My middle son is a cold-hearted drug enforcer who brutally murdered a young man poised to leave a life of crime.
His father and I couldn't be prouder.
Darrell, 22, has for two years played O-Dog on The Wire, the searing HBO series about life on Baltimore's drug-strangled streets that ended last night after a five-year run. It's safe to say that my son isn't much like O-Dog, one of several young thugs who provided "muscle" for the ruthless young kingpin Marlo Stanfield. Darrell is a middle-class college student who never gets high—several of his running buddies laugh about their failed attempts to tempt him—and whose "crew" is a multicultural mix of hardworking Gen-Xers. He's a hip-hop lover who also appreciates pop, rock and jazz, whose comfortable suburban lifestyle includes yearly trips to the Outer Banks.
It's hard to describe how surreal it was, watching the young man I know—his face largely obscured by a hood—emerge from the shadows and pump two bullets into the head of Bodie, the thoughtful young pusher of a rival crew. One of my favorite "Wire" characters, Bodie, too, was a killer. But after years on the streets, he'd become disillusioned with his dead-end prospects and with the Stanfield crew's greed and viciousness, excessive even by dealers' standards. Days before he was killed, Bodie was taken to Baltimore's Cylburn Arboretum by a cop hoping to convince him to testify against Stanfield. Struck by the lush acreage around him, Bodie asked, "We still in the city?" He sounded surprised that his harsh hometown could hold such beauty.
Fans of The Wire were accustomed to flashes of poignancy and grace emerging like daisies from its concrete sensibilities. They can't imagine life without the show, which shines an all-too-realistic light on a world invisible to millions: Poverty-ridden neighborhoods both supported and decimated by the drug trade. These days, TV is more likely to chronicle the adventures of wannabe pop stars, attractive mutants with superpowers, and government agents who save the world twelve times in a 24-hour span. The Wire was a raw and engrossing alternative. It illuminated a world where power is relative, corruption routinely wins, and people struggle to save even themselves.
I became a regular viewer last year, Season 4, when Darrell joined the cast. Although I knew it was TV's best-reviewed program, I had avoided watching it. Not only do I get absurdly attached to fictional characters in books and TV series, but I cover my eyes during violence onscreen. I knew that The Wire was unflinchingly graphic in its depiction of the drug trade's relentless murders—far more realistic than "The Sopranos," whose sky-high body count belies the fact that many more Jawans than Giovannis wind up as chalk outlines on America's streets.
Because life on The Wire is as cheap as it is in the 'hood, viewers get attached to characters at their own risk. So why watch? I figured it's hard enough just knowing about the incalculable loss of African-American heart, brains and imagination to the drug trade without watching it in living color each week. I'd written too many columns about the scourge of fatherlessness in America to want to observe its effects on bright boys like Michael, the youthful Wire character who wreaks vengeance on the stepfather who abused him, or on Namond, whose father is a jailed drug enforcer and whose mother berates him for being insufficiently thuggish to carry on the family legacy.
But suddenly Darrell was on it, so I had to watch. I discovered a series with explosive writing, unpredictable story lines and a cast with some of the best actors working on the planet. I learned that young black men who play heartless gangsters—such as Jamie Hector, whose dead-eyed Marlo Stanfield is a murderous island of calm—can be engaging and polite when they're sipping ice water in your living room.
Last season's examination of the Baltimore school system took my breath away as it broke my heart. By focusing on four likable middle-school boys, the show demonstrated with excruciating realism how the drug culture seduces, brutalizes and abandons urban children. This peek inside the lives of this very human quartet—kids different from Darrell's suburban friends only in their addresses and opportunities—-explained how decent kids' desperate situations make them vulnerable to the streets. By the season's end, it didn't even seem ironic that the smartest and bravest of the four was embraced as a comer by the dealers.
But hey, my relationship with The Wire was riddled with ironies: The horror of watching a Stanfield soldier wave a gun under O-Dog's nose—and feeling it turn to pride at the combination of fear, anxiety and bravado that played across my son-the-actor's face. The thrill of Darrell getting the opportunity to play exactly the kind of ruthless, directionless young man that I'd done everything in my power not to have him become.
Wishing there were half as many opportunities for the young, smart, well-educated actors I met on the show to play….young, smart, well-educated brothers instead of gangsters. Or to at least be nominated for the Emmys they deserved.
The fear and anxiety that play across my face every time I considered how real this frightening, make-believe world is for millions who can't escape it by clicking a remote.
I'm sad to see The Wire go. And even sadder that the conditions that inspired it will almost certainly continue their all-too-lengthy run.
Donna Britt is currently writing a memoir for Little, Brown and Company.