1.4: Zen Murder Investigation

“Fuck”–McNulty, Bunk

Season One’s fourth episode is titled “Old Cases,” but I have never been sure why that is plural. There is one clear “old case” that runs through the episode–the six-month-old Dierdre Kresson murder. There are a few other cases that get mentioned, like the one that gets Freamon kicked out of Homicide or the stack of cases that seem to be linked to the Barksdale organization. But none of them loom as large as the Kresson case does through the entire episode.

It is possible that the title “Old Cases” refers not to multiple cases, but rather, multiple perspectives of the Kresson case. The murder comes up in three different contexts, first as a bargaining chip in some inter-divisional wrangling between Homicide detectives, then as a story told by an unsure leader to impress his underlings, and then, finally, as a case that is expertly (and oddly) reconstructed in all of its forensic details. It is interesting how each progressive version of the murder enhances our understanding of what happened at that distant apartment complex, and the many different angles that we can use to look at a single case.

We are introduced to a case that is really more of an informational void. Landsman brings the Kresson file to McNulty and Bunk, claiming “this one connects,” because a witness put somebody named “Dee” at the scene on the night of the murder. McNulty is dubious. There must be many people who go by “Dee,” he reasons, and besides, the crime is so far away from Avon’s Westside domain. Landsman asks, logically, “they don’t have cars?” and then proceeds to lay a guilt trip on his absentee detective until McNulty finally agrees to look at the case.

Not that there is much to look at. Apparently, the original detective, Keeley, is not much of an investigator. All they he left behind is a thin folder with some crime scene photos and the 24s (paperwork containing the basic information about the victim, scene, etc). “Man, Keeley really dogged this one,” Bunk grumbles as he tries the one lead they have–the phone number of a friend named Tywanda. The number has been disconnected, an appropriate symbol for the case itself.

We hear about the case again in a very different context. In fact, it is not immediately apparent that it is the same case. It starts when Bodie returns to the Pit after his gutsy escape from Boys’ Village. He greets his crew, D’Angelo, Wallace and Poot, and starts bragging about how juvie “just can’t hold me.” D’Angelo laughs in mockery of Bodie’s bravado. This triggers a power struggle between the two that has been slowly simmering since Bodie first questioned D’Angelo’s toughness in “The Target.” Here, the spat takes the form of a quick volley of one-upsmanship: Bodie claims that D’Angelo would still be locked up (which is probably true) and D’Angelo responds by evoking his murder of Pooh Blanchard. Bodie looks unimpressed, saying “yeah, you got the one.” So D’Angelo ends the argument by telling a chilling story that starts to sound vaguely familiar.

Both the camera and the boys’ eyes stay fixed on D’Angelo as he tells about a night when he was sent to kill Avon’s ex-girlfriend (She made the mistake of threatening to talk to the cops about “shit she ain’t supposed to be knowing about.” Forbidden knowledge is always dangerous). D’Angelo is calm and methodical as he tells the story. He seems both proud and haunted as he describes the scene in visual and auditory details, from the interplay of light and dark inside and outside of the window to the horror-story repetition of “tap-tap-tap.” D’Angelo is an expert storyteller, relating the tale with suspense and drama, and even a hint of sexual tension. It is an emotional story, one meant to evoke a specific reaction from its listeners.

As he gets closer and closer to the actual murder, his gaze falls more and more intently on Bodie. It is clear that the purpose of the story is to win the respect of his most disobedient underling, to show him what he is capable of. He doesn’t even look back at Wallace and Poot, even when they complain when D’Angelo stops the story just before the murder itself (of course, we learn the reason for this abridgement at the end of the season). By the awed look on Bodie’s face, it seems that the story did its job.

So, by the time McNulty and Bunk get to the murder scene, we feel that we already know what they are going to find. And yet, as they slowly uncover the murder, step by step, it is as if we are seeing the killing all over again. We watch them work through the eyes of the apartment’s super, who remarks that the apartment has been empty since the murder, an unintentional, abandoned shrine to Dierdre.

If D’Angelo’s story captures the emotionally disturbing aspect of the murder, the detectives bring out the forensic details that recreate the story in a way that words never could. That is why they only need one word to communicate throughout the scene: “Fuck.”

It is a tour de force, both in terms of screenwriting, and in terms of detective work. It is a little like the infamous South Park episode, “It Hits the Fan,” where the repetition of the word “Shit” robs that profanity of its meaning. But here, it is the opposite. With each new variation of “fuck,” McNulty and Bunk explore range of possible meanings of the word, from empathy and disgust, to frustration, to pain, and ultimately, to discovery and celebration. “Mother fuck.”

There is also a functional aspect of the word. It is almost like a mantra, a simple sound repeated over and over again to clear the mind of everything else. To make it blank. Call it Zen detective work. They are here to objectively observe, not to think or feel. The repetition of “fuck” strips the situation of all language, eliminating all of the bias and emotion that shades D’Angelo’s version of the murder. In place of emotion, Bunk and McNulty explore the murder with a variety of tools: the 24s, photos, markers, a tape measure, pliers, and guns as props. The reenact the moment of the murder by spreading the photos around and standing in as both murderer and victim.

And slowly, fuck by fuck, the story takes form. They start with the high-angle bullet trajectory, with McNulty playing the part of Dierdre. Then they look around some more before they catch the key detail that Keely missed–the shards of glass on the kitchen counter mean that the bullet must have come in from the outside. Through the image of a few drops of spilled milk, they track down the slug, buried in the plastic of the open refrigerator. McNulty reenacts the motion which caused the door to close, hiding its leaden secret within. Then, they go back outside, enact D’Angelo’s “tap-tap-tap,” and search in the grass to find the all-important casing (in another Zen moment, Bunk is looking straight ahead and not in the grass when he discovers the casing).

The scene ends with Bunk proudly holding up the casing before the pleased eyes of McNulty and the impressed eyes of the super. Here, after three versions of the murder, we finally have tangible physical evidence that offers the possibility of a conviction.

In both versions, the past is made present. Old cases become new again. They are acts of memory, both personal and impersonal. In the first version, the perpetrator tells the story, filtered through the perspective of his subjective memory. In the second, the story is told through the medium of scene of the crime itself, conjured piece by piece through the astute eyes and foul mouths of two partners who are so in tune that they don’t need words to speak. In both cases, the act of reliving the event serves the tellers’ smaller political needs, and they all seem to forget about the fact that that apartment will still be empty when darkness once again descends on the kitchen window.

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6 thoughts on “1.4: Zen Murder Investigation

  1. I’ve watched this episode three times but until I read this, I never realised that there is no flashback for the murder. It’s just a shot of D telling the story. But in my mind’s eye, I could see him up near the window, tap-tap-tap. I re-watched that scene tonight. I hadn’t actually seen it before today. The Wire is a brilliant show.

    • I have sympathy for D’Angelo. He may be a poser, but he is a poser against his will. He is an early version of Namond, both boys who were born into a game that they are not tough enough by nature, but see no way out of. As a result, they end up having to act tough when they aren’t. Bodie is such a popular character (and he is one of my favorites) largely because he is so genuine. He only knows the game, and as he later tells Stringer, he was made for it.

  2. Not counting the many times McNulty and Bunk mutter “fuck” and “fucketey fuck” as they bend down and rearrange the photos on the floor, this entire scene is pretty much non-verbal (as you point out). It’s amazing, and reminds me of Hitchcock’s long, silent car driving scene in Vertigo, where Jimmy Stewart follows Kim Novak for about 5 minutes without any words, all the time figuring things out as we watch. I also see the D’Angelo story – the story of the murder which he relates to Bodie earlier – as a sort of literary foreshadowing. Later, when McNulty goes outside the window and does the “tap, tap, tap” we are immediately connected to the way D’Angelo told the story of Avon’s ex-girlfriend himself. Quite brilliant.

  3. This is just a remarkable scene. One of The Wire’s definite high points. Nice analysis! I’m not sure it’s fair to say that Bodie is tough and D’Angelo is not. D’Angelo has actually killed somebody at this point and Bodie has not. Bodie finds that it’s not always easy to pull the trigger. D’Angelo is just more reflective at this point.

  4. There is a clue that D’Angelo is not being genuine during his telling of the story. The fact that he seems to feel emotion suggests that he is an observer but didn’t do it himself. Someone who is highly experienced (as the murder method suggests) would’ve been more matter of fact about it when telling the story (contrast D’s story with Lester’s stories of doing real police work or working in the pawnshop unit). Bodie’s body language also suggests that he doesn’t quite believe D’Angelo’s version of the story but lets it slide since he has no proof to the contrary.

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