Editor: The word I’m looking for is... Dickensian. I want to depict the Dickensian lives of inner city children, then to show clearly and concisely where the school system has failed them.The above exchange takes place early in the fifth season of HBO’s The Wire, at the offices of local newspaper The Baltimore Sun. It’s a humorous scene, and the joke is in the fact that it’s obvious to viewers that the conversation works as meta commentary on the series itself. There’s a lot that could be said about whether or not The Wire succeeds in “leaving everything in”, but it’s clear that this is a series deeply concerned with context — with the many angles that surround the social problems people in positions of power keep trying to solve with quick-fix solutions.
Staffer: Not to defend the school system, but a lot of things have failed those kids. They’re marginalized long before they walk into class.
Gus: You wanna know who these kids are, you gotta look at the parenting, or lack thereof, in the city. Drug culture, the economics of these neighborhoods...
Editor: Yet the schools are something we can address.
Gus: Yeah, sure, we can beat up on the schools—God knows they deserve it once in a while... But we’re just as irrelevant to these kids as the schools are. It’s like pointing out some bad shingles on a roof, while the rest of the house gets knocked over in a hurricane.
Scott: You don’t need a lot of context to examine what goes on in one classroom.
Gus: Really? Well, I think you need a lot of context to seriously examine anything.
Editor: No, Scott is right. I think we need to limit the scope, not get bogged down in details.
Gus: To do what? To address the problem or win a prize? I mean, what are we doing here?
Editor: Gus, I know the problems. My wife volunteers in a City School. But I want to look at the tangible. Where the problem and solution can be measured clearly.
Staffer: There’s more impediments to learning than a lack of materials or a dysfunctional bureaucracy.
Editor: But who’s gonna read that? What is this series about in a sentence? What’s the Budget Line?
Gus: Johnny can’t write cause Johnny doesn’t have a fucking pencil.
Editor: Augustus... I’m not as simple-minded as you might think. Now what do you want? An educational project or a litany of excuses? I don’t want some amorphous series detailing society’s ills. If you leave everything in, soon you’ve got nothing.
The Wire aired from 2002 to 2008; the series is known for the different focus of each of its seasons, which build up to a complex picture of the city of Baltimore and its institutions. Season one is mainly concerned with the Baltimore police and the drug organisation it’s investigating. Importantly, the story is told from the point of view of the drug dealers themselves (from teenage boys at street level to organised crime leaders) as much as from that of the investigators. In season two we keep following the Barksdale drugs organisation, but we’re also introduced to the Port Authority and the plight of the workers unionised in the International Brotherhood of Stevedores. The third season adds another layer of complexity by focusing on the race for Mayor of Baltimore and on the political tension at City Hall. Season four explores the Baltimore school system through the stories of four middle school students from West Baltimore, and the fifth and final season brings the previous storylines together and introduces another perspective: that of the journalists at The Baltimore Sun.
I knew about the premise of The Wire before I started watching it, but the execution turned out to be considerably different from what I had imagined. The five seasons are more closely linked than what the above description might lead you to expect — we follow a core group of characters from start to finish, and new plotlines build up on the previous ones. The show is expertly written: this isn’t, of course, to say it’s without flaws, but each season impressed me more than the one before; by the time I finished The Wire, I had little doubt it would be a new addition to my list of all-time favourite TV series.
As I hinted above, I don’t necessarily agree that The Wire’s creators succeeded in leaving everything in, but there’s no doubt that the series is sociological in its approach. That, plus the fact that creator David Simon called it “a show about how contemporary American society—and, particularly, ‘raw, unencumbered capitalism’—devalues human beings” makes it a very good match for my interests and concerns this year. I’ll talk about this in more detail when I move on to the various subsections of this post — suffice to say, for now, that this was the right story at the right time for someone who’s become preoccupied with the force circumstances exert on people, and with how we can, or sometimes can’t, resist them.
The last thing I want to comment on before I move on is the series’ use of perspective: it’s important for me to disclose that I’m in no way qualified to make a pronouncement about whether or not a fictional portrayal of the lives of mainly people of colour in Baltimore is authentic, however you define that. Still, it was obvious even to a less than knowledgeable viewer such as myself that the series avoided the traditional trappings of the white middle class gaze. Here’s how David Simon described his approach to Nick Hornby in a Believer interview:
I decided to write for the people living the event, the people in that very world. I would reserve some of the exposition, assuming the reader/viewer knew more than he did, or could, with a sensible amount of effort, hang around long enough to figure it out. I also realized—and this was more important to me—that I would consider the book or film a failure if people in these worlds took in my story and felt that I did not get their existence, that I had not captured their world in any way that they would respect.This deliberate decision to tell The Wire’s story from the inside more than paid off. I’m a white European woman, yet I had no trouble keeping up with The Wire even though the context was not being spoon-fed to me. In fact, piecing it together bit by bit, as the series took us deeper into the interconnected issues affecting Baltimore and its people, was one of the pleasures of watching it. There’s probably a lesson here for storytellers everywhere.
I spoil everything from this point onwards.
1. David vs GoliathAny attempt to capture the key theme of a complex piece of storytelling in one sentence is bound to be reductive. The Wire is about many things, yet it’s undeniable that at its centre is the tension between individual action and systemic problems. In other words: can we make a difference?
In the same Believer interview I linked to previously, Simon compares The Wire to “a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces”:
It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason. In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millennium, so to speak. Because so much of television is about providing catharsis and redemption and the triumph of character, a drama in which postmodern institutions trump individuality and morality and justice seems different in some ways, I think.This is actually a big part of why I was drawn to the series: as I said in my introduction, I wanted a story about more than individual heroes taking on the world and proving themselves superior to the rest of us in the process. Even more than that, I wanted a long and careful look at the contexts in each of us acts. However, is saying we’re restrained by our circumstances the same as saying we’re rendered helpless? What are the situations in which we are, and what are the ones in which we aren’t?
This is one of the many questions the series explores. The Greek tragedy comparison is apt in a sense — yet I don’t think The Wire portrays the defeat of individuals by institutional forces as quite as inevitable as it might suggest. The Wire tells a story about subversion as much as it tells one about crushing defeat: time and again, in ways big and small, characters like Bunny Colvin, Detectives Sydnor and Greggs, Major Carver, the incomparable Lester Freeman, Cedric Daniels, or Rhonda Pearlman go against their institutions and do what they believe to be right. They defy the systems that constrain them, with varying consequences and degrees of success, or they work within them towards meaningful change.
The question of what allows us to make a difference is explored in many ways, but I want to focus on the contrasting paths of two characters who start out as peers: Carv and Herc, who we first meet as narcotics investigators detailed to the Barksdale investigation in season one. Towards the end of the series, the two have a conversation in which Carv tells Herc: “We thought it didn’t matter, what we’re doing, but it does”. By then, he’s seen firsthand the horrible consequences of failing the people you’re supposed to serve and protect simply because you don’t believe your actions can make a difference. Due to a series of slips initiated by Carv, Randy, one of the middle-school boys we meet in season four, loses the foster mother he’d begun to love and trust and is placed in a harsh group home that crushes his spirit. The scene in which Ellis Carver cries in his car after leaving Randy there is one of the most heartbreaking in the series (and believe me, it’s not like there’s not some serious competition).
There is, of course, a strong element of racial inequality to these two character’s paths that the series never allows us to forget. Herc is a white man, while Carver is black. He’s therefore far more likely to have experienced the consequences of systemic inequality firsthand. But another thing that makes a difference is the fact that Carver is able to hold on to hope: he believes that what he does matter, and to a large extent that allows is to matter. Again, the difference is far more than individual: while Carv stays at the Western District and continues to get involved with community policing, a context in which it’s easy to see the impact of your actions and remain hopeful, Carv chauffeurs the Mayor around. In the end, Ellis Carver becomes what Cedric Daniels was: an honest police Lieutenant determined to do the right thing within a corrupt institution. Herc, on the other hand, becomes a private investigator to corrupt drug layer Maurice Levy — a force for everything he’d previously fought against.
To go back to the question we started it, then, here’s how Steve James puts it at Slate,
The Wire says to us all: Without the individual attempt to do good in the world, all is certainly lost. In the end, all any of us can do is try to do something that allows us to look at ourselves in the mirror each day.However, for all its attention to context, I sometimes still felt that The Wire favoured narratives that celebrated the lone maverick hero fighting corrupt forces all on his own. I’d really have liked to see a fifth season where instead of making up a serial killer, Lester and Jimmy joined forces with other sympathetic voices in the police department to restore proper funding through collective action. I do of course realise the point the season is trying to make is that any such efforts would have been crushed — you have to operate outside the system because any channels within it have been neutralised. But there’s more than just one way to circumvent this, and my heart (and indeed my knowledge of history) makes me biased towards collective democratic solutions rather than daredevil heroics.
In the end, The Wire offers no definitive answers to the questions it poses — but then again, that always seemed to me an unfair thing to expect of any piece of storytelling, or indeed any discourse, critical of the status quo. Asking questions is a valuable endeavor in itself, and The Wire leaves us with several that are worthy of our consideration.
2. Power in a Union
Frank Sobotka’s story is a good example of how a contextual narrative is not, like the Baltimore Sun’s editor puts it in season five, “a litany of excuses”. The Wire never encourages us to see Frank Sobotka simply as a helpless victim of class inequality: he made decisions regarding what he was willing to overlook; what he would turn a blind eye to as long as the money kept coming in. It doesn’t come as a shock when this turns out to have consequences. A different man (such as his brother-in-law, as we see in the series) wouldn’t necessarily be willing to make the deals Frank makes. And yet these cumulative ethical compromises don’t take place in a vacuum, and this too is something the series also doesn’t allow us to forget. Frank doesn’t want money for himself, but so he can play the dirty game of political lobbying his opponents are playing. He’s fighting the development of luxury waterside apartments (which, heartbreakingly, we watch Mayor Tommy Carcetti inaugurate in the fifth season, while Nicky Sobotka heckles him from the crowd) which would effectively put an end to the way of life he’s always known. It’s impossible to tell his story while leaving this context out — and yet Frank’s deal with the devil cost a group of women their lives.
This brings me back to the question of whether The Wire is far more cynical about institutions — even progressive ones like unions — than I tend to be myself. There’s no shortage of evidence to support this argument, but then again, we also have Stringer Bell. Throughout the course of seasons two and three, String essentially establishes a drug dealers co-operative. He enlists the help of Proposition Joe, an East Baltimore kingpin, to put an end to the rule of violence that we saw take so many lives in season one, and his efforts are successful: East and West Baltimore drug organisations agree to share a supplier and divide their territory without violence.
It would be absurd to suggest that this solves all problems surrounding the drug trade: this storyline coexists with the one centred around Bunny Colvin’s Hamsterdam and the many issues it raises concerning access to support and services; and also with the stories of characters like Bubbles and Johnny Weeks. Together they paint an obvious picture: the only way to give people struggling with addictions the support they need to turn their lives around is to decriminalise drug use and possession and to invest in services and social programs. This is a point supported by plenty of research and case studies worldwide, but it’s good to come across a fictional illustration all the same.
The fact that Marlo Stanfield comes to a different answer is what makes him one of the most terrifying characters in The Wire. Marlo’s main concern isn’t necessarily money — he seems to be more focused in making sure his name continues to ring out across Baltimore, and that he gets to “wear the crown” — but he’s still a perfect illustration of the aforementioned “raw, unencumbered capitalism [that] devalues human beings”. His approach is individualistic to its most extreme consequences: every price seems worth paying to make sure the legend of Marlo Stanfield continues to grow.
3. Absent Women
I’m tempted to put this down to a systemic blind spot on the creators’ part. It’s not that The Wire is unaware of sexism, exactly — the moments when Jimmy and Bunk behave in horrifyingly misogynistic ways, for example, are too over the top to be unselfconscious — but it’s deeply unconcerned with women and blind to gender inequality as a systemic force. It doesn’t paint sexism as part of the picture in the way it merits: it fails to acknowledge that gender inequality is one more force perpetuated in ways big and small and deeply embedded in the fabric of unequal institutions.
The series’ female characters, even the ones I loved, are all underutilised at best. Detective Kima Greggs is perhaps the only one I’d describe as a main rather than a supporting character, but even then her story fades into the background for long stretches of time. We watch her relationship with her partner Cheryl disintegrate, but her struggles are not given the spotlight in the same ways as Jimmy McNulty’s. There’s no reason for this to be the case other than our cultural bias to privilege straight white men’s stories and treat them as if they were inherently more interesting.
Then we have Snoop, Beadie Russell, Rhonda Pearlman, Brianna Barksdale, Shardene Innes and Elena McNulty. All are women I desperately wanted to know more about, but they remain supporting characters, only highlighted in the context of how their actions affect the men whose stories take centre stage. I was particularly disappointed that we never learned more about Brianna, especially after her promising introduction at the end of season one. She’s obviously a woman who played a key role in the Barksdale organisation, and not only because she was Avon’s sister. She was smart and resourceful and in control, and I wanted to know what it felt like to be her. Unfortunately this was not something the series was ever really interested in exploring.
Equally disappointing was Beadie’s disappearance. She’s temporarily detailed to what is to become the Major Crimes Unit in season two, only to go back to her rounds as a port police officer at the end (and thus disappear from the story). Worse than that is the fact that when she’s eventually brought back, it’s only as a love interest for Jimmy McNulty. Beadie continues to be a police officer, but she’s never referred to in her professional capacity. We don’t learn anything new about how she feels about her job or the challenges of being a single working mother after the end of the second season — we see her only as a motivation for Jimmy to fight his slide back into excessive alcohol consumption and casual hook-ups. She’s a prize to be won if our hero gets his life back together, not a person with her own struggles. She deserved so much better than that.
It’s probably obvious that none of this really prevented me from loving The Wire, but I wanted more from a series that is otherwise so good at exploring inequality and fully acknowledging the complexity of its context. The women it introduces us to deserved to have their stories told with more nuance.
4. “Be a Man”
In the second season, Frank Sobotka’s son Ziggy comes to a bad ending partially due to his desire to be respected as a “real” man. Ziggy, less physically imposing than most of his peers, is a young man adrift. He waits around the Union’s offices to see if there will be any work for the day (all the stevedores appear to be on zero hours contracts), but because he lacks seniority it’s very rare for there to be anything for him. He tries to make a quick fortune by dealing drugs, and we also watch him try out the identity of the group jokester, but nothing seems to make much of a difference. The other stevedores pull constant pranks on Ziggy, and this is something he clearly resents. Although it would be reductive to try to make his story about a single factor, a sense of wounded pride and a desire to assert himself through violence are clearly among the reasons why Ziggy shoots Glekas. All around him there were men resorting to violence acts to rise to the top — when all else fails, Ziggy does the same.
Ziggy’s are only one among the many possible sets of circumstances where male violence is constructed. Namond Brice, the son of Barksdale key player Wee-Bey, is one of the boys we get to know in season four. Bunny Colvin seems to be the only adult to understand that Namond’s misbehaviour at school is all bravado: he swears and acts out, but he feels deeply ill-at-ease with the drug trade’s culture of violence and shrinks away from physical confrontation. At home, his mother constantly urges him to “be a man” like his father, but it’s obvious that this narrow and very specific definition of masculinity he’s being encouraged to live up to goes against the grain of Namond’s personality. Namond is offered an escape route when the Colvins adopt him, and when we see him briefly in season five he’s become the creative, thoughtful young man he always wanted to be (though there’s plenty that could be said about lifting him out of poverty by having him be adopted by a middle class family, instead of creating the conditions where a family like his could have looked after him). It’s important to highlight, though, that it’s not a “natural” aversion to violence or a more sensitive nature that allows Namond to escape. Michael and Randy are also sensitive boys when we first meet them, yet by the end of the series they’ve been hardened by circumstances. Namond is given a lifeline while his peers are not, and in the end a complete lack of options pushes the latter towards the kind of behaviour whose consequences they’ve suffered.
Omar, Cutty and Stringer Bell would all also make interesting case studies in how The Wire engages with the concept of hegemonic masculinity. In their stories we see variations related to race and sexual orientation — all of which influence and interact with gendered expectations. For example, the fact that Omar Little is a gay man puts him outside the dominant heteranormative definition of masculinity, yet even though his opponents make derisive homophobic comments about him, in other ways Omar performs “manliness” in normative violent ways. At the end of season five, Marlo Stanfield goes out of his way to make sure no one in Baltimore thinks he was afraid to come out and confront Omar. Omar’s name is known and feared, and Marlo doesn’t want to be outdone.
Stringer, whose collectivist tendencies I already wrote about, is revealed to be interested in and knowledgeable about racial inequality. His desire to be seen as a legitimate business man, Avon reveals, is deeply tied to his knowledge of how black men like themselves are disadvantaged (“The time when you got into all that Black Pride stuff,” as Avon puts it). Finally, when Dennis “Cutty” Wise is released from prison he’s offered a role within the Barksdale organisation, but he comes to realise he no longer can stomach the violence he was once a part of. Instead, he sets up an after-school gym programme for disadvantaged kids and works to give them opportunities beyond the drugs trade. When Cutty walks away from “the game” Avon Barksdale and Slim Charles comment that he “remains a man” — his previously established credibility seemingly making his interest in community work and in helping local boys acceptable.
5. Mirror Images
Similarly, we watch — in another strong contender for most heartbreaking moment in all of The Wire — a homeless Dukie slip into drug addiction and thus become the new Bubbles. His best friend Mike, forced to give up the care of his little brother, is last seen robbing drug dealers and moving into Omar’s role. Detective Sydnor walks into Judge Phelan’s office in a bold move that clearly marks him as Jimmy and Lester’s heir, while new Baltimore Sun city desk editor Mike Fletcher adheres to the standards set up by his predecessor Augustus.
Because we followed each of these characters’ journeys from the very start, all these mirror images give us a new and deeper understanding of the series’ point of departure. Though the specifics may differ, they function as genesis stories for the key characters. In this way, The Wire highlights the cyclical nature of history. The ending functions as a form of commentary on the beginning that tells us, “Look, this is how we got here”. However, once again it’s important to note that there’s nothing inevitable about such cycles. Because we followed these characters’ journeys, we also got to see where things could so easily have gone differently with a few more resources and a little bit more support. This is especially true of the four “boys of summer” — the middle school students we’re introduced to in season four. Most of them were failed by a system that could so easily have supported them. There’s no real reason why they couldn’t all have had as lucky an escape as Namond Brice’s. Such knowledge makes their fates all the more difficult to accept — and this, this lack of acceptance, is something we must cling to. It doesn’t have to be this way, and it’s not okay that it is.