Breaking Down The Wire

Family Ties
Talking television.
Nov. 6 2006 7:22 AM

Breaking Down The Wire

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Hey, Steve,

In Episode 8, the tables have been turned. The corner, we learn, doesn't have a lock on desperation. Herc, the bumbling sergeant who was promoted only because he walked in on the mayor getting a blow job, is reckless in his desperation. He "borrowed" an expensive police video camera to record Marlo and his crew, but they caught onto him and had some fun by running off with the camera. Herc knows his career's on the line if he doesn't get the damn thing back. So, he's doing what it takes to find it, and you can't help but worry that he's going to bring others down with him, including young Randy, who inadvertently was privy to the disappearance of a local drug dealer and who told this to Herc in an interrogation. Herc sees Randy's disclosure as ammunition, as a way to put some heat on Marlo. Of course, it was Prezbo who brought Randy to the police station, assuring himself that he'd get Randy into the right hands. Well, he didn't—and you suspect that that's going to come to haunt him.

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Watching this episode, I realized what I miss in The Wire. Or, at least, have missed so far. Family. The Wire has turned its probing lens on virtually every urban institution that matters: the police, the corner, politics, the schools. But arguably the most vital and most tenuous institution—family—may be getting short shrift. I'm not arguing for the show to do everything. It can't. It has just brought home the fact that we have a tough time in this country talking about family in any honest and authentic way. The political right has cornered this conversation. For them, it's all about morals and family values. And the left, well, they've walked away from the table. (Talk about marriage, and the liberals squirm. Of course, for the conservatives, that's all they talk about, and they refuse to acknowledge all the other forces bearing down on the souls of the poor.) Man, The Wire could push this like it has done with other topics. Agitate us. Shame us. Maybe it still will. In this last episode, there were signs that, in fact, it just might do that.

Namond's mom, it's becoming clear, sees herself as a kind of teacher's aide, instructing her son on the ins and outs of the drug trade, chastising him for bringing his goods home. You have lieutenants for that, she tells him. So, Namond goes out and gets himself a boy who looks no older than 8 to handle his wares. And then there's Michael, who's the man of the house, watching over his younger brother and doling out small amounts of cash for his drug-addled mother. In walks Bug's * father who, after 12 years away, can only bring himself to tell Michael, "Damn, you've grown." Michael's not letting him back in easily, not without a fight. I'm hoping we find our ways into the homes of some of the others—especially Randy, who lives with a foster mom and appears grateful for it.

It's always struck me that as loyal as the gang guys are in places like Chicago, their real loyalty—completely blind loyalty—is to their family. They could come from the most messed up, chaotic, destructive family you could imagine, and that's who they'd give their life for. I suppose that's Michael in some ways. His mom's stealing what little food they have to sell on the street, and Michael forgives her. Not only forgives her but passes her money to get high with. And Namond, of course, seems destined for the corner not because that's necessarily where he wants to be but because that's what he thinks will make his dad and mom proud. And he's right. But in both Namond's and Michael's cases, their moms seem like human wrecking balls. Too often, though, it's more ambiguous, more confused than that.

I think of the boys I wrote about in There Are No Children Here. Their dad, Paul, was a heroin addict for most of his life. Lafeyette and Pharoah resented him—for his absence, for his complete abandonment of fatherly duties. Yet, when they became adults, they let him live in the basement of a new home they moved into, and Paul, who knew his sons would never heed his advice (for all the crap he pumped into his veins, he was an engaged man who loved politics and books and jazz), would pass along nuggets of wisdom to me, asking that I find a way to pass them along to his boys. Which I did. Paul died a few years back of throat cancer, though, to be honest, if that hadn't gotten him, the heroin would have. Pharoah found him in bed in the basement. He'd gone down there to check on him because he knew that every Tuesday morning, his dad went downtown to have coffee with a rather well-known businessman who'd befriended Paul.

Pharoah asked if I'd call the businessman. He told me he wanted to know what others saw in his father. I think what he really wanted was confirmation of what he knew all along: that his father, for all his shortcomings, was in fact a gentle, generous soul who desperately wanted his sons to do right, to do well. He hadn't so lost touch with life that he didn't want the absolute best for his boys. And yet he felt helpless to do anything about it—and I know that ate at him. And Pharoah wanted to hear that, to know that. He so resented his father, but he forgave him. Now that is the power—and the utter messiness—of family.

Alex

* Correction, Nov. 13, 2006: An earlier version of this article suggested that a new character was Michael's father. The character is Bug's father. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Alex Kotlowitz is author of There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River.