Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Down to the Wire: “What The Fuck Did I Do?”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 4, 2008

Season Five of The Wire, the HBO drama that is almost inarguably the most compelling, innovative and exciting show on TV at the moment, begins at the end of this week. With that in mind, we here at IITS are devoting the rest of the week to the show–the characters, lines, scenes, episodes and themes that make up the patchwork of the show that broadened the perameters of what a TV drama could be capable of. Spoiler Alerts abound, so if you haven’t already, be sure to marathon the entire show first before reading.

“You’re an asshole, McNulty.

One of the most repetitively expressed sentiments of Season One is a comment with plenty of justification. Jimmy McNulty is, in general, the closest thing that The Wire has to a hero–a generally well-intentioned crusader who’s willing to go to bat for his job and his beliefs, fighting perpetually losing battles against superiorly organized criminals and his ethically compromised higher-ups. But he’s also an asshole–a recklessly self-centered, self-indulgent and self-destructive fuck-up, one whose most noble pursuits are still mostly motivated by ego and vengeance than any particular do-gooder impulses.

McNulty’s misdeeds give his character fascinating (and often hilarious) depth, because you’re constantly caught between perceiving him as just a loveable ne’er-do-well scamp and a genuinely unlikeable loser. In the fomer category, you’ve got him failing to stop a potential car robbery because he’s too fucked up to stand up straight, showing up drunk at Kima’s door for possibly the most misguided booty call in TV history (and then trying again a few seasons later) and being unable to resist a three-way with two Russian prostitutes, despite being in the middle of a bust. In the latter category, you’ve got him sticking his friends with the responsibility of 14 dead bodies to get revenge on his ex-boss, showing up drunk and screaming at Rhonda’s door when she denies him a late-night hookup, and using his kids to help tail Stringer in the middle of a crowded mall (even losing them in the process).

The best example of this dichotomy is also not only McNulty’s best scene, but possibly the best sequence in the entire series. The beginning scene of Ep8 of S2, “Duck and Cover,” begins with McNutly at a bar drunk-dialing ex-wife Elena, who he’s recently failed to reconcile his marriage with, and who has driven him to (his most recent) binging. After hanging up and ordering another shot, despite his clearly being good to go and last call approaching, the bartender demands that McNulty not drive home afterwards. After insisting that he won’t, the scene cuts to a blitzed McNulty careening his car down an empty street while loudly and slurredly singing along to The Pogues. On an especially wide turn, he crashes his right headlight into a bridge support, and stops the car. After assessing the situation, he decides to back up his car and try the turn once more, ramming into the support again, fucking up the whole left side of his car. The scene then cuts to McNulty in a diner, half-intelligibly ordering coffee and eggs. After an especially young-looking waitress comes on to him, the shot immediately cuts to the two having sex at the girl’s apartment. The last shot is of an evidently hung over McNulty, awaking next to the girl in her apartment, with his expression echoing his de facto first season catch phrase: “What the fuck did I do?

The scene has essentially no consequence on the storyline of The Wire, but if you only needed one scene to understand McNulty (his flawed side, at least), this’d be the one. All three of his biggest vices–sex, alcohol and arrogance–are involved, and entirely separated from his job (the one thing that always keeps his character human), he’s able to let his worst impulses run wild. It’s possibly his lowest moment as a character, flagrantly breaking the law and endangering the streets of Baltimore out of anger and self-pity, and then fucking a much too young, possibly even underage waitress out of an inebriated combination of loneliness, horniness and boredom. With the possible exception of the times he gets his kids involved, there’s no moment on the show where his character is more despicable than this.

Yet the scene is utterly hilarious, and even peversely endearing. Even at his worst, you can’t help but feeling that McNulty is just being McNulty, and despite his neglegence and irresponsibility, you have to sort of admire his general fuck it attitude, as well as his ability to score young, fairly attractive waitresses even at his most pathetically plastered. Take the plot description on the DVD menu, which introduces the episode by talking about McNulty’s “legendary night out”–there’s a hint of sarcasm, sure, but no bitterness. Essentially, no matter how badly he screws up, you just can’t stay mad at McNulty. Look at that smile, ferchrissake!

McNulty’s hardly the first anti-hero in TV history–hell, Tony Soprano is a character that audiences really have to feel conflicted about rooting for, and McNulty never even killed anyone. On the whole, Jimmy’s mostly a good guy, but he serves as the lynchpin example of one of the most prevalent themes of The Wire–that even the genuinely good guys are real assholes from time to time, that even the best cops have thuggish aspects to them, and that the pressures of the city can drive even the most honorable man to some real dogged shit. A tired point, maybe, but when it’s presented this brilliantly, it’s hard to coplain.

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2 Responses to “Down to the Wire: “What The Fuck Did I Do?””

  1. Erick said

    sex, alcohol, arrogance, and SCRAPPLE

  2. Jason L said

    Haha you gotta love the subtlety of the girl. “You can get anything you want.” Nicely played, forgettable ho.

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