Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Down to The Wire: Where’s the Love, Y’all?

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 7, 2008

Season Five of The Wire, the HBO drama that is almost inarguably the most compelling, innovative and exciting show on TV at the moment, begins at the end of this week. With that in mind, we here at IITS are devoting the rest of the week to the show–the characters, lines, scenes, episodes and themes that make up the patchwork of the show that broadened the perameters of what a TV drama could be capable of. Spoiler Alerts abound, so if you haven’t already, be sure to marathon the entire show first before reading.

Bubs. Cutty. Omar. Clay. Stringer. McNutly. Kima. Prop Joe. Bunk. Bunny. Just about everyone can agree on who the best characters in The Wire are–some people might differ on the #1, but start listing ten or 15 or so (which, for a show like The Wire, still isn’t that many), and you’ll mostly get lists of the same names. Friend of IITS Jason L already wrote an excellent and fairly definitive piece on his take on the ten best anyway, and my list would barely differ from his at all, so there’s no point in listing them again. However, there are a fair number of characters on The Wire who, even if they don’t quite belong in the show’s top tier, don’t quite get the credit they deserve–either becaue they don’t tend to get much screen time, because they tend to get overshadowed by bigger, flashier characters, or because their depth isn’t really evident the first time around.

So, the ten most underrated. Some characters are grouped together for logic and convenience’s sake.

10. D’Angelo Barksdale. It’s a frequent fixture in The Wire, as well as in just about any major movie or TV show involving a steady cast of criminals–that of the gangster born into a life of crime who decides that he’s not cut out for this line of work. If D’Angelo’s character weren’t better developed, he could’ve just been a gangsta cliche, but the dude brought heart (and turtlenecks!) to the first two seasons of the show–smart enough for the game, but maybe a little too smart for it, and definitely not cold enough. The deaths of him and Wallace provided the show with its first real tastes of tragedy, and both are missed, even if they definitely had to get got.

9. Ervin Burrell. The Wire has its fair share of company men–the downtown equivalent of the street soldier–but none are quite as simperingly loyal as Burrell, the Baltimore Police Commissioner that makes Rawls look like a loose cannon by comparison. And no one could look or play the part better than Frankie Faison, whose pudgy face, smug grin and self-satisfied demeanor make him the ideal middle-management asshole, the kind fo person who makes the idea of entering the work force seem even more terrifying.

8. The Three Wise Men. Even the worst hitters occasionally need guidance. Butchie, Vinson and The Deacon, the mentors to Omar, Marlo and Cutty, respectively, act as a sort of compass, both practically and morally, to their proteges, providing them with the necessary wisdom and rigtheousness for them to carry out their misdeeds. Their characters even put the show on a sort of biblical tip, being a man of the cross, a blind man and a, uh, rims salesman, brilliantly representing Baltimore past and providing contrast with the arrogant, impulsive horrors of the new generation.

7. Michael Lee. Though it doesn’t quite pack the emotional punch of Randy’s story (especially with that ending), Michael’s story is probably my favorite of the four kids at the center of S4. His arc is a hearbtreaking example about how even a good kid–a responsible kid, a kid of integrity who sticks up for his friends and his beliefs–can succumb to The Game, out of sheer desperation of circumstances. His joining up with Marlo, Chris and Snoop by the end of the season is like The Wire‘s equivalent of Anakin Skywalker flipping to the dark side, though maybe not quite as hilariously lame.

6. Beaddie Russell. Not the most interesting character on the show, perhaps, but Beaddie deserves credit for being perhaps the one unequivocal force of good in the show–the one person who hasn’t been at all corrupted or embittered by life on the streets. She’s the one person on the show who smiles regularly, and doesn’t have a shred of darkness lurking underneath the smile. Hell, McNulty likes and respects her enough as a person that he actually doesn’t fuck her the first (or even the second) chance that he gets, which is just about the highest possible compliment McNulty can pay to someone of the fairer sex. Good enough for McNulty, certainly good enough for this list.

5. Chris and Snoop. The Stanfield organization may be so pure in its sociopathy that they make the Barksdale people just look like conflicted anti-heroes, but you gotta say one thing to their credit–they know how to stick together. As Marlo’s right hand, Chris provides stark contrast to Stringer Bell’s late-game mechinations, rarely questioning and never disobeying the word of his higher-up, and always carrying out his word unflinchingly. Meanwhile, Snoop clearly just loves being in the game enough that she’d have no reason to ever betray Marlo–the hitting seems more important than the money to her anyway. Plus as a duo, the two have a handful of S4’s best moments, like when they forebodingly purchase a nailgun in the season’s opening seuqence, or when they kill an out-of-towner with their lack of knowledge about Baltimore club music as evidence, or when Chris coldly responds to a would-be hit’s pleading explanation with “yeah…that’s good…” No reasoning with pure evil, especially when being evil seems to be so much fun.

4. The Mob Moms. There’s nothing I find quite so chilling in literature as a cold-hearted mother–usually the one reliable source of compassion among even the most dastardly of characters, when one has other priorities or motivations than the welfare of her children, it just feels low. There are two such mothers in The Wire–Brianna Barksdale and DeLonda Brice. Brianna gets one of maybe the five most devestating scenes in the series, when she convinces son D’Angelo to take the 20-year fall for his cousin for the sake of business and “family,” just after he finally made the heart-wrenching decision to start over and go straight–the revealing shot of her resting her hands on the shoulders of her utterly defeated son is definitely Corleone-worthy. But at least Brianna is just more misguided than anything–she likely genuinely believes that this is the right move for her son, and when she too late realizes her error, she suffers more than anyone on the show for it.

DeLonda, on the other hand, is just cold (a word that seems to come up a lot when talking about The Wire, but hey, we are talking about the Northeast here). The idea of a mother actively nagging her son to increase his involvement in the drug trade seems so intuitively wrong, but according to the doc HBO’s been airing about the show, the character has gotten one of the best responses for its realism. And to the show’s credit, it does feel real–arguably motivated by tough love and misguided affection, but more believably a result of laziness, greed and a lack of basic maternal compassion. Wee Bey’s finally convincing her to let the boy be is a rare victory for The Wire–one the show badly needed at the end of S4.

3. Maurice Levy. I don’t know if Levy quite qualifies for inclusion in my Jewish Badass pantheon, since his form of misdeedery doesn’t quite inspire the same sense of awe and respect that most of these trailblazers did. But in terms of just being a bad dude, ol’ Maury definitely qualifies for all-time high status–a man just as ruthless and unflinching in his selfishness and greed as any of the show’s street toughs. And like them, Levy even seems to take a certain pride in his evil, springing murderers and other anti-social types with the glee of a supervillain. Good on Levy for proving that for middle-aged Jewish businessmen as much as anyone, pimping may not be easy, but it sure is fun.

2. Spiros Vondas. S2 of The Wire proved that in street crime, as in everything else, the Europeans are way ahead of us. With the possible exception of Prop Joe, no mobster on the show has ever been half as cool as Spiros Vondas, the Greek’s point runner in the dock smuggling game. And by cool I don’t mean bad-ass, I just mean cool–even-tempered, deep-thinking and confident like a motherfucker that always knows that he’s smarter than everyone else in the room (and actually right about it, for once). Plus, dude could be adorable as hell, especially in his interactions with the seemingly loveable (and similarly lethal) Greek. “You’re fond of him,” The Greek tells Spiros in reference to the mercy he shows on Nicky Sobotka. “You should have had a son.” “But then,” Spiros responds, “I would have had a wife.”

1. Herc and Carver. It’s appropriate that this duo should top my list of the most underappreciated characters on The Wire, given the way their characters were so perpetually underappreciated by their higher-ups over the course of the show (despite it often times being, I suppose, fairly well-deserved). Herc and Carver might not be the most compelling or likeable characters on the show, but with the possibly exception of the man McNutty himself, none of the characters on The Wire are so well-evolved. Both start as head-busting hot shots who’d rather put a beating on a couple miscreants than solve a major case, and who weren’t above taking a little something on the side for their troubles.

By the end of the S4, Carver had gradually become genuine police, learning along the way from the integrity of Daniels, the smarts of McNulty, and the sensitivity of Colvin, until he could actually count himself among their ranks. And by the end of S4, Herc…well, he was still Herc, but he had wisened up enough to make that work for him (or at least to take the advice of others when that wasn’t good enough), and was climbing up the corporate ladder himself. The changes aren’t so drastic as to be unrealistic, or so sudden as to be jarring, but rather give the impression of genuine character development, something for which The Wire might be rivalled only by David Simon’s old Baltimore crime stomping grounds, Homicide: Life on the Streets, and possibly by that other HBO show about organized crime as well.

And if you don’t buy all that, at least Herc and Carver owned nearly all the funniest scenes of the first couple seasons. My personal favorite is when Carver tries to run the good cop / bad coop routine on a recently incarcerated Bodie, their first time meeting with the young’n. Carver does the good cop bit, telling Bodie that he reminds him of himself, expressing sympathy for his situation, and offering a deal for information on higher-ups. Bodie says that there is something Carver could do for him, making him lean in real close to hear–“I want you to, uh…I WANT YOU TO SUCK MY DICK, BITCH!” Carver loses it and starts wailing on him, and eventually Herc (who didn’t even get the chance to play the bad cop) busts in and joins in on the beatdown. “You’s supposed to be the good cop!” Bodie yells at Carver in protest.

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3 Responses to “Down to The Wire: Where’s the Love, Y’all?”

  1. Jason L said

    Appreciate the shout-out, man. Great choices here, especially Burrell and Maurice “You wanted to be in the game? NOW you’re in the game!” Levy. As the son of a balding Jewish lawyer, I have frequently referred to Levy as the representation of my father if he had more or less lost his soul.

    Hope you enjoyed last night’s premiere as much as I did. Previews showed that Avon’s making an appearance next week; holy shit!

  2. Erick said

    Good list. I might consider Jay Landsman for all the deft humor, like in S1 when Bird curses at him and he appears genuinely hurt and says “I thought we were friends!” or in S4 when Greggs joins Homicide and he notes that her chair is missing from her desk and says she should make that her first case.

  3. Andrew Unterberger said

    I love Landsman–maybe a top fiver overall for me–but I dunno if I really consider him underrated, seems like most people I talk to about The Wire mention him as a favorite.

    My favorite moment of his (though I could easily do a top ten), is when he sticks McNulty with helping out on the Deirdre Kresson murder in S1. He slaps him affectionately, points to him and informs Bunk, “He’s my son!”

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