The Wire
The Wire
"The fuck did I do?"
―Jimmy McNulty

James "Jimmy" McNulty is a retired Baltimore Police Department detective. Although dedicated and intelligent, McNulty is disliked by many of his peers and commanders because of his insubordinate attitude and sense of intellectual and moral superiority. His obsessive personality causes friction in both his personal and work life and leads to issues with alcoholism and infidelity. Despite his self-destructive nature, McNulty's intransigence led to the initiation and success of multiple police investigations.


McNulty is introduced as a roguish detective with a stubborn and obstinate approach to police work. He has a disdain for the corrupt Baltimore system that often hinders his investigations, as well as a dislike of police work that he views is a waste of his time, such as the Marine Unit. McNulty does not desire to merely solve cases, and wants to complete criminal investigations that catch big-time offenders and drug kingpins. He has proven, time and time again, to be willing to go above both his superiors and the law in order to chase down criminals in Baltimore.

McNulty is a dedicated, intelligent, and perceptive detective with an obsessive desire to propel investigations forward. He seems to be motivated by a strange combination of disgust towards Baltimore’s corrupt politics and bureaucracy and a genuine desire to help people. His work is a matter of pride for him, and he balks at being judged and delayed by people he doesn’t respect, and those he views as inefficient. When he wants a case solved, he will never back down and never rest until he is satisfied.

McNulty is often at odds with his superiors, such as Jay Landsman, William Rawls, and Cedric Daniels, as well as his fellow investigators such as William “Bunk” Moreland, for his frequent insubordination and stubborn insistence on fulfilling ‘real police work’ even at the cost of time, money, and public image.

McNulty frequently engages in self-destructive habits; his extreme dedication to his work leaves him stressed, frustrated and overworked, and that leads to him sabotaging his own personal life. When on the job, he frequently works extremely late, consumes alcohol to the point of intoxication, and engages in infidelity at bars. Ironically enough, his own sabotage of his life outside of work has led him to work even harder at times. It’s often a compulsive, frenetic cycle, which McNulty briefly escaped when he went as a patrol car in the Western District, but ultimately succumbed to in order to investigate Marlo Starfield.



McNulty was born to Irish-American parents in the Lauraville neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland. McNulty's father worked as a steelworker at Bethlehem Steel until deindustrialization led to his firing in 1973. McNulty attended Loyola University Maryland for a year.

After McNulty began dating Elena, she gave birth to Sean McNulty on June 22, 1992 and Michael McNulty on November 3, 1993. ("Hot Shots")

He joined the Baltimore Police Department on April 5, 1994. He was a patrol officer in the Western District under the command of Major Howard "Bunny" Colvin for four years. He served for two years in the Escape and Apprehension Unit. In 2000, McNulty helped Detective Ray Cole solve a homicide case. He was reassigned to the Homicide Unit and partnered with William "Bunk" Moreland.

Elena divorced McNulty after she discovered McNulty was having an affair with Assistant State's Attorney Rhonda Pearlman.

McNulty later investigated Little Kevin's murder of Gerard Bogue. The State's Attorney's Office indicted Kevin, but he was acquitted after Barksdale Organization members used witness tampering. ("The Target")

Season 1[]

McNulty identified the murderer of Omar Isaiah Betts. The next day, he observed the courtroom acquittal of D'Angelo Barksdale. In the courtroom, McNulty notices that several high-level Barksdale enforcers are present to intimidate a key witness into perjuring herself. McNulty divulged to the presiding judge, Daniel Phelan, that D'Angelo is a member of a powerful narcotics trafficking organization in West Baltimore which the Baltimore Police Department is currently not investigating. Detective Moreland contacted McNulty after Bunk entered the homicide rotation prematurely and was assigned a decomposing corpse. McNulty teased Bunk for entering the rotation when it was not their homicide squad's turn. Major Rawls, incensed by McNulty's insubordination, ordered McNulty to type a Homicide Unit briefing on the Barksdale Organization by the following morning. After Burrell instructed Daniels to assemble a detail to investigate Barksdale, Rawls ordered McNulty to join. The next day, McNulty visited his colleague, FBI Special Agent Terrance "Fitz" Fitzhugh, and observed a live recording of a narcotics trafficking operation. Later, at the detail's first meeting, McNulty criticized Daniels's approach and argued that the Barksdale detail required dialed number recorders and a Title III wiretap. That night, an inebriated McNulty declared to Bunk that he was going to ensure the detail's success. ("The Target")

McNulty and Bunk visited Medical Examiner Randall Frazier at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner to view the body of state’s witness William Gant. McNulty becomes convinced that Gant was murdered by the Barksdale Organization to retaliate and discourage future witness testimony. McNulty informed Judge Phelan that a state's witness from his presiding case was murdered. McNulty urged Phelan to pressure the Burrell into expanding the investigation. Phelan refused and instructed McNulty to convey the news to The Baltimore Sun. McNulty rebutted Phelan, believing press coverage would compromise the investigation, and reminded Phelan to not mention McNulty's visit to BPD administration. ("The Detail")

McNulty and Bunk later visited The Pit to interrogate D'Angelo about Gant's murder. Bodie remarked that the murder of a state's witness is inevitable. Daniels arrived at the Homicide Unit with Greggs to rebuke McNulty for circumventing authority again. Daniels agreed that he wanted to conduct an effective investigation but instructs McNulty to remain communicative and include Greggs in D'Angelo's interrogation. McNulty, Bunk, and Greggs exploited D'Angelo's evident guilt to convince him to write an apology letter to Gant's fictitious children expressing his sympathies. McNulty and Greggs attempted to convince Daniels that D'Angelo's apology letter was valuable, which Daniels curtly dismissed. ("The Detail")

In the detail's office, Greggs and Bubbles labelled the surveillance photos of the Franklin Terrace dealers on a bulletin board. Bubbles claimed that his cooperation was pro bono because of Johnny's beating, but an impressed McNulty gave him twenty dollars nonetheless. The next morning, Bunk contacted McNulty to read the front page of the Sun. McNulty discovered a front-page article identifying William Gant as a murdered state's witness. At the courthouse, Phelan informed McNulty that he did not notify the Sun but merely provided a quote when contacted. ("The Detail")

Shortly after the investigation began, McNulty learned that Daniels had been investigated for having questionable liquid assets from his FBI contact, Special Agent Fitzhugh.

One afternoon while they are in his custody, he spots Stringer Bell in public, and sends his sons to tail him and get his license plate number. When Elena finds out, she tried to have an emergency order placed against him to stop him from seeing his sons at all. She is also mad that he continues to see Pearlman casually.

Working on the Barksdale detail, McNulty becomes friends with Freamon, who is defiant like McNulty and was reassigned to a dead end job because of a past offense. Freamon often tried to temper McNulty's aggressive attitude towards Daniels. Frustrated by the fact that Barksdale's dealers don't use cell phones, they come up with the notion of cloning the dealers' pagers instead. They also work together on Daniels' conscience, convincing him to allow them to do better police work and look deeper.

With the help of Detective Greggs, McNulty tracks down the elusive Omar Little, gaining his respect and cooperation. Omar drops a clue about the person who murdered Gant, a fearsome Barksdale enforcer, Marquis "Bird" Hilton. Omar agrees to testify against Bird, and his assistance also leads to McNulty inadvertently solving a case for Santangelo, who, in turn, reveals that he has been acting as a mole for Rawls, and that Rawls will fire McNulty if he finds any way to justify it. Kima also introduces McNulty to her confidential informant (CI) Bubbles.

Kima was shot in a buy-bust sting operation gone wrong. ("The Cost") McNulty took it particularly hard, though everybody, even Rawls, assured him that it was not his fault. McNulty admits to Daniels that the Barksdale case is really just a chance for him to show how clever he is and how messed up the department is. Daniels told him that everyone has known this all along but that the case had taken on meaning for those involved. ("The Hunt")

The detail succeeds in arresting Roland Brice, Bird, and D'Angelo and Avon Barksdale. ("Cleaning Up")

McNulty is almost able to convince D'Angelo to testify against Avon but, ultimately, D'Angelo takes a twenty-year sentence instead. When the Barksdale investigation closes, Rawls reassigns McNulty to the Marine Unit as punishment, based on information that Landsman gave him. ("Sentencing")

Season 2[]

McNulty is bored at his new job in the Marine Unit, where he is partnered with Claude Diggins. While on harbor patrol, he spots the body of a dead girl in the water. When Rawls argues the case does not lie in his jurisdiction, McNulty got some revenge, spending three hours poring over wind and tide charts to prove that it happened within the city limits of the harbor and not Baltimore County. When Beatrice Russell finds thirteen dead women in a shipping container on the Baltimore docks, McNulty again intervenes and, with the help of the city medical examiner, Doc Frazier, shows that they too lay within Rawls' jurisdiction. The case is given to Bunk and Freamon, who thus grow quite angry with McNulty.

To make amends, McNulty promises to discover the identity of the murdered girl he found floating. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to do so. Bunk Moreland is also after him to find Omar, who is needed to testify against Bird. McNulty coerces Bubbles into looking for the elusive stick-up man, and Omar testifies successfully, sending Bird to prison for life.

Still feuding with his ex-wife, Elena, McNulty signs an agreement that he will pay alimony, thinking it will be unnecessary because he believes he can still reconcile his marriage. He decides to give up alcohol and detective work, two of the main reasons for his failed marriage. He even breaks it off entirely with Pearlman. When Elena confirms the marriage is over, he grew despondent, and began drinking more heavily than ever.

When Daniels's unit is recreated to investigate Frank Sobotka, a vengeful Rawls refuses to allow Daniels to have McNulty. McNulty seems to accept this with good grace, but continues to try to help the detail in unofficial ways. Daniels is able to persuade Rawls to let McNulty return to the unit by taking on the murders of the fourteen girls. Appropriately, McNulty's first assignment is to go undercover as a john visiting a local whorehouse, a task he enjoys greatly, much to the amusement of his colleagues. He also flirts with Beatrice Russell, who has been assigned to Daniels' detail, though he seems to shy away from a relationship.

While on surveillance, McNulty watches the Greek's subordinate Vondas send a text message. He reasons that the time and location could be used to retrieve it from the phone company's databases; it is from this message that the detail learns that the Greek had shut down his operations and has left the country with Vondas.

Season 3[]

McNulty manages to get back his detective position when the Major Case Unit is formed, but is disappointed that their target is not Russell Bell. He begins looking into the Barksdales anyway, finding out about D'Angelo's alleged suicide and Avon's early release. Investigating D'Angelo's death, he quickly realizes it was no suicide, though he is not able to prove anybody's culpability.

McNulty reconnects with his old commanding officer from the beginning of his career, Major Colvin to Daniels to set up the Barksdale organization as the Major Crimes Unit's primary target. Angered by McNulty's back burning attitude, Daniels tells McNulty "When the cuffs go on Bell, you need to find a new home, you're done in this unit!". Even Freamon thinks McNulty should be more loyal to Daniels.

McNulty begins a relationship with political consultant Theresa D'Agostino, but he grows to realize that she has little interest in him in any way other than physical. He eventually grows dissatisfied and begins to feel less fulfilled. Largely due to Freamon's work, the Unit is able to implicate Stringer Bell, but he is murdered before McNulty is able to arrest him. After Avon is arrested, Daniels re-evaluates his decision to get rid of McNulty, but McNulty has come to realize that he has no life outside of his work. He gets a transfer to patrol in the western district, which he remembers as the happiest time of his life, and begins a relationship with Beadie Russell.

Season 4[]

Photo 3

He has moved in with Beadie and her two children, and is enjoying his life as a patrolman in the Western alongside Sergeant Ellis Carver. His beat includes the corner Bodie Broadus is working on behalf of Marlo Stanfield. Short on detectives, McNulty is requested by both Major Daniels and Administrative Lieutenant Mello to do investigative work in the district which he refuses to do. Mello remains disappointed while Daniels realizes that McNulty has improved his behavior in working as a patrol man. When the other officers are involved in making arrests for statistical purposes, he focuses on quality arrests, such as two burglars who had been stealing from Churches. In the process he mentors Officer Baker, a younger patrol officer in the Western, whom he and Bunk Moreland end up referring to as "good police." He also cuts down significantly on his drinking, only having one or two now and again, and sometimes resolving to stay sober. Bunk and Freamon are amazed at how much Jimmy has changed, and Elena expresses regret for having left him, saying "if I would have known you'd grow up to be a grown-up, things might have turned out differently." McNulty soon begins to miss the importance of the Major Case Squad, and quietly begins getting closer to Bodie, hoping to turn him into an informant against Marlo. After "Monk" Metcalf sees Bodie with McNulty, Bodie is killed. McNulty feels guilty, and rejoins the Major Case Unit, much to the delight of Freamon and Daniels. ("Final Grades")

Season 5[]

McNulty is back to his old habits after a frustrating year long investigation into the vacant murders that has failed to yield any results. When the major crimes unit is closed down McNulty is despondent, telling himself that he was talked into rejoining the unit by commands promises of reform in the department. McNulty is transferred back to homicide and his frustration manifests itself in heavy drinking and womanizing despite his relationship with Russell. ("More with Less")

McNulty, like most of his fellow detectives, becomes angry over departmental budget cuts ordered by Mayor Carcetti, which effectively cut off overtime. Looking to force the department to put money back into the funding the Homicide unit, McNulty fabricates evidence linking several deaths to a non-existent serial killer. McNulty, with Freamon's help, stages crime scenes using the bodies of recently deceased homeless people. He adds tell-tale injures to make them appear a murders, and ties a red ribbon around their wrist, so as to be the serial killer's calling card. Though it creates a rift between himself and Bunk Moreland, who is continually appalled at JImmy's "juking" of murder scenes and fabricating evidence, Jimmy's plan is successful and the department gets the necessary overtime funding to investigate his fictitious killer, as well as other investigations, including Marlo Stanfield. The plan backfires however, when McNulty can no longer keep it a secret. When Kima learns of the scheme, she reports it to Daniels, who in turn tells the Mayor. Because of the damage it could cause the department and the Mayor's future political ambitions, he orders the entire affair to be swept under the carpet. While it saves McNulty and Freamon from being fired and possibly going to jail, they can never work on any investigations again. Freamon chooses to retire, and McNulty likely ends up back in the Marine Unit, stuck there until he can retire. A mock wake is held for him at Kavanagh's Bar, where, despite his nefarious dealings in the department, he is honored and receives a friendly send off from his colleagues and friends.

Kill count[]




Season 1
"The Target" "The Detail" "The Buys" "Old Cases" "The Pager"
"The Wire" "One Arrest" "Lessons" "Game Day" "The Cost"
"The Hunt" "Cleaning Up" "Sentencing"
Season 2
"Ebb Tide" "Collateral Damage" "Hot Shots" "Hard Cases" "Undertow"
"All Prologue" "Backwash" "Duck and Cover" "Stray Rounds" "Storm Warnings"
"Bad Dreams" "Port in a Storm"
Season 3
"Time after Time" "All Due Respect" "Dead Soldiers" "Amsterdam" "Straight and True"
"Homecoming" "Back Burners" "Moral Midgetry" "Slapstick" "Reformation"
"Middle Ground" "Mission Accomplished"
Season 4
"Boys of Summer" "Soft Eyes" "Home Rooms" "Refugees" "Alliances"
"Margin of Error" "Unto Others" "Corner Boys" "Know Your Place" "Misgivings"
"A New Day" "That's Got His Own" "Final Grades"
Season 5
"More with Less" "Unconfirmed Reports" "Not for Attribution" "Transitions" "React Quotes"
"The Dickensian Aspect" "Took" "Clarifications" "Late Editions" "-30-"


  • David Simon, the character's creator, has described his goal of presenting McNulty as ambiguous in his motivations. Based on his experiences of real detectives he feels that most crime dramas present their police characters with the inherent falsehood that they care deeply about the victims in the cases they are investigating. Simon states that in his experience a good detective is usually motivated by the game of solving the crime - he sees the crime as an "insult to his intellectual vanity" and this gives him motivation to solve it.[1]
  • The character was originally named Jimmy McArdle but executive producer Robert F. Colesberry suggested renaming him to Jimmy McNulty (after his maternal grandmother) because no-one liked the name. Dominic West's original audition tape for the part was recorded with him as the sole actor leaving spaces for the lines that would be spoken back to him. The producers were amused by the tape and agreed that they had to give him an audition.[2]
  • The character has been described as "irresistibly charming, a classic anti-hero; a modern-day Rockford."[3]
  • The role of McNulty's character has been described as defying genre conventions - although his actions drive several plot points he is not exactly the central character you might expect from the shows opening or promotional material.[4]
  • Flak magazine also picked McNulty as a central character - they commented on the uncommon experience of having the main character fit to a standard police character archetype ("He has poor impulse control. He's personally fearless and outspoken, and he bangs babes like a hunchback rings bells.") but also exposing the archetype as self destructive and emotionally immature.[5]
  • Salon described McNulty as "The heart, soul and oft-impaired nervous system of "The Wire"", again selecting him as a central character. Salon also chose McNulty's pride as his main character trait - they described this aspect of his personality as being the thing which gives him his success as an investigator and his failure in most other aspects of his life.[6]
  • EW picked McNulty as offering one of the shows most wicked ironies, he is one of the characters you would expect to be on the side of law and order as a police detective but they describe him as a "boozing cop who pisses on authority and order."[7]


  1. Ian Rothkerch (2002). "What drugs have not destroyed, the war on them has". Retrieved on 2006-07-22.
  2. Alvarez, Rafael (2004). The Wire: Truth Be Told. New York: Pocket Books. 
  3. Jim Shelley (2005). Call The Cops. The Guardian. Retrieved on 2006-07-12.
  4. Jon Garelick (2004). "A man must have a code" - listening in on The Wire.. Boston Phoenix. Retrieved on 2006-07-12.
  5. James Norton (2005). The Wire vs. The Sopranos. Flak magazine. Retrieved on 2006-07-12.
  6. Dan Kois (2004). Everything you were afraid to ask about "The Wire". Retrieved on 2006-07-12.
  7. Gillian Flinn (2004). TV 2004 The 10 Best. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved on 2006-07-12.