“Just some sadass down in the basement…”—D’Angelo
While McNulty is busy digging himself deeper into the case by stoking Judge Phelan’s interest in the Barksdales, the other members of the ragtag newly-formed detail move into their new home, and it’s not pretty. With Daniels in the lead, Kima, Carver, Herc and Santangelo follow like a row of ducklings. He opens the door that leads to a basement. We see a low angle shot, looking up a darkened stairway at a group of peons whose relocation to this murky subterranean world should remind Office Space fans of squirrely Milton’s slow stuttering descent into Storage B.
Like Milton, the members of the detail are getting filed away into a location appropriate to the way the high command views their task. They are being buried. We watch as they slowly realize exactly how they are going to spend the next few months of their professional lives. This is a dank pit, echoing with unidentified creaks, whooshing pipes, and other strange sounds that fill the bowels of the building. The ancient stone archways give the feel of catacombs. The giant metal doors give the feel of a dungeon. You can see the disbelief in the faces of the detectives, and you can hear it in their blasphemous declarations (“Jesus Christ!” “God damn!”).
Of course there is no power, literally and metaphorically, and no office equipment, just piles of discarded furniture, maintenance supplies, and old unwanted boxes filled with files nobody needs anymore. There is a phone. “At least that works,” Herc jokes when it rings, but it has to be a wrong number. Santangelo sums up everybody’s feelings when he picks up the phone and immediately slams it back into its place. “It was for McNulty,” he says, and everybody laughs at the insolent asshole who isn’t even around to see what a hole he is dragging the rest of them into.
They are all getting their first taste of life in the basement.
Meanwhile across town, D’Angelo is beginning to adjust to life in his own pit, as his new underlings enjoy a meal of McNuggets (D’Angelo declines when they offer him one). The ensuing conversation, the first of Season 1’s great pieces of Pit commentary, starts with some typical banter as Wallace and Poot marvel at the miracle of modern culinary engineering that is the McNugget. “He said later to the bone,” Wallace says reverentially about the creator, “nugget that meat up and make some real money” (even a wordsmith as great as Shakespeare could never have thought to use the word “nugget” as a verb). D’Angelo, keeping his eyes on the practical functions of his new domain, seems to actively ignore this absurd conversation until he hears Wallace declare with confidence “shit, he richer than a motherfucker.” Now, D’Angelo feels the need to step in and give his naive young charges a lesson in corporate economics.
“Why?” he challenges, “you think he get a percentage?” Here is a loaded word, one which suggests that the inventor of the nuggets is completely cut off from the profit pie (a warm rectangular apple pie, presumably) while also anticipating the terminology of the Occupy Wall Street movement. D’Angelo goes on to imagine the man’s working quarters. “The man who invented them things, just some sad-ass down in the basement of McDonalds, thinking of some shit to make money for the real players.” Poot, clearly associating with the inventor and not the “real players,” protests: “naw man, that ain’t right.” D’Angelo’s response is a biting summation of capitalist ethics. “Fuck right. It ain’t about right. It’s about money.” He then paints a bleak picture of the inventor’s future, “still in the basement,” working for “regular wage.” This strikes a chord with these wage-rate hoppers, who must be asking themselves how long they will have to spend in their current post in the low-rises, picking apart chicken nuggets as a man with a powerful name tells them how it really is.
And D’Angelo is certainly an authority on this. Because of his former position and his relationship to the“real player,” he knows what life is like on the top, up the stairs in Orlando’s that you have to climb to reach Avon and Stringer (even the conversation D’Angelo has with Avon at the rec center later in the episode takes place on the top of a flight of stairs). His depiction of the interaction between “Mr. Nugget” and Ronald McDonald has a humor that barely hides its bitterness. He reduces the corporate elite into the absurd, clownish form of their mascot, and laughs at the notion that they would part with even a fraction of their money as compensation for the mere act of innovation.
D’Angelo already understands what Daniels’ detail is just starting to figure out. The basement is the place where the overlords, enthroned eight floors up, repress their necessary evils. It is the Freudian subconscious where we all bury the parts of our psyche that threaten to disrupt the delicate conscious world we have built for ourselves. Burrell may have been forced to create this detail, but he is going to place them as far as possible from the window view of his cushy office in the sky. Avon may have to keep his unreliable nephew in business to appease his sister (and to maintain the illusion that he is devoted to family), but he exiles him to the lowest reaches of his territory, a place whose very name suggests hell (“Gotta keep the devil way down in the hole!”).
But there is another side to this, and it is suggested in an understated way by Wallace, who ends up getting the last word in the great McNugget debate. After hearing about poor unappreciated Mr. Nugget, Wallace says “still had the idea, though.” In this one statement, Wallace completely redefines the terms of the discussion. D’Angelo’s descriptions are entirely economical, discussing the nugget’s invention only in terms of work, reward and power. Wallace shifts the discussion to a more elevated plateau of Kohlberg’s ethical hierarchy. The inventor may never get paid like the executives, but in the end, he is superior. He made something, gave something to the world that is so tangible that the golden grease is shining on Wallace’s fingers as boneless chicken nourishes him all these years later. No reward or lack thereof can change that.
This is why the Detail’s disgust for their new office is unfounded. Freud sees the basement as a place where we repress our demons, but his rebellious protege Carl Jung saw it as representative of something greater. Jung conceived of the Collective Unconscious, the dark depths from which all creativity and human knowledge stem. The underground can be scary, but it is also the fertile realm from which all food and sustenance grows. Far from being a bad place (although bad things do exist there), the collective basement is the only place where real ideas and innovations can be mined and processed. Perhaps it is that distance from the conscious realm that gives the basement dwellers the power and ability to pursue their own creative paths. This happens not in spite of, but because of the way these underground laborers are so carefully hidden from the view of the people in the towers, who blindly reap the rewards.
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