“Old Cases” ends with a scene that seems out of place with the rest of the show: an intimate look into the home life of Kima and her partner Cheryl. To be fair, all scenes dealing with the characters’ personal lives feel out of place in a show like The Wire, a show which puts most of its emphasis on the professional. And yet, the truth is that for these police, the job is so all-encompassing that there is no personal life, and even the scenes that seem to be personal are really there to illustrate how the professional seeps into every aspect of their lives. This all plays out in the subtle, complex politics of Kima’s relationship with Cheryl.
Kima’s personal life is initially set up in the previous episode, in the scene where she explains her sexuality to McNulty. In this episode, we get a closer look at Kima’s home life, starting with the scene where she marks Cheryl’s couch with her blue highlighter (although she vehemently denies it). This scene is telling in several ways. First of all, we see the power dynamics of the couple in their physical positioning. Cheryl lounges on a couch that she owns, while Kima sits on the floor, working on her Law School homework. Cheryl caresses Kima’s hair in a way that would be tender if it didn’t also suggest an owner petting her dog. Cheryl wears fiery orange, while Kima wears the cool blue of the police (which is also the color as her highlighter).
Kima is thoroughly baffled by the language of the law books. It is a world that is so closely connected to hers, and yet it is completely alien, and leaves her saying “What? What the hell is the Hicks ruling?” She is not at home in law school, and neither is she physically at home in this apartment, though she is doing her best to try. The ensuing argument over the highlighter illustrates this. Cheryl accuses Kima of staining the couch, but Kima denies it in language that immediately establishes the roles of the conversation. Cheryl asks to see the marker, and Kima says “You want my marker, I’m gonna need to see a warrant. I’m serious, I need to see some probable cause.”
It is a playful joke, but it is also revealing. First, it shows how Kima views everything through the lens of the detective. She is every bit as comfortable with the detectives’ language as she is uncomfortable with the lawyers’. Unfortunately, she is not the detective in this case. She is the uncooperative suspect. She just got caught in the act, with the incriminating evidence in her hand. She plays the part with the stubborn insistence of any hopper who gets caught red handed (or, in this case, blue handed), and yet insists on denying it. That makes Cheryl the cop, who aggressively threatens “I’m gonna beat your ass. How about that for probable cause.” She then sentences Kima, exiling her to the table.
If that scene sets the dynamics between Kima and Cheryl, the final scene shows just how deeply flawed this relationship is. It starts with a surprise visit from a drunk McNulty, who extends his streak of being drunk at the end of an episode to four. McNulty, so drunk his eyes are slits, looks surprised when Cheryl answers the door. “Oh, hello,” he manages to get out, as Cheryl greets him with an angry stare and a rude “um.” “Is Kima there?”
It is hard to say exactly why he is here. He himself might not be able to explain it. His stated reason, when Kima finally does come to the door, is that he wants to find out how that night’s intentionally-unsuccessful follow went (it was a success, which is to say, it was a failure). Or maybe it is to thank her for helping pitch the pager clone idea to Daniels. Based on the direct cut from McNulty at the bar with Freamon to him at Kima’s door, it is more likely that he is unconsciously reacting to the realization that he might be flushing his career down the toilet with the Barksdale case. Either way, Cheryl is probably right when she describes him as “a decidedly confused white boy.”
Kima plays along politely, but she is clearly annoyed at this visit, as anybody would be. After all, she and Cheryl are both in their bed clothes, and they watch television together, curled up together on the couch (apparently, Kima is finally allowed on, probably because she finally finished her law school homework). But Kima’s annoyance may really be based on something deeper. McNulty represents her work life intruding into her home life, when she has been working hard to keep the two separate.
The short conversation between Kima and Cheryl after McNulty’s departure fleshes this out even more (both literally and figuratively). The women sum up McNulty’s intrusion with a wonderfully-dense three-word conversation. “Lovelorn?” Cheryl asks. “Worse, lonely,” Kima replies.
Cheryl assumes that McNulty is there for sexual reasons, an ill-conceived, desperate attempt to drunkenly seduce a female coworker that he is too dense to realize is a lesbian (or too horny to care). And, yes, this is McNulty we are talking about, so virtually anything is possible when he starts drinking. But Cheryl’s theory is based more on her immediate dislike of McNulty and her possessive feelings about Kima than any real belief in a specific explanation.
Kima, on the other hand, interprets the reason for the visit as loneliness (which, to her, is worse). She already knows from her earlier conversation with McNulty that the job is his life. The problem is that when there is no work to do for a couple of hours, he is left with nothing else. Chances are, he wasn’t there for sex. He was there because the only way for him to feel connected to somebody is to talk shop.
That is all well and good for McNulty, but it has some unsettling implications for the two women, when they resume their spoon position on the couch. They appear to return to their private evening, when Cheryl makes a seemingly-innocent statement. “You didn’t make it into class again today.” Her tone is matter-of-fact, but the sentence is really accusatory. Kima reacts like a child, trying to justify an F on their report card to her parents. She piles one weak excuse on another. “I’m trying. Things are hot right now. I’m doing the best I can.” Cheryl responds with a passive-aggressive scold. “You said yourself you need to do something else. Something better for us. You promised.”
It is such a loaded line of dialogue. There is the subtle rhetorical device of using Kima’s words against her (“you said yourself”), the assertion that they are a team (“better for us”) and the liberal use of flat-out guilt (“you promised”). Most of all, Cheryl completely ignores Kima’s real reason for missing class. This is partly because she wants to ignore it, and partly because Kima buries in the middle of her three excuses: “Things are getting hot.” In other words, the case comes before law school. Of course, the obvious reason for this is because she loves the case and she hates law school. She only goes through with the latter to maintain peace at home.
But peace is on the verge of falling apart, so Kima uses her last resort, or as she calls it, “my tricks.” She turns around and starts making out with Cheryl. The episode ends with the couple passionately undressing each other, but it is more about evasion than sex. Kima initiates sex to avoid the ugly topic of her ill-fated law career. It is the same reason she shoos McNulty away. To Kima, it is worse to be lonely than to be lovelorn. She embraces a partner who barely understands her, just so she doesn’t have to admit to herself that she is exactly like McNulty: The job will always come first, and that will always make her lonely.
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