1.1: The Prophecy of the Anti-McNulty

By Peter Honig

Barlow: Think I give a fuck?

Detective Barlow is a perfect example of The Wire’s ability to put significant lines in the mouths of some of the most insignificant characters. Barlow is the homicide detective who worked the pivotal Blanchard murder, but he only appears in first ten minutes of “The Target” and then disappears entirely from the show until he makes a brief return in Season 5.

Right from the beginning, he is presented as a smug, sneering jerk (and his  nasty season five appearance does little to dispel that notion). Even the thick-skinned McNulty seems like he can barely tolerate him, but that makes sense. Their approach to the job couldn’t be more opposite.

Both of his scenes in “The Target” set up important concepts that will keep coming up throughout the series.

Telephonic penetration
We first meet Barlow in the trial prep room. McNulty comes in to inform him that Nakeesha Lyles has been intimidated into changing up her testimony, but Barlow is too busy negotiating a quote for “pressure treating” to care (or to sit in on his own trial, for that matter). Apparently, this negotiation isn’t going well, because Barlow puts the phone to his crotch and shouts, “Do you feel that, Mikey, do you feel it? ‘Cause I swear to God, that’s my fucking dick in your ear,” much to the embarrassment of the red-headed woman with the misfortune of sharing her workspace with Barlow (although you do have to give the man credit for being true to his word).

This gesture, crude and excessive though it may be, anticipates the investigation that will dominate Season 1. Barlow describes an act of penetration taking place over a long distance through the communicative medium of the telephone. This is a modern twist on the poisonous ear violence, both literal and metaphorical, that infests Hamlet. It is also exactly what the detail will do to the Barksdales with the wire (as long as you remove the sexually-violent connotation from Barlow’s line). Phones are a means of communication, and that communication can be vulnerable for the people on both sides of the conversation. As McNulty will argue later in the episode, it is the only real weak spot that they will be able to exploit if they want to take down the crew.

Get out the Chalk
When McNulty interrupts this conversation to warn his fellow detective that the case “just hit the wall,” Barlow sniffs scornfully and says “no fucking way, pal.” McNulty gives one of his classic knowing smiles, showing no sympathy for his colleague. Barlow finally makes his way to the courtroom in time to watch the jury acquit D’Angelo. When a triumphant Stringer walks by, Barlow, sulking alone in the back of the room, sees the opportunity for a quick jab: “Think I give a fuck? I’ll be chalking you off one night.”

Barlow’s indifference (feigned or not) is a perfect embodiment of the attitude that McNulty wants to fight in the police department. Barlow is at once bitter and superior. He sees Stringer, well-dressed though he may be, as just another thug. He believes that all such thugs will end up exactly like Pooh Blanchard, and Barlow even fantasizes about investigating the murder of this very man, who just robbed him of a conviction stat. Barlow wants Stringer dead; McNulty wants him in cuffs.

In the end, Barlow seems to say, the violence will take care of what the police and the courts can’t. This perspective of the war on drugs may be prophetic, but only in a self-fulfilling way. Barlow represents an attitude that sees investigations and trials as meaningless formalities.  As a result, Barlow is really only in it for the stats and the paycheck (after all, he does have pressure treating bills to pay).

This is the very attitude which McNulty and his fellow good po-lice constantly battle. Barlow’s “Think I give a fuck,” may be a childish denial, but it also anticipates the episode’s epigraph and the trouble that both Bunk and McNulty will get into later that day. This just may be the real answer to the question Phelan’s poses to McNulty: “why do you care?” McNulty coyly ducks the question, but the truth is that he needs to give a fuck precisely because colleagues like Barlow don’t.

Now, let me hear your piece. What do you think?

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3 thoughts on “1.1: The Prophecy of the Anti-McNulty

  1. “We first meet Barlow in the trial prep room. McNulty comes in to inform him that Nakeesha Lyles has been intimidated into changing up her testimony, but Barlow is too busy negotiating a quote for “pressure treating” to care (or to sit in on his own trial, for that matter).”

    Just a minor point: Barlow was most likely in the trial prep room because of whats known as “The Rule.” In trial, witnesses are usually excluded from the courtroom during the testimony of other witnesses. As the lead detective on the case, Barlow would definitely have testified and thus excluded from the courtroom while others testified.

    I’m not sure if this was the intention of David Simon, but it is the way it works in the real world.

    Regardless, good post. Just found this site today. Awesome Analysis.

  2. I think Barlow’s remark to Stringer doesn’t betray a fantasy of wanting him dead so much as it provides a further example of his ambivalence: He doesn’t *hope* Stringer is killed. That would require a level of emotional investment that he doesn’t possess. He simply assumes that it’s a fait accompli that he *will* be killed. I’m sure if one were to ask him, he would point out that he doesn’t *think* Stringer is going to be killed, given his line of work, but rather that he *knows* he will. It’s not a matter of “if”, but rather “when”. He’s another chalk outline in progress to Barlow, completely interchangeable with any of his other “H” files. The lazy way the prognostication rolls out of his mouth confirms that he really doesn’t know or care a damned thing about Stringer, or indeed any of the other “project yo”s. He’s mildly annoyed at having been aced out of the stat, but almost entirely ambivalent about who may have been responsible for it.

    The notion that Barlow actively wants Stringer dead is entirely counter to everything that the character, as depicted, represents. Barlow doesn’t want Stringer dead. Barlow, in stark contrast to McNulty, likely won’t even remember his name by the time he catches his next call in the rotation. His remark to Bell is every bit as cynical as McNulty is capable of being in his darkest moments, but light years more ambivalent about whether it actually comes to pass or not. McNulty knows the names that accompany all of the faces he comes across, whether they’re among the living or not. He might be just as likely to assume someone’s going to get got, but he’s also far more likely to give a fuck about it. Barlow sees every “No. 1 male” as a likely, not merely potential, victim. And he really, truly doesn’t give a fuck about it one way or the other.

    • Thanks for the great reply. I really like the point you make about the fact that Barlow just sees Stringer as another “project yo.” One of McNulty’s defining traits is that he remembers everything. You see that in his first meeting with Rawls, where he is able to recite details about all of the 10-12 Barksdale murders. That is obviously a huge asset for him, and it enables him to see the patterns that nobody else does. One of those patterns that he is able to establish is the very fact that the Barksdales run half of Baltimore’s drug trade. He sees the bigger connections, where others like Barlow see each case as just another isolated drug murder.

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