TV MONTH: The Wire (2002-2008)
"A Thin Line ‘tween Heaven and Here": The Moral Implications of Television’s Best Show
by Chris Cantoni
[Ed. Note: This essay contains major spoilers]
It is important for everyone reading this essay to recognize right off the bat that critical writing about The Wire is everywhere now and almost certainly better than what you are about to read. There are even classes on the show at Harvard and other universities, so for all of us white, college-educated intellectual NPR listeners, this is old hat. However, what would a television retrospective be without a look at what many have called the best television show of all time? So bear with me a moment as I try to make sense of the Baltimore underworld as presented by David Simon. When you walk through the garden, you’d better watch your back after all.
1. Being Gay in Baltimore
"You’re the perfect bait, Lamar. They’ll see you as conflicted. Your homophobia is so visceral." - Brother Mouzone
Here is something truly remarkable about The Wire: it had more gay characters than most of the shows on TV before or since. It had more gay main characters than Will & Grace! Omar Little, Kima Greggs, Detective Rawls, and Snoop are all gay characters—whether openly or not—and their personas are refreshingly removed from typical television representations of LGBT characters. None of them could be described as “the gay one”; they are all given dynamic and realistic portrayals that never rely on sexual orientation as a crutch. Omar Little is routinely cited as everyone’s—even President Obama’s!—favorite character, a remarkable achievement when you consider the discomfort many Americans still have with homosexuality.
The Wire was able to express a truth that our society continues to struggle with: gay people are just people, good and bad. That is a remarkable achievement for a show that doesn’t explicitly count sexual orientation among its many social themes. That is astounding. Indeed.
2. The Code
"A man must have a code." - Bunk Moreland
Of all the characters in The Wire, Stringer Bell seems the most amoral. He orders the murder of Wallace, and tries to order a hit on Clay Davis. Bell sets Mouzone and Omar against each other for his own purposes. He breaks the sacred Sunday morning truce by arranging a hit on Omar. When members of the Barksdale organization (led by Stringer) kill Omar’s boyfriend Brandon, they torture him—even burning him with cigarettes, transgressing the rules of the game. But Stringer’s worst crime is arranging the murder of D’Angelo without Avon’s knowledge. Stringer Bell has no code, and it ultimately leads to his downfall.
When Bell goes down, Omar and Brother Mouzone shoot him a handful of times. Despite all the things he’s done—all the hits he’s ordered—they don’t torture him or prolong his suffering. They shoot him dead. Their popularity with the audience doesn’t come from their bad deeds, but rather from their good ones. Omar, in particular, is reminiscent of the Man With No Name, a man who, even though he isn’t “good”, lives by a code of honor that he considers sacred. In the drug war that engulfs Baltimore, Omar “ain’t never put my gun on no citizen.” Civilians are out of bounds for him. Whatever crimes his conscience may be stained with, Omar Little is a man of a certain kind of honor, and we love him for it.
Similarly, the police hold to their own kind of honor. We tend to think of police as manufacturing PC, busting kids for pot, being more of a nuisance than a service, and generally shitting on the little man. The police in The Wire occasionally do walk a thin line of justice, but they also are required to jump through elaborate hoops in order to justify affidavits, wire taps, and search warrants. Sure, Jimmy McNulty is such an asshole he could give Don Draper lessons, but he’s also passionate and dedicated to bringing kingpins down the right way. He’s distraught when Stringer Bell is killed, because he was so close to arresting the man himself, bringing him to justice the right way.
Marlo Stanfield’s crew is also run by a code: absolute loyalty. They cut down anyone who doesn’t follow their program. Chris and Snoop are so ruthless their brutality is almost zealous—they force the game to a point that’s more about murder than drug dealing. They even take out Prop Joe! The Stanfield code is one of fear and intimidation—until they eliminate all their friends.
3. The Cycle
"Don’t matter how many times you get burnt, you just keep doin’ the same." – Bodie
My favorite thing about The Wire is that it does such an amazing job of helping the audience see a new perspective. Inner city schools are atrocious. Despite the amount of money thrown at them, they don’t improve. When we hear the statistics, we immediately assume that poor black kids don’t want to learn, or that their teachers are awful. But The Wire challenges that. In fact, sometimes it feels like the only reason David Simon created The Wire was to challenge things. Teachers have to teach to standardized tests so they don’t lose federal funding. If kids have fallen behind, teachers don’t have the time to catch them up. But, more importantly, when kids leave the classroom they enter a world where completing algebra worksheets takes a backseat to dealing with alcoholic mothers, caring for younger siblings, and withstanding emotional and physical abuses. There’s not enough food to go around, or enough rent money, and dealing drugs is an easy job. Obviously it’s more complicated than that, but isn’t that The Wire’s point? Drug dealers, drug users, cops, school systems…they’re all more complicated than we like to assume. We simply can’t take things at face value.
Cutty wants to start fresh when he gets out of prison, but he soon gets sucked back into the game. Why? Not because of a great yearning to rejoin the Barksdale organization, but because he has nothing else. He has no marketable skills and he’s working a landscaping gig with a handful of Spanish-speaking immigrants. It’s a microcosm of the Department of Corrections recycling program. In or out of prison, you’re still connected with the same elements that led you to the same bad choices. Those are the only connections you have. It’s a miracle Cutty is able to escape the cycle, and he only does so through some invisible, internal shift. As Cutty courageously explains it to Avon, “whatever it is in you that lets you flow like you flow and do that thing, it ain’t in me no mo’.” That’s all The Wire can offer us, because there’s no other explanation for it. Cutty is able to self-actualize and get out of the game that’s stealing his life away. Many others, for whatever reason, aren’t.
Change is slow, and there are no magic fixes, no silver bullets. No amount of money thrown at a problem can ever solve it, not really. The solution’s got to come from inside—whether it’s for Cutty, or Bubbles, or McNulty. No external force can save them. They’ve got to save themselves.
4. Social Responsibility
"I had such fuckin’ hopes for us." - Jimmy McNulty
It’s important for us as a culture to question things. With that caveat, is it possible that the large audience of young, college-educated, white people (i.e., me) tend to use The Wire as an easy trump card in their arguments about poverty, race, drug wars, inner city schools, etc.? Is it possible that Simon’s desire to challenge things has made some of us feel—in an unwarranted, entitled way—that we have actually shared in his social protest?
At this point, The Wire has attained sainthood in terms of highbrow culture. If you haven’t seen The Wire, white people are probably always telling you about how you really need to see The Wire. I’m not saying watching The Wire is bad; I’m saying that I think we hold it on such a pedestal that we somehow come to believe that having spent time with these characters in this world means that we are also on that pedestal.
And yes, The Wire expertly dissects the problems of drug violence, of being raised in the system, of the cycle of poverty—even why our schools continue to fail no matter how much money we throw at them. It’s so realistic that, after watching it, I felt like I could spot drug deals going down! See a guy using a payphone? That’s a drug deal. See a guy leaning in a car window? That’s a drug deal! I’d see black kids on street corners and immediately think I could relate to them. “Hey, buddy, I watched The Wire! You remind me of Bodie, let’s hang out.” Am I alone in this absurdity? It’s like having heard an obscure album or seen a hard-to-find movie, only with people. Having seen The Wire means I experienced the world it depicts—or so the thinking goes.
J.D. Williams, the actor who plays Bodie Broadus, actually walked around Baltimore’s inner city in the middle of the night before The Wire began shooting, to get a feel for the city. Can you imagine that? That is terrifying to me! But I watched Bodie talk tough, so I’m tough too now, right? Incorrect. (Sidenote: if you go to J.D. Williams’ Wikipedia page, you will see how screwed up our culture is just by looking at the names of the characters he played, which include “D Money,” “Thump,” and “Sweet Sauce.“ Surely we can find better roles for such a talented guy.)
Here is what I’m saying: just watching The Wire doesn’t fix our ills. Much of the progress we seek to make in the world is hampered by our unwillingness to understand the nature of those problems. I don’t know one true thing about inner city Baltimore. I don’t know the smell of a drug addict or the politics of being police or the socioeconomic pressures of joining and/or leaving the drug trade. The Wire did an impressive job of giving the rest of America a taste of that experience, but if we juke the stats and consider our understanding complete, we are no better than the misdirected top brass the show portrays.
"There are no second acts in American lives,” the infamous Fitzgerald quote, has a different meaning for every person. But for D’Angelo Barksdale, the meaning is clear: the past is always with us.
The inequities and inequality of the past helped shape today’s Baltimore and the rest of America’s cities. America likes to pretend its problems never existed. Slavery, the treatment of American Indians, segregation? We don’t forget things so much as sweep them under the rug and then claim it was like that when we got here. White people don’t like feeling guilty for the crimes of their ancestors, which often creates resistance to discussions of white guilt or racism in general. But the past is always with us. As a society, it will forever be our first act. As individuals, we must work to change that legacy for our own second acts. The Wire is an entertaining and engaging drama unlike anything on television. It is a brilliant example of television as art. We can leave it at that, like we do so much else. But if The Wire is a claim we make on understanding the interconnected and constellational aspects of inner city crime and circumstances, then it’s more than a television show.
In the words of D’Angelo Barksdale, “it don’t matter that some fool say he different, cause the only thing that can make you different is what you really do or what you really go through.”
Chris Cantoni is still looking for Wallace, String. He tumbls here.
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