Even though The Wire is dense with moments of dark desperation, where uncontrollable violence and corruption threaten to destroy characters and topple a city, it is also an incredibly funny show. From the often-slapstick antics of Bubbles and Johnny to the rapid-fire dialogue of Omar, from the drinking binges of McNulty and Bunk to the Neanderthal buffoonery of Herc and Carver, the show has just enough comedy to keep a viewer sane.
And yet, as any depressed and neurotic standup can attest, behind every joke, there is an element of the tragic, an element of pain. When we laugh at anything from a Chevy Chase fall to the sexual humor of an Apatow bromance to the black comedy of South Park, we are engaging in a cathartic purging of our deepest fears (in these examples, respectively, loss of control, inability to gain social acceptance, and the inevitability of sickness and death). In The Wire, the comedy is more than just a respite from the plot’s weightiness. It underscores it.
The opening scene to “Old Cases” is one of the series’ funniest jokes. In fact, it plays like a live-action version of one of the all-time classic jokes: “How many members of (target group x) does it take to screw in a light bulb.” In this case, “target group x” is the Baltimore Police Department, and the light bulb is a desk. The scene begins simply enough: Freamon idly sands his dollhouse furniture as Herc attempts to move a desk through a narrow doorway. Carver comes in and tries to help from the other side, but they fail. McNulty and Sydnor join in the effort, followed by Daniels, but they still can’t move it. The men are at a loss, defeated by the desk; Herc throws in the towel. “At this rate,” he says, gasping for air, “We’re never gonna get it in.” “In?” Carver asks in disgust and disbelief. Frustrated, angry, and embarrassed, the men all storm out while the desk remains triumphant in the doorway.
Even the progression of the scene follows the pattern of a great comic gag. There is the setup: the simple attempt to move the desk, a universal struggle that anybody who has ever moved can relate to. There is the progression of events: the steady addition of players in this reverse tug of war, and the tension that increases with their exhaustion and frustration. There is the consistent, cyclical rhythm: a shot of Freamon, a countoff from Herc, an attempt to push, frustration, somebody else entering and joining the fray, and another shot of Freamon. There is the punchline: the moment of sudden revelation and the release of tension. And most subtly, but perhaps most importantly, there is the comic hero: the objective observer of the events, the straight man who, along with the audience, finds amusement at the comic bungling of the others. But as funny as this scene may be, it suggests serious problems with the individual detectives and the detail as a whole. By posing a simple, self-contained problem, this scene reveals key information about each member of this struggle.
The scene begins and ends with Thomas Hauk, better known as Herc. It starts with a close-up of his straining legs as he tries to wrestle the desk through the door. This is an appropriately-physical task for a character defined by physicality. From our first glimpse of him in the pilot episode, it is clear that this is a man who loves the power that the badge gives him, and as we saw with the near-riot and the raids, he does not hesitate to convert that power into physical abuse. Even his name suggests Hercules, the man of many labors (another comic incongruity—the great demigod reduced from fighting monsters and outfoxing gods to grappling with furniture and being outsmarted by adolescent drug dealers). His t-shirt, which advertises a towing company, also suggests the ability to move large objects by sheer force. As the initiator of the task, he takes the lead throughout the scene, counting off before each attempt. But he fails utterly as a leader, incapable of anything more than counting to three, cursing, and mutely gesturing toward the desk.
It is fitting that the first person to join Herc’s labor is Carver, his partner-in-crime and –crime-stopping. He is eager to help out, approaching the task with the enthusiasm and mindless zeal with which the two partners approach the rest of their job. “Let me get on the other side, work it from there,” he volunteers, using the same word (“work”) that he would use for a piece of investigation. As eager as Carver is to help, he is equally-quick to give in to frustration. “I’m gonna shoot the drawers off this bitch,” he says after the third attempt, giving in to a violent release of his anger (the violence-to-the-office imagery also links him to fellow-riot-starter and shooter-of-walls Prez). He is also the first one to admit defeat after the failed fourth attempt (“my ass is kicked”).
It is natural that the scene begins with the partnership of Herc and Carver, two men who represent the mindless police brutality and aggression throughout the first three seasons (and whose dramatic divergence during the final two seasons is one of the series’ more fascinating developments). Herc and Carver fancy themselves Batman and Robin, but they can’t even agree on who is whom. So it is no wonder that they can’t even handle a task as simple as moving a desk. This scene could have easily left off here and been another funny instance of Herc and Carver botching a simple task, but the continued addition of detectives adds another level of humor and depth.
McNulty and Sydnor
We expect failure from Herc and Carver, but when McNulty and Sydnor show up things seem to be looking up. Even this early in the series, it is clear that both of these men are “good po-lice.” Jimmy has been firmly established as the show’s hero from the first scene. He is a skilled detective who understands the need for a long, thorough investigation, and he has already begun to plan out the longer-term strategies for the detail, including the cloned pager. Sydnor is not as central of a character, but the very context of his introduction (Daniels negotiating with Cantrell to bring him to the detail, a good detective to balance out the dangerous incompetence of Prez) establishes him as an asset to the team and a worthy investigator.
So when they join in on the effort, we expect better results, but no such luck. In fact, other than some more muscle, they offer little in terms of problem solving. Sydnor’s only line in the scene is “need help.” McNulty does a little better, posing a practical question: “Desk is empty, right?” Not much help, but at least he tries to think of a solution. This continued failure, even after two men strong in both body and mind joined the effort, offers an important lesson: once a task has been taken on a false path, no amount of fixing can make it the right path. This started out as Herc’s labor, and it is his labor until the end, even when the boss shows up.
The final contestant, Daniels, enters with a superior’s sense of scorn. “I’m embarrassed for you all,” he snorts upon watching the third effort. There seems to be a little humor, a little masculine ribbing here, but it comes from somebody who knows his position. Herc respectfully reports up to him (“It’s stuck on something, Lieutenant.”) and Daniels orders Sydnor to switch sides before taking off his jacket with the certitude that he will get things done. But he never bothers to assess the situation. He seems to believe that the desk will move because he is the boss and he says so. This is emblematic of his leadership throughout the case to this point. He has yet to commit, yet to decide whether he stands with his superiors, who want to run the case with quick buy/busts, and his people, who want to dig in and do the case the right way. By not taking sides, he cedes his authority to his underlings, be they McNulty or Herc and Carver. After the fourth failed attempt with the desk, he is reduced to a bureaucrat’s double checking when he follows up McNulty’s question with “you checked?”
It is also worth noting that there are a few members of the detail not present in this scene. Kima is not here, possibly because it gives the scene a focus on the failure of masculine bullishness, or possibly because she would have figured out the problem right away. The latter also applies to Prez, whose knack at solving puzzles would have been extremely helpful with this one, which is reminiscent of those metal puzzles that can only be untangled when the pieces are positioned in just the right way (plus, he has yet to be revealed as a skilled investigator). There is one key member of the detail who does not join in the effort, but he is present in the scene. In fact, he serves the most important role of all, the role of comic hero.
Lester is there from the beginning, and he is most likely the only one who remains after the others have stormed out. He doesn’t utter a single word throughout the scene, nor does he put down his sandpaper or his miniature bedframe. He just watches the events unfold with a smile so faint that it may not even be a smile at all. So why doesn’t he join the others? From the start of the scene, he shows no intention of helping to push. He has just begun to establish himself as a real detective in the eyes of the audience as well as the eyes of his colleagues, so maybe this is not so much laziness as it is the fact that he considers the job of a detective to be mental, not physical. Either way, after the third attempt, he stands up to get a look at both sides of the struggle, and it becomes clear that he knows exactly what the problem is. He knows the joke, and he lets the clever audience member in on it as well.
So why not speak up? Why not spare his fellow detectives the embarrassment? A possible answer lies in Freamon’s very hands. He is sanding a piece of carved wood, creating a piece of furniture (a scale-model of a home furnishing, in contrast to the full-sized office furniture stuck in the doorway). Sanding is a way to polish something, to make smooth what was once rough. Similarly, the job of a comic hero is to point out the flaws of others, and by making these flaws obvious, encourage them to change their ways. For a group of people tasked with bringing down a large-scale drug cartel, but incapable of moving a desk through a door, there is some serious need for change.
First, there is a lesson about physical versus mental approaches. A desk is a heavy physical object, and the men assume that sheer force is all that they need to get it through. The real solution, however, is entirely mental. It requires observation and a patient assessment of the problem and possible solutions. This is really an issue of leadership—it is the leader’s responsibility to go through all of these mental processes, and then delegate and guide his underlings as they proceed.
Another message involves teamwork. Here we have a group of men attempting to accomplish the same task, but working at cross purposes due to differing perspectives of what that task is. This mirrors the opposing views of how to approach the case: long-term wire or buy/bust (espoused respectively by McNulty and Daniels, who happen to push from opposite sides of the desk). To make things worse, Sydnor switches sides before the last attempt, which means that at some point, people are pushing in the opposite direction from the same side of the desk. This foreshadows the various impediments from within the force (the meddling of Burrell and Rawls) and the detail itself (idle drunks Polk and Mahon, and the two leaks). Just because a group works together does not ensure its success. In fact, Herc had an easier time moving the desk himself (“I could move it a bit when I was alone. It must’ve got wedged in the door somehow.”). This shows that a flawed team with questionable leadership is often worse off than an individual (even one as oafish as Herc).
But concepts like “leadership” and “teamwork” are so abstract they act as cliché-magnets. Freamon, as comic hero, also wants to convey a more practical lesson through his inaction. The real failure in this scene is something basic and essential to all human interaction: communication. A single preposition, “in,” is enough to reveal the solution to the five befuddled detectives. And yet, it only comes out at the end, and accidentally at that. Before then, the dialogue is riddled with vague and ambiguous language that enables the confusion to persist. Carver says “work it from there,” but neither he nor Herc specifies how to work it. When Sydnor offers help, Herc mutely gestures towards the desk without defining the help he needs. Herc describes the desk as “caught on something,” describing its status, but not where it needs to go. Best of all, just before the final attempt, Herc counts off with the rhyming couplet “One, two, you know what to do.” Here, in one playful command, is the essence of their failure. The de facto leader assumes that everybody understands an order he has never actually given. The followers blindly obey without clarifying what needs to be done.
Freamon understands all of this, but it remains unclear whether the others learned their lesson. The final shot, a close-up (probably from Freamon’s perspective) of the desk, standing jammed in the doorway, upright and victorious, offers a sobering reminder of the deeper consequences of failed teamwork. The men have figured out the solution, but it is too late—they are too far along the wrong path, and now they are too exhausted and too defeated to go back and do it right. They only see the solution in hindsight, when it no longer matters. This would be funny if it didn’t foreshadow so many devastating outcomes that infect the plot as a consequence of political infighting, conflicting personal agendas, and all-around-sloppy police work. It is particularly devastating when one considers that the people most often failed by this system are those with the least power. While this scene invites us to laugh, this state of affairs we laugh at is also the show’s great tragedy: that the very men responsible for combatting the drug trade end up making things worse because of their thoughtless, narrow approach to it.
There is a scene midway through Terry Gilliam’s Brazil that is strikingly similar to this one. Sam, the hero, has been transferred to the highly-bureaucratic Information Retrieval Department (and what is a detective’s job, if not information retrieval?). He gets to his new office, a claustrophobic closet with a tiny desk pushed up against one wall. The desk moves, and seems to get pulled into the wall. He pulls back and is caught in a tug of war. Finally, he exits his office and opens the door of the adjoining office to see a coworker pulling on his side of the same desk. One desk, the ultimate symbol of bureaucracy (along with, perhaps, the filing cabinet) split between the two offices of warring coworkers. One can hardly think of a better symbol for The Wire and all its crippling and crippled bureaucracies.
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