The Wire, part five: “The queen ain’t no bitch”

by zunguzungu

A programmatic moment in The Wire‘s first season is when D’Angelo teaches the young’uns to play chess. When he explains that the king is the main piece — but that he’s “got no hustle” and is dependant on his underlings — the allegory with Avon and his crew is obvious; comparing the rook to the stash house, in fact, seems necessary only to establish the board as a direct metaphor for the drug crew. But the young’uns understand the analogy from the get-go: as D’Angelo explains that pawns get knocked out early and only rarely (“unless they some smart-ass pawns”) advance to queen status, their impressed silence indicates that they get the message loud and clear.

It’s interesting, in that vein, that pawns do not become kings; at best, they can aspire to be the king’s first minister, and that this single example of mobility is embedded in the general statement that “everybody stays who he is.” But I’m interested in the valance on the term “bitch,” here, especially as it becomes an idiom for rendering the problem of power and mobility legible. Misogyny runs deep, of course, but I’d suggest that while an epiphenomenon of the term’s use is a casual naturalization of misogyny, that isn’t primarily what it’s about. Instead, while the police have “suction” as their term for the ways an institution coheres — the ways different parts are sucked together to their mutual convenience and inconvenience — the show’s drug dealers adjudicate power relations through the distinction of bitches and being “the man”: you’re a bitch if you can be used, whereas you are the man if you do the using. Obviously, this is not a genderless idiom (since being female usually means being a bitch, and “the man” is, obviously, coded male), yet gender is here more a function of power than the reverse, I think. The Queen, after all, ain’t no bitch.

Compared to the intricacies of the show’s formal institutions — in which the chain of command is practically defined in the breach — this idiom is much simpler. There is no middle ground, and this is the point: it is built into the logic of the system that one cannot avoid using others without being used, and that the only way to avoid being used by others is to use others yourself. It is an economy of commodification: transform others into objects or be transformed into one yourself. It is impossible to be a man without a bitch, and vice versa, and these are the only options available to them. It therefore naturalizes a loveless system, coding selfish behavior as strength and unselfish behavior as weakness and eliminating all other possibilities. The family, in other words, is unthinkable.

D’Angelo’s tragedy — which is the narrative arc of season one — is that he understands this, that he sees the impossibility of the ideals he nevertheless holds to, but that, Hamlet-like, he can do absolutely nothing to escape that destiny. Or perhaps Oedipus is the better metaphor: he has no desire to fuck the mother figure — he genuinely does prefer love and would like his potential families to work out — but family is always just out of reach for him, and violence always intrudes.

His girlfriend Donette wants things he is unwilling to give — a house, a home — and part of this is the machismo of the character he seems unable to avoid playing. Yet it’s also not hard to understand why Donette would be an unattractive option for him: she is mostly shown to us as an archetypical shrew, always demanding, only demanding, a normality which he finds himself not only rejecting as an attachment, but out of a certain kind of guilt. In the restaurant scene, for example, it is D’Angelo (not Donette) who is unwilling to let the illusion go unpunctured; we don’t belong here, he tells her, but as we’ve learned about him as a character, he says this out of self-loathing. What’s more, as a minor lieutenant in the Barksdale crew, a live-in baby-mama (or even a wife) would necessitate increased dependence on his uncle, would embed him even deeper.

Shardeen is a bit different, since she seems not to ask those things of him, but that relationship ultimately breaks up because she discovers him to be implicated in the economy of subjection after all. Though he wanted nothing to do with it (and was horrified when he found out), he was at the party when Shardeen’s co-worker died after being “used” and was rolled up in a carpet and left in a dumpster. This again, is the tragedy of D’Angelo: as horrified as he is by what he sees and learns, he does nothing. But that’s the end for Shardeen, who, of course, knows about people being constructed as objects of consumption. As a dancer in a strip club (though “mostly” not a prostitute, as she puts it), she already walks a fine line between playing tricks on her customers and selling herself as a trick.

It’s Kima, however, who knows how to flip her; when she points out that “They use people and when they throw them away, they find a way to say it ain’t on them.” Which is why, by the way, it has to be Kima who gets shot when she’s dressed up as “one of Orlando’s hoes”: just as D’Angelo’s dilemma is how to live in a world defined by being a dog or being eaten, the writers bend over backwards to create a situation where McNulty can realize that he, too, is using everyone around him, and that a queer woman of color ultimately “takes two for the company” because of it. There’s something disturbing about how organically the reconciliation between Rawls and McNulty (and the general coming together of the entire BPD) flows out of the wounded body of a shot police officer, the way the fraternity of men needs a sacrificed woman to heal their wounds, and I think this is precisely the point: McNulty sees, for the first time, that his crusades were never even about his own cleverness, but that his cleverness was a function of his ability to manipulate the system, to get people like Kima (whose color, he notes, puts them in undercover situations he would never have to face) to go into harm’s way. His manipulations, he realizes, has consequences: one cannot be the man without creating bitches.

Yet while McNulty ultimately gets saved (sort of) by professionalism — about which more should definitely be said — and the Freamon/Shardeen pairing seems to imply that some middle ground between using and being used is possible (Freamon, after all, is the one who directs her into dangerous situations), D’Angelo gets destroyed by his inability to see through the lie that is his mother, by the particular impossibility of starting over in that mythical place “somewhere else” which is posited as his lot. I think forward to season five, Michael’s “I’m not going to pay you to be my mother.” As with that relationship, it is pretty clear that D’Angelo’s mother is not really a mother in the sense he wants her to be; as she tells him, without the family business there would be no family, which shoes that the family is ultimately just a function of the business (which her willingness to send her son to jail to preserve her financial well being illustrates). There’s more to that character than that, of course — she, too, is implicated in a system about which she has at least mixed feelings — but the point is that, again, D’Angelo (like Wallace) cannot escape from the illusion of a home which has never been real, but which is all he has ever known.