By Martin Bosworth
Last night saw the premiere of the final season of “The Wire,” HBO’s long-running drama that started out as a gritty look at the cat-and-mouse battle between overworked, underpaid cops and ruthless drug dealers in the decaying metropolis of Baltimore, Maryland, but quickly evolved into a scathing, unforgiving tour of the failure of all the institutions we take for granted. This ambitious vision is married to some of the most honest, raw, and real characters ever to grace a television screen, making “The Wire” not only the best show on television today, but one of the best examples of modern American thought and commentary we have.
Each season of “The Wire” has focused on a different institution or system and demonstrated in gory detail how badly it is failing, wrecked by corruption, indolence, greed,and above all else, apathy. Season One explored the parallels between the drug trade and the police culture, both groups crippled by greedy leaders more interested in protecting themselves than fulfilling their objectives. Corner boy drug dealers like Bodie and Poot were grousing about their distant bosses just as detectives like Jimmy McNulty (the peerless Dominic West) and Bunk Moreland raged at their inability to break cases due to politics.
Season Two explored Baltimore’s ports and the tired workers who man them, as a grisly murder investigation morphed into a look at the decline of unions, collective bargaining, and workers’ fortunes in Corporate America. Union man Frank Sobotka makes a deal with the devil to preserve his people’s dying way of life, and pays for it with a bullet and a padlock on the doors of his local’s headquarters.
Season Three, the most Shakespearean and dramatic yet, focused on the efforts of ambitious drug kingpin Stringer Bell to go legit by working the business world, hampered by his partner Avon Barksdale, just out of prison and looking to reestablish an empire weakened by a dangerous newcomer, Marlo Stanfield. The suave and businesslike Bell chastises the hot-blooded Barksdale for pushing a turf war against Marlo when they can make real money by investing drug profits into real estate and condos, only to be taken for a ride by smarter players in the muck and mire of Baltimore’s political world. Eventually, Bell and Barksdale sell each other out, Bell ends up dead, Barksdale in prison, and Stanfield moves in on their corners as the new king. Meanwhile, idealistic but combative Democratic City Councilman Tommy Carcetti decides to do the unthinkable and make a run for Mayor in an overwhelmingly black city, using soaring crime and decaying schools as his selling points. The resultant inside look at how city politics are defined by self-interest, compromise, and short-term gains is thoroughly depressing, all the more so for its realism.
Season Four, perhaps the most heartbreaking, focuses on four kids getting ready for eighth grade–Michael, the alpha-male group leader, Randy the mischief maker, Namond the wannabe gangsta, and Dukie, the shy, nearly homeless outcast. Their story winds through an educational system marred by massive budget deficits, the heavy hand of No Child Left Behind, teachers who are terrified of getting killed or stabbed, and children who are growing up in a world that has no use for them, left to evolve into wild animals but for the lack of someone to pay attention to their needs. Even as Carcetti wins his run for Mayor, his desire for the Governor’s chair leads him to refuse $5o million in education money for the city from the current (Republican) governor, condemning the school system to even more neglect and disrepair. As for the kids, none of them end up where you expect, but their fates are alternately grim and uplifting.
That’s the great beauty of “The Wire.” The show, created by David Simon, former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of “Homicide: Life On The Street,” steadfastly avoids cliches, judgment calls on its characters, or pedantry of any kind. People don’t learn life lessons. Cases aren’t wrapped up neatly in a bow at the end of the episode. Nowhere does the narrative stop to lecture us about the evils we’re witnessing. Simon and co-creator Ed Burns (a former Baltimore homicide detective) know better–every vista of hopelessness is tied to the narrative of the lives of cops, dealers, addicts, lawyers, politicos, and all of their attendant desires and ambitions.
Simon says in the above-linked interview that he is cynical of institutions to create change, and rightly so, but the individual stories of “The Wire” have the power to wreak great change. The show has never done “Sopranos” numbers, due to the complexity of the narrative and the simple truth that a majority-black cast in an urban setting may scare off white viewers. Season Five may broaden that scope a bit, as Simon turns his critical eye to examining the failures of our modern media to chronicle the important stories of the age. Already we can see the beleaguered reporters and editors under assault from corporate cutbacks, uninvolved superiors, personal ambition, lack of institutional experience, and the same devils that plague every other aspect of “the game.”
I strongly urge you to click every link in this entry and read everything you can about “The Wire.” Then watch it. There’s never been a show like it, and there most likely never will be again.
Christy Hardin Smith’s rave review of the show and its themes.
The Wire 101 for those who need a primer.