The Wire (Season 2, Episode 5): Undertow – Warning: Contains Spoilers


“We are of the other America or the America that has been left behind in the postindustrial age. We don’t live in L.A. or go to their parties; we don’t do what we do to try to triumph in the world of television entertainment by having a bona fide hit, and meeting the pretty people and getting the best table at the Ivy. Shit, the last time George and I went to the Ivy on a road trip, we waited forty-five minutes for a table and then were announced as “The Pelican party.” We don’t belong there and we don’t need the kind of money or the level of zeitgeist required to belong there.”


An underlying bitterness, as reflected by David Simon’s statement above, has always been noticeable in The Wire’s subtext. This bitterness stems from the rather harsh circumstances in which many of its characters feel they have been forced into living.

Detective Rawls is perhaps the shows most vivid incarnation of world-weariness. When one of his subordinates inquires if he is being ‘f*cked over’, on account of the characteristically severe treatment which Rawls dispenses, the cantankerous detective responds with a venomous riposte: “When I f*ck you over you’ll know. You won’t need to even ask the goddamn question,” he states caustically.

It is therefore ironic that – despite the multitude of characters who come from impoverished backgrounds and often represent the most virulent forms of criminality imaginable – it is Rawls (a white, middle-class law enforcer) who arguably possesses the most abundant disdain of humanity of all the show’s characters.

And essentially, the core reason behind Rawls’ endless frustration lies in the perpetual fruitlessness of working in a police department without making headway in criminal cases. His frustration undoubtedly mirrors similar feelings experienced by Messrs Simon and Burns in their previous jobs, where they worked in journalism and policing respectively.   

Stringer Bell – the show’s criminal overlord – contrasts with Rawls in several ways that viewers would not initially assume. In another savagely ironic twist, he appears to be quite well-adjusted and psychologically at-ease in comparison with Rawls and many of the show’s other less immoral figures.

For instance, one scene depicts Stringer as an academic achiever. He receives the results of his college Economics exam, in which his professor congratulates him on an impressive A- grade. In another scene, Stringer is shown in dialogue with D’Angelo’s ex-girlfriend (Donette). The two are shown to be engaged in a lust-driven relationship, unbeknownst to the incarcerated D’Angelo.

Donette is clearly besotted by Stringer. Yet this feeling is by no means mutual. It soon becomes apparent to the viewer that Stringer is manipulating Donette in order to acquire information pertaining to D’Angelo, who has unwisely elected to confide in his ex. Consequently, the situation amounts to a dual double-crossing in which Stringer’s callousness prevails.

Therefore, Stringer exudes a disarming level of intelligence and charm – thanks in no small part to the adroit acting skills of Idris Elba. These two traits alone, Simon implies, are enough for a person to thrive in this tragedy imbued Baltimorean society. This status, whereby morals are devalued, is what makes the society so flawed and what causes Stringer’s ignominiousness to be overlooked. Thus, a framework is in place for unsavoury individuals such as Stringer to thrive.

Ultimately, for all Rawls’ anger and bitterness, he is at least palpably human. Stringer’s sheer apathy for human life allows the character to embrace a laid-back, guilt-free lifestyle. In other words, Stringer leads a lifestyle which all people – to some extent – secretly covet.

Hence, Stringer is invariably cited as people’s favourite character, as viewers are unwittingly seduced by a combination of all the aforementioned factors. This scenario which Simon – ever the moral arbiter – presents and paradoxically protests, is one that he ultimately accepts as inescapable. 

Random Facts:

  1. The character of The Greek is not actually of Greek origin.
  2. Paul Schreiber who plays the character of Nick Sobotka has also appeared in films including The Manchurian Candidate and Lords of Dogtown.
  3. According to David Simon, the character of Ziggy is based on a real-life stevedore who, according to legend, also took his duck to the bar and had a penchant for exposing himself in public.
  4. Cheese Wagstaff, who appears in this episode for the first time, originally was given the name Calvin before it was subsequently changed to Melvin.
  5. Additionally, Wagstaff is played by the acclaimed rapper Method Man.

Best Quote: “Yo dickhead, where you been at?” Not an especially significant quote in isolation, but one which serves to re-familiarise the viewer with the playful banter that encapsulates Herc and Carver’s relationship – an always welcome element to the show which had been sadly lacking in season two up until this point.

Best Scene: McNulty smirks wryly as Omar refuses to co-operate with the lawyer – he just cannot help being enamoured with the affable vigilante.

New Characters:  Cheese Wagstaff and Frog.

 WTF Moment: The incredible attention and interest which Stringer’s men display as he teaches them the intricacies of the economic knowledge that he has acquired from his college course.