If the cut from Bodie’s mopwater to Herc’s coffee is a sly hint at the power balance in the cop/hopper relationship, later on, the episode gives us a second powerful transition that creates a more poignant look into the line that separates these two worlds and the people who lie on either side of it.
It comes at the end of the day, where McNulty (who is already late for his son’s soccer game) tells Kima (who is late for class) that he will drive Bubbles back downtown on his way back from the game. The final shot of the soccer game shows a group of uniformed kids circling around a soccer ball, shouting energetically in the shadow of a gorgeous brick building that appears to be some sort of private school. Then there is a cut to a nighttime scene at the mouth of a rat-infested alley, where a group of three black kids run in circles around a woman holding some bags. They swirl chaotically around her and then follow her off the frame to the right. McNulty shows up with Bubbles, who just got his first glimpse of not only soccer (“suck what?”) but also the residential area he dubbed “LeaveItToBeaverLand.” Bubbles turns to McNulty and says “thin line ‘tween heaven and here.”
It is easy to see why this line was chosen as the episode’s epigraph. It is such a simple, powerful comment on the huge differences which separate the world of the middle class America from the world of the projects. As visually suggested by the edit, these worlds are literally night and day. But perhaps Bubbles’ line suggests that there is a way to resolve these differences, at least in part.
Some of the differences are too obvious to even mention. The disparity between the classes in American life is nothing new, but what The Wire does is provide powerful visual images to contrast the worlds and illustrate these fundamental differences. One of the clearest contrasts is with a series of shots showing Bubbles’ perspective from the back seat of a car. First, when he is driving around with Kima, searching for Omar’s van, we see him slouched in the back seat, pretending to read a City Paper while the reflections of endless empty, boarded up rowhomes flow past him on the window. Later, in McNulty’s car, he beholds with awe the mansions with their spacious, green lawns and manicured landscaping.
Another clear contrast comes in terms of the children. The boys and girls who play soccer with Michael McNulty participate in this organized sport in a beautiful setting, all while being cheered on by their coaches and their parents. One imagines that these well-fed, well-hydrated children spend their days going to good schools. They have bright futures ahead of them. The children who chase each other through the alley, on the other hand, are playing some unknowable, improvised game, with maybe one parent around (it isn’t entirely clear whether the woman with the bag is with the children or just a prop in their game). Sadly, these boys and girls are most likely going to end up either selling heroin to Bubbles or roaming the alleys with him.
And yet, as far apart as these two worlds are, they do mingle, and we see this most clearly through McNulty, whose job forces him to constantly slip across that thin line. As an obsessive homicide detective, knowledge of Bubbles’ world is essential (which is exactly why a CI like Bubbles is so essential). This is a world McNulty knows well. When Kima asks him about Omar’s brother, No-Heart Anthony, McNulty recites not only his current prison sentence but also his address, down to the apartment number. (Even Bubbles gives an impressed “my man!”) This is part of what makes him such a great detective.
But McNulty is also aware that this knowledge will always be limited. Earlier in the episode, when lamenting his inability to flip anybody from the hand-to-hands, he remarks “Every now and then we visit the projects. They have to live there.” He draws a clear distinction between being a native and being a tourist. As often as McNulty steps into the lowrises or drives the broken streets of the Westside, he will always look like he has a camera at his hip and a map in his hand.
We see the opposite of this when Bubbles makes his first visit to a world he will dub “heaven.” As he beholds these alien houses and roads and games, he does so not with a sense of envy, but with awe that such a place actually exists. He feels out of place, and when Elena McNulty coldly refuses to shake his hand (and tightens her coat protectively), Bubbles decides to recede into the background, clinging to McNulty’s car for security and trying to remain out of sight. As with any type of tourist, a trip to another world both makes you feel out of place, and strengthens your sense of your own home.
If Bubbles’ epigraph is social commentary, then it is not so much a complaint as it is a plea for McNulty to see that these two worlds, as far apart as they are, can be resolved. The way he looks at McNulty as he says it doesn’t suggest the outrage or jealousy that one might expect. It suggests instead a desire to be understood. It is more of an existential meditation. Why was Bubbles born Bubbles and Michael McNulty born Michael McNulty? And if we can’t control the worlds we are born in, can we ever really break through that line?
The worlds are different, but the line that separates them is thin, not only geographically, but also psychologically. The projects still contain outbursts of youthful energy and laughter. The suburbs still contain bitterness on the level of the McNultys’ profane divorce negotiations. And just as there are people who do emerge from the world of the streets to build successful careers and lives for themselves, other fall from “LeaveItToBeaverLand” because of sickness, vice and plain bad luck.
This, perhaps is why Bubbles says “heaven and here,” and not “heaven and hell.” There is no hell. There is only here, and the imagined “heaven” of some other, unattainable world. The key, Bubbles seems to say (and McNulty seems to agree with in the warm smile he gives Bubbles) is to see the heaven in the hell and accept the hell in the heaven, and realize that no matter where you are, it is all always just “here.”
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