The Feel of a City

– I got to ask you. If every time Snotboogie would grab the money and run away, why’d you even let him in the game?

– What?

– If Snotboogie always stole the money, why’d you let him play?

(…)

– Got to. This America, man.

A noise like an indrawn rush of breath and then it begins: a sixty-hour odyssey through the contemporary American city. The drug corners. The dying shipyards. The prisons. The schools. The bars. The Baltimore Sun. From City Hall to West Fayette. Omar in his trenchcoat, carrying a shotgun, whistling across dormant but unsleeping streets: a ‘pitiless stalker of the pitiless’. ‘You can’t get everything in,’ Gus Haynes’s boss at the Sun tells him. But you can. You can capture it. The feel of a city. The hope and reach and sweep of a city.

The moral ambiguity of The Wire is overstated by its fans. Show it to your kids, and they’re more likely to grow up wanting to be the cops than the villains. BPD detectives, if they are very unlucky, will get fired or take a bullet. Most of the West Baltimore gangsters end up dead or serving a natural life sentence.

Yet in his focus on the low end of two opposing institutions David Simon did make us rethink our ideas of practical good and evil. The show is full of men like Frank Sobotka, a stevedore boss who lets gangsters run drugs and trafficked women through his port to save the working American, doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. Detective Jimmy McNulty is a troubled idealist railing against the tyranny of Jay Landsman’s board, with its red and black names: symbol of a police department that is more interested in quarterly stats and administrative detections than investigations that take time and money but ultimately make the streets safer. (The Wire is perhaps the first cop drama to incorporate the paralysis of bureaucracy: an entire episode is dedicated to the wrangling of different law enforcement agencies over who should take responsibility for thirteen dead bodies at the docks.) We’ve seen drunken, womanising, tortured cops before, but never so well realised: when his boss expresses concern for McNulty’s mental health, the renegade answers: ‘I think I can do this and keep myself away from myself.’ He can’t.

His opposite number D’Angelo Barksdale, a midlevel dealer in his uncle’s drug empire, sets out the city in microcosm when he teaches the other hoppers how to play chess: ‘See, the king stay the king, a’ight? Everything stay who he is. Except for the pawns… they get capped quick. They be out the game early.’ These last two lines are both a confirmation of the status and an eerie portent of the fates of all three characters in this scene.

Here’s The Wire creator David Simon:

The Sopranos and Deadwood—two shows that I do admire—offer a good deal of Macbeth or Richard III or Hamlet in their focus on the angst and machinations of the central characters (Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen). Much of our modern theater seems rooted in the Shakespearean discovery of the modern mind. We’re stealing instead from an earlier, less-traveled construct—the Greeks—lifting our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality.

Many of The Wire’s most emotional moments are almost swallowed by end of season montage – I’m thinking of Wee Bey hugging his son across a prison visiting room table, Bubbles climbing up the basement stairs to enjoy a family meal. At the end of series one, we zoom in on Stringer Bell, number two in the Barksdale drug gang, counting piles of money. As the camera pulls in he closes his eyes, and there’s a look of total despair on his face. Save me. Get me out of here. Bell’s fierce intelligence and strong work ethic would have made him a successful businessman had he been born at a higher station in life. When his boss and partner Avon Barksdale is locked up, Stringer begins investing in property, wearing a suit, and running his meets as if they were corporate AGMs (‘Adjourn yo’ asses’). Still, he can’t escape – witness how easily he is conned by canny senator Clay Davis: ‘He saw yo’ ghetto ass comin a mile away,’ Avon mocks. In the end Stringer succumbs despite everything to the murderous soap opera of the corner.

Simon is a tireless critic of drug prohibition, which he argues has turned the war on drugs into a war on America’s underclass. During series three a rebellious major with only months until his pension turns a couple of dead streets into undisturbed drug markets, with the caveat that anyone selling anything anywhere else will feel the full force of police brutality. It has its problems (Simon is a realist as well as an idealist) but it’s better than the status quo. Naturally this experiment is shut down by the major’s bosses. Prohibition has become an article of faith and a major public sector growth industry. Like Vietnam in the early 1970s, everyone sane knows the war is pointless and destructive but they carry on wading through blood regardless.

Another point hammered into the fabric of the series was that the greatest divide is not race, but class. In a city that is two thirds black, many of The Wire‘s politicians carry a deck full of race cards. There’s a shot where City Council president Nerese Campbell waits a stoplight where Bubbles, now clean and straight, is selling papers. There are a few physical yards at best between these two African-Americans, yet the true distance is vast, a chasm of tumbling scree and reverberating echoes.

Critics of the contemporary novel tend to say that the only good writing is TV writing – The Sopranos, The Thick of It, Mad Men. But The Wire is written by great American crime novelists – Lehane, Price, Pelecanos – who are ‘writing in their literary work about second-tier East Coast rust-belt places like Jersey City, northeast Washington, or Dorchester, rather than Manhattan, Georgetown, or Back Bay Boston… the other America or the America that has been left behind in the postindustrial age.’ The Wire isn’t the death of prose fiction. It’s the ultimate victory.

(The Omar quote in the first para is from screenwriter Rafael Alvarez in his book The Wire: Truth Be Told.)

‘You can hold back from the suffering of the world. You have free permission to do so and it is in accordance with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.’

– Kafka

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