“One thing that distinguishes Omar is his absolute patience. He’s willing to endure even longer surveillance than the police do. He’s absolutely determined.”—David Simon
In the vast array of characters created on The Wire, (and vast may be an understatement) one character not only broke out of the pack as the series’s most wonderful invention, but turned out to be a character full of more contradictions than perhaps any other in the history of episodic television, and that man is Omar Little, played by Michael K. Williams. USA Today once named Omar as one of the 10 reasons they still love TV and his inclusion was much deserved. The Wire isn’t Williams’ first appearance in an HBO series—close viewers of The Sopranos might remember him as the Boonton man with the chess-playing daughter whom Jackie Jr. took refuge with at the end of Season 3. That brief appearance though didn’t telegraph the range and brilliance of Williams’ work as Omar, a warped vision of Robin Hood in the urban environs of Baltimore. Omar is a “rip-and-run artist,” robbing from drug dealers to enrich himself and to help others or, as Omar describes himself, he’s “just a n——- with a plan,” a man who tends to announce his approach to potential victims by cheerfully whistling “The Farmer in the Dell.” That aspect of his character would be fascinating enough, but that just scratches the surface.
“It’s either play or get played”
Omar also happens to be gay, something that wasn’t revealed until his second appearance in season one. On top of that, he frowns upon profanity, chastising his lover Brandon when he swears that, “Nobody wants to hear such dirty words, especially from such a beautiful mouth.” He also holds Sundays sacred, choosing not to work and even escorting the woman who raised him to church once a month, a woman who believes Omar makes his living working in the airport cafeteria. He also takes pride that he “ain’t never put no gun on no citizen.” With his frequent takedown of the Barksdale crews’ stashes, needless to say he earned the wrath of Avon (Wood Harris) and his lieutenant Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), who struck back in season one by brutally murdering Brandon and setting the story arc for Omar that ran pretty much for the first three seasons. In season one, after a failed attempt at clipping Avon, he decided to help the police by being the eyeball witness to the murder of a state’s witness ordered by Barksdale. Though his court appearance didn’t happen until Season 2, the scene provided one of the highlights of the entire series as Barksdale’s slimeball lawyer Maurice Levy (Michael Kostroff) accused Omar, unapologetic about the way he makes his living, of being a parasite and Omar shot right back that they were two sides of the same coin: “I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase.”
“Come at the king, you best not miss”
It was with a bit of sadness at the end of season one when Omar, knowing he was a marked man, chose to move his operation to New York. Thankfully, David Simon and Ed Burns knew they had a great character in Omar and superb actor in Williams and didn’t let him stay away for good. Williams told The Advocate in September, 2003 interview that the original intention was to kill Omar off after seven episodes, but they couldn’t bring themselves to do it. Still, the creators and writers of The Wire are smart enough not to overuse Omar. So far, he hasn’t appeared any earlier than the third episode of each season. As writer Richard Price observes on one of the Season 3 DVD commentary tracks, Omar is used sparingly, so as not to ruin the character. Simon admits on a different commentary that there was some concern that the iconoclastic Omar was growing too heroic in viewers’ eyes, so that led them to have one of his crew accidentally killed in a shoot-out in Season 3. Even that development deepened Omar’s character as he is one of the few characters in the universe of The Wire to willingly take responsibility for his own actions, punctuating his guilt with a cigarette burn to his own palm.
Simon and his other colleagues readily admit in various commentaries and interviews that they patterned most of Omar’s scenes on classic Westerns, none more so than when Omar met up once again with Brother Mouzone (Michael Potts), another of the series’s great creations. Mouzone, a Nation of Islam gun-for-hire that Avon secured from his season 2 jail cell to keep watch over the towers, was set up by Stringer, who tricked Omar into believing he killed Brandon so that Omar would take care of Mouzone for him. Omar shot Mouzone, though not before realizing he’d been had. The reunion of Mouzone and Omar in Season 3 not only led to Stringer’s downfall, it really created an odd couple for the ages. I hope that somehow we see them hook up again, but Simon and the gang are too smart to concoct a phony excuse to please viewers. In the world of The Wire, it’s the story that rules—and that may even get the great Omar in the end.
Edward Copeland is a contributor to The House Next Door and the publisher of Edward Copeland on Film and the political blog Copeland Institute for Lower Learning. 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.