1.3: America’s Next Top Dopefiend

…If you for real–Bubbles

The moment has finally arrived. After two weeks, the members of Daniels’ detail are finally ready to make some controlled buys, the first half of Burrell’s oft-repeated mantra “buy/bust.” This is also the moment that will determine the future course of the detail. McNulty tells Kima that he isn’t going with them because he thinks it is a waste. “Touts and children, that’s all you’re gonna get.” Of course he hopes the buys fail, because that failure would confirm the view he expressed in the first episode, when he told Daniels that the Barksdales are too deep and organized to be taken down with traditional street rips. If this turns out to be the case, then Daniels will have to look into other strategies, strategies which are much more in line with McNulty’s own vision for the detail.

But before the narcotics crew can load up the van and head down to the projects, they need a convincing undercover detective to join Bubbles and lure in the hoppers. Enter Sydnor, proudly dressing the part. This is the very reason Daniels asked for Sydnor, a black detective who can convincingly pose as a fiend in the projects.

But does he fit the part? He shows off his disguise with the tone of an announcer at the Derelicte fashion show (courtesy of Zoolander). “Detective Sydnor’s ensemble is the latest in Westside project wear. Have your torn cammies by Versace, stained sweatshirt by Ralph Lauren.” This is a parody, but one that hits close to the true purpose of what he is doing. An undercover detective, as implied by the very name, is an actor, hiding behind the cover of a fictional role. In this case, Sydnor is acting the role of a career fiend, and he seems to have thrown himself into the part. Beyond the clothes, he boasts of the preparations he has been making. “I ain’t showered in two days, I ain’t shaved in four. Right now, I am one ripe nasty son of a bitch.” It’s not exactly Robert De Niro putting on weight for Raging Bull or Natalie Portman shaving her head for V for Vendetta, but then, this is Baltimore, not Hollywood.

Still, even the Westside has its standards, and there are very real stakes. It is important to remember that failure to play a convincing fiend could mean death for both Sydnor and his accomplice, Bubbles. So Kima asks Bubbs to assess the audition. “What you think?…Is he low bottom enough for you?” Bubbles stands up, circles Sydnor, and begins to pick the disguise apart piece by piece with the intense scrutiny of a fashion critic.

“Clothes torn down enough,” he starts. The surface elements are there, but then Bubbles starts to dig deeper. He spots the wedding ring. “Shit, you married to the needle, boy, that shit been pawned off, if you for real. It’s a dead giveaway.” Bubbles proceeds to rattle off a list of other flaws: too heavy, no yellow on his teeth, no “fresh bleeds” on his hands.

Bubbles then gets right to the heart of the difference between performance and reality after Sydnor submits his “fucked up” shoes for inspection. Bubbles asks to see the soles, explaining that a true fiend has glass in his shoes from the “dead soldiers,” the empty vials scattered throughout the projects. This is a perfect symbol for the deceptive nature of clothes. Shoes have two sides and two functions. One function, represented by the top, is for show. For Sydnor, this half is as convincing as his clothes. But the sole of the shoe is the practical level, the unseen half that protects the foot from the ravages of the ground. This is the part that can’t be easily faked, the hidden surface that reveals the unseen truth. “Dance on some empties…get us both killed,” Bubbles mumbles. He is exasperated by this man, who is clowning around playing a role. For Bubbles, that role is his painful reality.

All of Sydnor’s earlier pride and humor vanish, but his defensive response reveals a key part of all performance. “So maybe I should go out and shoot up dope for a year or two, right? Come back when I can carry the look off.” Here, he brings up the gap that exists and has to exist between performance and reality. He is playing the part of a fiend precisely because he is not a fiend, and if he did shoot up for two years, he would be a real fiend but he would no longer be a detective. A performance, by its very definition has some degree of artifice to it. The question is, what degree of artifice is acceptable?

This is a particularly important question in a life-or-death situation like undercover investigation. This is also why Bubbles is such an asset to the detail. He is the real thing, and he can at least get Sydnor to fix some of the more-glaring flaws, flaws that will instantly be spotted as such by anybody native to that world.

But even after Bubbles successfully coaches Sydnor and the pair goes out and makes a series of buys, the problem of performance still haunts them. Just as the little details reveals Sydnor’s ignorance of the world of the projects, so do the strategic details reveal the ignorance of this very buy/bust approach. McNulty knows this, which is why he sits this one out (it is also why he is always talking about “real police”). Anybody who understands police investigation the way Bubbles understands the street would realize that any crew big enough to become a target of a special police detail is also organized enough to protect themselves, even from an undercover detective putting on an Oscar-worthy performance.

Now let me hear your interpretations, connections and questions…

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