On HBO’s crime-and-punishment epic The Wire, the moral arc of the universe does not bend toward justice. In the dramatic yet realistic Baltimore mapped by creator David Simon, institutions—police, education, politics—protect their power structures at the expense of individuals, and this happens again and again. Red tape makes meaningful change as painfully incremental as possible, and those responsible for shaking up the status quo face punishment rather than reward. There’s a deep vein of cynicism at play in this worldview, something Simone had well-earned during her previous career as a reporter on the city desk at the Baltimore Sun, but it comes with fundamentally idealistic consequences. As long as large, immovable systems of iniquity exist, we will always have doctrinal reformers who try in their own modest way to make some small difference.

Through five seasons of the landmark series, in more episodes than any other character, Lt. Cedric Daniels evoked this unwavering embrace of hope. A born-and-raised Baltimore native, actor Lance Reddick played the no-nonsense lifer cop as the ever-brave crusader, however, seeing him as a shrewd and pragmatic compromiser. For every moment you see Daniels extend his middle finger to the system, like his vitriolic kiss pulling his unit’s coffers or his instantly immortal declaration that the latest top-down order is “bullshit,” there’s a serious one. Reminder of how the game is played. Daniel defends his men even when they are at fault, knowing that both police unity and bad PR don’t make the job any more possible. During one scene, he can chew out some of his underlings for cracking skulls in a housing project, then advises them on how to beat a brutality investigation with cold calm.

Reddick died yesterday at the age of 60, unexpectedly and suddenly of natural causes at his Los Angeles home. The outpouring of respect from his peers attests to the level of excellence he maintains in his eclectic body of work, its long-running TV engagements and small-time memorable movie gigs defined by his well-honed knack for subtle internal contradictions. With a preacher’s commanding baritone, he embodied strict paternalism as easily as menace, fragility, or stupidity. Although his journeyman career often returned him to tight-lipped law enforcement, he distinguished each role through his absolute conviction and extraordinary knack for finding notes of counterpoint within the human soul.

Reddick first landed his part on The Wire after impressing HBO’s brass with a season-long stint on the brutal prison drama Oz, typical of the show’s arc toward tragedy. As Det Johnny Basile, he assumed the alias Desmond Mobe to hide and break up a drug ring, only to become addicted to heroin, commit murder, and bump himself off. For the first time of many, Reddick reveals all the brittle, breakable things behind the impressive facades of the Boys in Blue, as susceptible to mortal and venal sins as anyone else.

Lance Reddick at Fringe. Photo: Fox-Tv/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

His face kept popping up around the premise: a special agent fed on Law & Order, a medical examiner on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a street patrolman on an episode of The West Wing, a Homeland Security operative on Fringe. At times, he would divert his naturally commanding air of authority into shady occupations, all business as Lost in John Wick films or as the palace of a rental hotel. (Reddick’s touching-as-hell performance in the fourth installment, in theaters next week, will take on an unbearable poignancy in light of this loss.) The industry slowly woke up to his sharp-eyed intensity of comedy, and Reddick changed. His type as an oddball boss in Corporate and as a “senor dicks” in the cult favorite NTSF:SD:SUV. His legacy will be that of an accomplished thespian, though he too should be remembered in part The only guest who really seemed to be intimidated was Eric Andre.

But The Wire brought out the best in Reddick, constantly testing his determination to expose the underlying strengths and weaknesses. Like everyone who tries to make Baltimore better, the “gods won’t save you”, the machine chews Daniels up and spits them out. In the finale, he turns his back on the crumbling police department to start anew as a criminal lawyer, a concession of defeat he turns into moral triumph. Although Reddick spent his career thriving on the margins of an industry that might have shown more appreciation for his perceived talent, he is remembered by his colleagues as persistent, grateful and kind. He took decades in character actor roles that hold a project together, even if they don’t earn household name recognition. Still, he kept at it with the same tireless dogged determination as the lawmen he played – head down, quietly showing everyone how it was done.


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