1.2: A Letter to Fictional Orphans

By Peter Honig

“Not a thing.”—McNulty

When Daniels, the Barksdale investigation’s head, realizes that his detail is being cast aside by the department, he reacts by engaging in intense political negotiations for better personnel. When McNulty, the investigation’s shadowy spiritual head, realizes this, he reacts by putting on a show.

He puts on a few shows, in fact. The first performance begins immediately after Prez’ Dry Fire Incident. McNulty strides into the Pit with his partner Bunk, ostensibly to investigate Gant’s murder, but there are other motives too. The ulterior motive only comes to light when we cut back to the scene after some time has passed. We find McNulty still sitting on the back of the orange sofa next to D’Angelo, while Bunk sits on a milk crate off to the side. There is total silence, except for when McNulty offers D’Angelo a tic tac (“they make your breath minty fresh”). It’s only when two SUVs roll into the pit that the detectives finally cuff D’Angelo and bring in him for questioning.

Obviously, this is what they were waiting for. They could have taken D’Angelo in right away, but McNulty wanted to attract the crew’s attention. Bunk gets some information from the licence plates, which is nice, but what they really want is to spook Stringer. By the look on Bell’s face as he watches the detectives walk D’Angelo away, it seems like it worked.

But why would McNulty want to show the Barksdales that he is going after them? Earlier in this very episode, he shot down Judge Phelan’s suggestion that they leak the murdered-witness angle to the press in order to gain “leverage” over Burrell. “No, that tips Barksdale that someone is working him. We don’t want to go public.” There is an easy explanation for this change of heart. At the time, he was hoping to get leverage through Phelan. When the sight of the humps later convinces him that Burrell is trying to bury the case, he realizes that he has to go all in, even if that means tipping his hand to the Barksdales.

The bigger question is: what does he have to gain by putting on a show? The answer comes in McNulty’s second performance—the interrogation of D’Angelo. This scene perfectly illustrates the power of performance as a means of gaining leverage. It starts with Bunk and McNulty plotting their script. “We got nothing on him,” McNulty says. “We try to front, he’ll see right through us.” “He’s scared, though, soft,” Bunk observes. They decide to go with “the deuce,” number two on a list of interrogation methods (a list that mirrors the partners’ list of seduction methods).

Daniels, tipped off by Kima, enters just in time to delay the interrogation. After a short conversation with McNulty (that I will discuss below), he lets them proceed, as long as Kima sits in. McNulty complains “me and Bunk we got our own rhythm,” and when Daniels agrees that it is “Homicide’s play so let them lead,” it is clear that the curtain is about to go up on another show.

The performance we get is well-rehearsed melodrama. The partners fall into such an easy rhythm that it is difficult to figure out when one starts talking and the other finishes. The story they spin is a perfect combination of script and improv, fact and fiction. The partners weave an increasingly-tragic biography of William Gant. They start with his jobs, adding one after another (maintenance worker, cab driver, church deacon). Then come the orphan kids, left with nothing but their bitter tears. And then they bring out the big guns: a reminder of the tragic and true shooting of a young boy in a barber shop. At this point, D’Angelo’s facade of indifference crumbles. He breathes heavily and tries to hold back his tears, but the story is too much. “It’s fucked up,” D’Angelo mumbles. “They didn’t have to do that.” It seems like he is talking about the barber shop until he painfully stammers out a confession of indirect guilt “that man was just…my thing…my thing…they ain’t had…they ain’t had to do that.” This is the sign of any successful performance: McNulty and Bunk take a piece of bullshit with a little bit of grounding in reality, and use it to evoke an authentic emotional reaction from their audience.

Now they spring the trap. Bunk suggests that D’Angelo should write a letter to the three poor boys who, mind you, don’t actually exist. D’Angelo resists a little more, until Bunk shows him the picture and the notepad. “Just say what’s in your heart,” McNulty prompts. In a single gesture, D’Angelo slides the picture away with his left hand and slides the pad in front of him with his right. He picks up a pen, wipes away the tear, and the curtain falls to thunderous applause in McNulty’s mind.

This performance is so powerful that it even fools Kima, who masks the fact that she fell for it behind a friendly tease of Bunk. “Lucky for them they look like their mama,” she says. McNulty and Bunk congratulate themselves on a job well done, but what did they actually accomplish here? The answer is: nothing.

The idea of “nothing” actually dominates the whole episode. Some examples:

  • McNulty asks Bodie his name, and Bodie replies “I didn’t say shit.” McNulty then hilariously christens him “Mr. Shit.”
  • When getting cuffed, D’Angelo says “Y’all ain’t got nothing else to do today?” and Bunk answers “No, no, nothing.”
  • Daniels asks McNulty what they have to connect D’Angelo to the Gant murder, and McNulty admits “not a thing.”
  • After Levy comes, Bunk says “your client gave no statement, we took no statement.”
  • When Levy, hungry for Yvette’s brisket, comes to release D’Angelo, he chides “you don’t say anything, you don’t do anything, you don’t write anything.”
  • When McNulty and Kima show Daniels the letter, he asks “What can you do with this?” and McNulty says “well, nothing, legally.”
  • Avon debriefs D’Angelo after the interrogation. “But you didn’t say nothing?” “Shit man, I don’t know nothing.”

What is the point of all of this nothing? Why did McNulty go through the time and energy to put on these shows? It doesn’t seem worth it, especially since doing this also notifies the Barksdales that the cops are watching them (D’Angelo later tells Avon “They knew a lot of names”). It might just be that McNulty really did have nothing better to do today, but there is another explanation: the shows for the Barksdales are really part of a bigger show, one McNulty devises to leverage a totally different audience: Daniels.

At the start of the episode, McNulty’s analysis of the “humps” situation tells him that the only hope for the case is to have Daniels on board, but he has little faith in this. Earlier, McNulty tells Phelan that Daniels is an “asshole Lieutenant…thinks he can buy/bust his way to Avon Barksdale.” McNulty wants to do the case the right way, and he is willing to put his career on the line for it, but he also realizes that nothing will happen unless the detail is headed by a commander who is committed to the case. If so, then maybe this whole charade is really just a loyalty test.

McNulty states this explicitly in the pre-interrogation interrogation scene. He repeats his epiphany from the end of episode one: “I want to do this case.” “So do I,” Daniels responds. This allows McNulty to challenge Daniels. “Then you’re gonna get all the way in, Lieutenant. If I see you get all the way in, then I know who you are, what you’re about.” Soon after, he restates it more subtly. When Daniels asks why they brought D’Angelo in if they have nothing to link him to the murder, McNulty says “Press him, see what kind of flex he shows.” This is a perfect explanation of what he is also doing with Daniels. McNulty needs to determine whether his Lieutenant has flex (a word that is crucial in future-Wire-writer Richard Price’s Clockers), or if he is just another obedient, self-serving bureaucrat marking time before his promotion kicks in.

The problem is that all of this is based on a fiction. The letter is useless, a non-statement. Daniels dismissively drops it onto a stack of papers on his desk, and while McNulty pleads further, it is clear that the Lieutenant is not convinced (or at least not convinced enough to challenge his superiors). In the end, as Shakespeare wrote in the first scene of King Lear, “Nothing will come of nothing.”

Except something does come from nothing. After all, in a paradoxical way, even nothing is something. Take this verse from the famous poem, “Antigonish,” by Hughes Mearns,

“Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…”

A fiction is not real in an empirical sense, but it does exist in a conceptual sense. Since a concept is enough to force an empirical reaction, it is possible to get real results from fictional performances. They have the power to take unreal people and events like Gant’s orphans or characters from a “gritty” cable TV crime drama, and leverage them into genuine emotional reactions that have real consequences.

You could argue that McNulty’s fictions have no effect on Daniels, and it is not until real events occur in later episodes that he slowly goes “all the way in.” But there is another possibility, and it is suggested by a question that has always nagged me about this episode: Who leaked the witness angle of the Gant murder to the press? Phelan, the obvious choice, denies it, and McNulty’s surprise at seeing the story in the papers takes him off of the suspect list.

So bear with me for a minute while I imagine a scenario. Suppose D’Angelo’s letter really does affect Daniels. Maybe it convinces him that the Barksdales are the ones who killed Gant, and maybe he respects D’Angelo for his willingness to apologize for a crime he didn’t commit, and his genuine assurance that “if I could have stopped it I would have.” Maybe he even recognizes a little bit of himself in the helplessness that D’Angelo expresses. Maybe that, along with McNulty’s challenges from earlier in the day, is enough to convince him that this really is a case worth doing. And maybe he recognizes that Burrell doesn’t care enough to actually support a real investigation. That is, unless he can be leveraged.

So maybe he recognized a way to influence the case, and pressure Burrell to get behind it. Maybe he even saw how easily he could get away with it, since the suspicion for such a leak would immediately fall to either McNulty or Phelan. And maybe he concluded that the best strategy would be to place a phone call to the Baltimore Sun.

If so, then McNulty’s nothing really does become a something that effectively leverages real results. Of course, even this scenario I created is probably just another fiction.

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