Fast Train to Nowhere: Watching ‘The Wire’ Aesthetically

It’s been about a year and a half since The Wire — HBO’s crime series about the trafficking, sale, and policing of illegal narcotics in an American city whose best days have long passed — ended a five year run in which it won critical acclaim but failed to find a broad audience. Despite its lack of popularity the series lasted long enough to realize the vision, and the complete story arcs, of its creators David Simon and Ed Burns (in past vocational lives, the former a newspaper journalist at the Baltimore Sun, the latter a police detective and public school teacher) — a fact for which Simon and Burns appear deeply grateful. Though Simon has, in some circles at least, a reputation for an irascible and choleric temperament, at the conclusion of the show he posted to its HBO website a gracious thank you letter to fans that is further evidence of the powerful intelligence and ambition that informed and shaped the program. Here is an excerpt from that letter in which Simon reflects on the aims of the last season and the series as a whole:

This year, our drama asked its last thematic question: Why, if there is any truth to anything presented in The Wire over the last four seasons, does that truth go unaddressed by our political culture, by most of our mass media, and by our society in general?

We’ve given our answer:

We are a culture without the will to seriously examine our own problems. We eschew that which is complex, contradictory or confusing. As a culture, we seek simple solutions. We enjoy being provoked and titillated, but resist the rigorous, painstaking examination of issues that might, in the end, bring us to the point of recognizing our problems, which is the essential first step to solving any of them. […..]

If you followed us for 60 hours, and you find yourself caring about these issues more than you thought you would, then perhaps the next step is to engage and to demand, where possible, a more sophisticated and meaningful response from authority when it comes to such things as the drug war, educational reform or responsible political leadership. The Wire is about the America we pay for and tolerate. Perhaps it is possible to pay for, and demand, something more.

In this passage, and elsewhere in the letter, Simon makes it clear that he and his colleagues believe that watching The Wire, or at least that watching The Wire properly, is hard work — hard because it presents vast social and cultural and political problems in all their grim complexity, hard because it demands that the viewer follow often byzantine plot lines, and hard because it offers almost no wholly sympathetic characters but, rather, ones who alternately disgust the audience and evoke its admiration (sometimes in the space of a few moments). And though Simon never says so outright, it is clear that he believes that part of the challenge of watching The Wire and what makes it such an anomaly in the larger landscape of contemporary television is that it is an ethical undertaking — ethical, at least, in the sense of being deeply concerned with viewers’ responsibility to ask themselves a tough question: Why does the show exist and what social good might come of watching it?

Simon’s answer, suggested here and in interviews, is as simple as it is provocative: to compel audiences to demand more responsible and effective policy and vision on the part of the various authorities that manage and govern modern America — politicians, police departments, school boards, courts of law, and so on. More specifically, The Wire wants its viewers to recognize the terrible consequences of the “War on Drugs” — the murderous toll it takes on (mostly) young black men, the corruption and criminality it encourages in once strong but now dying blue-collar industries, the way it absorbs resources that might better be employed in rebuilding crumbling civic infrastructure and city neighborhoods. And it wants viewers to take the lessons they’ve learned about what is happening on city streets and in city halls and on docks and in schools by virtue of watching the series and translate them into protest of the quick fix and band-aid solutions to urban crime and civic malfeasance and incompetence that are all too common in cities throughout the country.

Before considering The Wire in light of Simon’s vision for the series — what he proclaims its intent to be, how the fiction it presents should interact with the reality it so carefully mirrors — I’ll confess a prejudice up front. Like many of its fans I think The Wire is simply the best television program ever made. This is a bold, and perhaps ridiculous, claim, but in its polygot presentation of the idioms of an astonishing range of ethnic, vocational, and socio-economic groups, in its central premise that deeply consequential stories reside beneath the surface of mundane life, the series deserves a place in discussions of the finest fiction the United States has produced: Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby.

When we talk about The Wire we are, quite simply, talking about a project that fulfills the criteria for what an earlier age of criticism would call a national epic, a work that captures the ambitions and values, competing impulses and essential contradictions, of the historical moment and society in which it was created. This is hardly an original observation. Since its inception reviewers and commentators, finding little else on television with which to compare it, have reached for terms like novelistic and literary to capture the complexity and ambition of the series. Indeed, in the commentary that accompanies the first episode of the season Simon unabashedly proclaims that if viewers want really to appreciate the series they better suspend the expectations for how television should work they have developed from viewing network fare and learn a lot of patience — the kind of patience that it takes to appreciate a work like, well, Moby Dick (no one has ever accused Simon of lacking self-esteem).

Declarations of the complex design and profound artistry of the series are absolutely fair and I will return to a consideration of these aspects of the series and their effects on viewers. But for now I want to suggest that the very brilliance of the show compromises and ultimately undermines Simon’s professed didactic aims for The Wire. As much as I admire the series and as much as I want to believe in Simon’s claim that The Wire will realize its ultimate and best purpose in provoking social change by prompting Americans to take a stand against those bureaucratic, political, and economic forces that dictate the terms on which we live our lives (and for the worse)… I just can’t. I think Simon’s letter completely misses the great power and appeal of the series for fans and, importantly, its creators. Put simply, the significance of The Wire has little to do with its power to provoke reform or even outrage at the status quo, the way that civic institutions routinely betray both the constituencies they are intended to serve and their own highest ideals (indeed, I am deeply skeptical that it has such power).

Rather, the significance of the series lies in the way that it transforms the at once horrific and banal, the terrible and the utterly mundane (not to mention tedious) realities of the underbelly of a modern American city into fascinating drama; the way that it casts the occurrences and events that routinely happen in “the modern urban crime environment” in a lurid but fascinating light. This is problematic, I will argue, because when it comes to watching The Wire fascination is the enemy of the kind of ethical response Simon claims to want the series to engender in viewers. The appeals of The Wire are aesthetic — that is, they present a complex and fascinating pattern that allows the viewer access to experiences that, are in Richard Posner’s criteria for assessing powerful literature, “more charged with significance” than lived life. For this reason, it is my sense that instead of encouraging reform the series redeems its often sordid subject matter in the dubious way that all great fiction redeems reality.

I have already noted that from very nearly its debut The Wire prompted a critical response and close analysis of its larger themes and resonance with socio-economic realities rare in the world of television. And this kind of response — predicated on a belief that The Wire demands an intellectually searching engagement on the part of audiences — is perfectly in keeping with the vision of the show as expressed by its creators. In interviews, Simon has repeatedly described The Wire as a “postindustrial American tragedy” and I suspect his word choice is not accidental. Despite its contemporary usage as anything terrible — or, increasingly, simply unfortunate — “tragedy” gestures toward something more than mere bad occurrence or circumstance. It indicates a worldview, an understanding of humanity and its place in a cruel universe ruled by inscrutable powers. Tragedy is the study of how human beings — terribly beleaguered and abused by destiny — seek for some dignity and wisdom in the midst of awful suffering. Which is to say that it is not about learning easily digested lessons in appropriate behavior or comportment. After all, if one only took a salutary lesson away from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex — “Killing your father and sleeping with your mother is bad news!” — one would be treading in pretty shallow water indeed. But of course this meager instruction in negotiating the perils of the family romance is hardly the point of Sophocles’ drama.

At least one larger point lies in an essential question that it prompts us to ask: can there be any kind of redemption in situations that are already so far outside the realm of the normal tribulations of a human life that all of the rules and proscriptions we live by are utterly useless? Whether or not Oedipus finds any redemption is of course up to the reader or viewer to determine, but this acknowledgment only leads us to another, more fundamental, question tragedy puts to audiences: is the compulsion that motivates our scrutiny of the human subject in the extremis of suffering motivated merely by fascinated repulsion or is it motivated by a desire to see the human spirit secure some solace, some triumph even, when pressed to the limits of endurance and comprehension?

We may seem to be a long way from The Wire, a show that, at its most basic, can be grouped in that catch-all genre “crime drama” (thereby rubbing elbows with assembly line schlock like C.S.I. and the various Law & Order series), but when Simon speaks of The Wire as a tragedy he seems to be trafficking in the notion of the individual’s perilous negotiation of terrible events beyond his or her control. If, however, in Greek tragedy the inexorable forces that human beings face to work out whatever redemption they can are destiny, fate, the inscrutable will of the gods, in the world of The Wire they are much more mundane and familiar, though no less terrible for that fact. Here is how Simon describes the relation of the series to classic tragedy: “Instead of [the gods] whipping it on Oedipus and Achilles, it’s the postmodern institutions… those are the indifferent gods.” In other words, the crises and struggles of classical tragedy are not simply the matter of the literature class or scholarly essay; they are the very essence of modern daily life but with a different cast of victims and oppressors.

And those oppressors are the very social structures that are supposed to ensure the safety and well-being of American citizens: police departments and schools, city councils and city newspapers. They are oppressors, however, not out of malevolence but out of the incompetence and pettiness and greed and personal ambition and a failure of imagination on the part of their constituent personnel. Good people — or at least competent and capable people — exist everywhere, The Wire suggests, and everywhere they are met with stupidity and intrusive meddling and incompetent bureaucrats who desire only to maintain whatever power they have and, when the opportunity presents itself, grasp for more. And in this the parallels in the series between street battles for corners and neighborhoods in which to deal drugs and the constant turf battles waged by police administrators, politicians for promotions, media attention, and so on are hardly subtle.

“You gotta serve somebody…”

Indeed, one of the series’ constant themes is, to steal a line from Bob Dylan, “You gotta serve somebody” — or at least you gotta acquiesce to the often incomprehensible but more often blatantly ridiculous demands of bosses and institutions, of entrenched bureaucrats and time-servers. It’s a frequent refrain among the cops and detectives who are pursuing gangs and drug cartels that these organizations are considerably better run than the organizations to which they belong, that, free of red tape, gangsters and drug dealers will always have a jump on the officers who pursue them because the latter must abide by inexplicable and intrusive rules and regulations whose only apparent purpose is to thwart the swift and savvy prosecution of justice.

But if drug gangs are, in the minds of cops, models of guerilla efficiency and organization leanness, The Wire insists otherwise: behind the apparent loafing and aimless idleness of corner boys and those who roll by in hip-hop thumping SUVs to give them their orders are bureaucracies and hierarchies every bit as complex and fraught with petty power plays and arcane protocols as their straight-world counterparts. Watch the first view episodes and you’ll realize pretty quickly how frequently a scene in the station house or police headquarters anticipates or echoes a prior or subsequent scene in the safe houses or the strip joints in which the drug dealers do business. For every detective being berated for overstepping his bounds by his supervisor, there’s a dealer being dealt with in a similar manner by the higher-up to whom he reports.

For this reason, even as The Wire takes pains to present us complex characters — characters far more complex than the bundles of clichés and behavioral tics that populate police shows generally — it uses these characters as the lenses through which it provides a panoramic vision of a society in all its dysfunction and failure. The series, like the 19th century serial novel (yes, another literary analogy) presents the tribulations and triumphs, the defeats and occasional victories, of a vast cast of characters — concentrating on some for awhile then letting them fade into the background as it shifts its attention to other characters and social demographics — in order to suggest that every one of these is but one fractal part of an infinitely complex whole. Most notably, in the second season the Barksdale drug gang (whose attempts to seize control of the Baltimore drug scene dominated the first season), while not disappearing entirely, plays second fiddle to a plotline that focuses on a longshoremans’ union whose relevance is fast declining in a city more interested in building high-end condominiums and lofts on the waterfront than in sustaining an industry that was one of the engines of the city’s growth and prosperity. And then in the third season the series shifts to an exploration of the power plays and cold calculation that dominate city government and political party machines. And then in the fourth season the series… well, you get it.

Yet, for all the range and depth of its attention to urban society in early 21st century America, we do well to remember that The Wire is not reality. Which is to say that for all its verisimilitude, for all its determination to reproduce the environments and scenes of the Baltimore in which it is set, for all its traffic with actual events and life stories gleaned from Simon’s reporter days and Burns’ time in the station house and the classroom, The Wire reflects an organizing intelligence and a careful composition of elements and interactions. The Wire is a “poem” in the original sense of the term — a made thing, a product of human artifice. Before even offering social critique The Wire is about telling stories, about weaving a fabric of narratives that give significance to the senselessness of the environments and episodes it depicts. Listening to the commentary that accompanies the DVD releases of the series — especially those offered by Simon — one gets the sense that there is absolutely nothing gratuitous in the appearance and sound of the series, that everything that the viewer sees or hears is an important detail, one part of a larger compositional whole.

The recurring term in The Wire for the drug trade with all its hazards and complexities, with all the terrible and often lethal competition between not only the police and dealers but also between dealers and other dealers (and the “stick-up boys” like Omar Little who rob dealers) it entails, is simply: “the game.” The term folds together all the dictionary definitions of the word: a competitive endeavor, an activity organized by certain rules and protocols, trickery, a profession. In the third season, for example, the former “soldier” Dennis “Cutty” Wise returns to the city after a long stint in prison. He eventually (and ambivalently) takes up his former line of work intimidating rival drug dealers who are encroaching on Barksdale territory. Surprised when handed a semi-automatic pistol, Cutty — who preferred to use revolvers before going to jail — reflects, “The game done changed.” His new associate, Slim Charles, responds: “The game the same, just got more fierce.” (Recall that the entire series began with an account of a corner dice game that winds up in a homicide.) Clearly, Simon intends for this to be a commentary on a ferocious capitalism that pits individuals against one another in the fevered pursuit of profit. And it is also the case that, as Margaret Talbot writes, the game “emerges during the course of the show as a metaphor for the web of constraints that political and economic institutions impose on the people trapped within them.”

In this understanding, the game is something to bemoan, to witness with dread — a futile and meaningless exercise in suffering and struggle akin to a cat toying with a mouse. But there is another understanding of the game — considerably more alluring if not, ultimately, more salutary — at work in the series. In this sense, the “game” is a fascinating series of moves and counter-moves, of strategies, of savvy negotiations of perilous circumstances, of carefully calculated risks and the hope of a big payoff. If, as the series suggests, no one ever really wins this game, if there is no such thing as unalloyed triumph or complete victory, this only makes the series more compelling. The game is, quite simply, the most interesting thing happening, far more dramatically compelling than mundane life — and this applies to the characters who inhabit the series and the viewers outside it.

I recognize this sounds callous. The Wire — one can almost hear Simon exclaiming — may be fictional but it is faithful to reality (more faithful, Simon has suggested, than journalism usually is) and if the stories it presents do not map exactly onto the coordinates of reality, the kind of suffering they depict is not abstract. My aim, however, is to suggest that its very brilliance compromises its effectiveness as social commentary with the aim of reform.

Let me offer an example in which the notion of the drug trade as a game serves to undercut the program of social commentary and improvement Simon suggests the series offers. In an episode from season three a teenage boy — a young player in the drug trade — is recounting to friends an anecdote from the fabled career of none other than Cutty Wise. The anecdote is this: Cutty tracked down a rival drug dealer and, when the man stepped into a phone booth, shot him, then used the phone to call 911, saying, “I just shot a nigger; come get him.” The teenager who recounts this story does so in tones of awed admiration — Cutty clearly has legendary, even mythic, status for him. In other words, out of the turmoil and awfulness of the streets and the drug trade, heroic and sustaining narratives, vital stories, are being circulated. The dramatic irony is that moments after sharing this story, a rival crew shoots the boy dead and his friends flee, the camera retreating from the isolated corpse to frame a desolate scene of abandoned buildings and the cracked pavement of empty streets. There’s a least one lesson here: myth won’t protect you from brutal reality and stories may help you to make some sense of the awfulness of life on the street but it won’t save you from the random and senseless lethality that dominates there.

Here is the problem as I see it. The story of Cutty’s martial prowess, street savvy, and bad-ass panache is, frankly, just as attractive to the viewer as it is to characters in the show. In other words, one way of reading the scene is: “How terrible that these kids who get involved in this awful business delude themselves about its absurdity and banality with stories of exemplary toughness.” Another way of reading it, though, is, “If for no other reason than the constant proximity and possibility of death, this is a world charged with significance, with meaning” and for that reason is inherently interesting in the way that daily life usually isn’t. But whichever way one interprets the scene the point is that it is something to be interpreted; it is put together in such a way as to have significance — just, as I suggested above, everything in The Wire is meant to have significance. One is hardly venturing into speculative territory by understanding that the tagline of the series “… every piece matters” — detective Lester Freamon’s refrain that every scrap of evidence, no matter how seemingly trivial, contributes to the whole of the case that he and other police are building against the Barksdale organization — is also a description of the aesthetic of the series.

Every scene — no matter how seemingly throwaway, no matter how seemingly unimportant — contributes to a larger vision, a complex set of patterns and narratives. It’s why The Wire is so fascinating to watch and also why it’s so unrealistic. In its insistence that every tatter of experience plays a part in a larger drama, a larger narrative, the series gets wrong maybe the most essential aspect of human experience: life doesn’t follow story arcs; it doesn’t give off resonances of meaning. It just is: a continuous influx of perceptions and experiences and incidents with no story arc (unless imposed retrospectively). Richard Posner writes of literature:

“A distinctive ‘pleasure’ (or, better perhaps, satisfaction) that literature and other arts impart… is an echo chamber effect of reality… The life depicted in works of literature is recognizably human and therefore like our own, but it is more intense, more charged with significance. When we are reading literature… We have a vision of life more ‘real’ (concrete, meaningful, intelligible, coherent, conscious) than our everyday existence.”

Substitute “watching The Wire” for “reading literature” and I think you’ve got here a brilliant insight into the great appeal of the series. For all the challenges of watching The Wire (tracking back to catch a bit of dialogue or catch a glimpse of a sign on a wall, trying to map out the relations between characters) one does so with the presumption that being an invested viewer is important, that the more attentive one is, the better appreciation one will have for the show. All the pieces matter, after all.

Well, so what? So what if we should approach The Wire as a source of aesthetic satisfaction with no concern about what good it might do in the world? First, it’s an assessment of the show with which Simon would certainly take issue. Beyond that, I want to suggest that the series is shot through with a deeply problematic conservatism. I don’t mean the political conservatism of the contemporary American right. After all, Simon has declared in interviews that he feels the best solution to the kinds of problems The Wire explores is to legalize currently illegal narcotics, thereby ending the drug war. No, the conservatism of the series is existential rather than political, the kind that finds vernacular expression in a saying like, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Whatever stoic comforts this saying might offer it reflects a profoundly anti-humanist worldview (I mean “humanist” in the sense of deeply concerned with the welfare of individual human beings).

Individuals in the view of The Wire aren’t very important in and of themselves — they’re simply substitutable integers in equations beyond their comprehension. What else are we to make of the final montage of series which cuts from the recovering heroin addict “Bubbles” ascending a set of stairs toward a lighted doorway to a tableau in which the kind-hearted teenager “Dookie” Weems is shooting up for the first time? Or what are we to make of the fact that almost no sooner does Omar Little meet his end then the former soldier and dealer Michael Lee steps in to take over the task of robbing dealers? Or what do we make of the fact that even as the series presents the departure of the brilliant but troubled detective Jimmy McNulty from the police force it suggests that his former partner Kima Greggs is already well along the path of alcoholism, womanizing, and general dissolution that so vexed McNulty?

Surely, the fates of these characters are precisely what Simon has in mind when he suggests that the system simply chews up and spits out individuals and that this is what constitutes modern tragedy. But it’s also the case that the series ends with a kind of aesthetic neatness totally unlike, say, the near infinite open-endedness of The Sopranos. What we witness over the five seasons of The Wire may be one iteration of a larger cycle but in that iteration there is a sense of completeness, of having gone, if not from A to B, at least from A back to A.

If that’s the case, though, we have to recognize that we’re no wiser for having taken the trip. One of the final moments of the series, in which McNulty is eulogized (sort of), might serve as a coda for the series as whole. His supervising officer proclaims, “What to say about this piece of work… what can I say about the dearly departed?… He was the black sheep, a permanent pariah… he learned no lessons… .” In other words, for all his smarts, his intuition, his imagination, McNulty didn’t become a better person, didn’t figure how to effect any positive change in the world. It was fascinating drama to witness though, McNulty’s highs and lows, triumphs and terrible personal and professional failures. Likewise for The Wire as a whole. Watching the final episode of the series again I can’t help but be reminded of the lyrics to soul legend Solomon Burke’s “Fast Train”, the song that accompanies the montage that concludes the third season of the series: “You been on a fast train, a fast, fast, fast train, a fast train… goin’ nowhere.” Indeed. But what a ride.