Episode 8, “Lessons” begins with McNulty finally enjoying some alone time with his sons, Sean and Michael. It starts out well, but in a flash, a nice weekend outing to the market becomes one of those edge-of-your-seat “is-this-really-happening?” moments. Of course, this really shouldn’t be too much of a surprise for the viewer. After all, there are so few scenes in The Wire involving the characters’ personal lives. The few scenes that do typically end up doing so to illustrate how consistently the game interferes with all aspects of the player’s life.
This is especially true for McNulty, who wants to stay close to his two sons while he goes through a tense divorce with his bitter wife Elena (it’s not clear if the real cause of the divorce is the fact that he cheated on her with Pearlman or because he had long been cheating on her with his job). The scene that opens “Lessons” is the third time we see McNulty with one or both of his sons, and each time, the job interferes in a major way. It is interesting that in all three cases the job interrupts games that are already in progress.
The first time this happens is when McNulty shows up late to Michael’s soccer game with the painfully out-of-place Bubbles in tow. Then, a few episodes later, we see McNulty kicking a soccer ball around with the boys, boasting that “work sucks.” His pager goes off. It is Omar, and before the boys know what is happening, they are being dragged to the morgue in the presence of one of Baltimore’s fiercest criminals (on a school night).
So when we see McNulty strolling through a market, quizzing his sons on the uniform numbers of Baltimore Orioles players as the two boys ingest sugary foods and circle him in a tight orbit, we can already guess where things are headed. As McNulty orders a lemonade, he looks up and his eyes land on none other than Stringer Bell, live and in person, sifting through the produce bins.
McNulty’s response is instantaneous, instinctive. He turns to the boys and says “hey guys, we’re gonna play that spy game. You remember that spy game?” The boys are up to it right away, with Sean answering “yeah, who’s it?” There is a stunning incongruity here. These boys think they are playing a simple, fun game, in which the object is to tail some random person through a public place. It’s like a game of tag, except not all of the players know that they are part of a game. But both we and McNulty know that the “tall black man” (sorry Michael, the tall African-American man) is really the vice-kingpin of a violent drug ring.
In fact, a hint of what’s really happening lies in the very structure of the game: Front and Follow. Older-son Sean immediately claims the role of “front” with Michael as “follow,” and when Michael complains about what he sees as an inferior role, McNulty just says “Don’t argue. Go on, go,” and watches them go to work. The technique requires the “front” to stay ahead of the target as a diversion, while the “follow” trails unseen. Between the two of them, they will be able to keep the man between them, no matter which way he turns.
If this sounds tactically sophisticated for a game of tag, it is. What the kids see as “that spy game” is really a high level police tactic for following a suspect. McNulty just converted it into a game as a way to involve his children in his life. Nowhere is that more obvious than when the two boys begin to circle Stringer in the same way they circled their father at the start of the scene (my personal favorite moment is when Michael stands next to Stringer at the produce stand, picks up a potato, and acts like he is examining it’s quality). Once again, the job has invaded the personal realm.
In fact, what makes this scene both funny and terrifying is that McNulty uses the “front” of a childrens’ game to cover up an unseen “follow”–the fact that he is willing to employ his own sons to (possibly) gather information on a criminal mastermind. I don’t imagine that this moment will end up on McNulty’s application for Father-of-the Year.
It is obviously a terrible idea to send children to spy on a known criminal, and it is even worse to lose them in a public place in a big city, but there are reasons to defend McNulty. First of all, Stringer may be at the top of a violent organization, but he himself is not violent (not directly, at least). Had McNulty sent his kids after somebody like Bird or Wee-Bey, there might have been a risk of real violence, but Stringer would never harm the children of a detective, especially in such a public setting.
More importantly, there is no real chance that the boys will get caught. They have obviously played this game many times before, and as they throw themselves into the spy role-play, we see that they are really, really good at it. There is a bit of social psychology behind this too–when we are in public, we often lack awareness of the people around us, and children in particular are easy to overlook (even when Sean chooses the unlikely cover of reading the City Paper, just as Bubbles did in “Old Cases”). Beyond that, even the most paranoid of minds (like, say, Avon) wouldn’t imagine young boys spying on them. The plan is fool-proof because it is so outlandish.
That is not to defend McNulty’s actions, though. In fact, this scene once again shows just how bad a father he is, just not for the obvious reason. At the end of the scene, when he loses the boys, he can barely describe them to the market’s security officers. He knows that they have brown hair, and can indicate their relative height with his hand, but he admits “I don’t know what the fuck he’s wearing.” In that final, futile pan shot, where McNulty scans the suddenly-ominous market crowd, the message is clear: as soon as the job pops up, he loses sight of his sons.
But that is just the “front” reason for why McNulty is a bad father. The “follow” reason gets stated later in the episode, even if it was present from the very beginning of the scene. The next time we see McNulty, he is looking up the information based on the licence plates (JLY 488) of Stringer’s red Camry, telling a genuinely-horrified Bunk about the adventure. “Your kids know front and follow?” Bunk asks. “They fuckin love it.” McNulty replies. And why wouldn’t they? It combines skill with the thrill of following an unsuspecting target.
But the real reason they “love” it is because the game is the closest they can get to their absentee father. McNulty is always off on cases, chasing down bad guys. So for the boys, playing this game and playing it well is their way of bonding with their father and proving their worth in his world. This is particularly apparent when McNulty says “Sean, my flesh and blood, gets the tag.” It is only by playing the part of a detective that Sean can fulfill his destiny as McNulty’s true son.
This is flat-out devastating when heard from the perspective of poor Michael McNulty. Sean gets to be the front, and this puts him in the position to get the licence plate number, and therefore claim his birthright. “I got it” he tells his little brother as he approaches Stringer’s car. Michael must be aware of this, if only on a subconscious level. That is why he complains about not getting to be the front. If he is not the front in his father’s mind, then that makes him the follow.
In fact, this hidden competition started long before Stringer strolled into the market to pick up a week’s worth of bananas. Even the innocent-seeming game that starts the scene has a buried level of archetypal sibling rivalry.
It starts with McNulty naming a number: 18. Here is the age-old ritual of a father quizzing his son on the numbers of local sports heroes. Sean, older and quicker, jumps in and says “Conine.” Michael tries to save face by saying “I knew that.” McNulty senses that this is an unwinnable game for his younger son, so he changes the rules to create a balance. “Alright, this one’s for Mikey” he declares, and throws out the number: 6.
It seems like a good way to ensure fairness, but McNulty clearly underestimates the power of sibling rivalry and the irrepressible desire of these two boys to impress their father with their knowledge of the Baltimore Orioles. Sean doesn’t even hesitate to jab: “I know it!” When Michael makes the guess that it is David Segui, Sean hits back with “Melvin Mora, numbnuts.” Even in a game as innocent and insignificant as name-the-Oriole, a player as modest as Melvin Mora becomes the club that Cain uses to slay Abel.
That comparison may seem a bit dramatic, but as this scene shows from beginning to end, games always serve as a cover for a much deeper psychological conflict simmering underneath. Maybe that is the very purpose of games–they provide a safe, seemingly-innocent stage on which we can act out internal dramas. So the spy game is really another step in a major drug investigation, just as the Orioles-number game is another stage in the endless competition between the brothers to become their father’s son. It doesn’t much matter that the father is as unworthy as McNulty.