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The Parallel Demises of Stringer Bell and Wallace on ‘The Wire’

As we approach the 10th anniversary of the series finale, a look back at the connections between the deaths of two pivotal characters

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At the beginning of chapters in textbooks for subjects like science and social studies, there’s always a little box in a corner of the page that has key terms and definitions in it. It’s there to ready the students for the conversations that are going to take place around the text. Let’s do a similar thing here for this article about a piece of The Wire, but know these two things beforehand: (1) If you’ve not watched The Wire, then do not read any further into this article. What follows is a discussion of two of the most pivotal moments of the show and, given how beautifully the show was built and constructed, I do not want to be the one responsible for ruining the experience of watching it for you. (2) If you have watched The Wire, then mostly this will just serve as a friendly refresher, as you no doubt will remember each thing listed here, save for (possibly) the anniversary date of the show’s final episode.

  • The Wire: A television show that, among other things, focused on the drug trade and its residual effects in Baltimore, Maryland. It ran for five seasons on HBO, debuting in 2002 and concluding in 2008.
  • March 9, 2008: The date of the show’s series finale. (Its 10-year anniversary being this week is half of the reason this article exists. The other half is the lots and lots of Easter eggs that we’re going to talk about in a minute.)
  • Avon Barksdale: The kingpin of the Barksdale organization, a very powerful drug trafficking ring in West Baltimore.
  • Stringer Bell: The second-in-command in the Barksdale organization. He oversees the day-to-day operations, effectively making him the more active, more visible piece of the Stringer-Avon partnership. Where Avon is guided by impeccable instincts and a resolute gangster morality, Stringer is guided by business acumen and a desire to advance the Barksdale organization to legal legitimacy.
  • Wallace: A low-level drug dealer in the Barksdale organization. He works in an area called The Pit (a section of low-rise housing) under the rule of D’Angelo Barksdale (Avon’s nephew) and alongside his friends Preston “Bodie” Broadus and Malik “Poot” Carr.
  • Omar Little: An extremely talented and charismatic-on-purpose stickup man who robs drug dealers. He wars with the Barksdale organization for much of the show’s first three seasons, and then with the Stanfield organization after that. (The Stanfield organization is headed by Marlo Stanfield, perhaps the most vicious, most cold-blooded character on the show.)
  • Brother Mouzone: An extremely talented and charismatic-on-accident enforcer-for-hire in the drug trade. He wars with whoever needs to be warred with at any given point, though I’m certain he would never describe what he does as clumsily or as reductively as “wars with.”
  • Easter eggs: An Easter egg is a tiny little present hidden in the creases of a television show or movie (or song, or anything, really). The more intricate or nuanced a thing is, the more opportunities there are for Easter eggs. And since The Wire is, in all likelihood, the overall best television show of all time, it would make sense that there are lots and lots of Easter eggs stashed away in it. (A fun one, for example, is there’s a scene where Marlo Stanfield gives his phone number to a lawyer. Rather than use the regular 555 area code, which is what almost all movies and TV shows use because it leads to nowhere, the show writers opted to give Marlo a Baltimore area code. If you call the number, you get forwarded to an audio clip of Marlo’s iconic “My name is my name” scene from when he and his lieutenants hold court in jail.) (And just as a peek at how detailed and tightly wound The Wire is: The “My name is my name” scene is a callback to, and juxtaposed with, a tiny line in an earlier scene where a drug supplier, as a way to soothe the anxieties of someone who wonders if his anonymity has been compromised, says, “My name is not my name” as they’re in an expensive hotel room together moments before they escape possible arrest.)

Since the anniversary of the series finale is approaching, and also with the recent release of the book All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire, an oral history written by Jonathan Abrams, I’ve been rewatching the series. And while doing so, a thing occurred to me (or, rather, a question occurred to me).

Near the end of the first season (and in one of the show’s most heartbreaking moments), Wallace gets murdered by Poot and Bodie. It happens on the order of Stringer Bell, who grows fearful that Wallace could implicate him (and Avon) in the murder of a stickup boy named Brandon (Omar Little’s robbing partner and also his boyfriend). Wallace walks into an abandoned home that he’s been staying in with Poot and some younger children they’ve been caring for, sees that all of the children are gone, thinks they’re playing hide and seek with him, and then eventually finds himself cornered by Bodie and Poot. Bodie pulls a gun out and starts fussing at Wallace about how he’s not a man and he has to die. Wallace starts crying, begging for mercy. He urinates on himself out of fear. Bodie can’t quite bring himself to shoot Wallace, and so Poot yells at him, causing Bodie to finally shoot Wallace in the chest. Poot takes the gun from Bodie and then shoots Wallace twice to make sure that he’s dead.

Near the end of the third season (and in one of the show’s most shocking moments), Stringer gets murdered by Omar and Brother Mouzone. It happens because Stringer tries to play Mouzone and Omar against each other, things go sideways, and Mouzone leans on Avon to get information on how and where he would be able to kill him. Shortly thereafter, Stringer walks into a property that he’s trying to renovate (Stringer becomes a real estate developer as a way to launder the drug money the Barksdale organization is making). While in there, he argues with a person he’s been working with. Omar busts in the front door, shoots Stringer’s bodyguard in the chest, then follows Stringer up the stairs as Stringer tries to escape. Mouzone cuts off Stringer’s attempted escape route on the next floor, so he’s cornered at gunpoint by Omar and Mouzone. Stringer attempts to bargain his way out of it before eventually accepting his fate. Mouzone shoots him in the chest a couple of times, and then Omar shoots him in the chest a couple of times too, to make sure that he’s dead.

(This note doesn’t necessarily speak to the death angle, but it speaks to how purposeful every moment in The Wire was built to be: The first time we see Wallace, it’s out in The Pit. D’Angelo — who has been demoted to The Pit from the high-rise apartments after screwing things up — walks up, and Wallace, who’s never met D’Angelo before, asks, “Wasn’t you in the towers?” D’Angelo says yes. Wallace responds, “Why’d [Avon] put you down here? Yo, you mess up the count or something?” — and when he asks this he offers half a smile at him. D’Angelo says that he’s there because he killed someone, and the half-smile falls off Wallace’s face. It’s an exactly perfect Wallace moment: a pair of insightful observations followed by a sweet remark of sorts, only to have it washed away by unexpected harshness. The first time we see Stringer, he’s sitting in a courtroom watching the last parts of a trial where the police are trying to send D’Angelo to prison for a murder he absolutely committed. It looks like they’ve got D’Angelo all pinned in, but then a witness walks back on her story. It’s made clear that it was Stringer who arranged for her to recant her earlier testimony, and so the whole scene is a perfect Stringer Bell moment too: We watch him go several minutes without talking, only sitting in the background making sure a plan he’s put in place comes together perfectly; he’s there watching to oversee that it happens, yes, but also there to admire his own brilliance in motion.)

So here’s the question: Were the parallels between the deaths of Wallace and Stringer Bell done on purpose? Given the care with which all the different story lines and plot points were handled, it seems impossible that they weren’t, but it’s still extraordinary to think that they were. Some of the similarities:

  • Wallace’s last appearance is in the 12th episode of Season 1. Stringer’s last appearance is in the 12th episode of Season 3.
  • Prior to Wallace getting killed, he tries to talk Bodie and Poot out of it by employing sentimentality, which is the only kind of sway he could’ve possessed over them. Prior to Stringer getting killed, he tries to talk Omar and Brother Mouzone out of it by offering them money, which is the only kind of sway he could’ve possessed over them.
  • Prior to getting killed, Wallace makes a genuine-but-ultimately-unsuccessful attempt to get out of the drug game and its surrounding parts. Prior to getting killed, Stringer makes a genuine-but-ultimately-unsuccessful attempt to get out of the drug game and its surrounding parts.
  • Prior to getting killed, Wallace snitches to the police. Prior to getting killed, Stringer snitches to the police.
  • When Wallace gets killed, it happens in an emptied-out abandoned home that he’s squatting in with several others. When Stringer gets killed, it happens in an emptied-out abandoned home that he’s rebuilding with several others.
  • When Wallace gets killed, he’s shot to death by two people. When Stringer gets killed, he’s shot to death by two people.
  • When Wallace gets killed, he’s shot to death by people he loved after getting set up by a person who didn’t respect him. When Stringer gets killed, he’s shot to death by people who didn’t respect him after getting set up by someone he loved. Both of them, ultimately, were betrayed by the people they trusted the most.

Both Wallace and Stringer had complicated relationships with the drug trade. Wallace was smart but was unable to see a life for himself outside of his involvement in dealing drugs (mostly because of the way he felt tied to other people in it). Stringer was also smart, and he’d gotten to a point where he was able to see a life for himself outside of his involvement in dealing drugs, but he was never quite able to get all the way there (mostly because of the way he felt tied to other people in it).

The show does a really neat trick where, as a way to show the cyclical nature of the issues at the center of The Wire, they make it so that we see cornerstone characters get replaced by newer versions of each archetype. For example, the final time we see Michael Lee, a likable kid hardened by tragedy, he’s robbing drug dealers and is being hunted by Marlo Stanfield, the city’s new drug-dealer power player, making Michael the new Omar. Duquan “Dukie” Weems, a sympathetic eighth grader who lives in a home full of dope fiends, becomes the new Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins, a sympathetic dope fiend who works as a C.I. with several of the show’s officers and detectives. Namond Brice, the golden-tongued son of a revered enforcer in the Barksdale organization, pivots away from the drug trade when he finally accepts that he’s not built for the streets and begins becoming the new Clay Davis, a corrupt state senator who talks his way out of handcuffs at several different points. (I like this one a lot because even though they make it clear that that’s what they’re doing early on, having both Namond and Clay say the line “I’ll take any motherfucker’s money if he’s giving it away” in the same episode just minutes apart, it’s still surprising when you finally realize that it’s really happening when the last shot we see of Namond is him participating in an extracurricular school debate.)

So that happens with a bunch of different characters — Marlo becomes the new Avon, Randy Wagstaff heads toward becoming the new Bodie, Detective Sydnor becomes the new Detective McNulty (or maybe it’s Detective Greggs becomes the new Detective McNulty). We never see Stringer get replaced, though. And right now I’m wondering if it was that Wallace was supposed to be the new Stringer all along?

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.