When I moved back to the NYC metro area in March, one thing I promised myself is that I would finally get around to watching The Wire after hearing most of my good friends rave about it for years. Last week I finally finished the series — so all in all, it took me roughly eight months, with a very long break in between Seasons 3 and 4.
I’m not the first person to make this argument by any means, but looking back on the whole thing, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the show represents a sort of Great American Novel moment for the late 20th/early 21st century. A PolicyMic writer called the show “the greatest work of American fiction that millennials have ever seen,” comparing it to other works of art (Gatsby, The Graduate, etc) that capture the mindset of American society at a particular point in time. What’s especially ironic about The Wire receiving the “Great American Novel” designation, though, is that the show’s major theme — the way humans are trapped inside decaying institutions — is not something Americans are known for thinking a lot about.
Each of the five seasons shows us characters who are good but flawed, coming to terms with institutions and systems that give people the incentive to act in self-interested, evil ways. This isn’t a typical American story about crafting one’s own identity, embracing the power of individualism, or throwing off the shackles of the past. In the show’s moral universe, none of those things are remotely possible. You do the best you can, within the system you’re a part of. And you will probably fail.
Being trapped by institutional power is, of course, not a story that we think of as typically American. And people like my friends and I are natural viewers for a show like The Wire because by and large, we have rejected the idea that as a general rule, virtue is rewarded, hard work pays off, and people get what they deserve (i.e. none of us believe that America is a meritocracy). But I’ve spent a lot of time wondering whether you have to go into The Wire already believing what the show wants you to believe about American culture. Sharing the show’s moral worldview, even more than being able to follow the complicated plot details, may actually be its highest barrier to entry.
But even for someone like myself, who broadly speaking agrees with The Wire‘s view of agency, institutional power, and fate, it’s extremely discomforting to watch a show that forces you to abandon your preconceptions about good and evil so thoroughly. The show is famous for its moral gray areas, and I knew that when I began watching…so it’s not like I was totally shocked to find myself in sympathy with a drug dealer. But as an experiment, during the first couple seasons of the show I made lists of characters who seemed to be either purely good, or purely evil. My “good” list began and ended with Lester Freamon, and my “evil” list started out with Bill Rawls and Avon Barksdale, and expanded in Season 2 to include Stan Valchek. But I soon had to tear these lists up, and what I realized as the show went on is that one of its most brilliant traits is the way it forces viewers to choose which kinds of “bad guys” they want to side with.
In other words, when you begin the show, Avon seems to be a pretty awful, irredeemable human being. D’Angelo’s introspective qualities become obvious very quickly, and Stringer at least has a relentless drive to better himself, which he expresses in the only way he knows how. Avon, on the other hand, just seems like a brutal, not-so-smart murderer. But by the time Season 4 rolled around and I watched Marlo Stanfield take control of the Baltimore drug trade, I found myself wishing for the good old days of the Barksdales. For all the times I scoffed when Avon emphasized “family” in the first three seasons, it turns out there is in fact room for loyalty in his worldview. And as for Marlo, at the end of the show, he and Maurice Levy may be the only characters who represent true evil — but then again, I’m open to the claim that Marlo isn’t evil so much as a sociopath.
The Baltimore police department is a similar study in terrible choices. The Wire has plenty of awful police, but the show also forces the viewer to pick what kind of awful police they dislike least. Rawls and Valchek may be power-mad, brutish, and underhanded at various points in the show, but when the time comes in Season 4 and 5, they both play a major role in undercutting Burrell and funneling crucial information to Carcetti. Burrell is not evil, of course…he’s just stupid. And you’d be foolish to chalk Rawls or Valchek’s actions up to pubic-spiritedness. But somehow, the show manages to make them the good guys. No matter how cynical their motives, they play a role in taking down a mayor and police commissioner who are both disastrous for Baltimore.
The more I think about all this, the more I realize I took a long break from the show at a very opportune moment. After three seasons, most of the major plotlines have been wrapped up — the Barksdale empire has been dismantled, the police department has achieved what looks like stasis, Colvin’s crazy experiment in drug legalization has ended, and the city’s political situation seems to be heading inexorably towards gentrification and corruption, no matter who the mayor is. The fourth and fifth seasons bring in new plotlines, but they also show how the bad situations from the show’s early seasons just get worse. The Barksdales are replaced by a drug empire that hides dead bodies in vacant houses. The decline of the city’s native working class, as seen in Season 2, is now sped along by greedy real-estate developers. And now, instead of just having morale problems, the police and political systems in Baltimore have budget problems that seriously impede their ability to do good work.
Given all this, the show’s end was not quite as relentless as I expected. Seasons 2 and 4 end on a note of abject pessimism, for example: Things are bad and they’re getting worse. But the end of the show focuses on how cyclical the city’s problems are. We see minor characters stepping up to take on new roles: Sydnor is the new McNulty, Slim Charles is the new Prop Joe, Michael is the new Omar, Dukie is the new Bubbles, and I even see hints of Carver becoming the new Daniels or Bunny Colvin. (One of the bigger surprises of the show, for me, was that Bubbles was alive when it ended.) “Things keep on going the way they’ve always been” is the most optimistic possible ending for The Wire. Our problems are cyclical, inescapable, even intractable. This is a worldview that Horatio Alger would find totally alien — but then again, this is a country that Alger would probably find alien too.