I’ve watched HBO’s incredible series The Wire three times now.
That’s about 186 hours of screen time. And it was worth every minute.
Some reflections below and — fair warning — spoilers abound.
Go-Through One: Wait, What Just Happened?
The first time it was about the plot. Who would live and who would die? As my friend James has pointed out, the series truly hooks the viewer in the first season, when Kima Greggs is shot. The constant threat of peril continues as Stringer Bell, Bodie Broadus and Frank Zebotka meet their makers. In the series’ most intense standoff, Omar Little and Brother Muzone threaten to kill each other but work together instead. Overall, we watch dozens die and hear of hundreds more killed.
The Baltimore of The Wire is a war zone. And we are left with little satisfaction when the police put the bracelets on anyone. Avon Barksdale, Wee-Bey Brice, and Marlo Stanfield see jail as an extension of their street lives. In their world, jail time is comprised only of “The day you go in and they day you come out.” Though Dennis Wise (Cutty) puts the lie to that later.
The police characters experience “career death” over and over again as they lose and regain positions of power. McNulty goes to the boat and returns, just as Cedric Daniels winds up in a bland processing office before being given a command again. Carcetti moves up the ranks, Kima toys with different lines of police work and we watch as they all struggle to find their place in the world.
Go-Through Two: Yep, He Really Just Did That
The second time, it was about the characters. How were they changing and what was motivating their choices? Jimmy McNulty earns our admiration for his dogged police work and our contempt as we realize how disruptive he is to everyone around him. He finds peace for a while, but nearly breaks our hearts (and Beadie’s). Maybe he finds redemption in the end. But by the second run-through of the series, it’s a little harder to see him being happy, largely due to the absurdity of season five’s plot. By the third run-through, McNulty’s actions in the final season seem very much out of character (as do Lester Freamon’s and a few others).
Perhaps the most meaningful transformation comes to Roland Pryzbylewski. Prez is introduced to us as a misfit cop who shouldn’t be trusted with a gun. But Lester takes him under his wing and finds he has “a talent for the paper trail.” Prez’s judgment, it seems, is weak. But his mind is strong.
Prez’s true turnaround comes in the second season when his father-in-law Stan Valchek tries to remove him from the unit investigating the docks. When Valcheck calls Prez a “shit bird,” Prez snaps and sucker punches him. Our hearts leap for joy. Valcheck, after all, is an asshole. And Prez finally stands up to him and becomes his own man.
Of course, we’re crushed later when Prez accidentally kills a fellow officer. We know he means well. The poor guy just shouldn’t be out on the street with a gun. He should be in an office decoding drug dealer communications.
We watch as Prez struggles to take on the responsibility of teaching. By season five, we see him with a beard, symbolic perhaps of aging and gaining wisdom and experience. He seems far more in control and perhaps has found his place in the city.
In many ways, The Wire’s most complex character is Tommy Carcetti, though the story of a politician who loses his way is certainly a well-worn one. Its hard for us to tell if he’s acting for his own self interest or the good of his constituents. He starts out trying to wear the mantle of a reformer. We see him grill the police and try to get them to do better work. But as he decides to run for mayor, we see the first signs that Tommy is out there for Tommy. He withholds news he is running from his office-mate Tony Gray. And more heavy handidly, we see him engaging in vapid coitus atop a bathroom vanity with someone who is not his wife while he stares at himself in a bathroom mirror. Shades of American Psycho.
Eventually, as the city crumbles around him, Carcetti displays an incredible ability to convince himself that doing the right thing for him also happens to be the best thing for Baltimore. Eventually he decides the best thing he can do is run for governor to help the city from Annapolis. His endless cycles of self-justification leave us with a view of Carcetti that is far emptier than what we start out with, but we never sense outright malice of selfishness from him.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning a few characters who don’t evolve and earn our disgust or love with their consistency.
Drug lawyer Maurice Leavy doesn’t change. He is the most irredeemable character in The Wire. His motivation seems to be money and some modicum of power. We never see his home life and never get a chance to find out how he sleeps at night.
I would argue that Cedric Daniels’ character doesn’t change. He remains loyal and honest and lives his life with a clarity of purpose. The same is largely true for Bunny Colvin. Their jobs and even their families change, but they remain, at heart, good men.
Does Omar Little change? I think so. He starts out just trying to make a living. Granted, he chooses to do so by robbing drug dealers, but we learn throughout the series that Omar lives by a code. That code makes him face increasingly difficult choices. He won’t put a gun on a civilian, he says what he means, and he is, if nothing, reliable. But Omar eventually becomes obsessed with taking down Barksdale’s organization then Stanfield’s, ultimately leading to his demise.
And Omar does slip once. He promises Bunk no more bodies when Bunk springs him from jail. But later, in his quest to take down Stanfield, he kills Savino. Unlike other instances in which Omar kills quickly, he pauses before shooting Savino, and even considers letting him go before pulling the trigger. This is the only time Omar breaks his word. He doesn’t pay for it with his life — at least not directly. But he is shot dead shortly thereafter. Perhaps, in the jaundiced moral universe of The Wire, this is his punishment for going back on his word.
Go-Through Three: “Giving a Fuck When It Ain’t Your Turn”
The third time, it was about the institutions. What was pushing the characters in the world and institutions they inhabit? And ultimately, I found this to be the most interesting and satisfying level on which to appreciate The Wire.
The bureaucracy of the police system is self-evident, with their COMSTAT meetings and the constant shuffling between drab cubicles. But it also shows itself within the culture of the drug dealers. In the series’ first episode, William Rawls’ dressing down of McNulty for going to a judge is neatly juxtaposed with Avon Barksdale criticizing D’Angelo for costing them time and money by murdering someone.
Later, of course, Stringer introduces formal bureaucracy to the dealers. This leads to one of the show’s most devastatingly funny lines when a young dealer takes Stringer’s copy of Robert’s Rules of Order too literally. Stringer snaps a notepad from the young man, admonishing him not to take minutes on a “criminal fucking conspiracy.”
The second season introduces us to a culture in decline at the docks. (And we see first-hand the bureaucratic squabbling among law enforcement agencies over who has responsibility for the dead bodies that wind up in a container there.) The fourth season teaches us that schools are an institution, but that the streets the kids inhabit are a more powerful but informal one. The fifth season’s treatment of journalism as an institution is a caricature. Perhaps series creator David Simon was simply too close to subject matter and had some scores to settle. Nevertheless, we see the institutional pressures that drive the newspaper to value prizes and blind careerism over the truth.
Lessons from the Third Go-Through: Being Reasonable and Unreasonable
The characters in The Wire face a dilemma elegantly captured by George Bernard Shaw in 1903: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.” Shaw’s warning and inspiration follows: “Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
There is no better contrast in the series between the reasonable and the unreasonable than in the relationship between McNulty and his sometimes supervisor Sergeant Jay Landsman. After McNulty goes to Judge Phelan to secure the resources he wants to pursue the Barksdale drug operation, Landsman warns McNulty, ‘When they ask you where you don’t want to end up, detective; and they will ask you, don’t tell them.’ Later, when Rawls asks McNulty where he doesn’t want to end up, poor Jimmy is indeed tossed to the boat.
When Freamon and Bunk discover the bodies in the vacant houses, Landsman is the one who warns them to hold off on reporting the discovery until the mayor’s office signs off on them publicly revealing dozens of new murders.
When Kima joins homicide, Landsman tells her that the department isn’t fooling around when it comes to murders. The bosses know their names, he says.
We might come to despise Landsman for his institutional laziness if he wasn’t so damned funny. From reading a porn magazine in front of the visiting mayor-elect, to warning us that a clean desk is “a sign of a sick mind,” Landsman seems to take joy in his role as an arbiter between Homicide and the bosses. His eulogy for Ray Cole and his retirement speech “eulogy” for McNulty are among the series’ most memorable lines:
We are police. So no lies between us. He wasn’t the greatest detective and he wasn’t the worst. He put down some good cases and he dogged a few bad ones. But the motherfucker had his moments. Yes, he fucking did. You remember the Mississippi extradition? The arson murders? He brought that case home. And the triple at the after-hours over on Hudson Street…that was Ray Cole at his best. And Fayette Street in ’93, the drug wars. He took a lot of hot corners and cooled them. Yes, indeed. He won as much as he lost. Much as any of us. Did he piss off a wife or three? No fucking doubt. I think the last one actually kind of got used to him, thank God. Did he say the wrong shit now and then? Did he bust balls and cheat on his taxes and forget to call his mother and fuck the wrong broad for the wrong fucking reason every now and then? Who fucking doesn’t? Christ! Was he as full of shit as every other sad-sack motherfucker wearing a badge of Baltimore City Police? Abso-fucking-lutely. His shit was as weak as ours, no question. But Ray Cole stood with us…all of us…in Baltimore…working, sharing a dark corner of the American experiment. He was called. He served. He is counted. Old King Cole.
And for McNulty:
He gave us thirteen years on the line. Not enough for a pension, but enough for us to know that he was, despite his negligible Irish ancestry, his defects of personality and his inconstant sobriety and hygiene, a true murder police. Jimmy, I say this seriously. If I was laying there dead on some Baltimore street corner, I’d want it to be you standing over me, catching the case. Because, brother, when you were good, you were the best we had.
Landsman sees the full picture of the police bureaucracy and adapts himself to it. He sees his role, those of his detectives and is the one among them best equipped to say goodbye to the ones they lose.
McNulty sees the whole system, too, but rages against it. He is constantly the unreasonable man.
Early in season one, when McNutly decides to pursue the Barksdale organization, Bunk admonishes him for “giving a fuck when it ain’t your turn.” More than once, as his investigations are delayed, defunded and deprioritzied, McNulty wonders aloud what it would be like to “work in a real police department.”
Daniels eventually gets McNulty’s number. In a meeting, McNulty calls Rawls “an asshole.” Daniels informs him that, “to you, everyone who gets in your way is an asshole.” McNulty can do nothing but stare glumly, acknowledge Daniels’ point, and move on.
Watching McNulty operate is a bit like watching someone cursing the brick wall into which they insist on running. Freamon questions why he keeps doing it. He tells him the cases ultimately don’t matter. That when he finally catches Stringer, there will be no “Jimmy McNulty Day parade.”
But McNulty is deeply troubled by his omniscient ability to see everything wrong with the institution around him and his crippling inability to do anything that can change it. Even in a sort of victory, McNulty sees only defeat: His reaction to Stringer’s assassination is to lament the fact that Stringer didn’t know McNulty was about to catch him.
In the end, McNulty is inhabiting Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” where he spends his life “waiting for a moment that just don’t come.” As Beadie tells him, the only people who will ever be there for him, in the end, are his family, if he chooses them over his police work. McNulty, at least, receives his detective’s wake while he’s still breathing.
In contrast to McNulty’s apathy, Frank Zebotka is perhaps the only character in The Wire who truly believes in the institution to which he belongs. He lives for his union and eventually dies for it, after cheating, stealing and lying for it, too. But Frank ultimately realizes, far too late, that he is really fighting for the past. He and his colleagues see the future: machines rather than checkers loading and unloading cargo.
He laments the lost past in The Wire‘s most poignant line: “You know what the trouble is, Brucey? We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we’re just sticking our hands into the next guy’s pockets.”
Bodie Broadus also has a loyalty to his institution. But he works his way up the Barksdale ranks only to see that institution destroyed. Still, he takes in Wee-Bay’s son Naymon out of loyalty and remains in touch with Slim Charles and other former Barksdale gang members. He eventually capitulates to Marlo Stanfield and his assassins, watching his friends die for even the suggestion of betraying Stanfield’s operation. When Little Rick’s body is removed from one of the vacants, Bodie becomes an unreasonable man, screaming out his condemnation of the Stanfield operation. But no one listening is in power to change anything.
Later, McNulty tries to flip Bodie. Over sandwiches in a park, with a king-like statue overlooking them, he tells McNulty he feels betrayed:
I feel old. I been out there since I was 13. I ain’t never fucked up a count, never stole off a package, never did some shit that I wasn’t told to do. I’ve been straight up. But what come back? Hmm? You think if I get jammed up on some shit, they’d be like, “All right, yeah. Bodie been there. Bodie hang tough. We got his pay lawyer. We got a bail.” They want me to stand with them, right? But where the fuck they at, when they supposed to be standing by us? I mean, when shit goes bad and there’s hell to pay where they at? This game is rigged, man. We like the little bitches on a chessboard.
McNulty tells him someone has to step up if they’re going to take Stanfield off the streets. Bodie responds, “I’ll do what I gotta. I don’t give a fuck. Just don’t ask me to live on my fucking knees, you know?”
Bodie, like Zebotka, dies in a quest to recapture the order of an institution that no longer exists. Bodie refuses to give up his corner and a drug culture that had rules he could respect and understand. Frank refuses to give up his docks.
One can imagine the Broaduses and the Zebotkas passing each other on Moravia Road not knowing how much they have in common.
The characters’ helplessness in the face of their institutions is best captured in a quick exchange between Slim Charles and Avon Barksdale after Stringer is killed. Slim Charles blames Marlo Stanfield’s organization for Stringer’s death, but Barksdale tells him String died “over some other shit.” Slim tells him, “Don’t matter who did what to who at this point. Fact is, we went to war, and now there ain’t no going back. I mean, shit, it’s what war is, you know? Once you in it, you in it. If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie. But we gotta fight.”
Perhaps nothing speaks better to the blind power of institutions in The Wire than Slim’s commitment in that moment to a war he can not win for reasons that no longer matter.
Can Anyone Fix It?
Ultimately, there are only three reformers in The Wire with the power and the will to change the systems they inhabit: Bunny Colvin, Cedric Daniels and Tommy Carcetti.
I’ve already explored Carcetti’s self-delusional ability to allow Baltimore to decline as he eyes the Maryland Statehouse. Power and ambition kill his reforming spirit.
Daniels is given a brief chance to reform the system. He assures the women who love him that he knows how the play the game and has learned his lessons. In the fifth season, we finally see him sitting atop the police force. And it’s crushing to see him lose his seat so quickly for politics outside his control. Seeing Valcheck replace him must feel like being kicked when he’s already down.
Colvin’s attempt at reform is more interesting. It works. Hampsterdam makes a return to civil life in other parts of his district possible. And we see “the academics” come in and help the addicts and others who flock to the free zone. The police commanders are apoplectic when they hear about it, of course. You can’t juke the stats by actually fixing things. But when Mayor Clarence Royce sees that the district’s crime statistics have dramatically dropped, he is intrigued. He wonders if “we can call this shit something it ain’t” and adopt it more broadly. An aide tells him not to even think about it.
If they did that, Royce might not get reelected. The voters would never understand.
In this instance, as in many others, The Wire’s message is ultimately political. The failings of systems are our failings. Our failing to care, to hold leaders accountable, to think for ourselves and outside ourselves. The Wire is perhaps the best kind of art in that it enhances reality in a way that makes it more understandable.
For their part, the creators of The Wire pledged to never vote anyone guilty should they serve on a jury for a non-violent drug case. But that sort of negating action, while concrete, falls short of reforms that would solve the problems The Wire highlights, which touch everything from the civil service and education system to housing oversupplies and the labor market.
And it would be a mistake to think that policy prescriptions are the sole solution. The Wire also teaches us — particularly through Bubbles — that the journey from statistic to citizen is also a personal one.
When we talk about the systems that bedevil the characters in The Wire, we’re also talking about the people that make up those systems. And we are talking about ourselves.
Conclusion: The Wire is Greatest Moving Sound and Image Contribution to Western Civilization
The first time I watched The Wire, I literally could not watch anything else for a month. It all fell short. As I watched The Wire a second and third time, some of the artifice started to show through, particularly in the fifth season. But overall, The Wire is hands down, absolutely, no arguments, the best television series in the history of the medium. And it is probably even better than that.
I suspect I’ll watch it a fourth time, probably with my kids.