Warning: Spoilers for the final episode of Season Four of The Wire.
Slate: If you had to sum up what The Wire is about, what would it be?
Simon: Thematically, it's about the very simple idea that, in this postmodern world of ours, human beings—all of us—are worth less. We're worth less every day, despite the fact that some of us are achieving more and more. It's the triumph of capitalism.
Slate: How so?
Simon: Whether you're a corner boy in West Baltimore, or a cop who knows his beat, or an Eastern European brought here for sex, your life is worth less. It's the triumph of capitalism over human value.
- David Simon, Slate, Dec. 1, 2006
Listening to Garvey over drinks that day, I came to realize that there was something emblematic here: that in postmodern America, whatever institution you serve or are served by—a police department or a newspaper, a political party or a church, Enron or Worldcom—you will eventually be betrayed.
It seemed very Greek to me the more I thought about it. The stuff of Aeschylus and Sophocles, except the gods were not Olympian but corporate and institutional. In every sense, ours seems a world in which individual human beings—be they trained detectives or knowledgeable reporters, hardened corner boys or third-generation longshoremen or smuggled Eastern European sex workers—are destined to matter less and less.
After watching what was done to my newspaper, and to the Baltimore homicide unit, I began to write the pilot for a new HBO drama.
- David Simon, "Post Mortem," Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, 2006 ed.
Bodie: I been doing this a long time. I ain't never said nothing to no cop.
I feel old. I been out there since I was thirteen. I ain't never fucked up a count, never stole off a package, never did some shit that I wasn't told to do. I been straight up. But what come back? You think if I get jammed up on some shit they be like "A'ight, yeah. Bodie been there. Bodie hang tough. We got his paid lawyer, we got the bail." They want me to stand with them, right? But where the fuck they at when they supposed to stand with us? I mean, when shit goes bad, and there's hell to pay, where they at? This game is rigged, man. We like them little bitches on the chess board.
- The Wire, episode 50, Dec. 10, 2006
Four years ago I never would have thought I'd feel sympathy for Bodie Broaddus. But somewhere over the last two seasons, the kid who shot Wallace became one of most appealing characters on The Wire, the mordantly funny court jester of the corner boys. Not the show's moral conscience, exactly--I'm not sure Bodie developed a conscience until Marlo killed Little Kevin--but its spokesman for the codes of behavior that are supposed to govern the street just as surely as other codes do the police.
In a show where every institution will break its own rules and let down its most loyal workers, only those individuals who follow their own personal codes (Colvin, Freamon, Omar) come off well. (And not always then, as seen in McNulty's destructive individualism of season three--but McNulty was violating higher principles of loyalty and respect for Daniels and his fellow detectives.) Bodie probably wouldn't think of himself as following a personal code, just the way the street was supposed to run, but when the rest of the street decides anything goes even that dogged loyalty to the rules becomes a kind of ethics. The ethics of a corrosive, destructive business, to be sure, but he spoke for it with wit and something I can only call integrity.
It isn't lost on me that he died for doing exactly what he killed Wallace for, but it's hard to see any poetic justice in that when his death leaves Marlo out on the streets. Really, my own gradual warming to his character is what killed him: if McNulty weren't equally amused by Bodie's mouth and his slinger's ethic--always business, no personal animosity between cop and criminal--he never would have started those sit-downs and Bodie would be returning for season five.
But Bodie's also dead because Little Kevin's murder drove him to rail against his boss's casual disposal of his workers. Lives are worth so little to Marlo that he dumps them in vacants at the slightest provocation, or none at all. Bodie knows this violates the ethic that's supposed to govern them both and that's why he talks to McNulty--but he faces the consequences and Marlo, being the boss, doesn't have to. Bodie's speech to McNulty is as close as any character on The Wire has come to being a mouthpiece for David Simon: it's an elegant, effortless, enervated rant about the tendency of postmodern, late-capitalist institutions to chew up their own best workers with no respect for loyalty or ethics. They demand but they never give back.
The system breaks its promises to its workers but it serves itself well, creating a steady supply of new workers to replace those it grinds down and destroys. Bodie's dead and Marlo already has two new middle schoolers to replace him. Nothing changes: that's why this season was relentlessly circular, from the images in the opening titles to the many direct references to season one (including the chessboard meditations at Bodie's last supper, recalling a lesson taught to him by another pawn sacrificed for the kings, D'Angelo Barksdale). From the corners to City Hall, systemic reform is difficult and halting if not downright impossible.
If The Wire offers any relief it's in those rare moments of grace when one individual reaches out to help another--when Landsman can say "Fuck the clearance," when Waylon shows up out of nowhere because he knows Bubs needs him, when Colvin works the game to save one kid. These are the most moving moments on The Wire, because they are so scarce, and unlikely to repeat.