Why the Wire Matters

*Note: This article is spoiler heavy. If you haven’t watched all of the Wire (which I honestly feel you should) then you have been warned.


Of all the lauded programs that have aired on HBO, none of them come close to the examination that The Wire deserves. The highly realistic drama was created by a Baltimore journalist named David Simon and felt like the product of years (if not decades) of experience and research. The Wire never got as much viewership as HBO’s flagship titles, but critics tended to call it the best show on television. It wasn’t an easy show for people to get into, as it strived to be as reality-based as possible, and didn’t always give in to genre conventions. Those that could stick with the show, however, would be justly rewarded. Not only would they experience TV’s most compelling drama, but they would learn more about their society than most books, news reports or even personal experience could tell them.

The book Television and American Culture by Jason Mittell makes a lot of inferences on race and identity on television. In the chapter Representing Identity, Mittel claims that television is a great venue for getting across cultural politics as it looks at what it means to be every sex, race and ethnic group. He of course touches on many past and present shows that have looked at cultural values, from Good Times to the Jeffersons. He says The Wire offered such unique representations of race, yet is considered by most people as “an atypical exception on the margins of television rather than the start of a new trend of representation.” I have to agree with this, as no other show has truly felt as literate as The Wire, and we’re not likely to see another one anytime soon.

Right from the very first episode, The Wire seemed ready to break the standard. Set in present day Baltimore, the first season was told through the eyes of both police officers, as well as the drug dealers that they were trying to apprehend. The show garnered a lot of attention for having a large African-American cast in a multitude of roles. While yes, all of the drug dealers on the show were black, there were plenty of black actors that had less stereotypical roles such as police officers and government officials. Sure, black actors have been cast in these roles on TV for decades, but never before did one single television program have their roles so spread out, nor did they interact with white actors in the same way.

Even the drug dealers were different from the ones in other cop shows. The show paid attention very closely to the lives of these young African Americans who were born into a life no one would want, and they weren’t uneducated thugs. We saw that these low-class citizens were intelligent, hard-working and even caring people (exampled in a great scene where the character D’angelo teaches his friend Bodie how to play chess). While at times they could do some really terrible things, it only made us care for them all the more. A scene near the end of the first season when Bodie is forced to kill one of his friends is chilling, but only because we had seen their lives beforehand.

As unique as the depiction of the African Americans was in this show, perhaps the most radical portrayal the show had on a certain group was with its gay characters. The show’s gay characters were not stereotypical and were not apparently gay on first appearance. The lesbian police officer, Kima Greggs, is a strong character who is a tough cop, but also a caring lover with her girlfriend. In the first season some viewers felt the show was pro-gay as all the good relationships were between homosexuals (as the show progressed this wasn’t the case though). The show even pokes fun at gay stereotypes with the loathsome police commissioner William A. Rawls. The observant viewer will notice that this angry man is most likely a closet homosexual (we spot him in a gay bar, and then trying to pretend to be straight by awkwardly looking at a porn magazine), but we’re never told this directly.

Of course, I can’t touch on the show’s different portrayal of gay characters without speaking about Omar Little. Omar is a gay African American who professionally steals money and drugs from Baltimore’s kingpins. He embodies the typical “bad-ass” character that you’d find in westerns, as he’s a gun toting, smooth talking, highly intelligent character who rarely fails in what he sets out to do. Omar is often referred to as “faggot” or “cocksucker” by his enemies, but is seen as a hero by most others. The character quickly became a fan favorite, which is to be expected from other characters that fill the Clint Eastwood archetype, but rarely are these characters open homosexuals. I personally can’t think of another gay character like him in any form of medium.

Keep in mind that this is all just primarily from the first season. Throughout The Wire’s five seasons the show would grow even more groundbreaking. While the first season was more a police drama than other ones (albeit the best one that’s ever been on TV), it came to establish itself as a program with much bigger objectives than just cops and robbers. David Simon even said the show is “really about the American city, and how we live together. It’s about how institutions have an effect on individuals, and how whether you’re a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge or a lawyer, you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you’ve committed to.” This describes the show perfectly.

The second season took a drastic turn from the first one, with the black drug dealers having limited screen time. The Wire turned its attention to the bad conditions that blue collar workers deal with. The story takes place mainly on the docks of Baltimore and looks at a group of stevedores led by a man named Frank Sobotka. The story deals with the Sobotka family becoming involved with a European crime organization by helping them smuggle contraband into the country. David Simon has said that the Wire holds a “cynical” view towards institutions, and that definitely rings clear here. Despite focusing on a higher social class this time, The Wire is no less grim with the lives of these people. They too work hard hours for little pay, and there are some shocking scenes of violence that stem from these issues.

Perhaps trying to change people’s views that The Wire was a “black person’s show” (and the second season did indeed see the highest ratings the show ever saw), this season introduced a whole group of new characters from different ethnic groups, namely Polish Americans. Like the African-American criminals of last season, we see these Polish Americans faced with much turmoil, even amongst their own kind. The Sobotkas are the main targets in the police investigation, but they are fully humanized. Frank Sobotka is the treasurer for a stevedore union, but is faced with hard times involving the decline of the American port industry. He seeks aid from political financiers (even donating an elaborate glass window to a church in order to get close to a senator), but to no avail. Eventually, he makes deals with the European criminals to help his monetary situation, but this only makes manners worse.

Polish police major Stanislaus Valchek starts a feud with Frank, because he wanted to send the church a hefty patronage too. This leads him to have the police start an investigation into his affairs. The same police team from last season go undercover where they discover a prostitution ring, murder, and drugs. Things really turn sour when Frank’s son Ziggy kills two of the Europeans during an argument, and then turns himself in. Frank then goes to talk with the criminals and is shortly after found dead. Frank Sobotka remains one of the key figures in The Wire’s statement of institutions’ demoralizing and destroying their own kind.

The third season revealed a topic that had only been hinted at in previous ones: the flaws of the war on drugs. David Simon honestly feels that America’s crackdown on drug dealers has mainly become a senseless war with the lower class. He equates it to the degradation of society and the reason why inner city violence exists, however, as with most problems on The Wire, there are no easy solutions.

Police major Colvin serves as one of the season’s key characters when he is asked by his superiors to quickly lower the murder rate or face termination. Colvin decides that the war on drugs has grown senseless. He and his group of officers round up some of the local drug dealers and tell them they can do their business in a secluded area and they will not be arrested. After some skepticism at first, the west Baltimore dealers do indeed start to sell their drugs in a new location completely free of police apprehension. Naming the area Hamsterdam, the experiment proves to be successful at first with less homicides occurring. By season’s end, however, we’ve seen the area become a hellish place with no order.

This was probably the show’s most violent season thus far as it introduces a rising drug lord named Marlo who starts a gang war. The first few episodes discuss Baltimore’s high crime rate and even point out that if the city had the population of New York, the murder rate would be in the five digits each year. David Simon has said that this gang war was a metaphor for Iraq (it begins with the destruction of the housing projects, evoking images of the Twin Towers), but the images ring closer to home. The scenes of murder are not set in third world countries, but on our own American streets. The youths caught up in this chaos are also familiar with American pop-culture and wear garb that’s recognizable in a high school setting. They show us the details of inner city life that most news sources fear to tread.

Another theme of this season is reform, which is radiated from the character Stringer Bell. Bell is the educated right hand-man for Baltimore’s reigning drug lord Avon Barksdale. In the previous two seasons it was hinted at that Stringer Bell might have aspirations to leave the drug game, and in this season we know for sure that it’s true. Stringer Bell is indeed seeking refuge in legitimate business by investing in housing properties. We see him befriend white business men, while at the same time handling his men on the streets.

Its theme of reform climaxed at the end of the season with the murder of Stringer Bell. Avon Barksdale doesn’t approve of Bell’s desire to change, and betrays him. He sells him out to Omar and an accomplice who shoot him to death in one of his under-construction buildings. The results spark a gray shadow on the thugs of Barksdale that were hoping to leave their life of crime. To make matters worse, Avon is arrested himself shortly after Bell’s death, as Bell had revealed his location to Colvin. Unbeknownst to either of them, it was a dual betrayal.

The third season also became very political with the new character Tommy Carcetti. Carcetti was a white council man in his thirties hoping to run for mayor in the upcoming election. Carcetti faces problems from being a white politician in Baltimore, as he is competing in a city that is mostly populated by people of color. Still, through his eyes we see the mechanics of the city government, which carries on throughout the next two seasons. Here, The Wire suggests that even the higher-ups in society make decisions that affect the bottom-of-the-barrel ghetto inhabitants.

Then, there is the fourth season. While not the series final season, it’s arguably the definitive one. Here the themes, characters, and events all came together to culminate the show’s most powerful moments. The show focused on a group of inner-city youths and their troubles not just on the streets, but in school as well. Perhaps the fact that this season’s group of characters was so young was the reason why it was so hard hitting. I think it’s impossible to not feel sorrow for these poor misguided youths.

As to be expected, public schooling was giving a scathing look at by the show’s writers. This season looked at the schools as yet another porous part of society, and the schools that serve these young African-Americans are inefficient. Former cop Roman Pryzbylewski (AKA Prez) replaces Jimmy McNulty as this season’s protagonist, and the story is about his struggles as a teacher at a middle school for inner city children. The students are rowdy and often curse in class, and sometimes even grow violent (there’s a bloody scene that involves a girl pulling another girl’s earring off). The other staff members at the school prove to be mostly unfair to the children, such as when a child is accused of assisting in a rape he had no part in.

Education is a prevailing theme throughout the season, and not just the ones giving in classrooms. The children learn about life from their friends and family, but mainly from older drug dealers. For these kids, survival on the streets is far more important than math and English. Some kids even learn that this sort of life isn’t suited for them. Namond, one of the central teenage characters in this season, is forced by his overbearing mother to be a drug dealer (mainly to follow in his imprisoned father’s footsteps), although time and time again he shows that he isn’t suited for this line of work. Other characters fail as teachers, such as drug addict Bubbles. The character takes in a young homeless boy this season, and asks him to do as he says, not as he does. Unfortunately, the young boy does go down the path of a junky also, and suffers a terrible fate. It’s yet another powerful look at how established norms can be so destructive.

The fourth season also saw the conclusion of the Tommy Carcetti story that started last season. At first it seems that Carcetti has no chance of becoming Baltimore’s mayor, but he changes the odds when he uncovers that his opponent has neglected to tell people that a state’s witness was murdered (a storyline from the first season). This skyrockets his poles and Carcetti wins by a landslide. He begins to crack down on crime, but switches his attention to schools at the end of the season. An instance at how easily politicians (and the public), can changes their ideals.

The fifth season can be considered the show’s weakest link (it’s shorter than the other seasons so it doesn’t get quite as in depth), but it does give a very realistic look at print journalism. The story involves Jimmy McNulty making up a serial killer for the press, in order for Mayor Carcetti to stop concentrating his funding on the school system, and back on the undernourished police force. Through this action we see how the field of journalism works, as well as how it doesn’t.

Most shows that focus on journalism tend to give all their attention to celebrity reporting (such as Dirt). The Wire’s fifth season focuses more on journalism’s role in society. Like the previous four seasons, the Wire discusses problems that are very apparent in the industry in today’s day and age. The lack of reporters and drive for increasing quality are all factors. Through Jimmy McNulty’s lie, we see how easy it is for a news source to fabricate the truth. McNulty ultimately pays for his dishonesty with his job, but the public never gets to know the real story. A good reminder from David Simon (a journalist himself) that you can’t believe everything you read or hear.

The show’s finale stands as one of the best in television history, as everything that took place over the show’s run comes full circle. The youths that were introduced in the last season of the show have grown up for better or worse. Michael has replaced the now deceased Omar as a robber of drug dealers, and Dukie has replaced the now clean Bubbles by taking his position as a junkie. Even amidst the police force the next act seems to be beginning with the character Snydor replacing Jimmy McNulty as the officer that speaks for his own ideas. While the next generation already seems to be following in the path made by the previous one, David Simon also casts a ray of hope that there can be change as well. Bubbles has quit drugs and reunited with his family, and we have a brief glimpse of Prez and find that he has finally gotten control of his teaching job. The fact that these characters have turned their lives around so much is proof that anyone can overcome their problems and make it in this world.

The amazing thing about The Wire is how authentic it feels despite being so fictionalized. The Baltimore in this show obviously isn’t the real Baltimore, and it has made up events, made up criminals, and made up politicians. Still, the basis for all of this is steeped in reality, as the actual Baltimore really is a very violent city mostly populated with African-Americans, and filled with much racial tension. While there obviously was no real Mayor Carcetti, the character is based off the real life Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley, as well as several other lesser known politicians. Also, the fourth season subplot about bodies being hidden in boarded up abandoned buildings is something that actually happened there (although not to the degree the show has it in). Even Omar Little, one of the show’s more over-the-top characters, is inspired from the culmination of several professional Baltimore robbers.

Then again, The Wire isn’t so much about Baltimore. Sure, there are plenty of inside references for Baltimore natives, and it’s the city that David Simon and his collaborators are most familiar with. Still, the show’s purpose is to uncover the working of any American city, it’s just the action happens to be set in Maryland’s capital. Experts feel that the story’s main points can be attributed to city’s like Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland and even parts of New York City. The problems in the work force that the Wire addresses are very much national issues, and as we know, the war on drugs isn’t limited to one area in America.

The real shame here is that it’s not likely The Wire will ever reach an expansive audience outside of the states. In the Television Studies Reader there is an essay on the Bill Cosby Show by Timothy Havens that explains that show had so much success cause it came out at the right time and featured a fun-loving black family that could have been an upper-middle class white family as well. The Wire’s grittiness is off putting for some cultures, plus it’s socioeconomic concerns are more tied to America. The drama is still there, but foreign countries aren’t likely to understand all of the show’s messages.

So The Wire isn’t just the best television drama of our time, but it’s an important one too. It points toward where are government has gone wrong, and shows us a world that plenty of us don’t even know exists. The seedy side of the American city is truly a dark place, where no one is safe and the lines of morality are sketchy at best. Still, David Simon suggests that we try to make a difference in our society, without being too preachy. Sure, it’ll take gigantic proportions to make a lasting effect, but with a little bit of dedication and knowledge anything is possible. It’s a classic message, and so far The Wire is the only instance of something using the television medium to tell it so flawlessly.


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