“Come at the king, you best not miss.”
Of all the characters to pimp-roll into our hearts during the five-season run of David Simon’s celebrated and groundbreaking HBO series The Wire, none is as unique and evocative as Omar Devone Little, the notorious Baltimore stickup man and out homosexual known for his sawed-off shotgun, Wild West duster, menacing facial scar… and lethal streak of righteousness. A man has to have a code, he agrees with Det. Bunk Moreland during their first meeting at the station house. In the end, it will be his undoing.
In a landmark show that still borrowed heavily from the usual tropes of cops-and-robbers fare—compromised police officers, sociopathic gangstas, ruined urban landscapes, and crooked politicians—Omar supplied a fresh and surprising story arc. Along with all the greed, payback, face-saving, and inarticulate rage that characterized Simon’s journalistic portrayal of Baltimore’s inner city during the height of the crack epidemic, Omar is seemingly the only principle in the naked streetscape whose actions are motivated by higher causes.
Omar is played by Michael K. Williams. A 48-year-old former backup dancer (“Dance was my first passion”), he was raised in the Flatbush Gardens housing projects in Brooklyn. At 25, he turned the misfortune of a disfiguring razor slash—sustained in a fight outside a party in Queens—into a career as a character actor. Originally cast in The Wire as a guest with a seven-episode lifespan, Omar became a fan favorite, known for Williams’ nuanced performances (and for the gripping visual juxtaposition of his sloe eyes and ropy facial scar), and also for the pithy font of gems placed in his mouth by the talented crew of writers. During the show’s run, Omar’s character was selected to all varieties of laudatory lists; in 2008 first-time presidential candidate Barack Obama named Omar as his favorite character, though he was quick to point out this did not amount to an “endorsement” of his ruthless behavior. Unbelievably, Williams was not nominated for any of the traditional awards for his portrayal.
When introduced in the third episode of the show, Omar is 34. He refers to himself in third person. He lives in a series of boarded-up squats, he has few belongings; the only bling he ever sports are trophies taken from victims. He favors younger, light-skinned men, though he realizes you “can only treat a young man like a boy for so long before they buck.”
In his own words, cobbled together from bits of his dialogue over the years, Omar don’t scare—it’s either play or get played, the cheese stands alone. He ain’t never put his gun on nobody who wasn’t in the game. He don’t know about cards but he thinks a pair of .45s beats a full house. He do know about money: It ain’t got no owners, only spenders. When he testifies against a rival in court, wearing a white print floral tie fashioned into an ascot, the defense attorney tries to tear him down as a predator who makes his living by taking advantage of the scourge of drugs. Omar tilts back in his chair cooly and counters: “I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game, though, right?”
Like he says: “Come at the king, you best not miss.”
Orphaned at a young age, Omar was raised by his grandmother, who he credits for his strict and uniquely cobbled-together code of ethics. He accompanies grandma to church by yellow cab every fourth Sunday. (She thinks he works at a restaurant at the airport—the story he gave her because he knows she’d never leave West Baltimore to go to the airport to eat there.) From his grandmother he also got his disdain for cursing. One night, holed up in his crib with his boyfriend, Brandon, he admonishes, “Don’t nobody wanna hear all those dirty words, man. Especially coming from such a beautiful mouth.” The kiss that follows could be the most tender romantic moment featured in all of the show’s 60 episodes.
Of course, that means Brandon, who is also Omar’s partner in crime, is about to get wacked. Spotted in a pinball arcade by a gangbanger, he’s found dead in a Christ-like pose on the hood a car in a back alley with stab wounds and cigarette burns all over his body, one eye gouged. Omar’s anguished animal cry fills the empty morgue, and fuels a war of revenge that helps drive the show for the next four years. As Omar says, it ain’t about the paper. It’s about love.
As the show progresses, we learn that Omar is so notorious in Baltimore for robbing drug dealers that the corner boys all know his name; when he is spotted coming down a ramshackle city steet, whistling his trademark “The Farmer in the Dell,” everyone scatters. Rather than face his double barrels, dealers minding stash houses voluntarily toss down their drugs and money from second-story redoubts. With more game opponents, Omar goes in both barrels blazing. Sometimes he hatches elaborate plans. Trapped in a shootout in an apartment, he jumps four stories.
Omar also brings us one of the greatest gunfights ever produced on film—a showdown in an alley, during the 11th episode of season three, between Omar and the hired assassin Bowtie, also known as Brother Mouzone. Penned by the author and TV writer George Pelecanos, an executive producer of the series, the scene turns the familiar cliché of the gun duel on its ear, starting with Omar’s refusal to lay down his weapon. The dialogue is crisp and original—you have the sense that you’re listening in on an actual meeting between two capable professionals from vastly different worlds (speaking vastly different dialects) who appreciate each other as warrior/technicians.
Best of all: Not a shot is fired.
Eventually, Omar reaches thug nirvana and actually gets out of the game. He plots the big score, escapes with the money, finds a new life on the oceanfront near San Juan with a high-maintenance Puerto Rican boy named Renaldo…
Only to be pulled back to the streets of Baltimore to avenge the torture and death of Butchie, the blind owner of a bar who is Omar’s banker, father figure, and only true friend.
As with all tragic figures, Omar’s unique moral compass will eventually be his undoing—shot in the head in a Korean market by a middle-school-age hired assassin who grew up worshipping his myth.
Omar didn’t see it coming, and neither did I.