Revisiting The Wire

Cole Amundson

Upon hearing the words, The Wire, often the first thing to strike the mind of a reader is the near constant insistence of their close friends that they should experience, not just watch, the damn show already. This constant pestering both harms and elevates the show’s position. I mean, how good could it really be? You watched The Sopranos when it aired and weren’t totally flustered by its abrupt but inevitable ending. You watched all of Breaking Bad in a mere month, bothered to turn on the subtitles for Deadwood, and stuck it through with Mad Men and Six Feet Under even as their respective writers dug relentlessly into the darkest depths of their characters’ psyches, and loved the shows all the more for it. How could it compare? After all, it did start airing over a decade ago.

To be blunt, The Wire is worth the minor annoyance of its most staunch advocates. It established many of the qualities that define this new “Golden Age of Television” which has driven so much Hollywood talent into TV. Before streaming made long-form visual storytelling a more viable and accessible mode of TV production, HBO was exploring stories whose length and scope could only be rivaled by novels and miniseries. Structurally, The Wire resembled a novel more closely than it did other programs, whose episodic nature mostly prevented long-term changes in characters despite lasting many seasons. Each season of The Wire plays like a single story, following a single police case, and each episode functions like a chapter in that story. Events and actions that occurred in one episode are often resolved in a later one, with many events rippling across multiple seasons. We take this structure for granted now, especially in an era where Breaking Bad told a continuous, almost Shakespearean tragedy over the course of six years, and an era where marathon viewings are available in more ways than just DVD boxsets. But this structure allowed for unprecedented depth and complexity. It is this complexity which, while perhaps making it unsuccessful during its runtime, has blessed it with longevity and continued relevance, especially in the wake of our economic recession and the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

The Wire tells the story of the city of Baltimore and its dysfunctional institutions. The first season of the show focuses primarily between the Barksdale Organization, a group of organized drug dealers in west Baltimore, and a neglected Major Crimes Unit, who builds a case against them over the course of thirteen episodes. Each subsequent season expands the scope of the show. The second season involves the measures dock workers take when faced with a disappearing economy, the third about the rise of both a rival gang and a promising, idealistic candidate for mayor, the fourth about the travails of four young boys as they try to navigate middle school in the inner city, and the fifth about media, sensationalism and truth, or lack thereof. It is through the exploration of these institutions (the police, drug trade, government, unions, businesses, schools, newspapers) where the show’s thesis is developed. What is dividing the lives of Americans comes from the failure of these institutions to serve the community. What prevents them from doing so is internal strife caused by conflicts of interest, and greed. And that the people who are affected most negatively are those with the least say in the matter. It’s a world where unfettered capitalism rules, the social contract has been broken and everything is in free fall, not unlike our world today.

Of course none of this, despite its resemblance to the society we live in today, would make for terribly compelling television if it wasn’t grounded in interesting, honest characters. Fortunately show-runner David Simon (a former Baltimore Sun reporter, also the creator of HBO’s Treme, who seems out to prove Faulkner’s maxim that, “The best fiction is far more true than any journalism.”) and writer Ed Burns (former Baltimore cop and teacher) fill these otherwise austere, ineffective institutions with colorful and sympathetic characters, many of them based on real people they encountered in their careers. The main character in this ensemble, Jimmy McNulty, played by Dominic West, is an intelligent and passionate, but self-destructive and dismissive cop. He usually finds himself at odds with his higher-ups, who seem more interested in short-term busts and gathering as many arrests as possible, instead of committing to long term, substantial cases against the head of drug organizations. Stringer Bell, played by Idris Elba, is one of the heads of the Barksdale Organization, and interested in economics and business practices outside of the drug trade. Omar Little, played by Michael K. Williams, is a stick-up man with a shotgun, who robs drug dealers and finds himself occasionally aligning with the police. It’s not only that The Wire depicts all sides of those affected by the War on Drugs, but that after spending enough time with these characters you feel sympathetic towards most of everyone. Not that the show glosses over the crimes committed by drug dealers and murderers, or the corrupt police officers who breed mistrust in the communities they’re supposed to serve, but that almost every character in its expansive cast is given their due. And after a few seasons we see how most of them are victims of circumstance.

David Simon often finds himself giving lectures about the state of things in America these days. He’s appeared in documentaries like Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, The House I Live In, and as key-speaker at events like The Festival of Dangerous Ideas. What he communicates in these appearances, what he’s been saying since 2002 when The Wire premiered, is that we live in an increasingly fractured America, and that our social safety net has been systemically dismantled. What is most striking about The Wire is not only how it diagnosed America’s problems at the time, but continues to be prophetic years down the road. The U.S. now jails more people than any other country in the world, and it’s increasingly difficult to see the War on Drugs as anything other than war against poor, largely brown-skinned Americans who have no other options for meaningful work. As one of the show’s officers puts it, “This drug thing, it ain’t police work. You call something a war, and pretty soon, everybody going to be acting like warriors ... and when you’re at war, you need a @#$%^&* enemy. And pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner is your @#$%^&* enemy. And the neighborhood you’re supposed to be policing, that’s just occupied territory.”

We’re fortunate to live in Bozeman, a town surrounded by nature, with a low crime rate and wonderful community. But we’re isolated up here, and regardless of where you’ve lived before, it’s easy to forget how worse off the rest of the country is. The Wire, and other programs like it, help keep us vigilant. It takes the statistics you see about crime, poverty, and corruption and gives them faces, names and stories. It reminds us that the killing of people like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner aren’t isolated incidents, but are the results of institutionalized racism, a widening gap of wealth, an increasingly militarized police and other conflicting and complex social factors. It’s also an addictive show to boot.   

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