Judge Phelan: When you start coming with the customers it’s time to get out of the business.
McNulty: You shouldn’t talk dirty now that you’re a judge.
Judge Phelan: Now that I’m a judge I can say anything I damn please.
When the newly-minted Judge Phelan summons McNulty to his chambers in Episode 1.1, “The Target,” it initiates The Wire’s big bang. This scene is the single point that explodes into the Barksdale investigation, rippling out into life-altering consequences for dozens of people on both sides of the law. So it is a fitting time for Judge Phelan to give his self-destructive friend an important lesson, both directly and indirectly, on the nature of power.
Phelan’s crude joke shows a coldly pragmatic view of police work: at best it is business, at worst it is prostitution. Right when McNulty begins to sabotage his own career, Phelan explicitly warns him about the dangers of caring too much. Why show up to a case that isn’t yours? This is a business, he tells McNulty, an impersonal game. Love and passion should be kept out of it.
McNulty’s reply gives way to a more indirect, arguably more powerful lesson. Jimmy scolds Phelan for conduct unbecoming of an officer of the court, naively suggesting that the robe and gavel should bring with them a certain level of dignity, or at the very least least, some discretion. “With great power comes great responsibility,” and so on. But this is not a superhero movie.
Phelan, sitting majestically behind his oversized box of pills, spits back a childish taunt, “I can say anything I damn please.” On the surface, this is just friendly banter between two dirty-minded old buddies, but Phelan shows exactly what it means to be “a political entity” (as Deputy Ops Burrell calls him later in the episode). This power is new for Phalen (“now that I’m a judge”) and he embraces it thoroughly. He enjoys such an elevated position that ideas like dignity and discretion are now below him. His power gives him the freedom to offer any unfiltered opinion.
Phelan sits at the top of The Wire’s power structure (at least until a certain State Senator makes his first appearance–even a judge must eventually answer to others). His petulant response to McNulty shows exactly what it takes to climb the ladder: a blatant disregard for the opinions of those below him. In other words, he doesn’t care.
One of the great ironies of The Wire is that the most childish, selfish people, the ones who play the game for themselves, are the ones who rise through the ranks, while the people who care about higher principles usually end up getting cast “out of the business,” whether they are ready to go or not.
Now let me hear your interpretations, questions and comments…
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