1.1: The Watchers’ Puzzles

By Peter Honig

After our first walk through the garden, we are dropped into a surprising first-person shot. We are a security guard in the courthouse, looking down at a partially-completed newspaper crossword puzzle (with a second crossword waiting on deck), and a small black-and-white video monitor showing the image of two men entering the courthouse. The camera shifts to the objective perspective and we see McNulty and Bunk walk by in actual size and living color. McNulty and Bunk recount the Snotboogie story with the easy familiarity of men who are partners, friends and equals. The camera shift also allows us to see that our perspective from the first shot is that of an aging white security guard.

The Guard has the following exchange with McNulty, who flashes his badge and passes through the metal detectors to meet the fate that awaits him on the other side:

McNulty: Barksdale case room 12?

Guard: Huh?

McNulty: Project murder, West Side.

Guard: Which one now?

McNulty just wants to confirm information which he seems to already know, but the guard is useless. His replies seem to show either senility, physical hearing loss  or ignorance of what is happening inside the chambers he is tasked to protect. And yet, there might be more to this man than is immediately apparent.

Here is a man who passes his time doing crossword puzzles, trying to use clues to fill in a blank black-and-white grid with the proper information (a pastime that anticipates Prez’s penchant for solving word searches, and, really, all of the detective work on the show). His final response, “Which one now?” can be read as a deeper comment about Baltimore in general and the West Side in particular. He has stood guard over so many West Side murder cases that he can no longer tell them apart.

Maybe he knows more than he lets on.

And so, we are introduced to the legal universe of The Wire through the perspective of a puzzle solver who seems at once ignorant and savvy. He embodies the essential dilemma of all watchmen: how do you see beyond the grainy black-and-white images flashing on the screen before you in order to attain a deeper understanding of what you see? Or, to put it another way, how do you fill in all of those blank squares with sensibly-interconnected answers?

This first white guard has a black counterpart who shows up near the end of the episode. This man stands guard over a loftier perch: the Police Administration building’s 8th floor and the offices of Deputy Ops Burrell. Call it the eye in the pyramid of the BPD’s hierarchy. This time, it is Daniels who we see approaching to receive his orders on the Barksdale case (two words, “Buy, Bust”). Like McNulty and Bunk, Daniels first appears as an image on the monitor, in front of which a guard sits and works on his own crossword puzzle (possibly the same puzzle the first guard was working on). Daniels is too insignificant to draw even a passing glance from the preoccupied guard. In the heart of Baltimore’s law enforcement system, both judicial and executive, we pass by guards who are too busy with their own puzzles to notice the real people who have been reduced to a simple image by the omnipresent surveillance cameras.

At the same time, the two-dimensional appearance can also carry great power. This is clear in the way the show introduces Burrell and Rawls, the characters who, more than any other, represent power in the bureaucracy of the BPD. Both characters have identical first appearances on The Wire: we see their images reflected off of the outside darkness as they stare out of the windows of their spacious corner offices. Deputy Commissioner Burrell and Major Rawls take on a ghostly presence as they command and berate their charges (Daniels and McNulty, respectively). In this case, the two-dimensional appearance enhances their status by turning them entities of pure power, rather than men of flesh and blood. The question is, why do these indirect, two-dimensional images seem to give the superiors power while they take it away from the inferiors?

The solution lies in a third scene in “The Target” where we see action through the lens of the surveillance camera. Right after the meeting where Burrell establishes the Barksdale detail (a meeting which, interestingly, we don’t see), Majors Rawls and Forrester wait for an elevator and begin discussing the coordination of their men. The elevator opens, and as the men walk on, we watch from the point of view of the camera looking down on them from the top of the elevator. They stare ahead and share a wordless ride, Rawls fixing his tie and Forrester bobbing his head (he also appears to give the camera a knowing glance). As soon as they get off of the elevator, they pick up the conversation right where they left off.

Why are these two seasoned officers so wary of speaking on the elevator? Maybe this caution is part of why these men got where they are in the first place. They understand that power lies behind the cameras, and should you find yourself in front of one, the best defense is silence. Anything you say can and will be used against you, and so on.

The Barksdales know this lesson well. This is why they have the rules which Wee-Bey forces D’Angelo to recite on their drive to Orlando’s. Bey’s first reaction to D’Angelo’s loose talk is to turn the radio up to drown out any sound. Where the Majors protect themselves with silence, Bey protects himself with noise. Bey’s car, like the elevator, is an enclosed space capable of being bugged, and thus a vulnerable space. This is the same awareness that drives paranoid Avon to use outward-facing cameras to protect both Orlando’s and the main stash house.

The main difference is that the police know where the cameras are. The crew doesn’t even know if there are cameras, and so they have to assume that they are everywhere.

Cameras are powerful because they reduce the world to two dimensions. In this simplified form, the images can then be studied and broken down. The watcher can only see the outside of the objects, reducing their existence to actions and words. In this two dimensional space, the power-dynamic is clear and indisputable: above and below (like Burrell and Daniels or Rawls and McNulty) or side by side (like Jimmy and Bunk or Rawls and Forrester). The problem is that this two-dimensional space is an illusion. We live in three dimensions, and eventually the characters walk outside of the camera’s frame and return to their more complex selves.

Similarly, camera-based media like television and film also have the tendency to reduce characters to types. These types are easier to understand and classify, but there is always a more complex truth underneath. So maybe Simon and company are really sending a message to the viewers of the show, the meta-watchmen on the other side of the television screen. As we observe the two dimensional characters on the screen in front of us, we are being challenged to fill in our own more complex version of the puzzle.

Each square in a crossword puzzle serves a double duty, down and across. The only way to solve the puzzle is to put both of those dimensions together and see how it all links together in the third dimension of interconnectivity. And even when you finish one puzzle, there is always another one just behind it.

Now let me hear your interpretations, questions and comments…

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2 thoughts on “1.1: The Watchers’ Puzzles

  1. There is the jarring interconnection of the second to last paragraph before your questions – bringing Simon back into the picture. After an absorbing discussion of the dimensional aspects of the Wire itself, you remind us that there is an entire interconnected reality beyond the characters, namely the creators of the characters themselves. Then there is also your blog, looking at the whole thing from yet another dimension.

  2. Very interesting post. I always got a laugh from that guard’s obliviousness but never thought it much beyond a subtle dig at the system. I did wonder why Rawls and Forrester never spoke in the elevator – interesting theory on being conscious of the camera. There are probably also some foreshadowing connections to be made here between these surveillance aspects and the eventual wire tapping that ensures.

    Keep up the good work,

    Pat B

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