The Wire – Every Villain Has Their Reasons
SPOILER ALERT: The following article contains spoilers galore, so it’s best not to read it unless you’ve followed The Wire to the very end.
There have been few television shows that have enjoyed a posthumous fame as great as The Wire. Generally ignored by the public and the Emmys ever since its debut in early 2002, the show seemed to be of interest only to critics, who had been unstinting in their praise since day one. The plaudits eventually paid off and some traction with viewers was gained by the time the fourth and fifth seasons came around. Though The Wire did have a loyal cult following on cable, the vast majority of people came to it by word of mouth, and, as is often the case these days, few actually watched an episode in the course of one of its season’s runs. And though it is far from the first show to have been downloaded illegally in huge numbers, it is probably the first to have been propagated largely through illicit channels, given that outside the US, its programming on any sort of television was erratic. The fact that the show is now making tidy sums in DVD sales, being snapped up by people that ‘stole’ it initially, shows that file-sharing, rather than being merely a black hole of lost revenue, is also an invaluable means of distribution that will eventually bear fruit.
I first came to it shortly after the final season finished and I watched it straight through in a few weeks. Friend after friend had been raving about it and eventually the tipping point came, since then I’ve probably been responsible for another dozen people to start watching it. People are still watching it for the first time and I know many that have gone back to the very beginning to take it all again, to winnow some previously hidden nuggets out of the show’s exceptionally rich detail, to marvel at the dialogue that taught viewers far beyond Baltimore how to speak like street-corner drug dealers, hard-nosed detectives and Democratic party machine politicians, or simply just to lose themselves in an experience that is thoroughly addictive.
Policemen and gangsters alike have praised the show for its realism, and the most striking thing about it is its intelligence. In an era where the overwhelming majority of Hollywood films, even those aimed at a supposedly intelligent audience, have an embarrassingly infantile narrative tone, a television show that never stoops to talking down to its audience is refreshing. David Simon and his co-creator Ed Burns have an impressive track record having worked on Homicide and The Corner before, but it is their previous career experience, as Baltimore Sun crime reporter and policeman-turned-public school teacher respectively, that has grounded them in the reality of Baltimore life. Simon said that he wanted to avoid the type of clichéd cop show where the policeman lift the shroud on yet another murder victim and mutter ‘what a waste.’ The cops in The Wire are unsentimental but not uncaring, and they are also magnificently flawed human beings, none more so than the ultimate maverick Detective Jimmy McNulty, played by Trinity graduate Dominic West. In fact it’s interesting how many critical events in the series are brought about by simple human error, such as a failure to file a report on the Double G’s murder in the second season, allowing the gang to do away with the cocaine that would have incriminated them. Such a regularity of error could come across as mechanical but not in a show where institutional failure is a recurring theme. It’s part of the show’s dramatic fabric.
Though the political commentary in The Wire is usually implicit, the show can be read as a text that bridges the Bush and Obama eras. David Simon said that he was initially prompted to make a show whose scope far outreaches the crime series he had previously been involved in after witnessing the institutional corruption and failure of American corporations such as Enron and WorldCom, both of which happened in the months following 9/11, and which, one would imagine ought to have served as a warning sign for the much greater collapse seven years later.
The show’s loose structure, which focuses on a different institution in each of its five seasons, all of which are struggling to keep afloat in the contemporary world. The Baltimore Police Department is at the mercy both of a political obsession with the war on drugs and its own endemic incompetence. The longshoreman unions at the Baltimore docks are suffering from a drop-off in commercial traffic; the public schools are locked in a cycle of crime, poverty and ineffectiveness compounded by indifference in City Hall. The Democratic Party Machine – the only one that effectively exists in Baltimore – is oiled by corruption and back scratching. When an idealistic but ruthless newcomer such as Thomas Carcetti comes on the scene, he is stymied by the crippling deficits left over from his predecessors, by political power-playing in the Police Department and by the horse-trading that so often requires one needy institution to be expediently sacrificed to keep another one onside.
Even the city’s enterprising gangs, busy at keeping the city’s murder rate at nearly one per day, are themselves caught up in a torridly Darwinian struggle that thrusts new players forward with bewildering rapidity. If crime as an analogy for business has become so common in American film and TV to have been petrified into empty truism, in The Wire at least it seems to reflect the protean, miasmic nature of contemporary capital. Long-established hoods such as Proposition Joe, a man of his own qualified code of honour, find themselves supplanted by more brutal and savvier outfits such as the Barksdales – who might be viewed as an-all-grasping Microsoft-style oligopoly, unwilling to go along with Prop Joe’s co-operative. But almost as quickly as the Barksdales rise, they are replaced by the uppity of Marlo Stanfield, a man whose staggering business success takes a back seat to his own satisfaction at mastering The Game. Marlo is Google to Barksdale’s Microsoft and his ingenious ways of outwitting (up to a point) of the teams of police wire-tap units out to trap him carry the echo of a successful start-up. The delicious irony is that Marlo’s method is a fusion of old-style cell tactics – few people in the gang know the contacts of anyone else and even payphone communication is abjured – and modern technology – Marlo’s smart-phone pictures of a clock face are the code by which the location of his drops and meetings across the city are co-ordinated. Of course, the police catch up with Marlo eventually by hook or by crook, even if he has managed to escape to a more ‘legit’ business environment by now. But unlike the late Stringer Bell before him, Marlo has no real appetite for going straight and in the show’s final episode, he’s back on the street, strutting with a savage abandon that will probably see him gunned down, now unprotected by his psychotic henchman and woman Chris and Snoop and his previous meticulous caution. And if there is to be any winner to be discerned in this crime/business paradigm it is the discreet, supranational, super-efficient operation run by the Greek, who, despite his advanced years is consummately modern, unencumbered by any notions of prestige or misplaced honour. The Greek can also up sticks and flee town, and return whenever he sees fit, something the provincial, hidebound Baltimore gangs are incapable of doing.
The Wire is an extended riff on Jean Renoir’s famous maxim ‘every villain has their reasons’, and even the most sociopathic, most venal characters are shown to act according to very logical impulses of self-advancement or self-preservation. Given David Simon’s jaundiced view of the police which he retains from his time at the Baltimore Sun, and which he recently exercised in a Washington Post article, it is surprising that the police in the show are broadly sympathetic. The villainous cops are largely minor figures, disposed of as the show goes by, and even the more negative aspects of more prominent members of Baltimore’s finest are explained away by either intense political pressure (Rawls) or forensic expediency (McNulty and Lester Freamon in the final season). Of course, Simon might have reasonably assumed that an over-scrupulous attention to police misdeeds might skew the show’s focus, losing track of other equally important strands of the city’s narrative. It is not to explain away police brutality, corruption or incompetence but simply to place it in the context of wider contingencies. And of course, shade and nuance are oxygen for good drama.
Though the show began its run in the run-up to the Iraq war the war and the Bush administration’s machinations are referred to only obliquely. McNulty and Daniels are frustrated by their efforts to bring the Barksdale and then Stanfield cases to federal level because, post 9/11, the FBI are only interested in terrorism or, at a push, corruption. The war steps in briefly in the fifth season in the form of the homeless veteran whose story Scottie Templeton doctors and thus sets the alarm bells ringing about his veracity and, by extension, the Baltimore Sun’s tolerance of it. But other than that the war is conspicuous by its absence; there are no kids from the projects signing up (I’m not sure if this reflects reality in Baltimore) and the war is rarely mentioned even in passing conversation. One is tempted to think the war may be the elephant in the sitting room, as Bernard McLaverty said the Troubles were for the people of Northern Ireland. For a show of such a Balzacian scope it is remarkable that one of the defining events of the American decade is largely ignored. Maybe Simon thought it less relevant to Baltimore than another, more enduring, and equally disastrous war, the war on drugs. Or maybe he was simply storing up his ideas for his next show, Generation Kill, which is exclusively about the war.
To get back to the bridge between the Bush and Obama eras, the show, though far from being a neat analogy, provides a few interesting references to reality. There is no Republican administration to be supplanted in the impregnably Democratic Baltimore. Thomas Carcetti’s tilting at the incumbency of Clarence Royce is based on reality where Martin O’Malley, a young Irish-American politician unexpectedly divided the African-American vote and took City Hall on a platform of change. He does of course then go on, like O’Malley, to take the Governor’s Mansion from the GOP after only two years of mayoralty, something uncannily similar to Obama’s trajectory. Carcetti, of course, like any other newly elected leader, soon encounters the compromises necessary to keep his administration afloat and it is an intricate tapestry of compromises that finally saves his skin and leaves everyone, bar the fallen-from-grace Irving Burrell, happy at the very end of season five.
There is also something in Carcetti’s election that is reminiscent of the Obama breakthrough, and which offers the glimpse of an improvement in racial relations that one suspects is to be merely cosmetic. The Baltimore of The Wire, a city that is, as in reality, 60% black, appears have left its racist past behind, which gave us the tale of Hattie Carroll and William Zantzinger, (and which Simon wrote about recently in the New Yorker). There are very few explicit, egregious incidents of racism, even on the part of the police, which is a well-integrated force. Such is the sense of Obama’s America, where a sufficient number of Americans have cast aside historical racial suspicions to elect a black man. It is also an America where racism has been sublimated, public discourse being now policed by a politically correct consensus that owes as much to a historically puritanical strain as it does to racial emancipation. The reality of The Wire though is one where black people make up a disproportionate amount of those on welfare, drug addicts and dealers and the prison population. Which is, of course, still the reality of America under Obama. In fact it is interesting how much of the detail from the show’s depiction of West Baltimore is similar to Obama’s fine memoir Dreams from my Father; the area, like the southside Chicago of Obama’s book, is being crushed under the weight of unemployment, drugs and gun crime, with the only centres of civic support being provided by the local churches and quixotically benevolent individuals like ex-con boxing coach Cuttie, cop-turned-teacher Roland Pryzbylewski and the former drug addict Walon, played by Steve Earle. The area is also experiencing the wave of ‘black flight’ where upwardly-mobile African-American families move to the suburbs escaping the crime and poverty, a phenomenon also noted by Obama in 1980s Chicago and a case of class trumping race, suggesting in turn that the former is by far the greater taboo in American society.
Obama proclaimed himself early in his campaign to be a fan of the show, naming Omar, rather audaciously, as his favourite character. A number of cast members later repaid the favour by recording an internet commercial urging young voters to vote for him in North Carolina. The new president even stopped by Baltimore three days before his inauguration, delivering an address from the steps of City Hall, as he followed Abraham Lincoln’s route from Philadelphia to the capital. And then to cap it all off, back in Obama’s state of Illinois deposed Governor Rod Blagojevich summoned the spirit of the shamelessly roguish Senator Clay Davis in a doomed effort to save his political career. The gap between The Wire and real life was briefly wafer thin.
Many have suggested that The Wire’s bleakness prevented it from ever gaining a foothold with audiences. It’s certainly one of a number of credible hypotheses and Simon was grateful for the enlightened patronage of HBO that allowed the show to continue despite low ratings. Simon can hardly be accused of being a bright-eyed optimist, but his cynicism never descends into nihilism. Mark Bowden called him the ‘angriest man in TV’ when the depiction of the Baltimore Sun news room rattled some cages more than scenes of crippling poverty and neglect ever could. But Simon maintains his calm for the most part. The show ends with some people saved, and some damned and some, notably McNulty, somewhere in between. But it is unlikely that, even under the more principled stewardship of Cedric Daniels, the Baltimore Police Department is going to have the will, or the means, to place public service above bureaucratic concerns. In a way it is only those in the show that are possessed of almost super-hero-like disregard for consequences such as Omar and McNulty, that are capable of providing anything like a bulwark against the onslaught of violence, intimidation and anomie. All it takes is a small dose of moral sense to do it. Omar and McNulty are the true radicals in the show and, I imagine, closest to Simon’s heart too.
When watching Hollywood films these days, I’m usually struck by how anaemic and simplistic they are compared to The Wire (and other TV crime shows). Such films to suffer by comparison were Ridley Scott’s American Gangster and Body of Lies and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Scott and Scorsese felt impelled to garnish their drama with sociological footnotes, as if they were unsure their tale, ‘the thing itself’, as Hamlet would say, were strong enough to propel itself forward. James Gray is one of the few American filmmakers to resist the tendency to ‘sociologize’ and his films are richer, more robust for all that. Just like The Wire, where we don’t need to be told in voiceover how certain immigrant communities grabbed America by the scruff of the neck, nor do we need to hear street children quoting Hawthorne and Joyce. In fact, the references to the outside world in The Wire are notable for their goofishness: at one point the wire-tap unit says that Le Havre is a port in Brittany, McNulty rejects Bushmills at a party because it’s ‘Protestant’ whiskey (and his beloved Jameson isn’t?) and the cops wake their dead colleagues with the Pogues’ rousing ‘Body of an American’, without realising that it’s a caustic piss-take of self-righteous Irish Americans. All are mistakes, easy mistakes to make, just like those that people make in real life. And the Greeks probably aren’t even Greek, either.
Everyone, like Barack Obama, has their own favourite character from this finest of cop shows. My own favourites are usually the minor players, like Cuttie, Gus Haynes the City Desk editor of the Baltimore Sun who smells a rat in Templeton’s reporting, and Michael Lee the smart, pragmatic runaway who protects his younger brother and turns to crime as the only way to self-preservation. But the one that stood out for me, was the flawed tragic hero, Union leader Frank Sobotka, who gets in over his head with the Greeks, having been thrust into crime by economic necessity, who rails against the cops, the establishment, union-busting Ronald Reagan but who finally sacrifices himself and ends up in Baltimore Bay. His final words to ‘The Greek’ are ‘don’t hurt my guys’. Of course his guys end up wrecked anyway once the port closes. But a heroic portrayal of an unapologetic old lefty in an American TV show tickled my heart…
All five seasons of HBO’s The Wire, “rapped” up in 5 minutes.
An excerpt from Season 5
Originally published by Irish Left Review.