Any savvy television viewer must have known from the beginning that it would come to this. All of the talk of buy-bust coming down from Burrell and Daniels had to amount to nothing, and Jimmy McNulty, who fancies himself the smartest guy in the room, had to be vindicated. After all, the season is 13 episodes long, so the audience sees any talk of finishing the case in “a few weeks” as nothing more than wishful thinking from bureaucrats who desperately hope to return to their comfortable status quo. But the show is called The Wire. Sooner or later, there was going to be some telephonic surveillance.
It turns out to be “later,” in the world of Simon and Burns. For a show that revolves around wiretaps, it is incredible that the first type of interception, the clone of D’Angelo’s pager, doesn’t even get discussed in any real way until the end of the fourth episode, and doesn’t get implemented until the beginning of the fifth, about a third of the way through the season. This delay highlights several things. First, it shows the patience of the writers, who postpone the inevitable leap into taps and clones in order to more fully develop the characters and hierarchies on both sides of the wire. It is also emblematic of the “novelistic structure” (as opposed to “episodic”) employed by Simon and Burns, where the major plot twists and developments unfold slowly before exploding in a flurry of action in the final episodes. Finally, the delay is yet another way to illustrate the inertia that afflicts the stagnant high command, which resists anything new until it can no longer afford to do so.
“Old Cases,” as an episode, highlights the collapse of the Daniels approach and the simultaneous construction of the McNulty approach. The opening scenes of the episode (along with the previous episode’s futile raids) establish how ineffective buy/bust is as a way to take down anybody above the street. When McNulty and Kima fail to flip Marvin and Herc and Carver fail to even lay hands on Bodie, it is obvious that nobody on the ground level can be turned. Kima describes it best. “Kids know they can’t be hurt with a street-weight charge.” Or, to put it another way, “nothing like being told to fuck off by a 14-year-old.”
While McNulty expresses frustration at this failure, he also sees it as his opportunity to influence the future course of the investigation. The stakes get set in the previous episode, when Pearlman tells McNulty that for an electronic intercept, he needs two things: Exhaustion (in other words, proof that other methods don’t work) and a cooperative supervisor (in other words, a willing Daniels).
If the early parts of the episode give McNulty the exhaustion requirement, the later parts of the episode give him Daniels. It unfolds with a combination of pressure slowly coming down from the higher levels of the hierarchy, and the right information provided from below.
The process begins with a dramatic transition. There is a high-angle shot of the pit, where D’Angelo just finished telling the story of a murder, when the camera jerks up to a shot of the Baltimore skyline, and with the next cut, we jump into one of those executive buildings where we begin the downhill trickle of power that will ultimately end up right back in the pit.
The scene is now Judge Phelan’s office, where Burrell is paying what seems to be a friendly visit. Burrell complains about a short circuit that cost the department decades worth of physical evidence. Phelan shows Burrell that there is still a lot to learn about high level politics when he suggests going outside of the city for funding. The connected Phelan offers to put in a good word with his brother, who sits on something called The Abell Foundation. “Never hurts to ask,” Phelan laughs.
Burrell uses that line as a cue to transition to the real purpose of his visit. He wants to give Phelan an update on the Barksdale case, clearly hoping that the hand-to-hands will be enough to satisfy the Judge so that the detail can be dismantled. Phelan barely glances at the laughably-thin folder as Burrell tries to sell it. “It’s not a knockout blow, but it sends a clear message” (a line which, interestingly, parallels Avon the boxer’s demand to “send a message” about Omar). Phelan seems almost offended that Burrell thinks he can win him over with hand to hands. Taking his obligatory pill bottle in hand, Phelan says “So we got work to do, don’t we.”
This friendly-sounding command immediately changes the dynamic of the investigation. If the raids show Daniels that hand-to-hands won’t work, this is where Burrell recognizes that he will need more to make this go away. So he calls Daniels into his office to discuss the investigation. Throughout the scene, Burrell hits a row of golf balls into a practice hole (hilariously, he misses every single shot). It’s a great scene because Burrell has clearly had a change of heart (albeit a forced change) but Daniels still wants to maintain his delicate political balance. So when Burrell asks “what are you telling me?” Daniels gives the ultimate underling response. “I’m not telling you anything, sir. I’m waiting for you to tell me. I can do whatever you need me to do with this.” He makes his obedience clear, before lamely trying to ask off the detail. “You looking for the backdoor, Lieutenant, already?” Burrell asks. Finally, Daniels offers something real. “McNulty says this case needs a wire.” “You think he’s right,” Burrell asks, for the first time ready to consider the disobedient detective’s opinion. “It needs something,” Daniels says vaguely.
We never see the end of this conversation, but it clearly sets the stage for the wire to make its entrance. The next day, we see McNulty and Kima discussing this possible strategy in a walk-and-talk. He says that all of the Barksdale soldiers carry pagers, so if the detail can clone one, then they can “get off the street, maybe even trace some supply.” When this plan converges with the pressure from above and Freamon’s independent discovery of D’Angelo’s pager number (“it’s him”), Daniels finally agrees “let’s do this.”
When Herc asks why the Barksdales would use pagers, Freamon speaks up for the first time and says “it’s a discipline.” The Barksdales understand that there is a need to carefully communicate between the levels, from upper level supply to lower level distribution. The reason McNulty believes that pager clones are so much more powerful than buy/busts is that it is the only way to tap into the flow of information that goes up and down the chain. It is interesting that the detail’s plan comes about according to this same process of information moving up and down the chain of the police hierarchy.
This process is interesting in how methodical it is. From above, there is a slow acceptance of the necessity of a wiretap as a means of investigation. This goes from Phelan to Burrell to Daniels to the detail. From below, comes the necessary information (the recognition of the Barksdales’ use of pagers, combined with D’Angelo’s pager number) and the “exhausting” legwork needed to prove that nothing else works. It is also interesting to note that the raids, which seemed like failures at the time, actually produced both of those results. Out of failure comes a new possibility of success.
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