The Wire: Institutions and the Individuals They’re Failing

the-wireThe Wire is more than just the greatest television show ever made, it’s also a treatise on the effects unregulated capitalism has on the institutions that were created to protect us.

Be Warned! 
Many spoilers ahead!
Read this after watching The Wire in its entirety, which, you should go do now.


When David Simon, 25 year veteran of the Baltimore Sun, sat down to create his “treatise on the decline of America,” which came to be known as television’s The Wire, it wasn’t his first time examining the systemic problems plaguing the United States’ urban landscape. In 1991, Simon wrote Homicide: A year on the killing streets, which chronicled his year spent riding along with Baltimore homicide detectives. It was that book that became the basis for the television series Homicide: Life on the Street, which ran on network television from 1993 to 1999.

With the restrictions placed on him and the show by working on network television, Homicide wasn’t quite what Simon had intended the project to be. When The Wire began, on cable television, where Simon has said he felt the freedom of being beholden to subscribers, rather than ratings, he was able to create the accurately introspective examination of American life that he intended. The result is, by examining systemic problems within the police department, the school system, industry and the media, The Wire is not just the best show ever produced on television, it is an accurate portrayal of how the institutions in our society are failing the individuals they were designed to benefit.

Simon’s writing partner on The Wire was Ed Burns, a 20 year veteran of the Baltimore police department, who became an inner-city Baltimore teacher. Together, they used their experience of working within urban America and the frustrations they felt within their respective institutions to give the show its accuracy. Without this accuracy, the critique and the message that the series presents could not be considered reliable and could easily be dismissed as entertainment the way most television shows are. The strength of The Wire lies very much in its nuance and the way it demonstrates how all facets of society are connected.

At different points in the series, and with varying degrees of intensity, the show focuses on an intricate web of characters and issues to highlight a very broad cross-section of American urban life. The show goes beyond simply following police officers and their investigations, as television crime dramas have traditionally done. It delves into the political pressure put on those officers and their superiors and how that pressure adversely affects the job of the police.

The show follows the drug dealers and drug users and their respective motivations and influences, the failings of the school systems and parents and how that influences the perpetuity of drug crime. It looks at the state of unions and the working poor to show how America’s economy, increasingly devoid of manufacturing and labour jobs, is turning its back on the lower and middle class. The show looks at the media and specifically newspapers, and how the internet has forced newspapers into covering not necessarily the most important stories, but at times the stories that will sell papers and win awards. The Wire accurately and uncompromisingly tells the story of the America that too often is ignored.

Season one of The Wire simply sets the main characters of the show in motion. Jimmy McNulty, a Baltimore homicide detective, is frustrated with the fact that, because of the pressure put on the police commissioner by the mayor, officers on the street are too busy making petty arrests in order to improve, or “juke,” the all-important crime statistics, to focus on the high-end crime that is really affecting the quality of life in the city – a problem all too commonly seen in cities across the US. McNulty takes it upon himself to explain this situation to a judge with whom he shares a friendly relationship, knowing that the judge will, in turn, put pressure on the commissioner to focus attention on the problem at hand.

Wendell Pierce (left) and Dominic West as Bunk Moreland and Jimmy McNulty

Wendell Pierce (left) and Dominic West as Bunk Moreland and Jimmy McNulty

The focus of McNulty’s frustration is Avon Barksdale, who McNulty believes is running the drug trade for the entire west side of the city with impunity because of the police department’s ignorance. As expected, the judge phones the police commissioner to ask what he knows about Barksdale’s operation. Knowing nothing of the group, the commissioner is embarrassed and promises action. What McNulty didn’t expect however, is the judge to mention that the information came from McNulty, thereby drawing the ire of McNulty’s superiors.

The commissioner creates a task-force known as the Major Crimes Unit, made up mostly by officers either too close to retirement to care about the job any longer or too inept to be any good to their home divisions. Commissioner Burrell puts Cedric Daniels, a lieutenant in the narcotics division, in charge of the unit with the expectation that a few quick and painless arrests be made so Burrell can show the judge some progress and the unit can be disbanded.

We are also introduced to the Barksdale drug organization, which includes Avon Barksdale, his business-minded partner Russell “Stringer” Bell and a group of their lower-level dealers including Avon’s nephew D’Angelo Barksdale, Preston “Bodie” Broadus, Malik “Poot” Carr and Wallace. Through their storylines, we see how the drug trade itself is, as Simon puts it, is “the only viable economic base in their neighbourhoods.” There is very telling scene, which takes place in “the pit” – the courtyard of a low-rise housing project, where D’Angelo sees his younger underlings using a chess board to play checkers. As D’Angelo tries to explain the game of chess, the game becomes an effective metaphor for the drug trade.

In that one scene, The Wire’s spirit of cynicism about the institutions in society is placed in front of the viewer. The metaphor is as emblematic of a capitalist society as it is of the drug trade within it. Those on top, stay on top and those underneath are the ones used to protect the powerful. Only those with cunning, or “hustle,” can move up the chain—  and only if you are of use to the powerful. Through much political wrangling within the police department for funds and manpower, season one ends with McNulty and the few effective investigators in the Major Crimes Unit arresting Avon Barksdale using a combination of surveillance and wiretaps (where the title The Wire originates.)

Watching chronologically and out of the context of the series, season two seems to take a surprising turn. The Major Crimes Unit finds itself no longer investigating West Baltimore’s corners, but rather a local dockworkers union boss because of the death of nine women, suffocated in a shipping canister, as they made their way to the United States from Eastern Europe for purposes of prostitution. We find the union boss, Frank Sobotka, had begun to look the other way while Greek gangsters used his docks to import drugs, guns and prostitutes. In exchange for his cooperation, Sobotka received payment that he spent, in part, on lobbyists to the state government to try to get a docks renovation project funded.

We follow the lives of Sobotka, his son Ziggy, nephew Nick, and other dock workers as they struggle to survive working in a disappearing economic sector. We see how poorly educated but hardworking people, who 50 years ago could have made a good living in a labour union, have seen their livelihoods outsourced, and their options limited. Sobotka’s son and nephew, unsure of when they’ll be able to work next, begin selling drugs they secure from the Greeks. After being told by his lobbyist that, mainly because of the criminal investigation surrounding the docks and the union, no state money will be coming their way, Sobotka delivers arguably the season’s most memorable line:

Sobotka’s quote is reflective on America’s shift from a manufacturing powerhouse to a country whose services industry makes up over 75 per cent of its economy. Frank Sobotka’s reality is one shared by the almost 15 per cent of Americans who now live below the poverty line. Season two ends with Sobotka dead ­– killed by the Greeks who feared he’d turn them over to the FBI – with his nephew Nick arrested on drug trafficking charges after he found the income from selling drugs more stable than working on the docks.

Season three sees a shift back to Baltimore’s corners. While Avon Barksdale has been locked up, his number two, the business-minded “Stringer” Bell, has been shifting the operation into more legitimate means of income. Bell has begun to buy up properties to receive development grants and flip them, which means getting a taste of his own medicine as the crooked politicians find ways to get their hands into Bell’s pockets. Bell also begins operating legitimate businesses and making an effort to create a co-op with the other major traffickers in the city in order to limit the exposure to police investigations. That is, working together rather than killing each other in competition, to keep everyone’s profile low. Again, we see the ways in which the drug trade is very much an industry all to itself and the skill and intelligence it requires to run a commercial empire, albeit an illegal one.

Perhaps the most interesting part of season three is the “Hamsterdam” experiment, so called because of a drug dealer, ignorant to the world outside of his, mishears an officer refer to the Dutch capital. Major Howard Colvin, nearing the end of his career and fed up with the ineffectiveness of the war on drugs, wants to affect some change. Colvin has his officers, without the knowledge of central command, move the dealers from all over his district into a de-criminalization zone, where he promises they will be able to sell their product with impunity, so long as there are no violent crimes. While Colvin struggles with the morality of his project, it is successful in achieving his aims and crime is greatly reduced in his district. Eventually, his scheme is found out and despite being able to prove its effectiveness, no one is politically able to defend it because of the stigma surrounding it. Simon has said he based a lot of Colvin’s actions and arguments on former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke’s stance on the war on drugs, including his inability to have his arguments heard because the political capital doesn’t exist.

West as McNulty, with Robert Wisdom as "Bunny" Colvin.

West as McNulty, with Robert Wisdom as “Bunny” Colvin.

Seasons four and five focus on the public school system and the media, respectively. The Wire examines the school system mostly through the eyes of Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski, formerly of Major Crimes, now teaching at an inner-city school (in a situation reminiscent of Simon’s writing partner Ed Burns,) and again, Colvin, who has taken a job working for a research group attempting to study potential future criminals while they are still young. “Prez” soon finds that as a teacher, he must also manipulate the numbers to create a positive impression even when there is no positive outcome, just as he had as a police officer. Prez and the school’s other dedicated, yet resigned teachers must focus on standardized test results – a narrow measurement of academic learning. Prior to being forced to “teach to the test,” Prez had been making significant headway with his class by using dice games to teach his students basic numbers skills and probability and statistics – a method far more effective than the bureaucratically provided out-of-date textbooks and unopened computers gathering dust in school storage rooms.

We are also are introduced to four young boys in their last year of middle school and how the school system, and subsequently their home life, affects their ability to cope with the world around them. The four boys come from varying states of broken homes – Randy lives with a caring foster mother who struggles to keep him in check, Namond is the son of Roland “Wee-Bey” Brice, a Barksdale soldier who is sentenced to life imprisonment earlier in the series and whose mother, struggling to maintain their lifestyle with her husband in jail, pushes her son to quit school and start selling drugs like his father. Michael, the intelligent son of a drug fiend mother, has taken on the responsibility of caregiver to his younger brother. Duquan comes from a home life so inadequate that we see only rare glimpses of it firsthand.

Throughout the season, Colvin helps break through the hardened armour of some of the school’s most troubled kids in an experimental class. He then watches his slight progress be thrown away as the Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor play blame-game politics over a $50 million school operating deficit. The Wire sheds light on how even the school system isn’t off limits when it comes to politicians and policy makers putting politics before progress. Colvin, arguably the series’ most important character, has arguably the season’s most important line, detailing the ineffectiveness of treating all children the same, regardless of background:

The show’s final season takes places predominantly at The Baltimore Sun, where we get a glimpse into the inner workings of the big-city newsroom. Sun City News Editor Gus Haynes is feeling increasingly frustrated with a newsroom that, for him, is getting harder and harder to recognize. After another round of buyouts from the paper’s owning company sees some of the paper’s most talented reporters leave, Haynes, along with everyone else at the paper is being put under greater pressure to do “more with less.” The managing editor and Haynes’ other superiors have become enamoured with the work of Scott Templeton, a young reporter of whom Haynes has been suspicious because of his reliance on unnamed sources. Haynes’ superiors, unable to see Templeton’s shortcomings because of their singular quest to win a Pulitzer, back Templeton as Haynes decides to double-check some of Templeton’s past work. Eventually, despite concrete evidence of Templeton having made up some of his stories, Haynes is punished for trying to bring the evidence to his superiors, and Templeton, in the final montage of the series, is seen being awarded the Pulitzer Prize that he sacrificed his credibility for.

Throughout the season, we see the paper’s management focusing, if not emphasizing, sensationalism in their stories. When a young reporter covers a triple homicide (which happens to have been, in part, perpetrated by one of the young boys from the previous season,) she wakes up early to find an copy of the paper, expecting to see her first front page story, only to realize it was subjugated and cut to 12 inches inside the paper. Defeated, one of her colleagues, dripping with true Wire cynicism, tells her:

“Wrong zipcode – they’re dead where it doesn’t count. If they were murdered and white, you’d have 30 inches off the front.”

The Wire has been hailed from all corners as possibly the greatest television show ever produced and usually, one of the reasons mentioned is its attention to detail, its realism and its authenticity. These qualities are the cornerstone of its credibility. It is because it possesses these qualities that we as a viewing audience and more importantly, we as a society, must listen to the lessons it tries to teach us. Through its accurate and honest portrayal of the Baltimore police department, mandated to essentially fight a unwinnable war rather than serve the people; the drug sellers who ply their trade because of a school system that has let them down and a society in which they are unfit for much else; the working-class stevedores whose country has turned its back on them in the name of increased profits over increased well-being; the teachers, who fight the good fight every day with fewer means given to them and more pressure put on them; the media, who’s become more concerned with selling papers than affecting change; the politicians, whose decisions effect everyone but who are concerned with no one and the kids who suffer somewhere in the middle of them all ­– The Wire paints a bleak picture of perpetual systemic fault in which all individuals are beholden, in one way or another, to an institution that is undoubtedly failing them.


2 responses to “The Wire: Institutions and the Individuals They’re Failing

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