Arts & Culture
Network Jews: Maurice Levy, the Jewish Lawyer from HBO’s ‘The Wire’
The caricatured shyster who manipulates the law for his own gain and represents the ingrained injustice in David Simon’s Baltimore Read More
It’s as close to an ironclad rule as exists on The Wire: Maurice Levy (Michael Kostroff) always wins. Baltimore’s drug kingpins are both tough and smart, but in every brush with law enforcement, there’s Maury Levy—the slick, amoral, and Jewish lawyer—to choreograph the dealers’ defense, first for the Barksdale crew and later for Marlo Stanfield. In case after case, Levy demonstrates preternatural skill at helping his clients walk.
For those who have never seen the show, The Wire is auteur David Simon’s holistic meditation on the decay of urban America as seen through various lenses in contemporary Baltimore. Also, if you have not seen the show you should:
1. Stop reading this. I fully admit an obsession with the show, and will imminently spoil the hell out of it in highly technical fashion.
2. Go watch the show. Cease human contact until you are finished.
Back to Levy. He fascinates viewers in part because he seems to revel in amorality—as if he’s the most alive when he’s outfoxing the Major Crimes Unit and Assistant State’s Attorney Rhonda Pearlman. Kostroff may not have invented the shit-eating grin, but in Levy, he damn near perfects it.
Early in the series, Levy exudes a hectoring, schoolmarmish quality that leads to some memorable moments. When Barksdale frontman Orlando gets arrested for buying drugs from an undercover officer, Levy visits him in jail and makes him sign over ownership of the strip club—but not before leaving with this parting shot: “You wanted to be in the game, right? Well, now you’re in the game.” When D’Angelo Barksdale—held without charge—is convinced by Bunk and McNulty to write an apology letter to the made-up family of a murder victim, it’s Levy who steals the scene, barging in, dropping f-bombs, and smacking around Avon’s overmatched nephew.
Yet Levy is not just a skilled lawyer who provides his clients with the best defense possible; on several occasions, Levy actively engages in criminal conspiracy. With Orlando, Levy has the club forfeiture backdated to before the arrest. He later advises Marlo on how to launder money, and Levy probably knows Avon planted the “hot shots”—which killed his fellow inmates—on the corrupt guard in order to engineer his early release. Levy facilitates organized crime purely for personal profit.
That Abe Foxman has probably never watched The Wire is for the best, because through all of Levy’s underhanded dealings, the writers never allow us to forget that he is Jewish. Levy scolds McNulty for pulling him away from his home on a Friday night because “Yvette made brisket.” In one of his many told-you-so speeches, Levy chides Stringer Bell for getting scammed by Senator Clay Davis: “That gonov was born with his hand in someone’s pocket.”
Late in the series, Levy invites Herc for dinner, explaining, “you’re mishpoche now.” Though Jewish viewers may get a thrill from David Simon peppering his scripts with Yiddishisms, Levy’s Judaism is never seriously dealt with. In a story often lauded for the depth and nuance with which it treats its characters, Levy—at least from the perspective of his ethno-religious identity—remains a caricature: he’s a shyster, plain and simple.
Yet the caricatured Judaism is ultimately forgivable because Levy’s purpose—as with so many characters on the show—is to be part of Simon’s revelation and depiction of society’s intractable, systemic flaws. In what is arguably The Wire’s seminal scene, Levy cross-examines Omar during Bird’s trial, attempting to undermine Omar’s credibility as a witness because of his extensive criminal history. As Levy begins fulminating about Omar’s blight on society, Omar interrupts him: “Just like you, man.”
Levy whips around, taken aback, before Omar continues. “I got the shotgun; you got the briefcase—but it’s all in the game though, right?” It is Levy’s one moment of feebleness and shame, and he looks appropriately shell-shocked after trial. Omar’s line is as good a summary of The Wire as any: it is all part of the game, and everyone contributes to society’s endemic failures in his or her own way.
Levy never learns, though. After Marlo walks at series’ end, Levy is positively gleeful. When the other drug kingpins hear of his masterful work, he tells Herc, his client base will expand rapidly. Here again, Levy is the conduit for another of Simon’s subtle critiques: though we may be shown how we contribute to entrenched societal problems, it takes a certain courage to change what is both comfortable and in our narrow self-interest. Levy—like many characters on The Wire—doesn’t have that courage.
(photo credit: The Wire Wiki)
Previously on Network Jews:
Dov Friedman works in foreign policy in Ankara, Turkey. Like sportswriter Jason Whitlock, he has a childlike obsession with The Wire.