1.2: Daniels’ Unwinnable Game

By Peter Honig

“Get out of it.”—Marla
“How do I do that?”—Cedric

Throughout the first half of “The Details,” Daniels seems to be pretty pessimistic about the quality of his new group of detectives. When he negotiates with Cantrell for Sydnor, he says “I’ll carry Pryzbylewski for as long as I can.” By the end of the episode, it is clear that, if anything, Daniels was being optimistic. He may not even be able to carry the pistol-whipping Prez for more than a day. If anything, the riot is the easy part for Daniels. Managing the political and ethical considerations will be the real headache for this beleaguered commander.

When the sun rises on Franklin Terrace a few hours after an ill-advised intimidation mission triggered a riot, Daniels arrives to pick up the pieces, however burnt and shattered they may be. We get a tour of the wreckage: the blackened remains of Prez’ car, its inside charred and gutted. Daniels finds his three detectives huddled in the back of the police van, hands hiding impotently in their pockets, with Herc’s head bandaged and Prez standing mutely to the side (the shot, with two sitting and one standing around the open trunk, mirrors the tunnel scene from the night before, but this time Prez, the new chief troublemaker, is the one standing).

Daniels is the man responsible for these uncontrollable detectives, and thus responsible for their actions. His first task is to collect the facts. “What are you doing here at two in the morning?” he asks, trying to determine their motives. Carver responds with the laughably-vague “field interviews, you know, police work.” Daniels then begins to itemize the damages inflicted by this so-called police work. A 14-year old in critical but stable condition, a formal brutality charge, the loss of a car, two vests, two handheld radios, a shotgun, and a week or two of Herc’s services (which, given the situation, might not be such a bad thing).

“And for what?” he asks. “What did you learn when you went into the terrace at two in the morning to conduct field interviews? What valuable information did we acquire from this situation?” These are rhetorical questions, as Daniels is well aware that they were not here for any information. But they are serious questions, too. As a commander, he needs to understand the whole situation to decide how to respond, and he demands that they fill in the gaps, the parts of the story that can’t be accounted for with a raw tally of damages. The key information that he needs is who hit the boy. Herc and Carver look down silently, making it clear that they won’t sell out one of their own. After a tense pause, Prez owns up to it.

The way Daniels handles this act of brutality is crucial to how he and we in the audience come to understand his role, and the paradoxes inherent in any leadership position. In fact, it is anticipated earlier in the scene when Daniels says that, for Herc, this brutality charge will make it “an even four in the last two years.” Herc says “none sustained,” to which Daniels spits back “but all of them true.” This exchange establishes a clear line between two realities that surround police brutality. On the surface, there is the official level, led by investigations from the hated IID. According to Internal, Herc has never brutalized a citizen. Daniels’ reply, though, suggests that the official version of the story is not the “true” version. Herc’s mute response to Daniels shows that he knows this as well. The brutality is very real. It is Daniels’ job to find the delicate balance between the two versions of the story.

Returning to the politically-sensitive case of Prez, Daniels finds himself in the reverse position. After spending the first part of the scene ascertaining the “true” version of the riot, he asks Prez the key question: “Why?” Prez gives a juvenile, yet surprisingly-honest, answer: “He pissed me off.” And this is where Daniels steps over to the other side of the line. He describes a new scenario that he hopes will become the official version of the story. It is loaded with hypothetical phrases like “I’m guessing” and “maybe,” as Daniels meticulously rewrites a version of the riot where Prez only attacked the kid after being threatened, where the assault (with flashlight, not gun) was needed to protect all three detectives on the scene. It is a much milder, more justifiable version of the riot. It is also a complete fiction. When he tells Prez to “go practice,” Daniels becomes a director commanding his actor to get the lines right.

For Daniels, this is an automatic, unhesitating decision to protect his men, even though they were so obviously in the wrong. It is only later that night, in the comfort of a home far away from the West Side projects, that he is able to fully process the situation and his handling of it.

He does this with the help of his wife, Marla, who sees the situation with an objective moral clarity that can only be achieved from a safe distance. “You should have hung them,” she asserts decisively as the couple eats dinner. The conversation progresses with Marla in the role of the idealistic conscience and Cedric taking on the practical perspective of the police insider. “If I hang them I hang myself,” he says. A leader is not just above his men; he is one of them. He is accountable for all of their actions, so he must protect them to protect himself. He inadvertently illustrates this when he adds “You don’t give your people up to IID. You don’t do that.” Daniels, in his insistence on protecting Prez with his silence, not only aligns himself with Herc and Carver (who also refused to give Prez up even when they know he was wrong) but also the anti-snitching ethic of the very culture he is trying to combat with his detail. Marla points out the ethical failings of these policies by evoking the 14-year-old kid who Prez put into the hospital.

The problem is, there is no logical way for Cedric to resolve this type of moral concern with the political realities of his job. “This case is just…” and he can’t even finish the sentence. “Get out of it,” Marla says. “How do I do that?” She has no answer. All she can offer is the clever but impractical advice that is the epigraph of “The Detail”: “I don’t know, but you can’t lose if you do not play.” By reversing the more customary expression, “you can’t win if you don’t play,” which Cedric mentions, she redefines the goals of this hypothetical game. It is not about winning, it is about avoiding loss. It is bad enough that this policy ensures a nice level of mediocrity and obedience, the path of least resistance, what makes it worse is that it is not even realistic. Daniels is in a game where not playing is not an option. As she walks him through the unwinnable logic of the case, where he loses if he pushes too hard and also if he doesn’t push hard enough, Daniels is reduced to mindlessly affirming her syllogisms with the word “correct.” Marla is right, and she is also right with her brilliantly-incisive claim that “the game is rigged.” But she offers no solution.

That is because there is no solution, and Marla herself may well be another part of the problem. This is clear in the setting of this conversation, especially as it contrasts with the scene that started this whole thing from the previous night. In that first scene, we see Herc, Carver, and Prez sitting outside in the dark, drinking beer out of cans and listening to the shrieking guitar of The Guess Who’s “American Woman.” Now, Daniels and Marla sit at home in a well-lit dining room, drinking white wine out of crystal stemware and eating a nice meal by candlelight to the sound of soft classical piano and their forks clinking on the fine china. These two worlds couldn’t be farther apart, and yet they are both worlds which Daniels must inhabit. As a Lieutenant, he is responsible for these men, and he must live by the same rules he puts on them. On the other hand, he lives a luxurious lifestyle with Marla, one that demands that he continue to gain promotions and move up the ladder by pleasing those above him.

For Daniels, this is his Scylla and Charybdis, the narrow strait he must navigate to avoid plunging into the abyss. In The Odyssey, Odysseus has to choose between risking all of his men in the whirlpool of Charybdis or losing some of his men to the six-headed monster of Scylla. There is no way to travel through unscathed, so all that is left to Odysseus is to try to minimize the damage. For Daniels, Marla’s ethical concerns are the six-heads of the monster. He feels terrible about the 14-year-old, and he knows that Herc, Carver, and especially Prez deserve to be punished. But he also knows that the only person who reminds him of this is also the person who thrives on his success. All he can do is keep playing this rigged game, and hope he can keep some of his morals intact in the process.

Follow The Wire Blog on Twitter at @thewireblog

2 thoughts on “1.2: Daniels’ Unwinnable Game

  1. Pingback: The Wire, "The Wire": Daniels Falls From the Golden Ladder | The Wire Blog

  2. Pingback: The Wire, "Game Day," Avon Falls Off the Map | The Wire Blog

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.