Slate: You've killed more characters than any show I can think of. Who was the hardest character to kill off?
Simon: I miss all of them—I miss Wallace, I really miss D'Angelo. I miss Idris [the actor who played Stringer Bell]. I saw him at the HBO premiere after we killed him off. I was just beaming. All these theories that we kill off guys because they get contracts elsewhere, it's not true. The fact is, if you're not willing to kill your babies—isn't that a Faulkner line?—well, that's no good. You have to kill your babies if the story demands it. Stringer tried to reform the drug trade; it doesn't bear reform. Colvin tried to reform the drug war; it doesn't bear reform. But for me, the most painful death was Wallace. By the way, our own crew was really upset. Even they're not used to this kind of show. It came as a surprise to them. When the dailies came in, we were like, jeez, that's horrible.It was quiet when we saw this scene.
Slate: Marlo is the only character on the show thus far who seems to be out-and-out bad—almost a sociopath. Avon was cold-blooded, but his friendship with Stringer humanized him. Is this intentional on your part? Or do I just dislike Marlo (even though the actor is brilliant)?
Simon: Yeah, we have made him sociopathic. No, you know what—sociopathic to a lot of people really means something beyond Marlo. In our mind, Marlo is the logical extension of every single lesson that the drug war holds true. There is a lot of sociopathic impulse that is excused and justified by that. To say that he is sociopathic, no; he has real allegiance to a few others. There are a few select people, subordinates, to whom he has allegiance. Let me ask you this: Did you have any allegiance to the Greek in Season 2?
Slate: The Greek? No, I don't think I did.
Simon: That's because he represented capitalism in its purest form. There are certain people who represent the boundary to the form. At another moment, perhaps next season, the point of view might shift and the window into that character might shift and our allegiances with it, because we are only experiencing a character from a certain point of view. If we were to have followed the Greek too far, we would have wandered far afield from the main story, the stevedores.
You're right to feel that Marlo is enigmatic and distant now. And you're also right to feel he's doing an awful lot of bad stuff. But he's not any less complex than the other characters. He's just not showing other sides of himself. In other words, if anyone is feeling empathetic for him right now, it's not because of what the writers did.
Slate: Some of our readers have been offering up what amounts to a racialist critique of white, middle-class writers presuming to tell black ghetto stories. And in Slate's "TV Club" on The Wire, Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz touch on a question that they have been asked (and asked themselves) over the years: Can a white person honestly and accurately capture black culture?
Simon: Well, I have a couple answers to that. On one level, I'm becoming impatient, because I feel the work has answered the question. But let me answer. The people in that room on The Wire miss certain things because we're white. I'm sure we do. We miss certain things about black life—or not entirely; we miss the subtlety that a black writer of a commensurate skill could achieve. But it is possible that there are things we catch because we are who we are—we are not necessarily of the place, and this may allow for whatever distance is necessary to see some things.
The other thing is that I didn't ask for this gig. I got hired out of University of Maryland by the Baltimore Sun to be a crime reporter in a city that was 65 percent African-Americans. If I didn't do my best to listen to those voices, to acquire some of those voices for my storytelling, I wouldn't have been doing my job. If I'd been a higher-education reporter, maybe I wouldn't have written The Wire. But I didn't ask for the job. They gave me that beat. I wasn't after these stories. (Likewise, Ed grew up in Baltimore and, after he came back from Vietnam, he became a patrolman, and they put him in the Western District.) If we tried to tell these stories, and they were not credible, and if the voices weren't sufficiently authentic, we'd have our heads handed to us—not only by social critics and literati, but by viewers, by regular folk.
I don't know how popular The Wire is on the Upper West Side of New York or Westwood or Des Moines. But I know that in West Baltimore, Omar can't get to the set, because we have people going nuts. Or Stringer Bell or Prop Joe. The show has an allegiance in that community. That's its own answer—not that it's popular, but that it's credible. I was just on 92Q, the hip-hop station. The call came in with someone who said, why did you kill Stringer Bell when the real Stringer Bell is still alive? And I said, oh, you mean Mr. Reed? I explained that Reed was not the real Stringer, but that we mix and match stories. But there we were, talking intimately about the history of West Baltimore drug trade as if we were talking about baseball. If it was as lamely white and unnuanced as some people claim, we'd have been found out a long time ago.