The Wire was originally pitched to HBO as an anti-cop drama that would invert the usual types of police procedurals and shed a light on the other side of the cop story- the criminalised underclass that were so often played as two dimensional background and antagonist figures. In making The Wire, David Simon strove to shed a light on the marginalised and overlooked class that were caught in between the murderers and drug dealers and the cops that sought to lock them up.
The Wire deals with many of the realities faced by the underclass and marginalised living in big cities in the US and elsewhere. It shows these social problems in a gritty and original light and pulls no punches when dealing with topics like police or political corruption. The Mayor of Baltimore was understandably not very happy with the way the city was portrayed in the show as he felt that it would bring negative attention to the city but in many ways Baltimore is the ideal choice of setting for the show.
The city is ideal considering its liminal position within the US. It is a city but it is still small and condensed enough that the cops and the criminals and the politicians and the public are co-existing side by side. This allows the show to deal with an expansive horizontal and vertical integration of narrative threads that might not be possible in a more sprawling urban setting. Additionally, Baltimore inhabits a geographical space near the Mason-Dixon Line in the United States – a boundary that signifies a cultural and political division between the Northern and Southern states. Baltimore’s status as a liminal city and the way that the narrative deals with many different aspects of the urban society gives the show an immediate sense of identification whereby the viewer can immediately recognise aspects of the city as being the same as their own city.
Similar to the way that Baltimore is made so identifiable by its liminal qualities, the most enduring characters on the show are also those that are caught in the middle of the civic versus criminal struggle of The Wire. Is it any wonder that in a show where everything is portrayed in shades of grey, rather than black and white, the characters that seem the most enduring and resonant are the ones who inhabit the liminal space between the criminal underclass and the law enforcement who tackle it?
Omar is non-traditional. He doesn’t dress fancy, he doesn’t wear jewelry, he doesn’t drive fancy cars, he doesn’t live in a fancy place, he’s openly gay, he doesn’t use drugs, he doesn’t sell drugs – this motherfucka doesn’t even curse. He stands up for what he believes in. He lets you know the game. Michael K. Williams
If Baltimore is the ultimate liminal city then gun-toting stick-up artist Omar Little is the ultimate liminal character. Omar may be the moral centre of the show but he functions outside the social and capital systems that most of the other characters operate within. He is one of the only characters who makes a point of not using profanity. Bubbles, the homeless drug addict that Detective Greigs uses for information, similarly lives outside the system and this character also avoids the preferred mode of communication by most characters in the show – swearing up a storm. This is best illustrated in a scene from season one, episode 4 when McNulty and Bunk, while investigating a murder scene, communicate entirely by using variants of the word ‘fuck’.
The Wire represents business and politics at its very worst and it is the characters that live outside the system that shine the brightest light on the shady mechanics of Capitalism.