Phelan(on phone, to Burrell): Erv, it’s Phelan. Kiddo, you’re fucking with me here…yes, yes you are…Erv, listen..listen to me. The Circuit Court signed two orders for a total of 60 days of telephonic surveillance. Now, I’m looking at a copy of a memo from your office telling me I can’t have my 60 days…You’re not hearing me. The Circuit Court for Baltimore ordered 60 days on this tap. The Court wants its 60 days. Now, if you take this wire down on Friday, you’ll be in contempt of court on Monday. Understood?…And all the best to Arlene and the kids. (hangs up) Who’s your daddy now?
Judge Phelan really loves to throw around his power, especially when it comes to Burrell. Throughout the first half of Season 1, Phelan keeps pushing for the Barksdale case, no matter how reluctant the Deputy Ops is to go along with it. This scene marks the peak of his judicial bullying. It is an entertaining phone call, one that is direct and to the point, but also riddled with a buried layer of humor and sarcastic mockery (especially the punchline, when he sends his warm regards to Burrell’s family).
After Phelan hangs up, he asserts his dominance by turning to McNulty and Kima and smugly declaring “who’s your daddy now?” Their reactions are priceless, a perfect mixture of relief that the case has been saved and annoyance that they owe it all to this boastful jerk. McNulty should be particularly relieved, since he gets what he wants (Phelan standing up to Burrell) without having to explicitly ask for it. This keeps him in the clear when Daniels later asks Kima “McNulty or the Judge.” As McNulty honestly tells his Lieutenant, “he called his own shot,” which makes Phelan the Babe Ruth of the bench.
But this scene also illustrates a layered clash between the three branches of government. Burrell, representing the Executive, tries to go against the demands of the Judicial because he fears the Legislative wrath of budget-shaping Clay Davis. In the political world, the man who sits on the State’s Budget Committee is far more intimidating than a Circuit Court judge. But Phelan still has power, and he evokes it explicitly. It is the power to hold somebody in contempt of court. If Davis has the unwritten power of legislative influence, Phelan can still lean on the written power of the law.
This scene marks a major victory for the ever-endangered detail, but it is a temporary victory at best. For one, Burrell may have relented but his hatred for the investigation has been further stoked. More significantly, the savior comes in the form of a smirking adolescent man of power. Phelan makes himself the “daddy,” the all-powerful adult, but his boastful smirk reveals the egocentric brat that lies beneath the robe.
This is perhaps most clear in Kima’s eye-rolling glance at McNulty as Phelan proclaims his paternal status. Perhaps she sees it best because she is a woman who is not caught up in the world of patriarchal power politics.
What she sees is a major paradox of power, one that will come up over and over again in the series: The people who reach positions of highest power do so to fuel an almost-adolescent need for power, a trait that simultaneously enables their rise and renders them unreliable and unworthy of that power.