In the rapidly-shifting contexts of The Wire, it is sometimes hard to tell whether a character is the king or a scurrying rodent. The title of the first episode, “The Target,” suggests a similar level of complexity. There is a clear literal meaning to the title (Avon, who becomes the target of the new, reluctantly-formed detail), but a close examination of all the episode’s targets shows that there is more to it than just taking aim.
Avon, the most obvious target, represents different things to different people. For McNulty the crusader, he is the holy grail, for Phelan, he is a menace to the city and its justice system, for Burrell, he is an inconvenience threatening to jeopardize his delicate political status. To Kima and Daniels, blindsided by Phelan’s demands, he is a phantom, a man without even a face or a birthday. At this point in the show, he is very much a moving target.
McNulty, caught in the act of turning Avon into a target, simultaneously becomes one himself. The feelings about McNulty seem to be more unanimous: everybody seems to agree that he is an insubordinate breaker of the chain of command. Even McNulty agrees (“Okay, I’m an asshole for that,” he concedes later in the episode). Daniels, Landsman, Bunk, Forrester and Burrell all seem exasperated at his insolence, but none more so than Rawls, who not only makes McNulty the target of his ire, but also details a graphic revenge fantasy involving both of his middle fingers (“These are for you, McNulty. For as long as it takes.”).
It is easy to see why Avon and McNulty become targets. Both men step out of line and threaten to disrupt the image of an ordered, civilized city. Avon’s crimes and the spotlight McNulty shines on them combine to threaten the carefully-crafted illusion that the BPD can contain the drug problem with street rips and statistics. It is the same reason why we freak out when insects and rodents get into our houses. They remind us that no matter how many walls we put up, the chaotic world of nature will always find its way inside. These pests threaten the status quo, and as a result, they are placed squarely in the crosshairs.
But the episode’s final two scenes give us two more targets which offer a clearer glimpse into the people behind the gun. We hear about the first target in what seems like a meaningless drunken story. At the end of a night of hard boozing, Bunk tells McNulty about how his wife called him away from working two cases to get a field mouse out of her closet. When McNulty asks how he took care of the mouse, Bunk responds matter-of-factly “I lit his ass up.” McNulty is shocked, particularly at Bunk’s decision to use his service revolver, but Bunk is unapologetic. He grumbles, “thought about leaving that little motherfucker there, warning to the others.”
This funny little story is a counterpoint to the more tragic events of the following morning, when an assassin kills the witness Gant at close range in broad daylight. The reason, as Stringer tells D’Angelo (referring to Johnny’s beating, but clearly applicable to Gant), is to “send a message,” the same motive that drove Bunk’s fantasy of leaving the mouse’s corpse. Leave one dead rodent out to scare away the rest of them.
These two shootings are placed so close together at the end of the episode to highlight a key similarity. In both cases, the targets are animals, the first literal and the second metaphorical (it is no accident that snitches are often called rats). There is always a twofold motive for taking aim at a target. The first is the immediate: eradicate a pest and punish it for disrupting the course of your life. The second is the longer-range reason: try to make it so that you don’t have to deal with that pest again.
But taking aim is only half of the battle, even when shooting a moving target. The real challenge is actually pulling the trigger. The best way to do that is to see the target as the most repulsive form of animals: rodents and insects. There are many examples of this, from Hitler’s rhetoric about the Jews as vermin (which Kafka anticipated in “The Metamorphoses” and his final story, “Josefine the Singer”) to later instances like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the fantastic opening sequence of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
No matter how much a pest threatens a way of life, pulling the trigger is still a challenge. It is an irrevocable, life-altering act. The only way a shooter can pull that trigger is to dehumanize the target, to see them as an inferior being worthy of the same level of empathy that they would give to Mrs. Bunk’s shoe.
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