This past Spring, David Simon sat down for a long, fascinating interview with Alan Sepinwall on how The Wire has been received in the four years since its finale. At the end of the interview, Sepinwall asked if there were any parts of the show that the audience did not properly understand, and Simon went right to the idea of corruption. He specifically mentioned Rawls and Burrell. These two bureaucratic titans consistently served as antagonists to the more independent-minded detectives like McNulty and Freamon. But that doesn’t make them corrupt.
It’s a great point, one that is easy to miss. Typical viewers actively root for the scrappy underdog of a detail to succeed, so we find ourselves constantly frustrated by the roadblocks thrown down by the Bosses. But, as Simon points out, Burrell and Rawls acted as they did because “they were trying to avoid pain.” In other words, they were acting not out of greed or criminality, but rather, out of a primal instinct towards professional self preservation. It’s bureaucratic Darwinism. These men may be the big cogs in the machine, but they are still cogs, and the more power they have, the greater their struggle to maintain that power.
One of the most powerful illustrations of this takes place in “Lessons,” with the arrest and quick release of Senatorial Aide Damian Price. This arrest, along with the confiscation of $20,000 in cash coming straight from the Barksdales, shows just how closely-linked the street-level dealers are to high-level politicians, and how these links shackle the supposedly-powerful men caught in the middle.
The detail doesn’t know who “Day” is until they arrest him, but he turns out to be the aide to State Senator Clay Davis. Both Senator and driver made their first appearance at the fundraiser from the previous episode. In that scene, Burrell excused himself from his conversation with Daniels so that he could “kiss some Senatorial butt.” So now, it is no surprise that Burrell responds to the bust of Davis’ driver with all of the fury and rage that he can summon. He berates Daniels under the amused stare of the Major Reed from Internal Investigation Division, the so-called “Angel of Death.” “You shit all over yourself,” Burrell roars, “All over me, all over this department.” Then, he orders Daniels to shut the case down by the end of the week.
It is a shocking turn of events, especially since it comes only two episodes after Burrell decided in favor of Daniels, saving the case from Rawls’ attempt to sabotage it. The reason for this flip flop (or, rather, Etch-a-Sketch) is telling. In the earlier episode, Daniels succeeded in convincing Burrell to save the case by evoking the fear of antagonize Judge Phelan, the “political entity.” Now, the Day arrest threatens to antagonize a far more powerful entity: Senator Clay Davis.
This is the crisis that Burrell and all high-level bureaucrats inevitably find themselves ensnared in. Every action has to be weighed against how it will play against the people higher up the chain of command (and there is always somebody higher). If Phelan is powerful enough to warrant the conception of a massive, complex detail and all of the expense and legwork that it entails, then Davis is all the more powerful if he makes Burrell abort that detail.
It must be disturbing for Burrell to constantly have to roll with the political tide, but it must be downright nauseating for the people below him. In the meeting with Burrell, Daniels pleads “we did nothing wrong.” All he did was follow the the path of the wire, and that path happens to have led to Clay Davis. By the time Daniels is aware of the connection, it is already too late. This speaks to a deeper problem in the structure of the investigation, a split between the political concerns of the department brass on the one side, and the nuances of investigation on the other. Daniels stands astride these two worlds, but he is less a Colossus than a man being drawn and quartered.
The problem is that the two worlds, the investigative and the political, can never truly be separated. The political realm has power over the investigative, which wouldn’t be such a problem it the investigation didn’t keep leading back to politicians. The bust on Day and the swift administrative response make it pretty clear that there is a connection between the Barksdales and Senator Davis. The precise nature of that connection will remain a mystery, which is exactly the point.
When the investigating detectives first pick up the call that leads them to Day, Kima makes an interesting observation. “Product coming out of the towers? We’re usually trying to catch that shit going in.” It seems like a minor distinction, but it gets to the core of this problem. It is the first hint we get at Stringer’s unspoken answer to D’Angelo’s question: “Where does it all go?” When the drugs go in, the police can make their busts and nobody gets hurt (at least nobody with any connections). When the money goes out, the detectives still have to follow it, even when it leads to some pretty powerful places.
Daniels doesn’t have time to process all of this until later that night, long after he has been dressed down by Burrell, after he has released Dey and his $20,000, and after McNulty berates him and accuses him of corruption. That night, we find him in his apartment, sitting in a bathrobe with a strong drink in his hand and a shell-shocked look on his face. He is just starting to understand the impossibility of successfully executing “a case that goes everywhere.”
Marla comes in to console him, suggesting that he couldn’t have foreseen this development, but Daniels replies “he saw it, Burrell.” It is an acknowledgement that the ambitious Lieutenant is still well below the level of political proficiency needed to stay at the top of the ladder. Daniels assumed this was a drug case and treated it like such. But right from the beginning, Burrell anticipated the possibility that it would go someplace scarier. This explains the entire Buy/Bust vs. Wire conflict that takes up the first half of the season. The issue is, in part, logistics and operating expenses, but the real problems was always Burrell’s fear of where the wire might lead.
Daniels goes on to explain it: “See, this is the thing everyone knows and no one says. You follow the drugs, you get a drug case. You start following the money, you don’t know where you’re going. That’s why they don’t want wiretaps or wired CIs or anything else they can’t control. Because once that tape starts rolling, who the hell knows what’s gonna be said.”
For the first time, Daniels begins to realize exactly what Burrell has to cope with in his precarious position of power. It is the fear of the unknown, the fear of what happens when they look too closely. Burrell is perfectly comfortable with Buy/Bust because it brings down people with no political power, the young uneducated hoppers and the lowly dopefiends.
But the money coming out and the drugs going in are two totally different stories. Power attracts money, and the fear of that power is enough to suppress any real investigation. This, of course, is precisely why the Barksdales are happy to give their money to Davis and who-knows-who else. That money doesn’t go towards direct protection from the law (although it will profit the Barksdales in other ways that become clearer near the end of the season). It goes towards an indirect, unseen, but far more terrifying institutional protection.
In many ways, this is a biblical-level crisis. The job of a detective is to discover hidden knowledge, but with the arrest of Day, the detail are punished for uncovering forbidden knowledge. In one of his aphorisms, Franz Kafka rethinks the story of the Tower of Babel: “Had it been possible to build the Tower of Babel without scaling it, it would have been permitted to stand.” In Baltimore, that tower takes in drugs and spits out money, and any attempt to follow that money invites the wrath of God (or his messenger, the Angel of Death). The paradox that will plague the detectives, and especially Daniels, is how to continue building a tower they will never be allowed to scale.