“That’s me. Born fucked up.—Bubbles
Over at HBO’s member-created threads for The Wire, a debate recently raged over the character of Bubbles (Andre Royo), drug addict, snitch, petty thief and all around West Baltimore mutt. Some, like odg1012, argue that Bubbles “is funny as hell at times but he is still a snitch. I [have] wished death upon him since season one, and he’s still alive.” Others, like jme248, see Bubbles as a nurturer who tries to help Johnny ease back on his drug habit and is “[in] his heart a good person.” Taking it a step further, RainyKincaid contends that Bubbles is a hero who, like the real-life police informant he is based upon, has taken a lot of bad people out of the ’hood, making life just that much better for those left behind. Also, RK states that “Bubbs is a poster child for what Illegal Drug Criminals do to their customers, the mothers, fathers, and kids of their communities.” Finally, SouloftheStreets, one of the most eloquent commentators on these boards, states unequivocally that Bubs isn’t a good citizen, but in fact a traitor. “Everybody in The Ghetto’s a victim and the refuge is not the system. A citizen is doing absolutely nothing by helping police solve crimes. Uplift your brother on the corner, don’t alienate him. Love and Respect is the key. Snitchin’ is not the answer.”
So, depending upon where you’re coming from, Bubbles is either a snitch who is betraying his people, or a deeply caring individual whose informing helps the police make Baltimore’s dirty streets a little cleaner. For some he is simply a petty thief and pathetic drug addict. To others he’s a symbol of perserverance—a resourceful entrepreneur despite being a victim of an unforgiving disease.
Bubbles is a rare TV character who merits this level of scrutiny. Despite being a minor player in this streetwise drama, Bubbles is also graced with the sort of detail and shading that you normally only find in leading roles. In the most capable hands of Royo, who gives a phenomenal performance—with his spastic shuffle, ever-so-slightly slurry but still comprehensible speech, his nervous and twitchy subservience to almost everyone except his boy of the moment, combined with some nasty-ass makeup and a wardrobe so skanky you can smell it through the cathode rays—Bubbles is, for me, the heart and soul of The Wire.
I understand the hatred directed at Bubs for being a snitch. There’s no way around it; Bubbles is working for the cops, who are, after all, helping to enforce a system that is corrupt and pretty much irredeemable, and the dealers are victims of the system too. But at the same time, the dealers Bubbles informs on aren’t exactly the Red Cross. They are a bloody ruthless lot who generally aren’t interested in the effect their product has on their community; they care mostly about themselves, and (to a lesser extent) their own. So it’s is hard to feel much sympathy when Bubbles uses the red hat shtick to fingers dealers; the dealers aren’t changing an unjust system, they’re playing the same old game by their own rules. And while the dealers rule their domain, snitching is just about all that Bubs has got to work with. The poor bastard is so deep in the hole of his drug addiction that he can barely see daylight; all he does, whether snitching or stealing, is done in service of his jones. And still, Bubbles tries. He is a broken down hustler, working his damnedest for every buck, while also taking the time to seek out companionship, suggesting that he’s a decent person who cares about and for others. Witness how the first time we see Bubs co-operating with the cops is after his boy Johnny has been stomped. It isn’t for money, but loyalty and revenge that he snitches, in this case, at least. Other than his “boys”, Bubbles also seems to harbor some deep feelings for Kima, and even McNulty (“Mcnutty”), and is terribly hurt if and when something happens to any of them.
While some want to paint Bubbles in stark black and white, the show is constructed in a way that makes all-or-nothing assessments of any character impossible. The Wire has no clear cut good or bad guys; it is the entire system that is the problem, not the people trying to operate within it. Bubbles exemplifies the show’s philosophy of characterization. Though he rarely acts out of altruism, and is seldom if ever heroic, he is a compelling figure, simultaneously battling himself and the world around him. Sometimes he dreams of getting clean and (occasionally) he even acts on it. He also tries to street-proof his boys so they won’t get beat down the way he’s been beat down more than once. In the end, though, a fellow like Bubs has few choices. As Season Four makes clear, the state of inner city public schools ensures that education is an escape hatch only for a few; and those individuals who do escape will be gobbled up by a system that eats rebellion for breakfast and radical thought for lunch. This is why many fans of the show argue that dealing drugs is a logical choice for folks living in decayed urban neighborhoods. How else are they going to have access to the kind of money that allows them to “live the American Dream?”
But Bubs is no drug dealer. He’s always going to be the guy on the other side of that transaction. He believes his only choice is to scrape a living out of the streets by ratting out dealers, committing petty theft and engaging in other “entrepreneurial” activities. Unfortunately, this choice leaves him sleeping in hovels and the victim of vicious street attacks. So why doesn’t Bubs, who suffers so much in this ruthlessly capitalistic world, opt out of the game entirely? Rather than trying to find his niche in this harsh and unforgiving environment, why doesn’t he choose the radical’s path? There is little doubt that his addiction is the key to Bubs lack of radical empowerment. The irresistible and caustic pull of drugs pretty much strips him bare of all ambition beyond his next fix. And so it is that the dealers pushing their drugs are no different from the “legitimate” businesses that push theirs. Both are providing products for popular consumption that create a compliant and tranquilized citizenry.
Another reason Bubs is never radicalized is that he has been so thoroughly socialized that he cannot conceive of the possibility of challenging the system; he believes enough in the mirage of the American Dream that he keeps on bellying up to the mythic oasis. It is a central irony of The Wire that Bubs, and many others just like him, continue to believe in a system that has little use for them.
Witness Bubbles early on in Season Four schooling his new boy by speaking the lingo of a capitalist (this season’s focus on education is not restricted to the classroom) while pushing around a grocery cart full of white t’s and spray paint. Bubble’s homemade sign announces that this is “Bubble’s Depo” [sic], while Bubs tells his mostly drug-dealing clientele that this young and mathematically-challenged boy is his “intern.” In a moment reminiscent of Stringer Bell’s sometimes humorous attempts in Season Three to impose Robert’s Rules of Order during meetings with his corner kids, Bubs takes the time to school his boy about “increasing their market share” and watching out for “glass ceilings.” These players have bought into the game completely, even if they don’t follow the proscribed rules of order.
In many ways, the entire set up on the street is a microcosm of the capitalist system that surrounds it. The drug dealers are all entrepreneurs, competing to provide products to their clientele, seeking to increase their market share by beating out or driving away competition. The hierarchical structure of their organization is reminiscent of pyramid schemes where the drones at the bottom do all the work and take all the risk, while the fat cats at the top rake in all the profits. Further, in “legit” business you have hostile takeovers or mergers, while on the streets of Baltimore you have the co-operative as designed by Prop Joe; or alternatively, you have drug wars, where bodies pile up as dealers literally fight over their market share. Regardless of whether the product in question is legal, most people really are pawns in this game, as D’Angelo so schooled Bodie and Wallace back in season one.
In such a world, there is little place for someone like Bubbles. Beyond being a small-time customer for their services who makes them a few dollars now and then, he’s of little importance to the dealers and drug lords around him. They pay him no heed, seeing him as a buffoon who pitches hats and shirts to the corner kids. This is almost certainly why he is such a good snitch; the dealers hardly even see him. In a multi-national corporate universe, he’s a mom and pop operation. You also get a sense that, like those corner stores, Bubs is living on borrowed time. If his addiction doesn’t get him, some other aspect of life on the street will, whether it’s a mugging or a snitching gone bad. People like Bubs live on the edge of the precipice, with nobody and nothing there to catch them if they fall.
This is what makes Bubbles so bloody near tragic. While for most of us in such a situation, despair would be a constant companion, Bubbles refuses to surrender to it, choosing instead to cling to his hopes that life is worth living, even in the face of the most awful betrayals and cruelties. Bubbles’ Sisyphusian determination to rise each morning and greet a new day in the face of the massive weight of institutional indifference and systemic injustice, while carrying around a jones bigger than his shopping cart, is one of the show’s most remarkable achievements. That the audience is able to care so deeply about a drug addict, petty thief and police informant is a testament to Royo and his collaborators. Indeed, if you are not weeping for my man Bubbles after all he has been through by the end of Season Four, I fear that you have no heart.
Dan Jardine is a contributor to The House Next Door, the publisher of Cinemania and a contributor to Cinemarati. The above is part of Wire Week at The House, with a new article each day leading up to the HBO drama’s fourth season premiere on Sunday, Sept. 10. For more, see “On The Wire” in the sidebar at right.