all the pieces matter

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.

Season One

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.

Other thoughts:


  • 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.”
    “Why not?”
    “Wars end.”

  • 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?”

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8 Responses

  1. Watching the Wire through for the second time, I can tell you that the world is even tighter and smaller than I thought the first time.

    Re: Race – I thing the biggest reason is that there isn’t “the black character who talks about race” is that there are roughly one billion more black characters on this show than on any other. And despite being a police procedural, every character is exceedingly well drawn, black and white. Despite all of the other awesome in the first season, some of my favorite moments are character moments. Rawls gently holding out the double bird and stating in a serious but measured way, “These, McNulty, are for you.” When Norris asks where Lester’s from, Lester’s almost non-ironic, “Pawn Shop Unit.” Omar coolly pulling McNulty and Greggs into a graveyard meet. And the look on Prez’s face when he finds out he’s good at something.

  2. “Thirteen years?”

    “And four months.”

    Also – there’s apparently a surprise cameo by a later season player, just standing around in the background, in S1. I haven’t confirmed it with my own eyes; I’ll leave it to you to find.

  3. 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.

    This scene was so good.

    We’ve only gotten through half? two thirds? of S1 so far. I’ll have to restrain myself from looking at your S2-5 stuff because below-the-fold text is not hidden from me in Bloglines.

  4. D’oh! It’s only this week.

    I begin each entry with a vague paragraph about the season’s themes, then a header in bold (below the cut) that announces the season itself. So when you see Season Two, abort!

  5. We need to consult, because there a few options on the cameo front.

  6. Yeah, I was living in Washington during the ’80s (born and raised until my dad decided he DIDN’T want to raise his kid alone in an area where the local upscale mall actually had a drive-by shooting) and living in that city, watching it rot, was terrifying. I think that’s part of where my distaste for Republicans came from, because if there really WAS a War on Drugs, Reagan and Bush weren’t fighting it on their fucking doorstep, that’s for sure.

  7. There is one glaring flaw in The Wire: the humor. Often it will appear that the writers are trying to make some attempt at humor but it always fails horribly. It’s fine to have unfunny characters, but I strongly get the sense that the writers are trying to be funny at least some of the time.

    (Note that I’ve only seen seasons 1-3).

    Contrast this with The Sopranos. Chase’s dialogue in general is just better and more insightful than what you see in The Wire, but where it’s really noticeable is in the humor.

    I find the world of The Wire intrinsically more interesting than the world of The Sopranos, and the writers of The Wire have a lot of experience and insightful perspectives about life and “street people” and whatnot, but it is pretty clear to me that these writers are noticeably inferior to David Chase when it comes to the act of writing. If you somehow were able to transfer the knowledge of The Wire’s writers into David Chase he could make a significantly better show about the same thing.

  8. Hmm. I think the humor in The Wire lies in absurd or ironic situations, not in zinger dialogue. Take, for instance, Rawls asking McNulty, “where don’t you want to go?” Or Omar sticking up a corner in Brooklyn as the last scene of the season. Neither of those are comical in the sense of setup, build, punchline, but they’re clever callbacks. I laughed out loud at both those.

    If that ain’t your thing, then yeah, The Wire doesn’t have it.

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