From my first viewing of The Wire Season 4, I have always been struck by just how quickly Simon and Co. make us care about the four boys. It is no easy task to drop four completely unknown characters into an already densely-populated world and expect the audience to connect to them.
And yet, by the time the boys step into Edward Tilghman Middle School to begin their Eighth Grade year, I already feel I know these boys, and I already feel invested in the paths that they will take over the next two seasons.
Watching Season 4 again, this time with a group of students new to the show as a whole, I noticed one reason why we make this quick connection. In 4.2 “Soft Eyes,” the annual childhood ritual of Back-To-School Shopping serves as a window into these boys’ lives.
Who can’t associate with that sinking feeling that comes across students around mid-August, when the first ads for Back-To-School fashions and school supply sales start appearing on TV and in the newspapers? I have to admit that, even now, I experience it, just as I still experience the same thrill when I get a phone call about a snow day.
But unlike these boys I never had to worry about where my school supplies were coming from, or whether I would have new, clean clothes to wear. In the Westside it is a different story. So as each boy deals with this need, we get a clearer picture of where each of their priorities lie.
Let’s take a look at them, from the bottom up:
Dukie is established from the beginning as the poorest, the most desperate of the boys. In “Boys Of Summer,” he is clearly the group’s punching bag, the Kenny to Namond’s Cartman. They mock his smell and the squalor in which he lives (“Hey Duke, how you know what running water sound like?”). His unlucky streak continues in “Soft Eyes,” when he happens to be the one boy not around when Monk comes around to give out Marlo’s cash.
Instead, Dukie ends up being the beneficiary of a second handout, this one far more well-intentioned and ethically-sound than Marlo’s drug money. Assistant Principal Marcia Donnelly sends highly-responsible classmate Crystal to Dukie’s house with a box of new clothes and supplies, along with the warning not to give the box to anybody other than Dukie. That scene gives us our only real look at Dukie’s dwelling, and the disturbing sight of an older male relative staggering as he eyes the box and sees the vials of Pandemic that he can convert it into. He grunts a primal command, “Gimme!,” before Dukie opens the window and intervenes. The boy’s greeting is so sweet, so in discord with the world in which he lives (both home and city) that it sets him up as the fragile child that needs to be protected. Even the most modest charity is unlikely to get to him.
Earlier in the episode, Namond solicits Bodie for a job for Michael, explaining that his friend needs money for school supplies, both for himself and for his little brother, Bug (who we hear about for the first time). Bodie responds in frustration, saying “What the fuck this look like, the Social Security Office?” He is not too far off the mark. Michael’s need to work for the money suggests the lack of parental influence at home. Or rather, Michael is the parental influence, caring for Bug just as Wallace cared for other neighborhood boys four years earlier.
His motive for working the corner stands in sharp contrast with Namond’s motive. The latter works in an ill-fated attempt to live up to the impossible standards of his tall-standing father, Wee-Bey (not to mention his fierce mother, De’Londa). Earlier, when visiting Namond tells prisoner Bey that he is just a lowly runner, the look of fatherly disappointment is palpable, as is Namond’s need to impress. But that need is not as strong as Michael’s more immediate need to care for his family, so Namond graciously steps down, offering Michael his position (this act of genuine friendship perfectly balances out the more-subtle tensions between Michael and Namond as they vie to be dominant in the young crew).
It is hard to call a boy taking a job running drugs responsible, but it is at the very least mature. For Michael, that maturity is emphasized by his later refusal of Marlo’s $200 handout. As much as he needs money, he also understands the significance of where it comes from. This is rare in a world where so many people, from young hoppers to State Senators stay wilfully blind to the origins of their money (“I’ll take any motherfukers money if he giving it away.”) As Marlo later observes, Michael is willing to work for it, but he won’t take it.
Michael is wary of taking money from Marlo. On the other end of the spectrum sits cornrowed, smiling Randy. He is so eager for cash that he even asks for the $200 that Michael refuses (“Don’t press,” Namond says, afraid of being embarrassed in front of the true gangsters whose attention he covets). In fact, Randy is so happy, so likeable, that it is easy to miss just how greedy, how money obsessed he is. It is also easy to miss how good Mr. Wagstaff has it with Miss Anna.
But the greed is there, right from the start. We see it in “Boys of Summer” when he sends Lex on his path to the vacant, all for a few bucks from Little Kevin. In this episode, as the boys debrief their sudden windfall, Randy explains why he asked for more. Unlike Michael and Dukie, Randy has a responsible caretaker in the form of foster mother Miss Anna, and she already gave him money for school supplies. But the money is gone, with neither pencil nor pair of pants to show for it. He explains that he invested all of the money into his burgeoning business. “I could’ve used that extra. I already spent all the clothes money Miss Anna gave me on stuff to sell at school.” Here is the true image of the young capitalist, reappropriating money away from needed supplies and into seed money for a potential windfall. So there is a sort of poetic justice in the fact that Randy is the one boy who loses his $200 when he gets caught by thieving Officer Walker. He gets money for his school supplies twice over, but never gets to spend a penny on any actual supplies.
At the top of this most modest of hierarchies stands loud-mouthed Namond, the heir apparent to the ruins of the Barksdale Empire. But that doesn’t mean that he has it all. In fact, he spends most of the episode complaining about his poverty. Part of that is earned–he does give up his job to allow Michael the opportunity to earn money for his supplies. The other part of it is absurd, as De’Londa threatens to withhold money until he starts doing better at Bodie’s corner (my students were rightly shocked at this case of a parent disciplining her child for NOT selling drugs).
That leads to a further absurdity: the rich who cry poverty. Michael points this out when he says that Namond’s family “got more money than all of us.” Nor is Namond afraid to flaunt it, particularly when it comes to his clothes. In the Monk scene, Namond wears a throwback jersey (the 99 of late-Philadelphia Eagles’ legend Jerome Brown), and even uses it as an excuse for backing down from a scuffle with Michael (“if I didn’t have this shit on, I’d have fucked you up.”) For Namond, money is his image and his shield. It is also love, or at least the twisted version of love that he gets from De’Londa.
The episode ends with the spoiled child getting exactly what he wants in exchange for absolutely nothing, except an obsession with image. Namond returns home to a grotesque distortion of a heartwarming mother-son moment. We see the Brice house, full of tropical fish and gaudy furniture, swirling with cigarette smoke, brash talk, and the earsplitting sound of “Love Rollercoaster.” Namond defiantly swipes a cigarette and heads to his room where he sees the ultimate back-to-school bounty, his bed piled high with jerseys, designer clothes, and bling. “You ain’t think my son gonna go up to that school lookin’ like himself?” she says, and he blows her a kiss. All is right in his world, at least for now, and he disappears into a game of Halo 2.
He is all set for school to begin, and so are his friends, no matter what they will be wearing, or how they got it. In the end, the clothes don’t have any bearing on what the boys will learn and how, but it says a lot about the various worlds they occupy. As the season progresses, that may prove to be the more important factor.