The Wire: Moral Midgetry

You know what this is? It's moral midgetry. Turn the fuckin' world upside down. - Colicchio

Is it “moral midgetry” to turn the world on its head and do something different, maybe something that seems to violate the bedrock beliefs of the person taking the action?

That’s the question we find ourselves wrestling with as Season three begins to really gather steam. What is the objection in each of the places where those worlds are being turned upside down? Put simply, we begin to see that in each case the status quo is actually working quite nicely for those people who are ostensibly working to end the status quo. Whether the characters can rise above their own moral midgetry and do something different remains to be seen.

The phrase 'moral midgetry' is used specifically to describe the Hamsterdam situation. Colicchio speaks for many of the regular police when he describes it that way, his objection is that it flips his role from enforcing the law and dominating the drug dealers and addicts to serving and protecting them from worse criminals. It certainly does move the ground under the police. But it’s not just the police who see a problem; the Deacon (an increasingly important character) also objects although he can see what Colvin is trying to do. He sees the concentrating of the activity as ending up with more than the sum of its evil parts, actually making things much worse for those involved. This echoes Bubbles' observations from the last episode. His observations challenge Colvin to find a way to not just ameliorate the impact of the drug trade on his community but also on the addicts. We begin to see him do this with help from local community and public health. The whole experiment is testing boundaries and the tolerance of everyone involved but seems to be on the road to success, it’s a shame that it seems unlikely that it can last.

Speaking of unlikely to be something that can last, Avon and Stringer arrived at a crossroads at the close of this episode. Stringer has been trying to turn their world upside down since the first episode of the series, and he has come close but at a price. His pragmatism, exemplified in the murder of D’Angelo, simply does not fit in the “honor among thieves” code that Avon subscribes to. His low-key inglorious making of money and accumulation of power does not serve the definition of masculinity that goes along with that code. In fact, Avon sees him not as strong for forging a new path but weak for doing so. Avon sees Stringer as the same kind of moral midget that the front-line police see Colvin becoming. The result is a denouement that must alter the nature of their relationship.

Carcetti is also being asked to rise above his smallness, a smallness that lets him revel in humbling of those he can catch-out in front of his committee (and reflected in the one-night stand he engaged in earlier this season). From a cynical point of view, D'Agostino is encouraging him to become what everyone wants to see. His wife, Jen, sees herself encouraging him to become the man she thinks he can be.

Finally, Cutty continues on his slow journey to flip the expectations of an ex-con gunman’s life. He has the advantage of having found a sympathetic ear in the Deacon and a possible direction to allow him to express the same masculine pride that made him an effective soldier. This is a perfect role for the Deacon to play in Cutty’s life in part because of the actor that plays him. Which leads me to...

Bits and Pieces

Melvin Williams, the actor who plays The Deacon, was in fact one of Baltimore’s biggest drug Kingpin’s in the early 1980’s when he went by “Little Melvin.” His last bust was in 1984 and resulted in a 24 year sentence (not 34 years as has been reported elsewhere). It followed earlier convictions which had netted him as much as 15 years at a time, but for which he only served a fraction of the time. His organization was tied up in corruption probes of Baltimore and Maryland politicians as well. The police even employed wiretaps in a carefully coordinated investigation to bring him down. After going to prison, he remained a revered figure among criminals and was long suspected of continuing to run the drug trade from behind bars.

All of this can be found in a series of great Baltimore Sun articles (which are unfortunately difficult to link to) concluding with a front page retrospective titled: “Behind bars, Melvin Williams still a ghetto legend: 'Avenue' hustler called heroin czar” (11 Jan 1987: 1A). It was written by the Sun writer who had covered the whole affair, David Simon.


“Crawl, walk, and then run.” – Clay Davis

(Senator Clay Davis’ appeal to Stringer to move slowly into the world of political corruption and business dealings provides this week’s epigraph. The greater conversation explains why he recommends this, and Stringer’s eagerness seems to either betray an uncharacteristic lack of caution or a determination to cut to the core of the matter. Here’s some more of the conversation)

Stringer: Look, man, I don't know why we got to wait three years for that shit? I'm ready to run now.
Davis: No, you're not. I mean, forgive me, but you still showin' a little bit of that street corner mentality. Buggin' about every dime you spend about the permits, about setting up a pac, about dropping cash into re-election war chests which by the way, is how I get my gravy. Look, it takes money to make money, String otherwise, hell, every pauper'd be a king. You know what I'm saying?
Stringer: I'm ready to run now.
Clay Davis: Three years. Crawl, walk, and then run.

(Meanwhile down in Hamsterdam, the world is indeed on its head, as when a drug dealer appeals to the police to protect their illegal trade)

Tucky: Gah-damn! Can't yoever get a fucking poh-lice 'round here when you need one?!

(or when Carver points out the difficulties that are being created for the district’s youngest residents)

Carver: But can I be honest? It's not just the wolves circling the corral. We got 50, 60 kids on the inside been fight or flight since they popped out of the chute and right now they're just thumb-up-their-ass hangin'. All these ex-runners, ex-lookouts. That shit worries me as much as any carnivores out there.
Colvin: If you want to neutralize a threat? Give it a job.
Carver: As?
Colvin: Auxiliary cops. Keep an eye out for the predators. You got the dealers payin' 'em to do nothing now anyway? Kill two birds and all that. Right.
Carver: Throw 'em some bikes, maybe police radios.
Colvin: We could do that.
Carver: I was being, you're serious?

(and finally The Deacon brings the whole issue home to Colvin, who to his credit then does something about it)

Colvin: Look, I'm just tryin' to make my district liveable. Write off a few blocks in a few places but I save the rest.
The Deacon: No offense, but you're like the blind man and the elephant. It's a lot bigger than what you got your hand on you just can't see it.
Colvin: See what?
Deacon: A great village of pain, and you're the mayor. Where's your drinking water? Where's your toilets, your heat, your electricity? Where's the needle truck, the condom distribution, the drug treatment intake? Half these people are dying on their feet and the other half's gonna catch what's killin' 'em.
Colvin: Look, they ain't no worse off than when they were all over the map. Now they just in one place is all.
Deacon: And that place is hell.
Colvin: Look, I'm a police. So I can lock a man up or I can move his ass off the corner. Now, you want anything more than that you're in the wrong shop.

(I didn’t talk about it at all but the Major Crime Unit’s investigation continues apace, and I particularly love Freamon and Prez’s respect for the Barksdale’s work)

Freamon: They're driving 200 miles every couple of weeks out of sheer caution. It's beautiful.
Prez: What is?
Freamon: The discipline of it.

(Lastly, the final scene between Avon and Stringer is one of the classics of the series. Two exchanges capture the art of the writing and the actors deliver an almost perfect scene)

Avon Barksdale: You know what the difference's between me and you? I bleed red you bleed green. What you been building for us? I look at you these days you know what I see? I see a man without a country. Not hard enough for this right here and maybe, just maybe not smart enough for them out there.


Avon: Man stokin' her head sayin' that D'Angelo's death was no suicide.
Stringer: Yeah, so Man ain't wrong about that.
Avon: What?
Stringer: I knew you couldn't do it and Brianna wouldn't do that shit. But there goes a life that had to be snatched, Avon. Yo man, I took that shit off you and put it on me, man because that motherfucker was out of pocket with that shit! He flip, man, they got you, me and fucking Brianna! And no fucking way, man. Hell no! Now, I know you family. You loved that nigger. But you want to talk that blood is thicker than water bullshit take that shit somewhere else, nigger! That motherfucker woulda taken down the whole fucking show starting with you, killer!

Jess Says

Ben, you covered this one really well, and I don’t have too much to add. The two major highlights for me were those that you emphasized towards the end of your quotes section: that final confrontation between Stringer and Avon, and the deacon’s reaction to Hamsterdam. I was a bit surprised that Stringer just came out and confessed to Avon at this point, but I probably shouldn’t have been. He was getting squeezed from numerous directions, and starting to feel uncomfortable with his standing and business acumen in his dealings with Clay Davis, so it makes sense that Avon’s accusations about him not being “smart enough for them out there” or hard enough to snatch a life would push him to reveal the truth. It probably wasn’t the smartest choice for such a smart guy, but it sure did make for a hell of a closing scene. I can’t wait to see it play out from here. It feels like a point of no return.

The deacon’s refusal to accept that some lives matter less and are worth sacrificing for improvements elsewhere may also be a point of no return for Colvin’s Hamsterdam experiment. While you give Colvin deserved kudos for attempting to do something about the “village of pain” he’s created, the side effect is that the number of people that know about it is now growing exponentially. And, meanwhile, many of his underlings continue to chafe under the “moral midgetry” of what their jobs have become. At this point, it seems like only a matter of time before “the bosses” find out. Still, after last week’s glimpse at the nightmare that is Hamsterdam, it was a tremendous relief to see at least one person force Colvin to see some of the uglier truths about what he has wrought.

Great piece of history on Melvin Williams, Ben. I love that the apparent inspiration for Avon Barksdale has become in this story a force for hope against the darkness wrought by the drug trade.

Prez is doing so well these days. Loving his work and doing a good job of it, too. It was delightful to see everyone so impressed with him.

Omar, of course, is too smart to fall for this whole “free zone” business. Sometimes, paranoia can serve you well. See also: Marlo.

McNulty is quite the special asshole, isn’t he?

The Upshot

4.5 out of 4 orders of takeout trout (because that’s good stuff, and this episode is just as tasty)

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