Rewatching ‘The Wire’: Walk The Line

I’m going on vacation next week, but we’ll start up again with the first three episodes of Season Three of The Wire on September 11. There’s also a spoiler for this week’s episode of Breaking Bad in this post.

After watching this week’s Breaking Bad, I’ve been thinking about moments that are not precisely suicidal, but when characters approach death or the possibility of it, even if they don’t acknowledge that’s precisely what they’re doing. There’s a lot of that in Mike’s trip down to the river in Breaking Bad, in Frank Sobotka’s rendezvous with Vondas and The Greek, in Nicky’s attempt to murder his old self with his shooting of George Glekas, in Omar’s plan to kill a man and reckoning with the responsibility of using that power according to his code. In the Steve Earle song that closes the third season, the singer promises to “bring you precious contraband / And ancient tales from distant lands,” but for all that the lyric is a way of encapsulating that this is about the shipping business, and for all that this is another season that ends with the limitations of federal prosecution and local resources, the local’s reelection of Frank is both a political manuever and a reckoning with that larger question: it’s a form of suicide.

Ziggy’s act of murder is the clearest act of self-destruction in these violent final three episodes. “We had a deal motherfucker. A deal. You listen to me. It was my fucking ass out there on the line,” he tells George, who has cut the percentage he’s paying the younger man for stolen cars. “You don’t play me like that. You don’t.” But he does, of course, and because Ziggy can’t kill the part of himself that gets played, that gets talked into fighting Maui and that buys a duck and then can’t keep it alive, he kills George instead. “I got tired,” he tells his father in jail. “I got tired of being a punchline to every joke.” Murder may not have freed Ziggy of that tendency, but it’s given him a permanent role and a uniform, an orange jumpsuit instead of a leather coat, his hands behind his back instead of flailing at windmills.

For Brother Mouzone, killing itself is his identity. Cheese makes the mistake of assuming it’s Islam, asking “You slingin’ bean pies up in hear or something?” But Mouzone clarifies quickly that it’s the instruments of his trade, the plastic bullet he shoots Cheese with first, “what’s seated in the chamber now,” the “nine at close range” that Omar shoots him with, leaving a relatively clean wound. He may talk about the dangers of “a nigger with a library card,” and complain about his magazines, but these things are not what Mouzone is. And he and Omar recognize each other in the moment that Omar shoots Mouzone on the basis of bad information from the Barksdale crew. Omar’s insistence that “See, that boy was beautiful. Wasn’t no need for y’all to do him the way you did,” may be sentimental, but his decision to call 911 is in keeping with those articulated ethics. Death and violence are powerful tools. They shouldn’t be wasted or misused, and if they are, the mistakes, if at all possible, should be corrected.


Frank and Nicky are men who think they understand force and violence up against men who truly do. Nicky may have the car and a roll of cash, but he’s child in certain fundamental ways, living in his parents’ basement, retreating to the playground and a childhood friend and a bottle when Ziggy ruins his life. When he threatens to kill the Greeks after Frank’s death, it’s a child’s threat, wheeling arms and shouting, rather than actual plan of attack. He reaches manhood when he has the sense to fear Vondas and the Greek, to take them down from a police station rather than under a bridge. It’s a good thing. Sergei may be in jail, still complaining about being nicknamed Boris, but he’s a man who explains matter-of-factly that a shepard broke the rules he needed to traffic women successful, the product died, and he needed to be killed to close the circle. Sergei may not be a killer in the way that Omar and Brother Mouzone are killers, but he walks the same line they do. It’s Johnny Cash singing that line about love at the beginning of the first of these three episodes. But in the world of The Wire, death is what needs to be finessed, even more than life and all its possibilities.