The Wire: Straight and True

31 August 2013

With minor revisions, an article written and published in 2009, when 'The Wire' was airing in the UK on the BBC.

David Simon’s television series The Wire may not have been an overnight commercial hit, but its critical acclaim has grown steadily. It originally aired on US cable channel HBO, and is now airing in the UK on BBC Two. More and more viewers are discovering the show. This can only be a good thing.

Formally, The Wire’s appeal may lie in its docudrama visual style, or in the seeming effortlessness with which Simon and his writers give their multi-stranded narrative an urgency and drive. But beyond this, the show has that most rare of attributes in contemporary drama – substance. It is politically motivated and artistically honest; it is interrogative and questioning.

The Wire is not about a tragic city, but about the tragic parts of a city. To wit: the drugs corners of West Baltimore, the seaport in the east of the city, its inner-city schools. As well as such geographical distinctions, it focuses also on the neglected individuals within these areas: the stevedores, the students, the addicts and the pushers. And, connecting each of these, the police.

Much of this is grounded in reality, from which the show gains an almost unprecedented authenticity. Series creator David Simon is a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and author of two epic works of journalism, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. The latter of these is co-authored by Ed Burns, a former Baltimore detective and inner-city school teacher who also works on The Wire. The show is formidably well-researched.

Furthermore, the series’ cast is vast. There are more than 900 speaking parts over the course of 60 hour-long episodes, and the entire thing is shot on location. Many roles and scenarios are based on real-life Baltimore figures and events. In acknowledgment of some of these, real-life models are cast in both major and minor parts: Avon Barksdale (played in the show by Wood Harris) is based on “Little Melvin” Williams, who portrays a gentle church deacon in the show; Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, meanwhile, is an ex-convict and Baltimore native who plays an eponymous version of herself in the show. There are many other examples in similar vein.

Such nuances combine to comprise a fully developed and convincing whole. The Wire’s view of Baltimore is panoramic. The city becomes a living organism, fictionalised to life. Its attention to detail is unsurpassed. As a wake-up call, it is truly alarming. Indeed, crime statistics show that in recent years Baltimore’s murder rate has been six times the national rate; graffiti in one scene reads “Body-more Murdaland”, a grim variation of Baltimore, Maryland. Other statistics show that over 20 per cent of the city’s population live under the poverty line, eight per cent higher than the national average.

But in the particular, we find the common. By concentrating on a specific social layer – be it topographical or institutional – and by placing this layer into a larger context, the series addresses issues more general and widely pressing: how the school system is failing the very students for whom it is in place; the slow, steady death of the working class as a result of budgetary conflicts and political corruption; the inadequacies and transparencies of the print media and other institutions, not least of all the police department itself.

All of these are symptoms of a greater malady: capitalism itself, in all its socially destructive nature. As Simon himself has noted, the show is about what happens when “raw, unencumbered capitalism” is allowed free rein. Indeed, left-leaning viewers ought to embrace the show wholeheartedly. Others must surely wake up.

The Wire is angry. As a critique of a system, it is damning; as an examination of what is happening at the bottom rungs of the social ladder, it is a convincing and devastating work of journalism. But the show is also humane. It has a compassion for and an investment in its characters, who it exposits and explores by means of a fully developed social context. In this respect, it puts most other dramas to shame.

There are elements of Greek tragedy in the series, in how its characters seem at the mercy of things beyond them. But instead of internal conflicts of emotion, or acts of divine intervention, we have the very real institutions of a post-industrialised West, which chisel away at the people within and around them. As Simon has said, these are “people for whom the end is certain and the betrayals are certain.” Indeed, as one character says at one point, “You cannot lose if you do not play.” But not playing seems impossible: as another character laments, “The game is rigged.”

This embodies, perhaps, the show’s central paradox and its view of America as a whole. In its very opening scene, Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) observes the body of a young black male shot to death on the street, as he chats to one of the victim’s acquaintances. The youth, McNulty is told, was shot dead because he snatched money time and time again. Puzzled, McNulty asks why, if he repeatedly stole the money, he was allowed in the game. “Got to,” replies the friend. “This America, man.” This is the land of the free, and everyone is trapped.

Simon says he and his writers are not interested in notions of good and evil, that the show “is about sociology and economics.” And repeatedly, The Wire shows its characters are a product of socio-economic circumstance; as a result, nobody is beyond redemption.

Bill Rawls (John Doman), for example, is the callous Deputy Police Commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department. He may be a heartless careerist with seemingly little moral conscience, but his concern for his clearance rate is in response only to higher demands. As one stevedore puts it in Season Two, “Seniority sucks – unless you’re senior.”

The chain of command looms large in The Wire. Perhaps its strongest strength is the conflict between honest workerism – unloading a ship at the docks, writing sincere reportage, or simply being “good po-lees” – and dog-eat-dog careerism that results in juked stats, policy failures and institutions bled dry.

Thomas Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) rises from the position of Councilman at the beginning of Season Three to Mayor of Baltimore in Season Four. Nobody doubts Carcetti’s ambition, hope or even his sincerity, but by Season Five and the show’s end, the writers have shown us once more that the system is bigger than the man – always.

What compromises Carcetti’s plans for reforming the city are fiscal issues and the need to ensure his own re-election. Between funding the police department and the inner-city schools, one advisor’s solution is fitting: “Kids don’t vote.” Seniority does suck, but even for those who wish to reform, being senior may matter very little.

Likewise, on the opposite side of the law, drugs kingpin Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) wishes to transcend the rank and file of the streets on which he has grown up, and to turn legitimate in the city’s property development sector. At first, a la Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III, what keeps pulling Bell back into the gangster world is the violence of the gangster world itself; in the end, though, the matter runs much deeper than that. As with Carcetti, Bell is at the mercy of the moneymen who seem to run the city, who seem to dictate who gets what and when.

Tellingly, one recurring plot thread sees Detective Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) following the money trail, investigating where the city’s drugs money is invested further up the chain. Repeatedly, it is found in the hands, pockets and accounts of the city’s top brass. Freamon gets so far up the trail only to be reined in by his superiors. Clearly, money talks, and shit runs downhill.

In The Wire, individuals may be corrupt, but it is the system itself that has corrupted them. Many have legitimate calls for a revolution, for a complete overhaul of the present system and for the formation of a new one. David Simon, alas, is a social democrat, not a socialist: The Wire works with what it has got.

If Simon sees capitalism as the only feasible system in which wealth can be a real, attainable goal, however, his show nevertheless calls for some sort of systematic rethink to ensure those at the bottom of the economy are not neglected by those at the top in the merciless way in which they currently are.

In Season Three, for instance, the series addresses the notion of turning the war on drugs from a question of crime into a question of health. The results show promise, and perhaps a sustainable way of dealing with a very complex social problem. But the idea is unable to be fully realised; treating the drugs war as a health issue means exposing it and facing it with more patience and care than if it were simply a crime issue.

As a result, it is easier and more convenient to return to the status quo. The system continues to fight a social health problem with a law enforcement strategy. In the opening episode, one line of dialogue is revealing: “You can’t call this a war on drugs... [Why not?] Wars end.” The problem is that crime itself is not a social constant; other factors weigh heavily, always. The Wire exposes this.

In Season Four the series concentrates on the school system. Three characters emerge as potential leaders to whom otherwise neglected youths can turn. Dennis “Cutty” Wise (Chad Coleman), a former drugs runner whose 14 years in prison have rendered him incompatible with more ferocious streets than before, establishes a boxing gym that takes the kids off the corners and puts to more productive use their energy and need for discipline.

Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam), meanwhile, is the detective whose rapport with and compassion for the corner kids provides the series with one of its most cutting and heartbreaking scenes, when his admirable efforts to secure the safety of one child, left behind by both the witness protection and adoption services, meet a devastating cul-de-sac. And ex-cop Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom), working as part of a social experiment within an inner-city school, teaches hope and self-confidence to a student hitherto beyond repair.

In each of these cases, it is individual courage that stands out. As Simon says about Colvin in particular, “Ultimately what he does is to literally seize one kid and say, ‘I’m gonna take responsibility for you,’ in a world where nobody’s taking responsibility for anything. Not the school system, not the parents, not anybody.”

But these characters seem to be a dying breed. The system does not encourage them. If the kids themselves are being left behind by the schooling system, the would-be teachers, mentors and moral guardians have their work cut out too.

In the show’s fifth and final season, the writers turn their probing eyes to the Baltimore Sun and bring to light what they feel is a very real and sad situation: the decline of genuine journalism in favour of Pulitzer Prize-chasing. Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson) is the Sun’s experienced city editor, whose honesty and integrity are undercut by the dishonesty of his superiors and the false journalism of an underling.

In spite of all his efforts to expose one reporter’s outright forgery of events – which haven’t actually happened – Haynes is himself subdued because the resulting coverage gained by the newspaper sits too well with his bosses. Careerism wins again.

Under capitalism, not only is the working class dying a slow death, real work is becoming impossible. The fabricated truths told in the papers are in response to a serial killer manhunt, which has been concocted by Detective Jimmy McNulty. Outrageously immoral or not, McNulty’s adventure is a desperate masquerade with more dignified intentions: a serial killer, whether make-believe or not, gets the media’s attention, which in turn puts pressure on the Mayor and ultimately the police.

As a result, McNulty’s case acquires enough backing and funding so that fellow detective Freamon can hunt down young drugs lord Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector), a target previously deemed by the higher-ups too elusive and well equipped for the police department’s current budget and resources.

That real work – happening behind the scenes – is only possible through such fundamentally questionable methods, and dependent from the outset on hysterical fear-mongering from the media, is a telling and sad reflection of our times. A change is undoubtedly needed.