There has never been anything as good as The Wire.
The Wire is a sprawling, penetrating look at American life that pulls the curtain back to reveal what few, if any, have been willing or capable to explore. HBO’s groundbreaking series, which aired from 2002-2008, uses the city of Baltimore as a microcosm of the American experience as a whole. The show’s creators, former Baltimore Sun journalist David Simon and former cop-turned-schoolteacher Ed Burns, inhabit the city with flesh and blood human beings. Do not expect characters or typical archetypes. The show is constantly shifting your perceptions of who these characters are. We see the good and bad in everyone.
The Wire deals with the inner workings of a modern urban landscape, its power structures and institutions so susceptible to corruption and the casualties of this broken enterprise. The main focus of Season 1 is “the game” which is the term used to describe the drug trade in West Baltimore. The rules of “the game” and the pervasive American ideals that span all the classes are laid out in the first scene of the show:
Avon Barksdale’s organization sells drugs in the high-rise projects, feeding off the misery of the underclass. On their tail is a special police detail headed by Lieutenant Cedric Daniels as well as the defiant Jimmy McNulty and the methodical Lester Freamon. Both the drug trade and the police department are two sides of the same coin. Intractable institutions with unrelenting power structures. The Wire exhibits that by and large, we are part of a particular institution and that advancement or escape is all but futile. This is eloquently explained by drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale as he describes the game of chess to Bodie and Wallace, two lower level drug dealers:
One of the recurring themes of The Wire could be best explained by Michael Corleone:
“Just as I thought I was out…they pulled me back in.”
The problems of drugs, crime and poverty in the urban environment are not easily or simply explained, yet each institution is culpable. Even the “legitimate” players in the game, the lawyers, judges, cops and politicians all have blood on their hands. Slimy lawyer Maurice Levy, who defends the drug dealers in court, contributes just as much, if not more, to Baltimore’s urban decay as the pushers on the corner. Nobody explains this better than Omar, during a scene in which Omar testifies against one of Levy’s clients. Omar is a rebel, a parallel to Det. McNulty, who robs drug dealers with his trusty shotgun and lives by a strict code of behavior (he refuses to curse).
Season 1 also focuses on the Barksdale drug organization headed by the ruthless Avon Barksdale and the business-oriented Stringer Bell. Stringer is another character who attempts to emancipate himself from his system. His desire is to become a legitimate business man, running the drug trade in a more professional manner and eventually leaving it behind to become a land developer. Barksdale and Bell certainly represent two different management styles, with one of them being more suited for operating a major drug trade (it’s not who you think.) Bell is clever and thoughtful, but eventually gets played when he tries to move to the other side of the board to become a Queen.
Inside the police department, real police work is stunted by crippling bureaucracy and political posturing. Det. Jimmy McNulty in particular (along with Omar) is the most individualistic member of the cast, constantly at odds with his superiors about their lack of interest in pursuing high profile cases. Why spend time, money and man-power on a time consuming case when they can think small and pad their crime stats? McNulty’s frustration only grows when the hierarchy of the police department changes, yet the results remain the same. One of the prevailing themes of The Wire is the idea that the institutions are so ingrained that removing a single person, even one at the very top, will do nothing to change it. There will always be someone else to take their place.
Season 2 of The Wire shifts the focus of the show onto the stevedores union working the docks of Baltimore’s harbor. It’s in this season that The Wire explores the struggles of unions to stay alive amid a myriad of outside forces. The introduction of the dock worker’s union is yet another power structure in the show, and it is soon revealed how it is connected to the other structures within the city. The stevedore’s union serves as a model for a class of blue collar workers left behind by an economic system that no longer needs them. It is hard to watch this clip of Union President Frank Sobotka and not think of our recent market collapse and the derivatives that were traded:
Frank himself, like many other good-natured characters on the show, is corrupted by the institutions that demand the sacrifice of values and morality. This is similar to Bunny Colvin’s creation of a drug-free zone in Season 3 and McNulty’s crime-scene tampering in Season 5.
Season 3 returns to the streets and introduces the politicians as players on the chess board. Idealistic Councilman Tommy Carcetti is portrayed as a young, cocky and ambitious politician who takes his time to assess the core issues facing Baltimore, but ultimately discovers the same pratfalls as the politicians before him. For a young politician like Carcetti, the future of his career must always be regarded. One of countless ironies on the show is the advancement of Carcetti’s political career in tandem with his failure as a leader. The Wire suggests that while the drug dealers and murderers of the corners are dangerous, perhaps those holding legitimate power do the most damage.
On the law enforcement side, Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin participates in one of the major themes of The Wire: juking the stats. In order to manipulate the statistics of crime rates, Colvin concocts a strategy to simply mask the problem of crime and drugs. The Wire explores “juking the stats” in several ways throughout the series, always letting us know that institutional statistics can be downright fraudulent, and serve only the politicians and players who can use them to boast.
Season 4 of The Wire has to be considered the best season in the history of television. Simon and Burns again shift their magnifying glass and focus it on the school system in West Baltimore. It is in this season where the origins of the street culture begin, where the system fails these bright kids and forces them out onto the corners. Classmates Namond, Dukie, Randy and Michael each have absentee fathers and familial issues to begin with but each are relatively unmolded by the time they reach Edward J. Tilghman Middle School. The school system in Baltimore is portrayed as chaotic, understaffed, underfunded and unsuccessful in educating the children who attend. Still, politicians have to be able to show improvement through statistics and thus, the stats are juked. The power of Season 4 comes from witnessing the slow erosion of the youth and the way that kids born into poverty get swallowed whole by the system. The kids aren’t stupid, nor do they suffer from a lack of ambition. They just happen to have the misfortune of belonging to a system that is designed to keep them exactly where they are while the power stays with the powerful.
When these parentless children have an issue they can’t deal with themselves who do they turn to? How do they solve it? Where does the economic opportunity lie for them? What kind of help does a standardized state test offer a middle schooler living in a crack house? Perhaps nobody on the show has as realistic and sharp of a viewpoint on the situation as Colvin, who re-emerges in Season 4 in a different capacity. He explains some of these problems to the school Principal:
The 5th and final season of The Wire concentrates on the media, specifically the inner workings of The Baltimore Sun. As I write this, newspapers across the country are going bankrupt, circulation is down and op-ed personalities have taken the place of true journalists. The newspaper industry had no idea how to make money with the internet and gave their content away for free. We join The Baltimore Sun staff as layoffs are taking place and they are asked to do “more with less.” After 4 seasons of investigating corruption, crime, drugs, poverty, schools, unions, and all the elements of the rigged chess game, Simon and Burns explore how the media, the institution with the responsibility to inform us of all this, fails to fulfill that promise. The Sun begins to desire stories with human angles, referring to hard hitting journalistic pieces as “dry.” They probably had no idea when they aired this season that Glenn Beck was right around the corner. Or maybe they did.
This doesn’t even begin to explain how complex, compassionate, thoughtful, cynical and brilliant this show is. The Wire is a monumental achievement for showing how oligarchical systems fail the underclass while the powerful stay in power. For obliterating the line between cop and criminal, junkie and politician, drug dealer and judge, student and administrator. For exposing the circulatory systems of our cities, how they breathe and how they remain stagnant. The Wire represents the potential of television fully realized.