Note: The post contains heavy spoilers.
As I finished The Wire for the second time, I felt compelled to visit Kavanaugh’s, drink a pint, and give an elegy to it. At that time, The Wire already feels like an old friend to me, like a kin. Maybe I’d take a turn between Riggs and Calhoun, and greet residents by their first names. I planned to visit a corner afterwards and lurk to watch the lives of Baltimore residents unravel.
I’m so gonna miss The Wire.
Created by David Simon, The Wire had its good run for five seasons spanning from 2002 to 2008. The Wire, said Simon in Chaddha & Wilson, is set in a modern America city shaped by economic restructuring and fundamental demographic change that led to widespread job loss and the depopulation of inner-city neighborhoods.
Watching The Wire means getting acquainted with various systems inside Baltimore. In season one, we meet Baltimore Police Department and drug trade organisations. Season two is about stevedores working at a harbour. City Hall and politicians appear in season three. My personal favourite is the story about Boys of Summer and educational institutions in season four. In the last season, we delve further into the lives of The Baltimore Sun journalists.
By depicting the systems in Baltimore in detail, The Wire is a solid, rich, and humane story about Baltimore and its residents. Honestly, one could write ten journals dissecting it, and it’d still not be enough. Nevertheless, in this post, I would endeavour to present three common themes appearing in The Wire, which are systemic failure of a city, determinism as its philosophical stance, and ambiguous moral compass of its characters.
Systemic Failure of a City
“I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game, though, right?” – Omar
The Wire delivers critics towards systems, from police department, drug trade organisation, labour union, city hall, school, and media. I gathered that from its perspectives, there are two critics about said system: 1) that it prefers conservatism and punishes those who disobey, 2) that there is an interconnectedness of systemic urban inequality, from high level politicians to street level drug dealers, that breeds structures.
First, the system permeates deeply that it punishes those who disobey. The system is designed to favour the careerists and those who are willing to “carry the water” for the bosses and sacrifice people who are actually good at doing their jobs. Throughout the series, we witness that resistance against the system is met with hard punishment in the end. Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) who acts as a Chief Operating Officer at Avon Barksdale drug organisation feels that current business uses too much violence. He insists that drug should be treated like every other business, with which Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) disagrees. In the end, Barksdale doesn’t even bat an eye when giving Bell to Brother Mouzone and Omar Little to be killed. Bell, with his alternative way of seeing the business trend, is seen as a direct threat to the organisation. He is condemned to death as his punishment.
Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), a cop who works at the Homicide Division of BPD, in season five doctors a serial killer case as a way to fund an investigation against Marlo Stanfield drug organisation. The investigation was stopped due to City Hall cutting BPD’s budget to the bone as a way to direct money to fund education institutions. McNulty, who has been hated by the bosses since the very first episode, rebels against the decision. He doesn’t care about politics and City Hall problems; he only wants to do real police work. As such, he navigates his way around the policy to achieve an end. In the end, his bizarre make-believe makes him laid off of police department.
But the system doesn’t only punish rebels. Weirdly enough, those who are straight in the system are also punished. The fate of Preston ‘Bodie’ Broadus (J.D. Williams) is mourned by audience. He has been working with Avon Barksdale drug organisation since he was 13, never stole off a package, and always did what he was told. He arose from being a street dealer to being a lieutenant by being nothing but loyal, yet he still has to be killed by the system. Ironically, just moments before his death, he recalls being a pawn (“them little bitches”) of a chessboard; being sacrificed first in order to protect the King and Queen. The system favours whoever is at the top of the totem pole, and even the fate of a good soldier doesn’t bode well for them.
The second sub-theme about system and structures is parallelism, that the similar structures are shared from high-level politicians to street-level drug dealers. The epigraph at the beginning of this chapter is said by Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), a stick up boy who robs drug dealers for a living. In the second season, when he becomes a witness of a trial, the defense attorney points out to him that his testimony shouldn’t be counted because he feeds off the vulnerable. “I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game, though, right?” says Omar, indicating that the lawyer also takes advantages from the people in needs, just like he.
Omar’s comment illustrates the parallelism nature vertically, between white-collar jobs and that of blue-collar workers, and even criminals. This is also a strong theme demonstrated in The Wire. The same stat-oriented system that cares about quantity instead of quality ruins both police department and educational institution. Tommy Carcetti’s (Aidan Gillen) ambition to sit in a throne is not inconsequential to the lives of others, and resembles Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) in that regard, although in very different manners.
The success in demonstrating the working of complex systems patiently is what distinguishes The Wire from other TV shows. Sheehan & Sweeney (2009) argues that The Wire is driven by a socio-historical analysis. This level of complexity and nuance is never seen in a television drama before. I also have to nod to Chaddha & Wilson’s statement that the success is owed to TV as its apparatus; for it is a convenient medium to illustrate this complexity. The nature of academia, for example, impedes the complete portrayal of the working of systems like what is depicted in The Wire.
Determinism at Play
“Deserves got nothin’ to do with it.” – Snoop
I’d argue that from philosophical point of view, The Wire possesses a determinism approach. It shows how an event causes another event, and there’s only so much that an individual of the grand scheme of the universe can do about it. However, this is not to succumb to fatalistic belief. Humans deserve better lives, and Simon has ideas to offer on how to provide that.
What Simon subtly conveys in The Wire is that institutions play a big role in our lives, even more than how we’d like it to be. A mayor’s personal ambition to be the Governor of Maryland forces him to not beg for money for the city’s rotten education system to the incumbent governor, to which the police department’s budget is allocated. What happens inside the City Hall impacts street life through an invisible string.
It’s actually the little things that matter. In an episode in season four, we’re shown Carcetti’s campaign that politicises crime and promises to better the justice department as his goal. At the morning of the election day, an ex-felon-turned-boxing-coach Dennis ‘Cutty’ Wise (Chad Coleman) goes jogging in a morning and gets stopped by a Carcetti supporter. He rejects his pitch, saying that he’s not allowed to vote. The supporter asks if he was a felon, to which Cutty responds “yes.” I was taken aback watching this particular scene. Carcetti’s campaign doesn’t even touch the people who experience firsthand the very thing that Carcetti discusses in his campaign.
In the later part of his incumbency, Carcetti is more concerned about school problems since he is inherited millions of dollars debt on education from the previous mayor. In a similar fashion to how politics excludes ex-felons, the way City Hall decides the treatment towards school ignores the most affected party: students. It’s heartbreaking to see a City Hall meeting scene next to a scene of Boys of Summer (Namond Bryce, Michael Lee, Randy Wagstaff, Duquan Weems) playing innocently while in a process of being toughened up by a system that the world chooses for them. Carcetti and his staff decide that increased scores by eighth graders matters because it helps him in his campaign as the Governor of Maryland. But real life is not about test scores for these children. For Michael (Tristan Mack Wilds) reality is day to day struggle to feed Bug, his younger brother, and his junkie mom. Randy (Maestro Harrell) just needs to be safe as a state witness after losing his foster mother. I tried not to cry while writing about Dukie (Jermaine Crawford) who has no adult in his life to guide him to the rest of the world outside of junkie world. Also, for Namond (Julito McCullum) school is just an obligation he had to pass before going back to the street again and being a lieutenant for a drug organisation.
To add depth to The Wire, despite my characterisation, Carcetti isn’t even an evil man. He was sincere and passionate at the beginning of his campaign, and succumbs to the system later. In the New Yorker, Simon says that postmodern institutions are the indifferent gods, and as a part of those institutions, Carcetti turns indifferent and pragmatic. He’s a quite good politician with a heart and humane flaws, like everybody else.
The epigraph at the beginning of this part is “Deserves got nothin’ to do with it”, uttered by Felicia ‘Snoop’ Pearson (played by an actress of the same name), one of Marlo Stanfield’s organisation core enforcers. I think this rings true to most fates of The Wire characters. Bodie didn’t deserve to die for being a loyal soldier. Namond gets a better life after an ex police major adopts him. Maybe he deserves it, because all children deserve better lives, but doesn’t Randy deserve that too? Don’t get me started on the fate of Duquan Weems, a kid that young doesn’t get to be abandoned by his family and live in a stable while shooting drugs up his vein. Michael works way harder than Namond and bears more responsibility not imaginable for an eighth grader, he deserves better parents too. But Namond lucks out of life by the adoption, and there their paths differ.
Nevertheless, life isn’t all bad and depressing, for there are some exceptional ones who struggle against the system and manage to get on their feet again. Cutty, after going out of the prison, figures out that murder is not his calling anymore and decides to teach street kids boxing instead. Bubbles (Andre Royo) has been struggling since season one to stop his drug addiction and rekindle a lost relationship with his sister again. After multiple setbacks while trying to get off of drugs and being distrusted by his own sister, he finally walks up those stairs from his confinement, joining his sister and his niece in a family dinner together. These small triumphs add a bit of colour of the richness of human experiences in The Wire.
“A man must have a code.” – Bunk
The Wire is full of interesting characters with depth and multifaceted complexion. Indeed, it is almost impossible to discuss about the characters without taking Omar Little as an example. Omar is nearly a myth. He forewarns his appearance by whistling “The Farmer in the Dell” and is often seen as the Robin Hood of Baltimore by distributing drugs that he robs. Nobody knows where he lives. To add into his depth, he’s an open homosexual while at the same time maintaining traditionally masculine demeanor.
Resisting the system established by drug trade organisations from the inside, Omar operates based on his code so as to not jeopardise his own life. The code includes not killing taxpayers or anyone else outside the game, and only dealing with those involved in the drug trade. A smart move, I’d say, since it makes him unheard of by the police (what kind of drug dealers would report that “someone stole my re-up” to the police?) and maintain his mythical aura.
Jimmy McNulty may be the closest person resembling Omar’s ambiguous moral compass. As most police in the show, he’s so accustomed to death that he barely shows compassion to the victims. In the second season, in the “dead girls in a can” case, it was so heartwarming to see McNulty insist to figure out the name of his first victim, to save her from being piled on along with other Jane Does. In the end, he never does. He says “Fuck it” when he knows he can’t at least ensure her a proper burial. McNulty puts on his nonchalance on his face again.
Nevertheless, nothing beats his conduct in the last season that raises a lot of ethical questions, where he challenges the system that sacrifices the needs of police department for the mayor’s ambition to be a governor by doctoring a serial killer case. Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) and Bunk (Wendell Pierce) are straight cops and have tried to talk him out of it, but McNulty is just so adamant of his utilitarian approach (“But at least it’s getting us money!”) that he refuses to listen to them. His fate at the end is the consequences of his own code.
A discussion about utilitarianism in The Wire is not enough without discussing Howard ‘Bunny’ Colvin (Robert Wisdom), a police who consistently holds this view throughout the series. In the third season, he creates a fiasco when he attempts to allow drug trade in several designated places. In his defence, it helps reduce violence in other parts of the city which contributes to overall drug-related violence. Fast forward to the fourth season, he’s the one trying to justify student tracking that has been opposed by education experts for a long time. Again, he tries to explain that tracking will ensure students get the education that they particularly need. Both of his utilitarian approaches encounter vehement opposition.
What I’m trying to say is that the codes play a big part on the characters’ persona. A cold-blooded robber and killer, Omar shows respect to those outside the game, still goes to church with his grandma, never says bad words once, and values loyalty above all. Meanwhile, McNulty, who’s supposed to stand by the side of the law, develops his own codes that may betray the justice he so tries to achieve. Colvin’s utilitarianism also invites people to critically examine policies that have been adopted largely by societies. In the end, the characters of The Wire are unpredictable but consistent, which makes it a genius and interesting show to watch.
The story, after all, is about Baltimore. Jameson in his writing, “Realism and Utopia in The Wire” puts this aptly and I’m going to defer to him on this.
Here in The Wire nobody knows that other landscapes, other cities, exist: Baltimore is a complete world in itself; it is not a closed world but merely conveys the conviction that nothing exists outside it. (It is not provincial, no one feels isolated or far from this or that center where things are supposed to be really happening.) To be sure, Annapolis (the state capital) is a reference, since it is where budgetary decisions are made (especially for the police force); Philadelphia is a distant reference, since occasionally gang members have to make a drop-off there; New York City is the place you have to hire killers from, in very special instances where you need someone unfamiliar from the outside.
Various scenes prove this statement. The dealers of the pit drive out to Philly once and were shocked to know that the city has their own radio stations that play different music than Baltimore radio stations. Omar was at danger once and went to New York to protect himself, but shortly enough he went back home to Baltimore since it’s the only place that he knew. Baltimore is the only place they know.
The spirit of depicting Baltimore realistically permeated through the making of the show. The Wire makers hired a lot of Baltimore actresses and actors, even real ex-criminals and police who took them. Not to mention that various story lines in it were adopted from real life events. Felicia Pearson was convicted of a second-degree murder when she was only 14 and was hired as a cold-blooded killer at the show. The late Donnie Andrews was an inspiration of Omar character and starred in a small role himself. Who knew that the Deacon character is played by Melvin Williams, a drug kingpin himself who inspired the character of Avon Barksdale? Adding these awesome characters to the show creates a certain authenticity of The Wire.
I believe it’s gonna be years before we see a TV show as great as The Wire.
Chaddha, Anmol, and William Julius Wilson. 2011. “‘Way Down in the Hole’: Systemic Urban Inequality and The Wire.” Critical Inquiry 38 (1): 164-188.
Jameson, F. (2010). Realism and utopia in The Wire. Criticism, 52(3), 359-372.
Sheehan, H., & Sweeney, S. (2009). The Wire and the world: narrative and metanarrative. Jump Cut, 51(Spring 2009).