The Death of Stringer Bell, 10 years later: A look back at the greatest episode of (probably) the greatest television show ever

The Death of Stringer Bell, 10 years later

A look back at “Middle Ground,” the greatest episode of (probably) the greatest show in television history

by Jack M Silverstein (@readjack)

“…nothing I can do to change y’all minds…”

My parents had Kennedy.

I had Stringer Bell.

Granted, John Kennedy was an international figure, and real, and my parents experienced his death when it happened. And Stringer was local, and fake, and I didn’t watch Season 3 until three years after it aired.

Didn’t matter. Stringer’s death, silly as it sounds, was a “Where were you when?” for me.

I was at my parents’ with them and my brother, the four of us locked into the fates of nearly 40 characters over 10 hours of storytelling. And really, by the time Stringer was facing Omar’s shotgun to the east and Mouzone’s pistol to the west, we’d had almost 36 hours of this story.

That elongated buildup and knowledge of history is what makes Season 3 my favorite of the five. And that makes “Middle Ground” — that season’s penultimate, and finest, episode — the greatest 60 minutes in the show’s history.

I first saw it in 2007. But the night TV fans went to bed stunned by the death of this fictional drug dealer was Dec. 12, 2004 — 10 years ago today.

There’s a lot to like about “Middle Ground.” Let’s start at the beginning. The previous episode, “Reformation,” opens with the return of Brother Mouzone and closes with Mouzone and his assistant Lamar kidnapping Omar’s boyfriend Dante. I won’t even chop into that backstory, only to say that its strength and depth allows Omar to be one of the stars of “Middle Ground” despite having only two scenes, the first and the last.

That first scene is one of several that anchor the episode, the season and the series. By my count, there are nine.

Omar Little Brother Mouzone The Wire Middle Ground alley standoff

“I don’t see no sweat in your brow neither bruh.”

— Omar

Episode scene number: 1

Main characters: Omar Little and Brother Mouzone

Supporting characters: None

Referenced characters: Dante

Setting: Alley

Favorite moment: The train whistle with both men pointing a gun at the other

What gets settled: Omar and Mouzone team up

The episode’s first scene is a tug-of-war between Omar and Brother Mouzone. Some fans think Mouzone saps the show’s realism, but for his seven episodes (yes, that’s it) he is a natural foil and partner for Omar, the man who even the President of the United States considers the show’s centerpiece.

This scene goes on the short list of the show’s greatest cold opens with “McNulty’s Bender For the Ages,” “Snoop Buys a Nail Gun,” “Chris, Snoop and Mike shoot paint ball” and “Bubbs’ Suicide Attempt.”

***

Maurice Levy Stringer Bell The Wire Middle Ground

“That gonif was born with his hand in someone’s pocket.”

— Levy

Episode scene number: 6

Main characters: Stringer Bell and Maury Levy

Supporting characters: None

Referenced character: Clay Davis

Setting: Outdoor atrium?

Favorite moment: Stringer sits on the bench, defeated

What gets settled: Levy tells Stringer that Clay is hustling him

Two of the other nominees for Greatest Wire Episode Ever are “Cleaning Up” and “Bad Dreams.” They are, not coincidentally, the penultimate episodes of Seasons 1 and 2. Those two episodes and this one are all structured around a race to a criminal target between Major Crimes and the target’s supposed allies.

In all three, the MCU loses the race: Bodie and Poot get to Wallace, the Greek and Vondas get to Sobotka, Omar and Brother Mouzone get to Stringer. The difference this time is that the MCU wants to capture Stringer, not work him as an informant. They’re finally dropping the net on their big fish, rather than scooping up bait.

While this is happening, the mayor is racing the commissioner to see who can dump Major Colvin and Hamsterdam in the other man’s lap. Over the final two episodes of S3, these two races — to Stringer and Colvin — will draw parallel lines that also intersect.

Meanwhile, Stringer in this episode will eventually try to have Clay Davis assassinated and Avon incarcerated. The scene with Levy in which he discovers that “There are no bribes!” sets him down the path to the former.

***

Avon Barksdale Slim Charles Stringer Bell The Wire Middle Ground

“I think Slim gonna have to sit this one out boss.”

— Avon

Episode scene number: 14

Main characters: Stringer, Avon, Slim Charles

Supporting characters: Some bodyguard

Referenced character: Clay Davis

Setting: Barksdale headquarters

Favorite moment: Avon contrasting “A Day of the Jackel-type motherfucker” with Slim, who he says is “rumble-tumble”

Other favorite moment: The subtle way the table Slim is sitting at is covered in a row of hand grenades

What gets settled: Stringer can no longer depend on Barksdale muscle to do his dirty work and is, basically, officially on his own

Everyone remembers the last scene that Avon and Stringer shared. It’s coming up.

This, the second-to-last scene, is great too. The Barksdale-Bell threads have been fraying since the end of Season 2, when Stringer put his fist on the glass and Avon paused, and then reluctantly gave him dap. Stringer kicks the first wall out of their house in S3E8 by telling Avon the truth about D’Angelo’s death…

…and here we have Stringer realizing that within the Barksdale organization, he has been neutered.

***

The Wire Cutty boxing gym

“…but I know that sweet science.”

— Cutty

Episode scene number: 25

Main characters: Cutty, Avon, Slim Charles

Supporting characters: none

Referenced character: none

Setting: Barksdale headquarters

Favorite moment: Cutty’s happiness as he realizes he’s getting 50% over his dream budget

What gets settled: Cutty’s new career has financial backing and, more subtlety and more significantly, Slim has officially superseded Stringer as Avon’s #2

Of the scenes I’m highlighting, this is the only one outside the plot line of the respective falls of Stringer and Colvin. I include it for three reasons, two of which are listed above in the “what gets settled” section.

The other reason it stands out as one of the episode’s bedrock scenes is due to events yet to come. Avon always fashioned himself a benevolent warlord. (Or perhaps a violent community organizer.) His sweetness here underlines Marlo’s soon-to-be violent warlord.

(Unfortunately, I cannot find the full clip. This starts about 20 seconds in, after Avon asks Cutty what he knows about running a gym.)

***

Stringer Bell Bunny Colvin cemetery graveyard Middle Ground The Wire

“Speak your mind, Russell.”

— Colvin

Episode scene number: 26, 28, 30

Main characters: Stringer and Colvin

Supporting characters: none

Referenced character: Carcetti, Avon

Setting: cemetery

Favorite moment: Colvin passing on Stringer’s attempt to be buddy-buddy

What gets settled: Stringer gives Colvin the information that will eventually send Avon back to prison

This is a three-part scene, or maybe a prologue followed by one scene split in two. However you think it’s cut, this is another bedrock scene for the season, considering the season-long parallels between Stringer and Bunny that will extend to the season finale.

Here’s an instance where the symbolism (dead men walking) retains realism (where else can a drug kingpin and a police district commander have a leisurely, sensitive meeting?). That’s the beauty.

***

The Wire Middle Ground Avon Barksdale Brother Mouzone barber shop

“He doesn’t strike me as a man who would tell stories, even at the point of dying.”

— Brother Mouzone

Episode scene number: 29

Main characters: Avon Barksdale and Brother Mouzone

Supporting characters: the barber and his son, P-Squared

Referenced character: Stringer, Omar, the New York syndicate

Setting: barber shop

Favorite moment: Avon opening the dialogue with a pause and then, “You look healthy.”

What gets settled: Avon agrees to give up Stringer to Mouzone and the absent Omar

This is a genre of Wire scene that the show perfected — punchy, short, accelerated, taut and usually backed with a song. (Here’s my favorite.)

The story moves fast here. This scene is sandwiched in the chopped up graveyard scene, so that Avon and Stringer set each other up simultaneously.

And just like that, the trap is set.

***

The Wire Middle Ground Avon Barksdale Stringer Bell rooftop

“Us, motherfucker.”

“Us, man.”

— Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell

Episode scene number: 44

Main characters: Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell

Supporting characters: none

Referenced character: Marlo Stanfield, Andy Krawczyk the developer

Setting: rooftop of Avon’s penthouse

Favorite moment: Avon and Stringer reminiscing about shoplifting a badminton set at the mall as teenagers

What gets settled: Avon gets Stringer’s schedule for the next day, sealing Stringer’s fate

The emotion pent up in this episode’s final scene is, literally, more explosive than the rooftop scene, but the history runs deeper here. Two childhood friends and effectively life partners trying to execute their respective end games to checkmate their now foe before the other does the same.

Their first scene together is in Orlando’s after Stringer returns from D’Angelo’s hearing. They are rock solid to the end of Season 1, though the first fault line is drawn when Stringer and Avon assume the are getting arrested and only Avon does. Problems grow throughout Season 2, especially once Stringer goes behind Avon’s back to kill D.

The Wire is truly stories within a story. The 37-hour Avon & Stringer story is one of the show’s unquestionable best.

***

The Wire Middle Ground McNulty Lester Freamon Daniels Kima Greggs Pearlman

“We got him.”

— Freamon

Episode scene number: 46

Main characters: Lester Freamon, Jimmy McNulty

Supporting characters: Cedric Daniels, Rhonda Pearlman, Kima Greggs

Referenced character: Stringer Bell

Setting: Major Crimes Unit

Favorite moment: “Not on the phone.”

What gets settled: MCU officially catches Stringer on a wiretap (by pre-bugging a burner, setting up a sting to sell him the burner, and then having a judge sign a warrant for a pre-bugged phone that the MCU sold and delivered to the target through an unwitting intermediary)

The main case in S1 is far from complete before the makeshift detail is forced to “charge what [they] can and go home.” The case in S2 gets much closer — and delivers Rawls with 14 clearances — but still leaves the main target in the wind with an informant dead.

The S3 Barksdale/Bell case, on the other hand, is a success. The show builds to it slowly. The technology upon which the story rotated and that often baffled the police seems archaic now: beepers in S1, text messaging in S2, burners in S3, camera phones in S5. Still, there they are in mid-season with these confusing burners, needing to continue moving their pieces into place as they determine their own checkmate formation.

The show builds to the final capture with quick scenes peppered throughout the episode. Lester explains that catching Stringer will take four or five phone calls as the system funnels down to his number, and then each scene is anchored by one line of dialogue that sums up the progress (Caroline: “Like cutting butter with a hot knife.” Lester, later: “We’re on the top of the mountain.”)

When they nab him while he talks to Shamrock about a pair of hit men (“Those two hitters you asked about”) for Clay Davis, it’s exhilarating for the characters and the audience — we know how long this has taken. They appear to have won the race.

***

The Wire Middle Ground Stringer Bell death

“Well get on with it motherfu- ”

— Stringer

Episode scene number: 50

Main characters: Stringer Bell, Omar Little, Brother Mouzone

Supporting characters: Andy Krawczyk, Stringer’s bodyguard

Referenced character: Clay Davis

Setting: An unfinished B&B property

Favorite moment: Stringer accepting his fate

What gets settled: Stringer

I’ll never forget the silence in my parents’ living room after this episode ended. We’d been watching the show together on HBO reruns (branded as “re-ups”) for the run up to Season 5. All newbies. No wikipedia cheaters. So when Stringer gets cornered, we were hushed.

I also remember thinking, “Hmm, how are they going to write him out of this?” I was somehow astute enough to realize that not killing him would ruin the show’s credibility yet naive enough to think, “Sure, but they’re not going to kill Stringer.

(I also hadn’t yet realized that the quote that opens the penultimate episode spells death for the speaker — Wallace, Sobotka, Stringer, Sherrod (Bubbles), Snoop.)

a

ART CREDIT

Sure enough, Omar and Mouzone practically blew him off the screen. When the credits rolled, after the silence, someone (and I still don’t remember who) yelled, “Holy crap, Stringer is dead.” It felt that real.

A few notes on this scene.

Stringer’s death scene is the capstone on an episode filled with “showdown” imagery, where two or three characters are framed in classic Western formation. The obvious one is Omar & Mouzone in the opening scene:

Omar Little Brother Mouzone standoff The Wire Middle Ground

But also look at Cutty teaching Justin proper boxing footwork…

Justin Cutty The Wire Middle Ground

…or Stringer and Levy discussing Clay Davis…

Levy Stringer The Wire Middle Ground

…or Avon interrupting Stringer ordering Slim to put a hit on Clay…

Avon Barksdale Slim Charles Stringer Bell The Wire Middle Ground

…or Stringer berating Andy Krawcyzk while “Mr. Bodyguard” looks on…

Stringer Bell Andy Krawcyzk  The Wire Middle Ground

…or Omar and an unseen Brother Mouzone preparing to execute String.

Brother Mouzone Omar Little Stringer Bell death scene The Wire Middle Ground

Even Cutty asking Avon for grant money for his gym is framed like “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” — since Cutty assumes that Avon and Slim will be unsympathetic.

Slim Charles Cutty Avon Barksdale The Wire Middle Ground

Each of these shots speak to the source of the drama in the season: multiple groups with multiple agendas gaming each other for the upper hand.

Second, here are Idris Elba (Stringer) and David Simon (show creator) on the death of Stringer Bell. I can’t find it, but I know Michael K. Williams (Omar) initially had reservations about doing the scene, which he felt contributed to unnecessary gun violence. Williams’ view was simple: “Can’t these two men talk out their differences?”

As for the story, the parallel between Stringer’s last words and Colvin’s words in the finale as he is relieved of duty…

…has been pointed out on a number of occasions and at a number of sites. What I like is the parallel between Stringer v. Omar/Mouzone and Levy v. McNulty/Pearlman in S1. McNulty (to Levy’s right) gives Levy a passionate, threat-filled speech about what he is going to do to Levy and his client’s family if he, Levy, does not give his client to McNulty.

Levy pauses, and then turns to his left to face Pearlman.

“I’m hearing this from him,” he says to Rhonda, “and I understand that he is distraught. I understand that. Am I hearing this from the State’s Attorney’s office as well?”

Pearlman, reluctantly: “You are.”

It’s basically the same exchange Stringer has with Omar (to Stringer’s right) and Mouzone (to his left). When Stringer offers to buy his own life, Omar blows up.

“You still don’t get it, do you?” he says. “This ain’t about your money bruh. Ya boy gave you up. That’s right. And we ain’t have to torture his ass neither.”

Stringer, seeing the full weight of his actions in ordering the capture, interrogation, torture and murder of Brandon, turns to his left to face Brother Mouzone. He then cocks his head slightly, in a way that might as well say, “I’m hearing this from him and I understand that he is distraught. I understand that. Am I hearing this from Brother Mouzone as well?”

Unlike Pearlman, Mouzone wasn’t ambushed into this position. He’s been planning it. Stringer gets even less wiggle room from Mouzone than Levy did from Pearlman.

After three years as the #2 man in West Baltimore’s #1 drug operation, Stringer Bell was no longer free to cut holes through maze walls. His story was over. Get on with it.

Jack M Silverstein is a staff writer for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. Say hey @readjack.

For everything else you’ve ever wanted to read about The Wire, click here

For my 2008 essay on The Wire, click here

*** DEC. 12, 2014 UPDATE ***

Sonja Sohn (Kima) likes the story, though apparently when it comes to Stringer’s death, there’s more that we don’t know…

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7 comments

  1. Pingback: Two people on a park bench — “The Wire” and the art of conversation | ReadJack.com
  2. Pingback: ReadJack goes to the movies (and watches TV) | ReadJack.com
  3. Colleen Campbell · October 11, 2015

    And I thought I was the biggest Wire fan ever :)

    • readjack · October 11, 2015

      Great art breeds that feeling. Thanks for reading!

  4. Pingback: La muerte de Stringer Bell, 10 años después – keepitRANDOM
  5. Tori Sheffer · July 15

    i cant not watch and mourn that scene over and over again

  6. Pingback: Post #8 | The Wire: A Walk Through The Garden

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