2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 51, spring 2009
The Wire and the world:
narrative and metanarrative
by Helena Sheehan and Sheamus Sweeney
Considered by many critics to be the best television drama series ever, The Wire ran from 2002 to 2008.[open endnotes in new window] It was made and set in Baltimore, employing a large ensemble cast playing cops, junkies, dealers, lawyers, judges, dockers, prostitutes, prisoners, teachers, students, politicians, journalists. The dramatis personae range widely, not only horizontally but vertically, from the foot soldiers of the drug trade, police department, school system and newspapers through middle management to the higher executives, showing parallel problems and choices pervading the whole society. Starting with city cops pursuing a major drugs operation, the drama moves outward, inward, upward, and downward to the docks, city hall, media outlets and schools. There are murders, affairs, bribes, trials, exams, elections, promotions, statistics, bylines, prizes, careers rising and falling, and much more.
Summing up the surface plot does not tell the real story. There is an HBO podcast called "4 seasons in 4 minutes." For those who have not seen The Wire, it looks like one more hyped-up TV drama and makes the critical acclaim surrounding the series seem incomprehensible. For those who have seen it, it is ironically funny and heightens the sense of how much more there is to it than can possibly be conveyed by simply recounting its plotlines. David Simon, its co-creator, admits,
"The raw material of our plotting seems to be the same stuff of so many other police procedurals."
"We're not as smart as The Wire."
Although it bears many similarities to other police procedurals, this series also marks a new departure. As the genre has evolved over the decades, dissonance, disruption and ambiguity of resolution have increased. The gap between law and justice has widened in TV drama as it has widened in social consciousness. Cops such as Andy Sipowicz [NYPD Blue], Frank Pembleton [Homicide: Life on the Street], Vic Mackey [The Shield] and Olivia Benson [Law & Order: SVU] are a different species from Joe Friday [Dragnet]. They are no longer untainted and uncomplicated agents of righteousness, but morally conflicted, psychologically complex men and women struggling with difficult personal lives as well as a crumbling social contract. They cross many a line, both ethically and legally. The Wire bears many characteristics of the best of its predecessors. Indeed some of its set-ups recall strikingly what went before. For example, the roll call scenes in the western district station, particularly in the final season, seem to pay homage to those starting every episode of Hill Street Blues.
Nevertheless The Wire represents a leap in the evolution of the genre. It has moved complexity up a level, and in the process it has opened narrative up in terms of social context, showing a social order in steep decline in which cops, judges, teachers, politicians, journalists as well as criminals are overwhelmed by corrupting forces that often prevail over all other impulses.
It has also broken from the standard narrative structure to which most cop shows still adhere. In these, a relatively harmonious status quo is disturbed by a murder, rape or assault, followed by an investigation combining elements of pavement pounding, interrogation and forensic detection. The script brings the killer, rapist or assailant to justice by the final scene and restores harmony. The Wire's narrative structure unfolds according to a much longer and less predictable story arc. It also reveals a more astute social analysis. It particularly unfolds a more intricate view of the underclass. As Simon observes:
"On shows where the arrest matters ... the suspect exists to exalt the good guys, to make the Sipowiczs and the Pembletons and the Joe Fridays that much more moral, that much more righteous, that much more intellectualized. It's to validate their point of view and the point of view of society. So, you end up with same stilted picture of the underclass. Either they're the salt of earth looking for a break and not at all responsible, or they're venal and evil and need to be punished."
Simon includes in the pantheon of standard cop shows Homicide: Life on the Street, based on his own book of narrative journalism Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, published in 1991. That book was adapted into a long-running series for NBC. While critically acclaimed, it suffered throughout its run from poor ratings and was occasionally tied in with the more conventional ratings winner, Law and Order, through crossover episodes.
However, even within the confines of network television, Homicide strained against generic constraints as it showed something of the world that would be explored more fully in The Wire. Many episodes did indeed center upon Detective Pembleton and his attempts to break suspects in the box (interrogation room) by virtue of his superior intellect. It also drew into the audience's purview the political wrangling whereby the least deserving police were promoted and integrity punished in a numbers game that turned detection into an annual balance sheet so that economic priorities constantly hindered effective police work. The status quo was not a harmonious one. In The Wire such resolution as there is is achieved in the face of institutional hostility and demand for media-friendly drug busts. As often occurred in Homicide, drug dealers and murderers are charged, but do not always face justice, regaining their liberty via plea bargains or investigative irregularities.
The Wire also takes aim at the seemingly omnipotent and omniscient CSI-type police procedurals, where the labor of detection is effectively reduced to a glamorized quasi-science pursued by investigators dressed like fashion models in designer clothes and hairdos and working in crime labs that look like night clubs. In contrast, an early episode of The Wire shows detectives waiting at a crime scene for forensic investigators, who are tied up with the theft of a city councilman's lawn furniture, while the corpse is decaying. On another occasion, the evidence for multiple murders is inappropriately amalgamated because a temp has failed to understand the meaning of "et al." Most consequentially, in season five McNulty contrives a serial killer scenario through manipulation of forensic evidence (after discovering that post-mortem bruising can be mistaken for strangulation) in a convoluted scheme to get funding for real police work. The crime lab itself is down at the heel and its personnel look like ordinary working people dressed for a days work not for a catwalk.
Highlighting the gulf between The Wire and more conventional cop shows is an anecdote told by actor Andre Royo (Bubbles), recounting his experience on Law and Order:
"In one scene, the cops come to my house because someone is killed and I have the weapon there. While we were shooting, I saw an open hallway and I ran out. And the director yelled 'Cut' and said, 'We’re not as smart as The Wire. On our show, you put your hands up and get handcuffed.'"
The Sopranos offers another point of comparison, as an HBO production that also took crime drama into new territory, where the story unfolded in such a way as to open out into a commentary on contemporary culture. That series took moral ambiguity to a whole new level. In speaking of The Sopranos, David Simon has praised this aspect of the show and said that he himself is not interested in good and evil. However, despite what he says, the series itself, as well as his other utterances in interviews, belie this. While The Wire casts virtually every character in a stance of moral compromise and shows sympathy for criminals, it nevertheless has a strong moral compass and does not seduce its audience into moral dissolution as The Sopranos arguably does. The Wire constantly raises the question of a moral code, even if along unconventional lines, and challenges its audience to moral reflection.
"Storytelling that speaks to our current condition"
Breaking from genre norms on many levels, The Wire has gone beyond even the best of previous police procedurals. It has set out to create something more panoramic and more provocative: "storytelling that speaks to our current condition, that grapples with the basic realities and contradictions of our immediate world," that presents a social and political argument. It is a drama about politics, sociology and macroeconomics.
The drama unfolds in the space "wedged between two competing American myths." The first is the free market rags-to-riches success story:
"if you are smarter ... if you are shrewd or frugal or visionary, if you build a better mousetrap, you will succeed beyond your wildest imagination."
The second is that
"if you are not smarter ... or clever or visionary, if you never do build a better mousetrap ... if you are neither slick nor cunning, yet willing to get up every day and work your ass off ... you have a place ... and you will not be betrayed."
According to Simon, it is "no longer possible even to remain polite on this subject. It is ... a lie." The result is an economic and existential crisis.
Much TV drama has shown the slippage in the grip of these myths but still remains in thrall to them. The Wire has broken more decisively from such a mythology as it explores the social crisis resulting from a world in which many people will not succeed or necessarily even survive, even if they are smart or honest or hard working, indeed they might even be doomed because they are. In fact, in the current atmosphere of economic crisis, such slippage will accelerate. The Wire can be read as a realization that the U.S. must come to terms with the fact of its descent in the world. Neither the nation itself nor its individual citizens can go on pretending.
"Capitalism is Zeus."
Rarely, if ever, has a television drama constructed a narrative with such a strong thrust toward metanarrative. That is, its stories point toward a larger story. Its intricate and interwoven storylines dramatize the dialectical interaction between individual aspirations and institutional dynamics. These build into the larger story of a city, not only the story of Baltimore in its particularity, but with a metaphoric drive toward the story of Every City. Every character and storyline pulses with symbolic resonance radiating out to a characterization of the nature of contemporary capitalism. While the text itself does not name the system, the metatext does so with extraordinary clarity and force. David Simon, the primary voice of this collective creation, has engaged in a powerfully polemical discourse articulating the worldview that underlies the drama. The metanarrative, the story about the story, is implicit within the drama, but explicit in the discourse surrounding the drama, going way beyond that of any previous TV drama.
Shakespearean is a term often used to describe what is perceived as quality television drama and it has been used to describe The Wire. David Simon is, however, quick to correct his interviewers with regard to its dramatic provenance:
"The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason."
This larger theme recurs across numerous interviews: The Wire is not a drama about individuals rising above institutions to triumph and achieve redemption and catharsis. It is a drama where those institutions thwart the ambitions and aspirations of those they purportedly exist to serve. It is a drama where individuals with hubris enough to challenge this dynamic invariably become mocked, marginalized or crushed by forces indifferent to their efforts or to their fates. It is a drama where truth and justice are often defeated as deceit and injustice are rewarded.
Of all the forces in motion — in politics, education, law and media — most crucial are the macroeconomic forces, which underpin and determine the operation of the other institutions. For David Simon:
"Capitalism is the ultimate god in The Wire. Capitalism is Zeus."
The worldview underlying ancient Greek tragedy is one in which individuals do not control the world. They are at the mercy of forces beyond their control. This is akin to Marx and Engels' anatomization of capitalism as a sorcerer who
"is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells."
The hidden hand of the market is as capable of "hitting people in the ass for no decent reason" as the capricious deities of ancient tragedy. It is a drama of fated protagonists, a rigged game, where there is no happy-ever-after ending.
"Balzac of Baltimore"
Literary references abound in the discourse surrounding the series. Explaining why he thinks it to be the best series in the history of television, Jacob Weisberg argues:
"No other program has ever done anything remotely like what this one does, namely to portray the social, political, and economic life of an American city with the scope, observational precision, and moral vision of great literature ... The drama repeatedly cuts from the top of Baltimore's social structure to its bottom, from political fund-raisers in the white suburbs to the subterranean squat of a homeless junkie .... The Wire's political science is as brilliant as its sociology. It leaves The West Wing, and everything else television has tried to do on this subject, in the dust."
The 19th century realist novel often comes into the analysis. The word Dickensian peppers numerous articles and reviews. Indeed within the drama itself, much irony surrounds the phrase "the Dickensian aspect" used in the newsroom to capture their aspirations for their coverage of homelessness. A corner boy, Bodie, uses the words "Charles Dickens" as a euphemism for penis. Critics have also made reference to Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Zola and Balzac.
The blog Scandalum Magnatum posted an entry on Simon entitled "Balzac of Baltimore," arguing that Balzac, Marx’s favorite novelist, sought to portray society in all its aspects, always thinking of it as a whole, showing how it was falling apart at the hands of the rising bourgeoisie. As Engels observed of Balzac, although his sympathies were with the class doomed to extinction, there was more to be learned from his fiction than from all the professed historians, economists and statisticians of the period together. In building a whole world, The Wire rivals the breadth of vision of the realist masterworks. It too anchors its sympathies in a class doomed to extinction, living in the shadows of the "brown fields and rotting piers and rusting factories," "dead-ended at some strip–mall cash register," "shrugged aside by the vagaries of unrestrained capitalism."
David Simon began his working life as a print journalist, a crime reporter on the Baltimore Sun, then wrote factual books before becoming a TV writer and producer. His principal co-writer, Ed Burns, a Vietnam veteran, became a homicide detective and then a social studies teacher. Burns teamed up with Simon in 1993 to write the book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (1997), later made into an HBO miniseries. These two writers had a central influence on the world of The Wire. Other writers also contributed to the series' common vision — to portray "the other America." Of particular note are George Pelecanos (DC quartet of crime novels), Richard Price (Clockers) and Dennis Lehane (Mystic River). Simon has favorably compared Clockers to Steinbeck’s naturalist Grapes of Wrath. And concomitantly Lehane recounts his initial reaction to Clockers in terms that could equally apply to The Wire:
"It just rattled me to my core. Reading it I remember feeling ... this, right here — is literature. This is what it’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to go out into a part of the world … where few dare venture and return with a testament."
Crucial to what makes a narrative outstanding is usually a thrust toward metanarrative. Such multifaceted works are often shaped by an intent to portray a wide social panorama at a particular moment in history. In this instance, The Wire dramatizes a postindustrial U.S. rustbelt city. The different seasons could be described as a series of linked novels. Simon himself has seen in long-form TV drama possibilities akin to those offered by the multi-point-of-view novel "where you get the whole world." The scripts reflect this sense of a cumulative structure and are written as chapters, largely devoid of cliff-hanger endings. The HBO cable television model, based on subscription and devoid of ad breaks, frees The Wire's scriptwriters from having to write in fifteen-minute blocks, each segment ending on a mini-climax to hook the viewer in after the commercial. What distinguishes The Wire most of all, however, setting it apart even from other high quality HBO productions, is that it is driven by a coherent worldview, by a social and historical analysis. The series signals the return of the grand narrative to the TV screen, but at a level of complexity and nuance never before seen in a television drama.
"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."
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
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." 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."
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.
"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. (37)
"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."
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.
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