Season 1, Episode 6, “The Wire,” might be the most essential episode in The Wire. It’s not necessarily the best episode, or the most exciting. In fact, it is relatively slow, with the action primarily revolving around the nuanced politics of the crew and the detail. But it contains several things that are emblematic of the series’ most fundamental qualities. For one, the episode provides our first disturbing look into the home lives of the project children, and the practical and ethical challenges that they face every day. It also presents, in the form of the Rawls/Daniels conflict, a perfect example of the bureaucratic roadblocks to quality police work. The episode also features a circular structure, ending where it began just as the entire series does.
And then there is the title.
On a literal level, this episode bears the same title as the series because it took this long for the detail to adopt the wire as an investigational strategy. It heightens the awareness of gridlock, highlighting the administrative and legal hurdles that needed to be leapt over before the detectives can begin monitoring the Barksdales’ phones. And yet, as frustrating as all of this must be for the impatient McNulty, it is also necessary. The power to listen in on other people’s conversations is a profound one. It should not be taken lightly.
The one character who understands this better than anybody else is Freamon. From the first time the detectives listen to a phone call, he sets clear limitations, establishing the careful, systematic method that they will use to monitor the calls. As a technician sets up the wiring, Freamon conducts an information session, to explain what is happening (both to his fellow detectives and to the audience). He listens in to a phone call for a few seconds before shutting it off. When Herc complains that “it was getting good,” Freamon replies that “it’s unmonitored.” They can only listen in on calls if somebody is on the roof, visually confirming the identity of the caller.
It doesn’t take long for Herc to realize what this means–he is going to be spending a lot of time on that roof. “More bullshit,” he complains. Freamon spins around to lecture Herc. “Detective, this right here, this is the job. Now, when you came downtown to CID, what kind of work were you expecting?” A petulant Herc mutely answers by blowing a bubble with his gum. Freamon’s question is an important one, though. He is pushing Herc to rethink his understanding of what it means to be a detective. Herc never answers Freamon’s question in words, but it is clear that he expected car chases and explosions and dramatic arrests and everything else that comes with the adrenaline-fueled life of an action hero. Instead, he is stuck with all of this boring procedure. But these regulations and rules are not about entertainment. They are a necessary safeguard to the civil rights of those being monitored.
As Freamon said in “Old Cases,” “it’s a discipline.” When Herc says that the phone call they listen to is “getting good,” it shows that he views the wire as an amusing radio show, like Howard Stern for the projects. Freamon insists on a stronger ethic. He regards the intercepted information as a privileged glimpse into the private lives of the people they listen to.
Fortunately for Freamon, he has a better, more eager student in the detail: the office-bound Prez. When the calls start coming in, the mentor and his eager protege begin logging all of the information. It pays off immediately when a call to D’Angelo reveals mighty Stringer’s pager number. But it is not until Bodie returns to the pit, finds it eerily empty, and pages Stinkum that Prez really gets a real lesson in the proper way to monitor calls.
When Bodie addresses Stinkum by name, he gets reprimanded. This scolding is well warranted. Even as Stinkum chides the young hopper, Freamon is already rifling through a pile of index cards and photos so that he can log the Barksdale’s lieutenant’s name and pager number. Freamon smiles and nods, happy to get another key piece of information, when suddenly he notices that Prez, also smiling, thoughtlessly checks the “Non-Pertinent” box on the computer.
“How do you log that non-pertinent?” While his words suggest frustration, his tone is soft and patient. He sees an opportunity to teach an important lesson to the young puzzle-solving detective. “No drug talk,” Prez replies. He is right, but only in the most superficial way. By “drug talk,” Prez seems to expect that the Barksdales will openly discuss their illegal business over the pay phones. As a result, he restricts his focus to the literal content of the communication.
Freamon, on the other hand, knows that the true information comes in the form of the communication. “They use codes that hide their pager and phone numbers. And when someone does use a phone, they don’t use names. And if someone does use a name, he’s reminded not to. All of that is valuable evidence.” Prez is about to toss away the phone call because he hasn’t developed the ability to see “value” and meaning in the conversation.
When we listen to the call through Freamon’s soft ears, though, the call is loaded with meaning. Bodie and Stinkum reveal an intent to disguise identity, the attempt to encode information, and the discipline of an already-agreed-upon secret system of communication. This evidence, he tells Prez, all adds up to “conspiracy.”
By placing the focus on evidence, Freamon shows an understanding of the larger purpose of the investigation. The ultimate goal is to convict as many Barksdales as they can. Just as the legal requirements restrict and structure the manner in which the detectives can listen to the calls, the law also sets a threshold of proof that they will need to reach if they want to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Barksdale crew has broken the law.This leads Freamon to the real lesson:
“We’re building something here, detective. We’re building it from scratch. All the pieces matter.”
This line, the epigraph of the episode, is the final reason why I consider “The Wire” to be the essential episode of The Wire. It is the epigraph of all epigraphs (which is why it was used as the title of the show’s official soundtrack), and it contains within it nearly every moral of the show.
For one, it builds off of Pearlman’s “foundation” metaphor to show that police work is like construction. It is the process of assembling materials in the right order. In this case, information is the raw material with which they build a case against the Barksdales. In order to get to the top, they need to extract the maximum amount of information possible. They get Stringer’s pager number from the first call, and now they have Stinkum’s. When Freamon holds up the photo of Stinkum above an index card bearing his name (Anton Artis) and pager number, he shows the actual progress they are making. First, it was images and names, and now they are gathering specific numbers. They are slowly working deeper and deeper into the Barksdales’ world.
And that is the second lesson. Everything matters because everything is connected. The painstaking recreation of names, pictures, pager codes, and phone numbers (all mapped out on the detail’s increasingly-crowded bulletin board) is so valuable for the detectives because it represents the web of communication necessary to any functioning organization. Just as calls move up and down the chain from the lowrise hoppers to Orlando’s office, so do the actions of the crew. This is apparent in the other plotline of the episode, where Wallace’s decision to call D’Angelo ripples up and down the chain, and backwards and forwards in time. If everything is connected, then each piece matters because it is a part of that whole.
The significance of each piece also fits into the show itself. The line can be read as Simon and Burns’ message to their viewers: pay attention. Every detail has meaning. It is the very philosophy behind this blog, and this is how I justify the depth with which I look at all of the pieces of the show. Prez shows that the lesson has sunk in by switching the designation to “pertinent,” and I can’t help but wonder if anything is really non-pertinent in this densely-entangled world.