This summer I was looking around for something to watch after finishing season one of The Killing and found the HBO crime drama The Wire. I generally buy TV shows either on DVD or as a video download. I could save a lot of money by watching them when they aired, but I can’t take the commercials anymore. I just can’t. They wreck havoc with my attention span and sanity. HBO has no commercials, of course, and as a subscriber I could have seen The Wire while it was showing, but despite its popularity and critical acclaim I managed to ignore it.
After a couple of episodes I was engrossed. The Wire follows the lives of a few dozen characters in contemporary Baltimore. At the center of the action is a special investigations unit that gathers evidence through surveillance and wiretaps, and the plot unfolds in ways that are unexpected yet seem fated. Take, for example, the disastrous careers of D’Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) and Ziggy Sobotka (James Ransone), both hardly out of their teens and, for very different reasons, not cut out for a life of crime.
The wrong kind of smart
D’Angelo Barksdale, known as Dee, is introduced in the very first episode. The nephew of Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), a drug lord and major character, Dee seems as though he’ll be part of the story for a long time. He does some bad things like selling dope and gunning people down. He gives a chilling account of how he shot one of Avon’s girlfriends who threatened to go to the police. Yet I can’t help liking him anyway. He has an open, intelligent face. He wonders about his place in the world and comes to understand that human beings are trapped by their history and circumstances.
At the end of season one, facing a long prison term, Dee is ready to inform on his uncle. Then his mother, Avon’s sister (Michael Hyatt), pays him a visit in jail and lectures him about family loyalty. Everything they have, she reminds him, they owe to Avon. There she sits – manicured, coifed, expensively dressed – telling her son to do twenty years in prison so she can continue to live in luxury. I loathe her. And sympathize with her more than I want to admit.
Season two begins with Dee in prison and increasingly alienated from his uncle, who is serving a much shorter sentence at the same facility. A series of incidents stoke his anger and disgust at Avon’s disregard for other people’s lives. This culminates in their passing each other in a hallway. Dee says nothing, but he gives his uncle an angry, defiant look. Stay the fuck away, it says. I’m done with you. Avon’s Machiavellian second in command, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), hasn’t forgotten that the police almost turned Dee and is disquieted by his growing alienation. He’s also doing Dee’s girlfriend. So he goes behind Avon’s back and orders Dee killed. The death is staged to look like suicide, and nobody bothers to investigate.
Shortly before he’s strangled, D’Angelo takes part in a prison literature course and makes an astute comment on The Great Gatsby: “You can say you somebody else. You can give yourself a whole new story, but what came first is who you really are. What happened first is what really happened.” He understands that he’s a prisoner of the past, but he tries to break out anyway.
Smarter than his pet duck, barely
Ziggy Sobotka is the son of a dock worker in season two. In a milieu where men are valued for their physical strength, Ziggy is short and skinny, a little stick cartoon of a guy. Maybe if he had brains, he could have found some kind of place in his world, but he’s hopelessly stupid. The hulking fellows in Teamsterland hold him in utter contempt and delight in playing nasty jokes on him. Maybe with thoughtful parenting Ziggy could have learned to live with his limitations. But his mom, who’s never seen and mentioned only once or twice, is a downer freak who has chosen to sleep through her life. His dad, Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer), the local union president, is obsessed with getting a canal dredged to bring ships back to Baltimore and employment to the dock workers.
To get the canal dredged, Frank needs money – lots of money – to bribe politicians. Since the dues from the dwindling union membership aren’t enough, he has an arrangement with a gangster called The Greek to facilitate the smuggling of various products (electronics, drugs, prostitutes, etc.). This operation makes him the target of the special investigations unit and eventually leads to his downfall. But Ziggy goes down first.
Ziggy has one friend and protector, his cousin Nick (Pablo Schreiber). When Ziggy starts dealing drugs and of course screws up, Nick comes to the rescue and as a result becomes involved in the drug trade himself. He also does some jobs for The Greek. He shares the profits from these endeavours with his hapless cousin and tries to keep him out of it. To no avail. Ziggy wants to be a player. He makes a deal with one of The Greek’s minions – a deal on the side involving only him and the minion – to deliver some stolen luxury cars from the docks in return for twenty percent of their value.
At this point I expect Ziggy to get busted. But he manages to heist the cars despite his best efforts to botch the job. Driving a car from the yard, he cranks the radio full blast. Honestly, it’s like he desperately needs attention from anyone, even police. Amazingly, he brings the job off and delivers the cars. When he goes to collect his cut, the minion pays him ten percent and tells him to fuck off. Ziggy complains, gets slapped around (something that happens to him depressingly often), and thrown out of the building. For Ziggy it’s the last straw.
Of course he has a gun. A handgun is de rigeur for wannabe gangsters and dealers, like fishnet stockings and four-inch heels on hookers. I shouldn’t be surprised or appalled when Ziggy pulls the weapon, marches inside, and kills the man who dissed him. But I am. “Don’t do it!” I want to yell. “You’re not smart enough or strong enough to survive this.” He shoots another guy too, but cannot bring himself to deliver a coup de grace. He staggers from the building, gun in hand, and promptly surrenders to the police.
The detective (one of the series regulars) brings him the confession to sign. Crushed by guilt, Ziggy wants to change the wording from “He said, ‘Don’t shoot,'” to “He begged, ‘Don’t shoot.'” Poor Ziggy, he’s hopeless. Fated to spend the rest of his life in prison, constantly beaten and raped, until his existence become one endless, agonized scream.
D”Angelo and Ziggy are relatively minor characters in The Wire, but they have the kind of complexity usually found in novels. So do dozens of other characters in the series, which could be why the story has me hooked and why HBO will suck yet more money out of me. Because, Joe adds sardonically, I was too clueless to watch it while it was on TV.