a system that operates like a machine is that all it takes is the removal of one part to compromise the whole thing. Rawls describes how McNulty’s absence “puts an unfair burden on the other detectives.” He goes on to say that “overworked cops make mistakes. Mistakes lower the unit-wide clearance rate. And that can make someone who is otherwise as reasonable as me…” and he waits for McNulty to finish the sentence: “unreasonable.”
Humor and showmanship aside, this scene is a perfect look into the mind of a devout bureaucrat. Rawls worships his efficient system, a machine that creates solved murders. The success of the system is measured by the almighty clearance rate. It is, in fact, an extremely reasonable, rational system, and there is perfect logic to everything Rawls says in this scene. The problem with this type of system, though, is that all it takes is one unreasonable element and the whole thing comes toppling down.
This leads to a bigger problem. If Rawls is obsessed with keeping things rotating according to his plan, then it favors those who mechanically go along with it. But earlier, when Landsman intervened for McNulty, he explained how the very fact that McNulty talks out of turn is what makes him a good detective. If emotion is the enemy of reason, then it makes sense that the emotional McNulty would draw the ire of Rawls.
But that ire makes Rawls unreasonably blind. After all, his whole problem with McNulty is that he threatens the clearance rate. But right in front of him, sitting on his desk, is evidence of a different approach to raising the clearance rate. McNulty produced three murders that have a good chance of getting solved, all through his work on the Barksdale case. This shows the real problem with Rawls’ approach. He is content with his efficient plan, one that operates logically, with detectives working cases one at a time. McNulty offers another approach, one that requires patience and the ability to look at murders from a different perspective. It looks at a whole crew rather than individual murders, offering the possibility of bringing in far more cases (with the Barksdales committing 10-12 murders in the previous year).
Rawls is not really interested in the cases, and he isn’t interested in McNulty’s views on large-scale law enforcement. In fact, this is not really a meeting at all. It is a “rhetorical” conversation, one where Rawls convinces McNulty of the rightness of the reasonable status quo. All it really boils down to is Rawls notifying McNulty that he has received absolution for his sin of “talking out of turn,” and that he will be allowed to return from his exile in the detail. Rawls graciously offers to accept McNulty back into the fold, saying “I expect to see your ass back here next week when your shift rotates to night work.” Rawls seems to enjoy watching McNulty squirm and wonder if he will be allowed back.
Rawls walks McNulty through the scene where Landsman “came in here a couple weeks ago and reasoned with me.” It is interesting that this is the same terminology used by Vito Corleone before making people offers they can’t refuse. While it is good to be reasonable, reason is also a justification for ruthlessness and brutality, especially when it is not tempered by a little emotion. Rawls is a reasonable man, and that reason makes him a powerful force within the department, but it also blinds him to anything that lays outside of the realm of reason, like those three red folders on his desk, or the fact that McNulty has no real desire to come back to the fold at all.