The Wire, season 1, episode 4: fucking elementary, my dear McNulty

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“This case is nowhere near anything we’re doing,” McNulty complains to his partner. They’re getting ready to investigate the scene of an old unsolved murder case. But we know he’s wrong. We know it’s directly adjacent to what they’re doing. We know the murder was committed by the very same person who put into motion everything that has happened.

Baltimore is a city with one of the highest murder rates in the world (one out of every 2000 people in Baltimore has been murdered this year), and yet McNulty and Bunk have been randomly assigned the one murder that relates directly to everything else they’re doing? I’m not sure how I feel about such massive coincidence in a procedural. But I know how I feel about the investigation scene that’s about to happen.

“Awww…fuck,” Bunk says as he looks at the old crime scene photos. Like he’s just realized something. What is it? When is he going to let us know?

“Motherfucker,” McNulty agrees.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” Bunk mutters, spreading out photos of the victim where her body had lain.

“Fuck,” McNulty says, the camera following his gaze to something written on the report from six months ago. The victim was 20 years old.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Bunk continues muttering. Are they realizing something?

“The fuck?” McNulty says, noting the odd placement of the entrance and exit wounds. He pulls out a tape measure and accidentally cuts his thumb on the sharp edge. “Fuck,” he exclaims, sucking his thumb. Is this scene going to consist entirely of variations of the word “fuck”?

They’re eyeballing possible bullet trajectories. “Aw, fuck…aw, fuck!” Bunk anticipates as something begins to take shape in his mind.

“Fuckity, fuck fuck fuck fuck…” McNulty says as they make eye contact and agree on the angle of the gunshot. McNulty takes out his own gun and holds it out, pointing it back at himself as if he were the corpse. The victim was leaning forward! They search for the bullet that was never recovered. Where is it? Where is it? “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” they mutter, clucking like chickens.

“Fuckin’ A,” McNulty exults when he finds the pancaked bullet. It was lodged in a refrigerator door that had been knocked shut.

“Fuck me,” Bunk agrees.

When you dismantle language, there is only intent. Remove the text and the subtext surfaces. David Simon has constructed an investigation scene from a single word, using it simultaneously as internal monologue, observation, and communication. This great bit about the versatility of the word “fuck” is often attributed to George Carlin, although it’s clearly not him (here is Carlin on fuck).

“It’s the one magical word that just by a sound can describe pain, pleasure, hate, and love,” says the guy who’s not George Carlin. He rattles off a list of examples. This scene is that.

I think of procedurals when I think of David Simon. When I think of TV writers who revel in language, David Milch comes to mind. This is like something from Deadwood. It’s wonderfully out of place in The Wire, and I hope there are more experiments like it.

And consider the irony of Hurk’s scene with an elderly woman in a house his team had just stormed, searching for a suspect. “Open the motherfuckin’ door,” he had hollered while banging on the front door. On his way out, he lingers sheepishly after everyone else has left.

“I’m sorry for cursing,” he tells her. “At the door. I couldn’t see that it was only you.”

(Wondering what’s all this stuff about an old TV show? If you support my Patreon campaign for $10 or more, once a month you’ll have to opportunity to assign me a review. The first season of The Wire won one of the recent drawings.)

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