I have just finished (for I think the fifth time) the final episode of the best television series that has ever been made.
It was introduced to me in passing years ago with this youtube clip and little else:
(contains nudity and language)
I had no idea what it was about or if I’d end up liking it, but time was cheap then.
After the first episode, things weren’t much clearer. I still didn’t even know what genre it was and the little of the plot I did understand was confusing. Too many people, too many things going on. Still, I was hooked. And remained so for years hence.
The Wire is ostensibly a cop show. It follows the Baltimore police (pronounced: poh-lease, stress on the first syllable) in their relentless battle against the drug trade and violence.
But this ain’t your normal procedural. First, they don’t introduce and solve a crime in the same episode. They may not even solve the crime at all. Second, the majority of the cast is black, reflecting the city’s demographic. And third, the cops aren’t heroes. They all enjoy giving a good beating every now and then, they whore around, cheat and lie. Drink and drive.
The story is complex and nuanced. You’ll probably not going to get all the details your first time through. But yes, it’s the veneer of a police procedural that hooks you in. All the other stuff comes later.
So it starts with a murder investigation and a homicide detective who’s had enough of the local drug crew using discrimination tactics and beating their cases in the court. These are more than just isolated murders and investigating things properly requires confidential informants, wiretaps and manpower. In other words: money and time in a city that is dealing with 250-300 murders a year.
The bosses want none of that and so the chain of command gets broken. And so starts a tale of crime and drugs, murders and living on the streets, sort-of-good and kind-of-evil, money and bureaucracy, love and hate, schools, unions, newspapers, property developers, politicians, lawyers, crooks and junkies.
It goes everywhere and the parallels it draws are pretty fucking strong. Bleak, too.
The Wire has five seasons. Each consisting of around 10-13 episodes, ~55 minutes a pop with the final ones taking about an hour and a half.
Each episode starts with the same song – Way Down in the Hole – but every season has it performed by a different artist.
And the same is true for the seasons themselves. Each has its own main story focusing on a different area of the city: the drug corners, the docs, polititians, schools, newspaper. The details are different, the characters, locations and situations change, but the message is always the same:
The system is rigged. You cannot thrive within it and keep your conscience. Things never change. People can – slowly, with difficulty and only few ever manage it. But they can get out. The system always stays the same, though. Always powering and protecting itself.
Past every intro, there is a line from that episode, put up as a quote. Almost always attributed to a character who said it, almost always from something not said yet. You look at it and can’t help, but wonder in what context is it going to be said. What the real meaning is going to be.
You remember Battlestar Galactica where the intro followed a brief flash from the scenes to come in that episode? This is the same thing except accomplished in three seconds of white on black text and somehow, having more impact.
Each episode has its own arc, but throughout the season, story lines emerge and get resolved – usually over several episodes. So it’s not the classic “we’ve got a new case and we’ve solved it by the end”. The arc of a single episode tends to be frameb dy an emotion or impact and less by narrative. You can see the end coming, but it’s not because the cuffs click on a suspect.
Then, finally, every season ends up with a collage of scenes that show the life going on. The investigation has ended. No cliffhangers. Every season is its own thing.
They are connected – but it’s by the themes and characters. I find this being the perfect balance between the episodic structure and trying to tell a bigger story.
I’ve seen attempts at both extremes: fully isolated standalone episodes (where nothing can ever develop) vs. completely interdependent plots (where nothing ever wraps up and even the end of a season is just a to-be-continued). Neither is great. The Wire sits in the sweetest of spots.
And it all serves overall message.
Writing and Production
The stories, characters, setting – it’s all beautifully written. No stereotypes, no one-dimensional characters. It’s all shades of grey and nuance.
None of the characters are purely good and very few are completely, thoroughly bad. On the contrary, a lot of the clearly bad people (on either side of the fence) get a… I hesitate to call it a redemption moment. But something where they do something that is unequivocally good and right and proper. Often this means stepping out of the role they’ve got and turning a bit more human for a while.
No one is 100% pure complete evil.
All this contributes to a strong sense of realism. It feels real. You’re left thinking if this didn’t happen, it could have. This is greatly helped by the camera and sound design. Other than the collage at the end of each season, every time you hear music, it’s coming out from within the scene: inside of a car, a radio on the street or open window, headphones.
But it is clearly not all perfectly realistic. There’s story telling in there. The show explicitly draws parallels between different layers of the society. When someone leaves, someone takes their place – with a timing that has a good narrative impact. There are comedy moments there and things too good to be true. But also: things that really happened and had to be tempered down for the show because no one would believe the real thing.
It’s not all doom and gloom either. There are jokes there, scenes to lighten up the mood. Displays of human kindness and heroism.
It is, again, a brilliant balancing act – enough realism to feel real, but also enough actual writing to make it possible to follow. To have it tell stories.
This balance is why I like The Wire more than any other David Simon’s shows (Treme, Show Me a Hero, The Deuce). It felt that those lost either lost the light (Show Me a Hero, The Deuce) or the storytelling structure (Treme).
Because while being a little fuzzier, the classic story telling is still in there.
Oh and one more thing: despite having ample opportunities to, The Wire doesn’t indulge in torture porn (thank goodness!). There’s horrific violence and yes sometimes torture, but it’s not (with a couple of brief exceptions) shown on camera. The focus is not on the visuals but on the people – what goes on in their mind, why they do what they do, how does it affect the others.
I wish more film and TV shows did that.
I can’t discuss my relationship with The Wire and omit the language.
English is my second language and the journey to get where I’m at now took a long and difficult time.
A lot of the latter difficulty (but also pay off!) can be directly attributed to The Wire.
I first watched this show after having been reading English books and watching English movies and TV without subtitles for a few years. In decent volume: I’d seen all of Stargate SG1, Star Trek (TNG, DS9, Voyager), 8 Mile, South Park, whatever Dexter was out there then. Read Harry Potter, The Godfather, The Lord of the Rings, The Mists of Avalon. Played a tonne of wordy video games.
What I’m trying to say is I was quite comfortable with the language in all its forms and I thought I can just watch/read anything and get it no problem.
The Wire was a massive shock to me. Suddenly, there were full sentences I was missing. Words I couldn’t hear properly. Ton of vocabulary and phrases I had no idea about. Not turning on the subtitles there was really difficult.
But I learned. Cranked the volume up to eleven and towards the end of the first season, things were much easier to follow. When I was done with the first season, I felt quite comfortable.
Of course I’ve missed a tonne of stuff (as discovered on subsequent watchings). But the amount was overshadowed by how much I didn’t get from simply not being on top of every character, every side plot, every facial expression (!!). The show does not sign post. It does not flash back. You need to put it all together yourself.
When I’d learned, years later, that a lot of native English speakers reached for the subtitles, I was ready to flip the fucking table. Sometimes not knowing how hard something is what lets you overcome it.
And the whole language is absolutely fascinating. People from different walks of live speak differently, everyone using distinct phrases. There’s a lot to learn there if you care.
And um.. it had a lasting effect of my own use of the. For better or worse I can’t say. But if you hear me say “fucked the dog on that one” or “fuck me”, you know where that’s from.
The Wire is a very patient show. You need to give it the time and the payback will not be immediate. But it is so worth it if you persist.
Everything about it is excellent: the writing, characters, setting, camera, sound design, everything.
It features genuine multidimensional characters. Real people in their own right. Who – get this – actually change and develop over time. Some for the better, some for the worse. But the time does not stand still here.
I do have one word of warning however: The Wire is mostly bleak in its outlook. The main thesis: the system is fixed an no single person can change it; it is dark. It eats away at you gradually. So slowly you might not even notice. It’s not like a crisis in a book or movie where things just happen suddenly, you deal with it and move on.
This persists, especially as everyone is a part of some system that’s slow or hard to change. I would not recommend watching this show when you’re feeling down. When you feel small and powerless. And if you do, don’t go for more than one episode a day. This is not the show to binge-watch.
Some of the darkest times in my life where the times I was watching The Wire. It was not the cause of the darkness, but it definitely helped exacerbate it.
I am so grateful to David Simon, Ed Burns and the HBO to have put this thing together. It has made a profound effect on my life. But it is also a double-edged sword – especially when you’re not doing great.
PS: Some of the most memorable characters (McNulty, Carcetti, Stringer Bell – all American) were played by British actors. Especially McNulty doing a bad American attempt at an English accent while the actor being English himself. Gold.
PS2: The show does some amazing stuff with just facial expressions. At one point, a command to execute someone is done just with a look. No words, no gestures other than the face. It’s really tough for me (I’m bad at faces), but when you get it it’s amazing.
PS3: I absolutely adore the “detective’s wake” scenes. It’s such an excellent idea, put together so well. It’s one of the things you really wish were real. Oh and the song (The Body of an American by The Pogues) is so perfect for it.