Soon after The Wire finished its remarkable five-series delve into life and death in Baltimore, Clarke Peters, who played the dignified detective Lester Freamon, was in Scotland. A taxi veered towards him. “Two huge men got out,” he recalls. “I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to get it now … ’ But they were so enthusiastic.” At this point, Peters, born in New York City, puts on an eccentric Scottish accent. ” ‘I can’t believe it! It’s facking Freamon!’ And what they were blown away by was that Baltimore was just like Glasgow. They got it. The city was the star, and people in Europe worked that out before America did. America’s so racially minded, they thought that it was a Black show, but it was always about society.”
Twelve years after The Wire ended, Peters is sitting at home on a Zoom call to discuss the role that changed his life. “Having done The Wire, I didn’t want to do a lot of stupid shit,” he says. “It exercised a part of your brain numbed by watching other crap.” He is fantastic company. Asking how my day is, I say we found rats in our garden. “Well, we’re in a great place to be talking about Baltimore then!” At one point, he phones Dominic West, who played Freamon’s fellow, less calm detective, Jimmy McNulty. The two actors used to go camping together and would sometimes ride horses too. The call goes to voicemail, but a lot of the cast stayed in touch.
“We were part of an experience that shifted how TV is made,” Peters says, full of pride. “I can’t believe it still has legs, man. I’ve seen, maybe, two episodes of The Sopranos and that’s a story I’ve seen before. Complete escapism. And I was really peeved nobody could see the intelligence behind The Wire; its possible function in American society. The Sopranos? That’s what America’s programmed to enjoy.”
“America’s so racially minded, they thought that it was a Black show, but it was always about society.”
The Wire, mostly written by David Simon, who used to report on the police, and Ed Burns, who used to be police, ran from 2002 to 2008. It took a long time to be successful, given that it was ostensibly a cop show, but crawled through 60 slow episodes to tell its story of how systems built from the streets up work to keep the streets down. It moved from drugs to government corruption, via a heartbreaking look at education and a disillusioned one at the media. No wonder Barack Obama named it his favorite show in 2008. His rival for the Democratic nomination that year, Hillary Clinton, picked American Idol.
Baltimore, I assume, had mixed feelings. “Oh yeah,” says Peters, beaming. “Some hated it. Some loved it. But, as the cast, for the citizens? We were heroes. For local government?” He smiles. “A … pain … in … the … neck.”
He didn’t watch the series until 2012, when he had a double knee operation and thought, why not. He liked it. Many watched or rewatched The Wire during lockdown and the concurrent Black Lives Matter protests — and probably noted that its many scenes of police brutality stick out because nobody is filming them on their phone. There is also very little, if any, community activism.
“When I think about this,” says Peters, who is 68, “it’s something you guys are just beginning to see outside of America. But this has been part of my life since the 1950s. Back then, people were scared to open their mouths. The only thing different today is we have social media, so someone can really put it out there.”
“With George Floyd,” he continues, his deep voice crackling, “it wasn’t just a Black dude that died. It was the injustice. A murder took place on television, and we saw the beginning, middle and, unfortunately, the end. A snuff film in nine minutes. Somebody talked about blood coming out underneath the car. That’s not blood. That’s urine. When I saw that, I knew he was done.” He pauses. “I hope we don’t become stoic about moments like that.”
Maybe social media and social activism could be the plot of a sixth season? “Well, that’s what I would like to do,” Peters laughs. “We all know there is another season in this. We all know that!”
Freamon was the Zen cop in a storm of egos, and the man who played him seems the same, with tinted shades and a gray-tipped beard, a voice so calm he should read sat nav. In the show his detective was different from the rest, making toy furniture while all around were losing their heads. The actor kept the armoire, desk and cradle, but won’t say where they are. He was the show’s soul.
“I was really peeved nobody could see the intelligence behind The Wire.... The Sopranos? That’s what America’s programmed to enjoy.”
We end by talking about Bubbles, the character with the best arc in The Wire and, possibly, TV history. A heroin addict who hustles, injects, informs, cleans up, relapses, gets beaten, is responsible for the death of a boy, tries to kill himself, then seems OK — he is the personification of the pain a greedy city can cause.
“He was representative of a lot of people,” Peters says. “And I’ve wondered why he didn’t have more exposure. The real deal was Bubbles, but the truth is that America just doesn’t want to look at that, sadly.”
Two days later, Andre Royo, who played Bubbles, is grinning down at the laptop camera from the decking of a wood house in the Lake Tahoe area of the US. “We walk by people like Bubs all the time in disgust,” he says. “And people don’t like being reminded how inhumanely they treat their fellow humans. The show was showing perception from all angles to say, before you judge, just take a minute.”
When Covid-19 took grip and the civil rights protests unfurled, Royo says, “I had to make a choice if I was going to be Tupac or Ernest Hemingway — I chose Hemingway! Get out, before I go crazy.” So he is in the sticks with his daughter and, as morning sun tumbles down and he spills anecdote after anecdote, he is as far as possible from the hellish immersion he put himself through for The Wire. He still hasn’t seen the whole series. “I can’t watch myself — I find it awful,” he says. “I’m going to wait until I’m 90.” He is 51.
“It wasn’t fun being Bubs,” he says. “I was in a hotel room, on a mattress on the floor, because I was trying to stay poignant. Idris Elba? If you’re doing research for a dealer like Stringer Bell, you go party. Dominic West? If you do research for a cop, that’s a lot of beers.”
“That show affected all of us,” he continues. “I was re-educated about what kind of person I was. Before, I ignored people. I was selfish. Then, playing Bubbles made me understand who I wanted to be. I wanted to matter. I’m Bubbles, man. People say they don’t want to be one character for the rest of their lives, but I don’t feel that way. It changed me. In the middle of the fourth season I had a meltdown. It’s hard to stay in that headspace for so many years, and I can’t let it go. He’s a part of me, and there’s a lot of me in him, as far as striving to be the best person I can be, no matter what flaws I have. That’s the endgame for a human being. You just keep trying.”
Royo was so good as Bubbles that sometimes he would be tossed off set by security who thought he was a real junkie. People offered him drugs. When The Wire finished, given it was known they cast people from the streets for some roles, a lot of Hollywood thought Royo was an actual addict. “Which is a back-handed compliment,” shrugs the actor. Michael B Jordan, who played tragic teen Wallace in the show and is now, via Black Panther, a bona fide superstar, told me Royo is responsible for his love of acting. He really is exceptional. “You have to have the emotion, not show the emotion,” is how Royo remembers the cast’s ethos, which makes sense for this most stoic of series.
When The Wire first aired, reviews in prominent New York newspapers were so appalling that a worried Royo went into Simon’s office. The critics thought it was too slow; they hated having to put subtitles on. When the show first appeared in the UK, on FX, the final series drew an audience of only 38,000. “I said to David,” recalls the actor. “‘Yo. They hate us. They love The Shield. But we’re on HBO, so let’s get more violent. Let’s speed it up!’ He said, ‘I’m not trying to create an audience. I’m trying to find one that appreciates being talked to, not talked at.’ He said people would treat it like a book and I thought, ‘This white boy’s crazy!’ But he was right.”
Bubbles. The punk stick-up man Omar, who was like nobody written before — “a homosexual Robin Hood”, as Royo describes him. Avon Barksdale. Cedric Daniels. The memorable characters kept on coming. Stringer, of course, shot dead in series three, launching the career of Elba. “My character was offed,” he told me. “I didn’t have a choice, but, in hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened. Although, at the time, it didn’t feel like that. Felt like, ‘Wait a second, I’m at the pinnacle of this arc,’ then, shebang!” Clay Davis. Bunk. Tommy Carcetti, who was played by Aidan Gillan.
“I’m not trying to create an audience. I’m trying to find one that appreciates being talked to, not talked at.”
A rare woman amid all that testosterone was detective Kima Greggs, played by Sonja Sohn. “I owe Clarke a fricking phone call from like a year ago!” she yells, calling me from her car, when I tell her who I have spoken to already. “I’ll give him a holler after this.” Sohn was so affected by The Wire she stayed in Baltimore after filming, even directing a recent documentary, Baltimore Rising, about escalating tensions between police and activists.
Greggs — who Sohn believes was the first Black lesbian character on TV — was meant to be killed after five episodes, but lasted until the end. Why does Sohn think that is? “David always said Kima was the moral centre of those police. She showed that there were good cops, and you had to show one good one!” She laughs. Now, of course, those bad apples would be filmed? “Sure. So Herc and Carver [particularly rough cops on the show] would be kicked off the force,” she says. “Or, maybe not.”
How much has Baltimore changed since the end of The Wire? “It depends where you go,” she says. “It is a really nice small city – you tend to run into people you know. But there are areas that have not seen economic development, for sure. Still, what I see are droves of residents working super-hard to make sure that a shift occurs, and I became a part of that, because I care about that city so much.”
She insists this rise in community activism happened as a direct result of the fourth series of The Wire. Some impact for a show that was nearly canceled after each flop season. That was when local residents started to make concerted efforts to improve the lives of children, in a city where the school system — so decrepit in series four — has barely changed since. This effort gives her hope. “And my only question is,” she says of the show, “if we had had another season, would we have included more of such community work? Could we have shown how many folks start working with their neighborhoods, and become active in giving back.”
When we spoke, she was extremely busy. Deep into the edit on an as yet untitled second documentary about Baltimore. I can’t think of any show that has had the impact that this one did. Some TV, it seems, not only changes the people who watch it and those who star in it, but the places it is filmed in too.
Jonathan Dean is the author of I Must Belong Somewhere
Watch The Wire on Amazon Prime Video and iTunes. Listen to The Wire: Way Down in the Hole on Apple Podcasts