1.2: Sympathy for Herc

By Peter Honig

“It ain’t right…you think it’s right?” —Herc

Last week, I tweeted the following:

“Herc gets hurt twice in “The Detail.” He steps on a nail and gets hit with a bottle. Both well-deserved. ‪#thewiredetails1.2@D_Lombardozzi

An hour or so later, Domenick Lombardozzi wrote the following response: “U fing jakel!”

I wasn’t sure how to take that. It isn’t always the easiest thing to detect tone in short-form digital communications like texts and tweets, so I just assumed he was joking around. But as those fierce eyes stared out at me from his Twitter avatar, I started to fear that I had angered him, and I have seen what an angry Herc is capable of.

Am I really a jackal, picking away at the carcass of The Wire and all of those who made it? I’m sure that Lombardozzi is tired to hearing about what an asshole Herc is, and make no mistake, Herc is an asshole. But that has nothing to do with Lombardozzi, right? Who would blame an actor for the behavior of the character he plays?

Still, this got me thinking a little more about Herc. Was he really so bad? If it isn’t fair to hold an actor responsible for the role that somebody else wrote for him, maybe it is equally unfair to hold a narcotics detective, a soldier in the war on drugs, responsible for the misdeeds he performs while acting out his own role in a war that he had no part in scripting. Besides, Herc is also one of the show’s funniest characters, and humor always buys a little extra sympathy.

That is not to let Herc off the hook, though. I am sure that over the course of my analysis of the next 58 episodes, I will find many appropriate occasions to call Herc a brute, a thug, a mindless shortsighted lazy buffoon, and a clown (especially during Season 4, where Herc is arguably the chief villain). So before I do all that, I thought it would only be fair to both Herc and Lombardozzi to take one piece, right at the beginning, and try to show a little sympathy for this faithful Drug Warrior.

In the first episode of The Wire, we meet Herc and Carver in their element, two narcotics officers adept at pulling street rips on low-level drug dealers (as long as Kima sets up the bust and manages the paperwork afterwards). They are a pair of physical, shit talking cops who “collect bodies, split heads…the Western District way.” They even show some capacity for reflection, as Carver makes his observation that you can’t even call the War on Drugs a war, because “wars end.” Herc is so impressed with that aphorism that he writes it down.

But by the second episode, they have been dragged down into the basement in Daniels’ wake, and they seem to have lost their footing. The first work they do (beyond the physical labor of converting their basement cave into a semblance of an office) is to accompany Kima to the roof to gather information. The problem is that Kima keeps the purpose and strategy of this mission a secret. She ignores both of them as she snaps pictures of the players down below. When she leaves to follow the crew members, Herc even asks “where you going?” and his response is the silence of Kima’s departure.

This is where he begins to vent about his situation. “Yo Carv, you notice that most of the time it’s like Kima thinks she’s above us or something?” he complains. “All I see is some stuck up dyke bitch who ain’t been in CID half the time of you or me. And she’s fuckin telling us what to do. It ain’t right…you think it’s right?” He is bitter about being bossed around, especially by somebody who has neither rank nor seniority on him. He echoes Mahone’s earlier evocation of “seniority” as a reason not to do work. Herc has faith in a system structured around these notions, but the reality of the case casts doubt on that faith. Unlike Mahone, though, Herc is willing to work. He is frustrated that he is being left out of the loop. Even Carver, who was being ignored by Kima a minute earlier, picks up her superior sense of secrecy when he picks up her camera. Carver tells his partner, whose persistent questioning he can no longer ignore, “yo man shut up for just a minute. I’m trying to concentrate on this shit here.”

Herc is being made insignificant. He understands neither the politics nor the investigative strategies of this new type of case, and nobody takes the time to explain it to him. The problem is that, as a detective, he is too powerful to be dismissed. In a sense, he is more than just a cop. He is a soldier in the endless combat that is the War on Drugs. He is a soldier in more than just a metaphorical way. He has access to weapons, vests, and other equipment. There are clear battlegrounds like the lowrises and Franklin Terrace. Most importantly, there are enemy combatants, the faceless hoppers who infest the corners and scurry like mice when the Five-O come marching in.

Herc’s dilemma is the dilemma of all soldiers who are dropped into an unwinnable, never-ending war that they do not understand. He has been given power but no purpose, and it all boils over at the end of the episode when Herc instigates a minor riot.

The riot begins quietly, with three detectives plowing through a bunch of beers at the end of a tough shift. The opening shot sets the stage: Carver and Prez sit in the open trunk of Prez’ Crown Vic while Herc stands and blows off steam about the case. The beer cans scattered at their feet show that they are all a few beers deep (and that none of them have respect for littering laws). More importantly, they are outside, sitting in a poorly-lit series of concrete archways. They seem to be buried in the bowels of the city, enclosed by the dark tunnel vision of the ill-defined war on drugs, unable to see past their own bruised egos.

“This case isn’t shit Carv,” Herc begins from his pulpit. “We’re dancing around with this motherfucker, typing shit out, taking pictures of assholes in hats. What the fuck is that?” Carver amens “It’s bullshit.” Herc channels his frustration into the methods of the case, which he describes in vaguely feminine, artistic terms (dancing, photos, fashion, stenography). Of course, his real frustration stems from his inability to use the skills that he has cultivated during his years in the BPD. These are the skills of a soldier, the decisive use of force and brutality. And so he proposes a solution: “I say we go down there now. Right fucking now. We go into those towers and we let them know.”

What happens next proceeds like an after-school special. Carver thinks Herc is joking, but bully Herc insists. Prez agrees to go along, and finally Carver, clearly against his better judgment, reluctantly says “what the hell: let’s do it.” Peer pressure wins again.

They drive to the terrace, feuled by adrenaline, beer, insecurity and The Guess Who’s “American Woman.” What happens next is an inevitable disaster. Before we even see the car, the well-disciplined calls of “Five-O” and “Shut it down” clear out any hoppers the cops could possibly arrest. With no real mission and no real target, all they can do is harass the citizens unlucky enough to get in their way. They curse and shout, they tackle one or two people, search them, scatter their possessions and make them take down their pants. With nothing left to prove, Herc looks up into the darkened balconies rising above him and makes a futile proclamation. “Y’all can let Barksdale and them know who owns these towers…I’m sick of this shit!” The response is an anonymous verbal raspberry: “Kiss my ass.”

What happens next is the ugly result of what inevitably happens when a group of bullies overreach and cause the illusion of their power to vanish. As more and more insults (“That’s bullshit, man,” “That’s fucked up”) fly down at them from the outraged citizens above, Prez needlessly pistol whips a disobedient kid. Even Herc and Carver are shocked by this violence, but they are the ones who created the situation to begin with, and anyway, it is too late because down comes a glass bottle. It shatters on the ground, mirroring the shattering of any remaining authority that the detectives have in this situation. All that’s left from here is for them to take cover and call desperately into their soon-to-be-incinerated radio as bottles, bullets, and televisions rain down on them from above, cast down by enemy insurgents protected by their height, their numbers, their anonymity, and the darkness.

On the surface, this riot is caused by Herc, a classic bully who tries to hide his own limitations behind a facade of toughness and violence. It’s like those satisfying scenes in High School movies, when the scrawny kid finally pushes the bully back and everybody applauds and feels a little more empowered. But at the same time, this riot is a microcosm of The War on Drugs. These soldiers are equipped with little sense of purpose, and to compensate, they take on an inflated sense of power. This becomes problematic when they run into an enemy they can’t see and can never understand. The problem is that the people in the towers, the hoppers and those who live near the hoppers, have home field advantage. They may not have guns or cuffs or kevlar vests, but when faced with the excessive violence of these bully cops, they respond with a newly-found power, the power of a group of people who are fed up with being needlessly oppressed and who suddenly feel empowered by a sense of outraged purpose.

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