Archive for September 2006

Real estate of the unreal

September 28, 2006

Here at H&H, we’ve more or less realized that interest in reading a Sunday-night-show-themed blog will decline as the week progresses. The big guns should be wheeled out on M-W, and Th-F reserved for ephemera and other great diversions. There within me stirs, however, something so central to this season, something so integral to the way I see the micro-verse of The Wire, that I’m going to break my own brand new rule. It concerns everyone’s two favorite supra-figures, and the cosmic implications of the two of them sharing the same program for much longer.

Put simply, The Wire is not big enough for both Marlo and Omar. As CC noted yesterday, Omar more or less stalks a make-believe world, in which homosexuality hinders not his fearsome rep, his tight-knit crew is invincible, and his whim dictates city-wide drug trade policy. Of course, all of this is unabashedly true, making Omar one of the few characters on The Wire who defies the show’s insistence on stark realism. It’s been said that Omar is more myth than man, more urban legend than rendered individual; while I agree with this reading, you have to wonder how we’re then to understand his intersections with the less ethereal beings in the narrative.

The equally unstoppable Marlo seems to now verge on this hallowed terrain. Impossibly cocky, shrewd and determined, he’s the closest we’ve seen to the perfect criminal. So far this season, there have been hints that he might be overreaching, or that this unprecedented badness might be one long delusion on his part. As of #41, though, we viewers have no reason to believe that Marlo’s not at least a decent fraction of the model kingpin he’s seemingly styled himself as. And even if his form of perfection seems more deliberate than Omar’s felicitous stash house tour, Young Stanfield is still set up as someone close to achieving his ideal.

Of course, this in some ways seems at odds with the rest of The Wire in which the very notion of “perfection” is a ruse designed to replace complexity with invidious “imperfection.” Few characters on the show could, in their functional capacity as police, administrators, criminals, or politicans, be described as effortlessly, seamlessly fulfilling their role’s basic duties. In fact, if one compares almost anyone else to the sheer mastery that is Omar or Marlo, only Lester and Prop Joe come off as anything less than distracted, even bumbling. The point, though, is that humanizing these societal roles also involves looking at the toll they take on individuals, the ways in which men and women are sometimes forced to confront subtleties and complications that aren’t in the job description. This doesn’t even begin to discuss the effect that one’s personal life can have on the professional routine; the rise and fall of Jimmy McNulty, Super Cop, bears out just how paltry a Law and Order-style existence really would be.

The imminent Omar/Marlo showdown, then, confuses me for a number of reasons. On one level, it’s fucking awesome; on another, it seems to foreground the two characters least representative of the show’s way with fiction. I can’t lie, the two of them are striking in ways that Stringer, for all his gravitas, was simply too pathos-laden to ever be. Yet does this battle between two creatures from beyond the pale of realism confound The Wire‘s atmopshere, turning it into a playground for figments of the urban fantastic?

I’ve come to the conclusion that, in an almost Greek fashion, Omar and Marlo simply have to tangle. The show won’t allow for two characters rendered thus, they are the mirror image of each other in spooky charisma, and everyone else seems powerless to do a thing about either of them. Granted, this is an incredibly naive read on this, and I wouldn’t count out Simon and co. deconstructing someone in the next episode or two. But at least for this brief moment, as we sit wondering where their rancor is headed, I’m inclined to see the end of #41 in this light. If Omar is the ghetto Robin Hood, Marlo is the greatest scourge upon the inner city we’ve yet seen. As of now, both characters are more or less untenable; only in collision, then, can one or both of them be rendered mortal.


Start witnessing

September 28, 2006

CC reported to us all from Simon and Price’s recent Makor Screening Room appearance. Now, courtesy of Andrew at the 92nd Street Y, here’s one of the night’s most memorable moments in moving picture form:

Ladies’ Night

September 27, 2006

A little while ago one of our readers posted this comment:

I would love it if you would spend some time on the female characters on the wire. It just dawned on me recently just how male the show really is and how black women are portrayed. Aside from Shakima, her girlfriend and Daniels’ wife every other black woman on the show is seen as grimy, selfish,cold,desperate,(Cutty’s women)oversexed, greedy or murderous (Snoop and Omar’s girls). Since I’m a black woman who lives in the inner city, I obviously reject that depiction on some level. I’m not saying that women like Wee-Bay’s mother don’t exist, although that scene had my mouth wide-open in disbelief. I’m saying that the overall portrayal of black women is pretty bleak. On 39 we had even a professional sister in a sexually compromising position. Have you given this any thought? Is this a bias that Simon and his writers have allowed to creep into the show?

I’m glad this issue was raised. This post will in no way begin to deal with it definitively, but I hope it starts a good conversation about it.


A few questions come to mind when dealing with the broad theme of female characters on The Wire: 1) Are there enough characters (ie, is the portrayal of women realistic in terms of how many there are in each setting), 2) Are their roles as complex and deep as the role of men, and 3) What do the answers to 1) and 2) mean for the show and our viewership of it?

It strikes me as believable that there would be only one lady (Kima) doing this work on the force — and we’ve certainly seen Kima in a lot of depth, from being shot to (I would argue) not being fair to or honest with her girlfriend. I got no complaints about Kima or about how women are portrayed in the police department. (If anyone out there knows more about female police, then please speak up and correct me.) And there’s Rhonda Pearlman, a great character, as well as Theresa D’Agostino (Carcetti’s consultant), and Marla Daniels — all great, strong, flawed women. (True, D’Agostino is a women who is cannier than Carcetti who’s helping him behind the scenes (typical) and Marla isn’t as interesting as Royce, but those disparities seem to me to be acceptable and to reflect some measure of the unequal reality in which we live. Please disagree.)


What I do have a problem with is how Simon & co. portray women on the street. Drug organizations routinely depend on women — girlfriends, wives, daughters — to act as mules, carriers, whatever. (Not in any way to minimize the way that the justice system punishes black men, but the number of women incarcerated in state facilities for drug-related offenses rose by 888% between 1986 and 1999—actually outpacing the number of men imprisoned for similar crimes. See this site, where I ripped this stat from.) The Barksdale organization seemed to be entirely male run, which is not only a bit unbelievable, but actually contributes to the very negative way that black women have been portrayed: As greedy and opportunistic. Donnette’s a sweet girl, but went for Stringer when D’Angelo was locked up, and let’s not forget that D’Angelo’s mom wanted him to carry the time for the team, and why? Because Avon reminded her that all the nice things she had depended on it. And let’s not even get started on De’Londa. I hope we see her more in Season 4 because what we’ve seen is not three-dimensional.

By being denied a role as players in the game, women are denied a chance at honor. They are reduced to being consumers of the profits of the drug trade, instead of operators in it. We’ve had some comic relief from this — remember what’s her name, the girlfriend who was always yelling when buying up the mobile phones? — but it’s comic relief that depends on enforcing stereotypes of black women instead of subverting them.


Omar works with ladies, which is nice, but everything Omar does exists in its own world and veers almost into fantasy (He can’t die). Snoops is less of a woman and more of a creature — she’s androgynous. I’m hoping now that we’re in the school, we’re going to see the teacher and principal characters develop more. But that still doesn’t explain why The Wire isn’t interested in considering women as part of the street system, because they are. I’m not willing to go so far as to call the show misogynist, but it has some serious blind spots. Even if you argue that the show is telling the story of young black men in jeopardy (again, notice all the main kids are black — girls are in the background, slashing each other with razors, but they’re not getting much dialogue.), it has to actively erase women from the landscape in order to do that. I find it hard to believe that the choices 12 year old girls make on the street are less interesting or difficult than the choices 12 year old boys make, and I find it hard to believe that the lives of women in their twenties trying to make it work in poverty are less interesting — they are usually more interesting, as they involve balancing the needs of children. Simon & co. are brilliant, and so what I fear is that this erasure may have been on purpose. If so, why? What end does it serve to tell the story of one-half of the ghetto?

I’m So Emotional I Hug the Block

September 26, 2006

So much to say. I am so woozy from the ride so far this season it’s hard to know where to begin or end in commentary. I suppose the best place to begin is with a disagreement with Shoals on the awesomeness exhibited by that boy Marlo. I am starting to think that he is the embodiment of the opposite of awesome. That he is not just the Prince of Darkness in the cold, hard stare department, but also in that he ruins the world through his malevolence.


This relates to ongoing conversations in its confrontation of the allure of the crime drama, of course, but also to the nogoodnik cousin of The Wire, the police procedural. If that genre prizes good cops and rough justice (thank you Rolling Stones for your comedy gold!), and demonizes crime in its myriad forms (including the very idea that crime might ever be justifiable, thus making Minority Report the ultimate in police procedurals), then The Wire distinguishes itself and makes the world a bit more real by considering the shortcomings of faith in police and the justice system, but also by offering the possibility that criminal enterprise can be justified, if only for the purposes of empowering the powerless.

Yet, as all systems are laid bare while we progress through this series, the system of drug dealing has been exploded too. Marlo’s steely gaze and ruthless management of even the most glib corner dealer (likening Omar to terrorists and corner dealers to airlines was pretty priceless) are perhaps admirable for adherence to g-code rules. But if g-code rules get you a hefty prison bid (Avon) and canny business sense puts you in the ground (String), there is really no more faith to be had in the system at all. Thus Marlo’s ruthless though shrewd tactics ring false to me, particularly given the positions he is being put into this season.

Five characters interacted / interfered with Marlo and were dealt with in some way in this episode.

Bodie’s unhappiness was made clear, and while his new package will keep his corner profitable and whatever protection Marlo has on offer will keep him safe, Bodie yearns for the Barksdale name, the Barksdale system, and the Barksdale faith, of which he was perhaps the greatest adherent. That thread is clearly to be continued, and I hope something develops with Bodie, as I think him to be a lynchpin of the greater narrative.


Next up is the security guard. Talk about a heart-breaker. Aced for trying to be a human being, trying to be a person and trying to be seen. “You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.” Those are fierce words and hearing them is at first a bit invigorating, until you realize that while Marlo is right enough given his home turf, his corners, and of course given that he’s got his muscle and his organization intact, he is also living in a dreamworld.

The dreamworld is shattered, satisfyingly enough, by Omar, whose reliance on drugs for his own fortunes has not yet managed to strip any of his awesomeness away. This meeting of the two was arranged by Prop Joe (who I recently learned is Snoop’s acting coach) either as a simple fuck you to Marlo, or perhaps to establish bad blood with the uncooperative dealer and the hired (or at least hire-able) gun. In a way it feels like Joe trying to offer a lesson to Marlo that anyone can be fucked with, and that his sense of security and permanence is totally illusory.

Finally, Michael. I don’t think it’s presumptuous to proffer that the season will hinge of the fight for the soul of Michael. Marlo’s lieutenants keeping watch over him as he plays caregiver to his adorable brother (“I like math!”), smacks of being utterly sinister and a bit of dramatic foreshadowing, just as Cutty’s benevolent gesture of inviting him to the fights is foreshadowing of the tough job he may have of wresting him from the allures (or compulsions) of the game. Michael does such a masterful job of acting that it’s hard to even propose that he might be more of a symbol than a character, but I think he has a bit of the former and a ton of the latter. It will be interesting to see how he manages things, and how the Wire writers choose to break our hearts with him.



Hothouse of honor

September 25, 2006

Found a way to fit #41 into my busy day off, and am now faced with the realization that we’ve been speaking on a narrative that’s barely off the ground. As heady as the first three episodes were, I can safely say that I’m now certifiably dizzy and stunned by where this is all headed. Before I get into my fairly narrow point, I want you all to know that 1) David Simon’s readership will not change H&H and 2) Colvin’s stroll through the school played a lot like Bubbles’ descent into Hamsterdam.

As much as it’s become a cliche to say that The Wire blurs the distinction between good and evil, cops and robbers, or order and chaos, my personal take is that it’s all a matter of honor. “Good police” don’t merely solve cases; they also do so in a way that commands the respect of their peers. As we’ve seen time and time again on the street side of things, the g-code is both the key to surivival and the structure that keep the game from imploding. Even Omar, the show’s very own non-traditional combatant, seems intent on abiding by his principles and respecting the past; hence his bizarre ability to stay alive, when the less cavalier Stringer’s downfall was brought about by his amorality.

For all this hub-bub about parallel systems of valor, it’s been largely unclear whether there’s any intersection here between the streets and the law. There was Colvin’s half-dreamt meeting with Stringer, and the ongoing slapstick routine that is Bodie vs. Herc/Carver. Otherwise, I have trouble thinking of examples where these two ways of making truth have come into collision with each other, if only symbolically. If drug dealers, police, and likely politicians share a common template, it’s only at the most basic, stem-cell-in-a-bank-vault, level. Practically speaking, the basic clash in goals keeps them from speaking the same moral language, something made into bleak comedy when Omar had his day in court.

Here, though, Cutty from the Cut might be the cipher, or Rosetta Stone, we so sorely need. There’s no doubt that he still carries the streets within him; last season, we saw him rep for the old order against Fruit, and command the eternal approval of Avon and Slim even as he exited the organization. And just as Colvin’s professional background makes him academia’s ear to the realness, Cutty can reach the corner boys because he carries weight in both worlds. In Season 3, this seemed like a transitional phase in the life of a man reformed. At this point, though, Cutty’s looking more and more like the show’s great hope for change, the prototype for the kind of role model who can communicate with at-risk kids without forcing them to compromise themselves.

The implications of this are pretty fucking amazing. Rather than simply validate the authentic cop, this implies that yes, there is some worth in the way of the criminal element. Not as anti-heroes, or metaphors, or mistranslated examples of what could have been. Instead, Cutty points toward our friendly neighborhood drug gang as containing some valuable advice on inner city masculinity. Nowhere was this more evident then when Mr. Wise observes Randy’s interrogation in the principal’s office. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Randy, while a decent kid, is as soft as his physique, and lacks the grit that draws Cutty to Michael and Justin. He thrives on the discipline of his foster mom, and seems fairy detached from his friends’ flirations with dealing. They post up on the corner, he hustles candy. Nothing wrong with him as a person, but he’s not the type Cutty’s out to save. This scene only made explicit the connection between who Cutty chooses to train and whose behavior in adolescent environment synchs up with a certain version of manhood.

On the other hand, emergent golden child Michael is the missing link between Cutty and Marlo, the proud youngster who fits perfectly into either the gym or the game. Granted, his behavior at the fights suggests that might not be this monolithic, and the “coming scenes” have me wondering if he’s less stable than we think. For now, though, that both men see Michael as their pet project tells us a lot about how much they have in common—and how both have to be understand as having unequivocally positive qualities. Then again, with Marlo’s crew looking more mindlessly sinister than ever, and the Prince of Darkness himself beginning to let his emotions get the best of him, this paragraph may not make sense for much longer. Hopefully Prop Joe will intervene and redeem this line of reasoning.

Actually, even if Marlo does start to unravel, that Michael resembles him and his most impressive is consistent with the “Marlo represents wasted potential” interpretation. Marlo is street character corrupted and misused, but deep down inside looks a lot like Michael, or could conceivably parlay with Cutty. As far as I know, no cop—not even that rogue McNulty, or Bunk on a bench with Omar—could ever achieve that commonality. And I, for one, have zero problem thinking that the streets might have an equal or greater version of inner goodness on its side.

Simon speaks

September 24, 2006

Even if you read my post on the dwindling addict presence when I first wrote it, I highly recommend taking a look at the more recent comments. Not because it makes me feel good about myself, but because it’s a positively invaluable contribution to the thread.

Once Upon a Time in America

September 21, 2006

I want to make a contentious point, and one that I don’t make for the sake of gladiatorial insinuations, or allusions of grandeur. The Wire is not only a better show, but more specifically a better show about criminality and race in the United States than The Sopranos could ever hope to be. This is not a new or novel point, and is one that many will recognize from Bill Simmons loving endorsement of our beloved Charm City saga.

While part of the horror/pleasure of mob-based narratives is always in the grisly gory tactics of intimidation and revenge matched up with the overarching mushiness of familial bonds and, of course, food, The Sopranos manages to make most of its characters ride the very thin line between sympathetic and reprehensible, without ever falling to either side. Paulie, for one, is a hot-headed, borderline retarded, psychopathic fool, yet the show does all it can to make him tolerable, comedic, and eventually forgivable. Add to this the fact that characters like Paulie and the rest of the family appear to thrive on their criminal endeavors, occasionally getting into messy scrapes but mostly earning righteous amounts of money from boosted cars, construction scams, stolen tvs, and of course, a smattering of drug sales. The Italian mob of The Sopranos is, of course, complicated with the intrusions of modernity on an essentially old-world mythology. Hence Tony’s panic attacks (the reason for his therapy) are linked to his enjoyment of cured Italian meats, to cite just one of thousands of examples. Yet those old world tropes are not completely exploded, and still inform the narrative.

One element of the old-world gangster mythology is a mistrust of black criminals, through a combination of deeply ingrained racism (suspicious for appearing in just that one scene of The Godfather, as voiced by Don Zaluchi: “they’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.”) and the myth that black people make terrible criminals. In The Sopranos, black criminals are almost always depicted as bumbling, easily fooled amateurs, used only for the dirtiest of murders and framed as at best brutal and efficient and at worst as shiftless and lazy. Perhaps most importantly, in an echo of Godfather-ish stereotyping, The Sopranos commends honor on its Italian gangsters, while blacks are normally presented as lost in the godless void of the inner city.

What I would argue is that The Sopranos actually, however unselfconsciously, begins to believe in its own mythologies as the seasons go on, making more rather than less excuses for the racist, sexist and anachronistic lies that frame not only the worldviews of its characters, but the framework of the narrative itself. In the real world the days of glory for the Italian mob are long gone, with most Italian gangsters running clownish criminal enterprises, or languishing in prison, watching their families shill for reality TV. In the real world, the scary mobs are the Russians, the Balkans and the Chinese, while black criminal enterprises come in all shapes and sizes, but are by no means relegated to J.V.-level cowboy operations, stick up crews and errand boys for gangsters.

On The Wire, conversely, white criminal enterprises are often shown to be poorly thought-out blunders that inevitably call out loudly to the authorities and are easily infiltrated and prosecuted, while a range of black criminal operations show a complex shadow society for the underclass, with its own lower, middle and upper classes developing (think corner dealers, soldiers and kingpins), but also complex systems for side-stepping the legal world. The second season focused heavily on this, with Ziggy’s boneheaded drug schemes and White Mike’s incredibly easy turn from bust to turning state’s evidence contrasting with the ever-tightening Barksdale cartel. Of course the well-tuned, shadowy worlds of the Greek and the Russians remain mysterious and seemingly lucrative enterprises, while the end of Season 3 certainly destroyed any notions that the Barksdale dream was built to last. But by investigating the role of criminality in the underclass community, even displaying the complexity of black criminal organizations as rivaling their white counterparts, past or present, The Wire manages to complicate and subvert mythologies of criminality that The Sopranos just juggles and rearranges. Moreover, I believe that The Wire suggests that, however fleeting and based in iniquity, there is an honor in criminal success that exists for those deeply ensconced in the game. Wee-Bey’s uncomfortable advice for Namond is just a hint of the incredibly deft hand the writers on the show give to exploring these concepts.

This season, Marlo’s crew, small-time in comparison to the Barksdale operation, is the closest the show has anymore to an organized criminal conspiracy (though those Godfather-style round-table meetings of the city’s kingpins are still keeping their appointments, with Prop Joe looking more regal every season), yet I think it is important to wonder how the program overall has acted to infiltrate and subvert some of the dominant mythologies of organized crime that haunt our society, mythologies whose anachronism haven’t made them any less sweet to American audiences, and may have helped to preserve some of the worst ways that Americans think about race, ability and criminality.