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.
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.
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