1.1: McNulty on the River Kwai

By Peter Honig

“I’m gonna do this case.”–McNulty
Leave it to The Wire. Even when the show does something conventional and cliche, it does so with such style and flexibility that it feels unconventional. Take the catch phrase, one of the oldest and cheapest of all television conventions. From “Don’t have a cow man” to “That’s what she said,” a catch phrase is an easy way to establish a simple character trait in a way that almost pre-programs the audience to respond in a particular way. They also make for great T-shirts.

If there is a Jimmy McNulty T-shirt out there, then it must be adorned with his catch phrase: “What the fuck did I do?” What makes this catch phrase unlike any other, though, is the fact that it means such drastically different things depending on the context. By my count, McNulty says this phrase six times in Season 1 (if I missed any, please let me know in the Comments section), and each time it carries a totally unique connotation:

  • 1.1 “The Target”: Shock and disbelief at the “shitstorm” that followed his conversation with Phelan.
  • 1.2 “The Detail”: Feigned ignorance when Daniels tells him that Rawls wants his head.
  • 1.3 “The Buys”: Post-coital playfulness
  • 1.9 “Game Day”: Honest confusion after Daniels unnecessarily snaps at him.
  • 1.11 “The Cost”: Despair and guilt as he takes responsibility for the tragedy that befalls the detail.
  • 1.13 “Sentencing”: A season-closing epiphany about the massive scale of the case he started.

Beyond those six utterances, the first episode has two more scenes which echo or anticipate the line in a slightly different form.

The first time McNulty says a variation on the phrase, it is directed outwardly to Bunk. “Motherfucker, I leave you alone for a minute or two, what do you do?” McNulty’s frustration at Bunk and the way he later turns it on himself parallels the twice-uttered epigraph that I discussed earlier in the week. This phrase revolves around the verb “do.” That simple word suggests taking action with an autonomous will. This is a cardinal sin in the inertia-bound, chain-of-command-dependant police system.

McNulty decides to fully embrace this sin with the second variation of the catch phrase. This happens in the key moment at the end of “The Target.” McNulty and Bunk, deep into a bender after a rough two days, have made their way to their favorite drinking spot by the train tracks. McNulty staggers up the embankment to take a leak on the tracks (a scene which almost literally reenacts Herc’s earlier figurative comments on authority, where piss rolls down hill–sorry…trickles down hill–and ends up in the mouths of the majors). This is the moment where McNulty decides to double down on his insubordinate actions, and fully commit to the case that he started. “I’m gonna do this case,” he shouts down to Bunk, “the way it should be done.” From this point on, he will do whatever he can to make this case happen, no matter the cost to himself or anybody else. He either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care about the oncoming train about to plow into him.

So why is this line so perfectly suited to McNulty? Perhaps the answer lies in its origin: David Lean’s classic POW film The Bridge on the River Kwai. If, like Bunk (“Bridge on what?”), you have never seen it, you should, or you should at least read Roger Ebert’s essay on it. It is a movie that has a lot in common with McNulty and the BPD. (Spoilers ahead, if it is possible to spoil a 55-year-old movie). The line is uttered (minus the profanity) during the film’s thrilling climax by Colonel Nicholson, played by Alec Guinness (who won Best Actor for the role). Nicholson is the commander of a group of British soldiers taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II. The first half of the movie focuses on a power struggle between Nicholson and the Japanese commander Colonel Saito, who commands all of the troops to build the strategically necessary bridge from the title. Nicholson refuses to take part, citing the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition of officers doing manual labor, but Saito literally throws the Conventions back in his face.

The two Colonels eventually reach an agreement after a brutal standoff, and Nicholson throws himself into the construction of the bridge with an obsessive fervor. He wants to show the uncivilized Japanese what the civilized British are capable of doing. The dramatic conclusion comes when a group of allied commandos rigs the bridge to blow up before a strategically-essential Japanese train can cross the river. Nicholson, who has completely forgotten about the actual war, tries to save the bridge until the last minute when, with train rapidly approaching, he has an awakening. “What have I done?” he says and manages to trigger the explosives just as the train hits the bridge, bringing it all tumbling down (Incidentally, this scene was also used in the chilling “Crawl Space” episode of Breaking Bad as a subtle foreshadowing of that show’s Season 4 finale).

The connections between film and series are almost too many to name. There is the concern with rank and the insistence that higher-level people do not need to get their hands dirty. There is the man who stubbornly clings to his own idealistic notions of civility in the face of a raw, chaotic environment. There is the idea of construction, and the desire to effectively build something that will have a true impact on the future. There is the monomaniacal obsession with a single task at the expense of everything else. And finally, there is that train, rapidly approaching, seemingly unstoppable, and the final moment of realization that may have come just a little too late to stop it all from crashing down.


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One thought on “1.1: McNulty on the River Kwai

  1. Like The Wire, Bridge on the River Kwai is an example of a work that originated in a medium that was at the height of its popular appeal (1957 – big screen technicolor was king) yet managed to harness that medium for something beyond mere transitory amusement. Both works, though action based, employed characters, both major and minor, with actual dialogue, shown dealing with their own existential issues in their own way, with each playing a part in some larger struggle for meaning. Bridge on the River Kwai did it in 161 minutes; The Wire did it in five seasons.

    (Favorite quote from BOTRK: “There’s always one more thing to do.”)

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