Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Jimmy McNulty: 21st century career woman

The first time I watched The Wire, I abandoned it not long into the final season - I got distracted; maybe that was when I started on Mad Men, or commenced by bi-annual all-seven-seasons-of-Buffy marathon (a key plank in my Maintaining Mental Health game-plan).

But the main thing was that McNulty was really hacking me off. I hated how he was disappeared in the fourth season - "we've married him off, he's happy now, and happy is boring" - and only became a major character again once he was All Fucked Up. I was furious with him in a way I never was in previous seasons. I spent every episode wanting to kick him in his stupid smug caped-crusader face, and after a while it just wasn't fun anymore.

But I'm back, and I've persevered with season five, and something's just occurred to me.

He's written as being basically incapable of stably combining a happy relationship and an important, demanding career. His work makes him a shit father, a shit husband, and makes him act pretty shittily to himself: he's spread too thin. To be a good detective he must be full of rage, brimming over with a righteous fury at injustice, and that doesn't make for a fun dinner companion. He stays out late, he misses his kids' plays, he fucks around.

Which basically sounds like a Daily Mail caricature of a Career Woman.

The idea of a hard-workin' man blowing off steam is nothing new - I just had a few beers after work, love, I needed to wind down. My job's hard. You don't understand. I'm sorry, okay? The meeting overran, I couldn't make it to your piano recital, I'll make it up to you. But it's usually presented with bravado: a justified way of coping with a world The Wife just doesn't know.

When women do it, obviously they are monsters. And everything is focused on the impact their career has on The Children.

I wish we saw a little more of how McNulty's workaholism affected his kids - there's one quietly heart-ripping scene where he ambles sheepishly into their room, asks about the play that he missed, tries to banter about music. "Death Meadow?" he grins. "What's wrong with the Ramones?"

The boys share a look, and while it contains the usual Daaad, stop trying to be cool teenage contempt, there's a lower, sadder undercurrent,and it's full of rage. How fucking dare you do this now? After everything, after all the ways you've let us down, now you want to be 'friends'? We don't need a friend. We need a father. And some bullshit chit-chat about kids-music-these-days is not going to make up for anything.

(It's possible I'm projecting a little here.)

It just seems that gentlemen who go off the rails, work too hard, and aren't around for their families are usually portrayed as daring rakes, whereas a lady who works late a couple of times is an unmaternal unfeeling man-eating DEATH MACHINE. (Not in The Wire, particularly; mainly in the Mail.) The implication is clear: if Mummy cares about her children, Mummy shouldn't work. It feels almost radical for The Wire to suggest that maybe if Jimmy wants to be any use to anyone, including himself, Jimmy shouldn't work - at least not at what he does best. And I've never seen such a horrible portrayal of a guy putting too much into his job and failing at every relationship in a grotesque, self-sabotaging cycle of fuckingupitude, and I hate it, because it feels far too real.

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