I should probably introduce myself. I’m not just some random guy who popped up in the comments section and started running his mouth when the Wire roundtable began (though I certainly am that). I used to blog about The Wire during seasons 4 and 5. In an attempt to get a handle on the show, and a desperate bid to fill content from week to week, I spent a lot of time tracking the various characters’ political manipulations. And it was then that I discovered my admiration for southeastern district commander (and later commissioner) Stan Valchek.
The creators play Valchek as a joke. He gets punched out by Prez, possibly the least macho character this side of Shardene or Namond Brice. In his most indelible image he sits hunched over his desk, gazing through an oversized magnifying glass, dusting for pointless fingerprints on a humiliating photograph—a Sherlock Holmes parody of police work that leads nowhere and accomplishes nothing. Even his beneficiary and patron, Tommy Carcetti, calls him a hack and asks Rawls to keep him from doing any lasting damage in his new sinecure. In the final episode, Sydnor tells Judge Phelan that Valchek doesn’t have any idea what police work is.
Other traits aren’t so comical. Valchek negotiates the power structures of a black-led police department in a majority-black city with consummate skill, but he can’t quite conceal his ingrained racism. The big tell, communicated with perfect subtlety and perfect clarity, comes in that scene in season 5 when he says his goodbyes to Mayor Carcetti but can’t bring himself to do more than nod at Norman Wilson. (In retrospect, Prez’s tragic history of being quick on the draw with black suspects makes a lot more sense after this moment; Valchek’s inability to acknowledge Norman tells us a lot about the culture he and Prez come from.)
In a show where loyalty is both a cherished value and a fatal Achilles heel, Valchek displays not a trace. Daniels saves his son-in-law three times, once talking him down from a murder charge and a possible suicide, and yet when Cedric begins his rapid ascent through the brass it’s Stan who warns Rawls that the young colonel is being groomed for something higher. Of course, by that point Valchek has more than severed his family ties to Prez, cutting him loose and making him Daniels’s problem. This utter lack of loyalty makes Valchek both a despicable character (I once called him “the old, white, Polish police version of De’Londa Brice”) and one of the most adept players of institutional politics on The Wire—two qualities that are hardly inconsistent.
On its largest scale, The Wire is about the erosion of the postwar industrial economy and the welfare state and their replacement by a globalized, postindustrial, postmodern capitalism that runs on no logic other than unrestrained self-interest. Valchek comes from one of the urban white ethnic constituencies that both built the welfare state and initiated its slow demolition: the guy is the very picture of a Reagan Democrat. He continues to advance his constituency’s political power, promoting Tommy Carcetti in an act of racial as well as district solidarity, but he destroys the last remnants of the southeastern district’s old economic base. (And opens the granary pier for development by his political ally Andy Krawcyzk.)
He turns his back on his family, his allies, and his community as he advances higher and higher in the police hierarchy. And yet I can’t help but like the guy.
Part of it is no doubt the accent. My extensive research on Wikipedia and Google hasn’t revealed much about the mysterious origins of actor Al Brown, but given that IMDB lists his first role as an uncredited spot on Homicide I’m willing to bet he’s a Baltimore local. He certainly sounds the part—his Bawlmer accent is better than any other white character’s, with the possible exception of Marine Unit officer Claude Diggins. In a show that prizes the local in the face of encroaching globalization, Stan Valchek is as local as it gets, and his accent exemplies everything that sets The Wire apart from the innumerable fantasyland versions of New York and Los Angeles that fill the airwaves.
But it’s not just the actor. Contrary to what every other character says about Stan’s competence, beneath the layers upon layers of vanity, self-promotion, and spite there beats the heart of a real police. He opens the investigation of the stevedores union and reopens the major crimes unit, salvaging the entire premise for the series after the scorched-earth ending of season 1. While he does so for the pettiest of reasons—destroying the union because he’s jealous over a chuch window—his initial hunch that something’s wrong is rooted in the kind of local knowledge The Wire characterizes as the foundation of all good police work. Stan is basically right: there’s no way in hell the stevedores should have the money to pay for that window.
His political instincts aren’t so bad for the city, either. He leaks the information that allows Carcetti to unseat Clarence Royce—a major improvement for Baltimore, no matter what we think of Carcetti’s failings. In his one and only scene in season 5, he again leaks the information that sinks Burrell and opens the door, albeit temporarily, for Daniels to institute some real reforms as deputy commissioner and later commissioner. If Stan Valchek fails upwards, he generally does so to the benefit of the police department and city hall (if not to the docks).
Unfortunately, the post of commissioner is likely to be a grade or two above Stan’s already questionable competence. Presumably he only gets the job because he’s willing to play along with the directive to juke the stats in advance of Carcetti’s gubernatorial campaign. (And because the city’s black constituency will be mollified with Nerese Campbell as the next mayor.) He might have given the major crimes unit a new lease on life when it served his purposes, but now that he has nowhere left to rise to he’s blocking Sydnor from doing real police work. He’ll basically be Ervin Burrell with a short temper and a beautiful ugly accent.
But on a show where people literally live and die on how they play the game of institutional politics, nobody plays it better than Stan Valchek.