not in our stars, but in ourselves
While the holidays have disrupted my viewing somewhat, I’ve been watching as much of The Wire marathon on HBO as possible. Somehow or other, this is the first time HBO has actually aired the show since its finale in March 2008. Insane, right? Thankfully, they’re giving it a measure of respect: showing each season a day at a time, starting at noon and continuing throughout the day; they have, famously, remastered the series in HD (somewhat controversially, but the intent was theoretically to make it more appealing to current audiences, I guess). Today, the fifth and final season is airing, and perhaps the greatest show of all time will have some new fans.
And yes, I do feel strongly that it’s earned that “greatest show” honor; re-watching it in the ever-popular binge format has solidified that conviction. When I first watched it – not during its on-air run, but later, on DVD – I could manage only an episode or two at a time. It’s heavy stuff, you know? None of it gets any easier to watch a second time, or a third, or a fourth; but once the surprises are out of the way, it’s easier to appreciate the extraordinary scope of the show. Small scenes, seemingly insignificant looks and one-liners, foreshadow and incite avalanches later on in the series. Sean Michael Robinson and Joy DeLyria re-imagined The Wire as a serialized Victorian novel, in the style of Dickens. It’s not a bad comparison: like Dickens, David Simon re-creates the full range of humanity in the Baltimore streets. Simon was a journalist first, and his attention to detail is extraordinary. He knows these people. He’s met them, he’s seen them grow up, he’s come to understand every detail of the racist and classist system(s) that keep them locked where they are.
Others more clever than I have compared the show to another literary bigwig, and I tend to think it’s an even more apt comparison: The Wire is Shakespeare for our time. Paula Marantz Cohen taught a Wire/Shakespeare class at Drexel University, and she says, “The Wire has plot and linguistic elements as complicated as any Shakespeare play, and its connection to the society it represents is equally as productive of thought and discussion. […] The Wire is Shakespearean in scope and ambition.” I would also argue that The Wire depicts tragedy – huge, sprawling, all-too-human tragedy – as devastatingly as any of the Bard’s tragedies. Each season builds to King Lear levels of despair; each season has more than its fair share of Iagos and Lady Macbeths – villains who are, ultimately, understandable if not sympathetic; and much more than its fair share of Hamlets, Ophelias, Lears, Cordelias, Othellos, Desdemonas, and many more failed heroes and innocent bystanders who get caught up in the game, yo.
Season 1 is about the streets, introducing us to the Baltimore drug trade and the police trying to grapple with seemingly endless murders, addicts, robberies – collateral damage, basically. Season 2 shifts its focus to the Baltimore docks and the dying American union movement, a movement that is indeed raging against the dying of the light. Season 3 returns to the streets, but with a wider focus on its use as a political weapon and/or tool – real human lives, used for poll numbers or police statistics. Season 4 moves from the more-or-less grown-up drug slingers and addicts to their children, and the hopelessly broken school/welfare system. Season 5 wraps up with the media – more specifically, the dying Baltimore Sun, the parasitic relationship between politicians and journalists, and the continued use of human despair as headline fodder – but never as a real call for reform.
To invoke Shakespeare again: “Hell is empty. And all the devils are here.”
Re-watching The Wire – twelve years after it premiered, six and a half years after it ended – is interesting for all of the above reasons (which first-time watchers from 2002 to 2008 would have experienced as well), but for more besides, given the year we’ve had. In 2014, we (white, middle-class, comfortable) have suddenly seen the full scale of institutional racism. This year, by Gawker’s count, 14 unarmed black people were killed by police. That’s not likely to be an exhaustive list; it includes only one woman, but there are probably more. There have been protests across the nation, complete with die-ins and chants and posters, as if it were 1968 again. And with the kind of authorial flourish that would have seemed heavy-handed in a work of fiction, two NYPD officers – Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu – were killed by a lone psycho. The result has been a reactionary wave of protests; where those protesting the unpunished deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner chant “Black lives matter,” those protesting the deaths of Ramos and Liu chant “Police lives matter.” Does it occur to the pro-police protesters that the rage attendant to the “Black lives matter” protests stems both from the unjustified homicide of unarmed (black) people and from the impunity with which those homicides take place? No one is arguing that the deaths of Ramos and Liu were justified. No one is arguing that their loss isn’t a tragedy. But, you know, that’s a rant for another time.
The Wire is an angry show. David Simon seems to be an angry man. And he’s right to be. The events chronicled in The Wire, fictionalized though they may be, could all have happened. They probably did all happen. Its unflinching depiction of institutionalized racism, the banality of evil, the unending conflict between good police officers/detectives and a bad police system, the catastrophic failure of such political initiatives as No Child Left Behind and the war against drugs, are all culled from Simon’s years as a journalist. He doesn’t pretend that things will ever get any better. The game just changes.
And it has changed. It’s strange: there are times when The Wire almost feels quaint now. Things seemed clearer in its universe – even though it’s a muddy, messy little universe. For instance: the police storm a stash house at the end of season 3, and they don’t shoot anyone. It’s a stash house full of black people, even, and nary a shot was fired. For another counter-instance: Detective Roland Pryzbylewski – “Prez” for short – pistol-whips a kid in season 1. He feels awful, and voluntarily takes more of a behind-the-scenes role. Then, in season 3, during a frenzied response to a distress call, he shoots and kills a black plainclothes officer. Prez is forced to stand before the court and before Baltimore’s African-American police union for his actions. He leaves the police force and becomes a math teacher.
I certainly don’t mean that Simon idealizes anything, but I think it’s interesting to see how much worse things have gotten since the early aughts. He wrote about it on his blog last August, in three parts, and I think even he’s stunned by the events in Ferguson and beyond. Or maybe nothing can surprise him anymore. Surprising or not, it’s all just more misery, more strange fruit from a rotten tree.
As an aside, I watch a lot of Law & Order: SVU. It’s trash, for sure. I will never argue otherwise. Watching it after The Wire is like drinking Peach Passion André after Dom Pérignon. However, many of the actors from The Wire – including Sonja Sohn, Isaiah Whitlock Jr, Michael K. Williams, Jamie Hector, and more – have gone on to play Black Victim/Criminal (whichever) of the week on SVU. It must be awful. Some cast members, like Idris Elba and Dominic West, have continued to do more or less quality work. Other members of the predominantly African-American cast have gone into the apparently small pool of black actors whom casting agents are willing to hire. Not that I’m not happy they’re finding work – I am – but I wish such talented people could find better work, and I wish black actors in general could find more work. If the Sony hack taught us anything, however, it’s that Hollywood has as long a way to go as the rest of America in correcting its institutionalized racism. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.