It is rare of me to binge-watch anything. But I binge-watched all five seasons and sixty episodes The Wire over one week, with only an interruption of a day-long family wedding between Seasons 3 and 4. Along the way are a few thoughts posted on Facebook.
THE WIRE. I binge-watched the first season and could understand why many consider it among the best television series in the English language. One reason is the generous dosage of humor amidst (and well integrated into) the grim and despairing stories. Expected is comic relief from characters such as the bumbling Prez, but even the calm and collected Lester Freamont provides some hilarious moments (photo on top).
SEASON 2. By now it is clear that the show reflects urban America in the post-industrial and globalizing era, including the globalization of sexual slavery. The focus shifts from the low rises to the port, but structural exploration, tragedy, and comic relief continue unabated. A favorite scene (photo below) occurs when Frank fights off summons to the grand jury and rhetorically asks his young charge Johnny Fifty on what he will say. “I’ll take the fifth commandment,” responds Johnny immediately and forcefully. I roared in laughter—roared.
Indeed, there is quite a bit about urban Catholicism, from donations of stained glass to an ethnic parish to a passing reference to the CYO, a mainstay of American Catholicism in the middle third of the twentieth century. I was impressed by this reference, especially because it occurs during one of the pissing contests. Or, of another passing reference to explain for Frank’s unseen wife, their son says about her cooking “three mannitol and sleeping the day away.” Since mannitol could be used as a diluent of banned substances, is it partially a nudge at the then-growing opioid crisis among the working class? I don’t know, but it struck me as strong writing.
And acting, directing, editing, set designing, etc. Example of set design: during Daniels’ last visit to Valchek’s office, the background shows a game of solitaire on a computer screen. Example of directing and editing: while reading the detail’s petitions for warrant during a scene with no dialogue, Pearlman abruptly stops Carver’s chair and stares at him.
SEASON 3. Visually, the Hamsterdam zones are most horrifying and they made me think of the last pouch of Malebolge. Of course, it is the fraudulent politicians, a focus of this season, that really belong to the eighth circle. In addition, race and racism have been ever-present in view during the first two seasons but they become more prominent in dialogue and plot. (To which part of Hell, I wonder, would Dante assign racists?) In between, the exposition of institutional failure continues without fail. The turnaround of Cutty prompts a cheer and a little solace. But one returns to gloom upon the recognition that there is very little support to help ex-cons reenter society. Cutty and the boss of the landscaping crew, alas, are the exceptions to the rule.
Speaking of rules while switching to comedy, two scenes stick most in my mind. In the first episode, legitimacy-seeking Stringer led a meeting of his soldiers (photo) according to Robert’s Rules of Order. The attempt to follow procedures, complete with a copy of the Rules in sight, is a nice combination of the comical, the pathetic, and the dramatic. Take out the profanity, and perhaps that meeting isn’t too different from RROO meetings in business, politics, even academia. Cleverly and hilariously, the writers bring back the Rules at another meeting some episodes later. This time, however, Stringer scolds his by now RROO-habituated lieutenant for keeping minutes.
Then there is the wake of a minor character, an older detective that died while exercising on the Stairmaster. Held at a bar as dictated by tradition—and as an antithesis to the gym where he died—the uniformed corpse is in full display on a pool table. His supervisor delivered an eulogy. (I’m going to a wedding today and must say that this eulogy isn’t too much different from a best man toast.) It is followed by a rousing rendition of “Body of an American” from the department’s inebriated police and staff. The scene is very funny if slightly macabre, and it makes a strong contrast to another minor character’s death shown in the finale. This death, in turn, is a nice visual reinforcement of Bubbles’ verbal ambiguity about Hamsterdam shown in the very last scene. I later learned that the actor who played the detective died in real life prior to this season, prompting the writers to find a way to send his character off. Not a shabby send-off as the wake scene stands on its own as humor and serves the larger drama.
SEASON 4. The Wire should hold up pretty well even had it ended with the finale of Season 3. This season, though, makes it most Dickensian. Some viewers have called this show “literary” or “novelistic,” and watching Season 4 made me think of Oliver Twist, Bleak House, and The Brothers Karamazov for its close-up portrayal of the daily life of a group of boys at an junior high school from late summer to Christmas. Here are some of America’s inner-city and post-industrial equivalents to the Artful Dodger and the Jellyby children. By showing a couple of addict-mothers, there is even a parallel of sorts to Mrs. Jelleby’s negligence of her kids.
But the home and even street scenes are secondary to the school scenes. There, an adult who once blinded a street kid now hopes to find redemption. There, a second adult (photo) continues his penchant for experimentation. Having shown us failure at the political and policing levels, the show doubles down by exploring the utter failure of public education to some of its kids. It is to the credit of the director and actors that, for all the brutality shown and implied, the most viscerally violent scene was staged in a classroom. Back in the days working at a hospital kitchen, I sometimes used the boxcutter to open new inventory. That scene brought back memories about the swiftness and sharpness of that little object. As always, there is a good deal of comedy, but on the whole this is the saddest and the most depressing season. We’ll see if the last season is any different.
SEASON 5. I was initially dubious about the choice of the Baltimore Sun as a focal point of this season. Indeed, I found the exposition uneven and often uninteresting. There isn’t complexity in the portrayal of the factions. As a result, it is too easy to side with the city desk editor and his allies over the executive editor, the managing editor, and the fabricating reporter. That said, there are two hysterically funny scenes in the Sun building, both involving the fabricator and his phone calls with a serial killer. These scenes exemplify this season’s overall comedy. Generated mostly by McNulty during the second episode, the humor verges on the farcical and absurdist, especially when it comes to interactions among various members of the homicide unit (photo).
My favorite scene, though, shows an indicted politician with a copy of CJ Harrington and James Scully’s translation of Prometheus Bound as he enters the court house for his trial. That this character shifts from an earlier allegation of racism to a self-comparison to the protagonist of Aeschylus’ tragedy is simultaneously subversive, specious, and humorous. The Wire is, among other things, a brilliant illustration of the devastation waged by the War on Drugs upon inner-city black communities. But it couldn’t have left a profound impression on this viewer without this quality and variety of comedy.
LAST THOUGHTS. Among the reasons I had such a kick watching Clay Davis enter the courthouse with a copy of the Scully & Harrington translation of Prometheus Bound, is the fact that I pasted the cover of my own copy to the office door during my first week at Pepperdine—and I’ve never taken it down. (The Getty Villa also staged the play that fall.) There is quite a bit of comedy in Davis’ attempt to compare himself to Prometheus. Guess what, the Greeks, as the translators point out in the introduction, generally thought of Prometheus as semi-comic: a view that Aeschylus appeared to share until late in life when he made the fellow into the tragic figure known to us today.
Above and beneath the comedy stand drama and tragedy: at least for some citizens in the modern state, whose massive organizations are entangled in bureaucracy and gridlock on top of structural poverty and racism. In the meantime, civic institutions become diminished to the point of near-uselessness. Take churches for an example. True, Bubbles begins his path of redemption at a Catholic Worker house if not at churches that host Narcotics Anonymous meetings. True, too, the Deacon, leader of a (non-denominational?) Protestant church, is among the most important enablers of Cutty’s turnaround and stay-around. But, really, religious institutions are ineffectual to deal with problems of this scale: in this case and, probably, others too.
It sounds despairing, but Prometheus Bound is also despairing in many respects. The job of great art isn’t to offer solutions but to help us see through problems. Even if the last season doesn’t match up to the previous ones, The Wire on the whole shows us some of our problems with considerable clarity. Time will tell whether or not it is great art, but I know that for myself, it is worth re-watching the whole thing at some point in the future.