I’m sure I’m not the only one whose mind went back to thoughts of watching HBO’s The Wire after the recent events in Baltimore. In fact, I know I’m not, because a student of mine shared a blog post from The Nation, by Dave Zirin, provocatively titled “‘The Game Done Changed’: Reconsidering ‘The Wire’ Amidst the Baltimore Uprising” which makes some sharply critical points about the show itself, David Simon (the show’s creator) and also about white viewers of the show.
I’ve been re-watching this show, using its HD re-release as an excuse, and having just finished Season 1, I wanted to take the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with some of the arguments made in the blog post. My first reaction was defensive hostility, given as I am to Wire-boosterism, but upon reflection, I think there are some good points raised, but others that are either forced or overgeneralize about the show. Exploring these points of disagreement opens up some broader issues with this program, ones that can sometimes be glossed over in pursuit of the apparently simpler “lessons” or “morals” within it.
Since what happened in Baltimore in April was largely in response to allegations of police brutality, Zirin’s blog takes issue with The Wire’s consideration of the issue, suggesting that
The Wire’s view of Baltimore’s finest was almost comically kind. The one policeman who accidentally shoots someone (a fellow officer) not only isn’t prosecuted but gets reintroduced later in the series as a big-hearted public school teacher.
When I first read this, it sounded plausible, but after re-watching Season 1, I’ve found that it’s just not a fair characterization. One of the show’s most effective and devastating sequences occurs in the 2nd or 3rd episode, when Pryzbylewski, Carver and Hawk, getting drunk in a police parking garage after work, decide to go to the projects and “send a message” to the residents there, whom they presume all to be drug dealers. The three officers taunt a man who appears to be walking through the courtyard with his laundry, subject him to a humiliating search, and then start yelling angrily. The sequence develops as residents make their frustrations known to the three officers by yelling obscenities and them, throwing trash (and a television) out of windows and eventually burning their squad car. The officers call it in, thinking one of them has been shot, and Pryzbylewski (the officer Zirin refers to) cold-cocks a teenager, who later loses his eye.
This sequence has important reverberations form the investigation that forms the focus of Season 1, but it also is a good scene to demonstrate a broader method used on The Wire: this scene is meant to be representative of ongoing reality, not simply a one-off interaction. The Wire does this a lot: we get a glimpse into something that is both individualized and also generic in its reference, meant to conjure up a world that is typified by what we see. Hauk, we later learn, has been the subject of numerous brutality complaints (keeping him from earning a promotion), for example, and though these are never considered with screen time, they (and similar issues) form the backbone of what’s going on in the world of the show. We later see three cops beat up Bodie after he its an older alcoholic policeman who is half-heartedly joining a raid. This is not a complete catalog of all the instances of police violence depicted or referenced on the show. And while the show isn’t ABOUT police violence, the idea that the cops are “almost comically kind” is just not a fair generalization. Once we reflect on the narrative efficiency of the show, and its use of individual scenes to establish general trends, we can see this issue for what it is: an important part of the background conditions of the reality The Wire depicts.
And sure – Przybyelwski isn’t even prosecuted, but isn’t that its own form of criticism? At the start of Season 2, he and his father-in-law joke about “that grand jury thing,” but what would we have learned from the unrealistic depiction of some sort of good-vs-evil prosecution, the likes of which rarely actually happen?
Zirin makes a more powerful, also seemingly more appealing argument about what The Wire shows us about the possibilities for social change:
I am now seeing what the The Wire was missing, despite its much lauded, painstaking verisimilitude: the voices of people organizing together for change. Everyone on The Wire seeks individual solutions for social problems: the lone cop, the lone criminal, the lone teacher, the lone newspaper reporter. Yes, it is certainly true that when entrenched bureaucracies battle individuals, individuals lose. But when bureaucracies battle social movements, the results can be quite different.
Explaining why this argument, though appealing, is also wrong, reveals something about the structure of The Wire in its entirety. The Wire does consider “individual solutions for social problems,” including “the lone cop” (McNulty), “the lone criminal” (Stringer Bell), the “loan teacher” (Pryzbylewski), and so on. But what The Wire does with each one of these plotlines is highlight the limitations of those individual solutions. The Wire does at times appear to glorify these characters, mostly through its “painstaking verisimilitude,” but a careful consideration of the entire plot arc of each of these characters reveals that they all FAIL in their individuality, with the illustration of that failure being just as painstaking. McNulty’s case is won, but to almost no effect, a fact devastatingly revealed in the final montage of Season 1, where every single person arrested is quickly filled in by someone else, and all the “good” cops get forced into bad jobs, and the “bad” cops get promotions. Stringer Bell’s attempt to rationalize the drug markets of West Baltimore end in his bloody assassination at the hands of Omar, aided by his only friend Avon Barksdale using the forces of institutionalized drug trade against him. Bunny Colvin’s attempted at a limited drug-enforcement zone end in his ignoble demotion and the stripping of his pension. Pryzbylewski’s experimental classroom is shut down and most of the children are relocated to terrible arrangements (excepting Naaman, who goes on to live with Colvin in one of the show’s more touchingly optimistic sequences).
The Wire, in other words, shows us the temptations of individual, technocratic or police-based, or even policy-based (consider the sequences about the mayor’s office, or Hamsterdam) solutions to persistent social problems, but it works very hard to reveal their tragic limitations. The Wire is, in some sense, a call to action of the sort that Zirin seems to think it excludes. We never see, on screen, the preferred solution, we see the fantasies of solutions that crumble in the face of institutional resistance, apathy, careerism, and ideology. The show uses an emotionally compelling narrative dialectic of exclusion to walk its viewers through their own failures of vision.
Zirin also takes pot-shots (perhaps deserved) at David Simon:
With the fires in Baltimore just hours old, Simon wrote, “But now—in this moment—the anger and the selfishness and the brutality of those claiming the right to violence in Freddie Gray’s name needs to cease … This, now, in the streets, is an affront to that man’s memory and a diminution of the absolute moral lesson that underlies his unnecessary death. If you can’t seek redress and demand reform without a brick in your hand, you risk losing this moment for all of us in Baltimore. Turn around. Go home. Please.” It’s always cringe-worthy when a wealthy middle-aged white guy lectures young black people about who they are and what they should do.
That seems fair, but Simon would hardly be the first author to have done a better job authoring a creative work than pontificating about real-life situations analogous to those considered in their authored work.
Zirin also advances a common ad hominem criticism of The Wire’s fans:
Some felt it was like gangster rap for a more sophisticated audience, glorifying black-on-black hyper-masculine street violence while selling itself as somehow more literate and ennobling to consume. My friend Mark once pissed me off fiercely when he told me that my favorite show was “NWA for people who read The New Yorker.”
To some extent, again, The Wire’s fans, me included, are guilty as charged. I’d like to think I can take meaning from both NWA and The New Yorker, but the idea that violence is romanticized on this show deserves mention. Except that something like the point I made before applies here: these are broken social networks that fail the people within them. In the midst of a season, you might see, for example, Stringer and Avon appearing in the pit, in slow-motion with really cool music booming from their SUV as everyone bows down to regard them, but that does more to speak to the false glory accorded to them by those onlookers than it does to endorse it.
Sure, there are a lot of white people who watch this show to experience a fantastical form of violent masculinity they do not themselves have access to (it has been ever thus with the culture of urban black people vis-a-vis suburban whites), but if you “listen carefully,” as the first season’s original DVD cover abjured you to do, you will see something a bit deeper than a gangster narrative a la Goodfellas or Scarface. You will see a carefully articulated vision of institutional failure that encourages individual failure, not one that glorifies either end of that polarity.
You will also see – if you listen even more carefully – rays of hope the likes of which Zirin demands. We do see social workers, pastors, and perhaps most memorably, Dennis “Cutty” Wise, the man who leaves prison and starts a gym – all of these people represent the sort of social change Zirin thinks The Wire is blind to. Ultimately, The Wire wants its audience (yes, the upper-middle class white liberal New Yorker audience) to see the folly of its preferred individual solutions, and reflect on the actually committed and embedded agents of change that reside within the communities that so many charter-school companies, nonprofits, journalists etc. want to ignore on their way towards their visions. But it shows us this by leading us through a compelling dialectic of failure: failure of local police investigation, failure of national DEA-style investigation, failure of more liberal drug policies or closure of the projects, failure of the schools, and failure of journalism – at each stage, we first sense the temptation of these solutions, and at the end, we are saddened and convinced by their limitations.
We finally see this in Season 5’s closing minutes, as McNulty – as white, individualized and technocratic as they come, really, regards his city for the final moments, letting go of his bizarre homeless-killing serial killer myth for the final time. There we see that McNulty, as much as we might like him, actually just another example of the sort of “shopworn theme of lone heroes confronting obstacles and then overcoming them” (Zirin’s words) even if we at first thought he was some sort of alternative to that. We begin thinking “this is better than Law and Order, because these people are smarter” but we end thinking “wait a minutes, this was just a more sophisticated fantasy.”