A Greek tragedy on the streets of Baltimore

Good cops, bad cops, kingpins and foot soldiers: TV drama series The Wire is an intricate and humane portrait of a crumbling American society.

Theresa Clifford

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Alongside The Sopranos, The Wire is one of the best and most critically acclaimed drama series ever made. It simply outclasses anything else showing on TV – or on the big screen.

On the surface, The Wire is just another programme about crime and punishment on the streets of American cities. But even a cursory glance proves it has a much wider and more ambitious remit. Co-creator David Simon says: ‘I am interested in institutions and how they try to preserve themselves even as they are crumbling…. American power and American weakness is the subject. One of the subjects.’ (1)

Accolades for the series include the San Francisco Chronicle‘s description of it as ‘an astonishing display of writing, acting and storytelling that must be considered alongside the best literature and film-making in the modern era’. It continues: ‘The Wire is the best show on television [depicting] the decline of the American working class while still juggling storylines about poverty and crime, the failed drug war, stagnating corruption, failed marriages, alcohol as a shield against unrealised dreams, race relations, Catholic guilt [and] revenge.’ (2)

Despite its failure to draw large audiences, The Wire has been nominated for, and won, countless awards, including an Emmy, an American Film Institute award, a Television Critics Association award and a Peabody award.

The Wire is the brainchild of David Simon, former Baltimore Sun crime reporter and creator of Homicide, and Ed Burns, a veteran Baltimore cop and a former teacher. Together with accomplished crime novelists George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price, they form a writing team that has achieved near perfection. Their basic premise is to take one police investigation and follow it through an entire season of the series. Instead of neatly wrapping things up after each hour-long episode, the writers explore the characters’ world in depth. They develop labyrinthine plots in which every detail has a purpose.

The first season concentrated on the often futile attempts of the police to infiltrate a West Baltimore drug ring headed by Avon Barksdale and his Machiavellian and ruthless second-in-command, Stringer Bell. The pair’s professionalism in running drugs in two of Baltimore’s worst high-rise ghetto housing projects contrasts starkly with the stultifying bureaucracy of the police department and local politicians’ rampant corruption.

In seasons two and three, as the Barksdale investigation escalates, new storylines involving a longshoremen’s union and the city’s political leadership are introduced. The fourth series focuses on the failing education system and centres on the lives of four young boys traversing adolescence on the drug-saturated streets of West Baltimore. Meanwhile, a new narcotics empire, led by Marlo Stanfield, is on the rise. It has replaced the fallen Barksdale organisation, and the Baltimore detectives struggle to mount an investigation against this new rising power (3).

Each season – a fifth, and final one, was commissioned last year – has the structure of a classic novel presenting multiple points of view and giving equal screen time to ‘the good guys’ and ‘the bad guys’. Both sides are shown to have all shades of humanity so that there are no clear-cut heroes or villains. ‘We are addressing ourselves to where the villains actually come from and whether we have any right to regard them as somehow less human than the rest of us’, says Simon (4).

Comparative in its style to Balzac’s work, The Wire features a large cast of well-developed characters who appear in different seasons of the series, sometimes as main protagonists and sometimes in the background, in order to create the effect of a consistent, real world. And as with much of Balzac’s writing, The Wire lays bare the true power relations in capitalist society.

Like The Sopranos, The Wire explores the decline of the American dream, and the moral uncertainties and bankruptcy of contemporary society that accompanies it. The Wire‘s mission is to accurately depict the collapse of traditional institutions and how this has exposed the dog-eat-dog philosophy that leaves the weak at the mercy of the strong. ‘As with the police department, as with the dying ports, there’s a dysfunctionalism which must have outcomes. And every dying institution, like a dying animal, tries to protect itself. The traditional institutions are unresponsive, because it’s about keeping the world as is, so you’re on top of it’, says co-creator Ed Burns (5).

Because The Wire is so rich in characters and plot, biting in its humour and universal in its themes, it has often been likened to a Shakespearean tragedy. However, the literature David Simon re-read before writing the drama was classic Greek drama, in which, explains Simon, ‘fated and doomed protagonists are confronted by a system that is indifferent to their heroism, to their individuality, to their morality. But instead of Olympian gods, Capitalism is the ultimate god. Capitalism is Zeus.’ (6)

This is not to say that The Wire’s characters are merely the playthings of the gods. The series does not take a pre-determinist view of society. Like the tragic Hamlet-like character of Tony in The Sopranos, many of the characters in The Wire try to find a way out of their situations. They are searching for the possibility of change, for redemption, for an escape.

The Wire portrays the pettiness, bureaucracy, ambition and back-stabbing that exists in most institutions and explores the ways in which life in the middle of a police hierarchy, a city hall bureaucracy or a criminal syndicate might be similarly alienating and dehumanising. Simon explains: ‘Whether you are a corner boy, whether you are a cop on the beat or whether you are a politician trying to hold on to your soul and at the same time serve your ambition, the institution will be indifferent to your individuality, your humanity and your innate value as a person.’ (7)

In The Wire‘s treatment of its characters there is always a deep humanist affection. Each character, be they ‘good police’ like McNulty, Daniels, Bunk and Freeman, or drug addicts and street fighters like Bubbles, Omar, Cutty, Bodie and Poot, are all characterised with humanity, flaws and moral ambiguity.

The relationship between Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell is explored in depth throughout the series. Life-long friends who built their empire together, they have come to the end of their shared dream. Bell, an economics student, wants to legitimise the business and expand the empire into real estate. Avon wants to remain a gangster, a warrior fighting for his street corners. He thinks Stringer is not hard enough for the street and not smart enough to deal with corrupt politicians and businessmen. Bell thinks Avon cannot leave the street mentality behind, still fighting turf wars and still seeking power and glory. Each eventually betrays the other, but both are deeply affected by their acts of duplicity.

D’Angelo, the complicated anti-hero and nephew of Avon Barksdale, continually struggles with his desire to escape the street life and his subordination and loyalty to his crew. Likewise, Wallace, a young dealer who lovingly takes care of several parentless young kids, attempts to get out of the game and go back to college, but he does not know what to do without the institutional routine of gang life. He quickly returns to it – with disastrous consequences.

We also see the pressures that the police are under from the higher echelons that are only interested in how things appear to the city’s politicians and to the press. As police commissioner Burrell tells the officers: ‘Get me drugs on the table for the six o’clock news.’ At one point, the police are told that the crime rate must drop by five per cent across their districts and that homicides must not rise above 275 for the whole year. Under implicit orders from their superiors, the officers rig the crime figures and re-classify murders as accidents. Summing up the cynicism of the police chiefs, detective commissioner Rawls reminds his officers: ‘Who gives a fuck about some dead project nigger?’

In parallel with the drugs war, the writers explore the decline of the white working class, highlighting the smuggling and theft that takes place on the Baltimore docks. The noble and tragic Frank Sobokta, secretary general of the longshoremen’s checkers union, tries in vain to save the docks by paying city politicians to lobby for the union with money made from criminal activity on the docks. He steals, not to line his own pockets, but to try to rejuvenate the docks and create jobs for his fellow stevedores. With young dockworkers counting themselves lucky if they get one day’s labour a week, the temptation to steal, smuggle or deal drugs runs high. ‘What was historically denied to young black men in Baltimore is now being denied to a certain percentage of the young white population. Now the drug culture is crossing those [race] boundaries’, says Simon (8).

Ultimately, The Wire is an authentic and compelling portrayal of human existence in the modern city; some will be arrested, some will die, some will lose their jobs, but in the end the game will go on and there will always be someone else to fill their places. As D’Angelo notes when explaining the game of chess to Bodie and Wallace: ‘The king stays the king.’

The Wire is a difficult pleasure. The writers demand sophistication of the viewers, treating us as intelligent adults capable of absorbing intricate, nuanced storylines. As a drama, it is often bleak to a fault. But despite its dark, tragic storytelling, it still manages to reinforce our best opinions of the human potential. It is heartening to know that despite the dearth of intelligent, quality content on television today, something truly great has been created.

Theresa Clifford is a director of digital agency cScape. Contact her {encode=”” title=”here”}. The fourth season of The Wire is currently showing on UK satellite channel FX.

Previously on spiked

Neil Davenport stated that The Sopranos is, in fact, the greatest show on earth, while Patrick West argued that, actually, it’s Top Gear. Mick Hume was taken aback by the treatment of the Suffolk Murders as a walk-on TV show. Tim Black criticised the mix of rape and celebrity in the BBC’s The Verdict. Or read more at: spiked issue TV.

(1) Getting Wired, The Guardian Guide, 10 February 2007

(2) Yes, HBO’s The Wire is challenging. It’s also a masterpiece, The San Francisco Chronicle, 6 September 2006

(3) For more information about plots and characters, see The Wire’s website.

(4) See the interview with David Simon on The Wire’s website.

(5) See the interview with Ed Burns on The Wire’s website.

(6) The Left Behind, Inside The Wire’s World of Alienation and Asshole Gods, Fader, 12 August 2006

(7) The Left Behind, Inside The Wire’s World of Alienation and Asshole Gods, Fader, 12 August 2006

(8) HBO’s The Wire: Thoroughly engaging, if not ‘entertaining’, St.Petersburg Times, 1 June 2003

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