Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Wire season 1, episode 6, Major Rawls

I get the irony of responding to this screed on "slow reading" in the Guardian on a blog, especially given that the article is itself the sort of thing the author doesn't think we should read much of at all. So I'm going to double down and blog, briefly, in advocacy for "slow watching" -- repeated viewings and pauses for contemplation. Not just for movies -- that's respectable -- but for TV. I'm in the midst of watching season one of The Wire for the second time, and I'm writing this during a pause in episode 6.

I was struck by a scene in which an external shot of police headquarters cuts away to show the careerist commander, Rawls, putting on his jacket to head home for the night. He glances down at a stack of three red folders on his desk, case files the season's hero, Detective McNulty, has left on his desk. Picks one up, shuffles it over, glances at another. Then he looks up and shouts "Jay!" -- his toady sergeant. That's it. The entire scene is about 25 seconds.

Two scenes later, we learn that what seemed opaque was actually exposition. Jay tells McNulty that Rawls wants arrests on the cases, a move they all know will improve their stats and hurt the larger case against Avon Barksdale's drug empire. But if it was just exposition, why make it so quiet, and why separate from the answer it's meant to provide?

So I watched again, and again. Most of the scene is dedicated to Rawls putting on his jacket and adjusting the lapels. He's a vain man, almost completely disinterested in police work. He's an apparatchik. He wants the system to work, which is to say that he wants to get a paycheck and to rise through the ranks and, perhaps, solve a few crimes. All this is summed up in the way the actor who plays Rawls, John Doman, puts on his dark grey jacket. He lets out an irritated sigh, gets his arms through the sleeves, and shrugs the coat up with his shoulders, still holding the puffed cheek expression of his sigh. Then he adjusts the lapels three times. He was too lazy to put the jacket on properly, but he wants it to look good. All along he's staring at the stack of case folders, his eyes presumably scanning the cover sheet. Again, too lazy to really engage with the folders -- three cleared cases, left to linger on his desk all afternoon -- but vain enough to want their rewards, and intelligent enough to recognize them easily. He knows what good detective work is, just as he knows how to wear his jacket. He just doesn't want to do the work to have either. He drops his hands, staring at the folders. We notice that his belt is around his belly button -- that although he's a man maybe in his late 50s, reasonably fit, aggressive enough in his demeanor that he passes for vital, he wears his clothes like an old man. We notice, too, his ID badge. For all his blustering authority, he's just a cog. So here's the cog, old before his time, vain, wanting something, too exhausted from his vanity to get it, seeing a shortcut on the desk before him -- and then he shouts "Jay," ordering his underling to make it happen.

But why this scene here, several minutes removed from the result of Rawls' decision? It's framed by two longer, more traditional scenes. Preceding it, we see Carve and Herc, the two greenest and most brutal detectives on McNulty's special detail, grab a young punk named Bodie who's been giving them trouble. They think he's skipped out on juvie, again, and begin to beat him for it. But he shows them a piece of paper that show's he's been given a pass by the court. They're incredulous. The thing is, so is Bodie. Not even triumphant. The juvenile system, he says, is a joke. Then he asks them for a ride to his grandmother's. "Get in the back, fucknuts," says Carve.

The scene following Rawl's jacket features D, a mid-level man in the drug operation -- something like Major Rawls -- waiting for a girl who's one of his runners to come out of a grocery. He takes her bag, looks in, pulls out some eggs. "Little early in the month for this, isn't it?" he asks, and begins dropping the eggs one by one on the sidewalk. He thinks she's been stealing. But D isn't a monster. In fact, he's too soft for the drug trade. He's killed one, maybe two people, almost cracked when presented with a (fake) picture of the kids of one his victims, and earlier in this episode was freaked out by news of the murder of one of the drug ring's enemies, by torture. "Let it go," he advises a younger guy, who can't; and D can't, either, so he passes it on to the girl.

Back to Rawls. Taken as a series, the three scenes are a study in authority. Nothing profound, just the observation that we pass suffering along. Not out of sadism but because the way you "let it go" is by getting it out of your system. Carve and Herc, constantly frustrated by the higher ups and by their own inability to either understand or really do anything about the crime they see, pass it on in a beating for Bodie, which Bodie escapes by pointing to the enemy above. D needs to purge himself of the poison of the murder he's been party to. And Rawls? That 25 second scene is the radicalism of The Wire. His poison is the system he's a part of. Not its corruption, but the system itself. Rawls, unlike drunken, idealistic McNulty, understands that his job is not to solve crimes, it's to "clear" them. Clear them off his desk, that is. Nobody expects anymore. Nobody wants anymore. And when McNulty gives them more, anyway, he disrupts the system. He thinks he's smarter than Carve and Herc, but he's not. Lazy, vain, amoral Rawls is the only one who gets what's going on.