A man gotta have a code

A friend organises film nights and, many years ago, an elderly member recommended the TV series The Wire to me. I was somewhat hesitant to start watching a five-season drama but he persuaded me to watch the first season, whilst simultaneously giving me the five-season DVD boxset.

When I watched episode one, something wasn’t quite right. I quickly realised I couldn’t understand a word of it! The drama is set in Baltimore and the accent was too heavy for me. I turned on the English subtitles. Episode one was interesting enough for me to watch episode two, by which time I had tuned into the accent and could switch off the subtitles. In those days, before streaming, I started to binge on the series. I was hooked and it wasn’t long before I had consumed the whole five seasons!

On finishing, I had to agree with The Guardian quote on the boxset, which was something like, “The world consists of those who think The Wire is brilliant and those who haven’t seen it”.

If you’ve not watched The Wire, it’s like nothing you’ve seen. The stories are compelling as they jump from the personal to the societal. Each season has specific themes whilst telling the story of several recurring individuals. You learn how characters are formed; how people are rarely just good or evil. The big themes include drugs, organisational crime, unions, education, politics, and the media. But it’s not heavy-handed: the makers are storytellers who write from first-hand experience; and they’re not afraid to kill off their stars!

Once I’d watched all five seasons, I raved about them at work and several people watched the complete series too. It became the department’s favourite programme. We regularly quoted from it and repeated many memorable catchphrases.

There are many complex characters in The Wire. There’s a moral ambiguity to almost everyone. I first came across Idris Elba when I watched The Wire. I thought he was an American actor. He played Stringer Bell, the mesmerising natural leader and deputy head of the Barksdale drug organisation.

Another fascinating person is Omar Little, who was Barack Obama’s favourite character (The Wire, at the time, being his favourite TV programme). Ostensibly just a stick-up man, Omar frequently robbed drug dealers — partly because they could hardly go to the police! Omar was the tough, shrewd, criminal who was black and gay. If that wasn’t unusual at the time on TV, Omar had a strict moral code but was feared by many and an inadvertent role model to some.

One of my favourite scenes is the poignant conversation between Omar and Bunk (a detective and another favourite character). In the scene, Bunk chides Omar for how far they had fallen since going to the same school.

Earlier this week, I was sad to learn that Michael K. Williams, the actor who played Omar, died at the age of 54.

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