Phelan(on phone, to Burrell): Erv, it’s Phelan. Kiddo, you’re fucking with me here…yes, yes you are…Erv, listen..listen to me. The Circuit Court signed two orders for a total of 60 days of telephonic surveillance. Now, I’m looking at a copy of a memo from your office telling me I can’t have my 60 days…You’re not hearing me. The Circuit Court for Baltimore ordered 60 days on this tap. The Court wants its 60 days. Now, if you take this wire down on Friday, you’ll be in contempt of court on Monday. Understood?…And all the best to Arlene and the kids. (hangs up) Who’s your daddy now?
David Foster Wallace, the brilliant, troubled writer who took his own life in 2008, spent part of his final months watching The Wire. According to this account, he called it “the best writing being done in America today,” and you can assume that the painfully-self-conscious Wallace included his own writing in that pool.
This affinity for The Wire should come as no surprise to anybody who has read enough of Wallace’s writings. Like those works, The Wire is concerned with the ways our fragmented postmodern world causes despair, addiction, and social devastation. Wallace was also obsessed with logic puzzles and paradoxes of the type which infest the show. One of my favorite examples comes from Broom of the System, Wallace’s first novel, where he describes a game of chutes and ladders slightly different than the one most people played in their childhood.
McNulty: You been waiting for crime lab?
Holly: Over an hour. Only two units on the street, and both of them are up at the City Council President’s house.
McNulty: What happened there?
Holly: Someone stole his lawn furniture. They’re up there taking pictures of an empty patio, dusting the backyard gate for latents. I kid you not.
Norris: I swear to God, you show me the son of a bitch who can fix this police department, I’d give back half my overtime.
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.
“Get out of it.”—Marla
“How do I do that?”—Cedric
Throughout the first half of “The Details,” Daniels seems to be pretty pessimistic about the quality of his new group of detectives. When he negotiates with Cantrell for Sydnor, he says “I’ll carry Pryzbylewski for as long as I can.” By the end of the episode, it is clear that, if anything, Daniels was being optimistic. He may not even be able to carry the pistol-whipping Prez for more than a day. If anything, the riot is the easy part for Daniels. Managing the political and ethical considerations will be the real headache for this beleaguered commander.
“Just some sadass down in the basement…”—D’Angelo
While McNulty is busy digging himself deeper into the case by stoking Judge Phelan’s interest in the Barksdales, the other members of the ragtag newly-formed detail move into their new home, and it’s not pretty. With Daniels in the lead, Kima, Carver, Herc and Santangelo follow like a row of ducklings. He opens the door that leads to a basement. We see a low angle shot, looking up a darkened stairway at a group of peons whose relocation to this murky subterranean world should remind Office Space fans of squirrely Milton’s slow stuttering descent into Storage B.
“You the man in the lowrises”–Stringer
One of the best ways to understand the characters on The Wire is to look at what happens when they move up or down within their hierarchical system. “The Target” spends a lot of time following D’Angelo as he encounters a major change in his status within the crew. The challenges he faces as he adjusts to a lower altitude of power reveals a lot, not only about D’Angelo, but also the nature of rank in any hierarchy.
Judge Phelan: When you start coming with the customers it’s time to get out of the business.
McNulty: You shouldn’t talk dirty now that you’re a judge.
Judge Phelan: Now that I’m a judge I can say anything I damn please.
When the newly-minted Judge Phelan summons McNulty to his chambers in Episode 1.1, “The Target,” it initiates The Wire’s big bang. This scene is the single point that explodes into the Barksdale investigation, rippling out into life-altering consequences for dozens of people on both sides of the law. So it is a fitting time for Judge Phelan to give his self-destructive friend an important lesson, both directly and indirectly, on the nature of power.