What are the characteristics of a hero? Traditionally are they not selflessness, strength, honour, purity, moral fibre? Do these attributes still stand? According to the student staple that is Wikipedia:
“... hero (male) and heroine (female) came to refer to characters who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, display courage and the will for self sacrifice—that is, heroism—for some greater good of all humanity.”
In some of the older works of fiction we have studied the hero has stuck rigidly to this template. Even Robin Hood, despite his outlaw status, is morally unambiguous. There is an unspoken rule in these older works of fiction that the hero must follow a certain strict moral code. Do we look for the same things in a modern hero? Do we desire our heroes to be as virtuous? In more contemporary fiction, in a grimmer world; I feel a different type of hero is more suited. In short, the heroes of today are less easily understood in traditional terms.
The world of David Simon’s revolutionary television series The Wire is undeniably a bleak one, unsurprisingly so, as it is grounded in the reality of Baltimore, Maryland. Being that it is realistically painted very much in figurative shades of grey rather than the blacks and whites of texts such as those featuring Robin Hood or the great King Arthur, the heroes may be more difficult to identify.
Some of Season One’s hopeless characters.
Speaking of Robin, The Wire features its own Robin Hood figure in the shape of Omar Little. Similar to Robin he tends to work with and lead a group of likeminded outlaws in the robbery of the corrupt. The Wire spans five seasons which cover various aspects of the city, featuring heroes with often questionable motives; but Omar is arguably the most interesting and compelling character of the entire series. He is relatively unique in the show, in that he is shrewd without being insidious. His line of work is as a thief; specifically one who steals from drug dealers.
Omar in his normal street attire.
Omar is similar to more traditional heroes in his persistent adherence to his own moral code. This code may be more questionable than that of King Arthur for example, but he makes a point not to rob or otherwise torment those who are not involved in what he refers to as “the game”. This scene is important in understanding Omar as a character:
Omar testifies, not because a sense of civic duty at the apathetic slaying of Gant, a state witness against a member of Avon Barksdale’s drug empire; but in anger at the murder of his lover. Importantly, Simon chose to write him as gay:
“Brilliantly, Omar's sexuality is neither here nor there to most of the plot lines. But it is relevant to the overall picture. David Simon explains: ‘I thought Omar, as an unaffiliated character, could be boldly and openly homosexual in a way that a gay man within the organised drug trade or within the police department could not be.’”
Interesting is his self confessed interest in Greek mythology, which itself outlines the basic principles of heroism. Morality is a strong theme in Greek mythology, and as previously mentioned Omar stringently follows his own idea of a moral code. There is a mythology surrounding Omar himself, with the locals of his area of Baltimore calling “Omar comin’” when his customary whistle of A-Hunting We Will Go is heard. This call inspires those who have heard the legend of Omar to run and hide. Omar is an infectiously likeable character because of his honesty and his sometimes contradictory morality. He is intriguingly calm and speaks in a poetic manner. Despite his dicey code of honour and other pitfalls, we can recognise him as a hero.
Probably the character most easily recognisable as a hero is Jimmy McNulty, albeit a decidedly rakish one. Though he could easily be pigeonholed as your archetypal rogue cop (bouncing around between various units throughout the series), he is not quite so simply defined. A functional alcoholic (barely) and womaniser, McNulty is also a talented and fiercely dedicated detective, earnest in his pursuit of those he perceives as evil or corrupt.
A day on the job for Jimmy McNulty.
Probably more than any other character in the series, the wrong-doing rife in Baltimore angers him; and he struggles to keep within the law in order to fight it. In doing so, he follows his own code à la Omar; which eventually strays outside the confines of the law. McNulty begins to rig crime scenes to follow the modus operandi of a fabricated serial killer, and the case gains press attention. Though extremely morally questionable, he does so in order to redirect the funds afforded the high profile serial killer case into a drugs case he is seemingly destructively obsessed with bringing to a close. He is eventually pressured by his fellow detectives into spreading the much needed money into other departments and cases.
McNulty and his colleagues sometimes rely on Reginald Cousins for information, a homeless recovering drug abuser far better known as Bubbles. Bubbles is a hero in his own right, facing full on and tackling the adversity he experiences everyday in his homelessness and drug addiction. In the final season he seems to have successfully overcome his addiction, and is one of the few characters of the series who appears to have a bright future.
A hopeful Bubbles, helping the homeless community he was once a part of.
Perhaps in this respect, Bubbles is the most successful and most adequate example of a hero in this text despite not appearing particularly heroic based on first impressions. While the heroes of The Wire are deeply complicated in comparison to the relatively two dimensional heroes of old, they teach us moral lessons in their own slightly twisted way.
The Wire: Truth Be Told, Rafael Alvarez, Canongate Books, 2010.