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!