Catharsis: Thoughts and Ruminations on HBO’s The Wire

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Thoughts and Ruminations on HBO’s The Wire

December 8th, 2008

I doubt that anyone has ever really thought about it, but I’ve been living in a state of shame since, earlier this summer, I reviewed the first two episodes of The Wire, Season One, and made the follow proclamation:

“I figured that the more people talk about what is (thus far, and by all accounts) a fantastic series the better for my readers, readers everywhere, and maybe even the show’s long-shot Emmy chances.”

That post, and a post comparing the show to The Dark Knight, were the only two times I’ve talked about The Wire on this blog. Now, this isn’t that uncommon in terms of other shows I’ve caught up on: I got through four and a half seasons of Six Feet Under without talking about it (no, I haven’t finished it yet. Maybe next summer), and until the third season started I didn’t fill you all in last summer when I caught up on How I Met Your Mother. Due to both the speed at which I burn through these episodes, and the relative age of the material, it doesn’t seem like something that is entirely necessary.

But the difference with The Wire is that it wasn’t a normal catchup session – stretched out over a number of months, experiencing The Wire for the first time was something that still hasn’t left me. While I’ve almost forgotten I’ve seen most of Six Feet Under, I can’t help but wax philosophical about The Wire at every opportunity. Those of us who have seen the series, admittedly, must sound like a broken record, but there’s a certain creed of sorts: in any discussion raising the question about television shows to recommend, or television shows that have made an impact, or television shows that deserved more awards attention, or sometimes even just television in general, The Wire is going to be our go-to suggestion.

Tonight at 9pm EST, I will be joining Dave, Devindra and Adam of the /Filmcast for a live indepth discussion of The Wire, which will be the first time that I have truly entered into a dialogue about this amazing series. [To listen in to the live podcast, click here at 9pm] Considering this I felt like, even if I don’t have the substantial back catalogue I wish I had and that could have pulled you as readers into this universe sooner, I could at least offer some brief thoughts as I (if not through watching it) revisit the Shakespearean journey that is David Simon and Ed Burns’ The Wire.

[There will be spoilers here, so if you haven’t yet seen the show I suggest a) you do and b) you wait until you’re done to take a look at this post. We probably won’t be jumping into spoilers right away on the podcast tonight, but it’ll still be mostly a fan-driven affair.]

I believe it is impossible to pick a favourite character from The Wire – instead, I believe it is more apt to term it is choosing a favourite “journey.” This is, really, what the show is about: tracking characters from one season to another is less about seeing how they react than how they change (or don’t change), how each crisis or event will lead them to make tough decisions that will fundamentally alter their trajectory. The most sensationalist example given of this, of course, is the ways in which McNulty’s Season Four normalcy is utterly shattered by season’s end and, eventually, leads him to his fake serial killer plot in the show’s fifth season. It’s a question of change: in this instance, the moral was that McNulty can’t change, that his attempt to disengage was never going to stick.

But what I think I like best about the shows are the subtle journeys, something that we so often don’t see in even the most serialized of television series. One of the most frustrating things about a show like Dexter for me, although I don’t want to spend too much time speaking in a relative fashion, is that its characters never seem to grow (outside of Dexter himself, and to only a certain degree). While the show has a fascinating psychological study in Dexter, and operates on season-long cases or mysteries that end up culminating in a large finale (the same type of format that The Wire uses), it never feels like anything else changes. From mystery to mystery, it’s the same people making the same mistakes, especially within a perfunctory and character-less supporting cast.

The Wire is the exact opposite, and my favourite journey in the series is one of those characters who doesn’t have any heroic moments. Part of my reasons for really enjoying the show’s fourth season, perhaps feeling most emotionally connected to it, was the role of (surprisingly to even myself) Sergeant Carver. Here is a character that, at the end of season one, was revealed as Burrell’s mole within Daniels’ unit, someone who was willing to sell out the people who we as an audience became so attached to as a tight-knit group for a promotion.

But, what he became as the seasons went on was something quite different. Rising out of the Western District, Carver became a smart cop who was capable (when few were) of knowing how to deal with “real” police work. After his first foray into backroom politics, he resolved to do better and did it. He, like McNulty and Colvin before him, became the cop who knew how to handle the difficult environment at its source. The most tragic moment in the series, for me, is that moment when Carver is walking down the hallway in “That’s Got His Own” and Randy yells down the hall after him, attacking him for letting him down. In that moment, and in the next episode, we see Carver facing the harsh reality head-on: no longer simply intervening along the line, he is seeing with his very eyes what happens when the system fails a kid.

And this is why I found the Fourth Season to be the one that affected me the most. Not only did it feel the most relevant to my own life, related as it was to principles of education and the necessity for both life skills and education within the public school systems, but it also showed us (if, in an admittedly accelerated fashion) four kids and how they became part of this world. Some of them were born into it, some of them fell into it, some of them had no way of escaping from it, and some of them had every chance of getting away but faced the kind of tragedy that faced Randy in that moment. It was, in a sense, The Wire’s own origin story: by the end of the series, we saw a changing of the guard as Michael became Baltimore’s new Robin Hood-figure (like Omar) and Dukie turned to drugs and towards the kind of life that Bubbles led for all those years.

And yet, Randy never got his happy ending – while we all hoped that Carver would have gotten his certification as a foster parent, that he could have taken Randy in as he had wanted to in the fourth season finale, it didn’t happen. When we later see Randy in that group home, he is changed: he is dark, he is angry, and he’s nowhere even close to the bright, imaginative kid we met in the show’s fourth season. This is the power of The Wire: for every character like Carver whose journey is an eye-opening one for the character, there is another intended as eye-opening for the audience instead. These are the ones that end in tragedy, that leave us wondering how something could have kept this from happening.

The show was always about investigating systems of operations, breaking them down to their core values: whether the po-lice (I’ll never hear this word any other way), organized crime, the struggles of labour unions, the political system, public schools, or the media, the show was never afraid to air its grievances with these various parts. In the end, though, there was no part that was left squeaky clean or inevitable corrupt; when the show was capable of humanizing even someone like Marlo Stanfield, left at the end of the series without an empire and therefore without an identity, its image of these worlds was always designed to bring forward change and transition in characters we would follow at an emotional level.

For me personally, the attachment I felt for these characters was different than with other series. While there were some who were “favourites” in the sense of normal series, those who are just generally more exciting or enjoyable (Omar and Clay Davis on opposite ends of the spectrum, as examples), there was a fluidity to the proceedings that kept me from settling on one character to “like” and another to “dislike.” It allowed the series to feel poetic instead of scripted, conceived instead of written, and organic instead of sterile. What sounds like your basic action movie setup, the dual-killing of Stringer Bell by Omar and Brother Mouzone at the end of the third season, felt in that moment less a question of action or even revenge than it did a question of tragedy; Stringer Bell had done everything he could to become legitimate, but in the process he had ruined any chance he had of leading his empire by making human sacrifices.

In revisiting the series this weekend, I don’t remember scenes because they were visually stimulating, even though the series was brilliantly shot by a wide variety of directors. I do, admittedly, remember scenes because they were well written, but outside of the oft-referenced “F*ck” crime solving sequence in the show’s first season there is no scene I remember almost solely as a creation of the writers. I remember scenes because they mean something in these journeys, to their messages that drive each season, and to a broader narrative that captured me in a way that no other series really has.

This is, of course, an inadequate representation of what I have to say about the show, but I had to get some of it off my chest before heading into the podcast. Tune in tonight to hear more, as the /Filmcast crew are an incredibly intelligent group of people who are going to be having a discussion about an incredibly intelligent show – I’m honoured that I’ll have the chance to join them for it.

3 Comments

Filed under The Wire

3 responses to “Catharsis: Thoughts and Ruminations on HBO’s The Wire

  1. Journeys is a wonderful way to describe the series. I often find myself floundering when talking about the show because it is so great on the macro themes and on the micro moments and on all points in between.

  2. Pingback: Ms. Smarty Pants Know It All » Recommended Blog Articles for the Week of December 8

  3. Pingback: The 2008 Television Time Capsule: The Wire - “Complete Series” « Cultural Learnings

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