McNulty’s Progress: On The Uniqueness of “The Wire”

Ed Burns, David Simon and George Pelecanos
Ed Burns, David Simon and George Pelecanos

I’ve just finished watching the fifth season of David Simon’s epic of urban decay, The Wire. This is of course the series’ final run of episodes. What to say about this canonical work of American fiction which has not already been said? How to frame the show in such a way that what I write is both fresh and not off on some critical tangent? Impossible, of course; but for starters, as the final episode faded to black, I felt a greater sense of if not loss then something close to it than I did as the credits rolled for the last time on Angel, or Deadwood or The West Wing. The completeness of the statement made by The Wire by the time of its closing moments was such a wonder that, perversely, it could only make the viewer wish for more.

Adam Roberts, an obvious fan of the show, wrote recently that both The Wire and Deadwood are a “representation of a whole believably interconnected and functioning town,” and this is obviously spot-on. But what strikes me most about The Wire is that this representation developed throughout the show. In Deadwood, each season was more an evolution of – a variation upon – the season before. The Wire, as Roberts said right here on this blog just the other day, begins at one level of that town and slowly builds upwards and outwards. That is, its representation is not complete until the final seconds of the show; in Deadwood, smaller though its town is, there is a strong sense of what the show is doing very early on. In The Wire, the argument is built more slowly.

Now, I’ve written before that it may well be that I prefer Deadwood to The Wire – that aesthetically it is a show which suits me better. The Wire may well be too determinist – certainly its final season at times feels to be straining to screw its characters over, rather than than letting the Fates have them as they will. This may be a function of season five’s last minute cut from 13 to 10 episodes (well, 9 and a feature length finale), but nevertheless Deadwood tended to focus more on personal choice than systemic will, and that appeals to me (as does the stylized language). Yet the strength of the finale of David Milch’s show was its inevitability, the extent to which the viewer simultaneously expected something different but knew what the town’s fate must be; in The Wire, no less subtly, the viewer knows the system is rotten to the core, but time and again the show seeks to add more nuance to that lesson. Deadwood‘s thesis was relatively simple; The Wire, on the other hand, is as multi-faceted as the American city.

If both shows focused on the evils of corporatisation, The Wire did more than merely depict the process. Season Five rounded the series off by the simple flourish of asking – and showing – why the bankrupt system is not represented, analysed or even questioned anywhere else. Newspapers are shown to be carried by currents at total odds with depicting the broken society; politics is shown as the relentless effort to hide from the people the consequences and causes of collapse; police work, as always, is a tool of triage only. All the characters seem to be struggling against the great unacknowledged weight; even Omar, usually the most clear-sighted of Baltimore’s inhabitants, is lost to blind fury and vengeance – leg broken, he is a pale shadow of his old self. The stick-up artist who replaces him – the betrayed Stanfield solder Mikey – is motivated less by Omar’s alternative moral code so much as mere survival. In this sense, the show’s run takes us from bad to worse: Stanfield is a more corrosive force than Avon Barksdale; Commissioner Burrell, a vain but competent officer, is succeeded by Stan Valchek, a man without even professional ability; only Bubbles, the show’s sympathetic addict, is given anything close to a happy ending – and that an ambivalent one. This slow build to collapse inverts the televisual form more surely than anything else The Wire ever did.

The Wire Box SetThe show’s progression from the first season’s depiction of the basic problem of policing the modern American city, through to the second’s exposition of how an under-class is created, and beyond to the system’s resistance to change, its self-destructive construction of its citizens, and finally its own pathological blindness to itself, is what lends The Wire‘s five seasons such power. On an episode-by-episode basis, the writing and acting is stellar, of course; the surety and intensity of its analysis is pungent and informed, naturally; it is a brilliantly shot, superbly realised artifact. But, most importantly, as an arc and an argument it is always moving, and always growing. Not in the sense that it alters its formula or its cast  (though it does), but in the thorough expansiveness and endless applicability of its vision of the world. What raises The Wire above almost all television and indeed many novels is its intellectual facility, the way in which its structure informs and develops its central proposition. It is hard to think of many works of fiction which so seriously apply themselves to sustained inquiry in this way.

None of which is very fresh framing. But as the screen went to black, that’s what came to me. In other words: all the pieces mattered.


13 thoughts on “McNulty’s Progress: On The Uniqueness of “The Wire”

  1. How to frame the show in such a way that what I write is both fresh and not off on some critical tangent?

    It’s never worried you before…

  2. The quality of comment in this thread so far is really very heartening. 😛

  3. In what I imagine to be the words of Bunk Moreland: That’s some trueass shit.

  4. One thing that sets the show apart from other television, and may contribute to its novelistic feel, is how slowly it starts. I watched series 1 because there was so much positive buzz, but for the first five or six episodes I found myself thinking ‘well, fine, yes, OK, but where’s the beef? What’s all the fuss?’ You don’t even meet Barksdale until, what is it? Episode six?

    It’s not until you’re much further along the line (along the, ha, wire) that you appreciate how powerful this slow burn can be: how cumulative the show is. Amazing, really, that they were allowed to get away with it.

    Mind you, even I can tell that McNulty’s accent is rub-bish from start to finish.

    (Footnote: during the recent fuss with MP’s expenses, whenever a newreader said the name McNulty my brain mentally corrected it to the Bubbles’ pronounciation: ‘McNuddy’.

  5. Adam: on that note, I read this recently, which makes much play of how amazing it is that they were allowed to get away with it. But, yes, that slowness is part of what I was getting at – most shows do not give themselves any time at all to tell us what they are about. (Although Barksdale is right there in the first episode – he greets the newly sprung D’Angelo at the club.)

    Becky: Pretty sure you missed a ‘fuck’ out somewhere. 😉

  6. “Although Barksdale is right there in the first episode – he greets the newly sprung D’Angelo at the club …”

    True: but you know what I mean.

    That’s an interesting Quietus article. I did not know that the actor who played Omar was one of Madonna’s dancers. There’s something very … peculiar about that fact.

  7. during the recent fuss with MP’s expenses, whenever a newreader said the name McNulty my brain mentally corrected it to the Bubbles’ pronounciation: ‘McNuddy’.

    Adam – so glad it’s not just me that does that 🙂

    Also in complete agreement with you about the cumulative effect of the show.

  8. Um this is BALTIMORE, not Boston. This makes a very big difference.

    What allows The Wire to be set off from all other television, even other good television, is how very well and thoroughly the creators know their subject.

    We’re seeing how it works again, first hand, with how they’re doing the new series, Tremé. Everyone involved with the show is reading (including The World That Made New Orleans, and now the galleys for The Year Before the Flood. Locals are appearing as their own characters in the series, if not necessarily under their own names. Wendell’s in this one too; he grew up there, his family is still there, he’s deeply involved in recovery — he’s a very smart fellow.

    We saw the shooting of the first day of the pilot. HBO gave Tremé the go ahead for a first season, even though it was’t edited yet. More shooting can’t take place until November due to insurance coverage refused for any film or television project until hurrican season is over. I hope it flies … the first season is the first year post the failure of the levees. Lots of people we know are in it.

    Off-topic — a bit of a computer glitch a while back made me lose my blog roll so this place got lost with that. The Roll is only now getting back to what it was.

    Love, C.

  9. Gah, what a hopeless typo! Can’t believe no one mentioned it before now. 😛

    Yes, that sense of immersion is key to the show’s success – as you say, it is what allows all of the rest. Treme, meanwhile, is very exciting – I’m glad it looks to be going as well as all that!

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