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Omar Little, postmodern Achilles

David Simon put together The Wire partly on his and Ed Burns’s experiences in Baltimore, and partly on the model of Greek tragedy:

Much of our modern theater seems rooted in the Shakespearean discovery of the modern mind. We’re stealing instead from an earlier, less-traveled construct—the Greeks—lifting our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality…

The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason… Because so much of television is about providing catharsis and redemption and the triumph of character, a drama in which postmodern institutions trump individuality and morality and justice seems different.

I’ve always thought of The Wire’s Omar Little in terms of the Greek hero Achilles, man-killer, the matchless runner, conflicted hero of Homer’s The Iliad — one of the few figures in Greek literature who seems immortal, knows he’s doomed, and doesn’t care.

My theory’s based in part on these two scenes and their related plot points. In the first, Omar identifies the body of his lover/partner Brandon, killed and mutilated by the Barksdale gang:

It’s Hector’s killing of Achilles’s partner (and lover, probably) Patroclus and stripping of Achilles’s own armor from Patroclus’s body, which the Trojans try to seize and desecrate, that drags the sulking Achilles back to battle:

My spirit rebels — I’ve lost the will to live,
to take my stand in the world of men — unless,
before all else, Hector’s battered down by my spear
and gasps away his life, the blood-price for Patroclus,
Menoetius’ gallant son he’s killed and stripped!

… Enough.
Let bygones be bygones. Done is done.
Despite my anguish I will beat it down,
the fury mounting inside me, down by force.
But now I’ll go and meet that murderer head-on,
that Hector who destroyed the dearest life I know.
For my own death, I’ll meet it freely — whenever Zeus
and the other deathless gods would like to bring it on!

The Trojans try to kill Patroclus to send a message to the Achaeans to stop fighting. But it ends up dooming the city, because it brings Achilles back into the fight willing to do anything to destroy them and their heroes.

In this famous scene, Omar shows how much he knows about mythology:

As Omar would say: “You come at the King, you best not miss.” And as fans of the show know, Omar both has his revenge and meets a similarly mythic end. In Greek tragedy as in The Wire, the universe is indifferent to our heroism.

(blockquote transcribed from Robert Fagles’s translation of Homer’s The Iliad)