Villain of the Month: Stringer Bell
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
WARNING: This month’s post contains spoilers for The Wire.
Ah, String. Easily one of my favourite TV characters of all time, from one of the greatest television shows ever made, HBO’s The Wire. Amid a large and stellar cast of characters, String stands out; only Omar Little gives him any real competition for Best in Show. This is down in part to the suave, physically imposing presence of Idris Elba; he literally towers over nearly everyone else. But it’s also because, like Omar, Stringer Bell is textured and sympathetic enough that you’re almost tempted to consider him an antihero, in spite of his – uh, let’s say casual – regard for human life.
We first meet String seated in the back of a courtroom in suit and tie and wire-rimmed glasses, seemingly taking notes. We assume he’s a lawyer, or maybe a journalist. It’s not until his crew of enforcers start filing in and String begins shooting threatening glances at the witness stand that we realize who he is: a high-ranking lieutenant in a powerful drug organization. One with a sense of humour and moderate artistic talent: holding up his notepad to Baltimore Police officer Jimmy McNulty, he reveals this little gem:
McNulty can’t help laughing, and neither can we.
From the earliest episodes, it’s clear that String is a smart guy, and a prudent wartime consigliere to his childhood friend, Avon Barksdale. All is not well in Avon’s drug kingdom, and the king would have all his problems solved with bullets, but his right-hand man knows better. Bodies bring cops and still more problems; better to find other, subtler ways of dealing with your enemies. When it comes to dodging the law, String is a canny operator; throughout the cat-and-mouse game of Season 1, String makes sure that Avon’s organization is always one step ahead of the “narcos”, often to the frustration and befuddlement of his own crew, who don’t even recognize half the threats until String has steered them safely past. And he’s a brilliant manipulator, using everyone around him to achieve his ends. In other words, like most of my favourite baddies, String uses mind over muscle (though for the record, Mr. Bell has very, very fine muscles).
String challenges the conventional street notion of what it means to be “hard”. Avon and his enforcers might be more willing to drop bodies indiscriminately, but when it comes to sheer cold-blooded ruthlessness, none of them rival Stringer Bell. It’s String who has Avon’s nephew secretly murdered when Avon himself lacks the nerve. And he’s willing to throw his own BFF under the bus to get what he wants, going against Avon’s orders while the kingpin is in prison and setting up a complex alliance with Avon’s enemies. In the end, he’s even willing to betray Avon to the cops.
What really sets Stringer Bell apart from the rest of the crew, though, is his worldview. He might have grown up on the corner, but he doesn’t see “the game” in the same primeval, kill-or-be-killed light as Avon and the others. String isn’t interested in dying young in a blaze of glory. His ambitions go much higher: to be a wealthy, legitimate businessman, and maybe gain some political clout in the bargain. For String, “the game” isn’t a way of life, it’s a business like any other. This isn’t just a philosophy, either; when McNulty tails him to Baltimore Community College, he finds String seated keener-style in the front row of Introduction to Macroeconomics.
It’s this unique attitude (unique in Barksdale’s crew, anyway) that makes String so interesting. One has to wonder how he came by it, growing up on the corner as he did, and it creates tension with the rest of the crew, especially Avon. It also provides a good deal of humour, whether it’s String lecturing his henchmen on the principles of an elastic product or presiding over their meetings in strict accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order. (“Nigga you ain’t got the floor. Chair ain’t recognize your ass.”)
Most of all, it’s what sets String up for his downfall, because it creates the fundamental conflict between himself and Avon that leads to his demise. String can’t understand why Avon is content merely to be a thug, while Avon can’t understand why String is deluding himself about who he is and where he comes from. Their arguments become increasingly heated, and it’s clear from the middle of Season 2 that they’re on a collision course.
In the end, for all String’s smarts, it’s Avon who ends up being proven right: String gets cheated out of $250,000 by a corrupt politician who preys on his inexperience and street mentality. Avon just laughs. “They saw your ghetto ass coming for miles, nigga.” The stage is set for the final showdown, with each BFF turning on the other. Alas, this robs us of one of the show’s best characters before the end of Season 3. Farewell, String, you delectable scoundrel. You were gone too soon.
And now it’s time for The Machine.
Strengths: Intelligence, pragmatism, and a devious mind. Stays cool under pressure, and always keeps the big picture in sight. Has clear goals and a strong drive to achieve them. In other words, though he’s a keen tactician, he has the mind of a general, not just a soldier.
Weaknesses: Overconfidence and an abundance of pride. Having succeeded at his earlier endeavours, String gets cocky, failing to bring the same caution and vigilance to his real estate endeavours as he did to the drug business.
Best Quote: “There’s games beyond the fucking game.”
Lair: A strip club and a funeral home. 0 points for the strip club, which is as cliché as it comes. But the funeral home, complete with tufted leather bar? 2 points for chutzpah.
Toys: A glock and a copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. 1 point. (For the book, obv.)
Henchmen: An army of soldiers, from the highest enforcer to the lowliest corner boy. Plus, String manages to manipulate just about everyone he knows into doing his bidding at one point or another. 4 points.
Intimidation factor: Lacks the fiery temperament of Avon, but with his huge frame, ice-cold stare and reputation for ruthlessness, he’s plenty intimidating, even while wearing a bad sweater and drinking a cup of tea. 3 points.
Schemes - Scope: Given his circumstances, hugely ambitious. 4 points.
Schemes - Complexity: String is juggling a lot of balls: construction managers, politicians, Avon, the consortium, Omar, his crew – all while dodging the police. 4 points.
Overall Badass Rating: 18
As always, if there’s a villain you’d like to see put through The Machine, let us know in the comments!
Next month: Hans Gruber!
[Editor's note: Psst. Erin's new book is out! The Bloodsworn concludes the trilogy that began with - the rather phenomenal - The Bloodbound. For fans of twisty epic fantasy with big battles, schemey politics and slightly heart-wrenchingly wonderful characters.]