Do The Right Thing, and Pay For It: Show Me A Hero and David Simon’s Mayor Fascination

This post contains significant spoilers for the just-aired final two episodes of Show Me A Hero (as well as the previous four) and for the entire run of The Wire. Please do not read any further if you have not seen both of these.

L: Oscar Isaac as Nick Wasicsko. R: Aidan Gillen as Tommy Carcetti.

David Simon likes mayors. While The Wire was hardly a standard police procedural, one of the less discussed ways in which it diverged from typical television is its fascination with the chain-of-command chess match and the motivations of those several levels above the rank-and-file detectives in homicide. Perhaps it is only natural, then, that he devotes a 35-episode arc to the chain-of-command top dog: Tommy Carcetti, who I will not call Martin O’Malley even a single time for the rest of this essay.

It also makes sense that his new HBO offering, Show Me A Hero, focuses on very similar power dynamics (but in the context of a very different issue). While the show, as the book it was adapted from, uses a very broad lens, following a multitude of characters through the seven-year arc, Oscar Isaac is nominally billed as the lead for his portrayal of Mayor Nick Wasicsko. The touch is similarly Simon-esque: for every surface difference, there are a number of parallels, and avid fans of The Wire will notice themes that are lifted directly: for example, Doreen Henderson’s spiral during Part 4 into drug addiction parallels the arc of Dee-Dee, a character who only needs a single scene each in Seasons 3, 4, and 5 of The Wire to make a huge impact.

But for David Simon, his message draws from more than just a single trope. The layers of narrative lend an overwhelming amount of context to each character’s decisions, and he uses their flaws to both justify and critique their decisions. This is the territory I will attempt to explore, using the two mayors as a vehicle to connect Show Me A Hero to the thematic universe of The Wire.

First, though, let us get one thing straight: Show Me A Hero is not the second coming of The Wire. Most importantly, Show Me A Hero uses non-diegetic music. But in addition, David Simon, far before thousands of people could not convince themselves to keep going through the first half of Season 2, mused that those first six episodes were “all prologue,” a sea of deliberately-paced scenes stitched together with no seeming direction until they were appended to the latter six. No, Simon’s ideal canvas is a far larger one, one that could not hope to be examined in a mere six hours. However, as this is neither a review of Show Me A Hero or a defense of Season 2 of The Wire (in my mind criminally underrated by the general public), I will leave this at that.

It is easy to draw parallels between the two. Tommy Carcetti is a boyish white councilman who mounts a hopeless campaign for mayor; that is, hopeless until a linked series of events turns his hopes around and catapults him to a unexpected narrow victory, at which point he is besieged by problems he had no way of comprehending ahead of time, only lasting two years in office before moving on. Nick Wasicsko is the same. However, I think it is one single pair of parallel decisions that informs their arc and, ultimately, their fates. Both are given significant character development to foreshadow this turn of events. Both are confronted with factors that make them feel like it is impossible to choose the other option. And, although it does not directly bear on the importance of this decision to Simon’s construction of their arcs, the consequences for their decisions, both good and bad, are exactly what each simultaneously hopes and fears.

* * *

Aidan Gillen as Tommy Carcetti

Tommy Carcetti was always a bit of a bad boy. Simon makes this abundantly clear throughout his three seasons on the show. From the one-night stand at the beginning of Season 3; to Theresa D’Agostino’s (and by proxy, his) embrace of an calculated campaign at every step, regardless of who he may be putting on a straight face for; to the low-angle shots that frame Carcetti’s wheels turning in the mayor’s chair; the signs are there. Not that he doesn’t have any heart at all, of course—he takes time to go see Hamsterdam and listen to Colvin, for example, and entering the race once Gray is already in eats him up inside (not only evidenced by the monologue that leads to Tony Gray’s “fuck you” moment, but also by Carcetti’s willingness to justify feeding the witness information late in the campaign to him as some help to get Gray over into the state legislature).

However, Carcetti in Season 3 is driven by not only an honest belief but a reasonable one that he is running to unseat a mayor who has become completely unsuited to running the city of Baltimore. As he reminds everybody he talks to, the tax base is moving to Baltimore County due to a crime increase that should, no, must be reversible. Royce’s failure to do anything about this means that he has to go. Ironically, Hamsterdam itself is a symbol of the failure of the war on drugs to begin with, and one of Royce’s few moments of actually channeling David Simon’s beliefs, driven by the crime numbers, is his momentary pause to see if there is some way he can sustain the experiment.

By the end of the series, Carcetti is on to the governor’s mansion, where bigger and better things await, with his final Season 5 montage scene the fulfillment of his promise to Bill Rawls to bring him along to the Maryland State Police leadership. This is just a microcosm of how Carcetti’s MO has changed: while he refers to Royce in private as a truly bad mayor, no such rhetoric is used in Seasons 4 and 5 to describe the policies of the governor that he plans to run against; in fact, he is often referred to by the Carcetti camp simply by his Republican Party identification. The move is framed as purely political.

When does Carcetti switch over from idealist to political operative? You could point to over a dozen instances that illustrate this transformation, and in fact, he shows flashes of this early in Season 3. However, I see one decision in particular that best encapsulates his evolution: his decision not to take state money to bail out the Baltimore city schools, which are $54 million in the red.

To lend some context to that number, the entire yearly operating budget of Cleveland public schools, which I assume supports a comparable number of students, is in the neighborhood of $700 million. This hole is simply insurmountable in the normal course of operations, as Season 5 demonstrates. Carcetti is clearly aware of that. And indeed, the reason he meets with the governor in the first place is because he has weighed the negatives of his decision (primarily, the reaction from potential out-of-city voters in the gubernatorial race) and decided that the city’s need is too great for him to ignore this potential solution. Even after a first meeting, where the governor demands greater control over the city schools, Carcetti still schedules a second meeting, intent on going through with the deal.

But even this moment of wisdom is pulled out from under us after the governor insists on calling a press conference to announce that he will generously allow the city to make up the deficit through state funds. Carcetti, of course, ends up not taking the deal. Even Carcetti’s chief of staff Michael Steintorf, who had in an earlier discussion told Carcetti not to ask for the money because “kids don’t vote,” is nearly speechless, at first only managing “Jesus. You left it on the table.” This brief about-face from Steintorf is fascinating considering that Carcetti’s moral compass in the show and the biggest voice in his ear advising him to take the deal, advisor Norman Wilson, is the first to speak up in this scene, outraged specifically at the governor’s shameless attempt to deal himself a political trump card in the upcoming gubernatorial race. Steintorf, around in part at least to spin and do damage control, was likely already assuming what for him would be the scenario that would create the most work. Wilson, on the other hand, likely is frustrated with just how hard it is to get politicians together to do something that is uncontroversially good.

Note that Simon makes a distinction here regarding what Carcetti is willing to accept and what is a bridge too far. Losing local control of the schools is difficult, but ultimately not a problem for Carcetti. However, calling a press conference to announce the funding? He’s out, and shame on the governor for bringing politics into this. But even implicit in that accusation is the idea that politics will trump policy in Carcetti’s world moving forward.

Carcetti, through Steintorf, spins this decision in his own mind quite cleverly. While he has put the financial (and by extension, overall) health of the city on hold, he justifies this by saying that he will help the city from the governor’s office. And certainly if the current governor has $54 million to throw at the schools, one who is more sympathetic to Baltimore’s plight should easily be able to find plenty of money for city expenses. However, this is a proposition that cannot occur for at least another two years. Furthermore, it would require the cooperation of Carcetti’s replacement, who might have different ideas for city spending than Carcetti does. Not only is this justification unreasonable, it feeds further into the idea that continuing to move up the political ladder is not only desirable, but also necessary and morally vindicated.

This plot point does not actually have any particular impact directly on the school storylines in
Season 4. It can be seen as a way to superficially tie the schools to the continuation of Carcetti’s storyline from Season 3. However, more than any other development, it sets the table for Season 5. McNulty’s serial killer is only necessary because nobody is getting paid to do real police work since any money that can possible be spared is being used to patch up the school budget. Marlo Stanfield is only caught because they can feel the effects of these cutbacks on surveillance and he starts to get lazy again. Even Whiting and Klebanow, the bosses at the Sun, settle originally on the failing school system and its lack of resources when searching for a “Dickensian” story that will catch the eye of the committee.

This Season 5 mess, of course, is all artfully spun to Carcetti’s advantage. He gives speeches and enacts token reforms to show that he cares about the homeless, and then takes the credit for McNulty’s unbelievably speedy resolution of the copycat case, passing the mentally ill perpetrator off as the real Red Ribbon Killer even though he is fully aware of the truth. To Simon, it is not even important to show whether or not Carcetti does ultimately help the city financially once he reaches the governor’s office. Carcetti has already bought into the system, and he is reaping the benefits.

In Jimmy McNulty’s black-and-white world, Carcetti is the textbook example of a boss (and not in the positive, Lonely Island way). Regardless of whether there are good motivations present (and in Carcetti’s case, he may have more than the bosses that McNulty regularly deals with), he has placed self-interest first in his decisionmaking process. Considering what McNulty tells Theresa D’Agostino on their one actual date together in Season 3 and his diatribe in Season 5 blasting the “new day” rhetoric used to bring him back to Homicide, it would be interesting to see his reaction if he knew that Carcetti had a chance to repair the budgetary mess and that he declined to do so for these political reasons.

* * *

Nick Wasicsko
Nick Wasicsko in 1988. Photo by Sara Krulwich/New York Times.

Nick Wasicsko’s choice, of course, is different. His two choices both have their downsides: one is actually impossible, and the other is merely unpopular. Wasicsko has a law degree, and thus likely understands the issue as well as, if not better than, every other member of the city government. The decision should be open and shut for him. And once he makes it, he treats it as such. But even so, he still feels the pull of the voters. “What about the Supreme Court?” he asks the city’s lawyers, perhaps a half-dozen times, in a number of different ways. They remind him that the case is hopeless: “Don’t hold your breath.”

Unlike Carcetti, he does not have the same long-term experience on the city council to think politically with such ease. He is, in Part 1, portrayed during his only term on the council as being more interested in talking to the secretaries than starting council meetings on time. He doesn’t have a grand plan with his mayoral run like Carcetti did—just $40,000 from Maury Levy and some standard talking points. Even after capitalizing on the emotion surrounding the issue, he still only beats Martinelli, the incumbent, by about three points even with the anti-housing support. (Simon draws another tangential parallel here: both Carcetti and Wasicsko, while standing on the street leafleting, are accosted by excited constituents that are clearly motivated by racism. Both are rightfully taken aback, but neither tries to do anything about it. What can they do? Clearly the answer is not to throw back a surefire vote.)

In fact, it is not made clear what Wasicsko actually thinks about the housing. During Part 1, every other named council member sitting before the 1987 election chimes in (Restiano, Longo, Fagan, Spallone). But Wasicsko does not speak up: he is simply taking the entire scene in, looking mildly agitated, whether at the protesters, his fellow councilmen, or at the proceedings as a whole. All of Wasicsko’s statements in Parts 1 and 2 about the housing are either deliberately placed as part of his campaign strategy or, once he gets into the mayor’s chair, simply tackling the issue from a problem-solving perspective. The remaining evidence we have about his thoughts on the plan are simply crumbs (for example, his failure to object to Mary Dorman’s characterization that he is against the housing plan, which itself can also be chalked up to politics).

However, if he had any thoughts of rejecting the housing plan, it is made abundantly clear that doing so would be disastrous for somebody. Leonard Sand, fully aware of the pressure that Yonkers residents are putting on their leadership, speaks forcefully into his other ear this entire time. While Judge Sand does not have a front-row seat for the visceral onslaught from the protesters, he can feel Wasicsko’s instincts for political self-preservation giving him second thoughts.

Once Wasicsko is up for reelection against Henry Spallone, framed largely as a referendum on the housing issue, he seems resigned to his fate. He knows that he is simply leading as a leader should, but understands that he is likely done. But out comes the knife-twist, a common Simon plot device: Wasicsko receives poll numbers that indicate that he will survive Spallone’s primary challenge, which he chooses to leak to the press. Spallone, a much more seasoned politician working with more experienced operatives, then switches parties in order to run in the general election and take advantage of the added pool of Republican voters, most of whom also oppose the housing developments. And thus, the cycle is complete: After benefiting disproportionately from the outrage over desegregation, Nick Wasicsko is unfairly swept out of office for facing the cold reality of the situation.

By the time the Profile in Courage award comes around, a plot development so obvious in its signaling that you would call it heavy-handed if it weren’t actually true, Wasicsko is in full reclamation project mode, reminding everybody that he was the lone voice of reason in dealing with the court. He valiantly tries to take the credit he feels, not wrongfully, that he is due. But through David Simon’s lens, politics was never going to work that way.

* * *

Dennis Kucinich
Dennis Kucinich in 1977, shortly after his election as mayor of Cleveland. Cleveland Plain Dealer via AP Images

At heart, both of Simon’s mayors had to choose between the principled choice and a choice that they perceived as being best for their career. What makes the difference between the two even more well-defined is that Wasicsko was merely battling to keep his own job, whereas Carcetti’s alternate choice would have ensured that his own job was available to him should he choose to keep it.

As a native Clevelander, my mind naturally free-associates this with a similar fight involving a “boy mayor”: Dennis Kucinich’s guidance of the city of Cleveland through a default. Kucinich was elected in 1977 at the age of 31, becoming the youngest mayor of a major city in the United States, which should sound familiar. There was enormous public pressure on him to sell the city-owned electrical utility company, Muni Light. However, Kucinich refused to sell the power utility, which resulted in retaliation by the banks that stood to profit heavily from the sale. This led to the city defaulting on its obligations, and like Wasicsko, Kucinich was very soundly voted out of office two years later, not returning to elected office of a similar stature for 15 years.

Kucinich, of course, is not dead—he’s made two runs for president and has spent the past 35 years sticking to his often non-mainstream guns. But that is, by all accounts, at least somewhat due to serendipity: as a result of his refusal to sell Muni Light, the mob (which in the late ’70s was declining but still incredibly powerful) ordered a hit on Kucinich to be carried out at a parade, which he managed to escape because he was ill on the day that the parade happened. Ultimately, calculations made recently have estimated the city’s savings due to its retention of Muni Light at roughly $200 million between 1985 and 1995. Even though his decision was more purely economic in nature and in consequences than the desegregation of Yonkers, it was still a decision that he paid for in many different ways. (His response, oddly enough, was the opposite of Wasicsko’s: he went ahead and put the city into default, although he had a better reason to do so.)

* * *

This is, I think, the heart of Simon’s message. Using your power to do the right thing is difficult and likely painful. Especially when it comes to the health of our institutions, whether local or federal, and when you are accountable to somebody else, or even worse, the general public, it will likely feel comfortable to simply protect yourself and wait the difficult decisions out. (As an aside, this is one of many reasons why life tenure for federal judges has never truly been and likely never will be in jeopardy—Judge Sand, if he had to be either reappointed or reelected over the course of this 29-year lawsuit, would have faced an incredible backlash for literally doing what his job (and the Constitution) required of him.)

Simon has poignantly illustrated the incredible destructive capacity of majoritarian policymaking. He has recognized, on one hand, the difficulty for actors inside the system to survive while trying, rightfully, to counteract these problems and survive in this realm. Furthermore, he has pointed out the incentives, on the other hand, to simply keep doing what you can in the name of self-preservation and kick the reform can down the road. However, where he seems to still have a bit of a blind spot is in the realm of influencing people with power through assembly and protest. Surely, the grotesque nature of many of the white protesters at council meetings using rhetoric currently associated with Black Lives Matter was somewhat intentional, even if the scenes were filmed before these protests really entered Baltimore’s public consciousness. Even so, there is only one very brief shot of a civil rights protest throughout the entire series—Pat Williams, who introduces herself to Mary Dorman during this protest in Part 4, is the only character that seems to want to try to work outside the system to achieve these goals.

Perhaps this is just outside of Simon’s experience. That’s fine. But it is important to remember that these areas exist. Much of the (white) educated left has anointed Simon as a White Person Who Gets It as a result of his incredible storytelling ability and his insight, far before criminal justice reform became a popular topic again in this country, into just what kinds of destructive effects overpolicing and draconian drug laws created. However, Simon is working from the point of view of a longtime police reporter. His insights into the institutions themselves are incredible, but it is understandable for him to have a lesser understanding of actors outside the system, even if his lessons here can be applied to them.

Simon, of course, famously told Baltimore protesters to “go home”, even in the immediate wake of the Freddie Gray incident. In later interviews, Simon appears to have softened that stance (and has at least cursorily understood why that sentiment was misguided), but still tends to view protests in an unfavorable light due to individual bad actors. This likely seems at odds with his opinion, in the same interview, that the burden of combating further racial discrimination is on the white community, but it is part of a larger obsession, particularly regarding protests and their consequences, with optics and respectability, which are supposed to “help” the white community come around on these issues.

Of course, this is not to say that Show Me A Hero does not illustrate broadly many problems that may fall through the cracks of public consciousness. For starters, the idea that the North has its own deeply rooted problems with race is simply not yet part of the mainstream narrative in this country, but is fundamental to true progress toward further racial equality. And Simon does tackle respectability politics briefly in Part 6, regarding the required housing orientation for new residents.

However, protesters aren’t looking to get reelected. And the chain of command doesn’t really exist for community organizers in nearly the same way. The incentives aren’t truly the same. And, once again, the fact that Simon is more familiar with a world of political games is not a black mark on him, or at least certainly not by itself (to paraphrase, “you’re white, I’m white, the whole government is white”). And I am sure Simon has a thousand more things that he could say eloquently about organizational bureaucracy before he would have to repeat himself.

But maybe this is why Simon likes mayors.

* * *

Interestingly enough, these distinctions seem to have made their way over to the casting department as well. Aidan Gillen is, of course, now equally known for being the evil studmuffin, I mean, er, the manipulative but mysterious Petyr Baelish in Game of Thrones, a role you could easily see Tommy Carcetti disappearing into with a bit more self-discipline and a bit less remote-throwing. Conversely, Oscar Isaac’s breakout role is as Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk singer becoming increasingly desperate for any career-related lifeline to hold onto. Both him and Nick Wasicsko have one thing going for them (talent/the law), and their time onscreen is spent trying to find anybody that will lend a friendly ear.

Carcetti’s purported inspiration has kept climbing the ladder, riding an increasing Democratic stranglehold on the state of Maryland all the way to the race for the Democratic presidential nominee. Ironically, he has been upstaged as the liberal alternative in the race by somebody who has gotten there by actively putting on the opposite public persona. But while this journey is equally worth scrutiny, it would likely not have added to what David Simon has to say about Tommy Carcetti. He has, by the time he has recaptured the governor’s office, reached an equilibrium in the eyes of Simon as somebody concerned with amassing power first and doing the right thing second. While Simon, unlike McNulty, does not explicitly pass judgment on this philosophy as a whole, it seems clear that he is trying to outline the pitfalls of this strategy, particularly when you compare his arc to Cedric Daniels, who of course resigns as police commissioner rather than play the stat games Carcetti wants him to play. (Or course, this decision ends up benefiting another seasoned self-interested type: Stan Valchek.) He climbs the ladder not because of his thoughtful and effective policies or his good intentions—even though he has them, that is beside the point.

No, Carcetti continues to climb the ladder because he has learned how to play the game—a game Nick Wasicsko could have learned to play if he had the chance. While the game is rigged, as Marla Daniels reminds us way back in Season 1, it is hard to call Wasicsko’s choice part of a game—in his position, both choices were impossible. Even Henry Spallone, while we do not see the inner workings of his administration, cannot do anything while in office other than what Wasicsko did, much to the consternation of the Save Yonkers Federation. Wasicsko, as he is represented in the series, shows flashes of political acumen—riding the wave of discontent into office, persuading his fellow councilmen to vote yes, and even extracting a concession out of Judge Sand regarding the housing site at the church, the only instance in which Sand bends at all in the entire series.

But shrewdness applied to unpopular ends, much like the gods in Baltimore, will not save you. And Wasicsko’s missteps, perhaps driven by his relative lack of experience and unsustainable rise, are magnified on the back end of his mayoral term. As he gets more and more desperate in his attempts to save what’s left of his political career in Parts 5 and 6, his quote to Dorman in Part 2 on the phone carries particular weight: “A leader is supposed to lead and that’s what I’m trying to do.” The tiny taste of his run as mayor has made him hungry for more, and in some way, he feels entitled to lead due to the validation he has received since leaving office. As a result, his attempts to play the game simply drive him further from his goals and alienate the connections he needs to stay relevant. For Wasicsko, perhaps his biggest problem wasn’t the fact that he made a politically bad decision. Instead, it was that he convinced himself that people would see it as a politically good decision, not only wiping out the controversy during his term but also the fact that he would not have come close to the mayor’s office without the housing issue in the first place.

* * *

Nick Wasicsko, perhaps because he cannot see a way out of what he believes is targeting by the power players in Yonkers for this belief, takes his own life in 1993, fourteen years before the Yonkers litigation is fully resolved. He does so near his father’s grave in Oakland Cemetery.

Oakland Cemetery is, fittingly, on the west side of the Saw Mill River Parkway, in the Black section of town. The Schlobohm Houses are less than a half mile away.

* * *

To punctuate the importance of the decision to forgo state money on the overall narrative arc of The Wire, a scene is included later on in the episode—one of the last scenes of the season. It does nothing to advance the plot on its own, but in this context is telling. Norman Wilson is meeting with Royce’s chief of staff Coleman Parker. As he expresses his frustration with watching Carcetti turn down the money, Parker’s response is an indictment of all politicians: “They always disappoint.” And while David Simon might clarify that he sees the incentive structure the other way around, it seems to dovetail perfectly with the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that forms the basis for the name of the miniseries (which is taken from the book): “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.”

In Carcetti’s case, the avoidance of a (political) tragedy also results in the avoidance of real, concrete change. Change that Nick Wasicsko, although he only had a limited time to savor it in Part 4 and never got the validation he desperately sought from the residents of Yonkers themselves, can claim for posterity.