Clockers Done Right

“The Wire”: Second Season

“The Wire,” the Baltimore-set series that recently wrapped its second season on HBO, is the creation of David L. Simon, whose earlier credits include the nonfiction book on which the “Homicide” TV series was based and the trenchant HBO miniseries “The Corner.” Although “The Wire” is probably the smartest, most richly involving cop show on the air now, its Russian-novel-density may actually be hurting it with viewers. Most aren’t accustomed to a crime show demanding the degree of attention that “The Wire,” with its sprawling cast of characters and intricate criss-cross plotting, regularly asks of the viewer.

“The Wire” is really an analysis of institutions in America: the failure, amorality, and corruption that eventually destroy the individuals involved with them.
Each season of “The Wire” has been built around a single police investigation, beginning with the first season’s probe into the dealings of Avon Barksdale, a deceptively recessive drug kingpin whose dealers own the drug traffic on the West side of Baltimore’s housing projects. (Scott Von Doviak summed up this plot arc succinctly as “Clockers done right.”) In the season just past, “The Wire” has continued to keep tabs on the characters introduced as part of the Barksdale storyline while concentrating on a new criminal milieu: the docks. Frank Sobotka, an essentially decent union boss whose life and identity are inextricably tied with a dying labor union in a moribund economic base, has tied himself to carpetbagging gangsters in an effort to secure the money and power he needs to help his men.

But “The Wire” is really an analysis of institutions in America: the failure, amorality and corruption that eventually destroy the individuals involved with them. The show’s putative protagonist, police detective Jimmy McNulty (played with self-destructive charm by Dominic West), epitomizes the modern hero, the guy who shakes up the smooth gears of the institution by forcing it to make good on its stated goals. In the case of the police department, he tries to provide some kind of justice even at the risk of stepping on toes and inconveniencing his superiors (McNulty’s superior, Rawls, calls him “a gaping asshole” because he “makes people do things they don’t want to do”).

McNulty lives his life in a death dance with the police department, a continual inability to live with or without his job. When the second season commences, his effectiveness has succeeded in getting him driven out of homicide and reassigned to the harbor patrol. His self-destructive nature is not brought on by his job but rather by his lack of job. Without the focus and direction of being a homicide cop, he has nothing. Yet at the same time the corruption and incompetence of the department forces him into a position where he is fighting on two fronts at once, willing to battle his department not to save it necessarily but to save himself. Ultimately it’s his very own department that betrays him the most.

In contrast, Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) is a man trying to save a dying institution. Its death brings about his own as well, yet there is a striking heroism and nobility in his tragedy. He is a Don Quixote on a futile mission, but his will and drive to save the waterfront are no less heroic than McNulty’s fight against the police department. In fact, Sobotka is the kind of explosive romantic hero who should save the day, but, instead, finds that by wrapping himself in his union, he becomes another of its casualties. Even the loyalty of his men can provide him with nothing at the end, not even redemption.

Although in a sense this storyline is the most heartbreaking, at its essence it is the most hopeful and optimistic in all of “The Wire”
But redemption, as George Pelecanos, the crime novelist who has worked on the show notes, does often come in death. For D’Angelo Barksdale (played with painful conviction by Larry Gilliard Jr.), the employee/nephew of the druglord Avon Barksdale, freedom from an institution in the world of “The Wire” comes with finding a moral compass and becoming fully realized as an individual, even if this means being garrotted in the prison library. D’Angelo has had the hardest role of any of the characters so far, being the one member of his crime family who feels conflicted about drug trafficking and murder. As part of his struggle to come to terms with what his uncle is, what his family does for him, his mother’s pushing him to be a part of the game while at the same time telling him to be a man, he ended up taking the fall for his family and accepting a prison term at the end of “The Wire’s” first season. Ultimately, he did the right thing by his family but the most harmful thing to himself. In the second season, we find him in prison taking the consequences of his actions yet becoming liberated by the experience. However, his family cannot afford liberation, and, in the single most heartbreaking betrayal of all, he is killed in prison, his burgeoning individuality smothered by the needs of those for whom he had martyred himself.

Although in a sense this storyline is the most heartbreaking, at its essence it is the most hopeful and optimistic in all of “The Wire.” D’Angelo’s arc gives us hope in the end that each individual is able somehow to find themselves in the end and thereby find their own redemption.

The true hero of “The Wire” is the stick-up boy Omar, an iconic, romantic hero played by Michael K. Williams with dashing and magnificent charm. He is the only character in “The Wire” completely and utterly free of the taint of institutional ties and, not coincidentally, he is the only one who lives his life on his own terms. Prowling the streets wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend “I am the American Dream,” Omar embodies the only sense of truth or honesty in the show, and who better embodies the essence of the American Dream of independence, individualism and honesty to one’s self? His storyline, though driven by revenge, comes out of a sense of beauty and love that the other characters are too shallow or harried to indulge in. Confronting the man he thinks ordered the torture and murder of his lover Brandon, Omar counters the man’s bland insistence that “the game is the game” with the simple reply, “Indeed. But see, that boy was beautiful.” Capable of appreciation of a lover’s (or an enemy’s) individual qualities, the “sociopath” Omar has a higher, more complicated relationship to the people around him than most of the characters in “The Wire” — even McNulty. McNulty’s obsessive efforts to attach a name to a Jane Doe murder victim is driven not by any romantic feelings for the dead woman but by his own selfish need to hang onto his identity as a homicide detective.

“The Wire” has risked alienating fans with its willingness to push these characters, and their fates, to their logical conclusions, most surprisingly with the very appealing, and very doomed, D’Angelo. For instance, in an on-line chat with viewers at the HBO website, David L. Simon impatiently fielded questions from fans hoping to be told that D’Angelo wasn’t “really” dead. By the same token, Omar, the underground man with the autonomous existence, has managed to stay stubbornly and thrillingly alive. According to Williams, Omar was originally scheduled to be killed-off during the first season. The actor was pleasantly surprised when he continued to receive scripts that ended with Omar alive and well. Luckily, the second season generated a great deal more press attention than the first season, and that, coupled with HBO’s genuine commitment to ambitious cult TV, has already guaranteed that the survivors will reconvene for a third season next summer.

In the meantime, anyone moping over the want ads or the state of his 401(k) can take comfort in knowing that, as long as Omar roams the back streets of Bawlmer with a shotgun about yea-long and his do-it- yourself attitude, the American dream is still alive somewhere.