Let me understand you. Every Friday night, you and your boys are shootin’ crap, right? And every Friday night your pal Snot Boogie… he’d wait till there was cash on the ground and then he would grab the money and run away? You let him do that?
We’d catch him and beat his ass but ain’t nobody ever go past that.
I’ve gotta ask you: if every time Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away… why’d you even let him in the game?
Well if Snot Boogie always stole the money, why’d you let him play?
Got to. This America, man.
This exchange concludes the opening scene in The Wire, David Simon and Ed Burns’ series on the sociopolitical respiration of contemporary Baltimore. In the ensuing five seasons and sixty episodes, it will systematically depict the city’s drug trade, police, port, prison, city hall, schools, newspaper, and most every other adjoining facet. It is astonishing in both its scope and intelligence. The Wire possesses such density, demands such comprehension, and is so rich in characterization that it is an endeavoring program to summate, and a daunting prospect to those who've yet to see it. It is deeply humanistic in its characterizations and yet deeply cynical, in how these characters are a part of some bureaucracy that effectively suppresses them socially, politically, financially, legally, and morally. These characters are all casualties of hope: Police detectives with decades of experience find their time-sensitive investigations delayed because the crime lab is weeks behind. A stevedore captain engages in smuggling in order to provide for his crew and their families. School teachers struggle to communicate simple arithmetic and reading comprehension to their pupils. Impoverished teens are lured out of schools and back into the streets. A young dealer frantically aims his gun into the dark surrounding him on a street corner, resolute in his refusal to surrender his space to another, more muscled drug organization, even though this courage will leave him dead. These characters, like all others in the show, are “ultimately compromised” in Simon’s own words:
“[The Wire is] about how institutions have an effect on individuals, and how… whether you’re a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge [or] lawyer, you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you’ve committed to.”1
In response to this, it is with some difficulty to deem The Wire such an entertainment as it is so characterized by its cynicism. But it is an entertainment on a monumental scale—an autopsy on a perpetually self-defeating urban network, but with of humor, tenderness, and responsibility. There are scenes of drug-related crimes, police investigation, and the sentencing that sometimes results, like in so many other programs. But also paperwork – lots of paperwork – surveillance, post-shift drinking, and even the assembly of Ikea furniture. It is as rich in detail and protocol as it is embellished in personality, drawn from both Simon’s experience as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun (as well as his exposé, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets) and Burns’ as a Baltimore homicide detective. (Some of the bit parts, even, are filled by retired Baltimore politicians, policemen, and drug kingpins.) But there is a dollhouse aspect, specifically in the final three seasons, that refracts The Wire’s looking glass perception of contemporary America. There is a revelatory moment late in season three in which mayoral candidate Tommy Carcetti is escorted to a bereft, abandoned block of row house ghetto in which drugs are sold openly, even as police patrol its perimeter. The patrons call it “Hamsterdam,” and it was created by a police Major after his superiors' reprimanding him for failing to quantitatively reduce homicides in certain districts. His solution is to funnel the corner drug trade into a specialized zone absent of police jurisdiction, and it succeeds in sizably diminishing the murder rate. Carcetti, informed of this motivation (which at this point remains unknown to the Major’s superiors), stares in disbelief at the professionally manufactured hell.
Hamsterdam is something that could not occur with such concerted mobilization, and Carcetti’s immediate perception of it is reasonably narrow. After a moment to review the periphery, Carcetti begins to see latent benefits of the lieutenant’s experiment: HIV testing is performed at a booth in the middle of the street, and condoms and informational pamphlets are dispersed to the population of dealers and junkies. There is no perceivable violence, no community to be devalued and threatened. By removing a variable from the equation, dealers are left to work without violent conflict, and communities are allowed to prosper. This radical solution is inherently flawed, but it clarifies a need for social repair on a larger scale, a need street-corner arrests are incapable of fully addressing.
Central to The Wire is surveillance and investigation (as well as punishment, although it regularly fails to follow the previous themes in equation). The name derives from the wiretap introduced midway through the first season, deployed on a series of pay phones used by drug traffickers, referring more generally to the general concept of surveillance—watching dealers on the street, kids in school, a police detail at work, a comstat meeting. These elements are mobilized in the interest of social maintenance, but although the investigation is sometimes successful, there is never certainty that any reparation is in any way permanent.
The Wire concludes in tragic fashion, with many of the surviving characters supplanting the roles of those expended, sustaining the ecosystem of social disrepair and renovation. The third episode contains a parable in the description of chess and how it relates to “the game”—a drug organization and its perpetual conflicts with rival organizations and police. The pawns are the soldiers who maintain the day-to-day trade, and are the most immediately expendable; the king is the kingpin, who oversees all operation but see less conflict than the soldiers. But this analogy has a single inadequacy in that the game will conceivably go on for the foreseeable future. In Sergeant Carver’s words from the pilot:
You heroic motherfuckers kill me. Fightin’ the war on drugs, one brutality case at a time.
Girl you can’t even call this shit a war.
I began watching the show late in August, and in the ensuing months our country underwent changes serendipitously echoed in the very episodes I was watching. In particular, Carcetti’s – a self-described white man in a black town – unlikely bid for Baltimore mayor was concurrent with the fever of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. (And shortly after his election, Carcetti is informed of an insurmountable deficit in the city schools that effectively cripples his budgetary campaign promises throughout his term). Chicago Governer Rod Blagojevich is uncanny in his similarity to Senator Clay Davis, a masterfully corrupt politician seen in each season. Recognizing these parallels confirms The Wire’s vitality as some sort of prophecy, a prescient mirror that reflects a troubled future of self-perpetuating social and political ills. But for all its cynicism, The Wire is ultimately hopeful, a work of not only exemplary depth and storytelling, but of relevance. It is borne, above all else, of the frustration that can only result from true affinity for the American city.