“The Buys” ends with a small joke that reflects a common dilemma. It a moment where a character accidentally reveals a lapse in his understanding of a foreign world. The episode already has several examples of this, like Polk and Mahone’s attempt to get Avon’s picture, or Sydnor’s half-assed undercover disguise. But in the final scene, the lapse of understanding parallels the conflict that lies at the very heart of the detail.
As with the final scene from “The Detail,” we once again see McNulty sitting in his car in a parking lot at night. He is still listening to oldies, but he doesn’t seem to be as drunk as last time (he sips beer from a can, a light drinking night for him). A car pulls up on McNulty’s passenger side and the automatic window opens to reveal Fitz, his friend from the FBI. McNulty leans over to roll down his passenger-side window and says “I can tell you were never in patrol.” Fitz smiles as he realizes his mistake, then he puts his car back into drive and circles around to face the other way. Now he can have a real conversation with McNulty through the driver’s side windows, face to face.
It is a minor mistake, one which costs Fitz nothing save a little mockery from his friend. But it illustrates a major gap in his experience. Here is a man whose skills have taken him to the FBI, who uses advanced technology to bring in “career cases” (even if the information that leads to these cases comes from McNulty). While Fitz is hiding behind heavy security in the federal building, McNulty is out on the streets getting the real information and talking face to face to other patrolmen.
This suggests a greater distance between the two. These two men exist in two very different worlds: McNulty’s practical world of the Baltimore streets and Fitz’ lofty, bureaucratic world of Federal law enforcement.The difference between the two men’s experiences creates a gap that is perfectly represented by the space between them when Fitz first pulls up. It shows that Fitz has a fundamental lack of understanding of the day-to-day world of a patrol cop. The purpose of this meeting is for Fitz to communicate important, classified information to McNulty, but communication is impossible if the two men can’t even talk face to face. The can only begin to communicate when Fitz comes around to McNulty’s side.
That’s not to take away from the significance of Fitz’ side of the world. After all, it does give him access to the most advanced technology and some pretty specialized information, which is exactly what he came to share with his buddy. “Daniels is dirty,” Fitz says when he is finally close enough to have the conversation. He goes on to tell McNulty about a two-month assets investigation into Daniels’ finances. The Feds discover “a couple hundred thousand in liquid assets,” much more than anybody at his rank should have. Apparently, crystal stemware doesn’t come cheap. What is more disturbing is the fact that the feds gave the information to Burrell, who held onto it and did nothing.
Suddenly, we have an explanation for the odd glance Fitz gave earlier in the episode when McNulty named Daniels as the detail’s commander. More importantly, we begin to get an explanation for the “stupid” raids that Daniels orders during the later parts of the episode. As the screen fades and the episode ends, we see McNulty lost in thought, and you can almost see him puzzling it out, replaying the events of the past few days through the filter of this new information.
It won’t get stated explicitly until the season’s penultimate episode, but Fitz’ revelation shows a lot about the higher levels of the police department and the relationship between Burrell and Daniels. Whether Daniels is aware of it or not, his boss is in possession of some extremely damning information. The unexplained money seriously calls Daniels’ integrity into question. Possibly worse, it shows that he is in Burrell’s pocket. This advantage, and not simple availability, is the real reason why Burrell put Daniels on this case. Call it the opposite of suction.
With that in mind, the raids that end the episode come into clearer focus. When Daniels shares the bad news with Kima, McNulty and Sydnor, it is almost too subtle to catch on first viewing. “I told the deputy we had a few hand-to-hands, low level people. He wants us to put everything we got into search and seizures and hit the projects Wednesday afternoon.” He delivers this news with the sorrowful tone of a middle-manager forced into an unpopular decision by a short sighted superior, but there is one problem. The order came after Daniels himself offered Burrell information on the buys. He feels compelled to share all of his progress with Burrell, and in the process, he gives up any real control over the case.
As long as Daniels keeps going upstairs to Burrell, the case will progress as an empty, half-assed show staged to give the appearance of law enforcement in the hopes of appeasing Judge Phelan. Even Daniels knows this when he says “The man upstairs wants to see a circus. A couple days from now I got to show him three rings.” Daniels may be reluctant to go along with this strategy, but he is powerless to stop it. Meanwhile, the real, day-to-day work of soldiers like Kima and Sydnor is quickly “scratched together” into PC on the few “touts and children” that they can put in cuffs while the news cameras roll.
If the revelation of Daniels’ dirt has one positive side, it is that McNulty starts to realize that the case will never proceed beyond the street level unless he pushes for a different approach. He seems to have already anticipated this earlier in the episode when he paid a surprise late-night visit to Ronnie, a visit that starts as an information session on the legality of pager clones, and ends in bed. When he asks her about the possibility of cloning pagers, the workaholic Pearlman has the file handy, but she warns McNulty that he needs two things: exhaustion and a supervisor willing to go along with the strategy. McNulty is confident that “Daniels will come around.” If the failed raids bring McNulty closer to meeting the requirement of exhaustion, the episode’s final revelation makes the requirement of a cooperative supervisor seem more unattainable than before.
The raids, of course, turn out to be a disaster. Mahone gets punched, the detail puts a scare into the Barksdales (which, when coupled with the Omar raid from the previous night, will have devastating consequences), four or five low-level hoppers get arrested (including a beaten-up Bodie), and the detectives end up wandering aimlessly around a stash house that Omar cleaned out the night before (a fact that McNulty knew before the raids, but craftily kept to himself). So when Carver tells Kima that Channel 2 wants to put the results of the raid on television, Kima says “we ain’t got shit.” She looks at Daniels, who shakes his head in admission of his failure, both as Lieutenant and as Circus ringmaster.
This is why McNulty is the spiritual commander of the detail. By revealing the emptiness of the buy/bust strategy, McNulty hopes to bring the bureaucrat Daniels around to his side so that they can start to communicate about case strategy face to face. It is the same thing he does with Fitz’ car. Unfortunately, the very news that Fitz communicates suggest that the gap between McNulty and Daniels might be too wide to ever bridge. If nothing else, it is enough to create doubt in both McNulty’s mind and the viewer’s about Daniels’ leadership. By the helpless look on his face at the end of the raids, Daniels may be starting to doubt it himself.
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