These days you know actor Idris Elba as John Luther, the brilliantly troubled and sexy as hell Deputy Chief Inspector with a malfunctioning moral compass in the hit BBC series Luther. When he’s not keeping Londontown safe from assorted serial killers and fellow tainted coppers, or wrestling with his personal demons, DCI Luther is engaged in an intellectual pas de deux with Alice, a beautiful physicist who just happens to have murdered her parents.
While I love “Luther” for many reasons—spot-on writing, a terrific cast of supporting actors, a taste of London that U.S. television viewers rarely see—for me, Idris Elba will forever be Russell “Stringer” Bell, the upwardly mobile Baltimore crime lord who ruled for three seasons on the Dickensian cable TV series The Wire.
Stringer Bell was the most remarkable of The Wire’s many antiheros. For five seasons, The Wire created a sweeping narrative that encompassed the overlapping stories of cops, drug dealers, lawyers, teachers, politicians and work-a-day Baltimoreans (the vernacular term for the city’s denizens).
Depicting cops and criminals as two sides of the same coin is an old trope, one I daresay Luther uses to great effect. But Stringer Bell rose above the stereotypical criminal, who under different circumstances could have been the next Steven Jobs or run a Fortune 500 company. Make no mistake, Stringer Bell was ruthless as they came. Along with his street-wise childhood blood brother Avon Barksdale (whose nephew Bell executed because he knew Barksdale was too weak to order the hit), Bell ran Baltimore’s illicit drug trade with icy efficiency, raking in millions of dollars that he hoped to parlay into high-end real estate deals. To better himself, Bell took college classes in economics (The Wealth of Nations was on his bookshelf) and applied these lessons to the drug trade. During weekly gang meetings, Bell even made his minions adhere to Robert’s Rules of Order while lecturing them about supply-side economic theory.
But any criminal, even one as cunning as Stringer Bell, has a chink in his armor. For Bell it was his naive belief that making deals with “legitimate” businessmen would forever take him away from Baltimore’s inner-city drug corners and into the boardrooms of the city’s sleek downtown office towers. Bell all too quickly learned that business is business, no matter if it’s conducted by wielding a gun or by signing a federal contract. Whether the currency is crack cocaine or luxury condominiums, by day’s end, someone is going to get screwed. Frustrated by deals gone bad in the “legal” world, Bell ultimately realized that he’d been played, but this time he couldn’t order a hit in retaliation without risking his reputation as an aboveboard businessman. In the end, Bell was gunned down in cold blood by Omar Little, a gangster whose motto is “money don’t have no owners”—a fitting coda to Bell’s failed efforts to escape from his thug life.
I’d love to see John Luther and Stringer Bell meet up in London or Baltimore. What would happen? Would they square off against each other in a Sherlock Holmes—–Professor Moriarty epic duel or would they join forces and become uber-versions of themselves, a superhero mash-up of cop and criminal? Perhaps there’s another TV series in the making. For now, I’ll have to be content to watch The Wire on reruns.
Author “Murder in the Dog Park. Bad Girl. Good Cop. Bad Dog”
Visit Jill on her blog http://murderinthedogpark.blogspot.com
- 14 of the Best Scenes From ‘The Wire’ (mamapop.com)
- The Wire as a case study of failed corporate strategy (sriramk.com)
- It’s Here: The Wire: The Musical (newsfeed.time.com)