“A man must have a code.”

“A man must have a code,” is the quote that guides episode 7 of The Wire, but even before the quote appears on the screen at the end of the credit sequence, the cold open of the episode presents us with one aspect of the phrase’s double meaning.

In the case of this first scene, “code” is used in the sense of its primary dictionary definition, referring to a secret code or cypher. In the scene, the team tries to interpret a conversation that they’ve recorded from the wire, as well as the seemingly nonsensical numeric sequences they frequently intercept on the pagers. What they discover is a layered series of increasingly elegant codes.

The first layer of code is simply the language of the streets, an oddly esoteric urban slang that can be difficult to decipher even when it is spoken in a frank, straightforward manner. Herc is the first to attempt an interpretation. On realizing how inept his translation is, he jokes that he is fluent in the dialects of several other neighbourhoods, but has yet to master that of the low-rise pits. While this comment is made in jest, it has much truth in it. The stylized slang of the ghetto is almost a language unto itself, and the dialects can vary significantly between neighbourhoods — especially where illegal acts and secrecy are concerned.

The second layer of code, which is explained by Freamon and Pryzbylewski, is a series of specific code words casually worked into the already somewhat encoded language. In the conversation they have recorded, which at first appears non-pertinent, one of Barksdale’s crew is in fact telling another that they are out of drugs and are expecting a delivery, which will be overseen by Stinkum. “Lo-man,” they explain, refers the low-rise pits; “Black” is Stinkum; etc. The code is so subtle that anyone who wasn’t looking for it would assume it was just a casual conversation.

Pryzbylewski makes this point by quoting the opening lines to the Rolling Stones song, “Brown Sugar,” pointing out that most people have heard the song hundreds of times without ever realizing that the opening lines overtly reference the slave trade. Thus, important information can be effectively concealed by hiding it in the open. What appears to be a simple, innocuous conversation, is in fact riddled with encoded information.

The third layer of code is an actual numeric code as opposed to simple linguistic substitution. Freamon and Pryzbylewski show how a series of numbers, when turned upside down, carry a sensitive piece of information. These numbers are sent to the pagers of Barksdales’ crew as a means of covert communication.

It is only by observing these different layers of code in tandem with the actions and conversations of those who use them that Freamon and Pryzbylewski are able to understand them. As the quotation from the last episode stated, all the pieces matter. Herc and Carver may spend more time on the streets and, as a result, have a better grasp of urban slang than Pryzbylewski, but without taking the time to study the other levels of communication, they could never hope to reach such a depth of understanding.

In addition to all this code business, this scene also gives us a clearer picture of Pryzbylewski. In the earlier episodes, he is portrayed as essentially worthless. His newly displayed skill in cracking codes just shows that his prior ineptitudes were actually a fault of the system that didn’t recognize his strengths and weaknesses. The system had him performing tasks for which his aptitudes were not suited, like a wrench being used to pound nails.

The larger theme of the episode is not secret codes, but moral codes. This is one of the most interesting themes of the season, and it is one that will stay with us through the entire 5 season run of The Wire.

As usual, our understanding is greatly aided by reviewing the conversation in which the phrase is spoken. In this case, it is a conversation between Omar and Bunk.

Bunk casually asks Omar why he’s decided to step up as a witness against Bird in the Gant killing.

Omar responds: “Bird triflin’ basically, kill an everyday workin’ man and all. I mean don’t get it twisted, I do some dirt too. But I ain’t never put my gun on nobody who wasn’t in The Game.”

Bunk: “A man must have a code.”

Omar: “Oh, no doubt.”

This conversation hints at all that Omar will come to represent in The Wire. The code to which he and Bunk are referring is a personal morality that is exists separately from the justice system, a collection of rules and guidelines that a person sets out for themselves to guide their actions in the world. For many people, to have a moral code means simply to follow the rules that have been imposed upon them by the criminal justice system. For Omar, this is not the case.

So far in The Wire, we have been presented with a portrait of a system that is clearly broken. It is a system whose parts are unaware of or, at times, hostile towards each other, a system that unwittingly produces criminals with one hand, while ineptly struggling to fight crime with the other. If the system is, in fact, broken, then clearly some of the rules and laws of the system may be flawed as well.

For this reason, the word “illegal” means almost nothing to Omar. “Illegal” is simply a label clumsily applied to a world that bears very little resemblance to what the term attempts to describe. For the most part, Omar operates outside the restraints of this system, but that does not mean that he has no morals, no personal code.

In the preceding episodes, David Simon and the other writers of the show have been preparing us for this idea, showing us how even the police officers have their own personal codes and are willing to ignore the illegality of certain actions if they believe they are doing so in the pursuit of some greater good.

We have seen Lieutenant Daniels lie to protect Pryzbylewski after he assaulted a teen in the projects. We have seen McNulty constantly ignoring “chain of command,”in order to further the Barksdale investigation. At the end of this episode, we see Daniels, Greggs and Landsman rip up the polaroid they took of Bird and beat him in the interview room. Clearly, almost everyone seems willing to ignore the restraints of the legal system from time to time. Omar has merely embraced this fact completely, following his own code exclusively, with absolutely no regard for the rules and laws of others.

Through Omar, we also learn of the existence of rules and laws within the criminal underworld. The Barksdale crew, for example, are not allowed to carry weapons in certain areas. It is also against the rules to use drugs if you are involved with the sale of them.

These “criminals,” like Omar, operate without regard for the illegality of their actions. Unlike Omar, however, they still allow themselves to be controlled by the rules imposed on them by superiors like Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell.

Anyone who has watched a movie or show about criminals knows that, no matter what, you don’t snitch. Even this rule, seemingly universal in the criminal world, is casually broken by Omar without any fear or guilt. Omar is unique in that he, of all the characters, follows none of these rules unless they happen to cooincide with his own moral code. He is not restricted by any rules other than his own and, for this reason, maintains a certain consistency that all the other characters lack.

For the other characters in The Wire, their personal codes are frequently at odds with those of the system. Sometimes their personal code has to take a backseat to their professional or legal obligations. Sometimes it is the opposite.

In the middle of the episode, McNulty acknowledges this issue when he drunkenly says the following to Bunk:

“You know why I respect you so much, Bunk? It’s not cause you’re good police, because fuck that. It’s ’cause when it came time for you to fuck me, you were very gentle.”

McNulty’s statement is an admission that he has seen the system in action and knows that, at some point, you are inevitably forced to behave in a way that your moral code would have you object to. He is telling Bunk that he sees the faults of the system and doesn’t blame him for what could be interpreted as a questionable action.

This admission, and Bunk’s immediate acceptance and understanding, show us why Bunk and McNulty are such good partners. They understand that it is impossible to operate in law enforcement without, occasionally, being forced to screw a friend over. McNulty knows that Bunk had no choice and recognizes that he did everything he could to make it painless. He sees past the restraints imposed by the system to the moral code that he knows guides Bunk’s action.

This tension between personal codes that regulate action from within and conventional laws and rules that attempt wholesale regulation from without is one we will find ourselves coming back to repeatedly as we continue to watch The Wire.

Continue to enjoy the other essays in this series here for free, or show your support by purchasing all 13 as an e-book.

David Warkentin is a Toronto-based writer whose work can be found on his Amazon author page. If you do twitter,

One Response to ““A man must have a code.””
  1. Mike says:

    I bet Omar sleeps like a baby at night – with a conscience clear as a sunny day.

    And that’s probably why the justice system is broken here: when you impose a code many don’t respect or understand, enforcing it is impossible.

    Also, I have hammered nails with wrenches. It kinda works at times.

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