One of The Wire’s most effective visual techniques is the way it cuts between scenes. By placing a certain image or piece of dialogue next to a related on in the next scene, they subtly reinforce a connection between different subplots or characters. One of my favorite such cuts takes place in the beginning of “Old Cases,” right in the heart of the jaw-dropping sequence where Bodie escapes from Boys’ Village.
The scene begins with a disorienting shot, a fuzzy, decontextualized look at some institutional ceiling. It slowly comes into focus before the camera cuts to reveal Bodie, just coming to from the asskicking that Herc, Carver, and Kima put on him in retribution for punching Mahone.
The camerawork lets us figure out the setting as Bodie does. A large man orders him to put on a sweatsuit uniform and report to bunk A7. He is in a juvenile detention center. As the man goes to leave, Bodie instinctively asks “who else is up in here? …anybody from Westside?” There is a telling pause between the questions. The first question carries the assumption that “who else” means people from the Westside. When he clarifies, it is because it is dawning on him that he is actually quite far from home. That makes it a primal question as well. He is in an unfamiliar, potentially dangerous place. It is in his interest to connect with his own people as soon as possible.
That is why he is near panic when the man responds “DC boys, mostly.” Bodie glances around the room and regards the strange, angry faces of his fellow inmates as if he were looking at an alien species. Without a word, Bodie snaps into survival mode. He finds a well-placed mop bucket and stands behind it like a janitor. He cautiously-yet-decisively rolls the bucket out into a hallway and sees that nobody is paying attention to him. The one guard on duty, another of The Wire‘s useless security officers, is too busy flirting with a woman outside of his security box to notice the bruised and battered janitor inching past.
Bodie looks at the red line that declares “INMATES DO NOT CROSS” and takes that one crucial step across it. He leaves the mop in a corner and disappears out of the door and into the blinding sunlight of the outside world. He is free.
The camera remains behind to linger for a brief close-up on the dirty mopwater, the accessory to Bodie’s bold escape, still sloshing around from its daring journey across the red line. We only have a moment to consider how absurdly-easy that was before the camera cuts to a close-up of a cup of coffee.
This is the brilliance of a cleverly-planned edit. As Herc picks the coffee up and sips it, we can’t help but think that he is drinking mopwater, or worse, some other brown liquid that Bodie might leave in his wake. This visual association sets the tone for the rivalry that will form between Bodie and the Herc/Carver duo for the next few episodes. Right from the beginning, it is clear who will win.
Herc and Carver are driving away from urban Baltimore, going south into the more suburban and rural parts of Maryland. Their mission is to pick Bodie up at Boy’s Village and bring him back to Baltimore for questioning and processing. The placement of the scene right after the escape tells us that this mission is already doomed to fail.
If the outcome is clear from the editing, the ensuing conversation between Herc and Carver gives a good explanation as to why Bodie will always triumph. It starts with Herc once again complaining about their status within the detail. “Me and you drawing another shit detail,” he says, in another subtle allusion to the drink he is sipping on. As always, Herc measures his part in the detail not in relation to the broader goal, but in terms of the status and prestige that it seems to bring (who is judging the status, other than Herc, is anybody’s guess). It is also interesting that he measures this task according to its geographic relationship to Baltimore, as if the further out they go, the more demeaning it is. “Look, another cow!” he complains sarcastically.
But Carver sees things differently, and with a prologue of “use your imagination,” he spins a fantastical tale of how things might play out. It is an exciting scenario, one that plays out like the plot of a 42-minute episode of Law and Order, coupled with the surreal language that suggest primal dominance. It is captivating fantasy, where Carver describes the two partners getting to an already-terrified Bodie, intimidating him with the tragic fiction of poor comatose Mahone, and threatening him with castration until Bodie finally breaks. “Fucknuts stops whimpering long enough to just start giving people up. Whoever, Stringer Bell, Avon Barksdale.” “Yeah?” Herc asks, fully immersed in the fiction. “Yeah, little prick turns on everybody. And we break the case wide open.” Herc replies “cool.”
There are so many things wrong with Herc and Carver’s view of this task, and what it says about their version of police work in general. First, the story itself is based on bullshit. Mahone is fine, and nobody really seems to care that Bodie punched him. In fact, the fictional Mahone, clinging to life with his wife and the Commissioner at his bedside, stands in contrast to the real Mahone who we just saw drinking in the hospital with his Lieutenant and his partner at his bedside, celebrating the fortunate blow that enables him to escape his meaningless job on the force.
More importantly, Herc and Carver imagine that the Barksdales can be taken down with nothing more than a concocted story and a little intimidation. Carver’s speech is filled with images where they emasculate Bodie, from the castration fantasy to phrases like “little shitbird,” “crying like a little bitch,” “whimpering,” and “little prick.” In their world, cases are made not by patient, meticulous observation and careful, inventive interrogation. They are taken down by bullshit and dominance. This also plays into their warped view of the detail itself. Instead of seeing it as a massive group effort, where each contribution and each little detail (even something as mundane as driving down to pick up a low-level hopper) contributes to the larger cause, they see it as a case that can be solved in one grand motion, and therefore something that has clear heroes who cracked the case. Naturally, they imagine that they will be those heroes.
But the real reason this fantasy will never work is because it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of their target. Forget about the simple fact that Bodie is far too low down in the Barksdale hierarchy to give up anybody higher than D’Angelo. The real problem is that the easily-duped and -intimidated Bodie of the story is a fantasy version of the boy who, in reality, is standing hitchhiking on the side of the road at that very moment, having boldly walked out of the detention center. This is not somebody they can break with trickery or intimidation.
The same thing goes for all of the soldiers in the Barksdale organization. At that very moment, Kima and McNulty learn the same lesson in their failed attempt to intimidate Marvin into talking. When he chooses to serve five years rather than talk about the crew, McNulty realizes that they will never be able to flip somebody with the ordinary tactic of leveraging jail time. As he later tells Bunk, “in that part of town, Barksdale’s name carries more weight.”
And this is the fundamental misunderstanding that plagues many of the detectives and commanders in the show. They assume that traditional intimidation can generate enough fear to get somebody to flip. But Bodie’s escape shows a different fear, an inborn terror that will never be overcome by any externally-driven fear. It is the fear of being alone, without fellow Westsiders. For these hoppers, the crew is a stand-in for family, and the Westside is the only home they know. The primal fear of being thrown out of that world keeps them all faithful, no matter what fantasies run through the heads of the detectives who vainly chase after them.
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