So listen: I’ve been sick, okay? I need a short, lazy post to get me back into the swing of things. Now, since 3 of my favorite shows are back in full swing (Community, Park and Rec, and Shameless) I should easily be able to post about any of them. But I still need to marshall all of my mostly happy thoughts on those shows, so instead I’d like to say a few short, very timely words about an underrated character from The Wire. Spoilers for the show if you haven’t watched it already you lazy fuck.
I feel like D’Angelo Barksdale doesn’t quite get the recognition he deserves in The Wire discussions. In all fairness, I once saw a The Wire Top 50 Greatest Characters list and still complained that some were left off – it’s easy for even main players to get lost in the rich mosaic of nuanced characters the show examines over 5 seasons. D’Angelo isn’t quite as showy a character as Omar or Stringer or Proposition Joe, nor is his arc afforded the length of Bodie or Bunk or his uncle Avon. He plays an enormous part in season 1, utters one of the show’s most quoted lines, shuffles off to prison, and then dies halfway through season 2. Even when we stay with the Barksdale family, D is very rarely referenced after his death, and after a while anyone who cared for him – or pretended to – fades away from the action. By the 4th season, with Marlo Stanfield overtaking what remained of D’Angelo’s family legacy, it’s easy to go on without even remembering how significant his original arc was to the foundation of the show. That’s a shame, because in a show already famous for its sympathetic portrayal of characters, D’Angelo still manages to be one of the most openly vulnerable men in the series’ entire run.
Strictly from a plot standpoint, D’Angelo is vital to the intricate structure of the show. It’s his trial that prompts Judge Phelan to ask McNulty what the deal is with the Barksdales, thus opening the door for the entire season 1 detail. It’s the murder of William Gant, the workingman who wasn’t intimidated out of an honest testimony against D’Angelo, that starts off the investigation, connecting Bunk Moreland (and, eventually, Omar Little) to the main action. And it’s D’Angelo’s painfully human guilt that guides us through the drug trade POV in season one. It’s been said about a million times that The Wire is a show about individuals putting their loyalty in a crumbling infrastructure of institutions that continually fail them. But, generally, these are all individuals who are defiantly confident in their loyalties. Take Bodie, who kills one of his best friends in the belief that you have to play by the rules of the game and you will be rewarded. Take Omar, who loses more than a few loved ones and yet continues to stick with the code he’s assigned himself. Take Carver, who has personally seen and contributed to the deficiencies of the police force and continues to trust its ability to take care of poor Randy, until it’s far too late for either of them to ignore the failures of the system. And then look at D’Angelo, a once-confident, even spoiled young man who by the end of the first episode is seriously questioning the morality of the only lifestyle he’s known. D’Angelo doesn’t believe his institution will save him. He doesn’t trust his family to catch him or protect him. But he doesn’t know what else to do.
In a very, very abstract way, the only character with a similar conflict is Prez, another wonderfully complex character who gets far more time than D’Angelo to explore his arc. Prez enters the show enveloped in the protection of his father-in-law, keeping his job even after shooting up a police car and later blinding a kid. At first glance he’s an outright villain, but he eventually feels both a massive guilt for his wrongdoings and a desire for real investigative work. When he takes an honest misstep that costs another officer his life, Prez steps outside of the protection of the police force entirely and becomes a thoroughly unprotected middle school teacher. The two seem to grow very similar consciences, though a direct comparison also highlights the privilege Prez – white, comfortably middle-class, and gainfully employed – has over D’Angelo, son of black market legacy that still dies in prison.
“All my people, man. My father, my uncles, my cousins. It’s just what we do. You just live this shit until you can’t breathe no more.”
D’Angelo’s death broke my heart, but it’s his resignation that really gets to me. Through Larry Gilliard, Jr.’s careful performance it’s obvious how vulnerable and distraught D’Angelo is, and how frustrated he is at the barriers his family has put on him. But instead of actively trying to find a way out, D’Angelo knows there are very few options for a Barksdale, and instead he focuses on steering Wallace in the right direction. The penultimate episode of Season 1, Cleaning Up, is famously difficult to watch thanks to the murder of Wallace, the first famous death in the show. Re-watching the episode, knowing what’s coming for both Wallace and D’Angelo, is even more difficult. There’s a terrific scene between the two of them, after Wallace’s return, when D’Angelo removes his young friend from the influence of Poot and Bodie and gently tries to convince him to go back to school and stay out of the game. His disappointment at Wallace’s return is obvious, and it’s wise – this ends up being the last scene the two will ever share.
For a brief moment, D’Angelo sees a grim way away from his family by turning state’s witness. He explains, without much visible hope, that he’s just looking for a way out and a way to breathe. But in an ultimate example of the institution stifling individual freedom and livelihood, his mother convinces him of his duty to his family – the same family that killed his protége and asks him to accept a maximum sentence for his comparatively trivial involvement in the organization. By the time Stringer arranges for D’Angelo’s “suicide,” the character already seems to be a walking corpse. Even through his only gesture of living – his involvement in the book club and analysis of the Great Gatsby – he reestablishes his ultimate belief that you can never escape the life that you’ve known and the past you’ve carved for yourself. Your family, your government, your past – all will come to crush you in time.
“Because he wasn’t ready to get real with the story – that shit caught up to him”
It’s a lesson D’Angelo caught onto much sooner than the rest. And one I was very sad to watch him learn.