A Little Something You Can Touch: HBO’s Wire and the Politics of Visual Media

(x-posted to The Valve)

Spend some on a little something you can touch. A new car, a new coat…it’s why we get up in the morning.
-The Greek

You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.

Talking about The Wire, which most of the people I know do twice per day, is like repeating a mantra: Season 1 is the police station. Season 2 is the docks. Season 3 is the streets (or, more inaccurately, “politics”). Season 4 is public schools. Season 5 is the press — I haven’t even seen Season 5, but I must’ve heard that six times already. People talk about each season as though they were separate reports from the President’s Council: “Have you started Season 5 yet? Wait, you didn’t see Season 2?” The show’s schematic design encourages people to talk about it in ways usually reserved for non-fiction, with an emphasis on its structural critiques of one poorer-than-average city (Baltimore), and maybe a comment in passing about the show’s brilliant detective/fuck-up in residence, McNulty.

Yes, McNulty’s no angel, but the terms of the discussion are themselves interesting and relevant to the perspective of the show’s writers. The Wire, unlike (for example) The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, is a show written almost entirely from outside the consciousness of its characters. Whereas, in the case of Tony Soprano or Claire Fisher, we felt their highs and lows, inhabited their dreams, and saw how their psychic lives bled into reality, The Wire keeps its distance from the cast, and does a good job of representing the systems that contain them. This (not the pseudo-philosophy of Ayn Rand) ought properly to be called the new objectivism, and it is a sign of the increasing dominance of visual representation (e.g. the television serial) as well as of a certain form of functionalist liberalism. I’d expect nothing less of a show whose very title substitutes media for persons, and I’m not critical of The Wire per se — rather, I think of the show as one of the best versions of a paradigm that should not be allowed to foreclose other ways of seeing.


First of all, The Wire did not exactly invent the drama of the insubordinate detective who bucks the front office to catch crooks. I’m reminded of the brilliant Dirty Harry parody in The Simpsons:

Chief: You busted up that crack house pretty bad, McGonigle. Did you really have to break so much furniture?
McGonigle: You tell me, Chief. You had a pretty good view from behind your desk.
Homer: Ah, McGonigle: eases the pain.
Chief: You’re off the case, McGonigle!
McGonigle: You’re off your case, Chief!
Chief: What does that mean exactly?
Homer: (yelling) It means he gets results, you stupid chief!
Lisa: Dad, sit down.
Homer: Oh, I’m sorry.

The dynamic goes all the way back to the formative years of noir, which has two particularly interesting features as a genre. First of all, from pretty early on, it had a very cozy relationship with film and television. Works by James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Carver, and Mickey Spillane (among others) were adapted brilliantly for the screen. Film noir directors like Alfred Hitchcock worked with both film and television, and characters like Mike Hammer were used for both. Noir writing was heavily influenced by Ernest Hemingway’s journalistic prose, and emphasized action and things in precise, staccato sentences. It came of age during Hollywood’s Golden Age, and in fact in noir novels one can watch two things begin to fuse: the vicarious gaze of visual media, and a journalistic insistence on unvarnished facts.

Noir was also a genre filled with sins and dark lusts: crime, drugs, deviant sexuality, and whole ensembles of morally gray Machiavellis. It indulged our appetites but retained an antiseptic distance, suggesting more than it showed. The noir hero makes sense of this purgatorial darkness by accepting man’s sinful nature for what it is, and also by martyring himself through a pantomime of corruption. He drinks without getting drunk, kisses almost without changing his expression. He sinks to the depths, and yet the depths do not claim him; he is not aloof, but he does not succumb. He is, in fact, the personification of the camera, and a familiarly American notion of original sin grounds all the “facts” the narrating eye fearlessly reveals.

The best example of how the noir genre then transforms into a politics comes during the third season, when The Wire broaches the subject of legalizing drugs. A renegade major establishes “free zones” in three places in Western Baltimore, enabling drug addicts to purchase and use drugs without interference. The show’s perspective on this is pretty much in line with all the sound arguments for legalizing drugs: violent crime goes down, and some public health outreach becomes possible that would have been impossible before. While the mayor is debating whether he can sell the free zones to the public and the Feds, an aspiring candidate for mayor gets hold of the news and blows the whistle.

So far, so good. Somewhere, in the back of it all, you can hear David Simon saying “If you’d seen what I’ve seen, you’d favor legalization too,” and I agree with him. That said, after watching the show for three seasons, it begins to dawn on you that you have no idea what’s drawing people to the free zones. You’ve seen the character Bubbles getting high maybe a dozen times, then nodding off — cut. You see McNulty and Bunk drinking Jameson until they fall down on the train tracks, and cut. You see the newly hired soldier in Barksdale’s army walking into the room with a prostitute, and cut.

It is critical to see how up-to-the-minute this strange marriage of invasiveness and incuriosity really is. On the one hand, we know everything the characters are doing — my point is certainly not that the show ought to be more vicarious. The show is called The Wire, after all, and despite being filmed during the heyday of the Patriot Act, the show never has the slightest twinge of guilt about any form of surveillance, including wiretaps obtained specifically by manipulating anti-terrorist statutes to aid an ongoing drug investigation. On the other hand, we only rarely understand why a character indulges in the vices that drive the show, just as it is presently fashionable to be frustrated and impatient with other causal theories of human behavior, such as psychoanalysis.

The synchronicity of journalistic objectivity, visual representation, and the privileging of plot (representation of action) over representations of consciousness ultimately produces functionalism: people are what they do, and they do what they do. If that sounds like circular reasoning, well, it is, just like Avon’s “No Marlo, no game.” “If people are going to do drugs, they might as well be able to do it safely without spreading disease or swamping the criminal justice system.” That’s true, but it’s possibly not as trenchant as Trainspotting, which begins and ends with a snarling (and famous) indictment of the alternative:

Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed- interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing sprit- crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing you last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else.

At many points, The Wire can’t improve on a paternalistic version of laissez-faire: why can’t the drug trade exist in harmony with the world, like other trades? The pushers sell, the users indulge, and McNulty’s there listening in case things get out of hand. Whereas in The Sopranos, it was understood that the Jersey gangsters were a microcosm for capitalism, and the toll, the proverbial “cut” taken out of every life, was very heavy.

Arguably, The Wire is better as a narrative than The Sopranos, and it is much better than Six Feet Under. The plotting in Six Feet Under was horrible: a subplot about a missing woman that dragged on forever, pointlessly complicated medical drama, multiple drug-induced revelations, and petty (and ultimately boring) villainy. Furthermore, the show indulged a kind of histrionic American WASP self-concern in which nothing beyond the personal appeared to have any existence at all. That said, Claire Fisher’s gradual development into an artist was a credible version of a wayward and often invisible process of individuation. In her case, at least, something came of all that chaotic and destructive desire, in a process that involved both her and us in wrestling with interiority. When visual media have to do this, it tends to jam the narrative machine. Transpotting resorts to the voice-over. Both The Sopranos and Six Feet Under employed talky dream sequences and quoted extensively from Yeats, Wordsworth, and the Bhagavad Gita. It was often insufferable, though other directors like David Lynch can make the awkwardness charming. I’m ready to admit that The Wire may be more perfect for its medium simply because it doesn’t play around nervously and ironically with sermons taken from religious and literary texts.

I’ll end with two characters from The Wire‘s second season: Frank Sobotka and Ziggy. If McNulty symbolically martyrs himself on his debauches, Frank literally martyrs himself. He works himself to the bone, up to and including getting involved with every sort of illegal trading, in order to keep the docks he represents alive. He processes a huge amount of dirty cash but sees none of it, passing everything along to his men. He is a creature of such integrity that he actually worries his associate, a criminal boss known as The Greek. Meanwhile, every thing Frank tries to do is undone by Ziggy, his son, who goes even further into crime and then spends the money on fancy jackets and a duck with a diamond-studded collar. When Frank confronts Ziggy about his risky behavior, Ziggy gives a rather pathetic response about the decline of Baltimore’s industries. He’s sad that things aren’t how they used to be, and that’s why he goes into the union bar and sets fire to a hundred dollars. It’s a joke of a causal explanation, and yet Ziggy sees the hopelessness of the situation feelingly, in a way Frank cannot. Instead Frank just keeps going, trying to make it all cohere, until he winds up dead.

We have had a great deal of mysterious badness lately, within and without: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell describes Anton Chigurh as a “ghost” in No Country for Old Men. In the same film, another character says, “Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming.” Whether it’s the dry Texas plains or the Baltimore projects, the people who move across these places are ghosts to us: we see them, but we don’t know who they are. What makes Avon Barksdale turn out so differently from Stringer Bell? Why is Greggs driven down the same path as McNulty? What makes an Omar, a Landsman, a Royce?

I won’t ever know the answer. I’ll have to talk about bureaucracies, and I’ll have to ask people which seasons they’ve seen. But Ziggy? Alas, poor Ziggy! I knew him, readers.