Pearlman: What’s the plan here? Drunken fuck on a Tuesday night? Is it Wednesday morning?
McNulty: I’m not drunk. It’s Rawls. He’s going after my badge.
McNulty: They’re gonna do me, Ronnie. They’re gonna do me and I love this fucking job. They’re gonna do me.
Landsman is the first character on The Wire to point out McNulty’s compulsive need to be “the smartest guy in the room,” but he’s not the last. In many ways, that desire for intellectual superiority lies at the core of McNulty’s personality. It goes a long way towards explaining both his overconfident swagger and his skill in interrogation, but it also explains why he is so quick to piss other people off. If he is smarter than the boneheads running the department, then he owes it to the force and all of Baltimore to put his prodigious intellect to work and show all of those morons the true way to police.
When Landsman points this out to Rawls in his conversation in “Old Cases,” he justifies McNulty’s approach based on the BPD’s overall intellect (or lack thereof–not Mensa or Johns Hopkins, as Landsman says). “It must have been months even, he was the smartest fuck in the fuckin room.” McNulty’s intellectual hubris is more a result of the limited world he works in than his actual arrogance. This becomes clear in the early parts of “One Arrest,” when McNulty and Pearlman go to Judge Phelan to get an extension on the wiretap.
Here in the Judge’s chambers, the judicial heart of Baltimore’s legal world, McNulty is most definitely not the smartest fuck. Phelan states this explicitly, mocking McNulty’s paperwork for poor grammar and usage. “You’re confusing ‘then’ and ‘than.’ T-H-E-N is an adverb used to divide and measure time. ‘Detective McNulty makes a mess, and then he has to clean it up.’…Not to be confused with T-H-A-N, which is most commonly used after a comparative adjective or adverb, as in: ‘Rhonda is smarter than Jimmy.’” This grammar lesson, lighthearted as it may seem, underscores an important piece of McNulty’s character: he is obsessed with being a detective because it enhances his feeling of superiority. The Homicide unit is the proverbial “small pond.” So later in the scene, when McNulty tells Phelan that Rawls is threatening his career, Phelan’s offer of friendship is little consolation. The legal world is not McNulty’s.
So it is interesting that the episode ends with McNulty soberly (for once) confronting the possibility that he might lose his job. After Santangelo’s confession, McNulty can no longer ignore the threat that Rawls poses to his beloved career. In fact, when McNulty shows up on the doorstep of the smarter Pearlman, he is neither drunk nor in the mood for sex. In a rare moment of self-awareness, he stands humbled, ready to admit his limitations.
The language he uses is telling. First, he uses the phrase “do me,” a term that carries an undertone of a mob hit. For McNulty, whose life is his job, being pushed out of the force is as good as being murdered. He follows this up with an admission of something that has been obvious to the viewer from the Snotboogie scene: “I love this fucking job.” As with Kima, McNulty saves the word “love” not for family (or the woman in the bathrobe, willing to console him in the middle of the night) but for his job. And who wouldn’t love a job like that, the one place that makes him feel like he really is as important as he wants to think he is?