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  • "Deserve Got Nothing to Do with It":Black Urban Experience and the Naturalist Tradition in The Wire
  • Kecia Driver Thompson (bio)

In the final season of The hbo series The Wire, a slight tension develops between Felicia "Snoop" Pearson,1 an experienced gangster and top soldier in the crew of drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield, and Michael Lee, a boy barely in his teens whom Marlo has recruited to learn the ropes. While Snoop follows orders without questioning them, Michael often wants to know the logic behind the murders they commit, and Snoop grows exasperated with him. He is told in Episode Eight that his next job will be to kill a rival dealer, Big Walter, and, when he asks if Snoop ever wonders if the people they kill deserve it, she loses patience. "Deserve got nothing to do with it," she retorts, evoking the words of Will Munny (played by Clint Eastwood) in the 1992 film Unforgiven, just before he shoots Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman). This scene in The Wire is rich with meanings. To begin with, Michael senses (correctly, it turns out) that something is not quite right this time and that he is about to be set up, although he is smart enough not to get killed. Instead of becoming a fully integrated member of this gang, he remains aloof and fits the type of the quiet outsider that so often appears in Westerns. The fact that he questions the rules and conventions of the game ultimately leads him to take up the gun-slinging mantel of Omar Little, an epic character with his own unique code of honor who robs drug dealers but never "citizens." The subtle reference to Unforgiven is significant in that the film (also directed by Eastwood) is a twist on the classic Western, both employing and undercutting many of the conventions of the genre, including the clear distinctions between the good guy in the white hat and the bad guy in black. What is most important in terms of this essay, however, is that this simple line from Snoop encapsulates one of the central tenets of literary naturalism: that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control, and there is no [End Page 80] stable or just order in the natural world that will ensure that we get what we deserve. In the context of The Wire, it is certainly true that young African American males like Michael cannot expect to make sense of the legacies of poverty, violence, and fear that they shoulder.

In this essay, I propose that investigating The Wire as a naturalist text is appropriate and in line with recent critical inquiry in the field of naturalist studies,2 which shapes an understanding not only of the continuing impact of the movement but also of the texts that we might include in this tradition. A central preoccupation of naturalism, I argue, is mediation and, by extension, how character and identity are formed, displayed, experienced, and understood. Texts written at the turn of the twentieth century were influenced by, reflective of, and mediated through new technologies such as the printing press and print media, photography, and early cinema, as well as through shifting attitudes towards race, gender, social class, industrialization, and urbanization. Texts that are situated in the early years of the 21st century are at least as mediated—only through different technologies and systems. The Wire both represents and demonstrates the controlling influences of institutions: the legal system and the courtroom, the police and the law, local and state government, labor unions, the schools, prisons, and the mass media. The Wire is concerned with how these institutions watch us, shape us, frustrate us, and fail us. At the same time, however, it questions the authenticity of this representation; through the tensions between what John Dudley calls "performance and essence," melodrama and gritty realism, mediation and access, and even reception and context, The Wire displays its preoccupation with "what is natural or inevitable about African American identity and experience" (Dudley 258).

Just as The Wire negotiates meaning between its predominately black docu-fictional world and its (arguably) mostly white audience, naturalist texts have a history of negotiating...


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