The Wire Season 4: Marlo Stanfield, Baltimore’s serial killer

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The genius of the character of Marlo Stanfield is that a textless, bold-colored headband came to feel too flashy.

He opened without one, an intro so perfect yet under the radar because the scene is about Bubbles, not this unnamed, previously unknown character whose first appearance departing a building is teamed with the sound of a bird chirping, as if Marlo is a hawk fledging from his nest and preparing to hunt the people of Baltimore like squirrels.

He wore no headband there but quickly acquired one. Once you’ve seen the entire series and re-watch the first half of Season 3, the headband makes Marlo look not like the king he became but like a prodigy, a brilliant teenager whom no one respects yet but dammit, I’ll show ’em.
When I first watched him, Marlo seemed dull. After two seasons of genius, I could not understand why the Wire would insert such an underwritten character and hire such an unexpressive actor to portray him.
It wasn’t until his Season 3 scene at the bar with Avon’s spy Devonne that I realized both Marlo’s brilliance and actor Jamie Hector’s.
He appears in the shadow. Just behind him, deeper in shadow and barely visible, is Chris.


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The key line comes at the bar:

MARLO: What you looking at?

DEVONNE: You.

MARLO: Yeah?

DEVONNE: I like your eyes. They like cat eyes.

MARLO: Who you here with?

DEVONNE, nodding to friends on dance floor: Them.

MARLO: That’s it? (looks back to Devonne) What kind of cat?

DEVONNE: What?

MARLO: What kind of cat my eyes like?

DEVONNE: A big cat.

MARLO: Mmm. (pause) You here with them and no one else?

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That’s the line where I shuddered and realized, damn, this dude isn’t dull. He’s coiled to strike.

Season 4 is the story of the strike: what happens when the chirping bird becomes the coiled snake becomes the big cat becomes the king of the jungle.

I’m mixing animal metaphors here because the show does as well. Stringer subtly ties Marlo to a cockroach, but by the time Lester is paying attention to him in Season 4 Marlo is already “a young lion.”

Marlo is one of the three key stories of Season 4. The second is his three-season parallel Tommy Carcetti, who moves from councilman to mayor to, briefly seen, governor.

The third are the four middle school students: Namond, Randy, Michael, Dukie.

I think I always come back to Marlo when thinking about Season 4 because the season feels like Baltimore in Hell (teed up by Bunk in the S3 finale telling Jimmy that “this city’s going to Hell”) with Marlo as Lucifer, a connection Stephen King made at the time too. Even though the Marlo-Carcetti co-arc from Season 3 to Season 5 makes both men’s individual stories doubly potent, the legislative, legal, and bureaucratic hell Carcetti levies on the city is not nearly dramatic as Marlo’s seemingly Satanic spawn Chris and Snoop stalking the streets.

The serial killer plot of Season 5 is widely derided, but even if execution (excuse me) is occasionally sloppy, the metaphor runs deep. Marlo is Baltimore’s serial killer. He commits his serial killing in Season 4.

When the season ends, the impact Carcetti’s policies have had on the four boys — namely leaving on the table $54 million of the state’s bailout money for the school system — is powerful yet abstract.

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But Carcetti’s influence feels nothing like the raw, immediate, searing power of Marlo’s hierarchy crushing Randy, subsuming Michael, demeaning Dukie, and humiliating Namond.

The season’s haunting coda is Michael’s graduation day advice from Chris — the wrong graduation and the wrong teacher.

“You can look ’em in the eye now,” Chris tells Mike from the rearview mirror.

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“No matter who he is or what he done, you look ’em right in the eye.”

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Michael took that first step toward Marlo on Sept. 10, 2006, 10 years ago today, the day that Season 4 debuted on HBO. Praise was stratospheric that season. Among the multitude of reviewers were the aforementioned King, Slate calling the Wire “the best show ever broadcast on American television,” and the dynamite Alan Sepinwall (then with his blog “What’s Alan Watching?”) feeling so engulfed and impressed by the series finale that he felt a responsibility to give 26 characters individualized wrap-ups.

If Season 4 were a movie, it would be a “Stand By Me”-esque tale about the four boys affected by two poles, Marlo and Carcetti. Unlike most stories, there is no good side between these two. Most television shows would give some if not most of the teenagers a happy ending. Audiences want it to be one way.

But it’s the other way.

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