Fast Train to Nowhere: Watching 'The Wire' Aesthetically

James Arthur Williams

Every scene, no matter how seemingly throwaway, no matter how seemingly unimportant, contributes to a larger vision, a complex set of patterns and narratives. Which is why The Wire is both totally fascinating and utterly unrealistic.

"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.

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