The Wire Week Seven: A Man's Got to Have a Code (EdSector Archive)
The signal moment in this week's episode of The Wire came during the prison exchange between Omar and Bunk. Omar's been framed by Marlo for killing an innocent citizen. Bunk knows that Omar only robs and murders drug dealers, but begins by saying "Hey, even if you didn't kill this woman you've killed lots of other people, so that's justice one way or the other." To which Omar responds, "If Omar didn't kill that woman, then someone else did," and moreover, "A man's got have a code."
Like so much on The Wire, this has meaning on multiple levels, one related directly to the characters at hand, and one resonant with the larger themes that the creators are developing this season.
In the first sense, Omar is talking about the nature of manhood. To Omar, a man can't be a man unless he lives by a code. The nature of the code itself isn't the issue, the important thing is giving the code fidelity, whatever it may be. In other words, nothing is more important than integrity. Omar and Bunk, who came from the same neighborhood and went the same high school, took opposite paths in life, but they share this core belief. Omar knows this about Bunk, and thus it's no surprise later in the episode to see Bunk trying to get Omar transfered to a safer jail and suggesting to the other homicide detectives working the case that Omar might not be guilty. Bunk's code, like Omar's, is rooted in a sense of justice: bad people deserve to be punished. But Bunk also believes that justice demands truth, and that truth can't be suberted to punish the wicked.
That's why the virtuous characters in The Wire like Bunk and McNulty respect Omar while despising many of their colleagues--like Omar, they believe that integrity matters most. Contrast Omar with the corrupt police officer who steals from criminals, children, even poor Bubbles. He's a minor, one-dimensional character; his only purposes is to serve as the anti-Omar, a man defined by his lack of integrity. Rationally speaking, one could argue that he's still doing more to make the world a better place than Omar, a murderer and a thief. But let's be honest--if he and Omar met in a dark alley, which of the two would you, the viewer, really want to walk away? I think you'd pick Omar, and not just because he's more interesting to watch on TV.
Omar's credo can also be interpreted a very different way: codes are unavoidable. A man's got to have a code in the sense that he can't not have one. It's the nature of the human condition to look for rules to live by. The corner boys rushing toward some kind of manhood in The Wire are all struggling to define themselves. The misadventures of rookie teacher Prezbo and the vignettes of poorly managed public schools represent only a small facet of this season's focus on education. The much larger issue is how children growing up on the streets of west Baltimore internalize social codes that have been warped and degraded by the social anarchy caused by the drug trade. That's really what Colvin and the professor are after--understanding the codes that cause students like Namond to be who they are, and changing them before they become written in blood and stone.