This is the first in a series discussing the complete series of notable past television shows. If you have NOT seen the entire series, and are either in the middle of watching it or planning to watch it you should skip this article – it is filled with spoilers. When you’ve finished the series, come back for this commentary. Don’t say I didn’t warn you – D.G. McCabe
2002-2008, U.S., Creator and Primary Showrunner- David Simon
“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”
– William Shakespeare, Brutus from “Julius Caesar” Act IV, Scene III
The Wire often tops “best of” lists for television dramas and television programs in general. The declining aspects of Baltimore, Maryland, which at its zenith in the 1950’s-1970’s had almost a million people, serves as the backdrop of a story of institutional decay as seen primarily through the eyes of the Baltimore Police Department (although the show does a fantastic job developing characters ranging from powerful politicians to poor school children).
The quality of The Wire cannot be denied. The acting and writing are consistently excellent, and the camera work weaves an impending sense of doom throughout even the series’ more mundane moments. It has several key themes woven throughout it’s five season run beyond the obvious “decline of middle class institutions” theme. It is also one of the most frustrating stories ever told, an anti-show that would make Anton Chekov proud.
Getting to the Top
The main antagonists during the series’ first three season are drug kingpins Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). While Bell and Barksdale are clearly evil, they are not corrupt in the sense that they operate by an established code and run their drug organization much like a legitimate business would operate. At one point, Bell even establishes a co-operative with the other Baltimore drug lords so that everyone can benefit from the high quality drugs being smuggled in by an Eastern European crime syndicate. While both men are ruthless, paranoid, murderers, they don’t get to the top by breaking the rules, so to speak, of “the game.”
The same cannot be said about Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector), Bell and Barksdale’s successor as “most powerful drug lord in Baltimore.” Marlo is corrupt in ways that Bell and Barksdale are not (the murder of Proposition Joe, ordering Chris and Snoop to murder a family because the guy was “talking smack,” etc.). Nor can it be said about Police Commissioner Ervin Burrell (Frankie Faison) who gets his position not through ability but by manipulating crime statistics and through shady political connections. Interestingly enough, these corrupt men stay on top for long periods of time. While they are ultimately done in by outside forces, they personify the nature of how breaking “the rules” can result in unjust rewards for people willing to do anything to gain power.
Even people seeking power with good intentions fall short due to what it takes to keep power. In season three, Tommy Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) runs for mayor to “clean up the city” and promises Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), at this point the leader of the Major Crimes Unit, a future without manipulation of crime statistics for political purposes. This goes out the window at the end of season 5 where, in exchange for promoting Daniels to Commissioner, Carcetti asks for manipulated crime statistics to bolster his run for Governor of Maryland.
Likewise, Frank Sobotka, the union leader in Season 2, allows an Eastern European crime syndicate to flood Baltimore with drugs and prostitutes in exchange for the funds he needs to keep his co-workers employed. He also uses the money to lobby politicians to give his dying profession a future. In summary, he looks the other way from violent criminals in order keep himself in a position when he can help his fellow dock-workers.
Justice and Vengeance
Another major theme of The Wire is the relationship to justice and vengeance, and how the show makes the audience feel about them. When Stringer Bell is gunned down by Omar Little (Michael Kenneth Williams) at the end of Season 3, it is anti-climatic because we watched for three years the struggle of Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), Lester Freeman (Clarke Peters) and the other protagonists spend so much time and energy trying to put Stringer behind bars. Indeed, Stringer is an evil man who deserves his fate, but the show makes the audience feel cheated in the way that fate is doled out.
Similarly, in season one, when Greggs is shot by Barksdale’s thugs, the man who pulled the trigger is killed off-screen. While it is satisfying that Barksdale himself ends up behind bars, something feels empty by the way that the man responsible for the near murder of one of the show’s main protagonists simply disappears.
Whether it is McNulty making up a serial killer to fund the operation to take down Marlo, Howard Colvin (Robert Wisdom) and his season three “Hamsterdam” experiment, or Stringer Bell setting up the drug lord co-op, there are dozens of instances in The Wire of one individual taking initiative to disrupt the regular way of doing things. In most instances, these disruption are punished by the status quo. McNulty and Colvin lose their jobs (McNulty is demoted twice before that) and Stringer loses control of the co-op due to the return of the “status quo” drug violence of Barksdale.
The character of Omar, with McNulty a close second, personifies the disruptive figure. Omar is an outlaw even among outlaws, robbing drug dealers at gunpoint and avoiding the resulting bounties on a regular basis. Still, even Omar cannot escape the random and violent world of the drug “game” when he is unceremoniously taken down by a twelve-year old in a bodega at the end of season five.
And this brings me to the Shakespeare quote and Chekov reference above. In season one, the cops have D’Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.) ready to turn on his uncle, when his mother convinces him not to. In season two they have Frank Sobotka in the same position, when he is murdered by the Eastern Europeans. In season three they have Stringer Bell nailed, when Omar takes care of him for them. There are dozens of instances in their investigations like this, they have everything wrapped up when something happens to unravel everything.
One of the most frustrating missed connections occurs in Season 4, when Herc (Domenik Lombardozzi), trying to find a camera that he lost investigating Marlo, destroys the life of promising middle-schooler Randy (Maestro Harrell) by mishandling him as a source of information. The mistake would have been avoided but for a homicide detective failing to pass along a message to Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) out of spite.
The richness of themes, high production quality, and even its frustrating plotlines make The Wire one of the finest shows in television history. It is not a perfect series (the newspaper sub-plot in Season 5 never really connects and most of the events of Season 2 exist in isolation from the rest of the series) but it may be the closest thing television has produced thus far to the thematic density of the novels of Victor Hugo and Leo Tolstoy.
(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe