The Lessons of ‘The Wire’

By Blake Baxter 

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The much-celebrated, late HBO titan of television’s so-called Golden Age, The Wire, has been off the air for over five years. In its life, it was universally praised by critics (as well as its adoring fan base), but it was largely overlooked by the general public (and Emmy voters, for that matter). Its dense storytelling and grim portrayal of the city of Baltimore was a turnoff to TV viewers, who preferred straightforward plots where the bad guys lose and the cases are always solved in the end. But creator David Simon and his writing partner Ed Burns, were not interested in what is black and white. Their characters were more complex and true to life. In their version of Baltimore, well-intentioned people regularly made bad decisions that did more harm than good. Some of the criminals had a code that was more honorable than those trying to keep them off the streets. Institutions that were supposed to protect and serve often did things that had the opposite effect.

It has been said that the five remarkable seasons of The Wire are like one Great American Novel, and its grand themes are that of such. Each season focuses on a different facet of the city – the city’s drug culture, the city’s stevedores union, the city’s government and bureaucracy, the city’s school system, and the city’s print news media, and of course, the city’s police department. Each respective facet includes people beholden by different institutions, constantly jockeying to reach a specific endgame. But they are all intricately connected in some way. The show was carried by its fantastic writing, realistic tone, and its stellar ensemble cast, composed of character and no-name actors. Different characters are featured more prominently, depending on the season, but the one true main character of the show is the dying city of Baltimore, which, really, is a metaphor for America as a whole. The show can be very cynical at times, but also surprisingly humane when you least expect it.

Since the show debuted in 2002, many elements of its storylines feel a little dated, such as allusions to the War on Terror, mentions of Barry Bonds and the use of beepers; however many of its lessons and takeaways remain relevant today.  I am only going to delve into a few of these, because there are enough philosophical, socio-economical and political lessons of the show to fill up an entire book.

the wire kids

The Costs of Utilitarianism

Like most Golden Age shows, The Wire contains its fair share of murders and acts of violence, but what The Wire does better than any of its peers, is concocting viscous chain reactions that lead up to the death, violent act or ultimate state of despair, and allowing you to see it from various points of view. Although the recently deceased Breaking Bad was similar in that it deconstructed complex chain reactions, it was generally seen through the prism of one man. The Wire, on the other hand, showed each cog in the machine act and react, which uniquely allowed the viewer to empathize with characters who would normally be hated because of their role in spelling a tragic fate for a sympathetic victim.

It usually begins with something innocent or just unlucky, which prompts one party to make a decision based on their world view, which sets in motion a domino effect of decisions that go either up or down a ladder, or a chain of command. The result is almost always tragic and heartbreaking. Some of the people in the cycle have bad intentions, but many of them are just practicing utilitarianism. Yes, there are some who are just interested in self-preservation – another reccurring theme of the story – but there are also those who are just trying to do what they can “for the greater good”.

A prominent storyline of the final season revolves around one character – a cop, a character that we generally think of as one of the good guys – fabricating a massive lie that negatively affects numerous facets of the city in order to achieve, what in his mind is, a greater good. At the same time, a newspaper journalist is creating fabrications of his own to advance his career. One would think that the cop with a vaguely noble motive would have the moral high ground, after all, he is doing it for the greater good, but the show goes to great lengths to show that he is no better than the sensationalizing newspaperman.

It applies when morality isn’t in the equation as well. In season two, the primary villain is the shadowy figure, The Greek. As renowned television critic Alan Sepinwall said, The Greek is the embodiment of capitalism in its purest form. He makes each and every decision based on what is for the greater good, except to him, the greater good is always the bottom line. Innocent people die? He just chalks it up as collateral damage. He doesn’t (usually) intend to kill people; he intends to run an extremely profitable illegal business. If someone does get got in the process, though, no biggie; that’s just the cost of doing it in the most effective way. The profit always justifies the means. And no organization in The Wire is as strong, efficient or profitable as The Greek’s. But if everyone conducted business the way he did, there would be no humanity in the world.

In the present, our society is still constantly choosing between the lesser of two evils. Whether it’s because we want to find the most profitable or expedient option possible, or because we are truly trying to help people, others are being trampled in the process. The Wire reminds us that just because the evil is lesser doesn’t mean it’s not evil, and suggests that we need to take a harder look at the costs of our decisions, even if they are well intentioned.

The Greek and Sobotka

Institutions

It has been said that The Wire is a show about the inherent evils of institutions, which might be true to a point, but moreover it is a show about institutional incompetence, unfairness and pettiness. Almost every institution on the show is overgrown, which lends itself to an array of complications. The police department has so many employees that the city can’t afford to pay them. Gang culture has so many up-and-coming young hoppers and slingers and soldiers that almost every entity is expendable. The stevedores union has too many workers and not enough work. Perhaps, some of these problems could be overcome if people did their jobs right, but the police department has been so poorly run that it has bred a generation of officers and detectives that don’t know the first thing about real police work. Perhaps, the politicians could help straighten things out, but they are too busy getting into petty feuds. They start out with the intent of getting the city back on track; however, they ultimately cave to the conventions of the institution.

the wire police

Are institutions evil? Maybe not exactly, but what they are more than anything is unfair. Throughout The Wire, many characters from all spectrums of the city refer to the various on-goings as “part of The Game”. In season four, the great Bodie Broadus snaps when he realizes that “This Game is rigged, man”. The Game isn’t really a game, and it’s a dangerous way view the world. Like the modern day YOLO, calling life The Game is just a premeditated excuse for whatever it is a person is going to do – no matter how reckless, selfish or harmful it is, whatever – that’s The Game. But The Game mindset puts the institution over the individual. You’re a solider and you stick your neck out for your gang at all costs, because those are the rules, but it’s not a two-way street; the institution isn’t about to do the same for you. You’re a pawn, as Bodie said, “the little bitches on the chessboard”. You’re not supposed to get to the other end. The thing is, in the universe of The Wire, it doesn’t matter if you’re a soldier on the street, a cop at the station or a politician at city hall. It isn’t just those who traditionally wear the black hat who get screwed by the system; the same rules extend across the board.

the wire chess

So how do we change the rules? How do we put the institution and the individual on equal footing?

Unconventional Thinking 

At times, The Wire champions unconventional thinking. For example, the detectives get close to catching the bad guys because of intellect, surveillance and patience, rather than brute force and overzealousness. A gangster starts thinking like a businessman instead of a thug and his profits increase. A police chief finds a radical way to attack The War on Drugs and the crime rate gradually goes down. But the victories are often brief. The powers-that-be of the institutions and the already established rules crush the individuals who engineer the change. They are so intent on getting back to “business as usual” that they overlook what could be gained from thinking outside the box. Those who had the audacity to challenge the system are the ones who pay the price.

Our problems, like those of The Wire, are systemic. We have to implement widespread institutional change before we are going to truly make a difference. It can’t just be the change in the mindset of an individual; it has to be the evolution of an entire culture. The Wire may not have had all the answers for the questions that it provoked, but it provided a framework to attack the problem. We have to embrace unconventional thinking, instead of shunning it. We can’t do it on our own; we have to do it together. The rules won’t be changed, unless we all change them. And in order to do so, we have to put our utilitarian urges aside and see the whole picture. In reality, our country might not be in as rough as shape as that of the dying city of The Wire, but there are a lot of things that could be done to make it a more fair, efficient, prosperous and all around better place.

The last shot of The Wire is of the city of Baltimore. Viewers know of all the horrible things that have happened there over the course of five stunning seasons – many of which mirror the reality of the actual Baltimore – but they also know of all of the good that there is in the city; all of the good people, doing the best they can, all of the once proud, but now-decrepit industries, falling apart, and all of those who were dealt a bad hand and never had a chance. It’s a place that deserves better. It can do better; we all can.

wireep10-skyline

Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College FixThe Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday. 

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