Digital Polyphony

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The Wire: A Look Back (Pt 1)

Posted on July 26, 2011 at 12:09 AM

The Wire: A Look Back (Pt 1)

A game of morals in the world of crime and law, rights and wrong. As it turns out this epic, five seasons of Greek tragedies is one of the best shows in the history of television – a morality play that not only tells a story of depth and intrigue, systematic and methodical in its execution like few television programs can be, but actually has something to day along with it. You know, that whole "big picture" aspect of some stories, only here it's with less fanfare and, as a result, that much more impactful. For five seasons we get insight into a world of conflict, compromises, and how there’s no clear “good” in the world, just a few things better than always being “bad.” A detective might be a great detective, work cases like no other, but at home he’s a complete bastard. A drug dealer might be slinging heroin for money, but he gives it to people in need and tries to teach them the ways of the street so they don’t get killed.

Nothing is clearly black and white in The Wire, especially when it comes to the structure our society which the show is primarily built around. Yes, it has plots about drugs and smuggling, schools and homeless, but those are used as elements of the “big picture” of our society as a whole and how the city of Baltimore is a living-breathing wasteland of depravity – not because there’s so many bad things in one place, but because those that see it can’t dig themselves out of that whole. Compromises, corruption and back-alley dealings are abound as a result and it's all written in a language that, at times, you'll think is taken from a documentary of behind the scenes police investigations or a camera crew filming in the ghetto - the language of the street has never been this realistic outside of that.

Bunk and McNulty, the crew on the right.

Through this trek of drug lords, corruption and the complete bastardizing of the mythological “American dream” form all angles, we come to learn of the people most intimate with it. The major players, the factions, and the sides we learn about we end up realizing aren’t that different from each other. It’s all in a melting pot, only some hide behind badges and others hide behind guns and money. To get to know The Wire, you need to get to know The Characters, best found here. It’s, at heart, a human drama with a large commentary on our world...and no other show has reached its dramatic heights.

For the next three days I’ll be writing up a blog with my thoughts on each season, starting today with Season One, tomorrow with Season 2 and 3, then Thursday with Season 4 and 5. To discuss the wire, we have to kind of weave our way through each one as they progress and I'll enter my thoughts as we move along, so consider this both a summary of the seasons (basic, I know), an intro to the world and the reasons why I found this to be, quite possibly, the best show in the history of television.

The Wire

Season 1:

(In which we meet the characters we’ll come to know for the next five seasons, get into the drug game and learn about wiretapping and heavy drinking)

It comes down to the good guys versus the bad guys. If you approach The Wire like that, even though there are a hundred shades of gray and blurred lines all over, you an at least keep track of everything that’s happening. Categorizing is a must. Here we have two sides that we’ll come to know for the next five seasons: the police department (especially the Major Crimes Unit) and the drug dealers/criminals of poverty-stricken urban youth.

And, and Omar Little, one of the best characters in the history of television, but we’ll get to him in a minute.

Within those two groups, you have your sub-groups, I wish I could find a...oh here’s one:

Not quite a venn diagram but you get the point.

On the “bad” side you have your crews, here being Barksdale (based on the real Barksdale crew in Baltimore), headed by Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell with D'Angelo Barksdale being this very unique, likeable character you aren't supposed to like. he Wire does that a lot, you like those you aren't supposed to, dislike those you are supposed to. It loves playing with your emotions..Stringer and Avon are pretty straightforward, Stringer certainly being the most intelligent of the bunch and Avon being your typical "street" dealer, often conflicting with Stringer on many things (and more to come in future seasons).T Other drug crews such as Prop Joe’s, The Greek (drugs and smuggling) and Stanfield Crew will come up in the upcoming seasons, but here, it’s mainly just Barksdale...and Omar.

Yes, Omar Little. He’s the wild card of the “bad” side. He owes allegiances to nobody. He is a stick-up man. If you have drugs or money, he’ll look to take them from you. He’s not a “Robin Hood” type, mind you. He’s completely in it for himself and his few cohorts that help him out on occasion. He’s methodical. He’ll stalk for weeks and make a plan, usually executing it to perfection. He’s intelligent, far smarter than a kid from the streets can be assumed to be.

Oh, and he’s gay. They handle that subtly, though. It’s not a major plot point or story issue. He simply is, now move on with it.

Omar is as complex of a character as you could ever ask for in a show. There’s a lot of them in this series, but Omar Little has one of the best realized character arcs and unique personalities (cocky, but sincere) that never got enough credit when the show was on. Yes, Michael Kenneth Williams did not receive a single nomination. Hell, even the show only was nominated for an Emmy twice during it’s four seasons. That’s odd, isn’t it? One of the most critically acclaimed shows was barely even recognized. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say.

What do Stringer Bell, D'Angelo Barksdale and Omar Little have in common? By Season Five you'll find out.

Then you have this guy:


This guy.... This fucking guy is Senator Clay Davis. His story stretches for five seasons, and he's just a corrupt political asshole that you can only pray is brought down. You will come to loathe him, but he did offer us some of the best and most notorious moments of the series.

Anyways, those are the "bad" for this season, but most will continue for seasons to come and its a category that will grow and grow with even more people.

On to the good guys. None are really above the other, but Jimmy McNulty is a pretty big player for the main lead here, just as Avon and Stringer on the other side. He’s an alcoholic, womanizer, just a bad guy all around...but he’s a damn good detective – especially when it comes to playing “The Game” (often referenced) on the streets with the Major Crime Unit. He’s overseen by Cedric Daniels, played by the great character actor Lance Reddick. Other Unit members are Kima Greggs, Ellis Carver, “Herc,” Bunk Moreland (Jimmy’s best friend for most of the show) and my second favorite character in the series, Lester Freamon.

The intellectual Lester Freamon, cigar chomping Bunk Moreland and Irish-alcoholic Jimmy McNulty. You not only buy them as off-duty friends...even when that friendship is strained.

Daniels is, as the above grid shows, the flat-out, morally good character. There is no question, and here you need a guy like that for a baseline. You need your Marlo or Avon on one side and your Cedric Daniels on the other. What's great about him, though, is he discovers that you can't get anywhere with just being morally good all the time. Bunk Moreland is a bit of the comedic character, but not "ha ha, telling jokes' kind of funny. It's how he carries himself, usually smoking a cigar and drinking a few shots. It's his interactions, especially with McNulty, that make him a great character, and by Season Four he really comes into his own. Herc and Carver are your street guys, though they grow immensely in the upcoming seasons with Herc pretty much taking sides on who is the winner and Carver rising the ranks to Sergeant and Lieutenant by Season Five.  Kima is interesting. Her story is less on the police side and, like McNulty, more the personal side. She's a lesbian and has a child, an interesting story to explore.

Then you have my man Lester. I love Lester. He's easily the smartest guy in the room and everyone knows it, but he can be damn funny (especially when with Bunk and McNulty) when he wants to be. He knows how to con a person to and is the most well-spoken of anyone in the unit. I quickly became a fan of Clarke Peters as a result of this show, so that means I need to get to watching Treme eventually.

Carver, Daniels and Kima - three people who  you never have to question.

Like the “bad” side, there’s also a constant “gray area” character on the “good” side as well. The bad has Omar, The good have Bubbles – a drug addict/criminal informant who, like Omar, has a hell of a character arc for five seasons. You’ll come to both love and hate Bubbles, but he means well in the long run. At this point, and for season two or so, he's pretty much just the lowly, heroin-addict CI, but his character really starts to grow down the road and we'll talk more about him then - Season Four in particular.

Alright, there’s your two sides and most of those characters you’ll see for the next five seasons. They’re not always going to be together, especially when Homicide duty comes calling (or demotions) but the stories still stay with them even if they’re not working together. There are dozens of supporting characters as well. Asst State Attorney Lovejoy, the jackass-commander Rawls, Dozerman, Marlo Standfield (who, as mentioned, becomes a major player by Season 4), Prez (ditto, a strong season for him later on) Bodie, etc...

The creators, from left: writers and producers Ed Burns and David Simon and George Pelecanos, detective, journalists respectively. Creative control on this level is rare.

Season One is pretty straightforward in terms of story than the seasons to follow. Considering you’re introducing so many factions and characters, that’s a good thing. It really is the Major Crime Unit wiretapping and looking to bring down the Barksdale organization with not much else. It details the various aspects and the lengths police work will go (and sometimes its depths) and the end of the long hard day the unit simply pissed off the wrong people: their superiors. Welcome to bureaucracy at its finest and the result is the entire unit disassembled at the end despite a confession, a few of Barksdale's people in jail (D'Angelo and Avon) and Stringer a free man still running the show: they ended up exactly where they began. It spends far more time bring out out these characters, especially McNulty, Stringer, Avon, Omar and Bubbles, but all of them are some of the most realized, wonderfully acted personas I’ve seen in a television show.

It doesn’t shy away from anything. This isn’t some watered-down look into criminals versus police. It’s there, on the streets, shot on location, utilizing a lot of non-actors and actual gang members and is taken from the experiences of David Simon (a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun) and Ed Burns (A former Baltimore homicide detective). The level of authenticity, and intimacy into the lives of these people, is second to none when it comes to television. Sorry, I’m a fan of other shows as well, and there’s some damn fighting writing out there in the likes of Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos and The Shield (all of which I love), but the stark candidness and outright brutal honesty found here is something I haven’t seen in a single other show.  

More importantly is the consistency, starting here with Season One. This isn’t a show you can just pick up and watch, you have to understand where everyone starts from to know where it’s going (and appreciate how it ends). Everything feels intentional and written with purpose for five straight seasons, characters and plots have a clear beginning middle and end and the quality of certain characters makes you forget they’re just actors playing a role, but are uniquely realized on paper and in performance. It’s a great, introductory season, and the seasons to follow are going to build even more on top of it, ask even harder questions and throw a surprise twist here and there along with it.


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1 Comment

Reply Kim Scarborough
3:43 AM on August 28, 2014 
No way Omar is a Chaotic. He's the one always going on about how "the game" is played, and has strict ideas of what is and is not kosher according to the laws of "the game" (killing his partner, acceptable; desecrating the body, unacceptable; killing someone not in the game, unacceptable; snitching, unacceptable unless a punishment for a previous "game" violation). I would put Omar as the Lawful Neutral.

Daniels can't be the Lawful Good because he has that never-specified dirty history in the East District. If you think about it, Kima is the only one on the show who never does anything corrupt. She won't identify the shooter that Bunk fat-fingers, and she drops the dime on McNulty. She's the Lawful Good.