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.