Over the summer, my wife and I rewatched the Wire from start to finish (we had missed a fair amount the first time it was aired.) It aged fairly well. It is a bit more formulaic than I realized at first, its surprises a little too carefully aimed at viewers’ sensibilities. In an untold numbers of scenes, Burns and Simon place two characters that have some reason to oppose and dislike each other, on opposite sides of the law or separated by some barrier of race and class, and then watch them either come together and reach some kind of understanding, or drift further away in mutual incomprehension, or one before the other. Take the way the show introduces Snoop, the tiny teenaged hit-girl who appears in the fourth season:
The humor comes not from the Home Depot guy misunderstanding Snoop (what exactly is this girl using the nailgun for?) but from the fact that they understand each other so well; they’re both on the same page, at least until Snoop pushes a couple hundreds on him at the end and comments “you earned that buck like a motherfu**a” in appreciation before leaving. This matches thematically the series as a whole, which tends to work in a series of diptychs (cops versus drug dealers, black America versus white America, schoolteachers versus corner boys, and so on) and in which the Moral of the Story is often E.M. Forster’s from Howard’s End:
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
The show was often called “Dickensian” by its enthusiasts (a word the show makes fun of in its last, weaker, season) and it shares Dickens’s love of the underworld and of one-dimensional-yet-perfectly-formed characters. Unlike in Dickens, in The Wire there are few Bob Cratchits or Micawbers, Joe Gargerys or Noddy Boffins, Mr and Mrs. Meagles; few of the representatives of simple, uncomplicated Christian virtue that Dickens places throughout his books as foils to both all the colorful rascals and to the heroes who are tempted and tried amid darkness and privation before coming back into the light. The most artistically successful characters in The Wire are often, as in Dickens, children- the four middle-school boys in the fourth season and Bodie and Wallace in the first- but it’s a sociological imagination rather than a spiritual one that governs their world. Their own capacity to escape circumstance or even to avoid blood on their hands is negligible; the most imaginative and intelligent of them, Dookie and Wallace, are the ones most utterly destroyed:
In The Wire, the script’s most flattering portrayals are reserved for those, like Omar or Bubbles, who are of the underworld, completely and utterly, but can rise above it emotionally and intellectually, even as they only rarely, especially early in the show, even try to escape it. In a typical scene, Omar shows up at court and, after correcting a white guy in stuffed suit struggling with a crossword puzzle (“Ares, not Mars, is the Greek god of War,”) is brought to the stand where he effortlessly baits the drug hit-man who tortured and killed Omar’s gay lover into a Perry Mason-like self-incrimination.
It’s pleasurable to watch, especially the first time; fictions often rely on surprising reversals of status that shows us how those on top are laid low. But it’s a little shallow. The scenes that gained power on a second watching were actually those, like the ones following Bubbles’s halting recovery from addiction following a surrogate son’s death, that admitted of the possibility of redemption even while conceding how difficult that redemption was. I don’t know much about the process of addiction recovery, but these scenes struck me as fundamentally real and genuine. I do know a lot about inner city middle schools, and it’s striking even on a second watching how much the show gets right about inner city schools in a way that few representations do: the way the beginning of school means cleaning out filthy and disorganized rooms with desks piled up everywhere and gum stuck to all the desks, the simple logistics of guiding hundreds of rambunctious teenagers through a small entrance and getting them to the right room, and the way the central teacher Prezbylewski, finds ways to connect his students to the content he’s teaching, making probability meaningful for a lesson or two or ten, without making many of his or their problems as teacher or kids go away. Other aspects of the show’s schools are less correct- bloody, razor-wielding fights between two girls of course do happen, but the first day of school, when kids are generally on their best behavior, is the last time they are likely to happen.
Preszbylewski’s character is based on Ed Burns, one of the Wire’s creators (although I’ll confess I was once stopped in the hall by some kids I didn’t know to be told I looked like Mister Prezbo), and it’s probably not random that he is one of the only if not the only white characters who undergoes continual growth and challenge across the five seasons of the show. Even the central (if cliched) Maverick Cop on a Mission, Jimmy McNulty, becomes more two-dimensional rather than less over the course of the show- by the end, he’s having sex with prostitutes on top of his squad car between kidnapping homeless men to start city-wide panics to get him police resources for a wire tap. Well, the actor’s British, so he sort of pulls it off. Most of the other white characters who appear across multiple seasons, from the insentient braggadocio Herc to the corrupt Shylock lawyer Levi to the abusive and closeted Major Rawls, are one-note cartoons. The middle class black men tend to be sympathetic but inert, like Bunk the high-functioning alcoholic or Burrell, useless as a police commissioner but clever and sensitive as a politician. Frank Sobotka and the rest of the dockworkers in Season 2 are more complex figures, though they are also presented as throwbacks to an earlier, admirable working class and union-backed America that is dying off; their failure and futility is what allows the filmmakers to make them appealing, along with their criminal involvement.
Even more notable is the absence of women; Kima is given the most complexity and life, but she is explicitly “one of the boys,” unable to balance family life with her addiction to the job (and even shown, like her male colleagues, kicking back and talking about tits instead of working, like a good cop should.) Many of the other women seem oddly miscast- Daniels’s wife, the ambitious climber and novice politician, is too old for the role, while the wise and seasoned City Council president who yells at Carcetti that it was “her turn” to be mayor is too young. Burns and Simon just aren’t very interested in women unless they’re acting like men; over and over, Rhonda Pearlman, the Assistant DA who facilitates the main characters’ wire-taps appears, says some legalese jumble about the conditions of their tap, and then departs, with the intermittent attempts to humanize her (mostly by involving her sexually with one of the main male characters) falling flat.
What Burns and Simon are most interested in is criminally-involved black men talking about the conditions of their lives in philosophical and sociological terms. (This is quite similar to actual academic sociologists, who seem to reserve their greatest plaudits and best job offers for probably apocryphal stories about young, criminally-involved black men.) A good portion of the first season is given over to D’Angelo Barksdale, Sage of the Low Rises, holding forth about corporate capitalism or the Great Gatsby or the pointlessness of inner-city violence or the difference between checkers and chess:
“Now look, check it, it’s simple, it’s simple. See this? This the kingpin, a’ight? And he the man. You get the other dude’s king, you got the game. But he trying to get your king too, so you gotta protect it. Now, the king, he move one space any direction he damn choose, ’cause he’s the king. Like this, this, this, a’ight? But he ain’t got no hustle. But the rest of these motherfuckers on the team, they got his back. And they run so deep, he really ain’t gotta do shit.”
“Like your uncle.”
“Yeah, like my uncle. You see this? This the queen. She smart, she fast. She move any way she want, as far as she want. And she is the go-get-shit-done piece.”
“Remind me of Stringer.”
“And this over here is the castle. Like the stash. It can move like this, and like this.”
“Dog, stash don’t move, man.”
“C’mon, yo, think. How many time we move the stash house this week? Right? And every time we move the stash, we gotta move a little muscle with it, right? To protect it.”
“True, true, you right. All right, what about them little baldheaded bitches right there?”
“These right here, these are the pawns. They like the soldiers. They move like this, one space forward only. Except when they fight, then it’s like this. And they like the front lines, they be out in the field.”
“So how do you get to be the king?”
“It ain’t like that. See, the king stay the king, a’ight? Everything stay who he is. Except for the pawns. Now, if the pawn make it all the way down to the other dude’s side, he get to be queen. And like I said, the queen ain’t no bitch. She got all the moves.”
“A’ight, so if I make it to the other end, I win.”
“If you catch the other dude’s king and trap it, then you win.”
“A’ight, but if I make it to the end, I’m top dog.”
“Nah, yo, it ain’t like that. Look, the pawns, man, in the game, they get capped quick. They be out the game early.”
“Unless they some smart-ass pawns.”
As the blogger at Jeopardy Green Room comments, this is often somewhat absurd- chances are, Baltimore heroin dealers are not considering their existential circumstance in quite this way. On the other hand it is also effective, and not just because it tickles liberal fancies, but because the purpose of dialogue in drama is to place different imaginative worlds at odds with each other, give voice to them in opposition, rather than to capture realistic speech. As someone said of Shakespeare, no murderous tinpot dictator is actually saying to themselves “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time” as he gets ready to slaughter his enemies, but it’s what he should be thinking. Much of the reason the dialogue in Game of Thrones has become so tiresome is not simply because of the complete absence of subtext but because almost everything the characters say is describing things we’ve already seen- simply verbalizing what has already been shown onscreen in previous CGI-laden episodes rather than giving a peak into a private, emotional or imaginative world.
It’s revealing, in any case, that in The Wire the filmmakers’ imaginative energies are so clearly more enthused by the drug-dealers than the law-abiding characters, and they are at times ready to hit you over the head with what they see as the lack of distinction between “normal” America and the world of drugs and Baltimore corners:
This is historically revealing, of course, as well. In spite of the apocalyptic tone of many episodes of The Wire, the city was in many ways better off, or at least more safe, in the mid-2000s than it is now, after a steady drop in homicide clearance rates and a huge jump in murders following the Freddie Gray/Black Lives Matter riots in early 2015:
The cops in The Wire are often seen fretting over a clearance rate that dips below 50%; in Baltimore it was under 40 percent last year, and in Chicago it has stayed at or below 30% for several years now.
The sympathy and affection that the show affords to men who are murderers either directly with guns or indirectly with heroin is in some ways striking, and nowhere is the creators’ determination that the circumstances of inner-city life are outside the realm of individual moral action more obvious than in discussions of the drug trade and its inevitability;. Of all the middle class black men in the show, the one most sympathetically portrayed is Bunny Colvin, the West Baltimore police chief who unofficially legalizes drugs in a portion of his territory nicknamed “Hamsterdam.” There is obviously some fragment of truth to the show’s implicit libertarian stand on drugs; over last two decades in which the falling street price and increasing availability of heroin has in some ways mirrored what might occur with liberalization of drug laws, there has not been an explosion of violent or property crime to match the massive increase in overdoses. So there’s that in favor of Hamsterdam.
More obviously than the merits or demerits of the War on Drugs, The Wire speaks to the changing relationship of the media to itself. The Wire as a cultural phenomenon was perhaps more important than the show itself- which was, particularly at first, a little-watched show on premium cable. It was, even more than Game of Thrones after it, more talked about than watched. As Wikipedia remarks, “The Wire received poor Nielsen ratings, which Simon attributed to the complexity of the plot; a poor time slot; heavy use of esoteric slang, particularly among the gangster characters; and a predominantly black cast.” The Wire was perhaps the first sign of the full force of the Internet to cause herding of opinions and interests among journalists, subsequently intensified by Twitter and by review aggregation sites like Rotten Tomatoes. Christian Lander used it as the starting point for his “Stuff White People Like” blog and book series for a reason.
Ending in early 2008, the show and the hoopla surrounding it is also, of course, a historical document about the country that elected Barack Obama and the particular institutions that welcomed him in 2008 and before. In spite of his early self-presentation as a South Side Chicagoan, Obama himself was already much more of a fan of the Wire than a Wire character, too “clean” (in Joe Biden’s inimitable phrase ) to appear even as one of the politicians in the show. Omar was his favorite character, of course.