Are You Good With It? : A Review of The Wire, Season Five


I have been procrastinating on this final The Wire review for a long time now. I finished the season about a week after I wrote the Season Four review, and I’ve just been doing nothing ever since. The problem is that I genuinely don’t know what to say that hasn’t already been said by others about this season—or that I haven’t already said about the glorious masterpiece that is The Wire as a whole. But I guess the only honest thing to do is to write what I feel, so that’s what I’m going to do here.

First off, I have read and heard that many folks consider Season Five to be the worst—or, I guess, the least good. It’s not that it’s bad, but rather that it’s shorter and seems rushed. However, the storyline didn’t feel rushed to me. I think, deep down, that the reason people tend to like this season the least is because it takes our two genius detectives / “natural police” (Freamon and McNulty) and makes them cross a line that few of us would be willing to cross. Morally, they fall apart. Like Colvin in Season Three, the two of them see that the system is not working—the changes that Carcetti promised are unable to come to fruition despite his desires, since money is not readily available and Carcetti refuses to suck up to the state governor due to his own political ambitions down the road. Instead, sensing growing discontent among voters, Carcetti presses for crime reduction (read: stat manipulation… just like his predecessor) even while gutting the police budget. So what I’m saying is that the system is broken and McNulty and Freamon cannot get the help they need to catch the biggest threat in the city—Marlo Stanfield. And so McNulty decides to tamper with crime scenes and dead bodies in order to make up a fake serial killer situation. The ploy works, allowing him to receive a bunch of resources hitherto unattainable (since Carcetti has to show the public that he’s doing something about this serious crime issue), and McNulty sets Freamon up on an illegal wiretap on Marlo Stanfield. Almost all the bad stuff that happens in this season can be traced back to that one decision, and so it makes McNulty out to be the author of this season’s tragedies.

Okay. Now that the background is finished, I can get on with my point. This season is about tearing down our heroes. In my estimation, the only person who comes through this season totally unscathed (except, perhaps, for Pryzbylewski—though there is a certain necessary hardness that he has had to adopt as an inner-city schoolteacher) is Bubbles. Other than Bubbles—who is dealing with demons from previous seasons—everyone sort of collapses in on themselves. Carver might be one of the season’s saints, but in previous seasons he covered up for Colvin by moving a freaking body from a crime scene. Now that he’s in charge, he acts morally—but this involves breaking the very police loyalty code that protected him when he did his immoral stuff earlier on. Kima goes to the bosses about McNulty and Freamon, but she’s utterly conflicted about it and is herself an adulteress (as shown in Season Three). What I’m saying is that this season really shows that there are no real “good guys” in the world of The Wire—which makes us uncomfortable because there are no real “good guys” in the real world either. It hits too close to home.

Elsewhere in the city, we see the rise and eventual fall of Marlo Stanfield’s organization. That scene at the end where Marlo has been released from prison and basically given free reign provided that he abstains from gang-related activity, and Levy has taken him to some important-people meeting in order to get his money straight and start working on the white-collar side of things, and then Marlo just leaves surreptitiously and ends up on a corner in an expensive suit, asking local gangbangers if they know who he is and then fighting them off barehanded when faced with a loaded gun… Yeah, that scene is incredible. And it’s one of the major themes of this season—the idea that the cycles of violence and crime are unending and perhaps unpreventable. Marlo will end up back in prison, it is implied, because he can’t stay away. After Omar is killed by some random hopper of little consequence, Michael ends the season by stealing from a Marlo drug crew—which hints, to me, that he is taking up the mantle as the next “Omar.” Duquan, jettisoned by Michael after the latter kills Snoop, winds up a junkie like his parents. Freamon and McNulty are released from the force after their stunt—just like Colvin—which is supposed to show that the status quo will be maintained. What they did was illegal and immoral, but they did it because nothing else was working. And now the city is back to that same old “stats game.”

I lied a bit earlier, I think. Perhaps there is another character, besides Bubbles, who breaks from the cycle in which he is trapped. Namond Brice—son of Wee-Bey and de facto adopted son of Major Colvin—is shown speaking at a debate. He’s becoming the kind of kid that Colvin thought he could become. But this came through extensive one-on-one time between Colvin and Namond, coupled with a more stable home life. Sadly, I think one of the points that this season makes is that the kind of change necessary to fully rehabilitate a kid born into crime-culture is literally unattainable by public systems. They can help, but what is required is that one-on-one time—and a lot of it. Even then, you save one kid in hundreds.

I also lied earlier by saying that I didn’t think the show was rushed. On second thought, the newspaper stuff—the fact that the one reporter is making stuff up but no one cares because everyone is pursuing a nice juicy Pulitzer—does seem to wrap up a bit too quickly. I wasn’t a huge fan of that stuff because, knowing David Simon’s background as a reporter, it all seemed too personal. Like, it felt like the issues weren’t as fleshed out and nuanced as the rest of the series’, because Simon had probably seen that kind of stuff go on and was very much against it. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it seemed more black-and-white / good-guy-versus-bad-guy than anything else in the show, which jarred me a bit.

And now I’ll talk about the positive. This series is utterly well-written. I’m getting my wife caught up on it—we’re currently on the finale of Season Three—and I’m seeing nuances and foreshadowing and just incredibly complex detail that I didn’t catch the first time around because I was too concerned with having things to say about the plot of each season. Everything seems so inevitable now that I know how it ends. It almost feels like I was stupid for not seeing any of it coming—and that is the mark of a solid script, in my opinion. Each and every scene is the result of the writers asking themselves “therefore… what happens?” and “however…. does something else happen because of that?” I am being totally honest when I say that this is the best writing that I’ve ever seen in a dramatic t.v. show. The only series that comes close, in my opinion, is Arrested Development, and I find it impossible to judge the quality of writing across such clearly distinct and almost opposing genre boundaries. But maybe my choice of those two for G.O.A.T. status is because I just really enjoy content that points out and embraces the absurdity of our world. My favorite scene of Season Five, besides the Marlo scene I mentioned earlier, occurs toward the end when Slim Charles shoots Cheese. It’s my favorite because it is so absurd. I like Slim Charles as a character—but only when I let myself forget what he really is. He masks Cheese’s murder as some kind of honor thing, like a payback for Cheese ultimately causing the death of Proposition Joe. But as much as Slim would like to think he’s got some kind of moral high ground (think back to Season Three and his admonishment of some of his muscle after they try to violate the “Sunday truce”), this is a man who partnered with a ruthless Avon Barksdale and did nothing while the sociopath Marlo Stanfield ravaged the city. Slim was the head of Barksdale’s muscle, no doubt carrying out multiple murders over the course of his “career.” So it’s a weird “honor among thieves” kind of thing.

I’ve left out so many characters and storylines, but I think this shorter review is probably best. The only thing I can say about The Wire, really, is that you should watch it. I’ve just finished it and I’m currently rewatching it with my wife. I have plans to watch it again once my wife has finished it, this time with a friend who has never seen an episode.

Yes, it really is good enough to warrant multiple watch-throughs. But it will leave you looking at the world around you and asking, like Kima to Carver, “are you good with it?” Maybe that’s what we need to be asking. Maybe without shows like this—shows that make you take a long, hard look at the problems our society faces—there will be no progress.

The Cycle Continues: A Review of The Wire, Season Four

I binge-watched the fourth season of The Wire within about a week and a half of finishing the third season. And yet here I am, something like a month later, still trying to write a review that will do justice to the absolute beauty of the story so far. The fourth season is by far—by far—my favorite (although I haven’t watched the final season yet). It is beautiful and heartbreaking and overwhelmingly sad. So let me just jump in here.

This season is sad because we finally begin to understand the systems that are involved in inner-city Baltimore. We finally begin to glean an understanding—if we truly can understand such things simply by watching television—of the impossibility of fixing the problems that are apparent throughout the show. Sure, McNulty seems to have turned his own personal life around and the changes that he made at the end of the third season seem to be permanent. And sure, Cutty seems to be doing a pretty cool thing with his gym, teaching corner kids to box and thereby making sure they spend time doing something other than selling drugs (and also learning at least a little bit of honor). But though Cutty has become a sort of father figure for these kids—many of whom have no fathers at home—we realize that this literally does nothing to improve the overall culture of the city. Nada. Zilch.

I think the best part of this season—besides the terrifying sociopathy of Marlo and his goons, who all act the part very well—is the focus on the corner kids. Instead of seeing the higher ups of an organization, we see the children who go to school during the day, get into fights, fail to learn much of anything in a broken school system that emphasizes standardized testing over actual learning, and then sell drugs on the street to make money—often at the request of their own families. At the center of this story arc is none other than Namond Brice—the son of Barksdale enforcer “Wee-Bey” Brice. Namond’s mother has plenty of money from Wee-Bey’s time with the Barksdales, as well as (it is implied) generous monthly payouts from the Barksdales as payment for Wee-Bey eating the twenty-odd year sentence he copped in Season One. But when these payments dry up on account of there, well, not being any Barksdale organization to speak of anymore, Mama Brice gives Namond an ultimatum: he better get his ass out on the corner selling drugs like his father to support the family, or else. When Namond runs afoul of the law, his mother tells the cops to keep him in “baby booking” to toughen him up rather than suspend her shopping trip to New York. As viewers, we begin to see why so many people from these inner-city areas become drug dealers and criminals. We begin to see the failure of the education system and the attractiveness of the kind of money you can make selling drugs. It’s a culture, and cultures are cyclical.

That said, there is one man hell-bent on trying to fix the system and offer Baltimore youth a viable way out. Ex-Major Colvin winds up assisting in an experimental classroom filled with all the key troublemakers in school—including Namond Brice. This classroom, I contend, is the centerpiece of the season. It is where the writers make their most important thematic points about the cycles that permeate the system. For instance, there is a moment in which the children are asked where they see themselves in ten years. It’s a simple exercise in forward thinking and planning: ask the kids for their long-term goals, then follow up by asking them about how they will make those goals into realities. The answers the teacher receives are mostly jokes about being NBA or NFL stars. And yet the real meat of the scene occurs when the teacher asks how many of the students think they’ll be dead in a decade. Nearly all of the kids raise their hands. It is at this point that we must remember that The Wire was created and written by a journalist and a cop-turned-teacher, both from Baltimore. They’re not just writing interesting television. They’re telling the story of hundreds of kids they know, have seen, or have heard about. This is tragic stuff, and it’s going on in cities all around the country. Today. Right now. There are middle schoolers in this country who genuinely don’t think they’ll be alive in a decade, and yet that’s okay to them because it’s all “just part of the game.” I don’t want to spoil too much for anyone who has yet to see the series, so I’m leaving out the absolutely heartbreaking story arc of Michael. Anyone who has seen Season Four will understand why his is perhaps the most tragic of the stories in this series.

I want to take a break from that depressing scene and talk about what makes good television, for me. One of the most compelling aspects of a dramatic series is a competent, believable, terrifying villain. In Season Four, which is (in my opinion) all about “change” manifesting in repetitions of the same systemic cycles, Barksdale’s role as the villain is replaced by Marlo Stanfield. And Marlo is a full-on sociopath. He will do anything, to anyone, at any time, provided it furthers his goal of taking over his side of Baltimore and making lots of money. He is what I imagine real-life kingpins to be—ruthless, devoid of empathy, etc. Even though he rarely does the killing in the show, he reminds me of the “Ice Man” Richard Kuklinski—and just as an aside, you should look up this dude’s interviews on YouTube if you want to see the face of a killer with frontal lobe problems who literally can’t feel empathy. The definitive Marlo scene, for me, is when Proposition Joe (a man who always struck me as the real threat in Baltimore rather than Barksdale) tries to recruit the young kingpin into the co-op Stringer created. The offer of increased protection doesn’t sit well with Marlo (“No one fucks with me now.”) and when Prop Joe tries to argue that maybe in the future folks will try to come at Marlo, the latter interrupts him by sticking out a hand for a handshake. “No one fucks with me now,” he reiterates, and the meeting is concluded. This is the point at which it is truly apparent that Marlo has overtaken the other gang rulers of Baltimore. He can dismiss Proposition Joe with a single sentence and a handshake. And so, to get back to my original point, this season’s villain is menacing in the extreme. (But, real quick, I want to make sure I say that the writers go out of their way to show that the true masters behind the scheme are the rich, white-collar dudes like The Greek—who is the supplier behind Prop Joe’s co-op, which Marlo eventually joins).

There is so much more in this season that deserves a lengthier review—the election of Carcetti as Mayor and the subsequent shakeup within the police department, a deeper discussion of Marlo’s henchmen Chris and Snoop, Colvin’s eventual pseudo-adoption of Namond Brice and the accompanying clarity of Wee-Bey’s approval, the plight of Duquan “Dookie” Weems, and especially Namond’s and Dookie’s friend Michael—but I know you probably have stopped reading by now. This is already quite a long article for a show that started over a decade ago.

I’ll sign off by saying this: my view on The Wire has progressed with each season. At first, I thought it was a good show. Then I thought it was a great show. Then I thought it was one of the best shows of all time. And after the fourth season, I’m left thinking that this might be actually the best show ever, as so many people before me have said. The character development is just unbelievably complex and good. What a journey this has been.

Things Fall Apart: A Short Review of The Wire, Season Three

Finishing season three of The Wire has taken me quite a while, dear reader. This is mostly due to scheduling conflicts and difficulty finding the time to sit down and actually watch the show, so this fact should not be construed as bearing any sort of relation to this season’s quality. With that caveat out of the way, let’s dig in.

So far in my experience of The Wire, I have found that each season has multiple themes layered one atop another—it is difficult to really pin down the “main” point the writers are trying to make. I could discuss how Season Three is about blame-shifting, or about politics, or about the human inability to put other peoples’ interests above one’s own. And maybe I will touch on those issues. But, for me, this season is about the slow disintegration of all things. It’s about the destruction inevitable in anything we build. Gradual decay.

Let’s examine Major Colvin for a minute. The man, feeling pressure coming from a long line of superiors that stretches all the way up to the mayor, realizes that police work itself has been slowly rotting away for years. Walking a beat and having face-to-face contact with the community—what Colvin considers “good policing,”—has been replaced by busting up corners and chasing down drug-trade lookouts. His solution is to set up Hamsterdam—three designated areas within West Baltimore in which police will tacitly allow the sale of illegal drugs. (Side note: here I could touch on how Colvin thinks he’s being magnanimous and saving the community with this idea, but really he is putting his own interests above both those of other human beings and the law—because he, like McNulty at the end of this season, feels as if the water has been emptied out of him in a slow leak and everything he pours into himself is drained out… That’s what modern policing feels like to him, and he wants to change that. But I won’t get into that). The eventuality that all of the viewers surely saw coming was that Hamsterdam does not last. It falls apart. Even before City Hall gets wind of it and shuts it down, the area is essentially a cesspool of hurting people—and when Colvin tries to fix this by allowing other agencies to distribute clean needles and condoms and perform health checks, it doesn’t work. Despite his best efforts, shootings happen in Hamsterdam. Despite his best efforts, Bubs’ white druggie friend winds up dead from drug usage. Colvin’s big plan to change “the game” suffers the same fate that old-timey police work suffered. It doesn’t work.

That was a long paragraph on Major Colvin. Since I’m trying to make this review a bit shorter than my 2000+ word Season Two review, I’ll go ahead and just spend a paragraph discussing the other police/”good guys.” First, Kima: we see her marriage, which was already thrust into chaos by the birth of her partner’s child, collapsing to the point of her eventual infidelity. As for McNulty, his attempts to rebuild his life and perhaps start a meaningful relationship fall apart when he realizes his lady-friend “looks through” him (his words) and is using him for inside information about the inner workings of the Baltimore police department. The Commissioner and Rawls are feeling incredible pressure to reduce crime-rates throughout the entire season, and by the end we can feel the axe dangling dangerously close to the heads of both of their political careers. Same for the mayor, who is portrayed as a man almost without a clue in this season—he seems to be torn between loyalties at all times, torn between shutting down Hamsterdam and finding a way to keep it for the statistics while maintaining public goodwill. The power structure within the BPD is crumbling even as our “heroes” zero in on the Barksdale criminal organization, with Carcetti looking like a man who will eventually take over. But even he is plagued with doubts. To bring about the change he wishes to see within the city, he has to abandon some of his ideals and become, in that abandonment, a new individual. He has to first incinerate himself before he can attempt to rise again, phoenix-like. And then there’s Pryzbylewski, who accidentally shoots and kills a fellow cop. He subsequently reveals that he doesn’t think he was meant to be a police, and when Freamon inquires as to what he was meant to be, Pryzbylewski has no answer.

As for the main criminal element in the show—the Barksdale organization—several very important things happen in this season. Mirroring Major Colvin, Stringer Bell attempts to start a conglomeration of previously antagonistic criminal organizations in order to understand and change the way that “the game” is played. For him, everything is “just business.” It makes more financial sense to join up with the other gang leaders and distribute the same high-quality drugs, and so that’s what Stringer Bell wants to do. But when Avon is released early from prison, everything begins to collapse. Marlo—a young up-and-coming head of a rival drug trade—has quietly taken over former Barksdale corners while Stringer focuses on business, and Avon—who does not understand, nor does he want to understand, the new shape of “the game”—is ready to go to war. Smoothing over all the details, the relationship between String and Avon unravels in a beautiful and yet tragic spiral, eventually ending with each man’s betrayal of the other. I don’t want to spoil too much for anyone who hasn’t watched the season (though by this point I probably already have), but once again we see that everything we humans try to build winds up dust. In the finale, we see Avon about to be locked up for violating his parole (at the very least) while Marlo looks on in the courtroom and smiles, the “heir-apparent” winning the victory just as, the viewer imagines, Carcetti is soon to do in City Hall.

But all is not doom and gloom in this show, however much it may appear. There are some high points as well as the lows. In the last few scenes, we see McNulty visiting Beatrice Russell (from Season Two) and turning down an offer for drinks—which, given his history, the viewer is invited to interpret as more of an offer for sex—and instead opting to meet her children, “if it isn’t too late.” This seems to be the first genuine attempt to start a meaningful relationship that we’ve seen from McNulty. I don’t know if it’s going to last, and to be honest I see in it a sad echo of both Colvin’s new approach to drug prevention and Stringer’s new approach to crime, but he bears his soul to the woman, turns down quick gratification, and tries to do something that will make a genuine connection. And the final scene with McNulty is him walking a beat path in full police uniform, chatting to the local Baltimoreans, sporting a wide smile. Perhaps, we are invited to think, he is finally stopping up the hole within him through which everything seems to leak.

And there is more hope to be found here, albeit a hard one. Cutty—the man on the inside with Barksdale, serving time for a murder he committed in his teens—is released from prison with Avon’s invitation to join up with the Barksdale organization. After numerous attempts to make a living through more reputable avenues, Cutty takes Avon up on his offer. He’s meant to be an enforcer, but when he finally gets the chance to kill one of Marlo’s lieutenants, he can’t pull the trigger. Avon lets him leave with a strange sort of honor-among-thieves type of vibe, and then the real magic happens. Cutty realizes that his fulfillment can be found in attempting to bring some kind of stability to young kids caught up in crime, and so he starts a gym. He works hard to renovate it, gets all the necessary paperwork filed away, and even gets a generous donation from Avon to purchase better equipment. He pulls his students from the crews of lookouts and runners that have become jobless with the advent of Hamsterdam and begins to bond with them, begins to teach them how to box, but more importantly begins to demand a certain respect from them—a respect that he seems able to channel and reflect back to them, giving them the ability to respect themselves. And then it turns sour. When Hamsterdam is closed, some of his older students end up back on Marlo’s corners selling drugs—and yet, when Cutty comes around to see them, they agree to come to the gym later in the day. So he hasn’t changed the fact that they are selling drugs, but he has created an avenue to, possibly, lead them out of that life. Of course, Avon used to box back in the day… so all this could be for naught.

I’ll leave you all with this last thought. I think Cutty’s storyline is a metaphor for the kind of activism and action that Carcetti demands in his finale speech. Turning the tables on the Commissioner and Rawls, Carcetti demands that the buck not be passed. He demands that we each, as humans within this crumbling society, take responsibility for the fact that these problems are our problems. Blame-shifting, while serving political ends and saving one’s job, does not solve anything. It just hides the issue—like Colvin tried to do with Hamsterdam, even comparing it to “brown-bagging” alcohol. Cutty is enacting this kind of personal responsibility even before Carcetti reaches this conclusion. Notice that Cutty never once acknowledges his own criminal past to appeal to these kids—he never once mentions to them that he killed a man in order to gain their respect. Though I’m sure they all know who he is, he never mentions that Avon Barksdale offered him a job and let him leave unscathed after failing to perform a hit. In short, Cutty has shunned his criminal past and is building something anew. You can see the light in his students’ eyes as they learn that truth and feel that hope.

Let us hope, us viewers, that Cutty’s project doesn’t disintegrate in the way that everything else did this season. I’ll be back to review Season Four soon. My final sentence here is this: The Wire is in certainly in the running for the status of Best Television Show of All Time.

No Stone Left Unturned: A Short Review of The Wire, Season Two

We begin season two of The Wire with the first of many stark changes from the first season. Jimmy McNulty, our schlub of a heroic, impassioned, murder-case-cracking detective, is now stationed over at the docks. He rides a boat now and, seemingly, has left the world of murder cases for good. Like Lester Freamon before him, McNulty has been banished to an unwanted position due to his unorthodox method of basically having no regard for the chain of command. Unlike Freamon—who had his dollhouse furniture to supplement income and keep his mind occupied—McNulty has trouble living this life. He was built for solving murder cases. And the viewer gets to see exactly what happens when McNulty can’t be involved in a murder case: he disintegrates, self-destructing into more than his usual number of booze bottles and having one-night-stands with several women even as he tries in vain to repair the damage his tornadic personality has wreaked on his marriage. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to us, then, that Fate grants McNulty a bit of a boon (though cruelly twisted) when he finds a floating dead woman in the harbor.

Now, the absolute beauty of the writing in this series is that I’ve just taken a bit to set up the starting position of our main character, but I’ve left out so. much. information. I’ve left out subplots and side stories, small character arcs and arguments. I know that you’ll leave out stuff like that with any short review of a television season, but the key point is that in The Wire none of that information—none of those little side stories and cutaway scenes—is wasted. Even the most mundane scenes serve to simultaneously further the overall plot and develop characters in complex ways. And so when McNulty finds the body of the woman, we’re all expecting him to get reinstated immediately into the murder unit—but instead Rawls stays an asshole and refuses him. Then when the body is linked to a shipping container on the local docks that is found to be full of dead Eastern European prostitutes, we’re sure that the resulting 13 Jane Doe cases will make Rawls bring McNulty back (I mean, I thought for sure he’d do that and stick McNulty on the cases to further ruin his career). But no. Even when, through a series of convoluted but entirely believable police politics, Lt. Daniels winds up with a detail comprised mostly of the old crew from the first season, it takes Rawls like at least half the season to allow Daniels to call up McNulty. So all of this background stuff is there developing tension and thickening the plot, making the characters into actual people that seem real, etc. The writing is nothing short of incredible and I understand why people call this the best television series of all time (and I’m only in the second season!).

But okay. I want to briefly discuss some things that carry over from the first season. I called this piece No Stone Left Unturned because I think the writers successfully deal with, like, everyone from the first season at some point in the story. You got Avon, D’Angelo, and Wee Bey behind bars in their own subplot that ends in D’Angelo’s staged “suicide.” You got Stringer Bell running the Barksdale criminal organization, shacking up with D’Angelo’s wife, ordering the hit on D’Angelo, and making deals with Proposition Joe behind Avon’s back. You got Omar coming in and wreaking havoc on Stringer’s complicated plans, as he is wont to do. And you got Bubbles descending back into his addiction. I was close to getting angry with the writing of this season toward the end, when I thought Bubbles was returning to the show just as a sort of obligation instead of as a useful plot device. But then the writers made even his short appearance matter to the plot. He turns Kima and McNulty onto the Stringer Bell/Proposition Joe dirty dealings, which I can only assume will become more important in coming seasons. And then even the lower-level guys in the Barksdale organization are given a spotlight—the kids in the pit have a solid amount of air time in this season as they progress into pit bosses and, slowly, become Stringer Bell’s favorites (maybe… Bell is a complex dude). The writers truly turn over every stone from the first season and make it all count toward a greater plot. This is something that is extremely difficult to do in any story—and I can only imagine that it is made even more impossible when one is writing for a television series with a set amount of episodes each with their own set amount of airtime.

However much I laud the writers for developing storylines from the previous season, Season Two isn’t simply (or even mostly) a rehash of the first. Instead we’re introduced to the Stevedore’s Union—presided over by Frank Sobotka. These guys have made some deals with “The Greek”—a mysterious man who helms an international crime syndicate—to lose some shipping containers on purpose. One of these containers contains the previously mentioned dead prostitutes, which is the central and case that sets off the slow destruction of everything Sobotka holds dear. (Although, in a mark of true writing brilliance, the case isn’t actually the central conflict—that honor belongs to the dispute between Valchek and Sobotka over the Stevedore’s Union putting up a stained glass window in a local church when Valchek wanted the police union to have their own window put up instead). But even though the specifics have changed, I want to talk about what I see as the pattern that the writers of this show are trying to draw to our attention with the first two seasons. That is, I want to talk about the fact that the true villains in the first two seasons—the ones who aren’t really humanized and who seem like almost pure avatars of evil—are the sort of white collar guys high up the food chain. In the first season, we know that certain corrupt politicians are bank-rolling Barksdale and are thus behind his ascent to the top of the West Side criminal element. But those folks aren’t punished—ever. In the second season, we see the Greek and his sidekick—Spyros—drinking tea out of expensive teacups in expensive restaurants while eating expensive food and drinking expensive wine and laughing even at the end of the season when they’ve had to take a loss on the whole dock-smuggling enterprise. Even after their primary muscle—the Russian-whose-name-is-not-Boris—is locked up; even after Frank Sobotka’s loose-cannon of a son has killed one of their primary associates. These men are the monsters of the show, and I think I know why. The reason we feel so strongly about the Greek and Spyros and the mostly faceless politicians in the first season is complex—but, I contend, it is not solely because they escape justice. Rather, one of the main reasons we hate them has to do with the humanization of the lower-level guys like D’Angelo and the Sobotkas, and it has to do with how the top-tier—the white collar guys—operate.

In the first two seasons, we’ve seen the “villains” like Sobotka and D’Angelo do horrible things. They sell drugs; they lose containers full of women (I mean, who knows how many of those poor women actually went through the process and, instead of dying alone in a container, ended up in sex slavery); they obstruct the work of police trying to bring to justice people responsible for murder. These are not good people. But what we learn in the process of watching the show is that they have some good motives. Though their circumstances and specifics are different, both of them (as well as Ziggy and Nick Sobotka, and all the other minor-league criminals in the show, as far as I can tell) are doing these things to better the lives of their loved ones. Frank is maybe a better example of this, as D’Angelo is shown in the first season to be a bit obsessed with flash and his own wealth (spending hours picking out the right outfit to wear, for instance). And what makes season two interesting is that Frank is simply trying to earn more work for his union brothers so that they can all make a living. He’s not even trying to get rich! He’s trying to make it possible for men to use the skills they’ve honed over decades to continue to… get by. He gets thrown in over his head, and he knows there is no excusing what he’s done (see the scene in the second-to-last episode in which he tells Ziggy “you’re more like me than you think”), but he’s trying his best to work with the only options he thinks he has.

So that’s why we end up hating the higher-ups. Not only do they use poverty as a weapon (setting up a system in which it makes sense for young black men to sling dope because it’s one of the few ways they can make good money; offering money to a union president for his silence and cooperation when they know he needs the revenue), but the way they deal with poverty is the way they deal with everything. They find weaknesses and, instead of trying to help people fix those weaknesses, they exploit them. They back people into corners because they know the instinct to survive will force those cornered people to do anything regardless of moral conviction—and they know two other things: 1) that once a person has done one illegal act, they have leverage over that person and can make him continue to do illegal acts, and 2) that when the police come cracking down on the system, it’s the ones who have actually physically done the crimes who will get punished and they—the white collars—will get away. What I like about this show is that it doesn’t shy away from these realities. I’m sure that every single viewer rejoiced when Nicky Sobotka was shown the picture of Spyros and some suited person, paused, pointed to a seemingly unimportant person in the foreground, and said “Wait a minute. That’s the Greek.” And I’m sure every viewer harbored the hope that the big bad guys were about to be taken down. But the show knows how the real world works, and the real world doesn’t conform to our hopes. In real life, the men who exploit weakness for personal gain—the men who have become so politically powerful, so extraordinarily wealthy—are not caught. (Side note: if you read history, you’ll see that these folks are sometimes caught and dealt with, but like with Bernie Madoff this is almost exclusively the case when they have harmed the money of some other equally guilty wealthy one-percenter).

If I sound bitter here, that’s a good thing. This show is supposed to make you feel bitter. The aim is to take a look at how the real world works and to see the horror involved. The writers make you understand the Sobotkas and D’Angelos (and even the Avons) even when you don’t like them, and this makes you feel for them to at least a small extent. You begin to ask yourself questions like “If I grew up in inner city Baltimore and saw people slinging dope and making bank, would I join them?” or “If I was entrusted with the livelihood of dozens of other men, and someone approached me with the amount of money necessary to make the right political contributions that would result in more work for my union brothers, would I do it?” And once you start realizing that these blue-collar guys aren’t all that different from us non-criminals—that they want the same things that we want and wind up with their backs to the wall, weaknesses exploited—you start realizing that the problem is really the system of the world. The problem is that in our societies it is more profitable to exploit people than to help them. And, like a chain reaction, that realization leads to the idea that the only way for real change to occur is for those in power—and therefore those who have benefitted the most from the current system—to decide to change the system. Obviously this leads to bitterness, because the chances of that happening are virtually nonexistent. Like the Baltimore Police Dept. in The Wire, we wind up with case after case of the same crap. Even if we solve them, more crop up faster than we can deal with. And, as the BPD’s higher-ups repeatedly express in the show, our goal shifts to just carving out the best career for ourselves—it becomes less about fixing the problems and more about learning how to ignore them long enough to maybe better our own lives. And so, subtly, we become the exploiters and buy into the system that has corrupted so many.

On that cheery note, I’ll leave you. I’d discuss a bit about the father/son themes and dynamics in this season (mostly concerning the extended Sobotka family), but that stuff is always especially emotional and I’d probably end up crying. Anyway, on to season three! Maybe the third season will show some progress for the moral development of the system itself. One can hope. One can always hope.

Reading Art and the Bible – Pt. 6

During my latest reading of Schaefers “Art and the Bible”, I came across another profound thought for the christian artist. He explains it as the two themes, the major theme, and the minor theme.

The minor theme being the lostness of man, his sin, his near absurdity.

…the minor theme is the abnormality of the revolting volting world. This falls into two parts: (1) Men who have revolted from God and not come back to Christ are eternally lost; they see their meaninglessness in the present and they are right from their own standpoint. point. Neitzsche can say that God is dead and Sartre must follow along, showing that man is dead, and Sartre is right from his own perspective. (2) There is a defeated and sinful side to the Christian’s life. If we are at all honest, we must admit that in this life there is no such thing as totally victorious living. In every one of us there are those things which are sinful and deceiving and, while we may see substantial healing, in this life we do not come to perfection.

The Major theme being the hope of the Gospel.

The major theme is the opposite of the minor; it is the meaningfulness and purposefulness of life. From the Christian viewpoint, this falls into two headings, metaphysics and morals. In the area of metaphysics (of being, of existence, including the existence of every man) God is there, God exists. Therefore, all is not absurd. Furthermore, man is made in God’s image age and so man has significance. With this comes the fact that love, not just sex, exists. True morals, as opposed posed to only conditioning, exist.

He then makes the point that the christian artist should accurately portray both of these themes in their work. Too much emphasis of the minor theme in most cases produces art that isn’t quite true. But he says the for the converse. Too much of the major theme without the minor creates a romanticism.

So, we know that art will always portray at least portions of a worldview, and if that’s true, then the christian’s would, logically, portray these major and minor themes that Schaeffer lined out for us.

Perhaps the issue with Schaeffer’s proposition here is the fact that Christian must always at some point reach the conclusion of the major theme.  This seems true, but… Why doesn’t this apply to other professions? Must christians always at some point show or make explicit the major theme?  A christian should proclaim the gospel, but is it a requirement for them to do so through their work?  Perhaps the artist is a unique profession that requires this sort of arrangement. And Schaeffer even nods at this fact:

A Christian businessman who does not operate on the basis of compassion does not live within the biblical norms of economics, and the Christian artist who only concentrates on the abnormality of the world is likewise not living by the law of love.

Something to think about, for sure.

In my personal life, I find this to be a good guideline.  What am I focusing on today, the destructive fallen world, or God’s grace?

The musings continue. Only a few more pages to the end of the book!

ML Candelario Watches ‘The Wire’ 13 Years Too Late

Over a decade after the show initially aired, I—ML Candelario—have finally started watching The Wire. Though my being behind the times is not news, it does allow me to embark upon what I’ve been told is one of the most amazing rides in television history with a certainty that the plot is going somewhere. The Wire has been called, by several of my personal friends and by many in the wider world, ‘one of the greatest shows of all time’—and I get to sit down and watch it knowing that there is an endgame, that the show is working toward some sensible, poignant conclusion. It’s not going to be another Lost debacle (don’t get me started on why I’m still bitter over that show). Lord knows I’m glad it won’t be another Firefly. Anyway, my plan is simple. I’ll write something like this after finishing each season’s finale. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on The Wire: Season One.

I like to start with the bad stuff, but there isn’t much here that fits that category. Perhaps I’m giving the show too much nostalgia-credit—you know, the leeway we give to shows that are objectively poor in quality and yet somehow subjectively wonderful after a decade or so has passed. Perhaps I’m looking at the early 2000s with rose-colored glasses and allowing certain camera angles and weird lighting to slide by unnoticed. But you know what: I don’t see much here to criticize. And that’s not just because a lot of my friends pressured me into thinking this is the best show ever. Actually, I’m sure my friends would tell you that I’m often contrary—sometimes to a fault. I can certainly tell from the look of the show that it first aired in 2002, but that doesn’t really detract from its beauty. But let me tell you what I loved about this first season.

I come from a middle-class family in eastern North Carolina. I’ve never bought or sold drugs, never killed anyone, never even seen a prostitute in the flesh. What I’m saying is that I have no right whatsoever to judge this show on the accuracy of its depiction of such things. I can’t tell you whether or not it gets the streetlife right, because I’ve never lived the streetlife. But the aspects of the show that I can judge are the quality of its writing, the performances of the actors, and the resonance of its story. Let it be known that I’m writing this at a time when the Baltimore riots/protests have been going on for a couple weeks and in cities all across the USA there are minorities who feel (not without justification, I might add) that their law enforcement and legal proceedings are slanted against them, that their justice system does not reflect their own best interests. In short, I’m watching this show at a time in which the whole nation is feeling the cuts of the kind of institutionalized racism that leads to tragedies like The Wire’s characters’ lives. Like D’Angelo’s mother tells him, if it wasn’t for ‘the game’ (read: selling drugs, killing enemies and snitches, and otherwise profiting off of the vices of others), his family would be living in the projects, looking for scraps. So as I talk about this show, as I watched it, and as I listen to the news reports coming out of Baltimore, I have to ask myself: why is that? And why is it that McNulty—certainly the show’s protagonist despite having that ‘anti-’ prefix attached to his ‘hero’ role—why is it that he chafes so much at the FBI’s willingness to let Avon Barksdale and his lieutenants off easy in exchange for the politicians in league with Barksdale’s organization?

Another word on that. I just watched the season finale, obviously, and one thing I really dig about the way the writers chose to close out the first season is that they show the snake regrowing its head. We think the police have D’Angelo all sewn up—he’s going to give them Stringer Bell and Avon and Wee Bey, they’re all going to do some serious time—but in the end we’re left with Stringer on the outside running the organization (which is, as Avon so succinctly puts it, “not dead”), D’Angelo apparently deciding not to cooperate and thus the one truly relatable criminal character (who I think is McNulty’s true foil, his equal and opposite half, sort of the hero-anti to McNulty’s anti-hero) gets locked up for 20 years while his cousin the kingpin gets a mere seven, and Wee Bey avoiding Death Row by giving up a string of murders that he’s done and thereby closing cases for the homicide unit (and yet one of the murders he cops to is the murder of state’s witness Gant, which means there is going to be some complication in the trial of Bird, who was [rightly] charged with Gant’s murder in the first place). All this is not by accident. It is, I think, the point of the whole season. Look at McNulty at the end of that trial, sitting outside the courtroom where the people he has been tailing for months are finally being sentenced. Does he look happy? No. He slouches. He looks a bit drunk. Dazed. I submit that it is not just because he has been demoted to the Marine Unit. It’s because he realizes that the entire case was pointless. The organization will live on, and though some people are behind bars, others will rise up to replace them. Why? Now, maybe McNulty doesn’t get this, and maybe this part is just my wild political leanings coming into play and has nothing to do with what the writers intended, but I submit that this phenomenon is because McNulty and his unit did not give the case to the Feds. Had they done so, perhaps some of the politicians—the real people at the top—are arrested. Perhaps others become scared that if they take bribes and launder money from drug dealers and crime lords, they too will be arrested. And thus perhaps the system changes and we start making it less profitable for the D’Angelos of the world to fall in line with the Avons. Perhaps.

I’ve hit on this already, but let’s talk about the characters and why they seem so relatable and real. The acting is fantastic, blah blah blah. This is known. But: Is there a single character in this show who isn’t severely flawed—is there a single one who comes off as a paragon of virtue? I don’t think so. Maybe Kima. Maybe. (As I write that, though, I think about how all the other characters have serious flaws and aren’t totally ‘good guys,’ and I think about how much progress we’ve made in the past decade and a half in the treatment of homosexual people, and I hope very much that Kima’s being a lesbian wasn’t supposed to be her ‘flaw,’ but I’ll leave that unexplored). McNulty is obviously anti-heroic. He has his kids tail Stringer Bell—a man who McNulty knows has ordered the deaths of numerous people. He’s an adulterer with no respect for authority—even when respect for authority ought to be warranted. Like, it’s easy to champion McNulty when Rawls is being an asshole. But McNulty is also a complete jerk to people when they’re just trying to do their jobs and advise caution—and it turns out caution might have been warranted, what with Kima’s near-death and all. The Lieutenant apparently committed some embezzling in his old unit and has come into lots of money as a result. Pryzbylewski—just a side note, probably the character with whom I identify more than any other—is a bit unhinged and (I submit) wants to fit in so much that he ends up coldcocking a teenager with his gun and making the kid go blind in one eye, and then is unable to even look the kid in the face afterward. Our two comedic-reliefsters—Herc and Carver—steal money from the unit, Carver is a snitch to the Deputy, and Herc holds his new Sergeant rank above Carver’s head in a way that seems utterly coldhearted and dickish. You have your two old near-pensioners in the beginning, one of whom is an alcoholic and both of whom are trying to scam the system into getting early pension. The one man unanimously identified as ‘good police’ is Lester Freamen, and he seems to start dating or having some kind of ethically immoral relationship with an informant. All of the higher-ups in the show are more concerned with reputation and promotions than they are with solving actual crimes (until a policewoman is shot, and even then they do a hash of the job). What we’ve got from the very beginning of the show is a situation that Lieutenant Daniels explains to Carver in the finale: whatever game the higher-ups show their subordinates, that’s the game those subordinates will play.

Now, I’ve already been talking about this next point I’m about to make. It’s wrapped up in the rest of The Wire—which, side note: this sort of wrapped-up-ness, this convolution in which one topic can’t really be discussed without referencing another topic, is what makes for good television writing; I think the complexity of this story mirrors the complexity of our everyday lives, and yet subtly superimposes a narrative that allows us to retroactively put a narrative on our own lives and thus make sense of our world. Anyway, one thing this show does really well is summed up by Stephen King as an essential rule of writing: KILL YOUR DARLINGS. KILL YOUR DARLINGS. KILL YOUR DARLINGS. I don’t know if the writers were reading George R. R. Martin’s novels back in 2002, but they sure took a page out of his notebook. Kima: shot. Wallace: dead. D’Angelo: locked up for 20 years at the end of the season finale. McNulty: put on Marine Unit duty. I won’t discuss the terrible, awful, no-good, tragic, excruciatingly sad conclusion of the Bubbles storyline. Because I grew to love Bubbles and he became probably my favorite character and he was making all the right choices and it was just bad timing that screwed him over when Kima got shot and dammit why couldn’t you writers have spared just ONE darling for me?

I won’t waste your time anymore with my ramblings. This show is phenomenal and I’m sorry it took me so long to start it. The character development is just astounding. I went from hating Pryzbylewski to feeling sorry for him, to finally identifying with him the most out of all the characters. I went from loving McNulty to feeling ambivalent at best toward him. I went from hating D’Angelo to relating to him, to being proud of him for standing up to his uncle—finally having my heart ripped out when it was revealed that he backpedaled. What I’m saying is… hold onto your butts here, because I’m going to make a really terrible punny-type observation. What I’m saying is that in a show that has black/white relations at its heart, there is not a single character in this who isn’t a variable shade of gray. Everyone is both good and bad, both relatable and hate-able at some point. That’s why the show is good.

Alright, I can hear you laughing as I type this in my livingroom. I know a lot of what I’ve written above will change throughout the show’s duration. For that reason, I won’t be reading or responding to comments here. I want to keep my thoughts my own so that you can get an accurate representation of how I feel after viewing each season.  Stay tuned for Season Two!


Back and Ready

Whew, it’s been a busy couple of weeks. Leading up to closing on a house and moving all of our stuff out of the second story of an apartment and into a 70 year old house was quite the time-suck. I apologize for the lack of content and the seeming laziness. Rest assured. Content is on the way.

I’ve planned out a few drafts on some stand out christian music. There’s a podcast posting in early may and a few other podcast scheduled to record. There will most certainly be a post on film editing and at least two more Art and the Bible posts.

So our calendar is jam-packed and ready to roll-out. Get your bib on, cause the choo-choo train of creative-worship themed blog posts are coming for your mouth…

Reading Art and the Bible Pt. 5 – Forms and Messages (again)

Finally got my nose back into this book. It’s been a crazy few weeks for me, and its been nice to get back into reading about my passions again. Lets take a look at what I’ve read.

Just because something takes the form of a work of art does not mean that it cannot be factual.

Though art in a general sense is subjective, it doesn’t mean that art cannot contain facts.  Let that be clear,

Styles of art form change and there is nothing wrong with this.

Then what about the Christian’s art? Here three things should be stressed. First, Christian art today should be twentieth-century art. Art changes. Language changes. The preacher’s preaching today must be twentieth-century language communication, or there will be an obstacle to being understood. And if a Christian’s art is not twentieth-century art, it is an obstacle to his being heard. It makes him different in a way in which there is no necessity for difference. A Christian should not, therefore, strive to copy Rembrandt or Browning.

…there is no such thing as godly style or ungodly style.

These quotes communicate one of the central ideas of the book. Style is a vehicle. Style can be critiqued, should be critiqued, but one cannot do so under the idea that any style is holier than the other.  Yes and amen.

Schaeffer refers to an example of how ones faith can inform the artists style, though.  T.S. Elliot’s fragmented poetry became less so when he became a christian. He didn’t abandon the style altogether, but his representation of the fragmented modern man had a different spin as a christian, and because of that his style changed slightly. Its amazing and affirming that faith, worldview, can change not just the message of the work, but the style as well. Very cool.

The form in which a world view is given can either weaken or strengthen the content, even if the viewer or reader does not in every case analyze this completely. In other words, depending upon the vehicle you use, something can come across that an audience does not notice and yet will be moving either in the direction of your world view or away from your world view. One must talk at length with the viewer or reader. And as a Christian adopts and adapts various contemporary techniques, he must wrestle with the whole question, looking to the Holy Spirit for help to know when to invent, when to adopt, when to adapt and when to not use a specific style at all. This is something each artist wrestles with for a lifetime, not something he settles once and for all.

The point he makes here is that the form of the art can either make clear or convolute the message of the work. And that the christian should be careful and discerning of what techniques and forms to use in order to be effective.  My thoughts on this are more complicated than a simple agree or disagree.

He is right in that form is an important factor in communication.  Most avant-garde pieces are harder to communicate specifics in their form due to their off-beat and challenging natures.  This is true.  I disagree with the implication behind the statement, and its very weird that he’s said something like this after spending some time in the beginning of the book dispelling this misnomer.  Schaeffer is implying, not only that the message should be at the forefront, which some would disagree with, but he is implying that christians should be putting the christian message at the forefront, which I can assume that the message would be the christian gospel. Now, I’m not necessarily against that by itself, but I’m against it if it is only by itself. Does that make sense?

If all I’m doing as an artist is preaching the gospel through my art, am I an evangelist or an artist? Why not be both? Because the best art communicates emotion and questions rather than telling someone what they should think. So. I think that while the gospel certainly has room within an artists repertoire of communicative messages, it’s not effective if that’s all they are saying.  Show me who you are, artist, not just what you think is true.

So my reaction to Schaeffer’s comment on form is an interesting one, I agree with the words he said, but from the sense I get behind them, I think he’s implying that christians who are artists should be focusing solely on the christian message, which is not good.  There are multiple facets to humanity, why limit what you can say?

The Worship Collective Discusses: Worship Music – What’s the Goal?

Last Post we discussed why we have music in our worship services in the first place.  We concluded that music possess an uncanny ability to draw out and communicate deep human emotion. And by doing so yields the ability to teach and associate thoughts and feelings with the different characteristics of God.

So we have a good foundation. Now lets build our living areas.

What is the goal of worship music? 

Questions to ponder as you read. What is the music trying to achieve? When you attend a worship service, what is the church trying to say/do/promote when they play the music they play? Are all churches striving for the same end? Are all the various styles of music any better than the others in trying to achieve they’re respective goals?

I can’t go further without showing you a fantastic answer I received the other day. I had asked an orthodox friend of mine how he would answer these questions, as I am not as familiar with their liturgies. He provided a statement that his church puts in one of their pamphlets:

“(Our) worship is based on Scripture and the traditions of the
church, and is driven by God’s saving activity through Jesus Christ
in the power of the Holy Spirit. First and foremost, the point of
liturgy is an encounter with God. Everything else, even good things
like learning the Bible, is secondary. Our liturgy is meant to involve
the whole church (not just the pastor or musicians) and to involve the
whole person (body, mind, spirit), because we believe that God saves
all of us (every aspect), and that he saves us together. So the goal
for worship is the full, active, and conscious participation of everyone
present. This can take some time. At times your prayerful participation
will be helped more by following along in this liturgy guide. However,
if you find yourself getting caught up in the performance and
forgetting that it’s prayer, you may find that it helps to put the book
aside and prayerfully listen. There’s no wrong way to engage, so long
as you come with an open heart and an open mind.”

At the forefront of this church is making sure that you are encountering God through their liturgy. The sermons, the reading and response, the music, all of it is there to ensure and encourage an encounter with God.  Isn’t that the point? Isn’t all of creation here to revere God? Our worship is meant to be an offering of respect, reverence, and love for God. This is how we encounter him. Music at a worship service should attempt to encounter God.

It involves the whole church (!), and not just the musicians and pastors.  This is a huge point! The congregation plays a huge part in the worship service. We are a body of believers, not merely individuals. So the music, and the worship service, strives to include everyone in the worship of God. Granted, successfully drawing everyone in and leading them to an encounter with God doesn’t always happen. And that’s okay, I don’t think God depends on us being perfect. But they should strive to. This isn’t about numbers, feelings, showcase, or artistry. First and foremost, we all need to see, hear, and experience God.

Now, think about how incredibly different and unique humankind is. Think about the cultures that differ so greatly from ours.  There isn’t a single way to unify the experience of worship for the entirety of the human race. So trying to find a “one-size-fits-all” approach to worship is a hopeless task.  Cultures, and people groups have different interests, talents, slants, and desires. They need to fit the needs of these peoples.

But even within these gatherings, there are so many unique individuals with different tastes.  Some might find the contemporary worship service lackidasical and distracting, while others within the same congregation finds that this worship is inspiring and beautiful to their ears. Who’s to say they are wrong? How do we solve this problem?

I don’t have a giant solution, but I do think that pastors need to listen to their people. I think that churches should constantly evaluate what they are doing in terms of music and worship as a whole. Is this helping people encounter God? Does this style of music get too familiar? are we going through the motions? Has this become solely about the music?

I think worship leaders and pastors need to be creative in this regard. If the goal is to encounter God, then find what helps do that the best. I’m not one to judge the style of worship service of any particular church, but I can judge whether they have held on to their favorite style rather than what revere God through the music.

All this to say that really, God loves when we worship him, the music style is secondary. Revere him. Encounter him. Love him. Worship him, whatever that looks like. Just be mindful of others. That’s all.

A Poem – Eyelash


I guard your sight with fragility.
Warding off dust and crushed rocks.
Yet you don’t feel me. But you look odd without me.
And to think you don’t think of me
when you rid of me
with your breathe
as I scream
for a continued life as
your beauty-beholding guardian.
How could you?