Archive for the ‘organized crime’ category

Black, Jewish and Poor

February 17, 2008


Comments on this post are closed! Seriously dudes, go for a jog or something! Or put together some Ikea furniture!

Pizzawhale has had too much work these past two weeks and not enough impetus from the season. However, I am roused by deep sadness to hear that Sean Finnegan, Wire crewmember and former drummer for suburban Maryland’s finest teen HC band died earlier this month at 43. RIP, buddy!

Now I want there to be a scene in Cutty’s gym with “Organized Sports” playing loud in the background. (I know it’s implausible, but maybe Henry Rollins can become a longterm sponsor?) The rest of the season can be consumed with this stupid Templeton/McNulty plot and way too many other white actors, while they attempt to fully humanize Kima and Daniels, but just give me that former thing.

Oh, and I finally watched Dexter, which by virtue of being set in Miami and is thus full of insane Cubano characters lets me give up on the Wire’s sole latina character, Alma Gutierrez, to be meaningful at all in portrayal. I guess I can’t put all my hopes for thoughtful television eggs in one basket.


To Each His Vulcans

December 22, 2007

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.

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.