The Wire (Season 1, Episode 4): Old Cases – Warning: Contains Spoilers



“Less is more in television,” says David Simon. “It’s not theatre. We’re looking for the nuance of real life.”

This is yet another summation of why The Wire is so feted. It simply revokes sensationalism in TV drama – a tendency which is frequently apparent in episode 4. From the first scene’s languid build-up towards its rewarding and outrageous punch-line (see best scene), to the finale in which the actors’ expressions render the dialogue unimportant (whereby a drunken McNulty fails to seduce Kima), the episode provides a masterclass in elegant subtlety.   

For example, the portrayal of the relationship between Kima and her girlfriend, Cheryl, suggests some extremely slight, but telling hints of discontent between the two. Although the couple end the episode in an embrace, this act ultimately proves misleading.

The first remnants of Kima and Cheryl’s eventual break-up are evinced in their two scenes together. Cheryl laughs and gently reprimands Kima for accidently marking their couch with a felt tip pen. Kima subsequently asks her why the phone bill is so exorbitant, as she possibly suspects her girlfriend of having an affair.

Yet both individuals are smiling throughout the scene, though their expressions mask a mutual suspicion and mistrust based on their respective insecurities which will not become fully discernible for a considerable time period.

The disconcertingly false sentiments on which their relationship is based, coupled with its painfully slow and prolonged dissipation, recalls (to my mind at least) a similar portrayal in Citizen Kane. The scene in question depicts the breakdown in communication between Kane and his first wife, conveyed by their increasingly bitter dinner table conversations with one another.

However, Kane’s entire first marriage was essentially displayed over the course of a single montage (primarily due to cinema’s reliance on concise storytelling), while Kima’s relationship difficulties are demonstrated over the course of numerous episodes. Consequently, such a comparison highlights the advantage which TV has over cinema in its ability to infuse plots with an abundance of novelistic detail, a virtue which it has all too often neglected to adequately exploit.

Such refined and meticulously constructed narration is also, in a sense, counteracted during the episode by one memorable scene in particular, featuring some rather primitive (to put it mildly) dialogue. As McNulty and Bunk revisit the scene of a murder, they inspect the photos of a witnesses’ naked corpse after her murder. What follows is the epitome of black humour.

On the one hand, the viewer is likely to recoil, given the onslaught of images exhibiting the brutally beaten victim. At the same time, it is almost impossible to withhold laughter as the scene consists solely of a tirade of obscenities from detectives Bunk and McNulty.

“F*ck, f*ck, f*ckin, f*ck,” exclaims Bunk, in the middle of this inspired scenario. The moment is decidedly Pinter-esque, with its abundance of pauses and utilisation of extravagantly absurd and distinctive language. However, it still remains as genuinely realistic and credible drama. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that the show’s relentless profanity was criticised in some quarters.

Nonetheless, David Simon sought to defend the show’s perpetually blasphemous nature. He argues that the characters’ copious swearing is justifiable, given that the Baltimore Police Department was “a very profane place”.

In relation to the infamous f*ck scene, Simon adds: “That scene was suggested to me by a great department wit, Terry McLarney, who said that we’re reaching the point where detectives will be able to communicate with one another using only that word.”

However, the scene is more than just a striking demonstration of excess juvenilia. As with the instance involving McNulty’s drunken confrontation of Kima, the dialogue (despite its originality) is secondary to the image. Bunk and McNulty are securing key evidence against Avon’s crew and their findings at the murder scene require little explanation.

Hence, The Wire, unlike the majority of TV shows, evidently holds the capacity to indulge in intermittent instances of pure cinema (in which the image is the primary storytelling device). Therefore, the show may not be theatre, but it is certainly not archetypal television either.  

Random Facts:                                                                                                              

  1. Gbenga Akinnagbe, the actor who, in season 3, plays Marlo’s associate (Chris Partlow) appears in this episode as a police officer.
  2. The episode was one of two to be directed by Clement Virgo, a Jamaican-born filmmaker who was also behind films such as The Planet of Junior Brown and Poor Man’s Game.
  3. Callie Thorne, who appears for the first time in this episode playing Elena, was one of several cast members who featured in Simon’s previous series, Homicide: Life on the Street.
  4. The aforementioned f*ck scene lasts precisely 4 minutes and 41 seconds. Its dialogue solely comprises of 31 f*cks, 4 motherf*ckers and 1 f*ckin A.
  5.  Burrell’s tendency to play golf badly when he is annoyed, as shown in this episode, is again demonstrated in season 5.

Best Quote: “It’s a thin line between heaven and here”. Bubs makes this elegiac affirmation after McNulty drops him back to the unseemly surroundings of his local neighbourhood. This illustrates the surprisingly philosophical disposition which he routinely assumes. 

Best Scene: The Homicide crew are attempting to move an extremely large desk through a narrow doorway, but find the task to be immensely difficult no matter how many people partake in the effort. After the group retire from this endeavour, Herc states: “Who’d have thought it would be so hard to get it in,” unwittingly revealing that he was pushing the object in the opposite direction to everyone else.

New Characters: Elena and Michael McNulty.

WTF Moment: Having aggressively invaded an old woman’s home and searched in vain for Bodie, Herc accosts this woman and says: “I’m sorry for cursing.”