Frank Pembleton casts a long shadow. Nine years after he departed Homicide: Life on the Streets the philosopher of the squad room, the king of the box, the all-around supercop is still showing up on TV in radically different form.
Pembleton was the reason I became a Homicide fan and the reason I remain one to this day. Over the years I've come to realize that says a lot about my idealized conception of myself and my own profession but this is neither the time nor the place to get into that. Suffice it to say that when I read David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991) I was amazed to learn Pembleton was based on a single, real-life detective, Harry Edgerton of the Baltimore homicide unit. In Simon's book Edgerton is, if not quite the master of interrogation Pembleton would become in the hands of actor Andre Braugher, still a brilliant detective with a knack for ignoring departmental policies and alienating his colleagues. Simon allows a slight romanticization to creep into his portraits of many of the detectives he followed--filming them through gauze, as it were--but only Edgerton comes out looking like that familiar archetype, the maverick supercop.
It was a portrayal Simon would soon regret. In Tod Hoffman's Homicide: Life on the Screen (1998, and see how many permutations you can put that tagline through), he told Hoffman:
I gave Harry Edgerton too much credit for being antisocial. I presented it as being healthier than it actually was, when, in fact, being a lone wolf is very dangerous and potentially self-destructive.
The Wire is, among many other things, an attempt to rein in the Pembleton myth so that it better reflects the reality of what happens to police who don't give the departmental bureaucratic structure the fealty it demands. The series now has at least three characters who illustrate the drawbacks, the consequences, even the pathologies of the myth of the maverick supercop--three characters who bring Frank Pembleton back down to Harry Edgerton.
The Jimmy McNulty of seasons one through three is the harshest critique. He's one of the finest detectives in the department but he burns too many bridges--destroying the Barksdale detail he creates, dumping murders in his friends' laps, and finally spitting in the face of Daniels, the one commander who's been looking out for him. Worse, his attitude is contagious; by season three he's turned Griggs into a sullen, insubordinate, adulterous copy of himself. If Pembleton is an overly idealized conception of the maverick detective then McNulty is perhaps a little too destructive to himself and the units around him, a slight overcompensation to correct for Pembleton's heroic mythologization.
Lester Freamon is a milder and more sympathetic revision who demythologizes Pembleton by going back to the source. Like Harry Edgerton, Freamon was a homicide detective who got exiled to the pawnshop unit because he wouldn't play politics. He seems to have learned his lesson, a lesson he tries to impart to McNulty and Griggs: be a team player, have a life outside the department, and don't bite the hand that feeds you. But now he's gotten the unit dissolved again, and exactly the same way it happened last time--by going after the politicians. He was smart enough to manipulate Pearlman and the lieutenant into okaying the subpoenas, smart enough to time them before the primaries, but not so smart that he could see the departmental axe that would fall on him.
(You have to admire Lester's principles but I really wonder how the rest of the season will play out with the major crimes unit effectively gutted. Season two took far too long to rebuild it after the scorched-earth ending of season one.)
This week a third character tapped into the Edgerton experience, if only briefly. When we catch up with Bunny Colvin he's working security for a downtown hotel, just as Edgerton did after his early retirement. And looking back to last season, Bunk Moreland's needle-in-a-haystack search for an officer's missing gun is taken from one of Edgerton's last, fuck-you jobs as a detective. Any time we see a good officer screwed by the department Harry Edgerton seems to be lurking behind them, reminding us of the peril that awaits any police whose top priorities aren't kissing all the right asses and covering his own.
Other highlights from this week:
- Any scene with Omar stands a pretty good chance of being the most memorable of the week. The morning cereal run and the bit with the Newports were no exception. But as long as we're talking about dangerous mythologizations... Last season Bunk took a good run at cracking the Omar myth, dispelling the aura of cool that had little kids playing Omar in the street. So far it doesn't appear to have stuck. Omar's just too slick.
- Whenever a police has enough integrity (or enough years for a pension, or enough of a martyr complex) to stand up to the brass and face the consequences, the brass go after his proteges: Bunny last season, now Lester. McNulty is the only one who hasn't cared enough to back down. Maybe that's what makes him so uniquely destructive.
- Or should that be "made him"?
- "The sommelier behind the plexi said it was dry." The Wire has the funniest damn lines on TV, but they're so dry you'd never even notice.