The post below has spoilers, but not in the traditional sense. No plot lines are discussed, no eventuality given out, nothing that would take the pleasure out of experiencing the show on it’s own. Moreover, much of The Wire is contextual, moments point out to, but do not capture the entire import of a scene. So dive in.
It has been all consuming, this obsession with The Wire. Apart from the five seasons of the show (each a different novel at a different hierarchy, a different part of the puzzle), I have gone through an earlier HBO mini-series The Corner by the same team. I have also got my hands on a few seasons of Homicide and the mini-series Generation Kill, the first and the latest television forays respectively by David Simon. Treme is on my list next.
I have also read Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon, his first book coming together as a result of a gonzo journalistic experiment of spending a year with the modern day Sherlock Holmes, the murder police, the Homicide “detectives” of Baltimore city. I am currently halfway through Simon’s second book, The Corner : A Year in the life of an Inner City Neighborhood, this one where he spent a year observing the drug culture at a Baltimore corner, and reporting on the lives first hand.
For music, The Wire : Soundtrack has done the honors, and when that hasn’t sufficed, I have loaded on to a huge collection of hip-hop and rap, a genre I haven’t much heard at all. Since I first started watching the show, it is all I have been listening to.
This hasn’t sated the hunger though, I spent a good bit of time yesterday searching out a book called The Wire : Truth Be Told by one of the co-writers of the show. It has a series of articles on various aspects of The Wire and it’s impact. It opened with this fantastic introduction by David Simon, that I have read more than a couple of times since yesterday, even read out loud to friends. This slow burn is threatening to blow up into something much larger with me painstakingly finding out previous books by all writers who have contributed to the show, including George Pelecanos (The DC quartet), Richard Price (Clockers), Dennis Lehane (the whole lot). Yesterday, I found myself making a list of the books Simon first saw Ed Burns (his writing partner, an ex cop and teacher) with – The Magus by John Fowles. Bob Woodward’s Veil. A collection of essays by Hannah Arendt.
I have been greedy, and having been served in the immediate Think it-Get it world of internet resources, this entire experience has been squeezed into the last couple of months. I am fairly certain, an equivalent real life search and consumption of each of the above would be worth at least ten years of obsession and addiction with the characters and the various layers of The Wire.
Impressions of the series waver tremendously after each successive season. The big picture and the detailed pictures merge so hopelessly into each other that you don’t know who you are cheering for (or even if it makes sense to cheer for anyone). The emotions laying you low in a particular long story arc turn out at the other end of the city with someone else getting the short end of the stick in another season. My own impressions have gone through this tumble. I tried writing about The Wire after having closed in on the third season, and it didn’t quite come together. Yet, for all it’s gushing sentimentality it has in-situ feelings for the series. I am reproducing it for that reason, and that reason only.
One of the obvious disadvantages of having watched The Wire is that all cinematic representation there after loses it’s flavour. It directly conflicts all representation of characters like the cop, the judge, the politician, the gangster, the priest, the kid, the citizen, the criminal, the junkie and in the process makes every other representation in cinema or television or fiction seem overacted, overwritten, and overrated. Nothing else appeals anymore.
I had come to The Wire while accessing the list of best shows television has had to offer. Going through the same list, I have been watching Breaking Bad, The Killing, and Justified. the latter two in-fact billed as cop shows. Each of these has been lauded at their own level for doing something new with the television show. And yet, once you are into The Wire, each and every one of such shows feel juvenile
I have thought long and hard about what would I say if I had to recommend The Wire as a watch. I’ve got it now.
The Wire resets one’s default settings about the world.
There is that story about me having asked a question to a research professor of mine who was extremely particular about the correctness of research, both mathematically and in the intangibles. I had asked him why do we need to be so particular with every single word when in the real world, a lot more out of control variables would make “correct research” an impossibility (because well, every research has finite time and money). He had zenly answered,”You must know the correct path to know how much you’ve deviated from it.”
If you’re in the game, you must know the rules. You do what you gotta do, but a man must have a code.
The Wire does it’s bit with re-aligning your world view with what is reality, and is pursued through intelligent, cunning and hard working men, all different ways to live, all with different ways to survive.
One usually describes a movie or television show or a book in positive terms as awesome, brilliant, mind blowing. A level above would be when it fucks with one’s expectations of it, in it’s entirety, in expectations with characters or scenes. Mind-fucked! Then there is another rarefied level, one that I can perhaps explain better as an example. George R. R. Martin created an entire universe for my pleasure. His characters are wholesome, real (even though his world’s not), one that I as a reader could inhabit in my head long after I was done with the experience of reading. What one could mean by real characters was that one could understand and identify with their motivations. That each character would be a believable (to steal a term from Richard Dawkins) “survival machine”, doing the best for itself with the circumstances provided to it without losing “it”self. As a reader, I was blown away with the number of layers in the world I got to experience, not only as objectified details but as different perspectives (Maybe that is what reality is, layers of superimposed different perspectives). It is magnificent. David Attenborough’s Planet Earth had a similar effect on me, with the added background that it WAS real and mighty educational.
The Wire is an amalgamation. It is about survival machines, it is real, and it is about us and society. And hell if it’s not educational. It is a step ahead too. It is about the world you and I live in, that we see around every day. It is about The City.
David Simon in an Introduction to the Wire,
“We were bored with good and evil. To the greatest possible extent, we were quick to renounce the theme.
After all, with the exception of saints and sociopaths, few in this world are anything but a confused and corrupted combination of personal motivations, most of them selfish, some of them hilarious. Character is essential for all good drama, and plotting is just as fundamental. But ultimately, the storytelling that speaks to our current condition, that grapples with the basic realities and contradictions of our immediate world – these are stories that, in the end, have some chance of presenting a social, and even political, argument. And to be honest, The Wire was not merely trying to tell a good story or two. We were very much trying to pick a fight.
To that end, The Wire was not about Jimmy McNulty. Or Avon Barksdale. Or Marlo Stanfield, or Tommy Carcetti or Gus Haynes. It was not about crime. Or punishment. Or the drug war. Or politics. Or race. Or education, labor relations or journalism.
It was about The City.
It is how we in the West live at the millennium, an urbanized species compacted together, sharing a common love, awe, and fear of what we have rendered not only in Baltimore or St. Louis or Chicago, but in Manchester or Amsterdam or Mexico City as well. At best, our metropolises are the ultimate aspiration of community, the repository for every myth and hope of people clinging to the sides of the pyramid that is capitalism. At worst, our cities – or those places in our cities where most of us fear to tread – are vessels for the darkest contradictions and most brutal competitions that underlie the way we actually live together, or fail to live together.
The first time I heard about David Simon and his pronouncements of The Wire as having socio-political ramifications, I had scoffed. Whoever heard of a television show having socio-political intentions? Of course, I had heard about The Wire as having a cult following. More surprisingly for what initially appeared as a cops and robbers show, the endorsements came from a rather discerning class of persons, the intelligent, the pessimistic, the jaded, the players. Obama’s proclamation that The Wire was his favorite show had caught the eye, as had Peter Dinklage’s interview declaring The Wire as something else. As had a hundred other lists of Best TV Series ever. The entertainment value was never in question, so many touts couldn’t be guiding one to the wrong vial! And yet, “Socio-political” ramifications? No way.
The first season, starts as it does with procedural departmental bullshit within a city police department doesn’t endear itself much either. The first instance of the feeling that this was definitely a very different show came in episode 4 with the five minute “Fuck” scene, about which Simon says (from the same introduction above),
Perhaps the first fundamental test of our willingness to forgo exposition and an end-of-every-episode payoff came in the fourth episode of that first season, when D’Angelo Barksdale first claimed responsibility for the murder of a woman in an apartment out near the county line. Fronting for the boys in The Pit, D’Angelo describes the murder in some detail and suggests that he was the shooter. Later in the episode, McNulty and Bunk Moreland are in an emptied garden apartment, examining old crime-scene photos of a slain young woman and reworking the geometry of the murder.
The five-minute scene offers no explanation for itself beyond the physical activities of the detectives as they address the crime scene and the almost continuous use of the word ‘fuck’ in all its possible permutations – an insider’s homage to the great Terry McLarney, a veteran Baltimore murder police who once predicted that Baltimore cops, in their love of profanity, would one day achieve a new and viable language composed entirely of such.
A casual viewer could watch the scene and ascertain that the detectives had figured out the murder scenario. They conclude, in fact, by locating a rusting shell casing outside the kitchen window.
But what exactly is that scenario? And does it match the murder that D’Angelo spoke of earlier? And what were the white speckles on the floor in the crime-scene photo – the droplets that Bunk pointed to? And how did that lead McNulty to open the refrigerator door, then slam it closed? And why, for Chrissakes, will no one explain what the hell is going on?
For the answers, viewers would not have to merely wait out the episode, but all of them. Only during D’Angelo’s interrogation at the season’s end does he corroborate the crime scene details in a way that convinces Bunk and McNulty of his authenticity. And, even then, the exposition is at a minimum.
When D’Angelo explains that he had brought cocaine to the woman, who told him she would put it “on ice,” the detectives acknowledge the connection to their crime scene with a single word:
“Refrigerator,” says Bunk.
And McNulty nods casually.
Such calculating restraint offered viewers a chance to do something that television rarely, if ever, allows its audience: they were free to think hard about the story, the different worlds that the story presented, and, ultimately, the ideas that underlie the drama. And the reward for such committed viewers would come not at the end of a scene or the end of an episode, but at the end of the season, indeed, at the end of the tale.
Still, I was all in by the end of the first season, embroiled, empowered and enlivened by the Jimmy McNulty bravado. McNulty was a case study in a person who routinely shoots himself in the foot, and yet from another perspective is trying desperately hard to do the right thing. Inspired from a real life homicide detective featuring prominently in Homicide, the book (Terry McLarney, who’s even written the afterword in that book), the attachment was immediate, the story arc scary.
Then there was Frank Sobotka. I just could not accept or realign my understanding of a fair world and his reality. Season 2 is 12 episodes. At the end of episode 11, one I watched early in the day, I had so much heart-break that I had to practically withdraw from everything to mourn, my head filled with indignant anger. I stayed away from that last episode almost a week in a bid to delay the inevitable.
By the time I was into Season 3, I was rationing each episode to myself, like to a sick child, not exceeding a certain dosage per day. I had also begun reading Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, getting more fodder and rich background to my favorite part of the show, the Police department.
The book is a treatise through a year with a homicide squad, and is truthful and stark about life as a cop and as a detective. The procedural integrity, chain of command and the board contrast so sharply with the actual work of solving murders and walking through death and decay everyday that you can’t help but notice the picture and the details. The resonance with chasing the juked statistic is felt sharply, a theme that builds across different institutions.
Not just major scenes or moments or storylines, but themes step out to me from the show, themes that disturbed me deeply, made me think, made me seek out others’ opinions. Like this one where this bright new drug lord, Marlo Stanfield steps into a convenience store and steals two lollipops in view of the security guard. Marlo is smart, ruthless, and bad ass. He’s the new kingpin, and gets a million self dosages of “You’re the best, niggah”. On that morning however, Marlo loses a good amount of money in card games with other big dealers. He comes out, is internally hurt and angry at losing, goes into the convenience store at the corner to buy something and then picks up a couple of lollipops as a a defiant Just so he can act (“Nigger’s killing niggers just coz he can, not because of business, not for profit; just killing coz he can. That shit ain’t right”- says an indignant Brodie at some different point in some different season),
[A security guard has spotted Marlo shoplifting lollipops at the corner store]
Security Guard: The fuck? You think I dream of coming to work up in this shit on a Sunday morning? Tell all my friends what a good job I got? I’m working to support a family, man.
[Marlo looks away]
Security Guard: Pretend I ain’t talking to you. Pretend like I ain’t even on this earth. I know what you are. Now, I ain’t stepping to, but I am a man. And you just clip that shit and act like you don’t even know I’m there.
Marlo Stanfield: I don’t.
[unwraps a stolen lollipop, throws wrapper on the ground]
Security Guard: I’m here.
[Marlo moves closer to him]
Security Guard: Look, I told you I ain’t stepping to. I ain’t disrespecting you, son.
Marlo Stanfield: You want it to be one way.
Security Guard: What?
Marlo Stanfield: You want it to be one way.
Security Guard: Man, I don’t want it to be —
Marlo Stanfield: You want it to be one way.
Security Guard: [losing temper] Man, stop —
[pulls himself together]
Security Guard: Stop saying that.
Marlo Stanfield: But it’s the other way.
Last year, the remarkable television series The Wire featured a scene in which Marlo Stanfield, a young man who combines entrepreneurial ambition with ruthless violence while taking over the west Baltimore drug trade, steals 50 cents’ worth of candy in full view of a security guard.
The security guard confronts him outside the ghetto storefront where Stanfield has committed this economically trivial but socially significant crime.
The guard knows who Stanfield is, and he’s enraged by the calculated act of disrespect. He says he’s just an ordinary law-abiding man, working at a convenience store on a Sunday morning, trying to support a family, while making less in a month than Stanfield makes in an hour. Stanfield replies, “You want it to be one way”; The guard is confused by this, so Stanfield repeats himself: “You want it to be one way. But it’s the other way.”
Part of The Wire’s power comes from its relentless insistence that, in places like west Baltimore, things are always “the other way”; In the ghetto, crime pays, honest work doesn’t and people who strive to overcome the bleak circumstances into which they were born are usually crushed by a brutally unfair and deeply corrupt system.
The security guard on the show knew who Marlo was and his capabilities in the neighborhood. The security guard wanted to try to chin check Marlo some because he wanted things to be the way he wanted them to be. When it reality he didn’t fully understand that things were not the way he thought they were. He could have let Marlo walk out with the two dum dum suckers and went home to his family but he wanted to try things his way instead of recognizing the situation for what it was. I am not condoning the idea of the security guard being killed but the idea that he knew the rules of the street and decided to push against it was his downfall. He really wanted to be a security guard and do his job that bad over some dum dum suckers knowing that the man taking them was the biggest most dangerous drug dealer in Baltimore?
There are times where we have to survey the situation and understand that some the way we think things are really are just a figment of our imagination. We then have to ask ourselves the correct way we can go about the situation do we act it head on or do we find an alternative route around our issue or problem.
All this from one small scene. All this from that one small affrontage of losing a card game earlier in the day. And all of this mind-fuck from a character I don’t even want to think about, like who the fuck is Marlo Stanfield and what the fuck is he doing in my head.
You want it to be one way. Fuck you, it’s the other way.
David Simon says,
To state our case, The Wire began as a story wedged between two American myths. The first tells us that in this country, if you are smarter than the next man, if you are shrewd or frugal or visionary, if you build a better mousetrap, if you get there first with the best idea, you will succeed beyond your wildest imaginations. And by virtue of free-market processes, it is entirely fair to say that this myth, more than ever, happens to be true. Not only is this accurate in America, but throughout the West and in many emerging nations as well. Every day, a new millionaire or three is surely christened. Or ten. Or twenty.
But a supporting myth has also presided, and it serves as ballast against the unencumbered capitalism that has emerged triumphant, asserting as it does for individual achievement to the exclusion of all societal responsibility, and thereby validating the amassed wealth of the wise and fortunate among us. In America, we once liked to tell ourselves, those who are not clever or visionary, who do not build better mousetraps, have a place held for them nonetheless. The myth holds that those who are neither slick nor cunning, yet willing to get up every day and work their asses off and come home and stay committed to their families, their communities and every other institution they are asked to serve – these people have a portion for them as well. They might not drive a Lexus, or eat out every weekend; their children might not be candidates for early admission at Harvard or Brown; and come Sunday, they might not see the game on a wide-screen. But they will have a place, and they will not be betrayed.
In Baltimore, as in so many cities, it is no longer possible to describe this as myth. It is no longer possible even to remain polite on the subject. It is, in a word, a lie.
If there is a nirvana moment however, in the show, it happened for me during a completely unexpected scene in Season Four with the kids. It was a far distance from where the first season had started, with an arrogant nod, a grin, a professional yeah, life’s fucked up, and we all know it refrain. For me, in that moment, it felt as if another part of the puzzle snapped back into place.
The scene starts with three of the above four going into one of the vacant, boarded up dark row-houses to look for zombies. A couple of corner boys had disappeared from the neighborhood, and the urban myth perpetuating among the kids that Chris, a notorious drug killer is turning these corner boys into zombies. Dukie said there isn’t anything thing as zombies and he could prove it to Randy and Michael (who brings a baseball bat to the deserted house, just in case). They step into the house, scared of things that sound off at night, like any other young boys. Dukie then leads them to the corpse of one of the guys who was rumored to have transformed into a zombie.
“See, he’s here. He ain’t moved”
And then, to calm down a confused Randy staring uncomprehendingly at the dead body, Dukie shares his depressing world wiseness,
“There ain’t no special dead. There’s just dead.”
I was overwhelmed by the scene, how it begins in an Enid Blyton fashion, and then just rips it through in-front of the kids, by the kids in fact. Reality pervades.
No doubt, The Wire is a pessimistic show. No matter where you stand, what you think about how things should be, The Wire will make you identify with a cause and see it get destroyed, and you depressed. You cannot be optimistic enough to not be depressed by the true stories in The Wire. You can’t be pessimistic enough to not be surprised by the true stories in The Wire. You cannot be realistic or pragmatic enough to not be engaged with the true stories in The Wire and in turn be depressed.
In that way, The Wire approximates the oft floated maxim Life Fucks Everybody. Because it’s true. It does.
The Wire is a show about earnest, hard working, conscientious, smart, cunning, self-serving, “good” characters (among the nincompoops and morons) who put their all into surviving and doing the right thing, the moral prerogatives of a life well lived. And yet, as in reality, despite best laid plans, they get fucked.
As an experiment with a micro-cosm of characters, The Wire shows that everyone gets fucked. Despite your best intentions, despite your smartness, despite your cause, despite your allegiance to the organization – whichever part of human civilization you belong to, it affects you. That the rot is systemic and endemic, that corruption is not a wishful immoral outsider but an integral part of the process and the system. That it doesn’t matter if you are good or bad, if you play by the rules or not, the rot still affects you.
The players might change, the rules might change, but the Game is the same, and the game is rigged.
There is a lot of unsaid subtext between individual good, community good, and society good. But David Simon voices it better,
We began writing The Wire when certain narratives were playing out within the American culture: the shocking frauds at the heart of Enron and Worldcom, outlying harbingers of the economic implosion that was still to come, as well as the institutional scandal of sexual abuse by priests and the self-preservation of the American branch of the Catholic Church. It seemed to us, back in 2002, that there was something hollow and ugly at our institutional core, and from what Ed Burns understood of the Baltimore police department and school system, and from what I had witnessed at the heart of that city’s newspaper, the institutional and systemic corruptions of our national life seemed near universal. In practical ways, America was becoming the land of the juked statistic – the false quarterly profit statement, the hyped school test score, the non-existent decline in crime, the impossible campaign promise, the hyped Pulitzer Prize.
We were observant, but not as prescient as the state of our nation now makes us seem. Or at least, we don’t now count ourselves as prescient; the enormity of the mortgage security scandal and the Wall Street pyramid schemes that wrecked the world economy were too shameless and absurd for even our fevered imaginations. We saw that there were elements in the culture that were parasitic and self-aggrandizing, that the greed and rapaciousness of a society that exalted profit and free markets to the exclusion of any other social framework would be burdened by such a level of greed. We understood that throughout our national culture, there was a growing inability to recognize our problems, much less deal honestly with them. But, forgive us, we had no idea that the greed had become policy, that the rogue elements were not being carried by corrupted systems, but were in command of those systems.
I have frequently been consumed by such ideas, gathering much the same conclusions from my own experiences. I am sure millions of us go through these same experiences and hide the truth each generation in a desperate bid to cling to an acceptable myth of ourselves, our jobs, our societies and the way we exist in and manage our cities.
Just like that, one understands what IS socio-political ramifications. Just like that, The Wire does it’s trick.
Despite the rich characterization and rich story arcs (or perhaps, because of them), you are left with a sense of something much larger than the engaging fun you had while watching a TV show. At various points of the show, my mind has been occupied with thoughts of McNulty, Bunk, Lester, Stringer, Omar, Poot, Slim Charles, Marlo, Proposition Joe, the Deacon, Major Bunny Colvin, Carcetti, Namond, Dukie, Prez, Frank, Niki, The Greek, and a hundred other characters that populate the universe of The Wire.
(Individual sketches by Dennis Culver, from his tumblr)
But beyond each of these stories, the themes much larger than all of them put together jump out and stay with you. It makes you want to explore more such stories devoid of self elevating bullshit, about how people are seeing and living and coping with the real world.
Getting into the series is understandably tough, it has a LOT of characters, it does require you paying attention to the plot (“And all the pieces matter“), and the language is not very conducive to an immediate understanding (There are two characters in the show, in fact, coming into their own in the third and fourth season, Major Bunny Colvin and Deacon who play out a couple of scenes translating legalese, ghetto language, political and departmental bullshit into understandable words – The Deacon, in fact is played by Little Melvin Williams, straight out of jail, who inspired another character on the show, Stringer Bell ).
Subtitles are a necessary requirement, because it’s a whole new language to learn. As I learnt earlier in the year while reading Trainspotting, the language and accent is an essential precursor to understanding the thoughts, and in both cases, entirely worth it. If you feel like it, stop when you encounter a new terminology like 5-O (shouted Five O), and google it, urban dictionary should give you a whole new vocabulary to work with. But commitment, it does seek.
As storytelling, it seemed like the best way to do business. But, even so, we had to acknowledge that this much plotting from episode to episode was an extraordinary risk, even for HBO. We would certainly lose some viewers: those who did not devote enough effort to follow the intricate story, those who gave it their all but were confused nonetheless, and those who, expecting an episodic television drama, would be bored to death by the novelistic pace of The Wire.
Bob Colesberry and I told ourselves repeatedly that we were making the drama for those remaining. A couple dozen or so hard cases, at least.
I certainly would unreservedly recommend the series.
Here’s where you can get the series. This is a painstaking collection by someone who must be as obsessed by the series. This is the best print you could find out there (only the first episode of the first season was re-shot in 720p HD). It also has the OST of the series. Also, all the series DVD extras.
Experience it and go spend on more new ventures by David Simon. As for those still obsessed with The Wire, here’s a parting gift, an extra from Season Five, About auditions.