“A man must have a code.”
There are scenes in The Wire that make me want to write pages and pages of analysis and close reading. There are also scenes that are simple and quiet, beautiful in their details engrossing in their heartfelt emotion. Episode 7 contains three of these moments:
*Bubs, who previously used his connections with Kima to get Johnny out of jail (how exactly is that different that anything Valchek does in terms of suction?), accompanies Johnny to his court-mandated recovery meeting. The meeting is heartfelt, genuine, and moving in its simplicity. We watch people cheering for sobriety, we hear the personal stories, we see the step-by-step nature of what recovery actually entails. It’s a great scene, and one that makes it easy to see how Bubs can imagine salvation out of that moment.
It’s also important to note that when Bubs accompanies Kima to the court, he wears a tie. He’s an addict, but he’s got a clear moral compass (a code, you might say).
*The set-up to capture Bird is elaborate and intricately planned. Every cop from the detail is involved, heeding Omar’s warnings that Bird won’t hesitate to fight back. He never gets a chance. Bubs sets things off, running the red hat trick to identify the target, and Lester and Sidnor spring into action undercover. It’s a marvel of pre-planning, and it’s one of the rare moments in The Wire when everything goes according to plan.
*And then the heartbreaker, the first of many: Wallace getting high. No words in the scene. No words are needed. It only took seven episodes for the show to hit us with our first tragedy – and it’s a true tragedy. We love this kid. We remember at all times that he’s just a kid. And we understand exactly what has him heading down this road.
On my first several passes through this episode, it always struck me more as a series of these individual moments than some of the more intricately connected episodes that clearly adhere to a theme. The theme thought is actually crystal clear, and overtly stated (as usual) in the title card dialogue snippet: this is an episode about codes. Early on, we get more of Pres and his code-breaking abilities – more than the ability, it’s his love for it that matters here. It’s this love for codes and problem-solving that leads him to education, which is what leads us, blissfully, to season four.
The show-opening quote is actually referring to a whole different kind of code though – the moral code by which a man’s got to live his life. It’s Omar who brings this perspective to the table (although it’s Bunk who says the line). Omar acknowledges that he does bad things – hell, Omar basically acknowledges that he might be a bad person – but there are limits and laws by which he lives. He’s got a system, you might say. In terms of foreshadowing, this little conversation is a big one – I’m immediately thinking of Marlo, and I’m thinking of a scene late in the run (season five, I believe), when another character (who has already been introduced) rails against Marlo’s lack of code. And I won’t say any more, because we’re not in the spoiler business here.
Part of Omar’s code involves never turning a gun on a civilian – someone outside the game. The implication is clear (and maybe even overtly stated, although I can’t remember): if you make the decision to get into the drug trade, you’ve got to be ready to take whatever comes along with it. By the end of the episode, it’s clear that Omar’s code is shared by the police as well. When Bird is brought in for interrogation, which is fine and well and good and smart, really – if I’ve learned anything from these shows, it’s that you never say a word while you’re in the box. Bird says words though – lots of angry, unpleasant words – and ends up suffering for it, taking a beatdown at the hands of Kima, McNulty – even Daniels and Landsman get in on the action. And yes, Bird is a criminal, and a douchey criminal at that, but we’re talking about a four-on-one asskicking of a handcuffed, unarmed man. In no uncertain terms, we’re watching the good guys – our god guys – being bad. And maybe it’s a person of color thing, maybe it’s the history of police brutality and closed doors assaults that’s left a bad taste in my mouth, but man, I can’t write that off as acceptable behavior.
And here’s why The Wire is so effing brilliant. I’m a huge fan of The Shield. The strike team on that show does stuff like this all the time. And we cheer for them. They’re terrible people doing bad things in service of a really great moral code. With them, the ends justify the means. And what’s great about The Shield (and I’ll try to state this as spoilerlessly as possible) is that while it’s celebrating these bad guys, it’s taking a clear moral stance: no one who gives in to that approach to the world ultimately gets off unscathed. You will get punished. Good will win out.
On The Wire, good may or may not win out. Sometimes, you might just get away with doing something horrible.