1.1: Playing Out Of Turn

By Peter Honig

“…two noble, selfless public servants.” Landsman

One of The Wire’s most distinctive structural features is its use of epigraphs to open each episode. At the end of the opening credits, a short quote from the episode appears on the screen. This sets up a simple game along the lines of Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos: find the epigraph in the episode. But the epigraph also enables The Wire to convey several things with the same line. This is because the line’s first appearance, set against a black screen, is completely decontextualized, and therefore invites a more abstract, conceptual interpretation (some more clear than others). It is only when the line comes up in the episode that it becomes a concrete piece of the plot.

Simon and company could not have come up with a more effective way to establish this feature than with the show’s very first epigraph: “…when it’s not your turn…” It is a line from McNulty, naturally, solidifying his status as the show’s main character. But out of context, it is doubly puzzling, an incomplete line missing both a beginning and an end. It is also worth noting that this line actually gets said not once but twice in the episode (the second time from Bunk, echoing his partner).

With no immediate clue as to how the sentence begins and ends, we have no choice but to focus on the epigraph’s key word: “turn.”

The word turn suggests a rotation, both literally and figuratively. Since the opening scene already established the idea of games, it is natural to think of the role that turns play in games. Almost all board games and card games operate on a strictly-defined sequence of moves. This process of taking turns is a part of each game’s essence, ensuring that it progresses in a fair, orderly way. So, “when it ain’t your turn,” it is a time to do nothing and wait. Any out-of-turn action violates the rules and threatens to upset the game’s delicate balance.

When McNulty first says this line early in “The Target,” it is with this very attitude. Bunk went out of turn by answering the phone to take a murder case, even though it was Nolan’s squad’s turn to get the next call. McNulty must have feared that Bunk might do such a thing when he told him not to in the courthouse  (“don’t answer no phones, Bunk”). Now, McNulty refuses to help his partner on a murder that may be unsolvable (Bunk admits that the decomposing body is “as ripe as they get”). “This’ll teach you to give a fuck when it ain’t your turn to give a fuck” McNulty scolds. The problem is that McNulty just got finished violating this very advice on a much grander scale in his conversation with Judge Phelan. When Bunk answers the phone out of turn, he gets stuck with an unsolvable case. When McNulty speaks out of turn, he upends the entire department. Later, Bunk learns about his partner’s indiscretions, and he is all too happy to to return the advice, word for word. “You happy now, bitch?”

This is a sort of self-policing (so to speak) that is natural in an institution like the BPD, which relies on keeping everybody in line. The best explanation for this comes in Episode 6, when Rawls reasonably explains the system to McNulty (as well as the audience). “We work murder cases, detective, we work them as they come in, one at a fuckin time. It’s called a rotation….It’s a simple but effective way to do business in a town that has 250-300 cases a year.” Rawls may be a bureaucratic blowhard, but he is right. With the sheer number of crimes taking place in Baltimore, there is no other way to operate.

His use of the word rotation suggests another game that has turns: baseball. In this case, the homicide division operates like a pitching rotation, with five pitchers each getting a shot to start a game before cycling back to the beginning. This system works for two reasons: lets each person operate with maximum energy, and it ensures equal opportunity among the staff.

But there are downsides to this as well. In the pitching metaphor, the rotation means that the ace will get roughly as many starts as the guy just out of the minors. We see another example in the police force earlier in the episode with our introduction to narcotics detectives Kima, Herc, and Carver. We first meet them during a bust, with Herc and Carver doing the physical work and Kima handling all of the information. Right from the start, it is clear that she is the better detective–she is the one who sets up the bust, the informant is hers, and she is the one who has to remind her testosterone-fueled partners that there is a second gun in the car. When we join them again, they are back in office doing the paperwork. More accurately, Kima is doing the paperwork, hunting and pecking on an ancient typewriter while Herc and Carver joke about porn and toss around a yellow ball (which just may be the precursor to Fuzzy Dunlop). When Kima asks if Herc got the ECU submission numbers, Herc utters his catchphrase: “Why me?” Kima says “you want the collars, do the submission.” “You giving me the stat?” he asks hopefully, and she replies, “It’s your turn.”

Kima set up the bust and did all the paperwork, and caught the fact that Herc twice overlooked the second gun, once in reality and once in the report. But it is his turn, so he gets the stat. A system like this is necessary in an institution this large, but it also promotes apathy and incompetence. No matter how good you are at your job, you are still going to have more or less the same stats as everybody else, so where is the motivation to work harder? Worse, anybody who cares enough to step out of line only risks drawing negative attention to themselves. In this system, it does not pay to give a fuck.

So why do McNulty and Bunk go out of turn? Landsman describes the partners as “two noble, selfless public servants,” with obvious sarcasm. They are anything but. In fact, each one has their own selfish motive. For Bunk, it is simple financial need. When McNulty asks him why he answered the phone, he replies “I gotta pay down my cards, man.” He goes against the system and jeopardizes his stats for a shot at a few extra hours of OT.

McNulty’s motives are a little trickier to pin down. He tells Bunk that “it wasn’t my fault, really” and he pleads with Rawls, saying “this judge, he fucks me up.” But as the season progresses, it becomes clear that this is really about McNulty’s ego, and his need to see himself as the smartest guy in the room. It’s also worth noting that McNulty was in Phelan’s office when he got Bunk’s page about the decomp. It’s possible that Bunk’s decision to give a fuck inspired McNulty to shoot his mouth off.

Whether it is noble or selfish, for money or ego, going out of turn always makes an individual stand out from the group. For a rotation to work, everybody needs to be on board without question. But this also mutes an individual’s traits and skills (be they noble or not). Even the Barksdales operate on the exact same principles, especially when it comes to speaking out against the violence of the drug trade. Giving a fuck is just as anathema in the world of police as having a conscience is in the world of the street. The problem is: what is a system left with when nobody gives a fuck?


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2 thoughts on “1.1: Playing Out Of Turn

  1. “The problem is: what is a system left with when nobody gives a fuck?”
    That’s what really good systems are – constructs designed to work precisely because nobody gives a fuck.

  2. Pingback: The Wire Guide » McNulty on the River Kwai

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