This post discusses episodes four through six of the second season of The Wire. For next week, we’ll watch episodes seven through nine.
D’Angelo Barksdale’s explanation of chess, and by extension, the drug game, is one of The Wire‘s most famous scenes, and justifiably so. It’s a quick and striking way to explain both the Barksdale crew’s business and the what deprivation does and doesn’t mean to the junior employees of it. But that sequence is hardly the only time The Wire uses this device. These three episodes of The Wire all rely on deficiencies in an array of characters’ cultural literacy to illustrate the gaps in between their present state and their aspirations.
First, there’s Nicky, trying to keep Ziggy under control and scratch together the money to rent, or even buy a home for his girlfriend Aimee and their daughter Ashley, who steals and sells a product whose value he can name, but that he doesn’t entirely understand. “I know it’s digital. So what?” he asks Ziggy, who holds on to one of the cameras after they fence them, and is trying to explain to Nicky that the camera doesn’t require film. “If you put a picture on there you don’t have to go to no photomart to get it turned around or nothing?” Even when he’s only working a few days a month, Nicky is busy enough, and poverty is grinding hard enough on him, that he doesn’t have time to research his aspirations.
Ziggy, by contrast, aspires, but picks targets that don’t afford him the respect he desires. When he lays down $2,000 for a leather jacket that will be damaged working the docks, Nicky sees him for a fool, seeing the jacket as on par with the bills Ziggy lights on fire in the bar. “For a goddamn jacket?” he asks his cousin. “You’re out your fucking mind, Zig.” Later, Cheese mocks not the value of the jacket but its style—it’s an exercise in flash so excessive that it’s a joke. The jacket doesn’t look good on Ziggy, and wouldn’t look good on anyone, but he has no idea how silly he looks, or how pathetic he is when he claims he would have shot Cheese and the other men who collected from him.
Then, there’s Stringer, picking up concepts in class that are useful to him, but untranslatable to the men and boys who work under him. It’s almost laughable when he asks them, “Y’all heard of WorldComm?” Of course they haven’t. Community College may not be the only thing that’s distancing Stringer from Avon—there’s prison, their differing perspectives on how to deal with D’Angelo—but it’s certainly giving him ideas and tools. The latter may not be enough to transition him into a new business and a new class, but his possession of them distance Stringer from his compatriots.
And as we see Omar prepare to testify against Bird, there’s a reversal of this pattern of criminals who lack some basic knowledge of the society they’re alienated from. “Ain’t workin’ out for y’all, huh?” Omar asks the bailiff who’s waiting with him. “Mars is the god of war, right?” “Planet, too,” Omar muses. “I know it’s a planet, but the clue is Greek God of War,” the bailiff explains. “Ares. Greek called him Ares. Same dude, different name is all,” Omar gives him the correct answer. “‘S all good. back in middle school, I used to love them myths.” Of course he did, and he’s put that knowledge to very specific use creating his own legendary image. But as we see in his confrontation with Levy, Omar’s clear perspective on himself, his comfort with the man he’s grown to be, mean that he can navigate his own mythos without being deceived by it, or overwhelmed by his past sins. That clarity and successful self-definition marks Omar as unique among both the cops and criminals in The Wire.
Unlike Nicky, who tells his uncle “You try living on five or six days a month, see how fast it puts you on your ass. I am on my ass,” Omar neither wants for money nor the settled lifestyle it would afford him. Beadie Russell tells Bunk that “Father of my two kids went to Houston in ’99, hasn’t so much as called in three years. I wasn’t going to make it on twenty-two five, not with two kids, I wasn’t.” When Bunk asks her”Did you want to be a police?” the show declines to show us her answer. Omar has lovers, and can be hurt by injury to them, but he is unencumbered by dependents. And unlike D’Angelo, Omar does not suffer from crippling guilt or the need to be approved of or shriven.
“At the end of the book, boats and tides and all…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,” D’Angelo reflects in prison. “The only thing that makes you different is what you really do, what you really go through…He frontin’ with all them books, but we pull them down off the hself and none of the pages ever been opened…Gatsby, he was who he was and he did what he did. And because he wasn’t willing to get real with the story, that shit caught up with him. I mean, I think, anyway.”
Omar is a rogue where D’Angelo would like to be a citizen, the kind of man Omar would never turn a gun on, and who would never give him any cause to. Omar’s able to enjoy his criminality in a way that D’Angelo never could, to craft a role for himself in Baltimore’s criminal ecosystem. But D’Angelo knows too much to be able to walk away clean, and has too few resources to affect his own escape. Omar alone has the tools to match his ambition and station, a realistic assessment of the world that sustains him rather than cripples him.