The Wire’s Marlo: An Iconic Villain with a Terrifying Message

One of TV’s Most Iconic Villians

Watching The Wire, we spend a lot of seasons hoping that things in this world might change, as we’re confronted with problem after problem. But in Marlo Stanfield, we receive the sinister answer that, over time, things do change — it’s just that they get worse. While much of The Wire is about how the game remains the same with a shifting cast of players, Marlo Stanfield represents a virulent form of newness. As initial drug Kingpin Avon Barksdale and his second Stringer Bell Marlo lose their primacy, Marlo Stanfield is the new game in Baltimore. And it’s a game with no respect for the old ruleswith no mercy. Marlo’s been ranked number two on Rolling Stones’ list of greatest TV villains of all time, and looking back on The Wire now, we can see how Marlo’s ability to make a very bad state of affairs even worse conveys an important, timeless message. Just because things feel like they can’t get worse, doesn’t mean that’s true. So if we’re feeling burnt out in our attempts for positive change and just assuming the disappointing status quo will take care of itself, that could be a fatal error.

Let’s take a look at Marlo’s story in The Wire to unpack its deeper symbolism and why we need to remember his warnings today.

Marlo’s New, Sadistic Game

There’s a key phrase that gets thrown around time and again in The Wire: “It’s all in the game yo”, and this mentality exposes why Marlo is able to rise as he does—when players get too used to the game as it’s been played for a while, they trust in the rules of that game. And they forget that rules can change. All that it takes is for someone to break them, get away with it, and win. Marlo in this way is a true disrupter. For him, old boundaries no longer stand. Whereas in the past the East side and the West side dealers let each other be, Marlo kills Prop Joe – who’s actually been helping Marlo with things like money laundering – to steal his connection to the Greek’s supply. It’s this kind of move that was previously unthinkable and puts Marlo on top, but through exceptionally ruthless and cold-blooded violence that sets terrible precedents.

In other words, this disruption is all for the worse. He rises by discarding the precious few rules of decency or fairness that can be found in this already heartless and morally bereft “game.” With the help of his soldiers Chris and Snoop, Marlo takes the volume of killing to a new extreme, murdering countless people for very minor transgressions, if they’ve done anything at all. And the attitude Chris and Snoop bring to these murders is as if they’re entirely casual – nothing. We’re introduced to Snoop at a hardware store shopping for a nail gun. And it captures what’s so scary about these two enforcers – not just that they’ll kill you (for a potentially tiny or non-transgression) but that they’ll disappear you and not give it a second thought.

Their practice of hiding bodies in vacant buildings epitomizes Marlo’s cold-blooded new way. It’s smart and logical because it keeps attention and police activity down and makes it very hard for them to get anything on Marlo. For a while, it seems like killings are down in West Baltimore, but in fact, Marlo’s just figured out how to make it more invisible. And the cold efficient inhumanness of it is exactly who Marlo is; he’s turned the killing into a default, efficient system. The killings are also sometimes more brutal – Chris and Snoop torture and kill innocent Butchie, Omar’s confidante, in a manner that’s shocking even to characters who’ve seen a lot. And they err on the side of killing someone by accident, over letting anyone walk – like when Chris and Snoop devise an impromptu test to check if anyone’s from New York and should be killed for invading their territory, and it hardly seems scientific.

Meanwhile, on the business end of things, Marlo shuts down all attempts to make anything more collaborative or peaceful. He takes over Joe’s Co-op, then (after killing Joe) makes himself the leader and cancels all future meetings – effectively replacing it with a dictatorship. The Wire creator David Simon said Marlo is driven by “Power. Totalitarian power.” And as this Total King, he manages to worsen the situation of pretty much every other player in this game. He drives up the price of the product – like a company that’s managed to dominate the market and achieve a monopoly. He looks for new labor by actively recruiting very young kids in the area, even getting his team to hand out cash. And he alienates the old guard characters like Bodie, whose feelings about Marlo sound a lot like modern-day complaints about companies that no longer treat their workers right. Bodie came up in the age of Avon and Stringer, which required him to be very hard; he even killed his best friend, Wallace. But under Marlo’s reign, Bodie finally cracks, unable to swallow Marlo’s new way of doing things where there’s no code, no respect, killing people when there’s no proof of their betrayal or doing anything wrong; and expecting total loyalty while offering nothing in return. Bodie believes in the old game and, to him, it’s so important that Marlo’s new way doesn’t win, that he’s even willing to talk to the police (a choice that gets him killed). Bodie’s death at the end of Season 4 draws a line under the end of an era – at this point so few Barksdale people are left that the old standards are passing, and as a new, very young generation comes up, it’s all getting even harder and more ruthless. In short, things looked bad when we started, but now they’re palpably worse—this is one of the arguments Bunny Colvin makes to Weebay, and it doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

Marlo vs. Avon & Stringer

Avon is the clear kingpin and target we start out with in Season 1 of The Wire. But in later seasons, Avon comes to seem a relatively straightforward challenge compared to what comes after him – and a number of the characters are put in the strange position of –almost– missing Avon. Marlo is temperamentally like Avon in some ways, so their similarities tell us something about what it takes to be “king” in this game. Both are driven by recognition, credibility, and respect on the street. At first, Stringer can’t understand why Avon is paying Marlo so much attention; The Barksdale operation has only noticed Marlo because the towers got torn down, and Avon decides he wants to go back to his roots on the street. Then when Marlo refuses to play ball and join Stringer’s co-op, Avon gets deeply sucked into the ensuing war, seeming almost high on the conflict.

Meanwhile, Stringer (the Queen to Avon’s King on this chess board) has been occupying himself with far more civilized and sophisticated pursuits than what he sees as this gangster-BS. He’s tired of Avon’s need to play gangster and fight. But Stringer is wrong to ignore Marlo, and Avon proves right as Marlo shows himself to be the real threat. So as soldiers, Avon and Marlo are two of a kind and they get each other—which is why Avon knows he needs to take care of Marlo. It’s also why he’s pretty adaptable after he’s lost that fight. When Marlo comes to Avon’s sentencing hearing, Avon nods like he’s passing the crown to a new king, and he later meets with Marlo in prison to sell him the Greek contact.

But ultimately Marlo is a cross between Avon and Stringer—like their mutant love child who got the uglier genes of both parents. He combines Stringer’s cold-blooded efficiency and “just in case” killings, with Avon’s ego and yearning for his name to be known as King on the streets.

Like Stringer, Marlo harbors an ambition to go beyond what others have done. But ultimately the scary emptiness of Marlo is that he stands for nothing besides his own name and making sure that name dominates at all costs.

Thirst For Power & Respecting His Name

Marlo’s ego and vanity are a level up from Avon’s. His most revealing line is. And all his cold-blooded violence is really in service of his vanity. Marlo doesn’t just order a killing when it’s smart, in the capitalist style of Stringer Bell (who avoids killing when it’s prudent to minimize police attention). Marlo orders a killing if he feels the slightest inkling of disrespect towards him and his name. His team kills June Bug and his family for talking shit about Marlo – even though it’s possible someone else made this rumor up. When he finds out that Devonne was hired by Avon to seduce him and set him up, his bruised vanity leads him to kill her personally in a truly vicious way – showing up at her home and shooting her in the breasts and mouth. Marlo’s obsession with his name is the reason Omar is the one who really gets to him. Omar is the thorn in Marlo’s side because Omar is the one who openly disrespects Marlo, and Marlo’s fury comes out when he belatedly finds out how Omar was speaking against Marlo’s reputation and challenging him to fight.

How His Story Ends

Ironically, given Marlo’s obsession with his name, this is the one thing he doesn’t get in the end. As the series comes to a close, we might find Marlo’s endpoint maddening—because he got away with it. To the great chagrin of Lester Freeman, he walks, after his shady defense lawyer Maurice Levy figures out the police used an illegal wiretap and so can’t legally link Marlo to all those murders. Like very few of the characters in his business, Marlo gets to avoid prison or death. He even has the opportunity to achieve Stringer’s dreams of being accepted into elite society as a real-estate titan with “legitimate” business pursuits, the way Stringer – despite all his business classes – never could. (And that suggests, perhaps, that Stringer needed to be bringing more of the ruthless street mentality into supposed “polite” society. )

But we can take comfort in the fact that Marlo himself is not happy, not satisfied with this outcome. Because after all of that, he walks up to a corner and the kids there don’t know who he is. For him, it was always about the crown, always about his name, and being the King. Yet he’s already been forgotten, very quickly. Significantly, the kids he walks up to are talking about Omar’s legend, which (especially after Omar’s death) is far more memorable. So it’s poetic justice that Omar is the one who truly achieves the respected name Marlo wants – and it’s also Omar’s path that Marlo’s smart and talented protegee Michael Lee ultimately chooses to follow.

It’s not clear whether Marlo will return to drug dealing to restore his name – even Simon said “He clearly wants his name back, but whether he’s going to get back in the drug game? Unstated in the piece.” But interestingly, when Marlo gets injured in the confrontation with the kids, this is what makes him happy. As Marlo tastes his own blood and smiles, Simon says, “It’s an homage to the end of a movie I love a great deal, “The Gambler” with James Caan, the modernized treatment of Dostoevsky.” In The Gambler, James Caan plays an English professor who uses gambling to self-destruct. By the end of the film, he’s finally managed to break free of his gambling debts, but instead of celebrating, he intentionally provokes a conflict with a pimp until he ends up with a slash across his face — and that makes him smile. So, maybe the biggest parallel here is that Marlo seeks to prove his manhood and his unmatched excellence by confronting the ultimate risk. Marlo doesn’t like to avoid risk, unlike other kingpins. Besides his couple of trusted enforcers, he resists hiding behind a large army or removing himself from the action; he makes a point of staying hard, practicing shooting in the woods, does plenty of killings himself, and is happiest when he’s a soldier on the frontlines. Still, even if Marlo doesn’t get his own happy ending, that’s a pretty small consolation to everyone else – because the harm he’s inflicted is irreparable. The negative change he’s triggered will continue and build – those rules he broke won’t be restored.

It’s a sad story that’s tragically relevant to too many aspects of our society – where even the social goods we’ve had, however deeply flawed and insufficient they already were, don’t improve but instead continue to get eroded. So while it’s important to pursue positive social change, we also can’t let our failures blind us to what’s crucial to protect. If Marlo teaches us anything it’s that you can’t get complacent because, remember, however bad things look, it can always get a lot worse.