“His name’s on the form in the file”–Mahone
Episode 3, “The Buys,” picks up two weeks into the detail, but there has been little progress. The “Avon Barksdale” index card that sits pinned to the top of the corkboard shows that they finally got his date of birth (8/15/70–it is fitting that this king of the urban jungle is a Leo) but shows “No Known Addresses” and still has no photo. “It’s fucking embarrassing,” McNulty laments, so as a self-proclaimed “leader of men,” he decides to put the low-wattage manpower cluttering the office to work. “We need to know what he looks like,” he tells Mahone who barely looks up from his newspaper to dismiss the command.
McNulty really does show some leadership by persuading the humps to go the the Housing Department Board to look for Barksdale’s photo in the files. He pulls the classic “false option” trick, where he offers to go himself, if Polk and Mahone choose to stay and sift through piles of old homicide files. Predictably, the drunks take the ride.
Later in the season, McNulty turns down an opportunity to see Avon live and in person because he says “we get Avon Barksdale by voice.” But at this early stage in the investigation, it is still important for the detail to get Avon’s picture, and it is not just for morale purposes. There is a practical reason too: they need to be chasing somebody real, and the first step towards making Avon real is with a photograph. Otherwise, he is just a phantom, a folk story, somebody who exists solely in “the word on the street” and in too-thin police department files.
This gets to an essential feature of photographs: their ability to make something visually concrete and specific. This feature is described perfectly in Scott McCloud’s manifesto on the art of the graphic novel, Understanding Comics. In this comic about comics, McCloud explains that visual abstraction exists as a spectrum. On one end, you have the ultimate symbol of human abstraction: the smiley face. This circle enclosing two dots and a short curved line is so vague that it stands in for anybody and everybody. On the other end of the spectrum after more and more realistic drawings, you have a photograph, which is one particular, actual person. If the detail wants to put that one person, Avon Barksdale, in handcuffs, they need to be able to see him as one person and not just a generic gangster.
So when Polk and Mahone return, apparently triumphant (and a little drunk), demanding run sheets and blindly tossing aside the bulletin board, Avon seems to be coming into focus. “We got your fucking picture, don’t you worry McNulty,” Mahone grumbles and slams down a polaroid. McNulty picks it up and sees the image of a middle-aged white man. McNulty poses the obvious question, “This is Barksdale?” and Mahone’s response shows the career detective’s undying faith in the Truth of Paperwork. “His name’s on the form in the file.” If a file says it, it must be so.
This sounds absurd, but really, the detail has nothing else to go on. Kima acknowledges this when she jokes “maybe he’s white.” It is laughable, but her joke touches on the fact that they really know virtually nothing about him (the fact that Avon is cautious and clever enough to have a fake photo placed in the Housing Department files gives a hint as to why they know so little). Kima begins to read off the scant details they have on him. Most of the information comes from his birth and childhood (times before he had to hide his identity), but even his father is unknown. “No flash, no profile.” McNulty says, in an accidental allusion to their lack of a visual image of him. Avon is once again a ghost who “pretty much comes up out of nowhere.” In fact, the description we get is based more on what he doesn’t have: work history, cars, driver’s license, tax information, prior arrests, kids, home. The closest they come is “vague CI information” that says he has several girlfriends, works out, and used to box Golden Gloves.
This is where Freamon rouses from his detective’s slumber. At the mention of Golden Gloves, he looks up from his model furniture and his magnifying glass lamp, shuts off the jazz tape he was listening to, and for the first time, speaks without having been spoken to. With hardly a word, he leaves, and a few hours later, he casually drops a boxing poster featuring Avon Barksdale’s name and face on the table in front of McNulty.
There is a great series of shots as Freamon, who doesn’t gloat, let alone explain where he got the poster (it is fairly self-explanatory, though) returns to his secluded desk. Kima looks at him with a sudden, revelatory admiration, and he reciprocates. As he should. He is the one who found the photo, but he was only able to do it because of Kima’s policy of writing everything down, no matter how trivial it may seem. The shots are interesting, because the detectives look at each other through a narrow space that separates a massive brick pillar from the wall. Here, in the hidden niches, is where true detectives solve cases.
It is appropriate that Freamon listens to jazz. His ability to gather information is largely improvisational. Where detectives like Polk and Mahone are blindly subservient to the straightforward information scored into documents and files, Freamon is able to pick one theme, one thread, and play with it until it has grown into something real and living.
That is exactly what he does with the information about Avon’s Golden Gloves career. In hindsight it seems like an obvious solution, but it is more than mere chance that led Freamon to the photograph. It is an understanding of the very thing Kima and McNulty were trying to achieve by getting the photo in the first place–a sense of Avon as not just a name, but a real person with a real history.
We see this in Freamon’s visit to the gym (where the housecat detective gets winded after climbing just one flight of stairs). Freamon gets the picture because he has the ability to imagine Avon’s history–if he boxed Golden Gloves, then he must have had fights, and there must be physical traces remaining from those fights.We see Freamon enter the bustling gym, its walls covered with posters and photographs of old fights and fighters, and he knows the trainer by name. This is the very place where a future druglord spent his time training and sweating, punching and getting punched.
At the same time that Freamon gets Avon’s picture, he also gains key insight into Avon’s personality. There is something very fitting about the fact that Avon is a boxer. It is a sport that requires both fierceness and strategy, brute force and tactical precision, the ability to both attack and evade. It is also a sport that requires a tremendous amount of improvisation.
It is also interesting that boxing is a highly organized sport. As such, it represents the very thing that Avon had worked so hard to keep away from: records. But because this record exists outside of the official realm that is owned and overseen by the police, the cautious Avon didn’t think to have it expunged. Freamon outboxes Avon by going outside of the official avenues, and digging up information that exists in a world that is unofficial, but very real.
Follow The Wire Blog on Twitter at @thewireblog