“It's Baltimore, gentlemen. The gods will not save you.”
-- The police commissioner to his commanders on The Wire
The Baltimore Police Department's 2005 annual report is crammed with statistics that tell a story. Violent crime is down in every category measured by the department. The city witnessed 269 murders in 2005, or seven fewer than the previous year. The department's Organized Crime Division seized 618 firearms; 37 kilos of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin; and more than $10 million in cash. The narrative here is straightforward: The streets may be mean, but the cops are winning.
It's the story that one expects from the city's police force -- especially in an election year that finds the city's mayor, Martin O'Malley, running for governor. American television, however, has few excuses for its consistent fealty to the same story. The crime shows that crowd our TV channels peddle straightforward morality tales in which criminals find their nefarious misdeeds unraveled (and even tried and judged!) in a mere hour's time through the work of noble and efficient cops and prosecutors.
HBO's acclaimed crime drama The Wire, which is set in Baltimore, does more than complicate that simple narrative. Over four seasons of intricate and nuanced television, its creator David Simon (author of the bestselling nonfiction crime classic Homicide) has stood the cozy fables of TV crime shows on their head. The Wire bursts at its seams with walking contradictions and unexpected reversals. A gay Robin Hood who robs drug dealers. A brilliant cop consumed by his own congenital hatred of authority. A junkie snitch who sees the streets more clearly, through his narcotic haze, than the cops or the dealers.
The world of The Wire is also a place where drug kingpins follow codes of conduct that include a “Sunday Truce” as they murder government witnesses, competitors, and innocent bystanders with near impunity. It's a place where slow and stagnant policy bureaucracy -- and petty office politics -- can be just as lethal as a handgun. The Wire, in sum, is Law and Disorder: It captures, unremittingly, precisely why we feel so uneasy about our own cities, even as the statistics try to reassure us. (In Simon's West Baltimore neighborhoods, those statistics exist largely to be altered -- or “juked” -- for political effect.)
Over the course of four seasons, The Wire has only raised its aim. The show's focus on cops and dealers and snitches in a booming drug trade in its first 13 episodes expanded over the next three seasons to encompass dying American labor unions, mayoral politics, and the public schools. Indeed, Simon and his accomplices (including co-producer and former Baltimore cop Ed Burns and distinguished novelists like Richard Price and George Pelecanos as writers on key episodes) have transformed Baltimore into a place called “Bodymore, Murdaland.” And unlike most cop shows, where the characters float in an ether anchored only by establishing shots (a hot dog stand for New York, the flash of flesh and fantasy for L.A. or Miami), The Wire's Bodymore is obsessively Baltimore, right down to the thick accents and the detectives swilling “Natty Bo” (National Bohemian) and eating crab guts.
By getting it so right in the details, The Wire manages to transcend locale and lay claim to being something larger: a seminar on the American city, and a stark reminder that despite all the happy cities-are-back talk of the newsweeklies, not that much has changed in the neighborhoods we've decided to stop worrying about. And the seminar is delivered via characters real enough to reach through the screen and shake the viewer with their malice, their bungling, their good intentions gone awry, and, at least, their heroism.
“If they're still using cell phones in this day and age, they're mine.”
-- A detective bragging to his colleagues about his wiretapping skills on The Wire
The Wire boasts a powerful central metaphor: the wiretap. Intercepting and interpreting secrets is a key element in the show's criminal investigations, but it also helps measure the sophistication of the violent drug dealers being hunted by the cops. By the end of The Wire's third season, the interplay between a cunning dealer named Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) and the cops who chase him is so byzantine that the police must pull his elusive mobile number from a cell-phone tower. Later, when Bell is murdered, investigators discover that he possessed dozens of cell-phone chips -- and the discipline to use them after every call.
As the show has expanded its ambit, it has placed metaphorical wiretaps into other areas of urban life -- City Hall, union locals, and the Board of Education (dubbed “the Puzzle Palace” by beleaguered teachers and principals). Season two captured the death of the Baltimore docks and its unions with exquisitely painful detail and bumptious color. When the ports at last are filled with robots instead of working stevedores, The Wire may be as much of a documentary of that vanished lifestyle -- its nicknames and noble labor and boozy camaraderie -- as we possess. The third season focused on the hopes and hazards of drug legalization, drawing politicians scheming to stay (or to become) Baltimore's mayor into the plot line. And the new, fourth season juggles the blood sports of drugs and politics with a third element: a public school system that cannot keep kids safe, let alone educate them. We see the usual tales of poverty, parental neglect, and drug connections carried into the classroom; but Simon and his writers toss in two brilliant and much less predictable twists that are neatly encapsulated in the HBO advertising campaign for the fourth season: “No Corner Left Behind.”
The first is a brutal portrait of how schools fail to compete with the dealers who crowd neighborhood corners. Drug dealers identify and corral young talent far more quickly and efficiently than teachers and administrators. Early in the season, a ruthless dealer named Marlo points out a neighborhood kid and observes that “there are good signs on that one.” His cold-blooded lieutenant chimes in: “Big paws on the puppy.”
The second twist on the familiar theme of failing schools is intimated in the ad campaign. Simon and his team burn their picture of the No Child Left Behind Act -- and the small-minded obsession with testing that accompanies it -- into the viewer's brain with acid. As the state's proficiency test approaches, the creativity and flexibility of teachers and principals narrows to the dimensions of a circle on a multiple choice test. Once again, the human story is reduced to statistics that obscure reality -- and snatch away opportunity.
D'Angelo: “The pawns, man, in the game, they get capped quick. They be out the game early.”
Bodie: “Unless they some smart ass pawns.”
-- A street dealer discusses chess with his protégé on The Wire
Many glowing reviews of The Wire's fourth season have compared it to a novel. Its plot twists, deft foreshadowing, and loose strings tied up -- or left untied -- at season's end justify such a comparison. (That critical halo also prompted HBO to announce the show's renewal for a fifth and final season.)
On TV's cottage industry shows such as CSI and Law and Order, characters rarely grow or learn. They win (mostly), lose (occasionally), and tend to encounter no terminus in character arc save through being written out in contract disputes or series cancellation. In The Wire, the stakes are higher. Human life is cancelled at a startling clip. Fate intervenes for ill more than good. The actions of people, acts of commission or omission, do matter. For instance, Simon took considerable heat from fans of the series for killing off the popular character Stringer Bell at the end of The Wire's third season. But that death helped the series make a much larger point about how attempts to change the status quo of America's failed drug war are resisted by both sides in that conflict.
In the third season, Bell's quest to transform the drug trade into a peaceful co-op market without violence finally comes to fruition. But it ultimately fails when it clashes with the ambitions of other drug lords -- including his partner, Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) -- who sees violence as an essential tool of the trade. During that same third season, a rogue police lieutenant hatches and enacts a secret plan to legalize drugs in a discarded corner of his district. His goal is to bring peace and order to the rest of his neigHBOrhoods, but his drug zone (dubbed “Hamsterdam” by the dealers) is squashed by his bosses, who demand his demotion and public humiliation.
Simon shows how powerful forces on both sides of the drug war have a vested interest in its violent status quo -- and that those forces will use that violence to crush change. But addressing lofty themes never dulls The Wire's portrait of the human cost of urban problems. Its characters -- their mixture of courage, folly, and flaw -- are the spine of the series. And through The Wire, we are allowed to listen in to what they have to say.
At one point in the fourth season, a dealer talks about his life in the drug trade as a loyal soldier, using language that winds back to the chess metaphor that The Wire introduced in the first season.
“This game is rigged, man,” he says. “We like the little bitches on the chess board.”
“Pawns,” his companion replies.
The pawns and kingpins of The Wire are the voices of the urban despair and decay upon which our metropolitan renaissances rest all too uneasily. They are the wiretapped voices that might clue us in if we listen closely.
Richard Byrne is an editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Time.com, and Biblioteka Alexandria.