‘The Wire’ As American Noir

[7 September 2010]

By Trevor Dodge

I won’t waste your time regurgitating the platitudes showered upon David Simon’s television series The Wire since its premiere in June 2002 and dénouement in March 2008. In 60, hour-length episodes spanning five seasons on HBO’s cable network, The Wire careened through the mean streets and even meaner public institutions of Baltimore, depicting its drug trade, police bureaucracy, port authority, public schools, city hall, and newspaper business via a sprawling, encyclopedic narrative literally involving dozens of compelling, intricately-drawn characters that demands a level of attention and dedication from its viewers that is at times monomaniacal, if not downright sadistic. Unlike the vast majority of television programming, The Wire is not paced to politely pause for insipid advertisements for toilet paper, luxury cars, and “consult-your-doctor-first” prescription medication. Simon’s series requires first and foremost that its viewers pay attention; this is something American audiences aren’t asked to do very often, but when they are, the results can be disastrous for a television industry constantly eyeing the “average” viewer, that big soft middle which largely tries to be everything to everyone. 

As a former newspaper reporter at the Baltimore Sun, Simon apparently had had more than his fair share of averageness. In an email exchange with novelist and journalist Nick Hornby published in The Believer in 2007, Simon grumbles

“I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.”

The Wire’s intentional difficulty and rigor—along with academia’s ongoing love affair with cultural studies—might very well explain its emerging as a centerpiece in a growing number of courses at many colleges and universities in the United States. Media scholar Jason Mittell, who specializes in American television and teaches courses in media culture at Middlebury College in Vermont, was recently featured on All Things Considered for his course “Watching the Wire: Urban America in Serial Television” (similar courses have sprouted at Harvard, Duke and UC Berkeley). Mittell has taught two full-length courses on The Wire at Middlebury, wherein students are asked to watch all five seasons of the series and construct engaged analytical responses. Many of the assignments and much of the process for this has been made available via a blog Mittell created for the class. 

I discovered Mittell’s work shortly after beginning my own viewing of the series, and it inspired me to teach the 300-level literature course at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon. Titled “The Wire As American Noir”, the course argues that The Wire is part of a specific strand of noir which begins in the United States with Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic incarnations of the short story in the 19th century, reinvents itself in the pulp era with dime store paperbacks and Golden Age comic books, mutates through French-inspired film and hard-boiled cop shows, and currently stakes its claim within video games and the hyperrealist literary novel. As with Mittell’s course, students in my class watched all 60 episodes of the critically-acclaimed series, and then juxtaposed them with prose works by Poe, Paul Auster and Cormac McCarthy, comics by Brian K. Vaughan, Ed Brubaker and David Mazzucchelli, films by Alfred Hitchcock and the Coen Brothers, and video games by Ken Levine and David Cage. 

I use the phrase “critically-acclaimed” in the same way it’s often used when describing James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon’s work, which enjoys cultural sanction from us English language learners without too many of us actually having read a single page of Finnegan’s Wake or Gravity’s Rainbow. This is part of the problem with considering literature beyond its social-historical moment; by the time we come to it, the culture-makers have mostly made up their minds, and largely the same can be said now about The Wire. Listening to NPR, reading The New York Times, and/or surfing PopMatters clearly impresses the notion that Simon’s series is becoming one of those artistic keystones in our culture with which we too often feign familiarity to escape the simple shame of feeling stupid. 

Simon has repeatedly described The Wire in numerous interviews as a “televised novel”. Where Mittell’s course largely situates the series within the history of television and conventions of that particular medium, I wanted to take Simon at his word and compare the series to other media underneath one large literary umbrella. Because each episode is effectively a full hour of material, viewing the series in its entirety requires a 60-hour commitment, and it is one not to be taken lightly or relegated to a background channel while the viewer performs other tasks. The Wire is episodic without being recursive; this is what distinguishes it from the typical narrative experience of serial television and aligns it more closely to the typical experience of reading a sentence-plus-paragraph short story or novel. Dedicated viewers of daytime soap operas—much like readers of monthly superhero comics—have come to expect eye-rolling scenes where characters deliver plot summaries of past events and didactic prognostications for the future. Their recursive tendencies are largely part of their appeal, because the vast majority of television programming and mainstream comics are designed to keep churning, happy to wait for us when we have time to bother with them. In essence, most of our experiences with episodic television are governed by the fact that these are stories largely designed with no ends and ever-distant/revised beginnings; the net result is frequently one of a perpetual motion-machine stuck in its own big fat middle: in media res, for ever and ever amen. 

This isn’t to say The Wire doesn’t drop us in its own big fat middle, because it most certainly does. Simon frequently describes his project as a Greek tragedy, and he would be hard-pressed to find a setting better suited to the task than the city of Baltimore.

In 1974, the city’s Promotion Council nicknamed Baltimore “Charm City” for a series of advertisements aiming to spruce up the area for tourists, but B-More has for much of recent history been on the decline. Simon reminds us of this in the opening credits of every episode with quick shots from threadbare neighborhoods, complete with an authentic graffiti tagged wall on one of the more sketchy corners which reads “Body-more, Murda-land.”  Much like King Oedipus’ Thebes, Simon’s Baltimore is an infected polis, diseased by addictions and afflictions of all kinds (power, incompetence, co-dependence, etc.) and managed/controlled by uncomfortable-at-best bedfellows who are largely blind to their own wakes of destruction. There is, of course, much that is tragic here, and Simon does not pretend that a sprawling narrative with even the best of intentions can make us think otherwise. In a 2008 interview with The Onion’s A.V. Club, Simon addresses the issues of finality in wrapping the show’s last season with the destruction of the shows’ most popular characters: “I don’t know what else to say. If people didn’t realize after this many seasons of The Wire that they were watching a Greek tragedy, writ across a modern American city… And if they thought that there were going to be redemptions and [awarding] of the Fates, they need to get up with their Medea and Antigone and their Oedipus. I don’t know what else to say.”

Much of Western literature stems from Aristotle’s theories on dramatic tragedy, but both myself and my students quickly exhausted the conversation about The Wire’s tragic tendencies. While my students could soundly make that particular argument with plenty of primary and secondary evidence, to reduce the entirety of this series to a single, unifying theme seemed to betray the complexities in the narrative. From week to week, I kept a laundry list of what I called “Big Ideas”, and each class meeting I listed them—over and over again—on a whiteboard. 

The Wire Class Whiteboard

The Wire Class Whiteboard

By the end of the term, we filled both sides of the board, and each student accordingly charted his or her own path through the series. Right off the bat, many of us found talking about The Wire’s tragic qualities to be almost a little too easy, and quickly started wrestling with the argument posed by the course title. Even before our first full group discussion over the initial five episodes of season one, several students were openly expressing their concerns: “I’m sorry, man, but I really can’t see The Wire as a film noir,” one student wrote in his viewing response from that first week. Thus began a snaking semester-long definition of terms, a meander worthy of a Raymond Carver story whose working title almost certainly would be “What We Talk About When We Talk About Noir”. 

Ultimately, we found it important to distinguish between the larger thing we called “noir” and the smaller thing encapsulated within it we called “film noir”. Noir has always flirted with morality, but its mutations through the late 20th and early 21st centuries in American literature have been complicated by perspective, and the de-centered reality often explored to great abstraction in continental philosophy. In his introduction to Rafael Alvarez’s 2009 book The Wire: Truth Be Told, Simon writes: 

“The crime story long ago became a central American archetype, and the labyrinth of the inner city has largely replaced the spare, unforgiving landscape of the American West as the central stage for our morality plays…[The Wire] is about how we live at the millennium, an urban people compacted to-gether, sharing a common love, awe, and fear of what we have rendered in Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles. At best, our metropolises are the ultimate aspiration for the American commu-nity, the repository for every myth from rugged individualism to the melting pot. At worst, our cities—or those places in our cities where most of us fear to tread—are vessels for the darkest contradictions and most brutal competitions that underlie the way we actually live together.” 

These “darkest contradictions and brutal competitions” are what underlies all noir: from the gothic psychodrama of Poe’s short stories (Cask of Amontillado and The Purloined Letter); to the theater of the absurd of Joel and Ethan Coen’s films (The Man Who Wasn’t There and Fargo); to the bleak hyperreality of Cormac McCarthy’s prose novels (Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men); to the sequential melodrama of Alan Moore’s graphic novels (From Hell and Watchmen) to the ludic performance art of Ken Levine and David Cage’s video games (Bioshock and Heavy Rain). While all of these examples could be called crime stories, it’s important to understand that these short stories, films, novels, comics and games do not hold themselves up as transparent windows through which we are safe to watch human beings do ghastly things to one another and then play the role of some cultural arbiter. Noir does not ask us to sort out the white hats from the black hats for the sake of us always discovering what is just; rather, noir forces us to contemplate how criminal acts first and foremost are human acts, before they are rendered illicit by the law (which is something distinctly inhuman). 

In Poe’s classic story Cask of Amontillado, Montresor taps our darkest brutality when he mentions a thousand injuries suffered by the hands of Fortunato, yet fails to deliver specific details on a single one. His vow for revenge when Fortunato insults him (again, he fails to describe the wrong committed against him) is also an appeal to our basest impulses. When someone slaps you and says your momma dresses you funny, you have to do Something about it, and in Montresor’s case, the more sadistic manner in which you do your Something, the better. In the popular sense, Poe’s stories are often described as horrific, but to be more accurate, we need to describe them as gothic noirs, if for no better reasons than the [a-]moral ambiguity we often feel after reading one, and the detective roles Poe rhetorically asks us to perform when we read his work. Novelist and critic Nick Mamatas writes about Poe (and noir) thusly: 

“There is no moral center in Poe’s work, not in his mysteries, nor in his darker fiction, and not in his poetry… As H. P. Lovecraft said in his own seminal critical work Supernatural Horror in Literature, it was Poe who first ‘perceived the essential impersonality of the real artist… [that] the function of creative fiction is merely to ex-press and interpret events and sensations as they are, regardless of how they tend or what they prove—good or evil, attractive or repulsive, stimulating or depressing….’

Poe was one of the first authors of modern horror in that he was not interested in resolving the social trespasses his work depicted with pat morally correct endings or appeals to cosmic justice. In this way, he was also one of the only modern purveyors of dark fiction. The bloodiest slasher flicks often betray a Puritanical ideology, with only the virginal characters allowed to survive. Gangsta rappers love their mamas and write songs about them. Noir writers made sure their sleuths had a code of ethical conduct, even if it only consisted of a single line they would not cross but that the baddies they hunted would.”

Poe is about as close to a patron literary saint as Baltimore gets, but Simon has certainly joined the conversation by rubbing our noses in the mess we’ve made of Charm City. (Tangentially, this is something he’s doing to great effect right now in his current HBO series Treme, which takes place in New Orleans three months after Hurricane Katrina.) It’s important to see that The Wire scores its political points (“frankly,” Simon declares in the Alvarez book, “it is an angry show”) without being preachy. Despite titling/dedicating episodes in season five to the Dickensian aspects of Charm City’s most downtrodden citizens, Simon—like Poe—does not give us the “pat morally correct” finale that will reset the scales of “cosmic justice”. Through the grimy lens of Gothic noir, Tiny Tim is transformed into Duquan “Dukie” Weems, a well-meaning Westside ghettoboy whose affable nature and innocent smile will not save him from the harrowing road of heroin addiction, which is exactly where we see him at the end of the series. “The history of humanity is one limned with evil,” Mamatas argues. “But what perpetuates evil but the normalization of evil, the transformation of it into the banal? Poe’s triumph is that he portrayed evil without finally blinking and cobbling together some minor moral triumph or life lesson at the end of his tales. His stuff is the scream of the Gothicist still echoing throughout our culture.” 

Treatments of the banal are commonplace in noir, and especially so in its film. The “sleuths” Mamatas refers to are often called to the surface of cultural memory as whiskey-gulping, chain-smoking private investigators, complete with long trench coats and felt fedoras. Much is always made of the dramatic entrance of a femme fatale, who breaks the monotony and offers the sleuth a last chance at legitimacy. While the Coens have more than tipped their hat to more hard-boiled noir in an homage film like The Man Who Wasn’t There, they tend to dress banality up as the American Dream and then entice their ill-fated characters with opportunities the poor, miserable bastards can’t resist. Consider the characters of Jerry Lundegard (Fargo), the Dude (The Big Lebowski), Barton Fink (Barton Fink), Edwina McDunnough (Raising Arizona), Llewelyn Moss (No Country for Old Men), Chad Feldheimer (Burn After Reading), Ed Crane (The Man Who Wasn’t There) and how every one of them is in a losing fight against banality. Crane contemplates this in the end scene, when he is strapped into an electric chair and his voice-over narration yearns for a new language with which to reconstruct the world. The law is quite often the epicenter of banality as well, because what we have is fundamentally faulty, incapable of providing us clarity. 

In The Wire, Jimmy McNulty is a Baltimore homicide detective who wrestles with banality on levels that rival Oedipus’ struggles with road rage. McNulty prides him-self on being “natural po-leece”, a term of endearment used within the cop shop to describe gifted ones amongst their ranks. Television dramas in the United States have given viewers plenty of versions of this character, but they are frequently superficial ones, choosing to oversimplify and dumb down the intricacy, politics and downright dead-ends inherent to doing actual police work, usually in service of platitudinous personifications of the law (consider only the title of the long-running NBC primetime drama Law & Order (not to mention all of its spin-offs) and this point becomes painfully obvious). We watch Jimmy questing throughout the entirety of The Wire to find something meaningful and lasting; this frequently takes him over the edge of what is ethical, but never beyond what it means to be human. 

Likewise, the character of Omar Little in Simon’s series exemplifies how the evils of banality cannot be overcome by Puritanical mindsets of work and divinity. Omar is arguably one of the most complex characters ever drawn in American television. As one of the West side’s most notorious stickup boys, Little effectively plays Robin Hood by stealing product and profit from drug traffickers and rendering it unto those who are largely helpless to help themselves. He is also openly gay in a game where misogyny and heterocentrism are the norm, and is motivated through most of the series not to accumulate personal wealth, but to avenge the murder of his lover Brandon with a ferocity that rivals Alexander of Macedonia. In one of the early episodes of Season Two, we see Omar sporting a black tank top, punctuated with a roman font that proudly exclaims in bold, yellow letters “I AM THE AMERICAN DREAM”. 

The Wire's Omar

The Wire’s Omar

Because noir in the West can claim part of its origin in Greek tragedy, we recognize in him the character flaws that necessitate his destruction. No matter how noble or just his cause, Simon’s adherence to noir’s moral indeterminism colors his actions towards the end of the series in a shockingly realistic hue.

Contemporary noir offers a compromise between the pop cultural and acutely-absurdly academic. In The Wire, David Simon challenges his audience with the impracticality of morality as a unifying principle for society; we can see the whole picture—“all the pieces matter,” Detective Lester Freamon routinely reminds us as we progress through the series—but we are largely powerless to change what we see, and this is the vicious cycle of banality frequently at the heart of noir. “We are bored with good and evil,” Simon writes. “We renounce the theme…The Wire is most certainly not about what has been salvaged or exalted in America. It is, instead, about what we have left behind in our cities, and at what cost we have done so.”

Trevor Dodge is the author of Yellow #10 (Eraserhead 2003) and Everyone I Know Lives On Roads (Chiasmus 2006) and co-hosts the games culture podcast First Wall Rebate (firstwallrebate.com). He can be found online at www.trevordodge.com.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/126366-what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-the-wire/