In 2002 a very funny, bloody, and sexy American telenovela called The Wire began running on the HBO cable channel. It was a weekly continuing comedy-drama that nominally concerned a series of drug-related murder investigations conducted indifferently and inadequately by the Baltimore police homicide squad. Each season, however, it expanded over the weeks into a broad consideration and indictment of contemporary American urban life. Its large canvas depicted all social strata from the streets to the suites. We met everybody: adolescent and preadolescent “hoppers” on the corner selling their trademarked pellets of cocaine; dead-eyed thug enforcers wielding their prison-pumped muscles and their Beretta 9mm automatics; the mysterious underground capitalists who managed the delivery of “brick” or “the raw” to its packagers and retailers; the police, most of them timeservers who could not care less about anything but overtime pay, along with a very few who knew what they were doing and wanted above all else to take down the villainous drug crews; the working men of the docks who cooperated with the drug smugglers as they watched their own jobs disappear; the kids in the schools, which were underfunded and besieged internally by some students who would rather have been out on the street corners slinging dope and making some money; writers working for the Baltimore Sun, hog-tied in their investigative efforts by both corporate fixation on the bottom line and their own incurable ignorance of life on the streets; and, at the top of the heap but with little real power to change anything, the politicians, self-absorbed self-seekers who wanted more than anything except their bribes or still higher office to be home in time to catch themselves delivering today’s sound bite on the evening TV news.
The Wire was never as big a hit as The Sopranos, the other HBO crime soap opera. David Simon, creator of The Wire’s characters and scenario, has suggested that, since most of the characters were black, it may have been “too black” for a mass American audience. Nor did the show ever achieve nearly as much attention as The Sopranos from the bestowers of awards. It never won a single Emmy, the TV equivalent of the Oscar. Told this in a promo film for the show, the journalist and novelist Joe Klein responded: “The Wire never won an Emmy? The Wire deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature!” But it never won that, either, and, perhaps as a result, The Wire, like the city of Baltimore, was underfunded by [End Page 205] the suits who control the cash. Its final season was composed of only ten rather brisk episodes, including one that saw the utterly senseless killing of one of its central characters, my personal favorite TV character of all time, the dashing, witty, stylish, fearless, non-profanity-using, shotgun-brandishing, and highly philosophical stickup artist Omar Little.
In this short essay I would like to spend a little time eulogizing Omar by thinking about what kind of creature he was and about how much or little power he had over his own life. Yes, I understand that he was a fictional character and a rather implausible one at that. Nevertheless I think we can learn something about our own freedom and ability to command our fates if we think about fictional characters like Omar and how they move around in their world—and in ours.
At least some fictional characters do indeed move around in our “real” world, at least if thinkers like David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche are right, because we ourselves are fictions. As Hume points out in A Treatise of Human Nature, “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception” ( 1978, 252). These perceptions “successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations” (Hume  1978, 253), but we...