This post contains spoilers for episodes 1 through 6 of the first season of The Wire. Feel free to discuss events that happen beyond these episodes in comments, but if you do so, label your comments as such for new readers.
The Wire, in retrospect, derives much of its critical reputation from its deep roots in David Simon’s reporting on Baltimore’s ills, which is often code for it as a grim show. When the show gets additional credit, it’s often for being bitterly funny. But in watching these three episodes in the first season, I was struck by their illumination of a critical theme: what level of justice and fairness these characters still expect from a profoundly broken system.
That thought lodged in my mind for the first time watching Bodie, having been snatched up into the juvenile detention system after knocking down Detective Mahone, walks out of Boys’ Village and tries to hitch a ride home. There’s something oddly touching about his disappointment when no one stops for the African-American boy who shows evidence of an obvious beating. Bodie’s at genial war with Detectives Herc and Carver, he has a sense of being treated unfairly by law enforcement, but he still holds out hope for some sector of society. It’s clear, when Herc and Carver crash in to his grandmother’s home, that there’s some sort of family resemblance. “Would you like to sit down?” she asks a clearly ashamed Herc. “Preston came to me when my daughter died. He was only four years old. But even then, I could tell he was angry. His mother lived out there. After a while, he couldn’t see nothing else.”
That she’s not entirely right is the basis for the transformation of Bodie’s feud with the two detectives into a wary joviality. Herc apologizes to Mrs. Preston, telling her, “I’m sorry, m’am. And I’m sorry for the way he came through here. If Preston comes past, give him this, and tell him we need to talk. I’m sorry.” Later, he’ll lose at pool to her grandson, who teases him, “That might be your whole salary, but I clock that shit in minutes.” Herc’s gesture of reconciliation to Bodie’s grandmother doesn’t bear precisely the results he expects: Bodie has Herc’s card on him when Herc and Carver pick him up. But it seems to have brokered at least a temporary truce between Bodie and the cops he’s vexed so greatly (perhaps because of how similar they all are). “Fuck you and your tight-ass advice,” Bodie tells him when their fragile peace is interrupted by the need to return to Bodie to detention. “But, that sandwich was good.”
Bodie’s boss is having graver doubts than his deputy is. D’Angelo begins these three episodes bragging about committing a murder on behalf of his uncle, Avon, who needed a troublesome girlfriend silenced. “I ain’t seen a female that fine since,” he muses. But the camerawork gives the lie to his braggadocio, making him float in front of an eerily shifting view of the Pit behind D’Angelo as he tries to establish his credibility. Trying to reconcile these acts with D’Angelo’s sensitivity is an inherently nauseating task.
And so it’s not surprising when he tries to fit himself into another world, or when it goes wrong, as D’Angelo takes Donette out to dinner. From the start, it goes poorly. “It’s Friday night,” the man showing the couple to their seats tells them when they inquire about a table in another section. “Those are for patrons who made reservations.” Their waiter snidely explains what he’s doing when he clears breadcrumbs from the table, and humiliates D’Angelo when he tries to snare a piece of cake for Donette from the dessert cart. “They all dressed up, right. Come all the way across town,” he tells his girlfriend. “Fancy place like this…Acting like we belong.” “Your money good, right?” Donette tries to tell him. “D, we ain’t the only black people in here.” But it’s not the color of his skin but the information deficit and the state of his soul that are troubling D’Angelo. “I feel like some shit stay with you,” D’Angelo explains. Donette insists that “You got money, you get to be whatever you say you are. That’s the way it is.” Whether he would have turned to her anyway, or whether it’s Donette’s inability to hear him, it’s not surprising that D’Angelo reaches out to Shardene, a woman as out of place in her place of employment as D’Angelo is in his. Confused as he is, D’Angelo’s still seeking to be understood.
His confusion isn’t only confined to himself. D’Angelo’s lecture, borrowed from McNulty, questioning why the drug business has to operate the way it does has taken some sort of root with Wallace, who sells drugs by day and is tentatively attempting to keep a group of children from foster care in his spare time. After Avon and his lieutenants put out an APB on Omar’s boyfriend Brandon, Wallace calls the other man in when, in keeping with these episodes’ examination of innocence and experience, he and Poot spot Brandon playing pinball. But he’s horrified by the results, the atrocities of Brandon’s murder. “He was all cut up and his insides were hanging out and shit. It was fucked up, yo,” Wallace tells D’Angelo, miserably. “When you picked up the phone, what did you think they were going to do? It’s all in the game,” D’Angelo tells him. But like his uncle and Stringer have tried to placate him with cash, D’Angelo encourages Wallace to take pleasure in his reward for leading another man to his death. “You should take the whole roll and go do something nice for your girl. You do have a girl, right?” It’s unlikely to paper over the hole in Wallace’s heart for long.
The Barksdale organization seems entirely unaware of what force they’ve unleashed by wounding Omar. Wee-bay mocks him, saying, “this punk motherfucker got even less use for pussy now that he home.” And even Stringer can only see Omar and his cunning and courage relative to his gayness: “So he got a lot heart for a cocksucker, he remarks in Abon’s bounty-setting session. Bubbles knows, though, and sets Kima straight on the score. “That nigger don’t play. Just Omar. He don’t need no last name,” he explains. “Remember No-Heart Anthony? He came up with him. They brothers. Miss Kima, do not tell me you don’t know No-Heart Anthony…Right now, I am perfectly ashamed to be your snitch.”
Part of the reason these conversations are striking is that both parties fail to fully understand Omar. It’s a set of episodes that emphasize his physical tenderness and capacity for emotion as sources of strength, rather than of weakness. The woman who comes to him with her baby trusts Omar because he’s the type of man who offers his finger up for an infant’s chubby grip and caresses the little boy’s cheek: his capacity for sweetness and benevolence earns him more low-level loyalty than Avon can conceive of. His caresses of Brandon, fingers to the chin, the cheeks, the kiss planted on the other man’s brow, Omar’s concern for where the other member of his crew is staying the night, these things have built a crew far tighter than the Barksdale operation can ever buy. That emotion means Omar is capable of being wounded terribly—when he kisses Brandon goodbye in the morgue, McNulty has to avert his eyes from a scene that’s too painfully intimate for him to witness, Omar’s wail of anguish frightens McNulty’s children. But that agony is a source of great vengeance.
The other knight in this set of episodes is Bubbles, who tentatively informs Johnny that he’s been on a quest to avenge his protege’s beating by the pit crew by working not for the police, but with them. That experience has been a source of empowerment but also of unease for Bubbles. “Where in Leave It To Beaverland are you taking me?” he asks McNulty, who takes him along to his son’s soccer game. When Bubbles meets McNulty’s wife, he extends a tentative hand halfway to the woman, who is clearly enraged by his presence, before tucking it back under his chin, an awkward retreat that protects him from an outright rejection. “There’s a thin line between heaven and here,” Bubbles tells McNulty, rue working at the corners of his mouth, when the detective drops him back on the streets. The strength of David Simon’s characters comes from their aliveness to that distinction, and the complexity of their relationship to it.