Sometimes in media, one component stands out from the whole and is deserving of its own little examination, for many reasons. It might act as a microcosm for what the whole is about, or it might stand in stark contrast to the rest of the whole–‘In a Nutshell’ entries explore some fascinating component of particular interest without losing focus, or in the case of something that’s really good overall, doing a disservice to the rest of the whole. It’s also a way to introduce a possibly unfamiliar audience to some small piece of an otherwise unwieldy and daunting subject; it’s a ‘way in,’ if you will.
In a Nutshell: ‘Bubbles’ from The Wire
In acclaimed HBO series ‘The Wire,’ which I’m viewing for the first time on DVD, there is a small galaxy of amazing characters. The show has a metric shitload of other great reasons to watch, but for me one very special reason is mumbling heroin addict/police informant Bubbles, so called for the spit bubbles he blows when he slams junk.
Take a moment to verbally express your disbelief and possible disgust; I’ll wait. Bubbles is worth it.
As a homeless addict, Bubbles exists at the lowest caste of the Baltimore Street world. Gangbangers and slangers largely ignore him, and so he is able to move freely through their world, collecting bits of information and storing them in an almost photographic memory. His assistance on various operations–everything from helping identify members of the gangs and their hierarchy, to actually wearing a wire, to making phony buys–is pivotal; without him the detectives would be utterly and totally shit out of luck.
According to David Simon, show creator and a former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Bubbles was based on real life informant ‘Possum,’ who had a gift for names and faces and was a police informant for over 20 years–think on that a moment. People are proud these days if their careers last over 15, and that’s usually not in a field where you can be shot for looking the wrong way at someone’s shoes. Simon wanted to do a feature story on Possum, but when he went to the man’s apartment for a last interview, Possum had died from complications with HIV. And now, the legacy of an HIV-infected junkie has informed a character within one of the most memorable television shows of our time. Funny old world, that.
Although there are roughly eight billion great moments and characters in The Wire, Andre Royo’s portrayal of a charming junkie steals nearly every scene he’s in. I would personally like to recommend to filmmakers that he act in more stuff.
In a scene in the second season, McNulty (Dominic West, one of the main characters), who has been busted down to Marine Patrol, reveals how little he gives a shit about his new position by his utter refusal to learn how to tie a simple knot. Each time he docks his patrol boat, he wraps the rope clumsily around the pylons before abandoning the whole thing, probably hoping the boat will just drift out to sea and he can finally be fired and drink himself to death as he secretly wishes. The camera pulls back to reveal a visiting Bubbles, who has tied a perfect maritime-regulation knot, and calls McNulty out on his half-assed attempt. Bubbles the heroin addict chides McNulty the self-destructive drunk police officer on his knot-tying. That’s the perfect summation of the character–drugs don’t waste people, they waste lives, time, potential, jobs, relationships, but the user is still alive. With his charm, intelligence, and ability to ‘talk a cat off a fishcart,’ Bubbles is a walking reminder of how easy it is to just give up, and certainly how hard it is to get it all back–but also that there’s always hope. Which is possibly the cruelest truth of all, sometimes.
There are countless moments like that with Bubbles throughout the series. He’s at heart a good person and definitely cares for others, but at the bottom of everything is his addiction, driving him along like a dog being used by a bad master. Occasionally he climbs out from under it, and does well for a stretch, but being homeless isn’t exactly ideal for kicking an addiction and cleaning one’s life up. He’s paid about 30 dollars a day to be an informant, but cheerfully and unself-consciously asks Detective Kima Greggs to keep his money for him; the reason is obvious: if he didn’t, he’d just spend the whole nut, overdose, and kill himself.
Watch this moment from the first season, where Bubbles goes ‘fishing,’ and see if you aren’t a little charmed by his audacity and caginess.
We only just finished the 3rd season, so at the time of this entry I’m still not sure what the future holds for Bubbles. I’d sure like to see him get out of the game and clean himself up, since the show has a high bodycount when it comes to dead dreams.