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The opening scene of The Wire‘s second episode, “The Detail,” marks the transition point between two aspects of William Gant’s murder. We have gone from the scene of the murder, where D’Angelo has his guilty epiphany, to the morgue, where McNulty and Bunk discuss the possible causes for and ramifications of the killing. This transition illustrates the two worlds that come together around any murder. They are like the two hemispheres of the brain, each one controlling its own half of the body and its own unique set of cognitive functions—the emotional, intuitive right brain and the rational, logical left.
In the previous episode, we watch through D’Angelo’s eyes as the cops roll the body over and reveal it to be that of Gant. At this moment, we experience the murder from an emotional and ethical point of view, from the point of view of somebody who feels responsible, at least in part, for the dead man before him. We feel the sadness and the shock that death causes for those connected to it, and we feel the fear of a neighborhood dominated by a violent gang that will go to any lengths to protect its territory and its reputation.
But by the start of “The Detail,” we have already shifted from this emotional response to the cold, antiseptic world of the morgue. Once again, we see Gant’s corpse, this time from overhead with a downward-facing head implying his descent and imminent burial. He is naked, body bag zipped halfway up, his wound barely visible as somebody snaps photos for evidence.
Presiding casually over this world is Doc Frazier, who mechanically recites a series of facts about the victim as if he were reading straight off of a file: “Gant, William. 41 years. Single headshot, close range, bullet pancaked on the inner skull.” The short, fragmentary sentences, the bureaucratic inversion of the victim’s name, and the lack of any descriptions beyond technical terms like “pancaked” and “close range,” are the routine utterances of a professional standing over one in a seemingly-endless series of bodies that have come before his desensitized eyes. He even eats a snack as he delivers the information with a clinical detachment. He mindlessly spoons some unknown food (possibly tuna) out of a can, as if the dead man before him is just an inconvenience that is interrupting snacktime.
Doc Frazier is far from the only one numb to the emotional impact of death. In fact, everybody in the scene approaches death in the matter-of-fact manner expected of a morgue. There are medical examiners buzzing around, going about their everyday business of dissecting corpses, measuring wounds, wheeling gurneys, weighing body parts, making notations on clipboards and taking photographs. There is a quick cutaway shot of the doctor about to saw into the chest of a body. This is more a bustling factory than a morgue.
Detectives Bunk and McNulty also have a removed attitude toward death. They seem equally unfazed by the bodies, and Bunk mirrors Frazier’s objective description with another mini-biography that reduces Gant to a series of bullet points: a few disorderlies, lives alone, works as a maintenance man, no wife, no kids.
Of course, all of this detachment does not indicate insensitivity. On the contrary, this is completely necessary if the detectives are to do their jobs effectively. Neither the detectives nor the medical examiners would survive a day if they internalized the human toll behind each body. Reducing victims to data points enables these professionals to logically assess each situation, see the whole picture, and recreate what happened, all free from emotion or prejudice.
At the same time, there really is a human being behind all of those facts, and a real need to understand how Gant died and why. The conversation between Bunk and McNulty that occupies the bulk of the scene shows the challenges that detectives (and anybody else, for that matter) face when trying to understand a mystery. Like the two hemispheres of the brain, the debating detectives represent the emotional and the logical sides of a murder investigation: Jimmy’s instinctive certainty that it was the Barksdale crew retaliating on a snitch and the uncertain Bunk’s refusal to commit to any single explanation.
McNulty’s hypothesis is intuitive. Any viewer of the show already drew the same conclusion the moment the cops rolled Gant’s body. We already saw Gant testify against D’Angelo, and we saw the body dumped where everybody could see. Jimmy recognizes this not only as an act of revenge, but also as an act of theater. “Your audience is the highrise projects,” he says. It is a show put on by the Barksdales to demonstrate their power by ruthlessly warning the West Side of the consequences of turning on them. But McNulty’s argument is also emotional—he needs this to be a Barksdale hit to justify all the trouble he is stirring up within the department. A dead witness affirms his commitment to “do this case.” It justifies his crusade against the bloodthirsty Barksdales and the incompetent police force that ignores them while they take over half of the city. McNulty seems almost giddy over the murder—he can barely suppress his smirk as he goes to share the news with Judge Phelan.
Bunk knows that this is most likely a Barksdale hit, but he also knows that a good explanation isn’t always the right explanation. “Ain’t necessarily what it looks like,” Bunk warns McNulty, reading his mind with the twinlike ease of true partners. “A man walking down the street in West Baltimore…that’ll catch you a bullet for a half-dozen reasons.” And logically, we know that Bunk is right too. Sure, Gant could have been killed for snitching, but he just as easily could have been killed for an unpaid debt, for looking at somebody the wrong way, for a woman, for ripping off a drug dealer, or for simply being in the wrong place when a stray bullet came past. Excluding any of these options without supporting evidence could close off a possible lead in the case.
This leaves two questions:
Which is the better approach, the logical or the emotional, the right brain or the left?
A possible answer comes later in the episode when McNulty and Bunk interrogate D’Angelo. In an outraged tone, they narrate a tragic fiction about Gant’s life: a churchgoing man working two jobs to support three kids, gunned down for telling the truth about a murder he happened to witness. This biography stands in nearly comical contrast to the details offered up in the morgue.
Both of these biographies prove useful to the investigation. The factual version provides details about the murder itself (like the assassination-style close-range head wound) and information about Gant’s background (including the fact that he was a witness in D’Angelo’s trial, which led Bunk to make the connection to the Barksdales in the first place). The emotional version, by eliciting a letter of sympathy from D’Angelo, offers proof to Daniels that this is a case worth doing right, and plants a seed of guilt that will grow in D’Angelo throughout the season.
So which one is the real Gant?
One version is cold and lifeless, the other one is a melodramatic fiction. And yet each one carries elements of truth. The factual Gant shows us who he was: a man who lived alone, an honest worker, somebody “hard-headed” enough to testify in spite of a powerful gang’s intimidation. But the fictional Gant, while merely part of an interrogation ploy (one of several in Jimmy and Bunk’s arsenal), illustrates a deeper ethical truth: that Gant deserved better than this, that his murder (committed after he testified) reveals how cruel and calculating the Barksdales are when it comes to sending a “cold message” to secure their reputation.
The truth, in this case and with all dualities, lies in a third version, one that stands between and above these two opposing biographies. It is a synthesis of the factual and the fictional details. It is easy to forget that there is a third Gant, a person with 41 years of life, 41 years of happiness and sadness, friends and enemies, moments of peace and moments of despair, behavior both orderly and disorderly. He is a man who did the hard physical labor of futilely maintaining a rapidly-crumbling housing project. And he is a man with the courage to testify against a murderer even when he knew he was putting himself at risk.
As viewers of a show in which he is a bit player, we can’t know any of this, any more than Bunk, Jimmy, D’Angelo, or Doc Frazier can, but the combination of the other two versions implies enough of a story that we can get a sense of the real William Gant, one that is neither fact nor symbol. It is only by accessing and balancing both sides of a duality that a picture of the whole can come into focus.
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