spring 2008: volume 7: issue 2
Oxonian Review of Books

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“All in the Game”: HBO’s The Wire

Clif Mark

WITNESS
muthafucka didn’t hafta put no cap in ‘em though… man, he coulda just whooped his ass like we always whoop his ass.
MCNULTY
Definitely not. (pause) I gotta ask ya, if every time Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away, why’d you even let him in the game?
WITNESS
What?!
MCNULTY
If Snot Boogie always stole the money, why’d you let him play?
WITNESS
Got to. This America man.

Before the opening credits of the first episode, The Wire introduces its main themes of capitalism, violence, and decay, as well as the trope of the game. The murder of Snot Boogie over an alleyway dice game is the problem of urban America writ small, and The Wire spends the next five seasons elaborating the theme on a progressively broader canvas.

HBO’s The Wire, despite commanding relatively small audiences, has been called “the best show on television” by the Chicago Tribune, Salon, and the San Francisco Chronicle. On the most abstract level, The Wire is a story about the failure of institutions in America. But rather than set the story in an anonymous metropolis, or a featureless version of New York that serves as the setting of many shows, the show ascends to general truths through an intimately particular portrait of the troubled post-industrial city of Baltimore. Viewers become familiar with the various areas of the city, from the Second Empire style City Hall and the lush downtown architectural landscape, to the stark scenery of the Baltimore port where much of the second season is set, to the crumbling blocks of row-houses fronted by rail-less concrete stoops that compose Baltimore’s ghettoes.

The Wire’s rich sense of place is not only visual, but also aural. Instead of simply speaking in a “Baltimore accent”, the characters’ speech is finely tuned to the particular cadence and diction of the different groups to which they belong, displaying the startling linguistic variety present in one English-speaking city. The idiom, especially of the ghettoes, can be difficult to understand immediately, and has been blamed for making the show inaccessible to many viewers. Ironically, the mutual inaccessibility of local idioms emerges as a theme of the show. Police investigators are often baffled by the slang deployed by drug dealers, spending long hours attempting to decode the conversations gleaned from wire taps. For example, “low man stretch yo, we on the way down, but we goan start fresh on the latest tomorrow” is eventually interpreted as meaning that the current package of drugs is nearly sold out in the low-rise housing projects, but they will start on a fresh package the next day. On the other side, the dealers, in effect, employ a professional translator in the form of lawyer Maury Levy to clarify their dealings with the law, legitimate business, and politics.

The show is also peppered with Baltimore in-jokes that are most likely lost on most of the audience, such as the appearance of former mayor Keith Schmoke—who ruined his career by advocating some tolerance towards d—as a public health administrator advocating the same in the show. In season two, a photo of Robert Irsay, the hated owner of the Colts who moved the football franchise from Baltimore to Indianapolis, adorns the dartboard in the stevedores union office, and characters are continually voicing dismay at the Orioles unwillingness to invest in their pitching staff.

This level of detail, which helps make The Wire so convincing, is made possible because the writers only treat subjects with which they are intimately experienced. Creator David Simon was crime reporter at the Baltimore Sun before moving to novels and television, and his writing partner Ed Burns spent 20 years working as a homicide detective before teaching at one of Baltimore’s inner city middle schools. The two met when Simon was covering one of Burns’s cases which involved a wiretap, led to the arrest of drug kingpin Melvin Williams (Williams, now released, has a minor part as a community leader known as “the deacon”), and eventually became the basis for one of the program’s main plot lines.

Simon and Burns, both accomplished authors, have a talent for mining their personal experiences to construct an incredibly complex and continuous narrative. In fact, the opening scene described above, down to the line about America, really happened to a Baltimore detective who related the anecdote to Simon when he was a crime reporter. With the help of big-name novelists on their writing staff, such as Richard Price (Clockers), George Pelecanos (The Night Gardener), and Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), they have written a television show that transcends the usual episodic format of the genre. Rather than a series of hour-long story arcs, the narrative of The Wire constitutes a dense, 60-hour long whole that resembles a novel more than any other literary form.

Until relatively recently, television’s unique potential to combine the visual richness of cinema with the narrative complexity of the novel remained unrealised, and according to Simon, The Wire would not have been able to do so on network television. Accordingly, he took the show to HBO, a premium cable channel that relies on subscribers rather than advertisers for its revenue.

Aside from the important fact that working on cable freed the show from network television’s stringent constraints on both language and content, the reliance on subscribers rather than advertisers also affected the format of the show on the level of the overall project, and on the level of each episode. Whereas networks would typically cancel a show after a few episodes if it were not pulling in sufficient numbers of viewers, HBO can attempt to draw viewers in for the entire season to ensure they keep up their subscription. This means that if the season’s story arc has the potential to capture a smaller but loyal following, it can unfold at its own pace rather than generating new self-contained episodes each week. The fact that there are no commercials on cable means that each episode can obey its own rhythm and provide much denser storytelling than it could if it were forced to slam on the narrative brakes every ten minutes or so.

HBO’s approach to television has led to some of the most fully realised series ever produced including the acclaimed prison drama Oz, David Milch’s Deadwood, and David Chase’s The Sopranos, the latter two standing next to The Wire at the top of most critics’ list of favourites. If The Sopranos had a greater cultural impact than The Wire, Simon’s creation is more ambitious in scope than Chase’s. Despite The Sopranos’ insightful exploration of themes of death, family, and morality, it remained a show about fairly limited mobsters in the relatively confined world of organised crime in New Jersey. Simon insists that, despite the first season’s focus on the drug war, The Wire was never “a cop show. We were always planning to move further and further out, to build a whole city.”[1] It accomplished this by shifting its keen sociological gaze from the war on drugs to the decline of the working class and organised labour, to the possibility of reform, to the public school system, with the fifth and final season focusing on the media.

Simon’s Baltimore is modelled on the tragic world of ancient Greek drama,[2] but instead of indifferent gods sending characters to their fate, The Wire shows “self-sustaining postmodern institutions devouring the individuals they are supposed to serve or who serve them.”[3] And just as a mortal’s fate may be decided by the distant and intricate family squabbles of the Olympians, The Wire displays the complex interconnections of the institutions that control its protagonists. Though the focus changes each season, what has gone before retains enough of a presence to show its relations to other institutions. Labour unions are implicated in smuggling which indirectly supplies the dealers who control the ghettoes. All of these groups attempt to influence—and are affecte—the world of political power, which also largely controls the schools and the police department. It is ultimately from the interconnections of all these institutions that a picture of the city as a whole emerges.

Its writers may see the show as a piece of social criticism, but they are careful to ensure that it never feels didactic. Instead, viewers are drawn in by the large cast of characters, all of whom appear as realistic human beings. In the first season alone we meet police who are, variously, cynical careerists, old alcoholics killing time until their pension, arrogant detectives, and good-humoured pornography enthusiasts, as well as criminals who are charismatic leaders, self-styled entrepreneurs, sympathetic reformers, loyal soldiers, industrious junkies, and gay stick-up men. Including the new constellations of characters that are introduced with each new season, the cast is huge, and it is a remarkable feat of characterisation that one never confuses nor forgets any of them. Insofar as there are any heroes or villains in the show (Simon has explicitly abjured the theme of good and evil, claiming the topic “bores the shit out of me”[4]), they are fairly evenly distributed across society, except perhaps for the political world which hosts a disproportionate number of “bad guys”. Even though the characters are a great part of the show’s appeal, it is not character-driven. The characters remain in service of the overall story. It is precisely by following how multiplicities of individuals react to the particular constraints and incentives of the institutions in which they operate that The Wire is able indirectly to portray the institutions themselves.

The first institutions so portrayed are the police department and the drug trade, which is aptly called “the game” by all of its participants and those in the world surrounding it. At every level the game provides certain goals to its players who are governed by strictly enforced rules of conduct. The drug trade is organised in the form of a bureaucratic hierarchy, and even spawns its own particular ideology through which participants justify their own actions, and interpret and evaluate the acts of others.

The “game” operates as a metaphor for all institutions. In addition to its role as adversary in the drug game, the police department is also the setting for a second game of career advancement, which is entirely controlled by appearances. Crime statistics must be shown to be dropping, whether or not there is any real effect, and anything which might embarrass the higher-ups must be concealed. Likewise, educators’ teaching strategies are largely controlled by the need to perform on standardised state testing on which their funding, and local control of the school, depends. Thus, the explicit aims of public institutions are subverted by internal games that they set up. Even well-intentioned cops and teachers are forced to play bureaucratic games in order to survive in their organisations.

While the drug trade is the only institution whose design effectively furthers its explicit aim of making money, its actual dynamics are most closely mirrored at the political level. Idealistic political rhetoric abounds, but the exigencies of electoral politics tend to crowd out all other considerations. Most police are at least somewhat concerned with fighting crime, provided they do not unduly damage their own prospects, but politicians, like gangsters, must play to win. At this level, explicit game metaphors become prominent again. Mayoral candidate Tommy Carcetti’s campaign manager excoriates him for his idealistic qualms: “Tommy, you just got dealt a winning hand, and you’re acting like you forgot how to play.” State senator Clay Davis echoes the language of the street when he says tells Mayor Royce that “it’s all in the game.”

Even if The Wire focuses on particular failing institutions, it implicitly makes a deeper point about institutions as such. As a society, our response to most problems that require collective action is to set up institutions that provide constraints and incentives to help align self-interest with the goal in question. Unfortunately, complex problems, such as education or crime, cannot be perfectly captured by institutional design. The gap between the incentives and constraints established by any institution and the goals it is meant to serve leaves a space for self-interest to subvert the original purpose of the institution. The Wire illustrates this tendency by showing its extreme manifestations in the war on drugs, in the public school system, and in democratic politics.

Ultimately, the staggering human cost of all this game-playing is mostly paid at the bottom of the hierarchy. It is unsurprising that an American ghetto torn by the war on drugs provides much in the way of personal tragedy. Yet the front line of human tragedy is also The Wire’s most fertile source of its biting brand of black humour. For example, a group of detectives share a laugh over a gangster’s last word who, in response to an investigator’s query of who shot him, defiantly answers “a guy with a gun.”

While the humour makes it easier to take, the overall impression conveyed by The Wire is a dark one. Once-prosperous Baltimore descends further into bankruptcy and criminality and, because public institutions are broken, the decline is irreversible. Many of the characters are confused by the changes they see, and feel that they live in a different world than they knew. Recently released from a 14-year stint in state prison, one former gangster, shocked by the brutality he now sees, complains that “the game done changed.” However, The Wire shows that the today’s problems are simply the eventual outcome of our public institutions’ internal logic. By setting up internal institutional games, one ensures that they will tend to corrupt themselves, subverting their original goals by their very operation. This continuity in decline is captured nicely by enforcer Slim Charles’s answer: “Game the same. Just got more fierce.”

Footnotes

  1. Cited in New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/10/22/
    071022fa_fact_talbot?currentPage=3
  2. http://www.slate.com/id/2154694/pagenum/all/#page_start
  3. http://www.believermag.com/issues/200708/?read=interview_simon
  4. http://dir.salon.com/story/ent/tv/int/2002/06/29/simon/index.html
Copyright © 2008 Oxonian Review of Books