In many ways, The Wire‘s Omar Little is a reprise of an old type of movie hero, one from the 1940s, especially noir and detective movies of that era — the silver-tounged and deceptively intelligent characters usually played by actors like Bogart and Mitchum. In fact, I’d say a good deal of Omar’s allure for so many people (including maybe Barack Obama) is that he combines the smooth-talking, evasive amiability of the “average” Bogie character with the enigmatic, potentially violent menace of the “average” Mitchum character.
Another line — the main one for me — that links Omar with those old characters is their rejection of institutional affiliation. Omar works both for and against the police and also acts to simultaneously perpetuate and limit the Barksdale gang’s activities, which he can’t renounce altogether because they ensure his own survival. But he refuses to become a part of either of those molar organizations. Out of principle, he won’t subsume himself to the demands of the law or the counter-law. He’s his own man and won’t work for anyone else, and in this he recalls, particularly, the individualist ethos of almost every Bogart character.
In this sense, Omar marks a difference from most crime-movie heroes of the last few decades. At least since Dirty Harry, these protagonists have been cops, have occupationally aligned themselves with the law. No matter how much they rail against bureaucracy, politics, bosses, they always identify as police. (In The Wire, at least early on, McNulty represents the continuation of this type of character.) They are — to put it perhaps ridiculously — Keynesian cops. As part, unhappily or not, of the labor truce, these white men have sided with the law and enforce its norms, which are drawn very much along race, gender, and class lines. And they take their jobs as seriously as they take the law.
Which is not to say that the 40s characters were exempt from or philosophically opposed to the law. Despite their refusal to align themselves with an institution, to pick a side, and even though they may swear not to stick their necks out for anyone, in the end they always do the right thing, the moral thing and the legal thing, which are almost always aligned. Casablanca is the classic example of this, of course, but even though it’s more sentimental than most, in the end most of, say, Bogart’s heroes — as in The Maltese Falcon, say — abide by the correct code, even as they retain their independence from institutions and highly formal labor regimes.
Code, of course, is always a codeword for morals or law. A code must always lurk behind a work of art, critics like to say, especially of works that are obscure in their treatments of violence. All of Sam Peckinpah’s movies, for instance, are said to be undergirded by a strict moral code. A code is a telos, an end that must determine all principles and actions. The Wire plays with the idea of a code. In season 1, Bunk, while talking with Omar, says, “A man must have a code.” Omar agrees, but it’s difficult to spot a higher tenet that Omar prescribes to. At one point he tells the detectives that he’d rather not play “the game,” but that if someone brings the game to him, he has to play. He does not play it out of an automatic attachment created by his environment. Unlike Stringer or Avery, he’s not motivated by power or money, and unlike the police, he’s not upholding a transcendent law. If Omar has a code, it’s not governed by a telos. It is the code of staying alive.