The Wire almost always restricts itself to a straightforward form of storytelling that gives it a sense of journalistic realism. As a result, the few scenes that do stray off the linear narrative trail stand out so much. There are the notable examples like the five montages that serve as season-ending epilogues. There are some other early anomalies, like D’Angelo’s brief flashback at the end of “The Target” or Avon’s slow-mo, soundtracked trip to the Pit in “The Wire.”
And then there are the scenes that use montage to condense a hugely complex process into a more-manageable scale. There is the season-two “Ring of Fire” opener that takes just a few minutes to unfold weeks of investigation, with the unifying image of Prez filling in the bulletin board with photos and index cards.
That scene echoes an earlier sequence from “Game Day.” In that scene Freamon’s patient, professorial voiceover instructs us on the methods of the paper trail as we cut away to shots of Prez and Sydnor as they track down the outlines of Avon’s money-laundering system.
There is a practical reason for the editing in this scene: The process that Freamon explains is really detailed and confusing. Freamon speaks quickly and it is a little dizzying to try to follow his instructions. Even if the details are confusing, the cuts enable the viewer to easily comprehend as the young detectives weave their way through an administrative labyrinth made up of filing clerks, microfilm, index cards, corporate charters, and stack upon stack of paper.
This daunting process is part of the point. It is why so few detectives go after the money, opting instead for the more direct approach of buy/bust. The contrast between the two approaches is later highlighted in an interesting way when Herc tosses the “dirty bills, right off the corner” onto Prez’ stack of documents that mark the path that money takes on its path to cleanliness.
This sequence shows how the Barksdales successfully hide the millions of dollars in drug money they pull out of the projects every year, and finally answers the question D’Angelo posed to Stringer: “Where’s it all go.” When Freamon leads the detail down this money trail, we discover how enigmatic paper is in its ability to both reveal and obscure reality.
Daniels already begins to sense this. In the previous episode, the case almost gets shut down after they sieze $20,000 destined for State Senator Clay Davis. When Daniels relates this incident to Marla, he draws the distinction between following the drugs (which is relatively safe because it leads to powerless fiends and hoppers) and following the money (which is incredibly dangerous because it leads to powerful political entities). He chooses the safe strategy and resists the natural police impulse to investigate the money.
So in steps Freamon, who doesn’t face the bureaucratic demands of his Lieutenant. The chase begins when he drops huge stacks of paper on the table in front of Prez and Sydnor, his hounds in this hunt. The paper blocks out their faces as it falls, visually burying them beneath a flurry of documentation. “Brave new world for you boys,” says the literary detective.
This is a possible reference to the highly-engineered world Huxley imagined in the novel Brave New World, but it is more likely that the line goes back to its origin in Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest. In that play, young Miranda has spent her entire life on an island surrounded by nobody but her father Prospero and their monstrous servant Caliban. When she first encounters new people, she remarks “Oh brave new world that has such people in’t.” It is a beautiful, poetic recognition of the thrills and fears of an unimagined world. Her life had been so limited that the sight of anybody new is like a rebirth into a strange and wonderful world.
For these detectives, the world of legal documents and administrative paperwork is just as strange, just as foreign to their customary rip-and-run approach. Freamon is their guide. To mark their entrance into this world, he wheels out an empty bulletin board and places it next to the one that is already filling up with the drug-level information they have amassed from the wire and hand-to-hands. He writes out two cards: “Drugs,” and “Money.” In a flash, he marginalizes the drug-focus, reducing it to only half of the case. That facet of the investigation needs to move aside to allow room for the other half.
He leads Prez and Sydnor through the process. They start with what they know: the few properties McNulty and Bunk learned about from Tywanda. That leads them to information about the front companies set up to make these purchases (including our first look at “B and B Enterprises), which leads to the law firm that filed those papers (it should be no surprise to the viewer when we see Levy’s name come up on the microfilm screen). They then use this to track down other connections. Soon, a pattern reveals itself, a web of information that shows the true scope of the Barksdale operation.
Freamon uses the information they get to follow up on one last strand–political contributions. This is his way of salvaging the otherwise-unsatisfactory arrest of Day the limo driver. Even though they came out of that incident with nothing on Clay Davis, they do learn that the Barksdales are sending their money to politicians.
The paperwork they sift through is dizzying, and probably mind-numbingly boring. It is also essential. What they are really uncovering in this “scavenger hunt” (as Prez gleefully dubs it) is the path of the Barksdales’ money-laundering. This is the process whereby illegal money gets converted into legitimate, usable money (this is probably what Avon refers to when he tells D’Angelo that he hopes to move his comatose brother to a private facility soon). The problem is that money can only become legal through documentation, which in turn leaves a trail that can be followed.
Freamon says it best. “In this country, somebody’s name has got to be on a piece of paper.” In fact, that paperwork is the exact thing that separates the legitimate economy from the illegitimate. It is a necessary step for the criminals if they want to be able to use the money for more than VIP tables and Timberlands, but that step leaves an informational trail of breadcrumbs that can be followed by a savvy detective.
Fortunately for the Barksdales, it is not just know-how that prevents the police from using the paper trail against them. It is also will. When Daniels comes into the detail office and sees the dramatic turn his investigation has taken without his knowledge, he gets angry. “This feels premature” he says, and then snaps at McNulty before storming out. Daniels already suffered once for reaching too high and he is not yet sure if he is willing to suffer again.
Freamon understands this. He tells McNulty (who rightly asks “what the fuck did I do?”) that Daniels is like Jacob, “wrestling with the angels on this one.” Freamon understands the political pressure that his Lieutenant faces, which is probably why he initiated the chase on spec. Daniels would have shut it down before it started, but now that the chase is underway, Freamon has the evidence he needs to help Daniels receive the blessing of his better angel.
The scene near the end of the episode, where Freamon and McNulty brief Daniels on the results of their hunt, is one of the season’s most important. The camera slowly pulls in close on Daniels’ face as Freamon lists the Barksdales’ financial assets, a list that includes front companies (Orlandos, a copy store, a funeral parlor), vacant properties near Howard Street, and political contributions. Freamon estimates that the crew take in $25 million a year, clearing somewhere around $12 million in pure profits. That must make it one of the most profitable businesses in Baltimore, legitimate and illegitimate.
Daniels can no longer ignore the enormity of the case, no matter how much he may want to. Freamon says it clearly. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but the money is real and it’s everywhere. And more than the drugs, it’s the money that matters.” This is exactly what Daniels suspected (and feared) when Burrell tried to shut the case down. The money matters because that is what makes the Barksdale activities official. But it is that same official power that makes the money so dangerous to pursue.
That is the power of paper. It has the power to convert dirty money into official assets, but it also makes that conversion traceable. This is why paper and ink have always been the bureaucrat’s greatest weapon. It makes things real and legitimate. It also makes them permanent, with all of the power and limitations that come with that status.