Ragged Claws

Monday, May 03, 2010

It mattered. It all matters.

Massive Wire spoilers.

In a fascinating interview with Vice magazine, David Simon said of the television show he created, "A lot of what The Wire was about sounds cynical to people. I think it’s very cynical about institutions and their ability to reform. I don’t deny that, but I don’t think it’s at all cynical about people."

This is a regular theme in discussions of The Wire - that the show is about the failure of institutions, the collapse of cities, the limits and incapacities of police departments, schools, the media and government itself. There's plenty of evidence to justify this interpretation, even discounting explicit statements of intent like that made by Simon. However, one of the things that made the The Wire The Best Show on Television (TM) was the layered intricacy of its storytelling, which rarely offered viewers a simple or singular takeaway message. With that in mind, I'd like to argue for an interpretation of the show that runs completely counter to Simon's: The Wire is fundamentally idealistic about institutions, but deeply cynical about the weak, self-interested individuals who operate within them. Progress comes when characters embrace the values of an institution and work within its strictures; violence and grief result when characters place personal priorities ahead of the institutional good.

To see this, it's important to recognize that the show's protagonist is not its hero. The rogue cop - who doesn't play by the rules, but gets results! - is such a stock figure that audiences are primed to cheer for him from the moment he appears on screen. The Wire's Jimmy McNulty at first appears to be cut from the same cloth as Axel Foley or Martin Riggs, with his cocky grin, disdain for protocol, passion for his job, and unacknowledged alcoholism. Over the course of the show, however, it becomes more and more obvious that McNulty is fundamentally a screw-up. His talent and zeal as a detective aren't sufficient to bring about the results he most desires, and his scorn for the department hierarchy damages his career and hurts his associates. Moreover, McNulty's unwillingness to work within the system, initially a mark of distinction, ultimately hobbles his effectiveness as a police officer. By the last season, McNulty's lies to superiors and recklessness in gathering evidence have hamstringed the prosecution of Marlo Stanfield, and almost torpedoed the department’s case against the entire Stanfield drug organization.

By contrast, some of the most positively portrayed characters within the series are those who believe in the power of institutions to achieve social goals, and who work within a set of established rules. Kima Greggs and Rhonda Pearlman, who both serve to some degree as the consciences of the show, are generally sticklers for process. In the first season Greggs refuses to identify a shooter that she didn't see, while in the fifth she blows the whistle on McNulty and Freamon's schemes (with both of them acknowledging that she was correct to have done so). When Greggs assumes some of McNulty's traits during the third season this is presented in an essentially negative light, an indication that she's lost control personally and professionally. Pearlman is also someone who generally places institutional values above immediate objectives. As a prosecutor, she insists that the police officers adhere to the rules of evidence, and is horrified when she learns that McNulty and Freamon have been pursuing a case through fraudulent means. While Pearlman is not above blackmailing a defense attorney in order to salvage something from the wreck that McNulty and Freamon cause in the fifth season, this action is an aberration for the character. Pearlman's main role is to maintain the value of law as an abstraction, even when that slows or complicates the course of investigation. Unlike McNulty, who ends the series unemployed and adrift, we last see Greggs as a respected member of the Homicide Unit, and Pearlman serving as a judge.

Similar dynamics play out in the drug world, although system-builders like Stringer Bell and Proposition Joe are denied the happy endings that Greggs and Pearlman receive. Nevertheless, one of the recurring themes from the first season onward is that violence is minimized and group profits maximized when the players in the drug trade subordinate individual ambition to corporate functionality. The Stanfield organization briefly gains an advantage from murdering Joe and dissolving the New Day Co-Op, but Marlo’s coup creates an inherently unstable and dangerous situation. In particular, Cheese’s decision to respond to overtures from Marlo and pursue his own self-interest at the expense of the co-op ends poorly. Although Cheese manages to gain increased power for a time, his ambitions are cut short when Slim Charles executes him in revenge for betraying Joe. After Cheese’s death the New Day Co-Op is reassembled, seemingly without the participation of Stanfield organization members. Institutional strictures and procedures maintain a beneficial equilibrium which is upset by individual ambition.

The importance of institutions is also depicted in other areas – the schools, the docks union, the courts, the newspapers. The tragedies that we are shown in all of these spheres fundamentally stem from the lack of resources, not flaws inherent to the systems themselves. As with the Major Crimes Unit, which is constantly agitating for the equipment and manpower necessary to pursue its cases, we see teachers working in overstuffed classrooms with few supplies, newspapers cutting experienced staff to the bone, and crime labs with a months-long backlog. As we watch characters struggling to perform their jobs under trying circumstances, and devising various penny-wise but pound-foolish solutions, it’s hard to conclude that institutions are working as they should. Yet in none of these cases have institutions “failed;” rather, they’ve been hollowed out and maimed until they can barely function. When adequate resources are provided – the middle school pilot classroom, Fletcher receiving extra time to work on his profile of Bubbles, Phelan insisting that Burrell investigate the Barksdale organization – the results are usually positive, even if successes prove difficult to sustain.

In general, the characters of The Wire aren’t guided by powerful moral compasses, but act according to their own particular psychologies and circumstances. The right structures will push them towards the right choices, the wrong structures towards the brink of damnation. The challenge is that the processes of building institutions like a police force, a school system or a newspaper are slow and painful; the means of destroying them far simpler. Institutional values and aspirations are constantly being corroded by considerations of short-term personal advantage, especially in the political realm. Personal interest also interferes with institutions’ ability to regulate themselves, as backchannel deals circumvent formal processes. Nevertheless, the highest points of many character arcs – Carver’s decision to write up Colichio, Pryzbylewski finding innovative ways to teach math, Bunk doggedly investigating the murders in the vacants, Kima reporting her friends’ wrongdoing – result from decisions to adhere to the highest standards of the institutions to which the characters belong. Ultimately, The Wire suggests that for all of their flaws, institutions are essential for channeling and containing the chaos that results from unmediated human nature.


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