Tuned In

Wire Watch: Be Good Police

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bunk_0501.jpgPaul Schiraldi / HBO

TV critics, myself included, like to focus on what David Simon criticizes in the show. And there’s plenty. But part of The Wire’s spirit, its heart, is in what it loves. And The Wire loves, above all, good old-fashioned work. As much as Simon believes that the war on drugs is a waste and an exercise in futility, The Wire has true love for cops that work out cases anyway, with shoe leather, wit, and plain old B.S.

That’s at the core of the first scene of The Wire’s season 5, which I watched last night for the fifth or sixth time and still cracks me up every time. The ruse, in which Bunk and other cops trick a suspect into confessing by loading up a photocopier with TRUE and FALSE sheets and pretending it’s a lie detector, could have been uncomfortable in another cop series–especially one not dominated by black characters. A roomful of white cops bamboozling a dumb black kid could have seemed ugly.

But although race never really goes away in The Wire, in the interrogation room, it’s all about cops and perps. You do the job, even if you can’t afford proper equipment, even if you are undermined by your boss, even if all evidence of your senses shows that no arrest you make makes anything better on the streets. You do it because a job well-done, a scam well-played, is a beautiful thing. You do it because it is what you do, and doing what you do well, as opposed to half-assing it and getting by, is fulfilling. That is being good police.

David Simon, as it were, supports the troops even when he doesn’t support the war.
The Wire often makes the point that the little buy-and-bust arrests that the chiefs want do nothing to make Baltimore safer. But that’s not all. The *big* busts don’t really change anything either. Avon Barksdale is put away–so what? Stringer Bell is dead–so what? There’s always another striver to take their place, like Marlo, and those survivors will by Darwinian logic only be tougher and more sadistic. (Marlo is not just a crook, he’s a totalitarian, running a mini police state of fear and paranoia.) Suppose they somehow follow the bodies in the vacants all the way back up to Marlo–so what? Will that so much as slow the next batch of bodies? Likewise in politics–so Royce got booted. Where’s the new day?

And yet The Wire has devoted itself to those big cases, and you, and it, root for them anyway. You know the enterprise is futile, and you want them to win. Because the craft of solving a crime is a beautiful thing. Because screwing those who deserve to be screwed is its own reward. Because being good police is a good in itself. What’s the alternative? Being bad police.

Bunk is the embodiment of this–he’s cynical, has no illusions, doesn’t need to work as hard and conscientiously as he does, yet he puts his suit on every day and does the job, because doing real police work, not faking, not half-assing, is important to him. (This will become significant to the story soon, for reasons I cannot disclose.)

The Wire doesn’t have solutions, but it does, in a way, have a simple sode: Be good police. (Whether you’re a cop, a teacher, a drug bandit or anything else.) This is something to keep in mind as well as we start to get our first glimpse inside the Baltimore Sun. From the way it’s set up–the oldtimers bitching on the loading dock about cutbacks–you know it’s not going to end any better than it did for that other set of dinosaurs, the dock workers in season 2. And Simon clearly has plenty to say about what’s wrong with his old profession today.

But not before The Wire shows you what he loves about it. There’s the bit, for instance, where the copy editor, in the midst of putting out a breaking story about a fire, takes time to explain that you “evacuate” a building, not a person, unless you give the person an enema. It shows that words matter, and that dedication to meaning is what keeps craft alive. It is the journalistic equivalent of being good police.

Likewise the longer scene later when Haynes, with his reporters, gets the story about Nerese’s shady titty-bar development deal. Does this story really matter? Maybe. Maybe not. Certainly it’s about wrongdoing; on the other hand, it probably does nothing to illuminate the bigger picture or describe the larger, corrupt system. But it doesn’t matter: they go after it, and it’s a beautiful thing, because simply finding the story, and the craft of ferreting it out from a line in a meeting’s minutes, is a beautiful thing.

People who critique the media often entertain this fantasy that journalists sit down before doing any story and ask themselves, “Will this story advance agenda X or agenda Y? Will it have result A or result B in the wider world? Will it help or hurt the right people?” They don’t, generally: it’d be arrogant, you’d probably be wrong, and you’d never get any work done anyway. No, you do it because of the doing of it, because there’s pleasure in unearthing a fact like a pig uprooting a truffle, and you care no more than the pig about how dirty the job ultimately is.

Like the cops, the politicians, everyone in The Wire’s story, its journalists operate within and are undermined by larger systems over which they have no power. To be blunt, there is probably nothing they can do or report that will either save their jobs or save Baltimore. But they do it anyway, and however else The Wire will critique their profession, Simon clearly admires them for it as only a former reporter could.

It’s easy to tell a story that says you should try hard and never give up, because in the end right will prevail. The great challenge of morality–and the only morality that is ultimately worthwhile–is to make the case that you must try even if you don’t know right will prevail, even if you know that you will fail. This what what Camus did in The Myth of Sisyphus, when he argued that even though existence was absurd, to give up in the face of that was absurd as well. [Update: As Simon wrote himself at Matthew Yglesias’ blog.] It’s what Beckett was getting at in Waiting for Godot: “I can’t go on; I’ll go on.” If they had lived in Baltimore, these existentialists might have phrased their philosophy a different way: Be good police.

Miscellaneous highlights:

* It’s hard to write about the Sun staff without sounding like I’m talking in code about my own job, but this episode has the mealymouthed language of its high-up editors down cold: “We simply have to do more with less,” etc.

* I love Norman: “A weak-ass mayor of a broke-ass city.” Carcetti: “Feel better?” Norman: “A little bit. You?”

* I still feel a twinge every time I see Michael or Dukie on this show–I wish Bunny Colvin could have helicoptered all of them out to the burbs.

* McNulty, liquored up and ready to dog some barfly, calling his lovely new wife and lying to her, to the tune of “Mother-in-Law.” Oh, Jimmy, will you ever learn?