“You the man in the lowrises”–Stringer
One of the best ways to understand the characters on The Wire is to look at what happens when they move up or down within their hierarchical system. “The Target” spends a lot of time following D’Angelo as he encounters a major change in his status within the crew. The challenges he faces as he adjusts to a lower altitude of power reveals a lot, not only about D’Angelo, but also the nature of rank in any hierarchy.
D’Angelo Barksdale starts out with a relatively high rank–he runs the 221 building, one of the five towers that form the territorial foundation of the Barksdale Empire. His last name seems like the obvious explanation for how he held such an important post. From the beginning, D’Angelo is defined in relation to his kingpin uncle, Avon, and he seems to rely on this.
During his first few scenes as a free man, he exhibits carelessness and entitlement that are particular to a beneficiary of nepotism. He gloats about the witness intimidation that earned him his freedom, first in Bey’s car, and then in Orlando’s (in the middle of a lecture from Avon, no less). “You should’ve been there!” he laughs, but Avon doesn’t find it funny (plus, being in the courtroom would be way too high-profile for a drug boss). “That shit costs money. It costs time and money,” Avon says, looking down and shaking his head in disappointment. D’Angelo treats it like a joke, but his freedom comes at a cost, both financial and in terms of exposure (not to mention the bigger cost for the witnesses). Avon yells a little more before saying “you family, right? It’s always love,” a line which reassures D’Angelo, not because of its emotional weight, but because of the power that comes with being a member of the Barksdale clan. D’Angelo takes this power for granted, and he immediately starts talking about getting back to his post at the tower. It never occurs to him that Avon has other ideas.
When D’Angelo shows up at the tower the next morning, he has a hop in his step and he looks eager to reclaim his post. But Stringer is already there waiting for him. “You going out on point, picking up business in the Pit,” Stringer informs him. It is supposed to sound like D’Angelo is being reassigned because of his marketing abilities, but the reality is that he is getting demoted as a punishment for his sloppy play with Pooh. D’Angelo’s instinctive response is to lean on his family connection. “My uncle know about this?” Stringer laughs condescendingly and says, “Now, what you think?” before dangling a carrot: “You might have a tower again if you keep your mind to shit.” Stringer gives D’Angelo the hope of getting a tower back through hard work. The message is clear. D’Angelo has lost the power that his connection to Avon used to give him. Now, the only way to move back up the ladder is to earn it himself.
The problem is that he may not have any actual game. We already know that he handled the Blanchard situation with too much emotion, and his work ethic is not much better. When he shows up to the tower, Stringer comments on how D’Angelo is there early. “I’m on my game today!” he boasts. The problem is that an on-his-game D’Angelo is still later than Stringer, WeeBey, Stinkum, and the other players, who have already set up shop without “little cuz.” (This scene also anticipates the crucial Avon speech about the danger of being “a little late.”)
When D’Angelo finally gets to his new assignment, he faces a world that exists at a lower altitude. The rules have changed. He shakes his head and rolls his eyes as he enters the Pit for the first time. The privileged D’angelo confronts an alien world with that incredible sweeping 360 shot, revolving around Bodie, who is perched like a king on a filthy orange couch. D’Angelo may be the boss in name, but the Pit will never really be his.
In this world, his connection to Avon doesn’t mean as much. He meets his new crew, Bodie, Wallace, and Poot, who immediately recognize his transfer for what it is. “Why’d they put you down here, yo, you mess with the count or something?” Wallace asks. D’Angelo, whose name is now more of a curiosity, tries a new tactic: toughness. “I killed a nigger,” he says. Bodie looks down at his beeper, thoroughly unimpressed. The scene ends with an extreme high-angle shot that depicts the entire Pit framed behind metallic fencing, and the message is clear: D’Angelo has been spared one prison sentence only to be dropped right into another.
This is not to say that D’Angelo is bad at his job. One of the few advantages of being demoted is that you are operating at a lower level than what you are used to. It is like a baseball player designated to the minors to face pitchers throwing less heat. He watches the system set up by his predecessor, Ronnie Moe, and chides Poot for its sloppiness. “We gotta start tightening up man, no more shortcuts,” he shouts. He definitely does know how to organize a crew.
But organizing a crew and running them are two different propositions, and immediately after his legitimate show of authority and skill, he is brought back down again. Bodie responds to D’Angelo’s scolding with a jet of spit. Then, when D’Angelo asks Poot for the count, Bodie publicly corrects him, “I don’t know how you all do shit up in the towers, but down here, you want to count it.” Of course Bodie is right–this is his world, as it is Wallace’s and Poot’s, and they know it better than D’Angelo ever could. Sure enough, D’Angelo discovers Bubbles’ counterfeit bills, but all that he can do is bark some empty threats at his unintimidated underlings (and reveal his ignorance of American Presidents).
D’Angelo is not the only character to experience a change in rank in “The Target.” His closest parallel in this episode is Daniels, who gets put in charge of the unwanted Barksdale detail by Burrell. Until now, he is a “company man,” as Bunk describes him, a prospect on the fast track to Major. That is, if he can lay low. But now, as Major Forrester tells him, “they got you.” This is not necessarily a demotion, and the real motives for putting Daniels in charge of the detail remain murky until the later parts of the season (at this point, it seems to be because he is the only Lieutenant available). Nevertheless, this assignment takes him out of a comfortable environment which he can easily control, and drops him right into a politically-volatile case where he has to grapple with the demands of judges and Deputy Commissioners on on side and insubordinate underlings like McNulty on the other.
It’s not easy being a company man, and when you are, the worst thing that can happen is to lose rank. That is because rank is based on a unique balance of so many strengths: who you know, what type of image you can create for yourself, reputation, luck. Talent and work ethic are in there somewhere as well. The problem is that a demotion by its very nature means that this specific combination is not longer working. D’Angelo’s connection to Avon no longer carries any weight. Daniels can’t just stay safe behind a wall of street-rip paperwork. The only way to get back up that ladder is to adapt and develop a brand new combination of strengths.
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