A few days ago, Grantland asked their writers to each talk about their favorite scene from the greatest TV show of all time, The Wire. Most of the choices were unsurprising in a good way—the opening of the first episode, Avon and Stringer on the balcony reminiscing about their reign, Bunk and McNulty solving a murder with a one-word vocabulary, the greatest chess lesson ever—as far as Wire scenes go, those are all first-ballot Hall-of-Famers. And some of the choices were great under-the-radar scenes that instantly remind you how funny the show could be—Clay Davis on the witness stand, Bunk burning his clothes, Slim Charles talking about church crowns… the possibilities were myriad. But even still, there was a glaring omission, and it happened to be my single favorite scene from the show.
For those of you that haven’t yet watched The Wire (and for the love of god, what are you waiting for?), this is a pretty substantial spoiler, so proceed with caution. But if you still want to continue, here’s a brief set-up: Snoop is one of the chief assassins for the head drug kingpin of West Baltimore, Marlo. Michael is Snoop’s young protégé, but after he’s seen being questioned by the police, Marlo orders her to kill him. Snoop picks Michael up and tells him there’s something they need to go do, but Michael can tell something’s wrong…
Like nearly everything about The Wire, the greatness of this scene lies in the combination of fantastic drama on the surface and harsh truth in the subtext. Early in the scene, Snoop says “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it,” which was also a key line from the climax of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Best Picture winner, Unforgiven. In that film, Eastwood’s William Muny says it just before killing Little Bill, the evil sheriff played by Gene Hackman. Bill says he doesn’t deserve to die that way, but it doesn’t matter to Muny, who only cares about revenge. The key to that line in Unforgiven is that, in some cases, bigger things are at work than fairness. But it’s different in the world of West Baltimore. When Snoop says, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it,” she really means it. There are the rules of the game, and that’s all there is. That Michael would even think about what someone deserves just proves how unfit he was for the path he walked. “You was never one of us,” Snoop tells him. “And you never could be.”
The most shocking and memorable part of the scene is also the most revealing. When Snoop knows it’s over, she doesn’t try anything, doesn’t plead, and doesn’t even appear sad. “How my hair look, Mike?” she asks. At first, this line seems quasi-ridiculous and only included for the sake of being poignant and memorable. But the more it sinks in, the more dead-on realistic it feels. Some people are meant for the game, and some aren’t. When Wallace’s ticket gets punched in Season One, Bodie yells at him to take it like a man. But Wallace can’t, because he was never equipped to lead the life of a corner boy. For him, there’s no such thing as a manly way to handle death. Snoop is a different animal. She understands the mortality of the life she’s chosen. Or, perhaps more accurately, she understands that mortality isn’t even something to understand. Like she says, sometimes “it’s [your] time, that’s all.”
And that’s one of the most depressing lessons from The Wire: in the drug trade, your name means something, and your reputation means something, but your life doesn’t. There was a telling line in David Fincher’s American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo where the killer says “it’s interesting how the fear of insulting can be more powerful that the fear of death.” In The Wire, there virtually is no fear of death, only the fear of losing your credibility. Snoop doesn’t have a life; she has a gun, a car, a nail gun, and a lot of black hoodies, and she does what she’s told. But she has credibility. She knows the rules of the game. And when she realized it was her time, the only thing that mattered at that point was how she went out. Girl wanted to look her best.
It’s easy for shows and movies to manufacture fake sadness, but the scenes that really live in our minds and still depress us years later are the ones grounded in deep, unspeakable truth. It’s upsetting to watch Snoop face her death because she treats it as nothing more than a minor inconvenience, and it’s this lack of understanding in the value of life that lies at the center of so much pain in The Wire.
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And just for the hell of it, here are six more of my favorite moments from The Wire that weren’t mentioned in the Grantland piece:
1. The ending montage from Season Two, set to Steve Earle’s “I Feel Alright.”
2. Bunny Colvin revealing the existence of Hamsterdam at the deputy ops meeting.
3. Rawls playing “Ride of the Valkyries” as the cops swoop in and take down Hamsterdam.
4. Carver realizing that both he, and the system, had failed Randy, and there was nothing he could do about it.
5. Bodie realizing he has to change or die, and choosing the latter.
6. Marlo strolling down to the corners in his suit, compelled to prove that the streets were still his.