Not a goddamn thing up in here works like it should.
– Unnamed Secretary, Edward Tilghman Middle School
Critically lauded and underwatched, The Wire is a study of broken systems and the damage they cause. In the show’s gritty, slowly collapsing “Balt’mer, Murdaland,” everyone has institutional entanglements, from the lowliest beat cop on up to the mayor. The most hopeful among them become hardened idealists, clinging to their dignity while managing small acts of humanity. Some pursue power with near sociopathic vigor. For others, simple survival is the goal, leading toward desperate, often impulsive choices. As Tom Waits cautions in “Way Down in the Hole,” the series’ theme: “When you walk through the garden, you gotta watch your back.”
Season Four’s first two episodes added yet another institution to the mix: the urban education system. The season premiere introduces four new characters, students at Edward Tilghman Middle School, in Baltimore’s Western district. Namond (Julito McCullum), Michael (Tristan Wilds), Randy (Maestro Harrell), and Dukie (Jermaine Crawford) are all facing a pivotal point in their adolescence, just beginning to make choices that will chart the course of their lives.
Namond has already begun to move into the drug economy, working as a “runner” for the now independent Bodie (J.D. Williams). The boy feels he has no choice; with his father in jail, how else can he get the money he needs to dress right when school starts? His father, Wee-bey (Hassan Johnson), offered career counseling from his jail cell: cut your ponytail, he said, because, “Even the white police lookin’ out from three blocks away gonna be able to spot you from every nigga out there.” It sounds like parody of a 1950s father telling his son to “straighten up and fly right,” but there was no joking in Wee-bey’s tone. For his family, drug dealing is a reasonable, respected job, with explicit dangers. That Wee-bey offers this lesson from behind prison glass suggests he’s no less shortsighted than his son.
Wee-bey’s advice may be well intentioned, but slinging drugs doesn’t offer the same job security it once did: “market forces” have changed “the game.” Bodie, formerly a member of Avon Barksdale’s (Wood Harris) crew, is now, following Barksdale’s incarceration, a lonely entrepreneur. With no standing against the Western’s real drug power, Marlo Stanfield (Jaime Hector), he has doubts about the future. Still, he takes in Namond out of respect to his father (“street” families being at least as important as blood families in the world of The Wire.) “It ain’t always gonna be this slow,” he says, “Least I hope it ain’t.”
As the dealers and the kids make their way through their system, the Major Crimes Unit that took down Barksdale and disrupted the Western’s drug landscape is preparing another case. Playing “follow the money,” Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) has discovered links between Barksdale’s drug partner and “a dozen key political figures.” Economics trumps the legal system. All players mean to get their piece however they can, a point made explicit in the second episode of this season, “Soft Eyes,” when the mayor’s chief fundraiser, Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), asserted, “I’ll take any money if he giving it away.” Earlier in the episode, Namond used virtually the same phrase to justify taking money from Marlo “for new school clothes.”
Michael is the only boy not to take Marlo’s money. “Owin’ niggas for shit,” he says, “that ain’t me.” Of the four, Michael seems the angriest, the most likely rebel. When he refuses Marlo’s money, he knows that accepting means he owes a measure of loyalty, that he gives up an autonomy that, once lost, isn’t easily regained. (This is another major theme of The Wire: the individual’s ability to maintain a self within a matrix of overlapping, dehumanizing systems.) Silent and intent, Michael spends time hitting a punching bag at the neighborhood gym, but refuses personal boxing lessons from the gym’s manager, Cutty (Chad L. Coleman). Angry at the systems that have failed him thus far, he hasn’t yet learned to distinguish between agents of those systems (Marlo, who chastised him: “You such a bitch-ass punk, you worry where my money come from?”) and genuinely concerned adults (Cutty’s offer might have been a constructive outlet for his anger).
That kind of bewilderment touched Randy during these early episodes as well. Also caught up in overlapping spheres of drugs, economics, and power, he was duped, given money to set up a local dealer for deadly payback by Marlo’s crew. When he realized the consequences of his set up — “Chris and Snoop, pow!” explained Marlo’s messenger — Randy was horrified. Out came more bills, but even after accepting them, Randy couldn’t accept what he’d done. He sat on his stoop, jaw clenched, on the brink of tears. This is the consequence, The Wire suggests, of America’s broken systems: a young boy staring into the darkness, wondering what else his future might bring.