To call Jimmy McNulty and Bunk two sides of the same coin would not be very accurate. They’re more like a Venn Diagram. They’re both good cops, they both work their cases, and they both care about what’s happening to their city. While the off-again/on-again partners share all these traits, where they differ is what defines their relationship. A relationship that was crucial to their professional successes, their personal failings, and the triumph that was, The Wire (which you can stream in full on HBO NOW).
The fundamental difference is that Bunk is able to understand the chain of command, and, more importantly, how to follow it. McNulty, on the other hand, lets his passion get the better of him, and while he’s aware of the chain of command, he seems incapable of following it. Basically, Jimmy’s “good police,” but also a back-burning loose cannon who Bunk regularly scolds for “giving a f*ck when it’s not your turn to give a f*ck.”
“How happy am I to see my pager go off with your call number?” – McNulty
At the beginning, McNulty and Bunk are two partners working homicide in a city that’s fast approaching 300 murders a year. Their rapport is immediately apparent, with a kind of jovial critique of each other’s approach to their work.
The driving case of the first season, for example, is set in motion by McNulty’s casual conversation with Judge Phelan, starting the investigation of Avon Barksdale and his crew. Even doing so is seen as an affront to the department’s authority by his peers. In the meantime, Bunk’s there to simply roll his eyes and repeat one of his most-repeated phrases to McNulty — “You happy now, b*tch?”
Aside from that, their camaraderie is clear. They cover for each other at night when they go carousing, and are there to peel one another off the floor the next morning. With that kind of familiarity, there also exists a brutal honesty, particularly with Bunk, a good cop who plays by the rules without being a traditional company man. He even tells McNulty through a drunken haze, “You’re bad for people, Jimmy.”
Underneath it all, however, they have a shared ability that, when working a case together, they’re able to effortlessly dissect a weeks-old crime scene with only a few choice (re: profane) words exchanged. Seriously, it cannot be overstated how incredible this scene is.
By the first season’s end, even after they’re able to arrest Barksdale, McNulty still ends up reassigned to the marine unit, the one place he didn’t want to go. While Bunk is partnered with recently vindicated Lester Freamon, the two pay him a visit just before the start of his midnight shift, bearing a gift of a bottle of Jameson. It’s at once a “told you so” and an “I’m sorry this happened.”
“You got yourself a hell of a case.” – McNulty
“F*ck you very much.” – Bunk
While no longer partners, the two still keep frequent company, eating fresh crab together that Jimmy pulled off his boat in one of the interrogation rooms, and, of course, they still drink together to drown their shared sorrows in the state of their city. And, when McNulty makes a gruesome discovery that becomes a season-long case in season two, he goes to great lengths (three hours worth, at least) to get the case assigned to Baltimore City PD, inadvertently sticking Bunk and Freamon with the case.
Even with McNulty’s not-so-subtle smugness over why they’re working the case, they’re still on the same page. They both want the case solved. They both want a better Baltimore.
“And yet, here I am, still standing.” – Bunk
“Give or take.” – McNulty
By the third season, the violence begins heating up in Baltimore, culminating in five homicides in a single night, which gets Bunk called into work while at an Orioles game with Jimmy, Jimmy’s sons, and his own son.
Soon, McNulty becomes enveloped trying to solve an alleged suicide, which leads him on the path of once again chasing Barksdale under boss Stringer Bell. Bunk, meanwhile, spends his time dealing with Omar (who Jimmy found for him in the previous season as a peace offering after sticking him with the port murders), hot on his trail after hearing his name at one of his increasingly numerous crime scenes. After finding him, you can hear shades of McNulty, where Bunk uses his personal history with Omar to guilt him into indulging in the worst part of what’s happened to their community.
Of course, their work brings them together at the season’s end with the murder of Stringer Bell, which Bunk again recognizes as the work of Omar. It culminates with one of their iconic moments, leaning on their car on the outskirts of town. “All night, your ass has been drinking like it’s candy,” he tells him, noticing McNulty’s increasingly tame lifestyle. “I’m tired, Bunk,” he tells him, unable to handle another major crimes investigation. As a result, McNulty settles down and works as a patrolman in the Western District. Bunk, meanwhile, finds himself once more on the front lines with Freamon.
“I’m a murder police. I work murders. I don’t f*ck with no make-believe. I don’t jerk sh*t around. I catch a murder, and I work it.” – Bunk
In season four, we experience a different McNulty. One who breaks away from both investigative work and his late night antics with Bunk. The two are still friends, but there’s a distance now that Jimmy is more well-behaved. A temporary dalliance with being a good person that is completely abandoned in the show’s fifth and final season when McNulty comes back powered by old habits and older vendettas.
Bunk is once again his partner, but with the department operating on a shoestring budget, McNulty looks for a way around things so that he can continue to go after the bad guys. This causes him to alter a simple accidental death by overdose to make it look like the scene of a homicide. “There’s a serial killer in Baltimore, Bunk,” he tells his stunned friend as he watches McNulty position the body. Bunk, finally seeing a line crossed that he won’t be a part of, storms off in disgust.
As McNulty continues to plant evidence to “create” a serial killer, Bunk enlists Freamon’s help in trying to talk sense into him. While Freamon was one to help Bunk talk sense into McNulty in the past, he instead indulges him, much to Bunk’s frustration. Now with an accomplice, they work to “sensationalize” the evidence, creating a firestorm of press, tampering old case files, and leaving bite marks on bodies, all in order to obtain special funding, which they divert into their effort to stop Marlo Stanfield, the latest big bad on the Baltimore streets.
Growing obsessed to the point where he loses focus, Bunk again tries to talk sense into McNulty, though we’re well beyond the repeated question of “you happy now, b*tch?” Now, Bunk tells McNulty that he’s “lost his f*cking mind,” and slams him for “working murders that don’t even exist!” The playful, alcohol-fueled attempts at talking sense into McNulty are gone, and Bunk refuses to so much as have a drink with McNulty at this point.
Eventually, after McNulty’s “evidence” is analyzed by the FBI, and after seeing Greggs, an officer he respects, begin to dutifully waste her time and talent on his imaginary fiasco, Jimmy confesses to her. Ultimately, while they were able to bring a large part of Stanfield’s operation down, thanks in part to McNulty’s endeavor, it still costs him, though not as much as it should have, thanks to the politics of the situation.
In the end, Jimmy is given a traditional policeman’s wake, albeit a living one, and, as Sergeant Jay Landsman laments over Jimmy’s exit from the force and the department’s loss, he tells the assembled, “If I was laying there, dead on some Baltimore street corner, I’d want you standing over me, catching the case. Because, brother, when you were good, you were the best we had.”
While Bunk, seeing that McNulty has paid for his actions, comes around, adding, “Sh*t, if you were lying there, dead on some corner, it probably was Jimmy that done ya.” With just the slightest bit of animosity, it puts the perfect bow on their storied personal and professional relationship, and on the series itself.