In the morally-ambiguous world of The Wire, there are few truly-noble characters, but there is no doubt that Shardene, the stripper from the county, is one of them. From the beginning, she is presented to us as an honest soul in a world of players. She pays back one disgruntled customer even though she didn’t actually take his money, and later she reveals her blissful ignorance of her true employers and their business. Perhaps that is what keeps her noble–she exists outside of the game (even more so than the arguably-noble Omar). She lives by a simpler code of honesty, fairness, and simple human decency. As Freamon puts it “she’s a citizen.”
There is no greater evidence of Shardene’s character than when Kima and Freamon bring her in to try to flip her. They come at her directly, even bluntly, and she repays that directness by offering little resistance and no bullshit. She agrees to help them out even though they have nothing on her. They have no leverage, no charge on her and nothing material they can offer. They flip her with a purely ethical appear. For the genuinely ethical Shardene, that is more than enough.
Of course, it is that very ethical nature that draws Kima and Freamon to her in the first place. This goes back to the scene where they pick her out from all of Orlando’s strippers. “I like her face,” Kima says. Freamon is even more specific: “Soul, conscience, whatever you want to call it.” Later in that same episode, we see proof of that soul in the concern Shardene shows for her missing coworker Kiesha, the way she empathises with D’Angelo’s plight, and her awareness of a stable life that is only possible outside of the game.
This awareness comes into play again in “Game Day,” as Kima and Freamon bring her in for questioning. While Kima sets up the interrogation room, Shardene turns the tables by questioning Freamon about his models. It is the first time anybody has shown an interest in this quirky hobby (with the exception of Sydnor’s bemused questioning in “The Detail”) and Freamon is happy to talk about his hobby with a person who has actually owned her own dollhouse and who can recognize the beauty of the furniture that he makes. When he says “I only make em and sell em,” she replies “That seems kind of sad. You should have a house for them. “ Shardene may have previously told D’Angelo that she doesn’t want a “key,” but she clearly longs for a piece of the security and warmth that a domestic life can offer.
So when the real interview begins, Kima and Freamon force Shardene to face the reality that the world she works in is the exact opposite of this, even if she is blind to its criminal element. This acknowledgement of reality is part of their appeal. Shardene denies knowledge of the Barksdale crew’s murderous doings, but by telling her, the detectives make her complicit. “Now you do know, right, because we are telling you.” They strip her of her ability to hide behind a curtain of ignorance. Kima senses this, and she realizes that the best way to push Shardene over the edge is to bring her into the coldest example of the deadly Barksdale world: the morgue.
It is a chilling scene in every sense of the word. The camera slowly pans across the corpse of Shardene’s dead friend as the coroner lists the clinical details behind her death. She was found nude in a dumpster, with positive toxicology for heroin and cocaine, and the semen of three men in all three of her orifices. Shardene’s face registers the sheer horror at her friend’s inhuman fate. As with the two previous visits to the morgue (to see the bodies of Gant and Brandon) there is a clear division between the objective and the emotional.
Kima and Freamon do their best to bridge that gap, retelling the story in a way that adequately incorporates their outrage at the perpetrators. More specifically, they place the responsibility precisely where it belongs–into the hands of the people who so callously disposed of the body. First Freamon and then Kima use the phrase “that’s how they do.” Kima elaborates. “She overdosed and whoever was with her didn’t do shit but roll her up and throw her away.” And later, “they fucked her and threw her away.” By using the pronoun “they,” Kima keeps the focus broad enough, not just on a single person, but everybody who profits off of a game that disposes of people in such a way.
It is a powerful condemnation, framing Keisha’s death as more than just an isolated event. It is routine for the crew, as much a part of the game as moving product or chasing a rival gang off of the corner. More importantly, the detectives expose the twisted rationale that enables the crew members to act this way. They hint at their wire, which they describe as a way to know “what they’re thinking.” It is like a magical portal into the twisted psychology of the crew members. In the case of Keisha, they said “the stupid bitch didn’t know how good the snort was at Little Man’s party. That it’s her own fault.” Kima extends this to the ethic of the entire game. “They use people, and when they throw ‘em away they find a way to say it ain’t on them.” As much as the members of the crew pretend that there are rules to this game they are playing, they will do whatever suits them, and when they need to cross a line, they simply rationalize it away.
As much as Kima and Freamon rely on “they” to describe the Barksdales, we know that Shardene must be personalizing it, thinking of the one member of the crew who she really knows: D’Angelo. She says, half to herself, “lying motherfucker, he said they took her to a hospital.” We already know about this lie, since we saw D’Angelo evade the issue of Keisha in the previous episode. But in that same scene, we also saw D’Angelo express an almost identical outrage at the ethics of the game, especially when he says “you got people using each other.” It seems like a contradiction, and when Shardene says “he seemed like he was different,” we seem to agree. After all, like Freamon, we feel like we know D’Angelo by now. We have seen enough of him to know that he has more of a conscience than the rest of the crew.
And yet, conscience or no, he still lied about what happened with Keisha. There is no way to know if he actively helped dispose of the body, but at the very least, he lied about her death, and at the worst, he left her in the hands of the very people who let her overdose to begin with. No matter how you look at it, he is culpable.
That is the problem with being a member of a gang. D’Angelo is sensitive and empathetic. He has the emotional capacity to feel horrified at the dead body that he finds in Little Man’s house, and he suffers the guilt afterwards. But he is still part of a game that says that a death like that needs to be swept under the rug (or rolled up in it), and the game also says that no matter how much D’Angelo objects to this, he can’t say anything about it because that would make him a snitch. D’Angelo is ethical in a vacuum, but those ethics will always be subject to the broader ethics of the game in which he plays. From Avon and Stringer all the way on down to Bodie and Poot, the crew operates like a machine, bringing in money and spitting out drugs, taking territory and tearing up the fiends and rival gangs in the process. The bottom line is all that matters. Anything else is just material to get to that profit margin.
It is fitting, then, that the Barksdales use garbage bags to move money and product (we see this twice in “Game Day”: in Omar’s heist and the bag of money that Herc and Carver take from Wee-Bey). From a practical level, a garbage bag is the perfect vessel for moving illegal goods. It is opaque, sturdy, and easily transportable. But it also suggests that the objects in the bag, whatever they may be, are irrelevant. They are merely means to operate a more profitable business. They are “product.”
So later in the episode, when Shardene finally moves out of D’Angelo’s apartment, she appropriately packs her things in a garbage bag. She confronts him with this notion, both directly and indirectly. “I don’t look like something you could roll up in a rug and throw in the trash?” she asks. As she walks out, she asserts her own humanity, taking her own possessions so that she doesn’t become a possession for somebody else.
It is a key decision, one that she probably arrived at while sitting in the detail office after the visit to the morgue. Back from the land of the dead, Freamon takes the final step towards convincing Shardene to help them out. “Keisha was not the first. Unless somebody steps up a little bit, she’s not going to be the last neither.” He reinforces what she saw in the morgue, telling her that the crew thrives on turning people into disposable objects.
He then calls on her directly, calling on her to do what she can to end it. Unfortunately, the very detachment that enables the detectives to flip Shardene also means that she has no access to the information she wants. The only people worth flipping can’t be flipped. Still, she opens up the possibility of some information (which will become important later).
There is an surprisingly-tender moment at the end of this scene, one that sticks out among the ugliness of Keisha’s death and the other pieces of Barksdale business that dominate the show. As Freamon convinces Shardene to help them out, she plays with one of his models. He notices and says “You like that one, why don’t you keep it?” She whispers a grateful “thank you” and looks down at it. It is a baby in a cradle. She gently caresses its hand, and it moves in a lifelike way. It is the great irony that this model baby, crafted by Freamon’s careful, precise hands and taken into Shardene’s warm embrace, feels more human than any of the disposable players of the drug game.