Created by David Simon. Starring Dominic West, Larry Gilliard, Jr., Sonja Sohn
I remember how frustrated I was watching Glee, a show which in its first season gave meaningful screen time and plot directions to, by my count, at least sixteen different characters. Plot arcs which could have sizzled and developed over the course of episodes – over the course of seasons, even – were brought into the limelight and then dropped after an episode or two. What I really wanted out of Glee, especially in the back half of the first season, after Regionals, was for the show to work on building a plot, building a few characters, and stretching out that development for more than two episodes at a time. It never happened. It turns out that when I was watching Glee, I wish I had been watching The Wire. (That’s probably the goofiest sentence I have ever written.) I’ve been hanging on to a box set of The Wire which I probably bought on some Black Friday four or five years ago, and only recently got myself to open it up and start watching; watching a show like this has an almost comical significance, and I put it off because I’m scared of commitment or something like that. Because I am new to the show, I have no idea what happens after Season 1; despite reading Bill Simmons columns more than once, I really couldn’t tell you how things will play out in Season 2. Ignorance is bliss, and maybe that’s why some of what I say below will sound wrongheaded to the faithful who have seen every bit of this show a zillion times.
The first season of the show is all about “the game,” a phrase which is thrown around occasionally in the first few episodes, but in the last three or four sounds like a mantra. Everyone, from dealers to judges, addicts to cops, have participated in the game, the great organized chaos of Avon Barksdale’s drug monopoly on the west side of Baltimore. There are four characters who seem to be most cognizant of the game, and they come at it from four different angles: Stringer from the criminal organization, McNulty from the detail, Rawls from the upper echelons of Baltimore law enforcement, and Omar from the streets.
McNulty (West) tells D’Angelo (Gilliard) in E2 that no other business besides drugs makes a point to kill people on top of making a profit; Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) would probably agree with that in spite of himself. Stringer dresses in sleek, conventional business attire, like he’s playing the stock market, and like any trader, the game for Stringer is to make money. The rush of violence comes in a very distant second. One gets the sense that if Stringer had been born somewhere else, to some family in rural Minnesota or to an heiress in Miami, he would have been content to make money through more traditional channels. When Omar (Michael K. Williams) makes himself a threat to the Barksdale organization in E3, Stringer’s reaction is markedly different from just about everyone else’s. Avon (Wood Harris) puts an increasing bounty on Omar’s head, looking for ways to kill off his small crew; Avon, who is not typically given to tantrums, gets as angry about Omar as he does about any other incident not related to basketball. Stringer would rather trick Omar into coming to them and then eliminating him; more subtlety, less mess. It’s par for the course for Stringer, who is taking community college courses in macroeconomics, who insists that a property (sort of a discount Kinko’s) owned by the Barksdale organization should function as a real business. No one ever says exactly whose idea it was to pay off politicians, or to buy up the junk properties which will ultimately be the sites of a $250 million development project, but it becomes very clear that those kind of purchases would not have occurred to Avon; Stringer, it is strongly implied, has been doing that business. In the first few episodes, it seems like Stringer is going to be relatively unimportant; that hypothesis is dispelled the more we see of him and Avon together. D’Angelo tells some younger dealers in E3 that “the king stay the king,” and there’s no doubt that Avon is the king. But in the hamfisted analogy to chess, Stringer is named as the queen, and the queen, as everyone knows, is the real power. What Stringer wants, short of turning a hefty profit, is still uncertain. At the end of S1, he is the only really important member of the Barksdale organization who is still on the street, who has been fortunate (and occasionally brutal) enough to dodge a warrant. We only know that cracking him will be far more difficult than cracking Avon, and that was hard enough. Presumably on Stringer’s advice, Avon made himself incredibly mysterious, with virtually no paper trail. Only a lucky mention that Avon fought Golden Gloves in his youth – coupled with Freamon’s (Clarke Peters) first piece of killer detective work – even gets the detail a picture of the guy. Stringer, while willing to expose himself a little more to the outside world (the way that he doodles a bubble-lettered “Fuck you, Detective” on a legal pad for McNulty in the pilot), is on the aggregate more cautious when it comes to the money. In 2002, pagers were already outdated, but Stringer opts for them because they’re harder to trace than cell phones. When the pay phones near the pit prove to be liabilities, Stringer has them ripped out; when the pagers prove to be a liability, Stringer removes them from the game too. In a conversation with Omar, where Omar happens to be wearing a wire, Stringer refuses even to admit that he knows Avon. “I don’t know no Barksdale,” he says, a statement so calculated and cautious that McNulty is genuinely impressed.
McNulty, who reasonably can – and does – take credit for the wire, for the detail, for the operation that cripples the Barksdale crime ring, money is no object. He loves his job, loves working homicides, and more than anything else loves his own superiority; that feeling that he’s better than the people around him is what keeps him in the game. It’s a trope in cop movies and TV shows to point out the smart ones. Good cops tend to be observant, able to put pieces together, but not smart. I remember the line in The Departed where Mark Wahlberg tells Leonardo DiCaprio that the 1400 he got on his SAT all but disqualifies him from police work. McNulty has the same problem; he’s smart, and he knows it because he’s a good cop and because everyone keeps telling him how smart he is. The problem is that McNulty has decided, after years of watching red tape and general incompetence destroy Baltimore communities, to take matters into his own hands. The chain of command, an ideal as holy to cops as it is to soldiers, is circumvented as McNulty goes outside not the chain of command but outside the police department itself to get results. For a few episodes, we read McNulty as the idealist who really wants to clean up west Baltimore, who cares about street violence and lawlessness and disorder. He challenges superiors left and right: he gets into trouble with Major Rawls (John Doman) before getting into fights with Lieutenant Daniels (Lance Reddick). He ultimately manages to convince Daniels to come to his side, to realize the importance of the detail and its untapped potential (ha!), but at the end of S1, after having gone to the FBI to try to extend the wire’s lifespan, Rawls finally has enough. Like Freamon, McNulty is exiled from Homicide to the Marine Unit, his nightmare job in the BPD. Again, if that piece of information had been revealed after three or four episodes, it would have been depressing; after thirteen episodes of McNulty, though, it almost feels like poetic justice. McNulty is recently divorced, well on his way to alcoholism if he’s not already there, and while both of those make him pitiable, they also showcase his irresponsibility. McNulty loves the idea of his kids more than his kids; he sends them off to follow Stringer Bell in one memorable scene, and while they weren’t in any particular danger, it’s an incredible risk, one that almost loses him visitation rights when their mother finds out. The alcoholism is written more as complacence than mental illness, and the fact of the matter is that his alcoholism brings down his friends too. Bunk (Wendell Pierce), McNulty’s partner in Homicide, is often shown drinking with him, but it ends self-destructively for Bunk in E8 when he decides to cheat on his wife while she’s out of town and ultimately sets his clothes on fire. (If this show had debuted ten years later, there’d be a gif of Bunk trying to set his pants on fire with a lighter on every Tumblr account in America.) Long story short, after McNulty has retrieved Bunk at the woman’s request, Bunk mumbles that McNulty is bad for people. McNulty makes a face which suggests that he knows that Bunk’s right.
Other people are good for McNulty, though; they feed his ego, do what he wants them to do through his force of will or his silver (and occasionally uncontrollable) tongue. McNulty has no way to return the favor for other people, and no real inclination. For all the times Judge Phelan (Peter Gerety), Daniels, Bunk, and more go out on a limb for him, very rarely does he do favors for others. Only when Greggs (Sohn) is shot to pieces on a badly-planned undercover, her life hanging in the balance for episodes, does McNulty seem to realize what his overweening ambition and his need for recognition has wrought. Even then, it manifests itself as gross self-pity. Both Rawls and Daniels, two men who have not exactly been generous to McNulty over the course of the season, tell him that it’s not his fault that Greggs was wounded. McNulty, too arrogant to realize the truth in what they’re telling him, disappears almost as completely from a couple of episodes as Greggs, finding some kind of solace in the bottle. It’s lonely without him, but it’s an important change: as Freamon has stepped up to the plate, as Daniels has become more invested in the wire, as Prez (Jim True-Frost) and Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Sydnor (Corey Parker Robinson) become more comfortable in their roles, what McNulty brings to the table is less important. Everyone praises his case in the season finale, but no one’s telling McNulty what a good job he’s done.
Rawls, a greater existential threat to McNulty than anyone else in the first season (and that’s saying something), lives for control, and more than anyone else, that makes him alone. Stringer has Avon. McNulty has Bunk and Greggs. Omar has friends until they’re shot down. Rawls has not even the semblance of an inner life, at least not in the first season. To him, the game is accumulating power which allows him to rule over his department as a strict fiefdom where any sort of deviance from his will is construed as mutiny. Out of the four (arbitrary) characters who exemplify the quadrants of the game, Rawls is the most symbolic and the least important in the grand scope of S1. Any number of police figures could fit here – Deputy Commissioner Burrell (Frankie Faison) would be a winner too – but Rawls’ ruthlessness, coupled with his blind eye, makes him the key representative of the Baltimore police higher-ups. His motivation is to clear as many murders as possible; anything that interferes with his department’s clearance rate (justice is never mentioned, only clearance) is a direct insult to him and his reign over Homicide. He seems fairly competent, but it’s also hard to imagine any kind of growth there; Rawls’ Homicide is a group of people who purposefully stay in their lanes, day-in and day-out. The cast changes a little, at least by the end. Freamon is elevated back to Homicide after more than a decade working with pawn shops; McNulty we’ve covered. Most interestingly, the other Homicide detective assigned to the detail, Santangelo (Michael Salconi) is demoted to a beat at the end of the first season. Rawls leaned on Santangelo to keep him informed about the detail and to find some fault with McNulty that could get him fired. Santangelo did little of either, and paid the price. The implication is straightforward: Rawls can’t control the fact that his department can only solve four out of ten murders (leaving about 180 unsolved every year), and he can’t control the fact that his unit can’t prevent ten out of ten murders. He’ll exercise his need for control on his police, not on the community, and pretend that’s good enough.
Omar, sort of a series darling, talks about the game more than any other single character, and I think it’s very intentional: for him, it’s a game. There is something fun about scoping out drug operations and sticking up the dealers, about playing various interests off of one another, and most of all, of being beholden to no one but himself. He whistles little tunes to himself, strides casually forward as people run out of his way, toys with his victims. The call “Omar’s comin’!” is usually met with an incredible number of people just scattering, as if he were carrying a machine gun and not a shotgun. Stringer, McNulty, and Rawls all answer to someone. Omar gets to have fun in the game because there aren’t any rules which he has to follow or directives he plans to obey. (This gets McNulty and Greggs into some trouble: in E8, Omar kills mid-level enforcer Stinkum, which is problematic because he’s one of the characters the detail has built a good case against.) Interestingly, Omar’s independence and his willingness to play the game as his own unit means he loses more than anyone in this foursome. Stringer loses hundreds of thousands of dollars, McNulty loses his position, and Omar loses his boyfriend, Brandon, horrifically tortured and murdered and then left on display. Like Rawls, Omar is more symbol at this point than real character; neither one of them get quite enough screen time to qualify as major players in the first season, although both are certainly of the first order on the second tier. He is whatever is indomitable on the streets of west Baltimore, his own man when other people would have him conform to some gang or some drug ring or some prescribed way of life. Omar is one of two important homosexual characters in the first season (Greggs is the other); both are black; both are among the most admirable characters on the show. This is an aside, but it’s incredible to me that the representation on The Wire, a show that debuted in 2002, is so much better than the representation on a thousand other shows since. There aren’t many LGBTQ African-Americans on TV right now; there are two in this first season, and it never feels like tokenism. Omar (and Greggs) are depicted as actual, complex people; folks talk about how The Wire is ahead of its time, and it’s important to note that part of the reason this show is streets ahead is because it wasn’t scared to put homosexual characters in heroic roles during our nation’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell phase.
Although McNulty is the protagonist of the show, and Stringer begins to eclipse all other Barksdale operatives in importance, it’s Daniels and D’Angelo who are probably the most interesting characters of the first season because of how much they each change. Most characters don’t change in S1; all that happens is we learn more about them. But Daniels – who has done some crooked stuff in the past and paid himself handsomely for it – and D’Angelo – whose murder trial is the first action of the series – are different men by E13. Daniels starts out nearly as cautious and career-minded as Stringer, unwilling to push the bounds of the detail’s purview; it takes a while before he even gets on board with the idea of the titular wire. By the end of the season, though, Daniels is putting the cuffs on Avon Barksdale himself. In what was the most intense scene of the season for me, Daniels is threatened by Burrell to back off on his wire (and on his detail’s curious interest in campaign contributions) or he’ll face the music for what he did years ago. Daniels does not flinch. The camera turns ninety degrees slowly as he spits his response, which is firecracking: he intends to continue the wiretap as long as he has a warrant to do so, and if Burrell decides he wants to make a stink, that’s just fine, because he’s willing to fire back at the BPD if they open fire on him. Daniels would have caved ten episodes before, maybe even two or three episodes before. By the end of the season, he is absolutely fearless, as outspoken as McNulty but without the self-aggrandizement; he pays for it when he is passed over for a promotion to major. Reddick, who is only about 6’2″ but looks about 6’5″ because he’s so lean, towers over his detail in the last few episodes. No one else has his passion, and regardless of whatever bad thing he’s done in the past, he’s become my favorite character. On the other side of the law, D’Angelo becomes a different man as well. On the night when he beats the murder charge (with a little help from Stringer Bell, who gets a witness to change her testimony while she’s on the stand), he is cocky, on top of the world. It’s not long before that ego is punctured. He’s lost his position as the man in charge of overseeing the operations at some high rises; he’s sent back into the projects, with a group of teenagers as his immediate inferiors, and is essentially told to humble himself and start over. He does, although it takes him a while. He brags about a different murder he’s committed to some of the younger guys in the early going, but then starts to rethink a lot of his pre-trial assumptions. Why does his uncle, Avon, keep piling up bodies? Why can’t they just sell this stuff? Why are they selling this stuff anyway? Why do his friends in the operation treat women so carelessly that it kills them? Why do his uncle and his men have a sixteen-year-old, Wallace (a young Michael B. Jordan), killed? (Wallace is one of the series’ most sympathetic characters; he is positively sweet, and is acting as a father figure to about half-a-dozen kids under the age of ten. The sight of Brandon’s corpse terrifies him, makes him consider the human cost of his actions. He’s fated to die almost the moment he gets a conscience, but there’s not a more affecting moment than when he’s murdered by his best friends.) “Where’s Wallace, String!” he screams. “Where’s Wallace!” D’Angelo understands that drugs are the family business, the same way that some kids inherit restaurants, and yet he comes to the realization over the course of the season that there are some things his uncle and his consiglieri do which are just plain unethical. At the end of the season, it looks like he’s about to break with them for good, having sworn off the organization’s sleazy but competent lawyer, Levy (Michael Kostroff), but in the end comes back into the fold. He’ll have twenty years in prison to think about the decision.
Something I like about this season is that it more or less wraps up its loose ends. Avon and D’Angelo and most of the major players in the Barksdale organization are going to jail; the members of the detail have, for the most part, returned to their departments. Prez has packed up the boards with the photos and maps and connections. And yet there’s more coming; the show doesn’t leave us with a cliffhanger, yet it does leave a major piece of the puzzle unfinished. Just how far up does the corruption go? Twice, Freamon tells some other cop that police departments would rather chase drugs than money. Drugs you can wrap up; when you get them, they’re got. Money, on the other hand, leads you places you’d never expect. The season ends with the vast majority of the Barksdale drugs accounted for, but the money is still very much out there.