The Wire: Why Omar’s Character Ascended
Existing simultaneously inside and outside a narrative is powerful stuff.
With the recent passing of actor Michael K. Williams, we’ve lost not only a terrific performer, but also the slim chance that he might someday reprise what may have been his greatest role: Omar Little from The Wire1. Originally intended as a one-off character, Omar metastasized in the Wire universe until he was an essential part of it, in no small part due to Williams’ performance.
The Wire may be the greatest crime show in television history—possibly the greatest television show period. It was smart, challenging, and realistic. It constantly mutated to look at different aspects of modern Baltimore life2, which kept it fresh. Characters might be lead in one season, then background in the next. It broke a lot of rules.
It’s interesting to consider Omar’s character, especially because he was never meant to be a huge part of the story. But there’s a reason Omar became such a popular and integral part of the The Wire’s universe, and it has everything to do with those invisible story mechanics most people don’t think about and even writers often overlook. Omar ascended because he was simultaneously inside and outside the overall narrative and universe3.
You come at The King, You Best Not Miss
Omar’s a fascinating character. He’s usually discussed in terms of his surprisingly rigid moral code—Omar believes strongly in having and living by a code. His code precludes involving “civilians” in criminal business, keeping his word at all costs, and being his authentic self at all times4. That by itself makes Omar a remarkable creation in a crime fiction milieu, and it’s well worth discussing. But what really makes Omar interesting, and the main reason he became one of the most-discussed characters from the show (aside from Williams’ mesmerizing performance) is his status in the narrative. Omar is an outsider, and that’s powerful when telling a story5.
This might not be obvious, because Omar appears to be an insider. Like most crime stories, The Wire is divided into two basic groups: Police and criminals. And Omar is one of the criminals, after all—he’s a thief and a killer.
But Omar is not actually part of either group, in a narrative sense. Omar’s an outsider. He’s not a cop, or even particularly friendly or sympathetic to the police. But he’s not part of any of the major criminal gangs the police go up against in the show. Omar is ... Omar. He’s a one-man band, a lone wolf. Omar casts a critical eye on both the police and the criminals. Since he’s outside their rules, he can comment on them objectively as a stand-in for the audience—but an audience stand-in who is more knowledgeable and savvier than the audience.
I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase.
Omar’s special character is clearly shown status in the sixth episode of season two of The Wire, “All Prologue.” Omar is called in as a witness against one of the Barksdale Organization’s soldiers, Bird. Omar should be a terrible witness—he’s clearly a criminal, has little patience for or knowledge of the niceties of courtroom behavior and decorum6, and clearly has a history with Bird. But Omar conveys sincerity, because he’s not part of either side. He is there for himself, for his own reasons, and that makes him believable. There is nothing in this world more convincing than self-interest7.
Omar flouts everyone’s rules. He doesn’t care about insulting the gangsters, he doesn’t hesitate to insult the lawyers. Omar’s testimony here clearly defines him as outside both structures. Omar is the only character in the whole show who sees both sides clearly, who can comment with equal authority on both. As a result, he’s usually the smartest man in any room, and he’s usually the one who sees most clearly what’s going on8. Audiences naturally loved it any time Omar showed up, because they were about to learn something new about the world of The Wire.
Consider how his testimony ends: Detective McNulty walks up and they have this exchange:
McNULTY: You really see him shoot the man?
OMAR: You really asking?
Ah, writing—when it’s good, it doesn’t have to be wordy or ponderous or poetic. In this brief conversation Omar reveals himself: He knows that McNulty is as full of shit as the Barksdales, as the lawyers, as everyone who isn’t Omar. He sees it all—there’s a reason Omar refers to it all as a “game.” Omar has his rules, his code of behavior, and it’s real. But he’s also playing the game. His decision to testify against Bird is personal, and it’s ethical, but it’s also a good move, and Omar is the only one who sees it for it is. It’s a move, and the fact that it lines up with his personal code is secondary9.
These sorts of characters are always fun, and they come in all shapes and sizes. On Star Trek: The Next Generation you had Q, The Office had Stanley—these characters aren’t always as showy or as beloved as Omar, but they perform the same role: They straddle worlds and offer perspective10.
I, too, straddle two worlds: Those of international intrigue and Men Who Resist Pants11. There’s a surprising amount of overlap between these two worlds, actually.
Next Week: Aliens and the art of avoiding exposition.
Sure, we get a goddamn Ray Donovan movie, but no return of The Wire? This universe sucks balls.
Or what was modern Baltimore life. It’s distubring how quickly something like this becomes a time capsule. Was 2002 so long ago? <MAGIC 8 BALL SEZ> Yes.
Also because he was cool, which is the same reason I have ascended in real life.
Being a man who can’t do crimes because his ankles hurt and his hands get so dry he needs access to lotion at all times, I appreciate this rule.
As I can tell you from bitter experience, it is less powerful when you’re at a party where you don’t know anyone.
I dream of someday appearing dramatically in court wearing a novelty tie of some sort. Or at least in a Roger Stone costume. I am prepared to do my time in jail for contempt, yes.
The title of my memoir, friendos: “Nothing in The World More Convincing Than Self-Interest: The Jeff Somers Story.”
One of the best grace notes of this scene — and just about every scene involving Omar — is how he accepts death threats with good humor, because he’s been getting them his entire life.
Florida Stanley would be the exception to this rule. That guy’s just a lot of fun.
Great band name. I offer it freely.