Like most people I know, I was (and am) a ________ fan of The Wire. If you are puzzled by the blank space in the above sentence, it’s there because I cannot, at this moment, find the perfect word to describe the nature of my fandom; obsessed strikes the wrong tone, implying a kind of crazed, slobbering devotion, while even huge seems insufficient in fully capturing the enormity of my affection and admiration (enormous is just clownish and awkward). I also toyed with loyal, but there is something obsequious and cold about the term, and fervid–though a pleasure to both look at and roll around the tongue–connotes a kind of manic ardency that as a grown woman I am not willing to confess to, (though it may, perhaps, be the most accurate characterization of my spectatorial position).
I came to the show early on, a fact I would like to use as evidence of some kind of great instinct or insight on my part, but that would be a lie. In truth, it was my local video store owner who, in 2004, suggested I check out the first two seasons after watching me spend the better part of an hour wandering aimlessly around the store, growing more weary and more depressed. He was a surprisingly au courant and adventurous fellow who stocked his shelves with all manner of arty Anglo fare despite being situated in a mostly French, and at the time, mostly geriatric and unhip neighborhood. As a footnote, I am sad to say that despite his great instincts and insights, he was unable to stem the tides of change, and had to close the absurdly named Video Ultra Laser in the fall of 2011.
When The Wire ended its run in 2010, many of us were unprepared for the emptiness that would swell up in its wake. Intellectually, we knew that what we were watching was a fiction, and that the various narrative threads were arcing towards their conclusions, but we had not done the necessary prep work on an emotional level. Having spent so much time with these characters, we thought of them as family and wanted them to remain with us. We may have even imagined them as friends, or lovers, despite the fact that many of them were not likely to make very desirable companions–Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) comes to mind as an obvious exception.
Of course some of them suffered untimely deaths, but though these losses were sometimes deeply felt–one word: Wallace–we had closure, knowing that they had moved onto to another, perhaps better place. But those who lived, they were the ones whose sudden absences were harder to find a place for, existing as they did in a kind of parallel universe that one could imagine still somehow carried on. All we could do was pray that some day we might be granted re-entry to this world.
Of course, these attachment issues are not specific to viewers of The Wire. In fact, this kind of emotional holding-on to characters is what drives the world of fan fiction and makes the business of Hollywood franchises so lucrative. And while I may shake my head in wonder and scorn at the arrested adolescents who dress up as their favorite Star Trek characters and hang out at Comic-Con, am I really any different? If you knew how excited I am about the Bluth family’s return to the screen, you would realize the answer is no.
In academia, there is a concept called intertextuality, which has a plethora of definitions, but can be most basically understood as the way that texts–be they literary, filmic or televisual–speak to each other, inform one other, influence each other. According to this understanding, we can identify intertextuality in the relationship between fan fiction and its original texts, between prequels and sequels, in remakes and parodies and pastiches, and in the many elements–characters and actors, but also objects and symbols and motifs–that travel across textual borders, drawing links between unrelated texts that would otherwise not exist. As I mentioned in my essay on Tom Cruise, if we acknowledge Cruise himself as a kind of human text, we can see a range of intertextualities between his own persona and the many characters that he inhabits. And this is perhaps true with most famous actors, excluding that rare breed–Daniel Day Lewis and Tilda Swinton, to name two–who despite their celebrity maintain an uncanny ability to disappear into a role.
For the audience member, identifying the actor who played a favorite character in a new context can be great fun; the heart stirs, the memory jogs, and the unconscious work of incorporating what is known into what is being learned begins. In the months following The Wire finale, when we still had an old-fashioned TV and sometimes watched things just because they were on–how strange and antiquated this seems to me now–we sat through a bunch of crap for the simple reason that a beloved actor was on in a guest role. But because for the most part we did not know these actors before they showed up on The Wire, they appeared to us in these new contexts as the characters they portrayed; and so it was that Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) got up to his old law-breaking tricks on Law & Order: SVU and Lt. Daniels (Lance Reddick) hovered on the periphery of Lost.
Intertextuality does not require any intent on the part of the actor, writer or director, and in many cases, such as the ones named above, these performances were not meant to carry resonances from other texts; they were simply the result of working actors taking jobs where they could get them. But there are times when the significance of the casting cannot be overlooked and an assumption of intent is impossible to shake.
In comedy, these intertextual echoes tend to skim the surface; a quick and knowing gag played for easy laughs. This is certainly the case in the insurance comedy, Cedar Rapids, when Senator Clay “shiiiiiiiiite” Davis (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) shows up as Ronald Wilkes and says: “I do a pretty convincing Omar from the HBO program, The Wire.” In dramatic shows, however, they often serve more weighty functions, adding tension and suspense, foreshadowing narrative turns or dropping red herrings, or simply adding dramatic or thematic gravitas.
In the most recent season of Damages, Chris Partlow (Gbenga Akinnagbe) is seen lurking menacingly in the shadows, or so it seems. It is later revealed that he is in fact working for the good guys, though with our knowledge of the show’s penchant for twists and turns, and the image of Partlow’s acts of brutality still fresh in our minds, it is easy to suspect that our first reading of this character might in fact be the right one. The opposite is true in the first season of Treme. Here, when we discover that Albert Lambreaux’ (Clarke Peters) tools have been stolen by a two-bit thief, we expect to see him respond with that composure that we know so well. We recognize that bow-legged walk and that look that Lester Freamon gets in his eyes when he’s making a decision, and we never for a minute expect that things are going to get so bloody so fast.
But my absolute favorite Wire Club appearance thus far occurs in season four of Friday Night Lights. Though the episode is officially called “The Lights in Carroll Park,” I prefer to think of it as the righting of the wrongs. After Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) moves to the other side of the tracks in the show’s fictional home town, Dylan, Texas, he discovers that his future success depends on a troubled but gifted teenager played by our most beloved Wire character, Wallace (Michael B. Jordan). This character, Vince Howard, is what Wallace might have become had he actually managed to get away from the game and into school, but Vince’s life is not perfect; his father is in jail, his mother in rehab, and his efforts to stay on the right side of the law are being constantly challenged by his old gang.
Taylor, a white coach now working in a mostly black school and neighborhood is having trouble connecting with the community and knows that this is the first step in getting his team together, so he hires a familiar face: D’Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) as Elden, who has managed to escape D’s fate and become a reformed gang member/youth worker. Though Elden’s work is more generalized here–he is trying to help everyone, not just Vince–his success plays a crucial role in the trajectory of that character’s life, but when the two actors are standing in the field looking at each other, they are transformed by memory and experience, and when Elden (now D’Angelo) smiles that smile of his, you know that he knows that he has finally started down the path to making things right.