I am downing Season 3 of The Wire at a rapid rate and thought it best to share the love before the show gets the best of me. Anyone remember a masterful prison drama series called Oz that aired a couple of years back? The Wire runs in a similar vein. Both shows boast a gritty realism that is downright offensive but not the least bit gratuitous – the violence, sex and language are in tune with the brutal reality of a society motivated by the fight for survival in a ‘kill or be killed’ environment. It is not a surprise that the shows share many of the same cast and crew.
The Wire profiles the drug war being fought on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland – police battling drug lords, drug lords battling drug lords, the middle-man battling for his corner and the gangs of the east side battling the gangs of the west side. There is the usual cop corruption going down, which is spiced up with some lethargy and bureaucratic BS. The police, whilst battling a system driven by politics, administration and personal gain, are waging war against drug lords with intellect and business-savvy. Drug lords who change up their modus operandi when the police get too close. The show challenges the stereotype of ‘the bad-ass nigga in da hood’ by lending a sympathetic ear to the poverty and desperation that forces people into a never ending cycle of destruction, whether it be through drug abuse or as a dealer. Those who exercise the choice to exit ‘the game’ most often meet their deaths. And yet the show doesn’t make excuses for those who choose to engage in criminal activity, whether it be police, kingpins or dealers. Just when you begin to have a character all figured out, the show pulls a fast one on you and you don’t know what to think anymore. The audience is loathe to trust the actions of any character just as the characters are loathe to trust one another. The show blurs the line between the police, bureaucrat and criminal, as stated by antihero Omar in Season 2: “I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. It’s all the game though, right?”. Omar says that there is no great difference between ‘suits’ and criminals. All of the characters in the show are ethically and morally depraved in some regard. It is this commonality that allows for interesting bonds develop between police and criminal, exposing the tension of relationships initially motivated by self-interest or the desire for justice and then an ensuing empathy and understanding. A case in point is the relationship between informant Bubbles and police Akeema. Family is secondary to the job – for both drug lords and police. Drug lords and dealers profess the importance of ‘looking after their own’ yet this notion of family loyalty and brotherhood is questioned throughout the show. All too often characters turn on friends and family members in the blink of an eye. Sometimes it is for survival’s sake and other times for the sake of reputation or monetary gain. But do reasons and justifications really matter in the end when trust is betrayed? The show comments on the fact that drug lords take advantage of family loyalty and youngsters in ‘da hood’ by using them to do the dirty work, in the knowledge that they are propagating a cycle of use and abuse. It is these minions who end up doing time as opposed to their bosses. The kingpins use education and knowledge to make money illegally rather than using it in the spirit of community and reformation.
The Wire zones in on a microcosm of society in order to make a macrocosmic statement about a malfunctioning system. Baltimore is shown to be a neglected community wrought with pain and heartache, engaged in a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction. The show implies that transformation will require and insurmountable effort from all spheres, which will include community cooperation, government funding (for community and police) and effective policing. The raw emotion inherent in the actors’ performances makes many scenes difficult to watch. The show draws on stereotypes to lull the viewer into a false sense of security, and then destroys any sense of comfort as these stereotypes are unraveled episode by episode. The complexities and ambiguities of the characters make them uncomfortably human – I find myself relating to the dealer on the corner as well as the overworked police, and even the slimy bureaucrat. The battle on the streets of Baltimore serves as a metaphor for the comparatively consequential or inconsequential battles faced by the individual on a daily basis. The discomfort that the show demands is rewarding. I find myself drawn into the lives of these characters – lives that are so far removed from my own. They make me irate with anger and they bring me to tears. It’s cathartic – free therapy. I like to engage and I like to be entertained, and The Wire keeps me coming back for more.