Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Wire in 13 Characters

(This piece contains spoilers for all five seasons of The Wire, so watch them first)

As with the 19th century novel, The Wire is a seamless blending of the personal and the political, the emotional and the social, the story of the individual with the story of the city. It is at once the story of how you run a police department, tackle a city's drug problem and teach children in deprived areas; and the story of a an addict who goes clean, a police district commander who adopts the son of an imprisoned gangster, a dockyard union leader who takes money from the wrong people, a reformed con who opens a boxing club for kids and the nephew of a gangster with the guts to say no to his uncle and his way of life.

Enough has been - quite rightly - said about what a fine actor Dominic West is and how cool Omar is and how Idris Elba rocks. Let's examine The Wire through some of the relatively lesser-known of these brilliantly acted and scripted characters. Perhaps then we can understand how The Wire engaged so profoundly with the world that it put the contemporary novel to shame, and made a nonsense of the idea that tv drama can never be high art.

Bodie An immensely likeable guy who kills a 16-year old kid - Wallace - for snitching in the show's first year - an act that never really bothers him - but continues to get more engaging with each season. Bodie sees himself as a soldier. He's the victim of a regime change: Marlo and his enforcers Chris and Snoop don't play fair, as he believes the Barksdale crew he served did. As far as Bodie is concerned, the new crew are murderers (their victims including his friend Little Kevin), not soldiers. He's deluding himself, of course. Wallace's murder was certainly no more justifiable than Little Kevin's, but we're distressed at Bodie's death on Marlo's orders because we've come to know him enough - and actor JD Williams puts enough work into him - to at least respect these values.

D'Angelo Barksdale
Has any actor managed to convey self-disgust as convincingly as Larry Gillard Jr? D'Angelo's path away from criminality is an ambitious, tricky piece of characterisation to pull off, and Gillard Jr truly sells it. He's Avon's nephew, but has the integrity to face up to his own complicity in his uncle's murderous empire. When the police show him snapshots of the bodies of Avon's victims, Gillard Jr leaves no viewer unconvinced of his horror: the character's redemption doesn't feel schmaltzy or too-good-to-be-true.  "Where the fuck is Wallace?" he roars at Stringer in an electrifying scene after he finally realised he's been turning a blind eye to his young friend's disappearance and obvious murder.

The scene where he discusses The Great Gatsby in a prison reading group could so easily be trite or sentimental (it's usually a bad idea to use reading groups to try and deepen characterisation: one thinks of the fatuous scenes in the film Little Children or the best-forgotten Channel 4 series The Book Group) but here Guillard's intelligent screen presence and the slow, steady, never over-egged tone of the writing give it the kind of verisimilitude that adds shade and depth to these characters in between the crime, the busts and the violent deaths. D'Angelo, who's decided at this point to turn his back on Avon for good and reject any aid from him, offers this:

[Fitzgerald's] saying that the past is always with us [...] Like at the end of the book, you know? Boats and tides and all. You can change up, you can say you're somebody new, you can give yourself a whole new story, but what came first is who you really are, and what happened before is what really happened. And it don't matter that some fool say he different because the only thing that make you different is what you really do or what you really go through. Like all them books in his library. He fronting with all them books, but if we pull one down from one of the shelves, the pages ain't never been opened. He got all them books and he ain't read near one of them.
These are great comments: genuinely intelligent, and yet not implausibly literary, and believably matching D'Angelo's own personality, situation and worldview. You can't reread The Great Gatsby without thinking of them.

Roland Prysbylewski
A textbook example of the fine art of characterisation that should be given to every tv writer in Britain. Everything we find out about Prez surprises us, and yet it makes sense. When we first meet him, he's accidentally fired a shot after neglecting to empty his gun before demonstrating it to another officer (we find out later that he once shot up his own police car). He's also supposedly only there because his father-in-law, Stan Valchek, is a police commissioner. In a drunken attempt to prove himself in front of two "alpha male" cops, he gun-butts a 14-year-old and leaves him blind in one eye. In disgrace, he keeps a low profile amongst the wiretap paraphernalia, but here we discover he has a talent for maths. The perfect example of a man who comes alive in his work, his watchful, intelligent face amongst the buzz, click and burr of the wiretap computer screens become an icon for The Wire itself. He makes an invaluable contribution to the attempts to bring Avon, and later The Greek and Marlo, down. Valchek sees this as a waste, and interferes, leading Prez to punch him. The nepotism is ruining his work as it aids his career.

Then he answers a call for backup following reports of a gunmen on the loose, and shoots a fellow officer dead. Was it because the officer was black? Prez doesn't think so: as far as he can remember, he fired when he saw the other man's gun, but he isn't sure. Prez rejects offers for help and leaves the police force. He becomes a maths teacher, and his struggle to teach children whose lives are shaped by violence, neglect and drugs is portrayed without an ounce of cliche or sentimentality, and is therefore genuinely moving. The detail that actor Jim True-Frost and the writers put into Prez make the theme of the school arc - the way that decent teachers who want to actually help their students are betrayed by a system that prefers standardized tests and results that can be expressed in figures - as powerful as any investigative report.

This kind of attention to character-building is simply par-for-the-course in The Wire, yet why are there no characters on British television who feel like human beings in the way Prez does?

Avon Barksdale. The crime kingpin on whom the investigation is initially based. Yes, of course Idris Elba excels as his right-hand man Stringer Bell, but what Wood Harris does with this character shouldn't be overlooked. Avon, unlike slick, business-literate Bell, is a creature of the street, but the skill of Harris's performance lies in the way he lets us gradually realise Avon is smart enough to know that you can't pretend thuggery is a business. He and Stringer grew up together, but Stringer deludes himself with dreams of business and marketing and "going legitimate", while Avon understands the streets are the streets. Harris conveys Avon's love for his nephew D'Angelo, his resentment at Stringer's betrayal, his horror at D'Angelo's death and his regret at having to give up Stringer to Brother Mouzone and Omar without easing down on the heartlessness of a man who distributes poisoned drug stashes throughout a prison - with lethal consequences - so that he can frame one of his enemies for it and  get his parole earlier by snitching. A vile man, and also a complex one.

Dennis "Cutty" Wise A performance of stunning empathy and presence by Chad Coleman. The show's quiet compassion for Dennis - who does as much good as anyone in The Wire - is the equal to its despair at the Marlos, Rawls(s) and Burrells of Baltimore (aka the world). The technique here is patience: we see Dennis taking gardening work, we see him attempting to make contact with an old girlfriend, we see him apologetically saying that he can't vote after being canvassed, we see him decide to start a boxing club for deprived kids in Baltimore to keep them off the streets, we see him struggle to hold the children's attention, we see his one weakness - he over-indulges himself with the kids' flirtatious mothers following the lonely bout in prison - we see him succeed in winning the kids' respect as a trainer, we see him at his most admirable when he stands up to corner thugs and appeals to the wayward Mike (qv) to come back to his club.

We also see his brief flirtation, before he settles upon the boxing idea, with getting back into crime. He's taken advantage of at first, then he's required to take out the very same thug who conned him. He can't pull the trigger, but his accomplice assumes it's his fault for obscuring the view of Dennis's shot. One of the greatest scenes in The Wire then occurs when Dennis informs Avon Barksdale that it isn't in him, he had a clear shot but couldn't fire, and he wants out. Avon suggests they just need to start him out with less hands-on stuff, but Dennis looks him right in the eye: he wants out. There's a tense pause, and Avon, impressed, wishes him well. After he leaves, one of Avon's underlings comments that Dennis used to be a man: "No, he a man today," counters Avon, and the viewer heartily agrees.

Cedric Daniels
Ok, he's not perfect, he's just closer than any other cop in The Wire. The shift commander in charge of the central wiretap investigation, Cedric does have a few faults. He tells Herc, Carver and Prez to lie following a nasty act of stupidity that sees them potentially in trouble for police brutality. His superiors have some kind of dirt on him from earlier in his career, but he has the guts to stand up to them, though not as often as McNulty and Freamon would like. Lance Reddick's screen presence (is anyone better at radiating discontent?) and his character's occasional moments of wounded pride ("What is my rank, detective?" he snarls when McNulty nags him once too often) make the moments when the anger is directed at a more worthy cause, such as standing up to Burrell and keeping his murder investigation back on track despite bureaucratic attempts to divert it to something that will produce stats, all the more invigorating.

As with all drama for adults, the conflict between Daniels and McNulty is about opposing but understandable viewpoints rather than right vs. wrong. McNulty wishes Daniels would have the guts to say 'fuck you' to the system, Daniels wants to be sure he succeeds in putting the Avon Barksdale and Marlo Stansfield crews away rather than blow his chances (and his career) making grand gestures.

He also has a successful relationship with Rhonda Perlman, an Assistant State's Attorney who serves as his team's legal liaison. A few words should be said here about the deft, unpatronising way The Wire handles mixed-race and gay relationships. There are no scenes of innuendo and disparagement among others regarding Cedric and Rhonda's relationship, and both are portrayed as happy with one another's company rather than riven with doubts about their own or others' prejudices (so many shows would have gone down the latter path). The difference in skin colour is mentioned in one scene, where Cedric is talking about dealing diplomatically with his politically-minded soon-to-be-ex-wife by avoiding going public about the relationship until after her election, but that’s it. Most importantly, it is not portrayed as any kind of Big Deal, in much the same way that Omar and Greggs are not defined by being gay.

Challenging prejudice towards minorities is achieved by fiction in two stages: Firstly, the characters should be unashamed and unconflicted with this aspect of their lives (unless such conflicts are part of legitimate drama) and secondly it should not define them. British TV has managed the former but not the latter. The Wire uses more black actors than any other show on television, but just as important is the full range of characters they play: decent men like Dennis, Daniels, D'Angelo, Colvin and the Deacon, vicious killers like Chris, Marlow and Snoop, spiteful cynics like Burrell and Clay Davis. No British show would dare to make petty, thieving, child-brutalising Officer Walker black: The Wire does because its writers know skin colour has nothing to do with a person's flaws or merits.

Similarly, the random, trivial nature of sexual orientation is demonstrated by the celebrated moment when we glimpse Major Rawls during a visit to a gay bar. That's it. Rawls is no different in subsequent scenes, there's also no anguished "outing", no scenes of furtive glances and homophobic mutterings whenever he enters a room, (just a single piece of graffiti on the wall in the men's room in one scene) no pandering to stereotypes. Gene Roddenberry, when asked by fans why there were no gay characters in Star Trek's version of the future, replied - not entirely convincingly - that this was merely because in the future no-one was labelled by their sexual orientation (really, one suspects it was because the Networks would have said no), but The Wire achieves something closer to this, because it has mastered the art of the uncoy, explicit but “so-what?” glimpse.

Bubbles Bubbles's triumph over his drug addiction is the greatest victory in The Wire, but he endures a great deal of pain before we get there. Andre Royo is a master of the art of empathetic acting. At first, we tend to see him in connection with others - his street-peddling of any goods he can lay his hands on with his dead-loss buddy, his snitching work for the police - but then, as we've come to care about him, the pressures mount up. He attempts to go clean and gets a sponsor. No-one has ever captured the sheer physicality of gnawing addiction as Royo does here, sitting on a park bench distracted by every noise and attempting to ignore dealers.

He falls off the wagon and returns to street-peddling, training a new protégé. He suffers at the hands of an addict who beats and robs him of his takings every time he lays eyes on him. After the police fail him, he's reduced to putting rat poison in a stash intended for the bully. His protégé falls victim to the poison instead, and the pain Royo conveys when Bubbles discovers his friend's body makes the scene hard to watch. He subsequently goes clean for good, but this path is again dealt with patiently, as Bubbles gets back into contact with his sponsor, conquers his nervousness over taking an AIDS test, and lives in the locked basement of his sister's house. She's adamant the door stays locked: the last time he was there he pawned most of the furniture. Even with the door locked, he's not allowed to stay in the house at all when she's out.

His final triumph over his mistakes is very simple: he tells the truth about them. His sister reads the newspaper interview he gives about addiction, and the death on his conscience. The moment - wordless, and within a montage - when we see the unlocked door, and then Bubbles sitting down to dinner with his sister and her daughter is one of the most joyful moments in The Wire, conveying so much in a single glimpse.

Ervin Burrell
There are no stock-characters in The Wire, and no-one without motives and a way of seeing the world. In other hands, Burrell would be the standard "Your loose-cannon antics are backing up my Goddamn paperwork!" figure from Dirty Harry and Die Hard. Here, he feels real. Frankie Faison can simultaneously convey, through those nasty little mirthless smiles, someone who's first instinct upon meeting someone is to wonder how they can help him and how he can screw them over, and a sense of a day-to-day life of such immense pressure one has to feel his pain. A unpleasant man in three dimensions.

Ellis Carver Initially a macho, kickback-taking cop, Carver finds himself with more responsibilities than he imagined: his attitude to the "little hoppers" becomes not merely an antagonistic good cop bad cop routine but a paternal relationship. The scene I find most unbearably moving in the whole series - one which haunted me for days afterwards -  comes at the end of The Wire's 4th season, when Carver takes Randy - a kid in danger after being outed as a snitch - to a juvenile home, after he has been unable to find him a foster mother following the hospitalisation of the current one after a firebomb attack, and his own bids for adoption have been rejected. In the previous episode, as his foster mother lay in intensive care, Randy was scornful of Carver‘s attempts to help him. Now he's understanding, which is even more painful. Carver, leaving him in the tightly-packed room with a bunch of tough kids who will obviously hear of Randy's ’snitching’ if they haven‘t already, returns to his car, and thumps it in an impotent rage that everyone watching feels too. Seth Gilliam's performance moves so seamlessly from his "against the wall, shitbird!" policing techniques to compassion and remorse, he seems to capture the heart and soul of the show. Why does this guy not have an Emmy?

Namond Brice A playstation-playing, joyful kid whose dad - Wee-Bey - is one of Avon's lieutenants, serving a life sentence. His mom wants him to be a man: to get out on those corners and push the package rather than waste time with school, and thinks any time in juvenile detention will be well-spent. Julito McCullum's performance switches between the swaggering and cockiness his friends and family push him towards and his basic good-natured demeanour with ease, so that the moment when Namond, after trying to play the bully, weeps because it simply isn't in him is entirely convincing.

Mike Lee Part of the same story, Mike's trajectory veers away from Namond's. Throughout Season 4 their arcs make a single pattern. When we first meet them at the start of the season, he's a good friend to Namond, Randy and Duqan and a loving older brother to Bug. He's admirable in his stance against his unscrupulous drug-addicted mother and abusive father, and the need to protect Bug from the latter is what leads him to call on Marlo for help. By the end of the season, as Namond has chosen to reject a life of crime, Mike has become an efficient hitman. They were both decent people, but one was saved, the other wasn't. Mike can accept a path of violence, Namond can't, but the latter's ultimate fate - he essentially becomes the next Omar - suggests that he will end up, like his predecessor, attempting to do the best he can within a life shaped by violence and the wrong decision.

Howard "Bunny" Colvin Beautifully played with world-weary intelligence by Robert Wisdom, Colvin is a guy who tries to change the system. Commander of the Western District, he’s the flipside to The Wire's fatalism, its preference for the Aeschylean over the Shakespearean. He's defeated by the Fates in the wider battlefield - his attempt to keep crime away from bystanders by setting up an area for legalised drug-dealing is inevitably crushed - but gains some small victories. His adoption of Namond - and his audacious persuading of Wee-Bey to let Namond go - is one of the biggest triumphs portrayed in the show, and though his educational programme is quashed by an uninterested system, it's still shown to have had an effect: the difference in the kids' behaviour when they're returned to Prez's class is subtle but unmistakeable.

Frank Sobotka
The Secretary-Treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Stevedores at the Baltimore docks. Played with instantly captivating, gruff, bull-necked compassion by Chris Bauer, Frank is an intelligent, courageous man determined to do right by his men. Bauer wins us over in a wonderful scene where he faces off against Stan Valchek, an exceptionally petty police commissioner who's angry because a stained glass window in the local church has been donated to the Stevedores rather than himself. Used to bullying to get his way, Valchek starts impounding the Stevedores' vehicles, and then demands Frank surrender the window. Frank gives an angry, brilliantly acted and splendidly dignified speech, pointing out that if Valchek had simply asked him he would probably have let him have the lousy window (Later, while Valchek starts a police investigation into his finances out of spite, Frank hijacks a shipment containing one of his police surveillance vans, and has his men send Valchek cheerful postcards of the van to as it arrives at each new location).

Bauer and the writers have shown us the courage, wit and integrity of the man, which will make his subsequent mistakes and their consequences all the more devastating. This is a scene which is entertaining and stirring purely on its own, but which allows us to get to know these people before the main storylines kick in. As with Avon, Dennis and Prysbylewski, this attention to characterisation is a sorely-needed alternative to British TV’s tendency to give the viewers a ready-assembled cliché package from the  character's first scene.

He ends up in the pay of a murderous but untouchable crook, The Greek, and his right-hand man Spiros, agreeing to ship containers with illegal goods inside for them. When one of these crates contains 13 suffocated prostitutes, Frank realises he's done a deal with the devil. The moment when he heads off to a final meeting with the Greek and Spiros, determined to put things right and not sharing the audience's knowledge that they have decided to kill him, is along with the fall of Stringer Bell one of the most successful moments of classical Tragedy in modern fiction, and this as much due to the integrity and sustained empathy of Bauer's performance as the deft scripting. Rounding off his story nicely is a moment when Valchek receives the final mischievous picture of his van, and as he looks at it his contempt and exasperation turn to something that might just be affection, maybe even an awareness of the poignancy that there won't be any more pictures. Getting to know Frank Sobotka over 12 episodes will tell you far more about the effects of economic systems upon people than any amount of charts and figures.

The Wire makes these people real. It brings life to the individuals who populate the structures that we see on the news every day, and who suffer first hand from the problems we spend our lives wondering how to solve. Most of the likeable people in The Wire do something bad, and most of the dislikable do something admirable. The vicious Major Rawls won't let a distraught McNulty think for one second that a shooting of a fellow officer is "on” the latter, Avon respects Dennis's decision to run a boxing club for street kids and even puts up the money for it, Bodie despises Marlo's ego-driven killings. Conversely, Daniels allows the beating of an exceptionally unpleasant suspect, Prez makes two terrible mistakes which leave others harmed, Carver is also partly responsible for one of them. These people, plus many others, make up David Simon and Ed Burns's Baltimore, which is as universal as Joyce's Dublin or Dickens's London. These people aren't there to do what you'd prefer them to do: they're there because they feel real.

In a wretched climate which actually regards Battlestar Galactica, Life on Mars, Homeland and Mad Men as Proper Drama (and in which those of us in Britain, bereft even of the exceptions to the rule like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad or Deadwood, wonder if we really did make I Claudius or if that was just a dream), we have to remember The Wire for achieving what increasingly seems impossible: it put human beings on our television screens.


  1. I read your blog for some time, but only decided to post today.

    I think, in some ways, the setting helps in The Wire (as it did to a lesser degree in similarly Baltimore based The Corner, and, to a lesser degree, Homicide). Being a majority black city, with a large -- and historically pretty open -- gay population, Baltimore has lots of problems but, at least until relatively recently, was spared some of the worst racial problems, and certainly has been spared many of the issues of other large gay populations. It is far from perfect, as anyone watching The Wire should recognize, but it is a place where race and sexual orientation have been (again, until recently) lesser issues than they are elsewhere.

    Then again, that may have just been the circles in which I travelled. And, as I mentioned, recent events have shown recent racial problems to be much worse than I recall when I lived there in the late 1980s and 1990s. But at that time, I recall a much less confrontational environment in terms of race and sexuality than, say, in nearby Washington DC (despite having a larger black population).