“The king stay the king.”
In describing The Wire, creator David Simon doesn’t hold back on hyperbole.
He refers to his inner-city crime epic as a visual novel, even going as far as to compare its slow-burning narrative to that of Moby Dick. He once claimed that his model for the show was Dickens’s London or Tolstoy’s Moscow, rather than any other TV drama.
This could easily be dismissed as egotistical boasting. Remarkably though, even the most high-minded of critics generally agree with Simon. In the six years since its finale aired, The Wire has been repeatedly named the greatest TV show ever made, and it is studied at universities in disciplines ranging from sociology to law. Salon famously dubbed it “a Homeric epic of modern America,” whilst Charlie Brooker named it “the best TV show since the invention of radio.”
Many viewers initially find the appeal of the show to be elusive: give up after a couple of episodes, and it’s possible to mistake The Wire for just another cop show, distinguishable only by its glacial plot pace and bewildering spectrum of characters. That the series can be rather unwelcoming to new viewers is hardly surprising, given that David Simon once stated that his motto for crafting great narrative was “fuck the average reader.”
In this retrospective, we’ll be looking at what made The Wire so special, and why – despite arguments to the contrary – the show is as devastatingly topical and shrewdly insightful now as it ever was. If you’re new to the series, great – this retrospective contains only minor spoilers, and nothing that would ruin your enjoyment of the show. If you’re a Wire veteran, put the hoppers on lookout and get ready for a re-up.
Welcome to Baltimore.
“Thin line ‘tween heaven and here.”
Each of The Wire’s five seasons focuses on a different facet of Baltimore. In its first year, the show explores the catastrophic failure of the war on drugs, challenging the efficacy and motives of the forces of law and order. Focusing on a police wiretap operation against the Barksdale drug empire, the show offers an unflinching look at the human cost of the drug trade, one of the only institutions still functioning within the inner-city ghetto.
In its second year, the show expands its outlook to include the plight of blue-collar dockworkers, and the steady decline of Baltimore’s port unions. Season three introduces the politicians of city hall, ambitious and corrupt in seemingly equal measure, and contemplates their street-level influence. In its fourth season, The Wire reflects on the grim future facing the city’s youth, exploring the broken school system in light of the American educational motto of “no child left behind.”
By the time the fifth and final season arrived – a critique of the media’s role in perpetuating the status quo – the show had built up a devastatingly accurate portrait of the city. Therein lies the show’s uniqueness. Despite a wonderfully rich cast of characters, the real star of The Wire is neither cop nor criminal, but rather the American city itself.
The parallel between the show’s gradually layered story and the meticulous nature of the titular wiretap operation is not coincidental; in the words of Lester Freamon, “all the pieces matter.”
“All the pieces matter.”
The reason for The Wire’s initially negative reviews – and for the show’s reputation as a difficult watch – is its complete disregard for established television storytelling tropes. Viewers are very much thrown in at the deep end: the show features no carefully-crafted “previously on The Wire” montages, the bare minimum of explanatory exposition, and street slang so impenetrable that many viewers resort to subtitles.
A huge cast of characters involved in dozens of intricately interweaved storylines vie for screen time, and the show’s labyrinthine plot arcs taking weeks to resolve. The Wire is genuinely similar to a novel, in this regard; each episode resembles a chapter, designed to advance the story just enough to keep the viewer hooked in the run up to the eventual payoff.
Dispensing with narrative handholding entirely, the show even eschewed a musical score, instead relying almost entirely upon ambient background music. The choice feels even more radical today it did in 2002; in an age when most TV dramas feel the need to plug their predictable lows and highs with invasive musical cues, The Wire’s subtle reliance on the musical tastes of its characters feels wonderfully immersive.
“A man must have a code.”
In recent years, much has been said of Breaking Bad and the gradual descent of its protagonist Walt from sympathetic hero to sadistic villain. As creator Vince Gilligan put it, the central premise of the series was about turning “Mr. Chips into Scarface.” Wonderfully orchestrated though this transformation was, the show can hardly be said to have pushed the boundaries.
Throughout The Wire, the prevailing mood is one of moral ambiguity. It resists the temptation to tell stories of moral absolutes, or to preach platitudes of good and evil. With stereotypes dispensed with, viewers found themselves sympathising with the unlikeliest of characters. From Bubbles, the heroin addict turned police snitch who hangs precariously onto the last of his dignity, to Wallace, the teenager born into the worst of Baltimore’s slums who works as a low-level drug dealer, The Wire’s moral universe is beautifully rendered in shades of grey.
The show even finds humanity in its most morally reprehensible characters, exploring their complex motivations and glimmers of redeeming qualities. Stringer Bell, the aspiring entrepreneur at the helm of the Barksdale drug empire, is responsible for dozens of heinous acts throughout the course of the show. However, viewers also sympathise with his attempts to legitimise his organisation; he attends a business studies class, invests in housing projects, and bribes politicians.
Most fascinating of all, there is Omar, the flamboyant stick-up man who makes his living robbing the dealers of Baltimore. Despite being a killer, he adheres to a strict moral code, serving no masters and harming no-one outside the drug game. He speaks with an almost Shakespearean flair (“I keeps one in the chamber, in case you ponderin’”), never swears, and also happens to be gay.
These characters are from the first season alone. As the stellar cast expands with each season, not a single addition – whether junkie or journalist – feels like a stock character. The regularity with which small-timers suddenly became central to the story, combined with the proclivity of the writers to kill-off major players, keeps you guessing about the characters’ eventual fates.
“World going one way, people another.”
By throwing compelling, sympathetic characters from both sides of the law into conflict with one another, The Wire subverts your expectations at every turn.
In the fourth season, detective Roland Pryzbylewski quits the force to become a middle school teacher. If this were a typical TV drama, you could probably anticipate its central themes on this premise alone. The determined, idealistic white teacher enters the dysfunctional inner-city school; his background in policing paying dividends, he knocks sense into the rough kids, wins the hearts of the good kids, and makes a difference.
In The Wire, as in the real world, it’s never quite so simple. Through the eyes of four young boys, we see that the dynamics of the ghetto do not cease do apply within the walls of a classroom. This insight won the show acclaim from teachers, who praised it as a valuable insight into the problems facing inner-city schools.
No one character illustrates these problems better than Dukie, a kind and intelligent boy living in abject poverty. The dismal row house in which he lives has no running water, and his mother sells his few possessions to fund her heroin addiction. Arriving at school in filthy clothes and with no food, his story is utterly heart breaking; viewers found themselves hoping against hope that Dukie would somehow triumph and escape his grim existence.
But school cannot provide immunity to the gravitational pull of the drug-infested streets, or to the cruelties of broken, poverty-stricken homes. As Major Colvin remarks: you can teach them every problem on a standardised test and it won’t matter. Because they’re not learning for our world, they’re learning for theirs.
“You can’t call this shit a war.
Much of the show’s power stems from its authenticity.
Creator David Simon spent 13 years working as a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun, whilst co-creator Ed Burns is a former homicide detective turned schoolteacher. The show’s other writers were not established television screenwriters, but crime novelists like Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. “All the things that have been depicted in The Wire over the past five years – the crime, the corruption – actually happened in Baltimore,” says David Simon. “The storylines were stolen from real life.”
Former Mayor of Baltimore Sheila Dixon was frequently critical of the show for its “overly negative” depiction of crime and corruption. However, in a spectacularly ironic turn of events, she was indicted in 2009 for perjury, fraud, and misconduct in office. This, along with police reports that real-life gangs watched the show to gain insight into police procedure, provide an unfortunate testament to the show’s gritty realism.
Fittingly, much of the show was shot on location in Baltimore. Novelist Irvine Welsh, remarking on the dilapidated row houses that still populate large swathes of North Baltimore, described the region as feeling like “a big empty derelict film set for The Wire.” Curious viewers can check out blogger Bruce Goldfarb’s The Wire Streetview Tour.
Shown here is the intersection of Lanvale and Barclay, a corner that probably looks familiar to seasoned viewers: it’s where Bodie and his crew work in the fourth season. Explore the other markers on the map, and you’ll be able to find Hamsterdam, The Pit, The Towers, and Marlo’s Court to name but a few of the show’s most memorable locations.
“We ain’t gotta dream no more, man.”
The Wire’s commitment to realism extends beyond the writing and location. The huge ensemble cast is made up primarily of character actors, little known for their other roles. Whilst many of the show’s cast have since gone on to become extremely famous in their own right, such as Brits Dominic West (Jimmy McNulty) and Idris Elba (Stringer Bell), others are Baltimorean locals with no professional acting experience.
Former Baltimorean drug trafficker Melvin D. Williams, known during his heyday as Little Melvin, served as the inspiration for the character of gang leader Avon Barksdale. Melvin was arrested in 1984 by series co-creator Ed Burns following a wiretap operation. Following his release from prison in 2003, he was cast in the role of The Deacon in the show’s third season. This choice was not without controversy, but Burns dismisses the criticism: “In my book, if you do your time, that’s it.”
Melvin is not the only cast member with first-hand experience of the Baltimorean drug trade. Felecia Pearson (nicknamed ‘Snoop’) actually plays herself on the show. Born a premature crack baby, she grew up in a notorious neighbourhood in East Baltimore, worked as a drug dealer for most of her childhood, and was sent to prison for second-degree murder at the age of 14. Following her parole, a chance encounter with Michael K Williams (Omar) put her in touch with the show’s producers. The rest, as they say, is history.
“All in the game.”
It’s been 14 years since The Wire first aired. Some have argued that the show now feels like an artefact, a dated vision of our century’s first years. One can easily point to the centrality of payphones to the wiretap operation, or to the lack of social media in the newsroom, to name but two of the immediately obvious details that betray the show’s age.
The past decade has done nothing to temper the show’s relevance, however. The issues explored in The Wire still plague cities throughout the western world, but the show’s real brilliance lies in its articulation of the cyclical nature of these problems. To borrow from the show’s creator one final time, The Wire asks “why the crime stats stay juked, the test scores stay cheated, and the majors become colonels while the mayors become governors.” In short, why do these worlds persist?
In stark contrast to the self-affirming uselessness of so-called ‘reality’ TV, The Wire picks a fight. It explores the isolation and degradation of the inner-city underclass, and asks uncomfortable questions. Some might find such raw honesty to be depressing, even cynical, but this seems an unfair assessment; even at its bleakest, the show has an enduring faith in the humanity of its characters and their will to survive.
No matter how trapped they find themselves, our heroes are never content to accept the status quo. They challenge their bosses, wrestle with their addictions, fight their rivals, break the chain of command, and look beyond the ghettos into which they were born.
Ex-convict Cutty, struggling to adapt to a life outside the drug game, assures Dukie that there is a world beyond the violent streets of Baltimore.
Ever hopeful that his life will get better, Dukie responds by asking: “How do I get from here to the rest of the world?”
“I wish I knew,” answers Cutty.