Rewatching ‘The Wire’: Code-Switching

This post contains spoilers through episode 9 of the second season of The Wire.

The Wire tends to explore worlds that operate by separate sets of rules and principals, and the show focuses on the police in part because law enforcement is one of the primary points of contact between those disparate universes overlapping within the same city limits. But I always enjoy it when The Wire turns to the subject of communication and code-switching within those communities themselves, or between residents of one of those universes and the people who cater to both. Omar’s confrontation with Levy in the courtroom during Bird’s murder is so shocking and funny precisely because it calls into question Levy’s ability to work with the Barksdale crew without becoming a citizen of their society. And episodes seven through nine of the second season of The Wire are full of these kinds of communications errors and code-switches, delineating the city’s complexity.

When Bodie goes into the florist’s to pick out an arrangement for D’Angelo’s funeral, the core joke is the separate set of designs the man ends up keeping out in the back of the shop to cater to his criminal cliental without disconcerting the citizens who patronize his shop — “That gat and grip thing over there sells a lot,” the man tells Bodie. But the even more telling moment comes before he guides Bodie into the back room when he asks his young customer “Something in particular?” “Funeral,” Bodie tells him, and when the man says sorry, Bodie misses that he’s uttering condolences. “Nah, a funeral, you know,” he clarifies, puzzled that the man wouldn’t know what he means. “No, I mean, I’m sorry for your loss,” the florist clarifies. As D’Angelo found out at dinner with Donette, it’s the little gaps in your knowledge and familiarity with social cues that end up betraying you the worst.

Nicky Sobotka, beginning his successful career as a drug dealer, is in the opposite position, exposing other people’s efforts at code-switching and their ignorance. “I don’t know how to tell you this without hurting you deeply, but you happen to be white,” he tells Frog, who wants in on what he’s dealing as the city faces a somewhat watered-down supply. “I also happen to be white. Not hang on the corner don’t give a fuck white. But Locust Point, IBS 47 white. I don’t work without a contract.” With Ziggy, he’s kinder. After Nick buys a new truck on a no-interest loan, Ziggy wants to know “Money’s cheap. What does that mean?” “It means I got a good deal, you peckerwood,” Nicky joshes him. But even the little slight burns. Ziggy’s aware that he faces some serious deficits in reading people, but he keeps falling for bad jokes anyway, whether it’s for Maui’s rather sophisticated prank on him, or for his coworkers suggestion that he could avenge himself on the bigger man with a punch. He’s literally and figuratively a little man windmilling wildly at a big world and his continued failure to land a punch seems to be stoking a fatal fire.


Then there’s McNulty, who has charm to burn even when he’s drunk to the point of passing out, but finds that it doesn’t work on the target he actually cares about, his soon-to-be-ex-wife Elana. “I can care about you. And I can want us to be friends. And if you give me enough time, Jimmy, maybe I will even want you to be happy. But how am I supposed to trust you?” she asks him as they share a peaceful evening in the back yard while their sons camp in a tent. When he and Beadie share a beer after work, McNulty discerns that she’s single, but once they’re in her home, he investigates her domestic happiness like a crime scene and then withdraws, whether because he thinks he doesn’t deserve her, or because he sees his potential to wreck it. The fear isn’t unreasonable — McNulty may have turned down a shot at the same bar where the previous night he drank himself senseless, grabbed a woman he didn’t know, and left to crash his car and then sleep with a random diner waitress whose response to “Can I get scrapple with that?” is “You can get anything you want.” — but that does not make him a reformed man.

I tend to find the idea of anti-heroes as sexual catnip frustrating, whether it’s Vic Mackey’s fling with the women’s shelter head or this, and it’s frustrating here that The Wire makes the waitress fall all over the bloody, drunken mess of our hero just so the show can complete his degradation by making him have a fling he’s ashamed of, the blood from his hands all over her sheets in the morning in a kind of inverse loss of virginity. But then, it does make Kima even more right than usual that it “Takes a whore to catch a whore.” And it makes the “What the fuck did I do?” that follows even more hollow than usual.