There is a great moment of recognition near the end of “Old Cases,” right after the detail finally convinces Daniels to back McNulty’s pager clone plan. Daniels, who seems almost convinced, asks a simple question. “Do we have a pager number?” Freamon, who has finally entered into the general discussions of the detail, looks over at McNulty, who looks like a kid who just got busted without his homework. McNulty looks helplessly at Kima, realizing that he worked so hard to convince Daniels to commit to a clone, only to forget the crucial detail of getting an actual pager number. Freamon lets him squirm for just a second before offering the information he had the whole time: D’Angelo’s pager number.
As the meeting breaks up, McNulty smiles at the outcome and looks at the scrap of paper with the number before looking up at Freamon, squinting a little to try to get a better view of this detective who he had completely misjudged. He confirms this in the next scene, when Bunk tells McNulty that Freamon used to be a Homicide detective. “Don’t let Lester fool you…he’s natural police,” Bunk says, while also informing him and us that all that model furniture is not an odd hobby. It is a lucrative business.
McNulty is fascinated. For one thing, he now realizes that there is more talent in this detail than he had previously thought. That opens up a whole range of possible investigative strategies, and gives him a powerful ally when dealing with Daniels. More importantly, McNulty recognizes Freamon as a possible future version of himself, with all of the good and bad that come along with that association.
So, after McNulty and Bunk crack the Kresson case in the manner of true natural police, McNulty goes back to the basement to investigate the odd, unnatural career of Lester Freamon. McNulty begins the initial interview by asking Freamon about his history on the force.
“So, you know what you’re doing, but you ain’t been doing it,” McNulty begins. Freamon doesn’t respond. He doesn’t even look up from the model desk he is touching up (maybe inspired by the desk at the start of the episode). McNulty persists “How long have you been in the pawnshop unit?” “Thirteen years and four months.” “Thirteen years?” McNulty asks. “…and four months” Freamon corrects. He is like a prisoner who made lines on the wall during every day of his sentence. Now, a free man, he wants to make damn sure that he gets credit for every moment he spent locked up in the pawnshop unit with nothing but his index cards and his filing cabinets to keep him company.
The conversation progresses in a rapid-fire pace, with Freamon only once glancing up at McNulty as he gives the dry, official recitation of his duties in the pawnshop unit, and once again corrects McNulty, who keeps trying to shortchange him those four months. It is only when McNulty asks what Freamon did to get kicked out of Homicide that Freamon puts down his model furniture, looks up, and says decisively “police work.”
In that one instant, they become equals, not only in their prodigious detective skills, but also in their stubborn determination to let their personal notions of “police work” dictate their actions, even if that means pissing off superiors and getting sent into exile for thirteen years. And four months.
They solidify their new kinship with a drink (more than one, actually). We cut to a bar lit by blue neon lights and filled with the sounds of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue as jazz-lover Freamon and oldies-lover McNulty drink beer with whiskey. The first shot is a subtle visual cue to the content of the scene. As the camera pans left from the bar, we hear Freamon’s voice, but we only see McNulty, looking left at a black box that blocks out the sight of his drinking partner. It is only the gradual panning motion of the camera that brings Freamon out from behind the black void and into the present moment. He is slowly reemerging into the world.
McNulty listens as Freamon tells his tale. Freamon’s transgression may not have the scope and ambition of McNulty’s, but it shows just as much stubborn adherence to a personal belief in the cleansing power of “police work.” It starts when he solved a murder that happened to link to the son of a powerful newspaper editor. Mueller, the former Deputy Ops, values favorable media coverage just as much as his successor, Burrell, so he orders Freamon to make the case without including the editor’s son. Out of sheer spite, Freamon not only defies the command, he goes one step further. Young Freamon charges the son and makes him testify, even though he could have had it both ways: he admits that he could have made the case without the son while simultaneously appeasing his superiors.
McNulty asks the logical question: “Why didn’t you.” Freamon’s response makes explicit what has been unspoken throughout the scene. “Why? Why are you fucking yourself up chasing Avon Barksdale?” It seems like a deflection, but it is really the clearest possible answer. McNulty and Freamon are two versions of the same detective. The only thing separating them is thirteen years and four months.
If so, then Freamon’s story is really a cautionary tale for McNulty. It is a warning about where his career is headed if he keeps jumping the chain of command and pissing off his superiors. Freamon even gets specific by telling him how he was deceived by his commanders, who sent him to the solitary confinement of the pawnshop unit when he requested to be sent somewhere outside. “They got me good,” he says and they laugh.
Freamon can afford to laugh about it now that he has been accidentally paroled, but McNulty’s laughter is dangerous. “Detective,” Freamon says and looks McNulty in the eye to emphasize the significance of the warning he is about to give. “When they ask you where you wanna go, and they are gonna ask you where you wanna go, do yourself a favor. Keep your mouth shut.” McNulty looks down, and the savvy viewer has to be wondering if he remembers the bet he made with Landsman in the first episode, when he revealed that he didn’t want to ride the boats.
If this is the sentence that awaits McNulty, then at least he has some hope. That may be why he insists on viewing Freamon’s career in the most positive light possible. “Shit, Lester, you back from the dead. You rolled away the stone.” If Freamon is trying to advise McNulty to lay off of his crusade, McNulty reads it differently. For him, Freamon (and by extension, McNulty) is a Christ figure, a bureaucratic martyr who will suffer for the sins of the Department, but who will emerge reborn on the other end of it. The present powers-that-be are oblivious of the man who once pissed off the powers-that-were, and there is salvation in that oblivion. This salvation only serves to empower McNulty, who will risk everything with total faith in the possibility that he will also experience some form of rebirth in the end.
The scene’s final shot shows McNulty, alone at the bar, with the lower part of his body framed behind a rail that visually hints at a prison. Like Freamon’s story, this image suggests both McNulty’s doomed future, and the possibility for him to rise above it all, even if he has to suffer in the process. He just has to decide whether he is willing to spend the rest of his career behind these metaphorical bars for the possibility of putting Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell behind real ones.
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