The Weekly Wire: “I Wanted To Make That Shit Special”

Okay. It’s that time again, kiddies. Another look at HBO’s The Wire. I’m kicking the classroom door wide open. Here’s some dialogue between the two detectives, McNulty (white dude) and Bunk (black fella). They have great rapport. This dialogue is interesting — I don’t know that it needs much context. You maybe could know that McNulty is always putting himself in the political cross-hairs by trying to actually be a good cop (“good police”). What’s fascinating to me is that I don’t really know what’s going on in this scene. Something’s there. Something’s up. Some element of history that goes beyond what we see in the show. This is from Episode 7, Season 1, by the way. Here’s the dialogue. Both embedded video (longer, fuller scene) and the text (shorter to highlight the dialogue I want to highlight). Take to it. Like it? Dislike it? Go beyond that. Tell me why. Tell me what you think works. What doesn’t. How does it lay? How does it play? (And if you’re looking for the scene referenced last time in the comments, the one where they basically just say versions of “fuck” back and forth, you can clickyclicky and see it.)

Det. James ‘Jimmy’ McNulty: You know why I respect you so much, Bunk?

Det. William ‘Bunk’ Moreland: Mm-mmm.

McNulty: It’s not ’cause you’re good police, ’cause, y’know, fuck that, right?

Bunk: Mm. Fuck that, yeah.

McNulty: It’s not ’cause when I came to homicide, you taught me all kinds of cool shit about . . . well, whatever.

Bunk: Mm. Whatever.

McNulty: It’s ’cause when it came time for you to fuck me . . . you were very gentle.

Bunk: You damn right.

McNulty: See, ’cause you could have hauled me out of the garage and just bent me over the hood of a radio car, and . . . no, you were, you were very gentle.

Bunk: I knew it was your first time. I wanted to make that shit special.

McNulty: It was, man. It fucking was.


  • February 24, 2010 at 12:54 AM // Reply

    This scene is just awesome. Both started cat calling…not because they wanted to…but because it was the manly thing to do while sitting at a bar. Both actors are good, but Bunk is amazing. He plays a great drunk guy trying not to seem drunk. The scene takes a great dive into serious but quickly lightens up. It’s obvious that the words between them shouldn’t be taken literally, but you could totally think that. They sell it hard. You’re right; these guys have some serious history and that conversation makes me want to know a lot more about these two. Having not watched the show I can believe that these guys work very well together. “Take it back, you old whore!” Just great stuff here.

    I will note here that the actors make this writing great. Lesser actors could have seriously fucked this up royally. I don’t think the writing much mattered here and they could have ad libbed some of this if they had enough takes. Nothing against the writers, but hey, find me a guy who hasn’t had this sort of conversation at least once while drunk with friends.

    The only thing that I disliked was from a directorial standpoint. from :43 – :54 theres a long shot of the bar. Right in the center of the screen there is a random guy at the end of the bar drinking. He completely pulled my focus away from the actors. I would have opted for a bartender perspective of the two guys here. That’s just me, though.

    This is a much better scene, in my opinion, than that chess scene.

    • WTF?!

      @Paul, are you a raving moonbat?

      This is a *writing* blog!

      I talk about writing! All the time! Writing writing writing! This post is framed as a *writing* post — and you don’t think the writing much mattered?!

      *head asplodes, brains everywhere*


      Now, do I know if this scene was ad-libbed? No, I do not. But it reads with the cadence of the show’s writing, so I’ll go ahead and assume that these words were written down on a page for actors to read. I’ll also go ahead and say that the actors are spot on and do a great job. But “ad-libbed if they had enough takes” is on par with “give a typewriter to a 100 monkeys and eventually they’ll produce Shakespeare.”

      That said, they do a great job with what they’re given. And what they’re given is a script, and a script is written by some no-mattering asshole like, say, me.

      Here’s why the writing matters.

      Because that dialogue is sharp. It’s precisely-framed to convey something without ever saying that particular something. It’s not *just* drunk-talk. It’s drunk-talk between two characters who have a history, a history as-yet-unseen in the first seven episodes of the show. Because that history is unseen, it’s the writers’ job to bring that history out. To frame the scene in a way so that it isn’t just two dudes talking, but it’s two dudes talking about something.

      They speak around it. What’s great about this scene is that, for as much as they’re *saying,* they’re not *telling*.

      This isn’t some playback of recorded events: “Hey, remember that time when you did that thing and I did that other thing?” It’s McNulty saying, “Thanks for being gentle when you fucked me.” And Bunk gets it.

      It’s written that way.

      The writing is the thing that gives it nuance, subtext, history. When we sit down with these characters in this episode — and we’ve seen them together in six previous episodes — I feel I know more about them now than I ever did. Even though nothing much is said. I now get it. That’s writing. Further, I get the police force in this show now. We’ve seen enough to know that the cops often fuck each other over, but up until now we’ve had no cause to believe it happened between these two. I’d say it has. And I’d say they both understand it, and, as partners, have grown comfortable with it. (Hell, it happens in the next episode: McNulty makes Bunk lie to another cop, and Bunk gets near-instant payback by having McNulty lie to Bunk’s wife and then pick his drunk ass up from a mistress’ house after setting fire to his clothes in the woman’s bathtub.)

      Saying the writing doesn’t matter is like looking at the bricks in a beautiful house and saying that all that architectin’ didn’t matter — those bricklayers could’ve improvised this whole place into existence, right? Sure, the writing is only one part of the equation (actors can make bad writing good or good writing bad), but the writing is always your foundational layer. On it, the house can stand, or the house can fall.

      So, you’d better take that back. It’s okay; this is not a “no takebacks” zone. I’m just saying. We got a whole room of writers here. You think a horsehead in the bed is bad? Or sleeping with the fishes? Aw, heck no. You could suffer the Ritual Murder By Writers: dragged to a library and stabbed to death with poison pens. I’ve seen it done. It’s all ink. Ink everywhere. Ink and the judgmental gazes of silent books on looming shelves.

      (I’m obviously kidding. Nobody’s murdering anybody. Everybody, pens down. Pens down!)

      — c.

  • I’m diggin with Paul. Much more engaging than the chess scene, perhaps because we’re more at home with a classic “Cops at a Bar” scene. The implied history is swell.

    My favorite? Implied conflict. McNulty got F’d by Bunk. But, there is a mutual appreciation there. It doesn’t make the action acceptable, and it causes the viewer to have all sorts of questions, but it also serves to paint the picture of the working environment these two share.

    Also great: Bunk is picking up his money while McNulty is putting his down. Ok, fine, he’s that guy. But no! He also says, “Let’s do 1 more” AFTER he was ready to quit and pay, but now that McNulty’s paying… He F’d him again. Nice.


  • February 24, 2010 at 7:45 AM // Reply

    Deep breaths! I say things like that to promote conversation. I’m in a unique position on this blog as I am not a writer…yet. I have no formal training and very little experience. I’m on the outside looking in. I don’t have that writer’s perspective. I look to you guys to tear me down and then build me back up, facing me in the right direction.

    With that said, your explanation did that. I can see how the writer’s used the atmosphere and subtlety to build the scene. I now also realize that the writers know the characters so well that they can build dialogue that they know these particular actors will hammer out of the park. Instead of doing a flashback scene, or explaining things outright, they created a reason for me to want to get to know these guys better. Well crafted.

    I’ll continue to annoy you at every turn (or at least until I’m kicked out…)

    • @Paul —

      Word to all that. I will now go take a bubble bath. Calgon will take me away. 🙂

      Another thing to add real quick — it might be possible for actors to ad-lib their way through a scene given a number of takes, but takes are expensive. The less takes, the better. A writer providing the roadmap to the scene should (in theory) cut down on the number of takes necessary. Again, I don’t want to dismiss what the actors do here, because it’s right on. But all parts of the scene — directing, acting, writing — come together to make a cohesive whole. Ideally.

      — c.

  • Can’t watch the video (at WORK!) but from the dialogue written down, I definitely like it. Loads and loads said and implied here. Obviously some bad stuff came and things were done and it could have all been so ugly. Yet, though unpleasant, it wasn’t what it could have been. Also a backhanded lesson from Bunk yet again about thingsa McN should not be getting involved in. Lessons he learned sometime ago himself and is trying as best he can, without rocking the boat, to give McN a clue as well. And that’s just what I get from this cold read. Not even seeing the dudes act it out. Definite hook for me to want to know more.

    • It’s worth mentioning that I am deeply adoring the show. But not in a, OMG I WANT TO ABSORB IT ALL INTO MY EYEHOLES NOW way. It’s not a meal I wanna wolf down. It’s a meal I want to savor. That I want to take slow.

      The dialogue works for me on that level. I like that it’s got a lot of little moving parts, a lot of layers to peel back.

      — c.

  • I was a jock growing up and spent a lot of time in high-pressure, all-male environments. Funny how often the gay metaphor is played when guys in those enviornments want to express some intimacy — they defuse with humor the need to make an overt emotional connection (which, in that environment, is taboo) but they do so by cloaking it in gay sexual imagery (also taboo). McN can’t say “hey, when it came time to expose me to some harsh truths, you could have been a dick about it and told me to stop being such a candy ass, but instead you understood how hard it was going to be for me to hear and took it a little easy on me,” so he goes with the thanks for being gentle schtick. What you got here is two guys saying they love each other, but looking for alternative language.

  • Love this scene, love the dialogue and the actors. Bunk is one of the great characters on The Wire (the actor stars in Simon’s new HBO series Treme as well). McNulty is that dude who just can’t let things lie, and in messing with the powers that be, he sets all kinds of crazy shit into motion.

    I agree with Dan. These guys adore each other, and they are drunk and feeling the love but they can’t flat out say that or they’ll look gay. Heaven forbid.

    I don’t see the dialogue as implying that Bunk fucked McNulty over in any bad way in the past. I see it as a parody of the “losing your cherry” scene that happens in any difficult profession where you have to learn how fucked up/difficult/challenging things really are. Bunk showed McN the ropes on how to be “murder police,” (or that’s how I interpret it) and he did it in a way that McNulty respected. That turns into Bunk being “very gentle.” Great displacement here.

    I think it’s a testament to the greatness of the dialogue that Paul thinks it could be improvised. It feels so geniune that non-writers think it’s the same as letting the actors just do whatever feels right. We writers want it to look effortless, even though we sweated like hell to make it that way.

    • @Nina —


      You and @Dan might be right — it might be just a scene where these two guys are expressing admiration and love the only way they know how. Bunk initiated McN into that world, and that’s all this is.

      But I can’t help but feel that something a little more is going on here. The police force is highly, highly dysfunctional. It’s all about suction. One-upping everybody. Cases played against cases. Numbers against numbers. It’s this intensely political realm of self-destruction, and in the very next episode we see our two dudes — McN and Bunk — equally caring for one another and dicking each other over.

      So, I don’t think it’s that Bunk fucked McNulty over, per se? I think he taught him how to be police. But being police in the city of Baltimore (slurredBallmore) means fucking and getting fucked.

      Or, it might just be that they want to bang each other.

      — c.

  • February 24, 2010 at 2:23 PM // Reply

    Being a former Military Police Officer and a jock, I agree completely with Dan. These type of manly men just don’t say “Hey, man, thanks.” Homophobic rants and metaphors are used all the time…ALL THE TIME. Maybe that’s why I related so well to the scene…there was some familiarity to it.

    Looking back on the scene, and reading Dan’s comments, I put 2+2 together. Bunk has no problems telling McN the raw truth. McN could be alluding to the first time this happened somewhere down the line that may have saved McN’s ass.

    I completely take back the idea that this may have been improvised. There’s far too much thought and intent behind these lines for that to have happened. I have seen the light, and it is really cool. My apologies to the writers and to you, good folk.

    Chuck…not a blog goes by that I don’t learn something new. Keep it up. This is great.

    • @Paul —

      Thank you, sir, I appreciate that. No apologies are necessary. Just know that writers are cranky; we spent most of our lives with people telling us our career choice is poorly thought-out and unnecessary, so we bristle. 🙂

      Anywho — this dialogue is why I think The Wire deserves study, and since none of us Cheap Bastiches are going to Haahvaaahd, we can bat it around here like cats with yarn. Each piece of dialogue contains so much more going on — not to elevate it to holy levels, mind. I don’t think The Wire is the only show doing this. But it serves as an elegant example.

      — c.

  • @Chuck. You are so right on about how dysfunctional the police department is. One of the most fascinating things in The Wire is that glimpse into that world, and Baltimore’s psuedo-military ‘chain of command’ that creates a real conflict between following orders and doing the right thing.

    So I think you’re on to something with how they chose the metaphor of being fucked and connected it w/McN’s initiation into being a good police. I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, but it dovetails so perfectly, that I can only nod with great respect toward your observation and toward the writers here. SO many levels going on in The Wire at all times!

    Makes me want to watch all five seasons again.

  • Bite your tongue – I might go to Haahvaahd. They’ll probably just force me to leave not long after arriving (probably for saying “Haaahvaahd” a lot).

    I am just going to say, far more than the last clip, this is a brilliant piece. Everything from composition to delivery fucking nails it home – even so much that people mistake it for ad-libbing. More than anything, I think that alone shows how well it was written; you could swear that no one wrote it, and that it was spontaneous.

  • February 24, 2010 at 8:44 PM // Reply

    Hey Chuck,

    I really like this scene, too, and I agree with a lot of what you’re saying about how the dialogue illuminates the characters and their relationship.

    Here’s the thing, though – this interchange wasn’t written for ‘The Wire’. This is a verbatim lift of a drunken conversation between two real cops as reported in ‘Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets’. Spur-of-the-moment stuff that Simon wrote down and decided to reuse in the mouths of two fictional characters (although the character of Bunk is apparently pretty closely based on the cop in question).

    Does that affect your appreciation of the scene? Of the script? Of the scriptwriting? Of the intent behind the writing? These are not trick questions; I’m really keen to hear what you think.


    • @Patrick —

      No lack of appreciation — perhaps a different kind of admiration, but it’s still there. The writer still has to be diligent, and still has to capture those moments. That’s writing, ultimately. Even the stuff we make up is stuff we’ve heard, or said, or experienced — it’s just mished and mashed into our thing. The fact that he took it, verbatim, still doesn’t change the fact that he chose it for a reason, that he applied it to these characters and this show. It’s not crammed in there; it’s a perfect fit. That takes an eye. That takes a level of appreciation and understanding.

      (I’ll add that usually, “verbatim” doesn’t necessarily mean verbatim. Writers are thieving magpies, but they also can’t help but put their own stamp on it. And they don’t even realize it.)

      Thanks for the info, Patrick. That’s pretty cool.

      — c.

  • February 25, 2010 at 4:02 AM // Reply


    No worries, man. I was reading ‘Homicide’ at the same time as watching season one of ‘The Wire’, and it gave me this very weird and interesting reverb effect, with fictional characters and real people overlapping and interacting as parts of the book made it into the show.

    It made me very aware of the choices behind the characterisation and writing, which fascinated me.


  • The writing is amazing for the little things, the small details. In this episode, there was that instant where Freemon is temporarily undercover right before they pop Bird. Some may argue the part where he yells “Hey, shortaay!” was ad-libbed, however, knowing this shows track record for getting the real life street details right, I doubt it. When I first saw Freemom do this, I had a thought that Freemon was so excited to be real police again, that he relished it even undercover as a drunk ass fool. If anyone has a different interpretation of that scene, Id love to hear it. I know my post is quite lengthy but great writing brings that our of me. Especially in the little moments like this one.

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