The Great White Hope

Let’s talk about Tommy Carcetti.

Like McNulty (that is, McNulty before his rebirth as a happy-go-lucky beat cop), he’s a white man trying to reform the system in a black city.

Christy already mentioned that David Simon sees the basic story of The Wire as a conflict between people and the corrupt system that is theoretically supposed to serve them. What she didn’t mention is that the system, in Baltimore, is black. Most of the reformers, by my count, are white.

I’ve been considering today whether my favorite show might be at least a little bit racist, if only in a well-intenioned, Bill Cosby sort of way.

(I guess I haven’t said much, but somebody had to start the conversation about race!)

Explore posts in the same categories: Carcetti for Mayor, Race

29 Comments on “The Great White Hope”

  1. Shoals Says:

    two biggest reformers to come out of the series thus far are colvin and stringer. unless we’re talking “reformers” vs. entrenched status quo in a predominantly black city; then it’s a euphemism for white.

  2. trackMark Says:

    ill give you bunny… however he didn’t really try to change the problem in any meaningful way. sure, hamsterdam lowered violent crime, but it also drove residents out of the neighborhood (the weet old woman who had to be moved…) and led to some of the most dehumanizing scene thus far witnessed on the some.

    as far as stringer is concerned, i don’t buy it. he talked big game about keeping the body counts down and operating as a business, but he also ruthlessly elimated his enemies within the barskdale organization. i guess i see him as a stalin figure or something or that sort.

  3. Lokar Says:

    Bunny did the best that he could, and I think it turned rather positive when the health organizations came in. Hamsterdam was generally positive, if unsustainable. Drugs will always be a negative force, and where they go, some sort of depravity follows.

    Despite Stringer’s temper and willingness to resort to his old, violent methods, he did manage, through business and economics, to keep the number of bodies down when the towers came down. It was, in the end, his attempt to reform the game that led to his death.

    I’m still not convinced by Carcetti. His big impassioned speech at the end of the third season was undercut immediately by Gray’s, “it sounds like you’re running for something”. He might retain some level of idealism at the moment, but I’ll bet he would get swallowed up fairly quickly if he were to actually win the mayoral race.

    I’m also not sure how McNulty is really a reformer. If he is at all, it is merely by accident. His beef is with all bosses, including Daniels who was never anything but good to him. It wasn’t about reforming the system, but showing everyone that he was the best.

  4. 893 Says:

    Neither McNulty nor Carcetti are reformers. As Lokar says, McNulty bucks the chain of command and engages in lone wolf antics not primarily out of an urge to do good, but to gratify his ego, as Daniels and many others, including finally himself (ie, McNulty), have recognized. I think there’s even less justification to call Carcetti a reformer. What has he done? Carcetti’s egotropism is even more transparent than McNulty’s: “A white boy can’t win in this city? I’ll show you!”

  5. Shoals Says:

    mcnulty believes too hard in the glory of the brilliant lone wolf detective, just as carcetti buys whole hog into this “outsider can make a difference” message. maybe ostensibly these signal change, but they’re pre-ordained by the system and designed to fail.

    don’t know why i keep bringing up avon and stringer, but in these terms avon is “just a gangster” and string is indeed a script-flipping visionary. i wonder if marlo will end up being the street’s equivalent of mcnulty/carcetti

  6. jetsetjunta Says:

    The trouble with Carcetti is that his ambition keeps getting undercut by his whining, so for every scene where he makes a note of a real problem not being addressed by the Royce administration, there’s another where he laments being a white man in a “city that ain’t.” Hence any potential for reform is shot through with the fact that Carcetti is running for something. When he determines that he’s lost the race, he doesn’t try to make himself a mouthpiece for good ideas and reform. He just whines some more and acts like it’s honorable that he’ll finish out his campaign with the minimum of effort. I do wonder if he will win the election, because that would provide him with a chance to “get educated” in the systems of power. Of course that doesn’t normally work out so good for the purposes of reform.

  7. christycash Says:

    Whoa whoa whoa, I totally do not think that you can write McNulty off as sheerly operating based on a desire to give the kiss-off to all authority. McNulty is way too complicated for that, and he also genuinely wants change. He is a real radical within the force — I think his “lone wolf” status is more of a commentary on how staid and backwards and bureaucratic everyone ELSE is. And listen, Carcetti’s a politician. Of COURSE he’s running for something. Of course he’s whining and a bit juvenile. But he still wants to do the right thing. Where do you think agents of change come from? This is the big question of Season 3 that Season 4 is playing out: Is change within the system possible? McNulty and Carcetti seek to be such a change. You can’t puninsh them for being part of a system. Don’t we want our bureaucracies to at least TRY To do some good? Or are we going to give up on them just like conservatives did?

  8. christycash Says:

    Also we should probably define what we mean by “reformer.” McNulty and Carcetti aren’t heroes but they are working to make a difference. And to return to Hatch’s original post, I think the racial breakdown on the show is not a racist projection or fantasy, but a pretty accurate reflection of how race plays out in power structures.

  9. shoals Says:

    “The job won’t save you Jimmy, it won’t fill your ass up. ”

    “I don’t know. A good case. . . ”

    “Ends. They all end. . .The next morning it’s just you in the room with yourself.”

    ” . .until the next case. .”

    “Hey, a life, Jimmy.. You know what that is? It’s the shit that happens whie you wait for the moments that never come.”

    i hope someone is keeping track of the characters I take to be absolute authorities/voices of the message.

  10. Ben Yaster Says:

    I second Christine’s call for a definition of “reformer”; it seems a bit obtuse for a show whose characters are awfully complex. Also, keep in mind that in season 3, the biggest reformer after Colvin was not Stringer, but Mayor Royce who, for a short time at least, was completely behind the Hamsterdam project. In that season, Royce seemed less like a corrupt politico than someone frustrated by the constraints — be they political, legal, federal, or cultural — placed on him in governing his city, and desperately seeking a solution which would not win votes but would better his citizens’ overall quality of life.

  11. Shoals Says:

    royce fit that bill for exactly half an episode, and it’s arguable whether he was moved by anything but the numbers

  12. shoals Says:

    wait, didn’t simon say over and over that season three was specifically about reform?

  13. jetsetjunta Says:

    I think this is all splitting hairs, honestly. Each character provides at least a modicum of balance between their humanity and their ambition/brutality/weakness/etc. Depending on the system in which they participate, they have to turn over some of that humanity and, in the process, lose some ability to simply do good, or to do good simply. Even Bunny thought that his crazy plan would do some good and show a new way, but he was also giving a big fuck-you to his bosses and the chain of command. Not that Bunny is a McNulty character any more than Royce is a Rawls character, or whatever. Where I think the show gets interesting is when they go really far in humanizing a character, like with D’Angelo or Wallace. I think they do the same with Cutty or Bubbles, but perhaps they learned in that first season that so much humanity can only lead to one place. But what I meant to say in all this is that they are all reformers, or mostly all. Every character tries to make his or her slot the one that matters, that effects change, or that keeps the wheels moving smoothly, which, if not reform, is at least the desire for continued success.

  14. trackMark Says:

    Royce is also in deep with the Clay Davis side of the political machine, which is deeply implicated in the city’s problems. The reason I still see Carcetti as a potential savior of Baltimore is that while ending the corruption wouldn’t fix anything, everyone who’s succeeded at doing any good in the story so far has done it by standing up to the corrupt beaurocracy. Carcetti may be a self-serving politician with a Christ complex, but as far as we know, he’s not corrupt.

    As far as the definition of “reformer” is concerned, I’m not sure how Marlo would fit in. Are you guys forgetting the opening scene of the first episode, with the fucking nailgun? Those are Marlo’s people. I guess they are reforming the techniques of murda but that’s about it.

  15. Shoals Says:

    i had a long talk with one of our as-of-yet-unseen bloggers about this but yeah, marlo’s version of violence is a major reform. most drug trade related violence is, if not random, loud and chaotic to make a point. marlo’s methods are neat, tidy, even subtle, and kill very specific people for very specific reasons. this is more in line with the mob model of things–violence as a tool of the power structure, rather than its alpha and omega–than the undisciplined mayhem that comes with shooting up block and beefing over single corners.

    marlo knows that he has to be feared, but that means killing dutifully when necessary–not taking advantage of every provocation to assert his strength. what’s weird is that he was like this even before he was on top, judging from season 3.

  16. David Says:

    I haven’t seen anything from Carcetti that would make me think he would be less corrupt than Royce after a couple of terms as mayor. He seems willing to make the same compromises and deals that Royce is willing to make. Remember when push came to shove last season over Hamsterdam, both Royce and Carcetti refused to support it, even though both seemed to think it could work.

  17. christycash Says:

    Again, HE’S A POLITICIAN. This is a show, like I was saying the other day, that closes off the possibility of political hope or progress — and therefore, in some sense, rules out — before it begins — the possibility of reform. What makes it fun to watch is seeing the sparks of possibility, which leave you in suspsense, thinking maybe this time it will be different…

    And shoals, yeah, yeah, Marlo’s not running a crack gang. but wasn’t the idea to separate warring and business even more interesting and potentially revolutionary? So they use a nailgun. That’s disgusting. At the talk, Simon also said that Marlo was supposed to be a parallel with the insurgency in Iraq — I’m not kidding. Snoops et al use that nailgun as a torture device. I think we’re supposed to read what they do as inhumane.

  18. Murky Says:

    I don’t see a bright-line distinction between white reformers and black status-quo. Like lots of people have said, Colvin and Stringer were two of the three big would-be reformers last season (third is Carcetti, obviously).

    Just because Stringer failed doesn’t mean he wasn’t trying–and the comment about him ruthlessly eliminating enemies misses the point of his reform. He wasn’t setting out to make drug dealing less violent; he wanted to make it more profitable and less prone to disruption. That meant legitimizing as much as possible and cutting down on bodies to keep the cops at bay. Amoral/immoral reform, but reform nonetheless.

    But I’m interested in the fact that mostly white writers tell this story (David Mills and Rafael Alvarez are the only non-white writers I’m aware of). Is “The Wire” another example of white people looking at blacks as a “problem people?”

  19. Shoals Says:

    they use the nailgun to re-board up the houses. when chris shot that guy who was whimpering, he was holding a pistol with a silencer. also desposing of someone with a nail guy is a little too sloppy and indiscrete for them.

    re: warring vs. business. hard to say the two are separate when every business-related act of violence verges on all-out war. until marlo, in this show that’s been more like the difference between an all-out infantry assault and tactical exchanges. both are still a state of war.

    marlo seems to have actually separated the two BY killing like a professional. it’s only a war when he says he it is, and since he’s in power he’d prefer to keep it from breaking out. order benefits him at the moment, like the mob. this kind of killing enforces order, rather than encouraging chaos.

  20. Shoals Says:

    I don’t see a bright-line distinction between white reformers and black status-quo.

    i should’ve put that whole distinction in quotes. the lazy, somewhat conservative tendency is to assume that when blacks are in charge of a city that’s a mess, any white person can ride in and save the day. which is almost as much bullshit as mcnulty, knight of police integrity

  21. christycash Says:

    I don’t think that you can say that because the writers are white they necessarily look at blacks as a “problem.” i think the show does a pretty good job — better than anything else, anyway — of NOT doing that. and re this whole Marlo thing, I get that Marlo is an efficient businessman, but I do think that chaos is going to ensue. He’s all pro now, but part of this season, I predict, will be watching him unravel. And whatever, nailgun, gun, it was totally scary when they killed that guy in the first episode and then wrapped him up in plastic. It was shot like an interrogation.

  22. trackMark Says:

    “which is almost as much bullshit as mcnulty, knight of police integrity”

    But McNulty IS the white knight of police integrity. Without McNulty, would Sen. Davis be under a subpoena right now?

    I understand that the morality of The Wire is complicated. But can we all agree that, in the context of the show, politicians taking drug money to keep themselves in power and maintain the status quo is a problem?

  23. Shoals Says:

    freeman is the model of police integrity. and bunk is its practical nobility. mcnulty is a caricature of both–a red herring, kind of.

  24. faux_rillz Says:

    I cannot for the life of me figure out why Carcetti is figuring so heavily into a discussion of “reform”–or what reform some of you folks think he was responsible for during Season 3. He is the antithesis of a reformer, having caused Colvin’s efforts at reform to come crashing down, despite some apparent willingness to accept that Colvin was accomplishing some good, and then offering a demagogic speech advocating business as usual, except more… whatever that might mean. “Demagogic,” by the way, is the word that Simon used to describe Carcetti’s big speech in his commentary to the final episode, in which he also expressed dismay that so many viewers had assumed from the push in of the shot that Carcetti was in that moment speaking for the minds behind the show. I mean, in a show as impeccably cast as the WIRE, do you think it’s purely coincidental that Carcetti is perhaps the most viscerally dislikable character?

  25. Murky Says:

    Yeah, I should have clarified that–he isn’t a reformer, but I think he was one of the three main examples of “reform” that the show threw out last season. Oh wait, make that four–I forgot Cutty. But Carcetti is an example of reform-as-show. He won’t change anything, but he’ll try to convince you he will. So he belongs in the discussion.

    Incidentally, why does everyone say Carcetti caused Colvin’s reforms to come crashing down? I always pegged it to Herc’s call to the media.

  26. Lokar Says:

    As far as Carcetti’s speech, I always thought it was a bit suspect, as it was immediately undercut by Gray’s “It sounds like you’re running for something” line.

    Hamsterdam’s downfall did come from Herc, though it would have come from someone at some point anyway. The point was that Colvin’s reform ideas weren’t going to be accepted by those who are in power or those who are on street level. All either know is statistics and cracking skulls, respectively. The same way Stringer’s reforms were unacceptable because of the way the game had always been played. Nobody wanted change, because that’s what they knew. Avon was “just a gangster”, and it was all about soldiering and muscle.

    McNulty reformed himself by realizing that the job wouldn’t save him, but in the larger sense, reform was impossible. Bleak, I know, but that’s how I always saw the season.

  27. faux_rillz Says:


    Discussing plot mechanics may be below the tone of this blog but, as I recall, Herc’s call to the reporter ended with Colvin talking the reporter into holding off for a week. So the end was at that point ordained, but it was Carcetti that actually brought it about by causing the press to descend en masse upon Hamsterdam.

  28. Tom Says:

    I think you guys are being too hard on McNulty. He clearly cares about the West Side and its citizens. Yes – his primary motivation prior to season 4 is to prove he’s the best. But there’s a strong urge to do Good mixed in there.

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