Hell’s back pages
Not quite my usual prolix self today, but still glad I can get in this point before the week falls cold. If you’re new to the land of #46, kindly consult our great mini-directory. Otherwise, stroll forward.
One of the central questions this season has been “is Marlo human?” As has been discussed at great length in the past, at least Stringer had ideals, Avon was mildly lovable, Prop Joe fixes toasters, etc. Stanfield, however, is a bonafide monster–not so much because of what he does, but because of the total lack of anything that could inspire a twinge of empathy. In Season 3, he seemed merely enigmatic, playing it cool and keeping his close. Now, we’ve had ten episodes of Marlo in a starring role, and nary a chink in the armor or symbol of puzzlement that would illuminate him for us. Even his brief warmth when Michael comes to him seemed, well, contrived and haunting. Double all this up for Snoop and Chris, who might be the two most monolithic beings the show has ever produced.
With the Barksdales, we never asked “how did they get here” because their personalities bore all the scars and jumbles of a long journey unto grandeur. What’s more, the saga of Bodie gradually demonstrated how one learned the ropes, transforming himself from feisty aspirant to canny participant. Character got built through strength and weaknesses alike, making for men whose flaws were essential to an understanding of their unique clout in the game. Marlo, however, is cold and distant enough to make Bodie shiver. No one can read him, his rep is simply one of ruthlessness, arrogance and precision; it’s no accident that Bodie and Poot revisited the Wallace incident, since to them the difference between String and Marlo is that String inspired trust. He was known to have sound judgement and an innate sense of when to act, when to rest. Marlo, though, truly is more fierce; he’s feared, not respected, and his leadership bears nothing of a personal stamp of style.
Enter the majesty of #47. Centuries from now, we will point to the closing scene as the exact moment at which Michael discovered evil. Almost clumsily, this episode saw our boy go from motivated by rage to consumed by it; that sinister smile at the end was the polar opposite of his usual manly grimace, and was oddly more at peacce than the Michael we’ve come to respect. Up to this point, he’s felt the need to protect others, keep his world in order, and sublimate his anger unto the positive side. Getting his step-dad offed, though, was so easy, and so evidently cathartic, that it makes the old Michael seem like a dupe. Earning on the corner makes a traditional job look like a joke; by this same token, Michael’s suddenly discovered that coping with and learning from trauma can’t hold a candle to actually wielding power.
I’m not trying to make any ignorant guesses about what Michael’s destiny is, but certainly something to be learned from his transformation from lovable, supportive source of strength (Elton Brand, yo) to sneering sociopath. If Bodie’s saga showed us how to imagine the early days of Avon and String, then Marlo even more desperately needs this kind of mirrored narrative. Michael has been impenetrable but likable; what’s more, we understood exactly why he’d set up the defenses he did. It’s not inconceivable, though, that we’re watching a transition much like the one that created Marlo: a damaged but hopeful kid discovers the dark side and turns that guarded personality into a cloak for evil, not pain.
If ever I had any doubts about this window in Early Marlo, the staggering Chris sub-storyline drove the point home. In case you missed it, Chris immediately got what was wrong with Michael (Snoop, predictably, had no idea what was going on), and then pulped the step-dad in one of the most brutal scenes in Wire history. Let me spell this one out for you: DUDE WAS OBVIOUSLY HIMSELF MOLESTED AS A YOUTH. Ironically, this doesn’t even begin the plumb the depths of Chris’s weirdness. But by linking this most obscure of characters with Michael’s brand of childhood misery, the show’s done more than set up a character’s future. In addition, now all of a sudden we can see how these seemingly vague figures are actually pointed gestures in the direction of a very specific kind of past.