|First appearance||"The Target" (episode 1.01)|
|Last appearance||"–30–" (episode 5.10)|
|Created by||David Simon|
|Portrayed by||Dominic West|
|Aliases||Jimmy, McNutty, Bushy Top|
|Occupation||Major Crimes Unit Detective (Seasons 1-3 and 5), Baltimore City Homicide Detective (Seasons 1 and 5), Baltimore Marine Unit (Season 2), Western District Patrolman (Season 4)|
|Spouse(s)||Elena McNulty (divorced)
Beadie Russell (partner)
|Children||Sean McNulty, Michael McNulty|
McNulty is a detective in the Baltimore Police Department of Irish heritage. While he has proven himself to be a talented and determined detective, he is disliked by many of his superiors, and occasionally his colleagues, because of his over-estimated and outwardly arrogant sense of self-worth and ability, his disdain for authority, and his unwavering disrespect for—and insubordination to—the chain of command.
When off the job, he has frequent problems involving alimony, alcoholism, child support, and unstable relationships. McNulty is nonetheless a clever, resourceful police officer, and though not above manipulation and deceit, he is generally moral. He is central to many of the successful high-end drug investigations that take place within the series.
McNulty grew up in the Lauraville neighborhood of Baltimore. His father was an employee for Bethlehem Steel before being laid off in 1973. After a year of attending Loyola College in Maryland, McNulty joined the Baltimore Police Department when his girlfriend Elena (whom he later married) became pregnant. In his first few years in the Police Department he proved himself to be an effective patrolman in the Western District under the command of Major Colvin. After assisting Detective Ray Cole in solving a homicide (Cole had arrested the wrong man), he was promoted to detective and assigned to the homicide unit, where he was partnered with Bunk Moreland.
Before the start of the series, McNulty had noticed that drug kingpin Avon Barksdale was expanding his organization's territory, and had successfully beaten several murder prosecutions. McNulty was responsible for the formation of the Barksdale detail following the trial of D'Angelo Barksdale, who is found not guilty after a witness changes her story in court. In the Judge's chambers, McNulty is frank about his observations and the lack of investigation so far, prompting Judge Phelan to call Deputy Commissioner Ervin Burrell. McNulty's commander, Major Rawls, is furious with him for going around the chain of command. McNulty tells Bunk that he hopes this investigation will lead to a case that means something to him. Sergeant Jay Landsman asks McNulty what unit he would least like to be assigned to, and McNulty says that he finds the diesel fumes in the Marine Unit intolerable.
Because of McNulty's conversation with Judge Phelan, a case unit is formed, initially consisting of Narcotics Lieutenant Cedric Daniels and his squad of Kima Greggs, Ellis Carver, and "Herc" Hauk. Deputy Burrell then asks his majors and shift lieutenants to send additional detectives for the investigative detail. As Burrell has made it clear that the case is no more than a cosmetic exercise, most of the officers sent are drunken or incompetent "humps". McNulty himself is also assigned to the unit. Daniels and McNulty argue about how to handle the case at their first meeting: McNulty, after seeing an FBI drug sting, suggests surveillance and wiretaps, but Burrell has ordered Daniels to put together a quick and simple case to appease Phelan. Soon after the investigation begins, McNulty learns from his friend in the FBI, Special Agent Fitzhugh that Daniels had been investigated for having a suspiciously large amount of liquid assets. McNulty's relationship with Daniels continues to be complicated by their mutual distrust.
The detail is assigned assistant state's attorney Rhonda Pearlman as a prosecutor, with whom McNulty is having a casual sexual relationship. McNulty is officially separated from his wife, who limits his contact with his two sons, Sean and Michael. While shopping with them one afternoon, McNulty spots Stringer Bell, and sends his sons to tail him and get his license plate number. When Elena finds out, she seeks an emergency order to stop him from seeing his sons. She is also angry that he continues to see Pearlman casually.
Working on the Barksdale detail, McNulty becomes friends with Lester Freamon, who had previously been exiled to the pawn-shop unit for thirteen years (and four months) for his insistence on charging a politically connected fence. Freamon often tries to temper McNulty's aggressive attitude towards Lt. Daniels. Frustrated that Barksdale's dealers do not use cell phones, they decide to clone the dealers' pagers instead. They also work together to convince Daniels to allow them to do better police work.
With the help of Kima Greggs, McNulty tracks down the elusive Omar Little, gaining his respect and cooperation. Omar agrees to testify against "Bird" Hilton. His assistance also leads to McNulty inadvertently solving one of Santangelo's old cases; a grateful Santangelo in turn reveals that he is a mole for Rawls, who is looking for an excuse to fire McNulty. Kima introduces McNulty to her CI Bubbles. When she is shot in a buy-bust sting operation gone wrong, McNulty is guilt-ridden, though even Rawls assures him that the shooting is not his fault. McNulty has a frank discussion with Daniels in which he admits that the Barksdale case is no more than an exercise in intellectual vanity and an opportunity to demonstrate the department's shortcomings. Daniels tells him that everyone has known this all along but that the case has taken on meaning for those involved.
The detail succeeds in arresting Wee-Bey Brice for shooting Kima, "Bird" Hilton for murdering a state's witness, and both D'Angelo and Avon Barksdale. McNulty almost convinces 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, having learned from Landsman that this is precisely where McNulty does not want to go.
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 woman in the water. When Rawls argues the case is not in his jurisdiction, McNulty, seeking revenge, spends three hours poring over wind and tide charts to prove the death occurred within city limits. When Beadie Russell finds thirteen dead women in a shipping container on the Baltimore docks, initially determined to be accidental deaths, McNulty again intervenes and, with the help of the medical examiner, proves that the deaths were not accidental: the air pipe to the container was deliberately closed off, and, with the help of a mining engineer, they are able to determine when this happened and prove that the ship was within the city limits at that time. The case is given to Bunk and Freamon, much to their chagrin, as they had spent the previous night celebrating with McNulty and lauding his revenge efforts against Rawls, never anticipating that these difficult cases would end up getting reassigned to them.
To make amends, McNulty promises to discover the identity of the girl found dead in the water, but is ultimately unable to do so. Bunk Moreland is also pressuring McNulty to find Omar, who is needed to testify against Bird. McNulty coerces Bubbles into tracking down the elusive stick-up man, and Omar testifies successfully.
McNulty signs an agreement that he will pay alimony, believing it to be unnecessary because he can still salvage his marriage. He decides to give up alcohol and detective work, two of the main reasons for the breakup of his marriage. When Elena confirms the marriage is over, he grows despondent, and drinks 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 tries to help the detail unofficially. Daniels persuades Rawls to let McNulty return to the unit by taking on the murders of the fourteen women. McNulty's first assignment is to go undercover as a client visiting a local brothel, much to the amusement of his colleagues. He also flirts with Beadie Russell, who has been assigned to Daniels' detail, though he seems to shy away from a relationship.
While on surveillance, McNulty watches Spiros Vondas, an associate of the shady figure known as The Greek, send a text message. He reasons that the time and location of the text could be used to retrieve it from the phone company's databases; it is from this message that the detail learn that the Greek had shut down his operations.
After McNulty learns from Bubbles that Stringer Bell and Proposition Joe are sharing territory, he begins investigating them on his own time, convinced that he can gather enough evidence to prompt Daniels to focus the MCU's attention on Bell.
McNulty returns to a detective position when the Major Case Unit is formed in season three, but is disappointed that their target is not Stringer Bell. He begins looking into the Barksdales anyway, finding out about D'Angelo's supposed suicide and Avon's early release. Investigating D'Angelo's death, he quickly realizes that D'Angelo was murdered.
McNulty reconnects with his old commanding officer from the beginning of his career, Major Colvin, to set up the Barksdale organization as the Major Crimes Unit's primary target. McNulty circumvents the chain of command again to set up an investigation of Barksdale, as Daniels is not interested in the quality of the unit's assigned case targets, blaming his rank in the department for his lack of case target interests. Angered by McNulty's back burning attitude, Daniels tells McNulty, "When the cuffs go on Stringer, 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 realizes that she is only interested in him physically. In their last meeting, he also realizes that she is trying to use him as an inside source of information when she starts inquiring about Colvin and the rumors about "Hamsterdam". He eventually grows dissatisfied and feels less fulfilled. Largely due to Freamon's work, the Unit implicates Stringer Bell, but he is murdered before McNulty can arrest him. After Avon is arrested, Daniels reevaluates his decision to get rid of McNulty, but McNulty realizes he has no life outside his work and graciously declines Daniels' offer to keep him in the unit. He transfers to patrol in the western district, which he remembers as the happiest time of his life, and begins a relationship with Beadie Russell.
McNulty's role was drastically scaled down in the fourth season. He has moved in with Russell and her two children, and is enjoying his life as a patrolman in the Western district alongside Sergeant Ellis Carver. His beat includes the corner Bodie Broadus is working on behalf of Marlo Stanfield. Both Major Daniels and Administrative Lieutenant Mello ask McNulty to do investigative work in the district but he declines. Mello is disappointed but Daniels realizes that McNulty has been able to get his life in order while working as a patrolman. Though other officers make arrests for statistical purposes, McNulty focuses on quality arrests. This is exemplified by the arrest of two burglars who were 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 significantly reduces his drinking, sometimes resolving to stay sober despite pressure from his friends. Bunk and Freamon are amazed and slightly dismayed 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." McNulty soon begins to miss the Major Crimes Unit, 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 as a precaution. McNulty feels guilty, and rejoins the Major Crimes Unit, much to the delight of Freamon and Daniels. It is revealed during a scene shortly after Bodie's death that McNulty feels he "owes it to the kid". Bodie's death can be viewed as the reason for his decline in the subsequent season.
Season five opens with McNulty returning to old habits after a frustrating year-long investigation of the vacant murders yielded no results. When the Major Crimes Unit is closed down, McNulty is despondent, telling himself that he was talked into rejoining the unit by Command's promises of departmental reform. McNulty is transferred back to Homicide and his frustration manifests in heavy drinking and womanizing despite his relationship with Russell.
McNulty faces further frustration in the Homicide Unit when he cannot obtain a working vehicle to get to an accidental death scene. Waiting at the morgue, he finds Baltimore County homicide detectives Nancy Porter and Kevin Infante arguing with a new medical examiner. Porter explains that they were assigned an accidental death and the paramedics grabbed the decedent's neck to move him from behind a toilet. The medical examiner noticed signs of strangulation and intends to rule the death a homicide. McNulty is amazed that post-mortem strangulation is indistinguishable from strangulation which causes death. McNulty is drinking heavily on the job when assigned another probable overdose case with Bunk. McNulty disrupts the crime scene to make it seem that a struggle occurred. Bunk is outraged but McNulty continues, choking the corpse, stating that there is a "serial killer" in Baltimore. Bunk leaves, wanting no part of McNulty's actions. McNulty repositions the body to encourage bruising that indicates strangulation.
McNulty then searches for old cases to link to his fake strangulation to create the impression of a serial killer. He finds an old strangulation of a homeless man investigated by late detective Ray Cole, and doctors the case file to create connections to his own murder. McNulty also finds a strangulation of a homeless man investigated by Frank Barlow and notices a red ribbon tied around the victim's wrists. McNulty inserts mention of a red ribbon into the Cole case file and visits the morgue to tie a ribbon on his decedent's wrist. McNulty's decedent is ruled a death by strangulation by the medical examiner. After Landsman ignores these "serial murders," McNulty approaches Alma Gutierrez of The Baltimore Sun to generate publicity for them. His plan fails, however, when the story is relegated to the middle of the paper instead of the front page. Bunk repeatedly warns McNulty that his path leads to self-destruction; Lester, however, approves of McNulty's project and suggests that it needs sensationalism to succeed. McNulty continues to drink heavily and cheats on his domestic partner Beadie Russell.
McNulty and Freamon collaborate to enhance the media appeal of their serial killer story. McNulty finds that most dead homeless men are concentrated in the Southern District at night time. Freamon puts McNulty in touch with his old patrol partner Oscar Requer, who agrees to notify them of dead homeless men in the district. Freamon also devises a plan to show maturation in their serial killer's pattern and acquires dentures to create bite marks on the victim.
McNulty and Freamon canvass an area where the homeless gather at night. McNulty doubts that actual canvassing is needed on their false case. Freamon believes it will make their reports verifiable and protect them from the potential consequences of their plan. McNulty complains Landsman barely noticed his work on the case, but Freamon reminds him that if their plan works, the case will attract more interest and sloppiness could be their downfall.
McNulty returns home to a confrontation with Beadie Russell. She criticizes his behavior and drinking, which he claims is due to the case he is working. She reminds him of the strength of their relationship and says she used to disbelieve those who warned of his self-destructive behavior. When McNulty tells Russell that he must respond to another call because he is chasing a serial killer, she says he is chasing more than that – referencing his philandering. She warns him not to return if he does not want to be there.
McNulty attends a further death with Freamon on Requer's tip. McNulty fakes another homicide and mutilates the decedent to show bite marks and defensive wounds. When investigating the "homeless killer", McNulty and detective Greggs travel to Quantico, Virginia for FBI assistance. McNulty realizes it's a waste of time because he and Freamon have provided the police department with false information on the killer. McNulty also realizes that he can no longer falsify murders on real corpses as there is too large a police presence, so he instead takes a mentally ill homeless man off the streets of Baltimore and stages a photograph of a murder to send to Scott Templeton of the Baltimore Sun, claiming that the man will never be seen again, before taking him to a homeless shelter in Richmond, Virginia with fake identification suggesting that he is from Cleveland, Ohio, so that he cannot easily be found.
Furthermore, McNulty has been voicing the killer all along giving the FBI the only means of tracking it. After doing the voice analysis, the FBI provide McNulty and Greggs with a psychological profile of the homeless killer, inadvertently giving a near-perfect description of McNulty:
"The suspect is most likely a white male in his late twenties to late thirties, who is not a college graduate, but feels superior to those with advanced education, and is likely employed in a bureaucratic entity, possibly civil or public service. He has a problem with authority and a deep-seated resentment for those that have impeded his progress professionally. The sexual nature of the killings is thought to be a secondary motivation and the lack of DNA or saliva in the bite marks suggests possible postmortem staging. He may be struggling with lasting relationships and potentially a high functioning alcoholic with alcohol being used as a trigger in the crimes. The suspect’s apparent resentment of the homeless may indicate a previous personal relationship with a homeless person or the targeting may simply be an opportunity for the killer to assert his superiority and intellectual prowess."
McNulty appears sheepish as his character flaws are spelled out for him. McNulty confesses to Greggs, who informs Deputy Commissioner for Operations Cedric Daniels. A furious Daniels (with Pearlman accompanying him) meets with Acting Commissioner Bill Rawls, State's Attorney Rupert Bond, and the Mayor's office. Daniels and Rawls confront McNulty, informing him that this will be his last CID case.
He starts by solving a new crime in the 'serial killer case'. A mentally ill homeless man McNulty had met on his previous canvas has started using the modus operandi of McNulty's serial killer. McNulty brings the man, his final criminal, to justice. After attending a detective's wake (of sorts) in his and Lester's honor (they have been told they will never again be allowed to do real police work), McNulty leaves the bar sober and returns home, where he and Beadie have reconciled. The next day, McNulty returns to the Richmond shelter and finds that the man he took there disappeared after a couple of days. He finds him elsewhere in the city and drives him back to Baltimore. On the way back, McNulty stops his car, gets out and looks at the city, leading to the series-ending montage.
Critical response and analysis
Jim Shelley of The Guardian has described the character as "irresistibly charming, a classic anti-hero; a modern-day Rockford." Entertainment Weekly said that the character was exemplary of the funky feel of the show citing his naturalistic dialogue, soulful voice and easy rapport with his African-American work partners. The character has been described as defying genre conventions – although his actions drive several plot points he is not quite the central character implied by the show's opening or promotional material. Flak Magazine also picked McNulty as a central character and 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. Salon.com 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, saying that this aspect of his personality made him a successful investigator and a failure in most other aspects of his life. Entertainment Weekly picked McNulty as offering one of the show's 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."
David Simon, the character's creator, has described his goal of presenting McNulty as ambiguous in his motivations. Based on his experiences with real detectives, he feels that most crime dramas present their police characters with the 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.
The character was originally named Jimmy McArdle but because no one liked the name, executive producer Robert F. Colesberry suggested renaming him Jimmy McNulty (after his maternal grandmother). 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.
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