This is sticky. If you haven’t watched all five seasons of The Wire, what follows might sound encrypted. I can’t unpack its plots because it would be like unpacking Bleak House. The names, events, and dialogue textured into over a dozen cannily inflected story lines, the tight yet elastic weave of relations among characters from very different orders of society, the lingos and temperaments and mayhem and everything else that figure in a sixty-hour master story that’s pure process, without an originating event or conclusion: these are by now a language shared by Wire initiates. I’ll presume that if you read on, you know or are soon to know what’s what. If you’re a non-initiate, know that spoilers follow.
I don’t have cable service but I have a TV set, so I catch up to things on DVD. When I caught The Wire, I watched every season as it was released, back-to-back episodes, sometimes three a night. I couldn’t let it go; it wouldn’t let me go. I told anyone who asked that it was the best television I’d ever seen. I never tried to figure out why until I took this assignment. I’m still figuring it out, so this is a provisional report on what keeps me hooked.
I’m watching it for the third time and am hearing and seeing bits I missed the first two times around because of the show’s rarest pleasureits elliptical narrative tactics and speed. Story lines pitch forward while withholding crucial information, and the withholding is technique and content. Stutter-step disclosures drive the show’s narrative and incidentally allow me to delight in my own information deprivation. Every plotline is about late arrivals at momentous recognitions which, when they do finally come, are dumped like asides, ticked past with herky-jerky indifference, or allowed to die a slightly double-take death.
The Wire has the conventional dynamics of cops-and-robbers shows: double crosses, tough talk, bleak comedy, gals rough and sweet (or both), moral ambiguities, and gun play; and I do love all that. But for me it’s also about storytelling, how we represent experience and craft our separate realities, how we control the lives of others by eliding or withholding disclosures. Season One begins with a story being told, and the final, fifth season is about the mass storytellingmisleading, self-interested, redactedof newspapers.
So, Episode One, Scene One. Visuals unceremoniously drop us into an in-progress event: wet blood-tracks on a street, then a teenage male corpse leaking the blood, then a beat cop writing his report, all impassively watched by young children and by a detective, Jimmy McNulty, later referred to as “McNutty” by Bubbs, a sweet-natured junkie informant whose street name is Bubbles and whose birth name (we learn many hours later) is Reginald. The sliding scale of names is part of the mechanics of unknowing and misdirection that The Wire thrives on, and no story reported by any character to anotherjust like no story picked up off the wirecan be entirely trusted. McNulty, the Greek, the Mayor of Baltimore, the small-appliance-repairman-cum-drug-lord Prop Joe, Senator Clay Davis, Stringer Bell, Bunk, D’Angelo, the Sibotkas, Brother Mouzone and Omar and Cheese and Wee-Bey and Pook (curious about the names yet?) represent reality to each other with the same blind spots and obliquities that the show uses. The Wire opens up “story arcs” in fractured, askance ways, just as McNutty occludes virtually all the information he passes on to his police superiors, his wife, his hook-ups, his kids, whoever. The stories are about characters orienting themselves to constantly morphing circumstances, and we viewers are deposited into disorientation with them. The Wire is organized so that pieces and fragments of information get pinned to our prepped storytelling grid like the index cards and photos pinned to the cops’ big storyboardit gives us the big picture of why no big picture is ever completed.
But back to the opening scene. A project mook sitting with McNulty narrates the back-story. Snot, the dead kid’s street name, shoots craps every Friday with his boys and, every time, when the pot gets deep, he scoops up the money and runs and his boys catch him and rough him up. Happens every Friday, until tonight when disorder stepped in and Snot got shot. When McNutty asks the kid why, since everybody knew Snot (full name Snot Boogie) grabbed the pot every time, they let him play at all, the kid answers: “You gots to. This America, man.” The glum, throwaway remark gives momentary if obtuse moral coherence to messy street life.
The messiness and the abrupt revising or finalizing of destinies, as the series plays out, extends to other chunks of the social order: law enforcement, the drug trade, labor unions, City Hall, schools, media. And yet every setting has an infrastructure for provisional stability. For drug players it’s the Game. If you’re in it, you abide by an ethos of authoritarian rules that determine how business gets transacted, rules more often assumed than stated. The Game allows for a disrupter, the murderous prankster Omar, whose “work” is taking down drug stashes and who relishes the Game more shamelessly than anyone. (The projects know he’s coming when they hear him whistling a chilling, ain’t-I-ironic version of “Farmer in the Dell.”) As in any secret society, those in the Game recognize those who aren’t, or who want to leave or are unsuited to it. When D’Angelo’s agonized sense of right and wrong begins to override the Game’s preceptsthis is a young man who hasn’t just committed murder but who compellingly narrates it to his palshe’s executed on the orders of his own beloved mentor, String. It’s D’ who recognizes that the baby-faced Wallace isn’t cut out for the Game. The show is so cunningly inflected, though, that when D’ tells his story and stops short of the punch line, the kid who supplies it“He shot her”is Wallace, a boy soon so appalled and addled by the violence he’s witnessed that he takes to bed, depressed. He can’t man up anymore, wants out of the Game, and so is suspect, and so he, too, is killed (by two of his own boys) in the most heartbreaking act of violence in the entire series.
In law enforcement (another secret society) the Game becomes Chain of Command, in stevedores’ lives it’s Union, in the political order it’s City Hall, and the leering mistrust in each runs so deep that the actors often look like they’re inhaling some rotten odor. Season to season, we see each society conniving to maintain an ethos, however twisted or opportunistic, that will forestall chaos. The show’s mechanics imitate its contents: it uses correspondences between social orders (cut from an elementary-school soccer match to project kids aimlessly running around) and characters (McNulty is as much a spoiler in law enforcement as Omar is in the drug trade) to maintain coherent plotlines. The show’s style trains us to pay attention to everything, because anything might turn out to be mortally consequential, or not. Consider a scene in Season Three: in a gay bar, the camera catches an apparently accidental glimpse of Major Rawls, the toughest-talking cop in the show, who irrationally loathes the hopelessly hetero McNulty (who in a pinch would fuck a stoat). But that’s it. The camera ignores Rawls. We barely see him, don’t really know why he’s there, and the plot offers no follow-through; it’s just something that happens.
The Wire doesn’t just train us to pay attentionit dramatizes forms of attention. McNulty’s is feral, like that of the rat-catching terrier in Omar’s story line: attention as animal pursuit. Avon’s (“I’m just a gangsta, I suppose”) fixes on force and control. String’s scrutinizes the business of drugs; when his attention gets divided by his ambitions as a developer, it brings him to a crummy, smashingly staged end. Omar’s deceptively sleepy attention fastens to things, whether it’s taking down a dealer or helping a cop solve a crossword by providing “Ares” in place of “Mars.” (“Same dude, different name, is all.”) My personal favorite is Lester, builder of “toy furniture” and physically fearless cop who is also that rarest thing on TV, an adult who expresses believable methodical intellectualism. Sitting before the computer screens that cherry-pick info off the wire, he shows the same Cistercian attention as when he’s making his “miniatures.” And like nearly every major character, at some point Lester narrates his own back-story, as do Kima, McNulty, Sibotka, Cutty, Bubbs, and others whose self-representations reveal character as it determines fate. Most recognize at least one fateful trait in others: decencyor, at any rate, an honesty that within the rules of the Game passes for decency. It’s why Avon lets Cutty out of the Game, why D’Angelo knows Wallace is doomed, why Lester recognizes in a mere photograph the good nature of a bar girl in Avon’s club, who subsequently becomes an informant. “She has that look,” he says. “You know, she’s a citizen.” One especially sick-making passage comes in the fifth season when Lester lets his incorruptible attention be corrupted for political reasons: to bump police budgets, he helps falsify a story about serial murders.
The story lines are soaked with sardonic bitterness about the brokenness and unfixability of our institutions, and they make no apologies for despair. The only institution that works is what the street dealers call Hamsterdam, the junkie village created by the visionary police captain Bunny Colvin, who segregates all Baltimore drug trade into a few city blocksa ghetto inside a ghettoin order to liberate decent people and neighborhoods held hostage to drug culture. Its sanity is perceived and treated by authorities as craziness. David Simon, who created and watch-dogged The Wire, never tired of saying that it’s about how capitalism cripples institutions. (The narcotics business rots coherent cultures.) The show demonstrates how Bunny’s individual will, or the collective will of the detail that works the major drug cases, will either fail because it can’t change the political culture it has to function in or will corrupt itself by imitating, with the best intentions, the cynical methods of the structures it tries otherwise to undermine. The trumped-up serial murders demonstrate how good police think they can swallow the devil’s spit and still have the breath of angels. Characters in The Wire lead ambiguous lives. What makes it morally intense is that it dramatizes what it feels like to live not just with ambiguity but for it.
Fiction-making media (not just movies and TV but, as Season Five makes clear, newspapers too) fumble into drippy sentimentalism or stiffen into overly righteous emotion when dealing with grief. The Wire contains moments of grief uncompromised by special pleading or “framing,” though the purity of feeling can’t be separated from ambiguity. Nothing matches the elegiac grandeur of the solo spiritual, “Jesus On the Mainline,” sungfieldshoutedat D’Angelo’s funeral. Never mind it’s mourning for and by a drug-running society. The song doesn’t ask us to sympathize, only to witness grieving. And much later, the mere sight of the abandoned boarded-up houses where Marlo has stashed bodies is an image of loss, of houses not as beds of culture but dumpsters for dead human beings: the houses represent all the species of concealment, misdirection, and devaluation of the human that every social order in The Wire engages in.
A word about “Hamsterdam.” A word, I mean, about The Wire’s words. The dialogue doesn’t sound squared-up or “written.” It’s just talk. The language of the Avon-Stringer-Marlo crews is a virus that spreads, as the series progresses, through other social entities. Their speech and the cops’ can hardly be told apart. As Carcetti rises from city councilman to mayor, his speech crawls closer to the street. I still struggle to understand what the androgynous, homicidal Snoop is saying exactly, but I get the drift because of her slurred timingher speech is like a rhythm section to the other voices around her. If the language of The Wire had bled into common usageas have, say, Seinfeld’s “yada-yada” and “soup Nazi”you’d have college political science professors answering student questions with “Because that’s how they do” or “Ain’t no thing.” The feistiest language match-up is between cops and crooks (drug crooks, that is). They communicate by chopping language into bits, then leaving most of the bits out. The dealers don’t fill in the blanks: they use ellipses as musical notation, they communicate by what they don’t say, which is what makes getting good wire intelligence on them so maddening. The cops have their own cues and codes. In one famous scene (and an actor’s dream), Bunk and McNutty, working with virtually no evidence, perfectly block out how a murder happened, their recognitions inflected exclusively with “fuck” and its offspring“Fucketyfuck,” “Uhn, fuck me…,” “Motherfuck!” etc.
The Wire works all the resources of the medium. Its music soundtrack is always ambient, usually blasting or crooning from cars, and never tells us how we’re supposed to be feeling, though sometimes it tingles with humor, like the Temps’ “Just My Imagination” woo-ing from a car radio while Omar reconnoiters Marlo’s digs. The visual rhythms are jumpy and impatient, but not manic in the way of a Paul Greengrass or a Tony Scott. The shoot-outs, except for personal, focused paybacks, are chaotic, on the runwe’re as disoriented as the participants. The projects at night are lit to look like a cave culture, one that possesses an orange sofa. We flop from it and the lurid shooting galleries Bubbs frequents to the bland official lighting of City Hall and police headquarters. The camera, like all the moving parts of the various plots, won’t stay put: the narrative eye prowls, glides, overrides.
The collective responsible for writing The Wire has its mind on children and the life span of innocence. Many fans prefer Season Four, about a bunch of eighth-grade boys, because it’s about foundational fatedness, character formation, nature-and-nurture. We watch moral consciousness becoming occluded or clarified by circumstance. One troublemaker named Namond is delivered from the drug life not just because of a policeman’s intervention, but because he brings to their encounter some mystery of nature. All sorts of children are already lost souls or at risk. From the beginning of the series, McNulty’s two sons are casualties of their father’s obsessiveness. Carcetti’s children are hostage to his political career. Kima all but abandons the child she shares with her former girlfriend. In the opening scene I mentioned earlier, we see a community of children already being shaped by the models around them. The Wire argues darkly (but correctly) that the capitalist institutions we entrust the lives of children tolaw enforcement, the courts, local governmentwill barter that trust in a second to self-interest and expediency. Children also endure the lurking despair of an unreachable world elsewhere, best dramatized in one of my favorite exchanges, between Cutty and a pouty kid who works out at Cutty’s fight gym. The kid, Dukie, is a terrible boxer because he lacks heart. He can’t fight, he doesn’t want to sell drugs, he really just wants to know one thing: “Like, how do you get from here to the rest of the world?” Cutty, who knows he can be only one kind of mentor, has to answer, “I wish I knew.”
For street kids, life is an early onset firing process, hardening the soft metals of childhood into much harder alloys. We watch the forging take place at different ages, from the very young boy who shoots Omar to the young adult D’Angelo, a killer with a genuine sense of mercy who begins to question fatedness in ways that guarantee his death at the hands of the people who mentored him. The montage that ends the series includes: Dukie shooting up under the tutelage of the horse-cart trashpicker he works for, in a hovel they share with the horse, whose head leans over Dukie’s shoulder like a mockery of the Nativity donkey; the very young boy who kills Omar being led away in cuffs; more kids of all ages sitting on stoops, dealing on corners, idling (loudly) in the projects. The Wire is so layered and rigged with resonances that after a couple of viewings, when I saw Omar get shot, I thought first that, like Ares, he’s the warrior god of the projects, and second that he attributes his knowledge of the “same dude, different name” to having studied mythology at school (“I used to love them myths. That stuff was deep. Truly.”). You can push this fartherthe screenwriters let usand know that Omar also would have learned that Ares was Aphrodite’s brother; and it’s Omar who shows himself to be the most devoted, tender, sensual, and, when his boyfriend Brandon is killed and mutilated, most murderously vindictive lover in the series. By the show’s end, the apparently sweet-tempered and charitable Michael has taken Omar’s place, robbing dealers, learning how to seem invincible and fearless, armed like Omar, as if in adulation, with a double-barreled.
A wire taps privacies; it transmits information that’s clear or opaque; it bears whole sentences or fragments; it can close a circuit that connects numerous points of contact; it’s a straight line that’s really a web. If a wire lets cops follow the drugs, everything stays under control of official entities. But, as Lester says, if it lets them follow the money, nobody’s in control. The wire will lead you into complex corruptions at every level of society. The Wire has its own tenacity of consciousness. It won’t let go of things, and every bit at least seems wired to some other bit. Sometimes it carries and connects coherent stories, sometimes not. It’s a dark essay on illusion and delusion. It tells us as often as we can stand to hear it that there are no simple answers, that much of the time we don’t really know to ask the right questions. It dramatizes, sometimes in the bawdiest byplay I’ve ever seen on TV, how we reveal our natures. A melancholy procession of imagescity neighborhoods, industrial sites, people at work, street action, weathersends the series as it began, in instability, disorientation, uncertainty, and irresoluteness. It welcomes us again, if we need it, to the world of adults and adult-making.
W. S. Di Piero's new book of poems, Nitro Nights, is out from Copper Canyon in 2011; his new book of art writings, When Can I See You Again?, is available from Pressed Wafer. He lives in San Francisco.