Today is

   "A word to the wise ain't necessary --  
          it's the stupid ones that need the advice."
					-Bill Cosby

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Omar, come back!

I'm way behind in my viewing of The Wire. I know the series has just concluded its five-year run on HBO, but I've only just finished watching the third season.

I still think it's the best thing I've seen on television since . . . well, ever.

And Omar is still my favorite character. Omar is just about everybody's favorite character, as far as I can tell, and it appears that, somewhere in the midst of the third season, the show's writers and producers became slightly uncomfortable with that idea. So they included this scene, in which Bunk takes Omar to task for allowing himself to become a kind of hero to the children of the community [The scene is R-rated for language -- Omar doesn't curse, but Bunk does.] It's a nice enough scene, but it's also a rather typical gesture against the glorification of violence, and -- thank goodness -- the show itself, even the scene itself, doesn't really take Bunk's objections to heart. Omar continues to be "glorified" here precisely because he does take Bunk's objections to heart. He feels it. And I think he feels it because Bunk appeals to his sense of honor. It's what makes Omar, in some ways, more a "Westerner" than a gangster. Robert Warshow's classic description of the movie Westerner fits Omar surprisingly well:

"What [the Westerner] defends, at bottom, is the purity of his own image -- in fact his honor. This is what makes him invulnerable. When the gangster is killed, his whole life is shown to have been a mistake, but the image the Westerner seeks to maintain can be presented as clearly in defeat as in victory: he fights not for advantage and not for the right, but to state what he is, and he must live in a world which permits that statement. The Westerner is the last gentleman, and the movies which over and over again tell his story are the last art form in which the concept of honor retains its strength."

For Warshow, the distinction between the Westerner and the gangster is analogous to the distinction between classical figures and romantic tragic heroes:

"This mature sense of limitation and unavoidable guilt is what gives the Westerner a 'right' to his melancholy. It is true that the gangster's story is also a tragedy -- in certain formal ways more clearly a tragedy than the Westerner's -- but it is a romantic tragedy, based on a hero whose defeat springs with almost mechanical inevitability from the outrageous presumption of his demands: the gangster is bound to go on until he is killed. The Westerner is a more classical figure, self-contained and limited to begin with, seeking not to extend his dominion but only to assert his personal value, and his tragedy lies in the fact that even this circumscribed demand cannot be fully realized."

Stringer Bell is a gangster, and his antecedents are those cinematic figures who spring sui generis from the shadows and anxieties of the modern world. Omar's antecedents are more wide-ranging, and older: the Western outlaw, Robin Hood, Hector.

I don't know what becomes of Omar in the fifth season of The Wire, but I hope that if he dies, he doesn't die like a gangster. I'd like to see him retreat into the world of Baltimore legend and myth, his code preserved even in defeat. I'd like to see him prove that even the mean streets of Baltimore in the 21st century can give rise to something more than grim determinism and approach the realm of art. I'd like to see Omar shoot a bullet out into the wilds of the West Baltimore streets and say, "Bury me where this bullet lands."


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