JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The other America: Freamon and McNulty hunt a serial killer.

Show the world: a fire seen from the newsroom of the Baltimore Sun goes unreported.

Show the world: a thin line between crime and state as Proposition Joe and Stringer Bell meet in the shadow of city hall.

The unit: following the money and not knowing where they'll end up.

Capitalism in its purest form: The Greek hides in plain sight.

Stringer and Avon in conference with lawyer-laundryman Levy.

Spot the parasite: Levy attempts to call Omar to account.

“I am the American dream.”

McNulty's wake: There's at least one virgin in the room.

Marlo in the inner circle: one of their own.

Stringer looks to Clay Davis to safeguard his interests.

D'Angelo schools Bodie and Wallace: “The king stay the king.”

Writer Richard Price in cameo.

D'Angelo Barksdale: “There are no second acts in American lives.”

Cutty and Dukie: Which way to the rest of the world?

Namond: now at the podium instead of the corner.

Randy Wagstaff: no way out.

Season 2: labour triumphant in a monument to better times.

Season 2: the triumph of capital over labour.

 

"The other America"

Significantly the writers are novelists and journalists who live in close proximity to the experience of "the other America."

"We are none of us from Hollywood; soundstages and backlots and studio commissaries are not our natural habitat ... Consider that for generations now the televised reflection of the American experience — the cathode-ray glow that is our national campfire — has come down to us from on high."[24][open endnotes in new window]

In Simon’s opinion:

"So much of what comes out of Hollywood is horseshit. Because these people live in West LA, they don’t even go to East LA ... what they increasingly know about the world is what they see on other TV shows about cops or crime or poverty. The American entertainment industry gets poverty so relentlessly wrong ... Poor people are either the salt of the earth, and they’re there to exalt us with their homespun wisdom and their sheer grit and determination to rise up, or they are people to be beaten up in an interrogation room by Sipowicz."[25]

The writers take credibility as their priority. This means, according to Ed Burns, "You’ve got to know the world ... otherwise it’s medical crap here and cop crap there and a love story," all by the numbers.[26]

They are professional writers, so

"it‘s not some sort of proletariat revolution where longshoremen and drug dealers have seized the means of storytelling, but it’s as close as you get to an east coast, rust belt, postindustrial city telling its own story."[27]

Despite their distance from the dominant television industry, these writers have learned the craft of TV drama production impressively. The production is of the highest standard. Nevertheless everything — from the writing to the shooting — is honed to the purpose of showing the world. Even the directorial practice of staying wide in terms of visual composition is shaped to this intent.[28]

The series' visual style highlights social structure. For example, image construction often shows lives constricted by confining spaces, which are then depicted in relation to the larger environment surrounding them. We see characters and events against the backdrop of the city from its grandest views: from executive offices or luxury condos overlooking the harbor. And we also see the windowless basement offices where police monitor wiretaps and the grim abandoned houses where addicts inject heroin. The beauty and space open to some sections of the population always stands in sharp contrast to the ugliness and claustrophobia circumscribing the others. One group cannot exist without the other.

"... who gets paid behind all the
tragedy and the fraud."

The Wire is

"about untethered capitalism run amok, about how power and money actually route themselves in a postmodern American city, and ultimately, about why we as an urban people are no longer able to solve our problems or heal our wounds."[29]

It is a show in which, the excesses of capitalism are not reduced to the actions of a few proverbial bad apples. As Scandalum Magnatum has argued:

"Most 'progressive’ Americans think in terms of 'corporations' rather than 'capital.' The former has people in charge who are evil; the latter is a faceless and diffuse social force, which controls simply by going about its business in a banal and unthinking manner. In not giving capital a face, Simon removes the easy way out."[30]

The detectives constantly come up against a continuum between legitimate and illegitimate capital accumulation. They also continually face attempts to contain and limit the scope of their investigations. As Lieutenant Cedric Daniels observes, when "you follow the drugs, you get a drugs case; you follow the money, you never know where you end up." Detective Lester Freamon suggests that if he could "show who gets paid behind all the tragedy and the fraud," he would die happy. In opposition to a perception of evil corporations, he posits a system in which there is collective culpability:

"We are all of us vested, all of us complicit."

Nevertheless, capitalism, like Zeus, is largely invisible within The Wire. Yet, there is a sense in which, like the Greek in season two, it hides in plain sight. The character of the Greek sits in the foreground, silent and unacknowledged, at a café counter while underlings conduct business on his behalf. To David Simon, the Greek "represented capitalism in its purest form."[31] He only becomes a visible actor when his interests are directly threatened. He reappears briefly in the final montage of season five, still sitting in the cafe, still present, still barely observed.

In its main incarnations, however, capitalism remains unseen and unnamed in the drama, but it shapes all that transpires. The commanding heights of the system are off-screen, but nevertheless powerfully present in all that happens on-screen. Capitalism's modus operandi is revealed in multiple details. Market norms and corporate structures are replicated in every social sector — from the drug organizations and the police force through the schools and the newspapers. All micro-struggles for power are shaped by the macro-dynamics of an all-powerful system.

"I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase."

Narco-capitalism is shown as the only viable "economic engine" in neighborhoods where no other path to wealth exists. Those excluded from making a living through the dominant system create their own alternative. For Simon and Burns drug culture provides

"a wealth-generating structure so elemental and enduring that it can legitimately be called a social compact."[32]

An unskilled and poorly educated underclass is trapped between the drug economy and the war on drugs. The Wire compresses decades of the Baltimore drug trade into its five seasons. In a sense, the way the series depicts the many facets of that trade functions to give us a master class in the history of the capitalist mode of production and accumulation. When Detective Jimmy McNulty observes, "Everything else in this country gets sold without people shooting each other behind it," the irony is implicit. Within legitimate capitalism, the economic system's violence remains largely hidden. Only in the primitive accumulation of the drug economy is violence shown as highly visible and an integral part of the trade.

Even within this process, as the scripts develop it, the characters with more power have an impetus to launder the money, to bring greater order and to reduce the overt violence, all the more effectively to accumulate further. For example, a character is developed who provides enormous assistance in this regularizing aspect of capital. He is lawyer Maurice Levy, who defends drug dealers in court, procures their political connections and facilitates their property transactions. Some of the dialogue makes the characters' economic role explicit. Thus, while cross-examining Omar Little, who describes himself as a "rip and run" artist who robs drug dealers, Levy suggests that Omar is a parasite:

"You are amoral, are you not? You’re feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade. You’re stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city. You are a parasite who leeches off the culture of drugs."

At this point, Omar interrupts:

"Just like you, man. I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game though, right?"

The camera shifts to the judge who shrugs in recognition of the irresistible logic. In another scene, Omar is seen sporting a t-shirt emblazoned with "I am the American Dream." The visuals often underline the ironies and incongruities of the situation: the powerless adopting the icons of power with crowns on their t-shirts, drug dealers and murderers wearing crucifixes, a statue of the Virgin Mary on display at the wake of the promiscuous McNulty.

A key figure in the trajectory of transformation from primitive to more advanced accumulation is Stringer Bell, second-in-command of the Barksdale drug organization. When McNulty tails him, the detective finds that Bell's destination is Baltimore City Community College, where the druglord is taking a course on macroeconomics. As Bell progresses in his course and tightens his control of the organization, we see him explicitly applying his lessons to the drug trade. From the start, Bell conceptualizes the process of his group's capital accumulation at a level inaccessible to street dealers:

"Every market-based business runs in cycles. We’re in a down cycle now."

Indeed, under Bell's leadership, we see the organization progress from making on-the-fly decisions in the grubby back room of a strip club, to holding formal meetings in a funeral home according to Robert’s Rules of Order, to forming a cartel that meets in an upmarket hotel conference facility laid out as a corporate boardroom. He comes to recognize that the traditional goal of controlling territory is meaningless if the group distributes bad product. Moreover, it’s the fight for the territory that brings the bodies and the bodies that bring the police, which forces dealers off the streets, affecting productivity and profits. Eventually Bell uses illegal profits to buy legal property. He strives to mix with the movers and shakers of the propertied class, bribe politicians, accumulate further capital, and integrate into the dominant system. When police enter his upscale apartment, the camera settles on a book McNulty pulls down from the shelf: Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. McNulty ponders who it was that they were chasing.

Stringer Bell: model student. The evolution of capital accumulation: primitive.
The evolution of capital accumulation: intermediate. The evolution of capital accumulation: advanced.
The Wealth of Nations: Stringer and Avon on top of the world just before their empire crumbled. The Wealth of Nations — McNulty: “Who the fuck were we chasing?”

"The game is rigged."

Ultimately however, Stringer Bell is felled by hubris. Despite or perhaps because of his education, he fails to see the true nature of the system that confronts him. Bell takes his lessons in economics at face value. Consequently he is conned out of millions of dollars by the corrupt state senator, Clay Davis. Simultaneously, he is betrayed by his own group's ostensible leader, Avon Barksdale, recently released from prison and unimpressed by Bell’s more businesslike attempts to reform the drug trade. Avon stands for a more traditional criminal subculture in contrast to the technocratic approach espoused by Stringer. Barksdale is "just a gangster," who believes in holding territory for its own sake. He poses as a community leader, serving food at a cook-out and financing a boxing club. When Barksdale enforcer Dennis "Cutty" Wise finds himself repelled by the violence he encounters on his return from prison, Avon allows him to walk away. It is finally family loyalty that seals Stringer’s fate, for Avon discovers that Stringer ordered Avon's nephew D’Angelo’s death. That family loyalty is seen to be hollow, however, despite the Sopranoesque code articulated by the Barksdales, as it is coerced family loyalty that really betrayed D’Angelo and led to his death. It is D’Angelo own mother, Avon’s sister, who pressurizes him not to give testimony that would have told the truth and given him some kind of alternative life.

Ironically, it is Marlo Stanfield, successor to the Barksdale organization, who reaps the rewards of Stringer Bell’s business education. Marlo also understands that it is the bodies that bring the police, but rather than eradicate the violence, he hides the bodies, rendering the violence invisible. Unlike Avon Barksdale, Marlo views any wavering of commitment, such as that represented by Cutty, as a threat to be eliminated. In the end, Marlo achieves everything that Stringer wanted, but has no idea of where to go with it. He meets with the city powers at a reception in a highrise office block, looking out across the city that they each in their different ways control. The contrast with Stringer is striking, as Stringer was never truly admitted to the circles of power. Rather, he was forced to meet with property developers in restaurants, or he was restricted to the lobby of corporate tower blocks while Clay Davis claimed to spend graft money on his behalf. For all of his frequent callousness, Stringer believed he could tame the system. Marlo stands on the verge of admission to the inner circle, his extreme ruthlessness seemingly marking him out as one of its own. However he cannot find a place for himself there and descends into back the streets, now belonging in neither place.

Most characters do not usually understand the nature of the system in which they live and work. Yet even those with least education and least mobility sometimes have their moments of insight. As Zinovia, sitting in a discussion group in a high school program for difficult pupils, remarks:

"We got our thing, but it’s just part of the big thing."

Namond Brice, sitting in the same circle, exposes the hypocrisy of moral outrage over the drug trade by drawing parallels with Enron, the use of steroids and the tobacco industry. In another moment, street dealer Wallace, speculating on the provenance of chicken nuggets, decides that whoever invented them must be rich, but D’Angelo corrects him. They were invented by "some sad ass" in the basement of McDonalds, D'Angelo explains, while the real players made all the money. The sad ass is still in the basement, working for a wage, thinking up ways to make fries taste better. When someone expresses moral outrage, D’Angelo counters,

"It ain’t about right. It’s about money."

When D’Angelo attempts to school Wallace and Bodie in the game of chess, he also uses the metaphor of the drug trade. The king stays the king, protected, like Avon Barksdale. The queen is like Stringer — "the go get shit done piece" who has all the moves. Pawns are soldiers. They are expendable and get "capped" quickly. Unless, as Bodie observes, "they some smart ass pawns." Later, in a conversation with McNulty the nature of narco-capitalism becomes apparent to Bodie, who realizes,

"The game is rigged. We like them little bitches on the chess board."

The institutional structures of this rigged game are replicated in the police force and the organisations they pursue. McNulty and Bodie develop a grudging respect for each other in their mutual attempts to do a good job in their respective sectors. In season four the two share something of a heart to heart conversation about their roles in organizations that are either indifferent or openly hostile to their efforts. Bodie becomes disillusioned after the Barksdale organization is destroyed by Stringer’s death and Avon's incarceration. He is forced to sell drugs for Marlo, who has taken Stringer’s technocratic tendencies to their callous extreme. Even though Bodie killed his friend Wallace on Stringer’s orders, he is repulsed by the arbitrary killings and Marlo's disregard for his own workers, remarking,

'I do what I gotta ... just don't ask me to live on my fuckin' knees."

In one of a number of revealing encounters between cops and criminals, McNulty recognizes elements of himself in this corner boy and says to him,

"You're a soldier, Bodie."

"How do you get from here to
the rest of the world?"

The corner boys come from an underclass severely circumscribed by conditions of life. The youth provide an inexhaustible labor supply for the drug organizations and can hardly imagine being other than they are and doing other than they do. Yet sometimes they try. They reach beyond, usually groping in the dark. D’Angelo Barksdale, born into the drugs trade and given a preordained role in it, is never offered a hint of an alternative path, no matter how ill-suited he is to his assigned role. On several occasions, he speaks of being unable to breathe, of wanting "to go somewhere where I can breathe." In prison, he participates in a reading group operating under the custodianship of novelist and screenwriter Richard Price, in a cameo appearance. This is the nearest D’Angelo comes to breathing. Ironically, tragically, he is killed in the library. Even more ironically, the reading group had just been discussing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s assertion, "There are no second acts in American lives." D’Angelo’s interpretation of The Great Gatsby is that "the past is always with us" and that "what came first is who you really are."

Similarly, in our view of the police force, we follow Roland Pryzbylewski, coerced onto a career path for which he has no aptitude by his police major father-in-law, as a hopeless street cop who develops a talent for electronic surveillance and breaks the Barksdale communication code. On the docks, we see similar cases with working class youth. For example, Ziggy Sobotka has none of the qualities appropriate to being a docker or trade unionist, yet he is doomed to flounder around ridiculously in that world. By contrast, his cousin Nicky has all that it would take, if only the world in which such skill mattered weren’t disintegrating all around him and so he shames himself, his family and his union by taking up the drug trade.

Although such failure is found in all strata of society, it is the black underclass who have the most difficulty and the least room for maneuver. Season four depicts poor youth even earlier in the life cycle, taking us into their schools and homes. Duquan "Dukie" Weems is the son of hopeless junkies who sell his clothes and abandon him when they are evicted. He begins to blossom in school but cannot find his way after that. He tries working the corners, then looking for a proper job, but nothing works out for him. He asks Cutty Wise, the boxing coach:

"How do you get from here to the rest of the world?"

Cutty confesses that he doesn’t know how either. Neither character ever does find out.

There are rare moments of redemption. Namond Brice, teenage son of a top player in the Barksdale organization, is pushed by his mother to fill the shoes of his imprisoned father. He comes under the wing of a cop turned teacher-social-worker, who eventually adopts him, and he thrives, becoming an articulate speaker in a debating competition. Unlike in more conventional TV drama, usually structured around such individual triumph against social obstacles, this youth's outcome is shown as marginal. Namond's transition to a secure, ordered environment is narratively contrasted with Randy Wagstaff's arrival at a group foster home and the approaching violence as that boy is marked out as a snitch. Sergeant Carver, having attempted unsuccessfully to foster Randy himself, pounds his car horn in anger and despair as he leaves the boy there to a predictable fate.

Of the four pupils foregrounded in season four, three come to tragic ends. Michael Lee, the strongest and smartest, goes into drug dealing at first to bear the burden of a child rearing a child. When we first encounter him as a pupil, he is already acting as parent to his younger brother Bug. When the situation at home worsens, he takes on the role of breadwinner to put a roof over the head of his brother away from his junkie mother and Bug's abuser father. Appalled by the violence entailed in selling drugs, especially when he realizes that his own organization is about to kill him, he adopts his own moral code and switches trades to become a stick-up artist robbing drug crews. Randy, brutalized in the group home, in turn becomes brutalizer. The home at first looks not so bad as the talk about it would have made us believe. Then, when the police and social workers leave, we see Randy surrounded to be beaten by the other boys as a "snitch bitch." After an interval, when Detective Moreland comes to the home to interview him, the gentle boy has become tough. He is uncooperative, storms out and casually assaults another boy on the stairs. Finally, in one of the saddest scenes of the whole series, we see the third teen, Dukie, settling into a homeless camp and shooting up.

Michael and Bug: a child raising a child. Dukie (right) finally finds a way out.

"The fewer we need"

These children are the discarded surplus of a world in which capital has triumphed over labor. According to David Simon:

"Every day, human beings are worth less. That is the triumph of capital. … The more we become post-industrial, the fewer we need."[33]

In season two, which focuses on the waterfront, the marginally employed dockers see a media presentation depicting the use of robotics at the port of Rotterdam, a chilling vision of the future where there will be even less use for their labor.

What becomes clear through viewing all four seasons of The Wire is that the triumph of capital over labor is accentuated by the triumph of finance capital over manufacturing capital. Ironically, the economic sphere in The Wire that comes closest to producing a commodity and offering full time employment is narco-capitalism. The dockers are on their way down in the world, existing on five or six days paid work a month. They have been reduced to smuggling, bribing and drug dealing. In the larger picture, they are pitched worker against worker, with Baltimore competing directly with other ports for survival. All the workers have to offer is their superior labor, undermined by the criminal activities to which they turn for short-term survival. They are merely one link in a global distribution chain, in which everything from cars to guns to dope to women can be imported cheaply from overseas. Union leader Frank Sobotka succinctly summarizes the situation:

"We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket."

Catastrophically Frank Sobotka accepts the dominant system's logic. He hires a lobbyist, using the proceeds of smuggling operations to bribe politicians. Union militancy is absent in a situation where there are few jobs to defend and where workers are effectively reduced to fighting over scraps. Season two is an exploration of what a union does when its raison d’être is dying.

The future of cargo is one without dockers. Get it cheaper overseas: the cold dead face of globalization.
Frank Sobotka: a flawed, heroic but ultimately doomed protagonist. “They used to make steel there, yes?”

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