To Each His Vulcans
In the run-up to January, I’ve been watching Season Two again. It had always been my least favorite, mostly because it’s the whitest; while there is the “gotcha” connection to the Barksadale saga, by and large it’s about setting about a parallel form of Baltimore strife. With the union severely corrupt and the next generation turning to crime, the stage is being set for a neighborhood’s downfall—or, this being the twenty-first century, gentrification. Then there’s Frog and White Mike, intentionally pale reflections of West Baltimore soldiers.
But this around, I’ve been fascinated by how much this season widens the shows scope. Not in its ode to Sobotka and the docks, but in the international crime syndicate that all of sudden crops up. The characters of The Wire are comically, sadly provincial. Most of them know this, and take a small measure of pride in it. Season Two offers remind us, with almost crushing irony, that Baltimore is technically still a port city, a gateway to the world. But at this point, the only people who care are undesirables on some sneak and smuggle shit. I once thought it screwy that Spiros, The Greek, Sergei, and Etan hung around Baltimore. I’m realizing now that this is both apt and believable.
And yet as characters, this crew was only barely developed; past the facts, the most we learn about any of them is Spiros’s misplaced paternal affection for Nick. They demonstrate Baltimore’s backhanded niche in globalization, remind us of drug trade food chain, and, in some ways, sidetrack the “portrait of an American city” project. These cosmopolitan gangsters provide a window out into a nearly infinite network of localized dramas, a million Wires waiting to be made in nearly as many languages. Lord knows I’d rather see that than Traffic or Syriana. But they all vanished after that season’s finale, which for this program is pretty unusual. It’s like they mostly just spoke of the port, while further isolating that scene from the other seasons.
But during Season Four’s balls-out montage, all of a sudden Spiros and The Greek returned. What’s telling is that they’re introduced as part of Marlo’s power-mad machinations; he demands a meeting with Spiros and later tails The Greek. In Season Two, their involvement in the drug game put Stringer and Prop Joe in perspective. Kings of Baltimore, they were but placeholders in a far bigger structure. It’s kind of like that scene where Nick enlists Sergei and company to confront Cheese. Sitting in the car, you can see Nick’s expression shift from apprehensive to, well, more apprehensive. First, he’s nervous about the situation getting ugly. Then, when the uzis come out and Nick realizes just how deep shit is. He hasn’t just tip-toed over the dark side—he’s plunged headfirst into the abyss.
Marlo, on the other hand, has already proven himself in his field. He’s ruthless and rational at the same time, exercising an iron hand with hardly a loose end left. The fact that Prop Joe will set up face time with Spiros for him speaks volumes for Marlo’s place in the drug lord pecking order. So when we see him trying to insinuate himself into that next level, it’s not a joke at his expense. Marlo Stanfield wants to make it out the criminal ghetto (that’s what happened in American Gangster, right?), and until proven otherwise, we have to take his ambitions serious.
Despite all the geo-political complexity that separates West Baltimore’s dealers from The Greek’s brand of organized crime, what makes it matter is the disparity in power. If Marlo can get their attention, earn their respect, or go toe-to-toe with them, his story becomes about raw power, and these out-of-towners become a measuring stick. Peers, not semi-facetious foils.