Yes, No, Maybe ...
or how one feminist quit worrying and learned to love Jimmy McNulty
I am a feminist, even now at the beginning of the 21st century. I really am. No buts about it. I volunteer for Planned Parenthood, love guys who write poetry, and have rented The Vagina Monologues from Netflix. One possible reason I’m not dating is to save myself for Lloyd Dobler’s little brother. I like a man who smells good. If you’re my friend, you can call me "girl" for the irony, but otherwise? Think again, bunky. I have earned every bit of this womanhood shit.
So how did I get hung up on a fictional detective who’s such a dog that even his bad-ass female partner, no stranger to creeping herself, called him a “whore?” It’s not that my crushing on a TV cop is all that strange, but the previous ones were more the type who didn’t conflict as much with my established real-life political values. Take Frank Furillo from Hill Street Blues: a good leader and a good cop, but also his precinct’s Good Dad, a guy who had left his hard-living days comfortably off-screen to spice up his persona.
You might predict my attraction to sweet, tormented, introspective Tim Bayliss, from David Simon’s previous network show Homicide: Life on The Street. Bayliss opened the show as an idealist who hoped to use his brain instead of his Glock, but in the end, it was the gun that proved his greatest undoing.
Jimmy McNulty is not like these other guys, but I love him anyway.
Ok, he’s still “good police” like them — too protective of his skills to descend into full-on dirt like the cast of the Shield. But even in his job he has his hapless moments, such as playing the race card to one of “the rednecks up the county” only to find the man’s wife is black. Oops. “Your partner, there,” the man tells Greggs, “is a bit of an asshole.”
McNulty has a truly stellar clearance rate and a reputation for digging his teeth into the tough ones. But rather than adopting him, as TV bosses often do, McNulty’s superiors find him a giant pain in the ass. He always makes them look bad by exposing things they’d rather leave behind, partly to thumb his nose at them purposefully and partly because it’s just not in his nature to leave stones unturned. In the case of of the homicide of young D’Angelo Barksdale, he persists because “it irks me that nobody will speak for him” even as he knows the official response will not change. It just seems like the thing to do because “he was a decent kid, considering.”
Is it as simple as us-against-them, the McNulty Mystique? Or has being a Buffy fan made me weak for any man in a black leather coat? Or is it the more shallow physical attributes?
For Domenic West has a smirk that led me to understand what Mary Karr meant when she described a teenaged crush’s smile as a “know something about you that ain’t public grin.” That combined with the expressive eyebrows might make the most law-abiding viewer wish she could cough up a juicy confession or two. But there are plenty of eye-candy heroes out there that I could watch and not be troubled by once I turn off the TV at night. Jimmy McNulty drinks till he’s stupid, then cheats, lies, and crashes his car. And yet, he eerily retains our sympathy throughout.
Maybe Jimmy pulls at my heartstrings because he’s worse at crafting lies than busting through suspects’ weak ones. When Elena, his ex-wife and target of many a sodden drunk-dial, a woman who ought to stand for injured ex-wives everywhere, asks him about his relationship with the other woman — “Is it over?” — she ought to get more of an answer than “Yes, no, maybe.” But who among us has not had a bit of “Yes, no, maybe” in their own love life? Somehow, a womanizer who is so honest is in his own way unfortunate, and the show itself bypasses the more predictable movie-of-the-week interpretations by having Elena, following an evening of great sex, tell Jimmy to be gone early because “It’d just be confusing for the kids.”
Ouch. We as viewers are completely gut-punched by this because we know what Elena may only suspect. We know that he hesitated over the separation agreement because he expected the separation to be short. We know the sexual trysts appear to be but a short step from the family reuniting. In a sense, Elena played the stereotypical “playboy” role that one might expect from Jimmy.
But the greatest role-reversal comes about later, when Jimmy meets high-powered political strategist Terri D’Agostino at Parents Night. Suddenly, he is the one expecting more time in bed and coming second to someone else’s professional passion. He is, for once, the one sitting at the table as the jargon flies and the one asked "Are you still here?" as the light streams in the window in the morning.
Personally, I could think of no finer justice than for every two-timing man to get a dose of his own medicine this way, but all the same, we’re still not done with Jimmy. Much as The Wire denies us the quick, easy, payoff of the cell door slamming shut on some nameless miscreants, Jimmy’s very human feelings of loss, rejection, confusion, and boredom with the games that make up Terri’s daily bread took some of the punch from any “Go, girl!” impulses I might have had in her direction. Terri, as political kingmaker, gets what she wants, whether the “what” is face-time with somebody important or a befuddled homicide detective from outside the Beltway. His humanity may be flawed, but somehow a guy whose biggest professional liability is “giving a fuck when it’s not your turn” seems to deserve better than stolen hours in a hotel room with somebody who has to check internal polls before she can decide to give a fuck at all.
To love Jimmy McNulty is to love that which is impulsive, hedonistic, and rebellious, but still self-destructive in our own characters, maybe in the American character, especially in an era where wars are not followed by ticker-tape parades but by sectarian violence and “Mission Accomplished.” He is a man who lives very much in the grey areas of life, but is prepared to risk everything to learn the name of a murdered Russian immigrant so that she might be buried well. If all the pieces matter, that piece, as well as the piece that is “good police” ought to count for at least as much as the drinking carousing.