I have wanted to write about the HBO crime drama series, The Wire, for quite some time now. However, I have been unable to focus on any single point of spiritual entry into a series with such an unimaginable wealth of rich characters and complex scenarios on which to reflect. I also find it difficult to write about television programs as complex as The Wire or Lost because the story lines need to play out. While speculation on the nature of Lost’s island is just that, commenting too quickly on the unstobable nature of a character on The Wire might make you look foolish when they fall victim to a barrage of bullets in the next episode. Yet after watching an exchange between two characters in the most recent episode of the fifth and final season, I could not wait any longer.
Of all the intriguing characters we have encountered over five seasons of The Wire, few are as likeable and sympathetic as Bubbles (Andre Royo), a pathetic (in the purely neutral sense of the word), homeless drug addict. For over three and a half seasons we have seen Bubbles, a.k.a. Bubs, struggle to survive on the streets of Baltimore, battling his drug addiction and fellow addicts. To support his habit, and to also make a better life for himself, Bubbles begins selling odds and ends from a grocery cart that he pushes around the ghettoes. A t-shirt here, a bottle of water there, and Bubbles has enough money for his next fix. He also unfortunately maintains committed to a life of petty theft, stealing scrap metal for the recycling money.
Yet to write Bubbles off as a stealing, dope fiend is to miss the humanity that Ed Burns and David Simon imbue in this character. Jon Wilde of the UK Guardian offers one of ten reasons to love The Wire:
“It features Bubbles, the most sympathetic character ever to appear in a TV drama. Expertly played by the mighty Andre Royo, Bubbles breaks your heart every time he appears on screen, always about to clean-up, clawing his way through Baltimore’s meanest streets, precariously holding onto his last scrap of dignity. I weep just thinking of him wheeling around his portable supermarket – a trolley piled with cheap toilet rolls and knock-off white T-shirts. More than any other character, Bubbles encapsulates the humanity at the heart of the show.”
There is a dignity about Bubbles that escapes his drugged out counterparts. Bubbles really struggles with his addiction, and when he gives in to the needle, both he and the audience lament this little death.
To help support his habit, Bubbles also serves as a sometime informant for two Baltimore detectives, Kima Greggs and Darren McNulty. However, when faced with these opportunities, he often experiences the most success in his fight against addiction, focusing on the task at hand rather than the drugs in hand. Bubbles not only helps detectives Greggs and McNulty, but in season four, he takes on a protégé, Sharrod, and tries to teach him the business of his mobile shopping store. Bubbles takes an interest in Sharrod’s education and even helps him with his homework.
Unfortunately, Sharrod overdoses on some bad drugs Bubbles intended for a thug who repeatedly harassed him throughout several previous episodes, with police failing to respond to Bubbles’ pleas for help. When Bubbles sees what has happened, he goes off the deep end, turns himself in for murder (which the cops realize he did not do), and tries to hang himself. Bubbles is moved to a rehab/psychiatric ward and seems inconsolable. Thankfully, a friend from his previous, unsuccessful stints at rehab, Waylon (Steve Earle) shows up to comfort him. The two re-kindle a friendship, and Waylon counsels Bubbles in the ways of recovery and sets him up with a job at a local homeless shelter. Here, Bubbles seems to turn a corner. He has a purpose and a job to do, and the director of the center sees his improvement and encourages Bubbles to step up and serve food to the homeless rather than staying in the back washing pots and pans. Bubbles adamantly refuses.
In the most recent episode, we learn why. After years of using shared needles, Bubbles is afraid that he has contracted “the bug,” AIDS, and is afraid that he might inadvertently spread it. When he tells Waylon, his friend encourages him to get tested. The two visit the local clinic and find out that, miraculously, Bubbles is clean. When Waylon tells him the good news, Bubbles becomes angry and responds, “It must be wrong. All the shit I done…all the works I shared…. That shit ain’t right no how man.” In a moment of prophetic clarity, Waylon sees through Bubbles’ anger to the fear and shame that motivates it. He tells Bubbles: “You’re disappointed. Shit, this ain’t about the bug is it. This is about you trying to make the past everything…mean everything…. You don’t even wanna’ think about the here and now. Sorry Bubs…shame ain’t worth as much as you think. Let it go.” Waylon’s blunt, plain-spoken advice comes from years of experience. He knows the guilt that clings to Bubbles more tenaciously than any desire for a drug and knows that Bubbles must release that guilt if he is to move forward. Bubbles will never be able to move forward, and more importantly move forward in service to others, until he realizes that this part of his past has passed. Thankfully, even in the possible salvation of Bubbles, the series remains committed to the streets as we see Bubbles working out his salvation, with literal fear and trembling, by serving others in the homeless shelter rather than in some church service.
In a season that has already seen significant twists, turns, and quickly-ended lives, Burns and Simon obviously remain tight-lipped about the future of these characters in the few episodes that remain. However, in interviews, they do hint at hope for one character, and as they maintain committed to Bubbles’ improvement (for now), we can only hope that it is this most human of characters.
The fifth and final season of The Wire is currently airing on HBO on Sunday nights, and new episodes are availble on HBO On-Demand a week early on Monday nights.