Baltimore Dispatches – III: Stringer and the Deadly Suaveness Of the Drug Trade

In New Zealand, you can get GPS-guided tours of locales used for Lord of the Rings action; tourists snap them up by the dozen. In Baltimore, the city of The Wire, you can get walking and driving tours that take you to Wire locales (like Season 2’s union-run shipping docks, for instance). It’s a pity they don’t arrange meetings with characters from the show. Many tourists would want to meet Omar, some Marlo, and its a fair bet many wouldn’t mind a chance to sit down and chill for a bit with Stringer. For one of the Wire’s most memorable characters was Stringer Bell, who–along with Breaking Bad‘s Gustavo ‘Gus’ Fring in recent times–has done a great deal to bring a deadly suaveness to our standard understandings of a drug lord’s persona. (It never hurt Stringer’s popularity that his role was inhabited by the supremely talented English actor Idris Elba.)

What made Bell especially creepy was his smooth marriage of the efficient, soft-spoken, deft, Taylorist sensibility of the product-dispenser  with the amoral viciousness of the turf-defending urban ganglord. (Fring, of course, takes that to marriage to new heights with his involvement in the manufacture of the ‘product’). Stringer aspired to a higher calling than the petty crook, and yet, his distancing from the nitty-gritty of the street level trade made him more dangerous, not less.  Stringer goes to night school; as a good student, he is attentive and takes notes; he aspires to the tricks of trade that business majors supposedly know about; he sought to bring the boardroom to the corner. But even as he did so, he became more ruthless, deadlier, ever more capable of the decision–like arranging D’Angelo’s murder–that cuts through family ties to the business heart of the deal. It was the particular genius of Stringer that in watching him, we became aware that the movement away from overt violence was a movement toward a greater danger, that his ostensible taming by the bookish knowledge he so eagerly gleaned from his textbooks and notebooks was actually the harbinger of an even deadlier organizational capacity.

Stringer’s particular dangerousness, then, lay in his manifesting and embodying the combination of single-minded business savvy with cruel disregard for human life. Unlike Fring, he never pulls off spectacular massacres but his devotion to his turf and his trade is no less acute, and we are never left in doubt that he would kill just as much as Fring does. Stringer’s deadliness lies in his movement toward a greater corporate efficiency; it is precisely that sharpened business sensibility that will make possible ever more ruthless decision-making. Part of the genius of The Wire lay in its pointing out the infection of American institutions by the war on drugs: the police, city politics, the shipping trade, the courts. In Stringer Bell, The Wire showed how the most dominant force in American life, the corporate sensibility, did its part in the drug trade and ensured that the conflict that animated it acquired its particular, dangerous edge.

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