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.

More Punishment In Store

"Citizens better die postulating than touch indecent ink..."
"Citizens better die postulating than touch indecent ink..."

I’ve recently been rewatching the final season of David Milch’s HBO Western, Deadwood. It’s been some time since I first saw it, and if anything it is better than I remembered. Back then, I wrote in another place that the season “corrects every pretty story we’ve ever heard about the American west.” This is still true: at the close of its 12 episodes, the characters go out not in a blaze of Gunsmoke glory, but with a morally compromised whimper. But, equally, it is about far more – as Milch himself discusses at academic length in this series of videos (there is particular Deadwood content – including a section about its cancellation – in the linked video).

When artworks reach a certain level, choosing between them becomes largely a matter of personal taste, but for this critic Deadwood is easily a competitor with The Wire in the quality stakes. At times, its less deterministic, perhaps more humane, aspect edge out even David Simon’s cop show, which is famously also about far more than its chosen genre.

All of which makes it a pity that two recent pieces about the decade-long renaissance at HBO rather brush Deadwood aside: Sam Delaney in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph gave it barely a mention, whilst a few weeks ago James Bradley in The Australian called Deadwood’s pivotal character, Al Swearengen, “a sort of low-rent Tony Soprano.” Deadwood never garnered the attention of David Chase’s mob drama, of even of Rome or Six Feet Under; critics are committed, it would seem, to continuing that under-appreciation in the show’s afterlife.

Delaney’s piece suggests that Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm was “home to probably the most obscene language ever heard on television.” One begins to suspect that Delaney hasn’t even seen Deadwood, which was infamous for its profanity. This no doubt put off many, and yet perversely the dialogue of Deadwood must be some of the finest written for television, so rich that at times it tends towards verse. This style is undoubtedly an acquired taste, and a very obvious affectation, yet Milch makes language integral to the show’s thematic concerns. In one memorable scene from the show’s first season, the spineless toady EB Farnum waxes Shakespearian whilst scrubbing a bloodstain, the remains of a contract murder, from the floor of a room in his hotel. Farnum’s soliloquy simultaneously burrows to the heart of the character’s sense of self-importance and thwarted superiority, whilst beginning to explore the nexus of power relationships with which the show is ultimately concerned. Deadwood is about the formation of a society, and about the human pull between individual and community. Its vernacular profanity represents the chaos and crime of the unfettered private agent; its dense, complex verbiage the organising, ordering instincts of human society.

It may be that in this manner Deadwood was overly diffuse, lacking the cast iron certainty of purpose of The Wire. Certainly some commentators would argue the show lost its way after its first season. Yet this very diffuseness is to my mind part of its brilliance. It does not seek to pretend that life is a system, even whilst it may contain them. Richard T Kelly, whose own post first drew my attention to Bradley’s piece, and whose sprawling social fiction Crusaders shares some concerns with Deadwood, is worried for the poor old novel; his own, however, leaves laudable gaps of light between its plotlines – like Deadwood, it knows that life does not always fit together easily. The Wire is at times too hung up on its thesis; Deadwood always leaves room for a countervailing breeze.

“Some goddamn point a man’s due to stop arguing with his-self and feeling twice the goddamn fool he knows he is ’cause he can’t be something he tries to be every goddamn day without once getting to dinnertime and fucking it up.” Wild Bill Hickock’s first season lament is at the heart of the show. It is about working towards an unattainable perfection; giving up that effort, rather than failure, is seen as the unconsionable action. Deadwood is undoubtedly a theatrical piece, flying in the face of the prevailing fad for naturalism, but it remains a shame that a show with such a message continues to be overlooked.

“There Is Nothing So Important as Trifles”

"In the dim light of the lamp I saw him sitting there"
"In the dim light of the lamp I saw him sitting there"

The Man with the Twisted Lip starts darkly: an evening in for Watson and his missus is interrupted by a tearful visit from the wife of one of the doctor’s patients, whom has gone missing and, she fears, has sequestered himself in an opium den, where he has set to assuaging his addiction. There follows a short but potent section in which Watson arrives at the establishment to find “bodies lying in strange fantastic poses”. It is a memorable vision of the debilitating face of addiction, with that high moral tone Conan Doyle often adopts when describing the unseemly underbellies of London.

The mystery proper, however, has little to do with this episode, though the opium den does figure. Watson comes across Holmes whilst helping his friend out of his sleeper, and – with a hasty note dispatched to the long-suffering Mrs Watson (though given at one point she calls her husband ‘James’, this may be a form of revenge for the good doctor) – the two of them decamp to Lee in Kent, and the residence of Holmes’s latest client, the wife of a missing man named Neville St. Clair.

The story, then, makes a gesture towards the domestic impact of a man’s secret life, and both St. Clair, Whitney and Watson ask too much of their wives in the course of the tale – though each woman is more or less a passive figure who can do little but endure this treatment. Mrs St. Clair does, however, manage to wrong foot Holmes, who starts the story convinced St. Clair is dead some days, but is astounded when his hostess produces a letter she has received whilst Holmes has been prowling around Victorian crack houses.

Once Holmes ascertains that the missive is genuine, he quickly solves the case. What is most interesting about the affair is that it is left until the end, and a monolgue by another character, for us to understand why the mystery came to be. Holmes, here and elsewhere, concerns himself with mechanics, “rearranging his facts, looking at [the case] from every point of view, until he had either fathomed it, or convinced himself that his data were insufficient.” That is, for Sherlock Holmes, motive comes last. For him, method is more important.

I’ve already linked the Holmesian approach, unusual for a character in detective fiction, to the very modern cop show, The Wire. But the show’s writer, David Simon, writes in his 1991 book Homicide (which I have just begun to read) something even more pertinent to Holmes’s condition: “The best work of Dashiell Hammett and Agatha Christie argues that to track a murderer, the motive must first be established; in Baltimore, if not on the Orient Express, a known motive can be interesting, even helpful, yet it is often beside the point. Fuck the why, a detective will tell you; find out the how, and nine times out of then it’ll give you the who.”

Holmes may not have used the profanity, but he’d have agreed with the sentence. The reported nature of so much of the action in Holmes stories can make the narrative feel inert, but it is a natural consequence of Holmes’s very particular technique. Why Whitney or St. Clair cause their wives pain is immaterial when set against the fact that they do so, and this focus of Holmes upon the intellect is probably what allows each generation to reinvent him for themselves – he rarely reveals the mores of his own time in misplaced psychoanalysis. Sherlock Holmes makes the facts fit together – it is for others to apply the moral.

“One Long Effort to Escape from the Commonplaces of Existence”

I had called upon my friend, Mr Sherlock Holmes, one day in the autumn of last year, and found him in deep conversation with a very stout, florid-faced, elderly gentleman, with fiery red hair.

"He curled himself up in his chair."
"He curled himself up in his chair."

The Red-Headed League is not a flawless story. Just a few pages on from that opening sentence, Watson declares that April 27th was just two months prior, placing the story in early summer rather than autumn. There’s something lazy about it, then, and yet this early tale remained a favourite of many, including the author himself.  In part, this is no doubt down to its memorable conceit: a pawnbroker responds to a newspaper advertisement calling for red-headed men to attend a building on Fleet Street. He is asked to work at the organisation’s office for four hours a day, for the purposes of copying out the Encyclopedia Britannica, and never to leave his room whilst he does so. For this, he is paid four pounds a week. When, after 30 pounds’ worth of copying, the office is closed down unceremoniously, the pawnbroker visits Holmes.

“For strange effects and extraordinary combinations we must go to life itself,” Holmes declares whilst introducing the case to Watson, “which is always far more daring than any effort of the imagination.” Jabez Wilson, the pawnbroker in question, is nevertheless a strange invention indeed: he is something of a caricature, with fiery red hair, a plump figure, and a credulous disposition. Watson explicitly associates him with London tradesman, whom are for him all of a type: “obese, pompous, and slow.” Again, the laziness of all this is unquestionable, but it nevertheless makes for just the entertaining diversion Holmes requires.

The great detective is indeed in exuberant mood here, perhaps reflecting the at first amusing and subsequently relatively simple nature of the problem with which he is presented. Jones of Scotland Yard, called into the case by Holmes, remarks archly of the consulting investigator  that, “He has the makings of a detective in him.” And there’s something in this: with his three pipe frippery, his concert sojourns, and his laughing in the face of clients, Holmes is here just the amateur he will later accuse the Met’s finest of being. No crime is committed in this story, though Holmes admittedly narrowly prevents one. In the previous tale, too, no law was broken. Can Holmes yet properly be called a detective?

Perhaps not. Rather, he is a thrillseeker of sorts, a problem-solver, a dilettante. “It saved me from ennui,” he shrugs of Wilson’s problem once it has been dispatched with. “Alas, I already feel it closing in on me!” The congratulations he gives to his adversary here, the Eton-educated criminal genius John Clay (“the fourth smartest man in London”), suggests little of the detective’s calling as other mystery writers – and other mystery writers’ characters – may have understood it. In truth, it shares more with the ego of the detectives featured in David Simon’s cutting-edge, and thoroughly unsentimental, The Wire, in which the police are seen to be more interested in showing themselves smarter than the criminals than they are in the evils of the crimes themselves.

There is the makings of a great detective in The Red-Headed League; if he is not yet that, the early Sherlock Holmes is still perhaps ahead of his time.