I just finished my 5th rewatch of The Wire, the critically acclaimed HBO drama that ran from 2002-2008, and it remains the greatest television show of all time.
To paraphrase many, no other show tells the story of American life with as much grace, humor, and pathos. It does not settle for facile solutions or maudlin endings. It explores the brokenness of Baltimore and by proxy America. It is a devastating, draining show to watch, one that has changed how I see the world forever.
Watching The Wire again, I was struck by how many left-wing themes are found in the show. When The Wire premiered in 2002, I was a typical liberal democrat and viewed The Wire through that lens, one largely based on liberal solutions to buttress institutions and confront racism. But in 2021, I am an avowed socialist who believes capitalism must fall in order to save humans from themselves. David Simon, the creator of The Wire, is not a socialist himself– he is against unfettered capitalism but believes it is the only game in town– but The Wire is a searing capitalistic critique with socialist undertones. As Simon once said, “capitalism is the ultimate god in The Wire. Capitalism is Zeus.” But like Zeus, capitalism favors some but mostly strikes lightning randomly to the terrified hoppers and dealers of West Baltimore.
One character, in particular, stood out in my rewatch with regard to left-wing themes: Bodie Broadus (if you want to have a far more detailed Marxist interpretation of The Wire, I urge you to read this wonderful Jacobin piece published in 2018). In previous rewatches, I didn’t particularly like Bodie. After all, he was responsible for the death of Wallace, who is maybe the most heartbreaking and sympathetic character in the entire show. Additionally, Bodie’s aggressiveness and hardened street countenance with its stench of toxic masculinity made it hard for me to care about him. I was always more interested in the softer male characters like Bubbles, Cutty, Dukie, or Wallace.
But on this rewatch, I found myself identifying with Bodie’s arc and death more than ever. Bodie has not changed, of course. He hasn’t aged in 15 years. But something has changed in me. It was hard to see in the past because of his callous behavior, but Bodie (and his counterpoint Poot) are symbols of more. Bodie is the proletariat, a working-class man who trapped and exploited by the moneyed interests around him. And Bodie’s tragic end is the tragic end of much of the working class in the history of labor, one of alienation, suffering, and death.
Bodie’s workplace is his corner, which is one of the most dangerous offices in the world. On the corner, a drug dealer is liable to get beaten, murdered, or arrested and jailed. Unlike his capitalist bosses– Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell, and Marlo Stanfield– Bodie takes almost all the risk daily but gets little of the financial reward. As the many years of slanging heroin and cocaine have finally worn him down, during season 4, Bodie tells McNulty in the most revealing moment for his character,
“I been doing this a long time. I ain’t never said nothing to no cop. I feel old. I been out there since I was 13. I ain’t never f***ed up a count, never stole off a package, never did some shit that I wasn’t told to do. I been straight up. But what come back? Hmm? You’d think if I get jammed up on some shit they’d be like, “A’ight, yeah. Bodie been there. Bodie hang tough. We got his pay lawyer. We got a bail.” They want me to stand with them, right? But where the f*** they at when they supposed to be standing by us? I mean, when shit goes bad and there’s hell to pay, where they at? This game is rigged, man. We like the little bitches on a chessboard.”Bodie Broadus
The pawn metaphor is a callback to a conversation had with Wallace, Bodie, and D’Angelo Barksdale in season 1. In that scene lays out his chess metaphor for the drug game, describing each piece on the board and its real-world adjacent. When D’Angelo gets to the pawns, Bodie, Wallace, and D’Angelo have this back and forth,
“So, how do you get to be the King?” – Wallace
“It ain’t like that. See, the King stay the King. Aight? Everything stay who they is, except for the Pawn. Now, if a Pawn made it all the way down to the other dudes side he get to be Queen, and like I said the Queen ain’t no bitch. She got all the moves.” – D’Angelo
“But if I make it to the end I’m top dog?” – Bodie
“Nah yo, It ain’t like that. Look, the Pawns in the game – they get capped quick, they be out the game early.” – D’Angelo Barksdale
“Unless they some smart-ass Pawns.” – Bodie
At this point early in season 1, Bodie is still enthralled with The Game. The promise of respect, power, and money have seduced him. In West Baltimore, the economic opportunities for a black male are limited. For his age, 16 in season one, Bodie is upwardly mobile unlike many of his peers. He has a future. Maybe, with just a little luck, he can become the next Avon or Stringer. The realities of alienation and exploitation of the game are not in focus.
But as the seasons move forward, Bodie begins to see that his options are limited. Bodie has been failed by the many institutions around him, particularly the school system, which season 4 explores in depth. Bodie is no dummy. While education may help the bourgeois either keep their class status or become upwardly mobile, the school system is a fraud for kids like Bodie. As Dukie, another child character failed by the system, asks so sadly in season 5, “How do you get from the rest of the world to here?” For kids like Bodie and Dukie, this question is not rhetorical. The answer is that they can’t. Baltimore, particularly West Baltimore is the only world they know. As Bodie says in season 2, “Why would anyone want to leave Baltimore anyway?”
Now years later, Bodie is tired, emotionally, and psychologically burnt out by life. He realizes he is a pawn, just another member of the proletariat to be taken advantage of. He is middle management. He has no real power or control over his work. Yes, he sells his own package but is soon eaten up by Marlo’s quest for monopoly. Like a pawn, Bodie is expendable. Like a pawn, Bodie’s only purpose is to serve the king and queen so that they can accumulate more surplus-value, buy businesses and private property, while his economic status remains the same. Like a pawn, Bodie knows his time is short.
Bodie is alienated by the fruits of his labor, as his value is only found in what he produces. Bodie finds no meaning or takes no pleasure in heroin or cocaine. He does not use it. Capitalism distances meaning from our work. Bodie works to produce for others, not for himself. He is a cog in the division of labor. Drugs are a commodity to sell, just as his labor is a commodity to sell. But labor is cheap. For every murdered or jailed “hopper” on the corner, there are thousands waiting in the wings to take his place. And so Bodie’s labor is replaceable and exploitable, just a pawn waiting to be killed or jailed so the next generation can take over.
The tragedy of Bodie’s fate is juxtaposed by Bodie’s extreme competence. Bodie is everything capitalism asks of labor. He shows up on time every single day and works. He takes no vacations. He rarely messes up. He is obedient and loyal to a fault, so much so that he murders for the sake of his superiors. But loyalty in capitalism will not save you. The bosses will cut you free the second you are not needed anymore or threaten the system. The game is rigged. There is nowhere to go.
Bodie’s last stand on his corner takes place on a dark Baltimore night. As Marlo’s forces encircle him, and his best friend urges him to run, Bodie yells out “This is my corner!” Here is a cry for life in the face of powerlessness and death. His life is a leitmotif of capitalism, exploitation, and death. And he will not back down despite the gunshots all around him. More than any character on The Wire he is all of us, the 99%, the ones who work and work and work but are always at the mercy of the exploiters. In this absurdist rage, the rage of a life given little value by the society at large, Bodie fires back, shooting aimlessly in the dark. And out from the shadows, a figure walks up to him and fires. Bodie is dead. He will be forgotten. Black, poor, and selling drugs, no one more mourns for the Bodies of the world. The cruel energy of capital moves full speed ahead, not caring who it runs over in the process.