April 24, 2024

‘Snowfall’ Isn’t ‘The Wire,’ But That’s Its Saving Grace


Photo Credit: Ray MIcksaw/FX.

Snowfall is television’s most intriguing drug trade saga so comparisons will come. Fans tend to pit the FX standout against The Wire in the pantheon of cartel dramas. But that’s an unfaithful analogy.

It’s worth arguing they share a premise: Institutions seeded and spread drug epidemics. Whether we mean failed governments or unsteady households, neglect is a social choice. The Wire told Balitmore’s story through the eyes of a zealous white policeman.

That’s one way.

Snowfall makes the bold choice to portray how Black love survives or dies amid Black ruin. As the series unfolds, cast and creators reel over death and rue destruction. They take up the mantle of tightening family ties that drive the plot. Their awareness of that investment — and what it means to its Black audience — has protected the show from becoming a technical exercise. The Wire often obsessed over its own cleverness and allegiance to allusion. Snowfall is our “Auntie,” “Unc” and “Mama,” which lends it real emotional stakes instead of Shakespearean ones.

While I was walking to the bodega and about to write this, I saw old santero candles colonnaded over a grate next to the entrance. A fallen soldier must’ve missed his plastic flowers. There were no names or murals to mark the ghost. Just someone who’d shot dice or hung out or smoked and the eerie symbol as their wake. That’s how The Wire was. Death presided over entire story arcs anonymously. When Wallace got killed or Omar wiped out, the series and fictional city moved on without missing a beat. In Snowfall, we see characters mourn, especially this season, with the death of beloved day one character Jerome Saint (Amin Joseph).

The death that changed everything

Angela Lewis, who plays Aunt Louie, speaks with respect for her late husband and the grieving process. In a phone interview, we spoke about how she tasked herself with carrying grief even as the audience blamed her for their hero’s death.

“I started out my day by doing a covering meditation where I would cover myself in white light. That was focusing on the breath and then focusing on the light,” Lewis said. “And it would cover all of my insides and my different organs because I didn’t want my heart to be affected. I didn’t want my ovaries to be affected by the trauma.”

Bright light emanates in Lewis’s home, but her sunny smile doesn’t steal gravity from her words. She’s made Louie the kind of character we remember by endowing her with as much dolefulness as she does pride. After Jerome’s death, there’s a shift in her that Lewis plays with primal rage, dizziness, and roaring sensitivity unlike her early scenes. That could be because she’s grown as a performer and taken on a central role as the family antagonist, challenging Franklin on his vengeful climb.

Lewis knows she needed special preparation to steel her for a turbulent few episodes.

“No matter what I did, or whether we were on a cut, while they’re changing the lights, and everything is happening, and people are moving and talking and laughing over here, whatever, meditation would ground me into this particular place that I needed to be,” Lewis said.

That made me wonder whether Snowfall’s attention to the interior lives of its characters could have been possible when The Wire first aired in 2004. Television often erases Blackness when it’s divorced from utter pain, and Black crime operas can bludgeon us into conceding that’s all we’re meant to see. Yet at its best, Snowfall eludes the simple tropes of drugs, guns, and violence by chipping away at family trust with each casualty. This season — in an underlined parallel — Franklin kills Teddy’s father. It’s a callback, though: Franklin wants revenge for his mother, whose loss outstrips even his general ire for his father. He absorbs her pain and seeks redress. He feels that’s what a good son should do.

Snowfall vs. The Wire

Professor and author Àdísà Àjàmú wrote about how this exploration of family is meant to humanize the nastiest of wars, one that’s often depicted Black men as a hybrid of psychopathic and clownishly greedy.

“Although we meet Avon’s sister (who incidentally plays Franklin’s mother in Snowfall) who is in the game, we don’t know who she is, how she and Avon came to be in the game, or who their parents are. Does Marlo have a family? Do we even care as long as he does his best work as a sociopathic monster?
You don’t even have to consider their families because Black monsters don’t have families. In the world of The Wire they just emerge from the alabaster imagination as fully formed monsters.

And it this distinction in vantage points that precisely accounts for the pathos and genius of Snowfall because the creators are clear that its characters are humans who have been transformed into monsters in the amerikkan laboratory of capitalism, lack, white misanthropy, orchestrated poverty, greed and manic individualism.”

As Àjàmú elaborated on The Wire’s forbidden romance with the brute stereotype, I thought of a Michael Hyatt red carpet interview. Hyatt, who plays Franklin’s mother Cissy on Snowfall and Avon’s sister Brianna on The Wire, understood the assignment here, sure to give The Wire its due while setting it neatly aside in the archives.

“I think The Wire was telling many stories — or, the story of law enforcement — and that’s fine. But John [Singleton] wanted to tell the story of the people. And the generations. And what it did to our people from a different perspective. From a deeper perspective.”

Hyatt’s confident admission that Snowfall is “deeper” puts a new spin on the scene between Louie and Teddy in Episode 7, “Charnel House.” Imagine Louie speaking as the Snowfall representative and Teddy as The Wire’s. His coldness, a reminder that he’s here to reinforce the power structure fits with his lack of concern for Louie’s condition. He quickly assesses her scars — though they seem life-long — and demands recompense of their favor debt in the form of betraying Franklin. Her conviction, making it known she won’t disrupt Jerome’s funeral to settle a score, fits with her homecoming storyline. In the eye of death’s senseless cyclone, she gains clarity. She won’t bend to Teddy just to keep his mission intact. Neither she nor Franklin can be his plot point. They need time to mourn. What’s more human than that? In a final season that pushes pace with the specter of death, Louie pauses the clock.

Later, at the funeral, Louie reconvenes with Franklin. We understand, concretely, she’ll have to choose between helping Franklin kill Teddy or helping Teddy kill Franklin. The contradictions inherent to protecting her family when she knows it might end her life whisper and shout volumes about Snowfall’s understanding of the drug trade’s effects on Black families. Lewis reflected on the environment that breeds a Sophie’s choice like this.

“The crack era is not the first time that the United States Government infiltrated our communities and sought to destroy them and then didn’t take accountability for it,” Lewis said. “We see that happening over, and over, and over since the beginning of our time here, you know what I mean? When will it not be happening anymore? And are we paying attention?”


Andrew Ricketts is a writer from New York. He wants to tell the story you share with a friend.

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