1.2: Details Big and Small

By Peter Honig

“Yeah, I could tell”—Kima

“The Detail” follows the eponymous squad through its infancy stage, and up to its first clumsy steps (as well as its first time falling on its face). All of the foundational elements are there: they get their home, they lock down the full roster of personnel (for better or worse) and they have their first organizational meeting, complete with a division into pairs of partners and a basic investigation strategy. This is all accompanied by the perhaps-too-appropriate sounds of flushing toilets and confused maintenance men.

It is a big-picture episode in many ways, one where the psychological and political maneuverings of Daniels and McNulty, crucial as they are, operate counter to an idea inherent in the very name of both the episode and the group: Detail.

The writers draw attention to this with one of The Wire’s most effective trademarks—repetition of a single line in different contexts. Early in “The Detail,” in consecutive scenes, we hear two mocking onlookers heckle somebody with the phrase “You missed a spot.”

McNulty says it first, teasing klutzy Judge Phelan, who just accidentally emptied an entire packet of yellow mustard onto his tie. As Phelan dabs at it with a napkin, McNulty, bitter about the way the conversation is unfolding, says “You missed a spot.” Fortunately, the judge is protected by his robe, which covers up all stains.

In the very next scene, we see Santangelo mopping futilely at a yellow stain on the floor of the basement office, when drunk hump Mahone grumbles unhelpfully, “Hey, you missed a spot!” “Why don’t you fucking do it?” Santangelo asks. “Seniority,” Mahone replies. Like the Judge’s robe, Mahone’s seniority spares him from the need to look at the details.

This echoed admonition draws attention to an incomplete job. It is a warning about what happens when people fail to pay attention to the details. Where the Barksdale investigation is concerned, getting good personnel may be important, but so is the acquisition of usable information.

Thank god for Kima and Bubbs.

While the bosses worry about suction, Kima leads Herc and Carver, the herd of elephants, onto the roof across from the terrace to play the hat game with Bubbles, her faithful CI. This ingenious techniques uses a secret visual language that enables Kima to watch and gather information from afar while Bubbles snitches right in front of his targets.

They are beginning to harvest the first scraps of information, the details that will be necessary if they want to eventually work up the ladder and put a charge on Avon. In order to do this, they will first need to identify some of the rungs that lead up to Stringer and Avon, who are safely perched at the top. For the first time, as Kima snaps pictures that are clear and unclear, in focus and out (all while actively ignoring Carver’s prying questions about her sexuality), the Detail lays eyes on such high-level players as Wee-Bey, Stinkum, and Little Man. More importantly, they capture the images, preserving them for later use.

A few scenes later, back in the basement, we see the fruits of this labor and learn about the workings of the hat trick through the impressed eyes of McNulty. We also get our first look at the bulletin board that will become such a critical organizational tool throughout the series.

As good a snitch as Bubbles is, we learn that he does have his limitations, and they suggest the broader limitations of a life wallowing in details. “Ain’t so good with names but, you know, faces I keep in my head,” he admits to McNulty. This is natural for a heroin addict, whose entire life revolves around the details that will lead to his next fix. Bubbles is so focused on the visual details in front of him that he misses the bigger picture around him.

This operates the other way as well. McNulty persists in questioning  Bubbles about his snitching talents, seeing only a valuable informant. McNulty, always astute as a detective, has missed a spot where Bubbles’ humanity is concerned, but the sensitive Kima is able to pick up on the detail. “How you feeling Bubbs?” she asks, noticing the way he has started to squirm. “Restless.” He is beginning to withdraw, and needs to get high.

That is the problem with focus. It is impossible to see both near and far simultaneously. Anybody who has held their hand in front of their eyes and alternated focus between a finger and some distant spot has experienced this. A focus on details comes at the expense of a broader view and vice-versa.

There are ways to see both, though. In film and photography, deep-focus lenses create a visible reality impossible to experience with the naked eye (a technique pioneered in film by Orson Welles and Jean Renoir). You can also fool your eye by quickly switching focus, but that is just an illusion. On a more literal, practical level, the way to balance the two types of focus is to pair up people who embody the two perspectives. Kima from afar, Bubbles from up close.

This type of pairing is crucial to any organization. It is for this very reason that Daniels breaks the Detail down into partners who will (he hopes) complement each other (of course, there is always a risk that poorly-paired partners will instead exaggerate shared deficiencies). The detail itself is designed that way as well, with a division between murder cases and narcotics-led buy/busts. Beyond that, the Detail makes progress in the episode on both the big-picture level (courtesy of Daniels and McNulty) as well as the crucial foundational details (courtesy of Kima, Herc, Carver and Bubbles).

As Bubbles leaves to get his next blast, ecstatic about the overly-generous $20 that McNulty gave him, the camera’s focus returns to the board. We see a close shot of an index card bearing a name without a face: “Avon Barksdale.” Underneath the card, on the yellowing cork of the board, there is nothing but blank empty space taunting them, daring them to fill it in. If you listen closely, you can almost hear a voice, mocking and maybe a bit hung over, grumbling, “You missed a spot!”

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2 thoughts on “1.2: Details Big and Small

  1. Pingback: The Wire, "Lessons" Stakeout Hypotheticals | The Wire Blog

  2. Nice insight about the parallelism of the yellow stains and the difference between those who have to clean them and those who don’t. I’m not entirely persuaded that the missing picture of Avon is supposed to relate to that. The stains were in plain sight and weren’t caught because the cleaner wasn’t that invested in the process. Avon is missing because the Detail isn’t up to speed yet.

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