If The Wire, the greatest show which the medium of television has yet to produce, was ever just about the War on Drugs, that moment’s past. The Wire is about the power of institutions to destroy human lives. In Season One, it was “the game” – cops chasing dealers, dealers chasing each other. But that focus changed over time, to American industry (S2), city politics (S3), public schools (S4) and print media (S5). We never lost anyone along the way, either – faces from the early seasons keep popping up in the late ones, if you know where to look. But in all this time we never had any real villains. That’s because an institution doesn’t need a villain to make it a terror. An institution is not one thousand people all conspiring to do evil. An institution is one million people with no incentive to do good.
Short of a documentary, there has never been a more real look at the American urban landscape than in this series. The writers aren’t just residents of Baltimore or experts on it – they’re beat cops and ex-reporters who know the city inside and out. Many of the cast come direct from the streets themselves. The show avoids tidy resolutions, pigeonholing and – to a surprising extent – moralizing.
There is no quick fix. People routinely find themselves at the head of the table with nothing to serve – they have the power they’ve craved for so long and find themselves powerless. One scapegoat or kingpin gets taken down, only for his subordinates to begin scheming at his wake. The City, and the infrastructure that prop it up, are bigger than any one person.
While you can’t tie all of it back to the War on Drugs, most of it springs from that hole. The rise in paramilitary tactics in urban police work. The illegal economy that takes over the lives of black and Hispanic youth. The corresponding rise in violence. We’re now seeing multi-generational cycles of poverty, where crack addicts give birth to poor children who end up hustling, slinging or robbing to survive. Like the generation of young men killed in Europe during the World Wars, we have two to four generations of men and women who will never get out of the trap of crime, drugs and death.
And this is my city it’s happening to. This is my city that got destroyed by the War on Drugs. Take the casualties you see in a given season of The Wire – not just the bodies, but the folks who succumb to cynicism and start shooting up, or cutting corners, or lying to shine themselves up – and multiply that by ten thousand. That’s my home town. And odds are, if you live on one of the coasts of the U.S., that it’s your city, too. And there’s no way to fix it.
This week is a special The Wire retrospective here at Periscope Depth. Every day I’ll give my thoughts on one of the five seasons, starting with Season One. Spoilers below the cut.
The Wire didn’t hook me with a splash-bang beginning, like The Shield did, to convince me it was going to be different. What I noticed instead, after three or four hours on the streets, was that The Wire was something different from splashy: it was perfect.
D’angelo, Avon, Stringer and Omar spoke with such verisimilitude – not just realistic accents, but word choices, phrasing and delivery – that I couldn’t imagine this show being written. I couldn’t picture some white guy in rolled up shirt sleeve sitting in front of a PowerBook with Final Draft up, murmuring, ” ‘He has to get got’ …, no, ‘he gots to get got.’ ” And even with this naturalist take, D’angelo and the terrace boys still managed to hint at a few kernels of truth. Like the guy who designed the new Chicken McNuggets. Or how to play chess. Or how it doesn’t have to be about the bodies.
What further impressed me about the show was its near total lack of exposition. Nobody has a conversation purely for the benefit of the audience. Either you see the detail – like Omar shooting his boy a look when he uses his name during the stickup – or you don’t. And it works. When McNulty and Moreland reconstruct a months-old crime scene, using nothing but measuring tape, eyeballs and the word “Fuck,” you know just what’s going on.
We get our first glimpse of the inhuman cruelty of institutions in this season. The Feds are unwilling to take the unit’s case unless they can get a corruption charge out of it – and they won’t press a corruption charge without rolling Barksdale and offering him immunity. D’angelo is made to stand the rap for crimes unrelated to him, but he does – not because he’s family, but because the Game has consumed his family. McNulty is punished for “giving a fuck when it’s not his turn” by being relegated to the docks; Carver is rewarded for playing along with the Commissioner. The city moves on.
- The Wire gives us strong female and minority characters. ADA Rhonda Pearlman and detective Kima Greggs are smart, opinionated and sexually aggressive without being bitchy or catty (an easy hole to squeeze “strong” women into). And the black characters on the show – Moreland, Freamon, Sydnor, Carver, Daniels, Barksdale, Bell, etc – are all able to address issues of race without being typecast as The Black Guy Who Talks About Race. Have I mentioned that this is the best show on television? Because it is.
- “You can’t even call this shit a war.”
- Fitting with the show’s zero exposition style, no one ever explicitly spells out the nature of the drug trade on the street. But you can pick it up after a few episodes: a consumer pays the count man, who shoots a signal to the guy on the stash. The stash and the money always stand far enough apart that you can never catch the buy and the handoff happening in the same surveillance shot. You have a couple guys hanging around for muscle and one person – in this case, D’angelo – in charge of the entire corner.
- “So, tell me: where don’t you want to go?”