David Simon’s modern classic, The Wire, is worthy of a multi-part series about the characters, codes and institutions that give the cult classic its definition. Our first entry explores the polarizing Jimmy McNulty.
Transcript provided by Youtube:
David Simon’s modern classic The Wire — one of the best television shows ever made — plays
on the meaning of walking that thin wire.
[Don’t get it twisted, I do some dirt too but I ain’t never put my gun on anybody who wasn’t in the game.]
[ A man must have a code ]
Surviving in this system, the one thing that keeps a person’s soul intact
and keeps them on the right side of that wire, is his code.
Throughout the seasons, we see different subgroups and characters embody various codes —
consisting of philosophies, values and rules to live by.
So in this ScreenPrism series looking back at The Wire,
we’re going to speak about individual characters and
how the codes that they adopt interact with the game, for better or for worse.
We’re going to start where the show starts — with Jimmy McNulty and the code
of being Good Police.
Beware, there will be spoilers for all five seasons of The Wire..
Because brother when you were good, you were the best we had.
The first character The Wire focuses on is Jimmy Mcnulty,
who’s pretty much wrong in every way– he’s a drunk, a hound, he uses people, and he never
says a polite word in his life. But he has one saving grace — and that’s that he’s good police.
[The things that make me right for this job,
maybe they’re the same things that make me wrong for everything else.]
He’s not necessarily the best police we meet in terms of talent — Lester Freamon
is far better than Jimmy when it comes to the brains of cracking a code and monitoring
Kima and Bunk are more consistent, Daniels works more effectively in the system, and
Bunny Colvin and his protege Ellis Carver -whom we’ll take about later in another video – show a stronger
understanding of police as a community force and try to disrupt the system on a deeper
Still, what makes Jimmy effective — and what makes him the first focus on the show — is
his unstoppable will.
[West Baltimore is dying, and you suits are running around trying to pin some politician’s pelt to the wall.]
He’s the impetus behind the two major wiretaps that bookend the series — the first wire on
Avon Barksdale’s operation, that shows the department what really good police work can accomplish and
leads to the on-again off-again existence of a Major Crimes unit.
And the wire of the fake serial killer that Jimmy invents in Season 5, in order to
let Lester track the real serial killer that none of the bosses seem to care about, Marlo Stanfield.
[We got Marlo Stanfield.]
[What about the serial killer?]
[Marlo is he.]
In both cases Jimmy pushes and pushes until his case has the support it needs, undeterred
by what might stop other more polite or considerate, or loyal people.
[He learned no lessons. He acknowledged no mistakes.]
[He was as stubborn a Mick as ever stumbled out of the Northeast Parishes to take a patrolman’s shield.]
This devil-may-care drive that’s Jimmy’s superpower and his undoing is embodied in
The smirking embodies his choice to be gleefully oblivious to how much he’s inconveniencing
others, messing up their careers, or hurting them personally.
He takes painfully honest to a grotesque extreme.
A good example of a scene that draws out our conflicting feelings about MCnulty is in season
3 when he makes Deangelo’s mother, Avon’s sister, cry.
[Honestly, I was looking for someone who cared about the kid.]
[I mean, like I said, you were the one who made him take the years, right?]
We’re torn because on one level what kind of person could say this to a mother, and
on the other level, we’ve been thinking the exact same things. And so
The Beauty of MCnulty is that there’s nothing he won’t say, no feeling he won’t hurt, no
person or rule he won’t turn on in chasing what he thinks is right for the case.
[But I felt like we could critique the Drug War effectively, if we acknowledged that
the police are supposed to matter. That they’re supposed to solve crimes.]
[We thought we got that right, the idea of this matters. I signed on, I made it all the way to homicide
and we’re supposed to win; we’re not supposed to lose.]
[You do not make it easy Jimmy. I have to admit, I am deeply ambivalent.]
Jimmy’s other catch phrase is
[Fuck the bosses]
In his mind, it’s good police versus the bosses, and it’s quickly established that
one must choose in this system between climbing the ladder and doing real police work.
There’s no character in the police department who doesn’t eventually have to make this
In police vocabulary, the choice comes down to whether or not to buy into the longstanding
practice of “juking the stats” — which over time we learn is a common practice in
the schools, politics and every other institution in Baltimore.
[Juking the stats. Making robberies into larcenies; making rapes disappear.]
[You juke the stats, and Majors become Colonels.
It’s the easy out of not doing one’s job, but getting credit for it,
which ultimately makes everything worse
for the citizens of Baltimore.
Despite his early ambition, Daniels comes to realize that he’d rather be good police
than get the glory.
[But the stacked games that lie? It’s what ruined this department.]
[Shining up shit and calling it gold so Majors become Colonels and Mayors become Governors.]
While we briefly hope during the supposed “new day” that the new mayor Carcetti falsely promises
that these things can go hand-in-hand, in reality the ladder or juking the stats, and good police work
in direct conflict with each other. This culminates in Daniels’ decision at the end of Season 5
to turn down the job of police commissioner and retire from the force.
[The tree that doesn’t bend breaks, Cedric.]
[Bend too far, you’re already broken.]
And some of our other favorite characters also offer more healthy versions of the “good
police” code than Jimmy represents.
Lester embodies patient intelligence and level-headedness.
Lester is not only pretty much the best police ever, but he’s also the moral center of this code::
[Did he do that thing where he stares at you over the top of his reading glasses?]
[You know, that look that says ‘I’m the father you never had.]
[And I don’t want to be disappointed in you ever again.]
Always reminding others of the right thing to do for the case, no matter the political
[And Rawls came to me , asked if I would take the homicides.]
[You should. Those girls in the can really suffocated, Lieutenant. They really died in that fuc**ng box.]
Kima and Bunk are two other strong examples of “good police” — Kima becomes more
and more like McNulty over time finding her aptitude for police work also makes domesticity
challenging — not unlike a classic western hero who prides himself on protecting society
from danger but can’t himself live inside that society he protects.
But as police she and Bunk are smart and steady.
They recognize that progress, especially for a murder police
comes through returning and returning to the problem, and being ready for insight to strike.
All of these characters struggle and might need a taste now and then to diffuse the frustration
of trying to be good police in a system that discourages it, but Jimmy’s passion for
police work is presented as a true addiction — one that closely aligns with his much more
obvious — at least at first — addictions to womanizing and alcohol.
His police addiction is revealed more subtly — in moments when he takes a risk he shouldn’t,
like teaching his young boys to follow a known drug dealer Stringer Bell.
[Elana, why are we here?]
[Because you can’t have Shawn and Michael around criminals. You can’t lose them in
a Baltimore market. That’s why!]
[He wasn’t a criminal.]
Jimmy’s sense of purpose in being good police sometimes gives way to an arrogant self-importance.
[There’s not many. We’re good at this Lester. In this town, we’re as good as it gets.]
His driving need in Seasons 1 to 3 is to take down Stringer Bell — so his reaction
to Stringer’s death is telling.
[I caught him Bunk. On the wire. I caught him. And he doesn’t fucking knew it.]
It’s not just about stopping the bad guy.
It’s about making sure he knows that Jimmy beat him.
[Tell me something, Jimmy. How exactly do you think it all ends?]
[What do you mean?]
[A parade? A gold watch?]
Lester — with his experiences getting shut away in the department for being real police
[How long you been in the pawn shop unit?]
[Thirteen years and four months.]
[And four months.]
[Tell me about it Mr. Thirteen Years.]
[And four months.]
—knows better than anyone that there’s no glory at the end of the job — the job has
to satisfy in itself.
[And he is likely employed in a bureaucratic entity, possibly civil service or quasi-public service
from which he feels alienated.]
Jimmy comes to realize that his unhealthy behaviors are connected to his desire for winning a
big case, combined with his frustration at the way the bosses and the police system continually
thwart his ability to simply work a case as it should be done.
He steps in and out of the major detective work over the seasons. First, because he’s been forced
to work Coast Guard duty as punishment, and later because he’s trying to live a healthier life.
Finally, at the end of Season 4, he thinks he can keep himself from himself while being on a case.
[I think I can do this and keep myself away from myself. If that makes any sense.]
His phrasing screams of the addict who thinks
he can have a sip without getting hooked again, and we know it won’t go well.
For McNulty everything becomes expendable in the name of Good Policework.
He uses this to justify his own bad behaviors which really aren’t necessary for the job.
His desire to win, and his willingness to destroy everything and everyone in his
path, ultimately isn’t a stable, sustainable, productive way to live.
In Season 5, we see the culmination of McNulty’s addiction, in his willingness to fake murders
to finally get the bosses to fall in line and unknowingly fund important detective work.
An ideological split emerges between Lester and McNulty on the one hand — willing to
bend the truth and the details for a bigger purpose —
and Greggs and Bunk on the other — who feel that violating the job in small ways becomes
a slippery slope… A lesson McNulty eventually comes to learn first-hand.
In the first season, the wire is the symbol of good police work, what it can do and why
it matters– when it comes back twisted in Season 5 as an illegal wiretap on Marlo that’s
supposed to be tapping the fake serial killer, the symbol of the wire now challenges the
rightness of breaking the rules of process in the name of a higher good, and forces us to
ask whether Jimmy has now slipped onto the wrong side of the wire, or his own personal
code of being Good Police.
Yet while Lester, McNulty, Greggs, Bunk and Daniels diverge over the degree to which one
should bend the rules or “fuck the bosses,” they share this core belief in being “good
police,” a refusal to juke the stats, and a deep respect for each other.
just like Bubbles, the heroin addict who’s the heart of the series, McNulty manages to get
clean in the end.
On the night of his detective’s wake for his retirement,
Jimmy walks away, choosing not to have one final night of drinking, and the series ends
with him staring out at the people of Baltimore, leaving it all behind.
And together Bubbles’ and McNulty’s outcomes convey the seed of hope in the series’ conclusion. It’s buried
underneath the fact that the vast majority of the characters we’ve met and cared about
are dead, in jail, or have completely sold out their ideals.
But in Bubbles and McNulty we get the sense that personal change is possible, that we can become
better and learn to live more productively with other people.
For most who interact with the law and justice system of Baltimore, getting ahead
means playing dirty, betraying one’s own, killing, robbing, selling drugs, or doing
a less good job — not being good citizens or “good police.”
While nothing is black and white here, this is a show about morality,
about collective responsibility,
and how to be an okay human being, in a world that gives us
every incentive to stray from a moral path.
According to David Simon, this show is really about the city as a true symbol of progress
and how we might learn to live together.
Simon’s intentions reveal another key meaning of the show’s title — the wire that runs through us all,
because as much as we don’t like to take responsibility for people in our society
who are different from us, the truth is that we are all connected.
We’ll be talking about other Wire characters and codes in coming weeks, so please subscribe!
This post was previously published on Youtube.
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want to join our calls on a regular basis, please join us as a Premium Member, today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS.
Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: Screenshot from video