The Codebreakers

Listen again—Freamon 

One of the great pleasures of re-watching Season One of The Wire is tracking the way David Simon and company portray the parallel evolutions of Freamon and Prez, as they go from useless (possibly destructive) humps, to surprising contributors, to the very brains behind the developing case.

What makes this evolution so convincing is the way it unfolds so slowly, in bits and pieces. It starts with foreshadowing. Freamon silently works on his dollhouse miniatures, and Prez does his word-search puzzles. These hints are so subtle that a first-time viewer either doesn’t notice them, or takes them as evidence of femininity (for Freamon), childishness (for Prez) or detachment from the case (for both). They also contain a buried hint of deeper pockets of talent that have yet to be mined.

Freamon’s miniatures seem out of place in a police detail, even a detail that is itself so out of place as this one. Freamon focuses so intensely on the furniture, that the case seems like little more than an annoyance to him. But this hobby also requires all of the skills that will make him a great investigator: patience, care, and an eye for detail. When somebody makes a miniature, they create a more manageable model, one that enables him to see aspects of the unit in a way that the full-sized version can’t. It offers a variety of perspectives.

Prez, on the other hand, loves word puzzles, which often get a bad rap because of their neighbors in the newspapers, the funny pages. Initially, it doesn’t seem like a worthwhile hobby for a detective to have, especially when we see the unit go out on raids. Prez stays left behind and impotently picks up book and pencil in the empty office. But like the dollhouse miniatures, the puzzles also develop skills that are assets to the investigation. Puzzles require a similar level of patience and observation, but they also require a skill that has deeper implications for the case: the ability to find meaningful language out of apparent chaos.

As the season progresses, these skills start to manifest in the form of real contributions to the investigation. Freamon wordlessly delivers the elusive photo of Avon. Prez asks some questions about the wire and the communications. Before we know it, Freamon identifies and confirms D’Angelo’s beeper number, and Prez deciphers the “jump the five” code that enables the detail to really follow the Barksdale crew’s communications. Suddenly, these hobbies have real uses. Freamon’s models turn out to be a substantial source of income for him, according to Bunk. And Prez cracks the beeper code by photocopying the phone, turning it into another page in his puzzle book. (It is also funny that the one character who saw Prez’s potential, if only through blind allegiance, is his father-in-law Valchek, who may be Season Two’s administrative villain, but here utters the prophetic lines: “What can I say? The kid needs a little guidance, a little supervision.”). By the time we reach Episode Seven, “One Arrest,” Freamon and Prez have become the true leaders of the investigation. The opening scene shows the tremendous power of these once-hidden talents.

The scene takes place in the office’s control center, the room that houses all of the computers, speakers, recorders, and everything else needed to monitor and track the various transmissions of the Barksdale Crew. This is the case’s central nervous system, the place where information is taken in and processed before decisions are sent to the rest of the body to act on. The scene opens with an establishing shot from outside of the control room. In the window, we can see, from left to right, Freamon, Prez, Herc, and the back of Carver’s head. To the right, through the open door, McNulty stands leaning against a desk.  A briefing is in progress, and, since we tend to scan a screen from left to right (just as we read), this arrangement of characters already suggests that Freamon and Prez are the ones running the meeting, with McNulty as the primary receiver of information.

We hear the grainy recording of a phone conversation: “Low man scrapped, yo. He all the way down. But we going to start fresh on the latest tomorrow. Down from up north.” Before they can begin to explain what this means, Herc, full of confidence, cuts in. “No problem,” he says, as Prez and Freamon simultaneously turn to look at him, their faces dubious and maybe a little offended. Here they are, about to share information that took them hours or days to process, and Herc thinks he can figure it out from a single hearing. So, as always, we laugh at his bone-headed interpretation. “Some guy named Lohman, who’s down with strep, like he’s sick.” Prez quietly laughs at how far off the mark this is. “And the last part is something about how he’s gonna start up a Fashion Lady or some shit.” If the job of the detective to make known the unknown, to make sense of the chaos, then Herc is taking us in the other direction, and everybody in the room knows it.

For all of his bluster and false expertise, Herc does say one thing that is right on the mark when it comes to decoding these transmissions. He defends his ignorance by saying “Hey, I’m fluent in the Perkins Homes and Latrobe Tower dialects, but I haven’t quite mastered the Franklin Terrace.” While he may be joking by describing the various dialects of the Westside, he also reveals two important ideas about language: it is a code and it is fluid.

Words drop out of use (ere or forsooth), new words are formed (twitterverse or Wienergate), and other words change in form (like the verb-form of “text”). Language also changes from place to place (just think of the different regional terms for “a sandwich on a long, narrow roll”: hoagie, grinder, sub, po boy). Even individuals have to vary speech when moving between different contexts (we speak differently with a boss than we do with a friend). Watching a show like The Wire requires a mastery of languages that can be as difficult as reading Shakespeare: the viewer must master the terminology of the police, drug dealers, dope fiends, stevedores, politicians, educators, and journalists.

So the skill of breaking codes is akin to learning new languages. This is buried in some of the very purposes for creating new dialects. Even within a small area, like the specific housing projects named by Herc, there arise different grammatical formations, different vocabulary, and different slang. This is one way to establish group identity. If the Perkins Homes has its own dialect, then language serves as an automatic mechanism to determine who is in the “us” group and who is a “them.”

Another reason for dialect is to enable people to discuss things in a way that only the initiated can understand. This phenomena can be seen in high schools across America, where the teenagers’ need to discuss sex and substance abuse without letting the parents and teachers know what they mean has given rise to the countless slang terms for drugs and sexual acts. The same thing takes place on the airwaves, where people like Howard Stern and Jon Stewart have made careers out of cleverly evading the censor’s scissors. And certainly, the members of a criminal enterprise have a strong interest in hiding the real subject of their conversations.

In fact, the conversation we are trying to decipher is not so much encoded as it is riddled with nicknames and unfamiliar usage. Herc’s interpretation isn’t even close, but he has the right idea. Fortunately, Prez and Freamon put in the time to figure it all out, so they step in and take everybody through it.

“Listen Again,” Freamon urges, suggesting that repetition and closer attention are the keys to figuring it out. Prez translates the first part. “Low man” is code for the low-rise pit, “scrapped” means that their stash is down to scraps, and “start fresh” is the re-up. Like the solution to any good puzzle, it becomes obvious as soon as somebody explains it, to the point where the frustrated solver can’t understand why he didn’t see it in the first place. Carver, thoroughly impressed, asks the key question: “Damn, how you all hear it so good?”

Prez responds with what seems like gibberish, nonsense about slave ships and New Orleans. The others are perplexed until he explains that they are the opening lines of “Brown Sugar.” He gives one of those classic Prezbo smiles, the kind that shows an uncontrollable blend of joy and pride, and explains “I bet you’ve heard that song 500 times, but you never knew, right? I used to put my head to the stereo speaker and play that record over and over.” Herc and McNulty nod in agreement. It is a question of perception, like the famous confusion over Jimi Hendrix’ “‘scuse me while I kiss this guy.”

The words are there to be accurately heard, but pronunciation, enunciation, accents, homophones, slurred speech, backup singers, and words that bleed into each other make the lyrics easy to misunderstand. But, as with all issues of perception, the problem may also come from the other end of the communication: the listener. Or, to put it in the terms of a far-more-intelligible classic rock song “people hearing without listening.” While most people hear the words, it takes time attention to really listen to what they are saying. As with the first message, time and repetition are the key. Even if Carver teases Prez by saying “that explains a lot, actually,” there is clearly admiration mixed in. Before they can even begin to decode a message, they need to be able to accurately hear it.

Freamon, who is almost as good a teacher as he is a detective, gives his pupils a chance to put his Teacher’s Assistant Prez’s lesson into practice. He plays the rest of the recording. In a subtle move, the camera returns to the initial placement, outside of the room, just as the recording plays. This seems to place the viewers in the shoes of Herc, Carver, and McNulty, as if challenging us: can you figure the rest out? It is unclear at first (especially without the aid of the DVD subtitles). Herc and Carver debate: “white on black” or “wait on black.”

Prez steps in and explains: “Black” is a code name for Stinkum, the one who will bring in the re-up. This shows another strategy of Prez and Freamon: taking advantage of snippets of information from other communications. As Freamon explained in the previous episode’s epigraph (the very moment, by the way, when they get up on Stinkum’s pager), “We’re building something here, detective. All the pieces matter.” In this room, there is no such thing as non-pertinent information (even if it is preceeded by Poot’s frighteningly-graphic phone sex).

The final piece of information that Freamon and Prez offer is deciphered not by the ears but by the eyes. Freamon starts with the solution: “Now, there is gonna be a re-up of four G-packs in the low-rise court. Stinkum is on the re-up and it’s gonna go down around noon.” When McNulty asks how they know that much detail, Freamon writes down a beeper transmission, 5-21-07-1111, and hands the card to McNulty to figure out. After a minute, Prez tells him the key: turn it upside-down (like the phone code, this is a simple maneuver for any hopper to pull off with a beeper). The explanation ties the entire scene together. Prez gets it started by explaining that the four hashmarks signify the G-packs, and the eager students get the rest. McNulty figures out the LO is for the low rises, Herc decodes 12 as noontime, and Carver sees the S as Stinkum. Once they are shown in the right direction, even Herc and Carver can get to the end. The challenge is to identify the right path in the first place. When they ask how long it took to figure out, Prez says “four or five hours.” As with “Brown Sugar,” time and repetition are the key.

The scene ends on a light note–Carver asks Prez how he can stare at a single message for hours at a time, a seemingly mind-numbing task, and Prez smiles and says “I don’t know, it’s kind of fun figuring shit out.” For him, it is all a game, and he strives for that one perfect moment when it all comes together, when the unknown becomes clearly and undeniably known. Taken together, the Prez and Freamon tag-team makes up the brains of the unit. Sitting safely in their basement control center, they take in visual and auditory information, organize it in filing cabinets and outdated disc drives and bulletin boards, process and recombine it until it takes the form of concrete information that they can then pass on to the rest of the unit, which then (hopefully) puts it into action.

There is something almost supernatural about this type of information processing. Freamon and Prez can essentially tell the future. They know what will happen and where, long before it actually does. The process of taking hidden, occult information and bringing it down for practical use is a function often reserved for mystics and prophets who interpret between the spirit world and our own.

But lest I get a little too carried away when discussing one man who came from the pawnshop unit and another who is only on the force because of nepotism, it is also important to remember that they are playing out roles within the practical context of a police investigation. This scene may feel like a parable, but it is very much plot-based. The information gives the unit Stinkum, and a lot of strong evidence about the drug conspiracy. These two brainy men, not Omar, are the ones who should be keeping Avon up at night. With their ability to decipher the meaning from secret texts, it is no accident that the case begins to get legs at the very time that Prez and Freamon take their places as the all-seeing, all-hearing, all-knowing core of the detail.



3 thoughts on “The Codebreakers

  1. First off, thanks for this blog. I just started watching the DVD set and find this analysis very interesting. I think the way Freamon and Prez evolved from being useless to vital was fascinating. I’m impressed they are able to operate the tap equipment without any IT help. Rawls never would have signed off on the IT support, anyway.
    Herc appears to be the comic relief of the detail, at least so far.

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