On the John
Following the thread: how The Wire became a cinematic masterpiece
Originally completed February 29, 2008
“We’re building something here, detective. We’re building it from scratch. All the pieces matter.” –Freamon
My true introduction to the The Wire came with a man in a wheelchair.
My dad and brother discovered the show last October when HBO re-ran the entire series; I’d been in and out of the house, catching an episode when I could. My family loved it, and while I thought the show was excellent, it did not have its hooks in me. That changed with “All Due Respect,” the second episode of Season Three.
The scene opens at a Barksdale stash house. Two low-level employees stand out front, talking as they watch the door. After allowing entrance to a pair of friends, the two doormen are greeted by a young woman who is pushing an old, blind man in a wheelchair.
My brother looks at my dad. “Hey, hey, isn’t that Omar’s girl?”
“You know Miss Elaine from the back room, right?” the woman asks the door guys. “This her brother Earl, from the V.A. hospital. He’s supposed to stay with her.”
I look at Dad and Mike, their eyes fixed on the old man. “Is that — who is that?”
“Can you help me inside?” the woman asks. Skeptical, the pair at the door remove the old man’s blanket from his lap, pat him down, and give the woman one final look-see before carrying the old man up the steps. Now inside, the old man looks at one of the boys. “Thank you young man,” he says. The kid looks closer, leaning in. Mike and Dad do the same.
“Is that — is that Omar?” “Is it?” They pause, looking at each other. “Is it?”
“Oh shit!” the young man yells. The woman pulls her gun. The young man sees it, and in his pause, the old man in the wheelchair pulls the young man’s gun from his belt, letting out a gleeful “Oh shit!” of his own.
“Oh shit,” Mike says, smacking Dad in the arm. “I think it’s — oh hell yeah! Hell yeah!”
“Hell yeah what?” I ask him.
He turns to me and smiles. “Omar back.”
Much has been written about The Wire’s focus on institutions. The series began with a critical examination of the so-called “war on drugs,” giving us the dealers in the game and the police tracking them. Season Two introduced the Baltimore dockworkers and their unions, followed by the politicians in Season Three. Perhaps the most emotional storyline came in Season Four when the show turned its eye on the public school system. And now in Season Five, show-creator and former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon has brought his series into his old stomping ground, (quite actually, in fact) — the media, courtesy of the Sun itself.
From the majority of the television-watching public, The Wire gets not much more than a nod in passing. But from critics? The show has been called Dickensian by some, the best show on TV by others. When Jacob Weisberg of Slate took his stab, he named it “the best TV show ever broadcast in America.”
And what is the subject of the best TV show ever broadcast in America? Those very institutions, or so says Simon. “[The show is] really about the American city, and about how we live together. It’s about how institutions have an effect on individuals, and how … [you] must contend with whatever institution you’ve committed to.”
They all live together all right. Over the course of the series, we have seen the police run cases on the dealers, the politicians, and the dockworkers, while the newspaper staff run stories on the cases, (so long as they’ve got juice). We’ve seen one police become a teacher while another goes to work as a P.I. for a criminal lawyer, a man who handles the legal work of the city’s two ruling drug crews as well as their East Side supplier, him a man who is in business with the smugglers at the docks. We’ve seen a mayor who is forced to choose between under-funding the police department or under-funding the schools, classrooms such as the ones occupied by Namond, Michael, Randy, and Dukie, four 8th grade boys, three of whom end up spending as much time with the police and the dealers as they do with their teachers.
And yet, Simon’s quote is not entirely on-point. The Wire is not really about how institutions affect individuals; it is about the individuals affected by those institutions. A slight difference, but a significant one, and it is that difference that gives the show its true appeal. Certainly The Wire is about the external circumstances that direct lives down one path or another, but it is first about the individual, his motivation, his decisions, his desires and flaws and fears and courage. The show’s genius lies not so much in its ability to give full and pointed depictions of, say, the dope game and the political structure, but rather in its ability to present Proposition Joe and Mayor Tommy Carcetti so cleanly and plainly that we are able to see how, had starting circumstances been different, each could have easily ended up in the other man’s chair. Bodie and Herc, Carver and Wee-Bey, Daniels and Avon, Stringer and Clay. Same outlines, different details. The show’s tragedy, then, is not how institutions limit man’s potential for growth, but how institutions limit man’s ability to see how similar he is with those who appear to be anything but.
Simply put, The Wire is the story of its characters’ humanity. That comes first. It has to. Without the humanity, who really cares if a hopper gets killed because he tried to leave the game, or if the bosses shut down a case because cracking gang violence is less of a career-maker than political fraud? It is the humanity that drives the show, the humanity that makes Dad and Mike hop out of their seats at the reappearance of Omar, the humanity that makes viewers sweat during a shoot-out because they’re worried about the well-being of people on both sides of the fight.
The characters are so human, in fact, that it becomes difficult to give proper adulation to the show’s phenomenal cast. Guys who do accents, Dominic West, Idris Elba, Aidan Gillen, of course they’re acting. But Clarke Peters as Lester? Wood Harris as Avon? Chris Bauer as Sobotka? The acting, writing, and casting are so smooth that the process of fictional creation becomes almost entirely veiled. The result is, in a way, the opposite of what happens on a show like The Sopranos. There, the characters are icons. They are bigger than the world around them. They know it and we know it. And that means that we aren’t really watching Tony Soprano. We are watching the show’s physical representation of Tony Soprano. In the world of that show, Big T is an idea first, and a person second.
Not so on The Wire, where your image does not spring from your place on the power structure. State senator, homicide detective, newspaper editor, heroin addict, drug kingpin, middle school teacher — everyone is the same. They’re all people trying their damndest to accomplish their goals, whether that be as a careerist looking to support the company line, a non-believer trying to alter the system, or a citizen who wants to follow the wave simply because it’s the wave. What that focus on the human truth has done is create an effect unlike anything I can think of on television: instead of being unable to accept these actors in other roles, many fans now seek out these actors elsewhere. “We should see Gone Baby Gone,” I told some Wire-friends recently. “It’s got Beadie and Omar in it.”
Done and done. They were in.
Why does this happen, I wonder? It may be that the humanity of the characters rubs off on the actors, or that we are excited to see their faces, wherever they may be. But I think that The Wire is a case of casting, writing, and acting so simple and truthful, we are given the impression that the actors are not simply “playing characters” — they are bringing real people to life. It is a joy to spend time with these people. When they are out of story for a time and reappear, we are given a jolt of thrill; it really is like seeing an old friend. Indeed, while most actors appear to create characters, these actors appear to create life.
The more we watch, the more we realize what a unique storytelling experience The Wire is, and these actors are in large-part responsible for creating that experience. And for that, we are grateful. It is weird to be truly grateful to the creators of a television show. Feels a tad cheap. But if great art and human expression come in the form of a television program, who are we to argue?
While the acting is seamless, the writing is nearly without flaw. You notice how precise it is, how sharp. You notice the depth and width of the vision. Yet at the same time, you do not notice the plot development. That’s because The Wire features a minimum amount of plotting. Scenes are driven by the characters’ behavior, and that behavior has been distilled into a few basic mindsets: survive, and following that: move up, go against, or get out.
This means that there are no plot twists, only developments that we did not foresee. Plot twists are plot-driven. Real life, of course, is character-driven. When I read Stephen King’s On Writing last fall, I felt that he explained the substance of narrative to near perfection. His views on the subject were obvious yet challenging, and the more I watch The Wire, the more I see that much of its skill comes from its mastery of King’s approach.
King writes that written stories consist of three parts: narration, description, and dialogue. Of plot, King says:
You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer — my answer, anyway — is nowhere. I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot […] because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can — I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow […]
Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain the same […]
Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.
Later, King talks about character:
The job [of building characters] boils down to two things: paying attention to how the real people around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see […]
It’s also important to remember that no one is “the bad guy” or “the best friend” or “the whore with the heart of gold” in real life; in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us baby […] My job is to make sure these fictional folks behave in ways that will both help the story and seem reasonable to us, given what we know about them (and what we know about real life, of course.)
What is wonderful about King’s take on story and character is that it aims to eliminate artifice, perhaps the greatest detriment to good writing. Our lives are not about what happens; they are about how our decisions create what happens. The Wire is not a “character study” in the lazy sense, a term that tends to be code for “a narrative in which nothing much happens.” Movies like Pollock come to mind, very good films even, but never great.
The Wire is, however, a character study in the same way that The Godfather is a character study, because the best way to study a character is to take note of the decisions he makes. The show excels at both character and story because they are linked; one flows from the other. Half of what the show’s writing does best is simply stay out of the way of both. To quote Lester in Season Five, “I’m just following the thread.”
The other half of the writing consists of the dialogue and scene work, and while it is the former that tends to be most-noted by critics due to its authenticity and crackling flavor, it is the latter that always stands out to me. So many scenes are perfectly crafted, and what is wonderful is this: as the character’s choices get more difficult, the scenes get crisper and more precise. The show gets sharper.
And the scenes are memorable. D’Angelo teaching chess to Bodie and Wallace. Jimmy and Bunk reconstructing a crime scene using only variations of the word “fuck.” Omar and Brother Mouzone getting the jump on Stringer. Randy asking Carver if he will “look out for me” as Carver walks hopelessly away. This is all fantastic work. But when I think about this show and everything in it I love, the scene that leaps forward is a small one from the start of Season Five.
It is night. Lester sits in his car, staking out Marlo’s crew, waiting for a crack in their discipline. “Piece of My Heart” by Erma Franklin plays on the stereo, and Lester, face sneaking out of the shadow, eyes intent upon the alley, sings along in falsetto while eating potato chips. You’re out, on the street, looking good… The camera draws back, revealing the sidewalk and the row houses behind him. A car alarm blares in the background, but when Lester’s attention is drawn away from his target it is at the sound of a mother dragging her son up the block and ordering him to get in the house. Lester looks on as the mother leaves her son and turns to yell to her daughter in the other direction. “Get up in here fool, come on! (looking down the block) Trina! Trina! (back to her son) Stay right here. Don’t move.” The son is left in the doorway, his outline illuminated by the light inside as his mother marches away. And right on cue, the camera begins pushing slowly back towards Lester, the music swelling. I said come on, come on, come on, come on, and take it! Lester returns his look to his alley, the scene complete.
That’s it right there, The Wire in under 30 seconds. The subject of the scene appears to be Lester’s stakeout of Marlo’s crew, but it quickly becomes a vignette about a family, a mother and her children, a neighborhood scene. The acting and writing are perfect, the story complete, the filmmaking the very best there is, exemplary photography, camera work, lighting, sound, and music. The scene aims to examine when it could just Make A Point, and it displays a light human touch when it could just be a sad portrait. And always story, always story…
In the end, that is what we really want: a moving story about interesting characters. Because after all of the examinations of the drug trade, after all of the examinations of the police department and the docks, city hall and the schools and the newspapers and homelessness, what endures are the characters. The people, whoever they are. That’s what sticks. Bunk and Beadie and Namond and Prez, Clay Davis and Bubbles and Burrell and Marlo, Chris and Poot and all the rest. To understand rather than to be understood — they say that is most important. Here then, finally, is a show that values that responsibility above all else.
Copyright 2008, jm silverstein
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Below are many of the scenes described above: