This essay, on the significance of Michael K Williams, Omar Little and The Wire, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 12 September 2021, under the headline “In an age too given to moral certainty, let’s remember The Wire’s Omar as a study in complexity”.

It’s not often that a shotgun-wielding thief and killer comes to be seen as possessing a moral core. But then it’s not often that you have a character like Omar Little. Or an actor like Michael K Williams to bring him to life. Or a TV series like The Wire that allowed both character and actor to breathe.

The death last week of Williams, possibly of a drugs overdose, has robbed us of one of the most subtle, supple actors of our time. He was outstanding in a number of roles, from Boardwalk Empire to Bessie, from The Night Of to The Road. But it was his portrayal of Omar Little that truly lives in the memory.

The Wire was one of those TV shows that broke the rules of what TV should be, in terms of tone, narrative and pacing, “a television show that thinks it’s a novel”, as the New York Times suggested. But it was much more than that. There are few works in any medium that have more successfully burrowed beneath the skin of our age, exposing that spot where race, class, power and despair coalesce to entrap the human spirit and curdle the American Dream.

Swear to God, it was never a cop show“, insisted David Simon, who, with his co-writer Ed Burns, was the driving force behind the programme. It was, rather, a set of intricately connected stories about the people we now call the “left behind”, and whom Simon then called the “excess Americans”: steelworkers and longshoremen, street dealers and heroin addicts, the unemployed and the barely employed, all chewed up by a system that cared only to preserve itself. People crushed by a police force more interested in order than in the law, a city hall that sipped corruption with the morning coffee, unions more decayed than the industries they once dominated, an education system that taught despair, a media that missed the real stories. “World going one way,” as Poot, a low-level dealer in one of the drug gangs, puts it, “people going another”. And all this wrapped up in the form of a policier.

This was the backstory to Trumpism and to Black Lives Matter told more than a decade before either happened – the first episode of The Wire was broadcast in June 2002. The story, too, of how black rage and white rage was forged and how they interlaced. Almost two decades on, there is still little, fictional or factual, that tells that story like The Wire.

Cop shows are about good and evil. That distinction is their raison d’etre, even in those that blur the lines. The Wire eschewed that whole approach to morality. And never more so than in the figure of Omar Little.

The Wire was an ensemble show, myriad characters woven in and out of stories as the series progressed. But from within that ensemble, Omar came in many ways to express the heart of the show. Orphaned at a young age, raised by his religious grandmother, he became a stick-up man, whose speciality was robbing, and often killing, drug dealers.

He is often described by critics as a kind of “Robin Hood” figure. He isn’t. He is much more demanding of the viewer. Robin Hood inhabits a myth that, like the modern cop show, derives its power from a given framework of good and bad. In The Wire, though, morality is something people have to construct out of the vicissitudes of their lives.

One of the defining scenes comes in Season Two, when Omar is giving testimony in court against a drug dealer known as Bird, who is charged with murder. Bird’s attorney, Maurice Levy, kept on a retainer by drugs organisations, wants to know why anyone should believe Omar. “You are amoral, are you not?” he asks him. “You are trading off the violence and despair of the drug trade. You are a parasite that leeches off…” “Just like you, man”, interrupts Omar. “Excuse me, what?” asks a shocked Levy. “I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase,” Omar replies. “It’s all in the game, though, right?”

It’s an exchange that can be read as an endorsement of nihilism. That there is no morality, just power and corruption. That everyone is simply out for themselves. But that’s not how the scene works, given the whole arc of The Wire. What Simon and Burns and the other writers show us is that people who find themselves in impossible situations are forced to work out for themselves what is rational and moral within their circumstances. What may seem from the outside, from those who make the rules of “the game”, as irrational and immoral is, for those trapped by the system, the only way to weigh up good and bad in the settings in which they find themselves.

Omar is a stone-cold killer. And yet we have great sympathy for him because we can see that he is trying, in his own way, to bring some moral order into his universe. “A man gotta have a code”, as he says. “Don’t get it twisted, I do some dirt too”, he acknowledges, “but I never put my gun on no one who wasn’t in the game”.

Omar is also openly gay. It’s a fact both incidental to the storyline and also central to it, subverting by its very presence traditional norms of black masculinity.

We live in an age in which we are drawn to seeing everything in black and white, in which those who disagree with our moral vision are often shunned as recusants or bigots. In such a world, the presence of a figure like Omar Little, fictional though he is, reminds of the complexities of our moral lives, and of the difficulties of fashioning norms by which to live within the exigencies we inhabit.

The Wire was an indictment of a world in which, in Simon’s words, “the rules and values of the free market… have been mistaken for a social framework” and in which “institutions are paramount and human beings matter less”. But it is also a celebration of human resilience and of the ability of ordinary people in the most desperate of circumstance to carve out a little space of humanity. Michael Williams died far too young, but in Omar Little he gave flesh to a character who still illuminates our lives in all its contradictions and complexities.

%d bloggers like this: