Down to The Wire

(Deanna Staffo)

The fate of The Wire may be decided this week. As of press time, David Simon, the co-creator and co-producer of the Baltimore-based HBO series, was scheduled to meet with HBO to discuss the show, which has yet to be renewed for a fourth season. And ever since a Dec. 15 New York Daily News story disclosed that the series hadn't been renewed, message boards, the blogosphere, and even the local film community have been firing off speculations about what's going on and why.


Now, we’ve extensively discussed in these pages what makes The Wire such an interesting experience. We’ve defended the show against charges that it’s a negative portrayal of Baltimore. We’ve touched upon on the thin lines between fact and fiction in the third season’s political players. And we’ve all read about the estimated $35 million the local economy could lose if the show was canceled. So we’re leaving the discussion of what considerations may have gone into renewing or not—costs, lower ratings, a changing climate at HBO, etc.—to the daily trades.

Instead, we’re coming correct and allying ourselves with the fans—the inspired people behind such web sites as RIPStringerBell.com and the online petition to keep the show on the air (www.petitiononline.com/wire4th/petition.html)—who don’t want to see the drug-trade game and its dance with law enforcement, city hall, and the city writ large go away. We don’t want to see The Wire go dead.


1) “Bring me a Shrek 2 slushie and some Krispy Kreme.” —Squeak

The characters are the most instantly and constantly gratifying aspect of The Wire, and over all three seasons its writers cared enough about everybody who utters a line to invest each with a personality that sounds more reported than written. Squeak is a minor character in the third season, a woman who junky/criminal informant Bubbles works through to sell bugged cell phones to lieutenants in the Avon Barksdale drug crew. And yet in her few scenes, The Wire doesn’t turn her into a mere plot-point pawn; you get to know her. She’s loud, controlling, and more than a little domineering. And when the cops do pick her up with her boyfriend and she barks at him, “You got to be the dumbest motherfucker I done ever gone out with,” and he fires back, “I can’t wait to go to jail,” you’ve digested an intimate portrait of a relationship in less than five minutes of screen time. Such detailed attention is lavished on every character, no matter how seemingly trivial, because in The Wire you never know what the next episode will unfold. (Bret McCabe)


2) “Game’s still the game, just got more fierce.” —Slim Charles

On its surface The Wire is a cop show, the most stereotype-ridden of TV genres, yet nowhere in The Wire do stereotypes exist. There are no good guys and bad guys, merely men and women who work on opposites sides of the socially acceptable. The Wire treats both as people caught up in the same racial, class, and political tensions that afflict any American, and dramatizes them in manners that feel natural. It’s why you’re not surprised that African-American detective Lester Freamon knows the words to the Pogues’ “Body of an American” when it’s played at a cop wake in an Irish bar. It’s why the ribbing Avon gives Stringer Bell for wanting to rub out state Sen. Clay Davis stings with the poison of friendship. “You gone need some Day of the Jackal motherfucker for that,” Avon cracks.

Slim Charles emerged in season three at first as only Avon’s go-to muscle, a guy who’d been in the game long enough to know how to survive. Over the course of the season, though, glimpses of what survival has taught Slim Charles come in nuggets of slang aphorism, culminating in four sentences that encapsulate the whole season. A series of turf skirmishes pitted Avon in an escalating battle with rising young drug lord Marlo Stanfield. And just as Avon falters about whether going after Marlo is worth it, Slim Charles offers clarity: “It don’t matter who did what to whom. Fact is, we went to war and now there ain’t no going back. If it’s a lie, then we fight on the lie. But we gotta fight.” These lines ripple out into the drug war as a whole, tidily espousing a street wisdom that’s as morally complex and pragmatically applicable as any philosophy. (BM)


3) “I keeps one in the chamber, in case you pondering.” —Omar

No one character better understands this street philosophy than Omar, arguably the show’s single greatest achievement. Omar is a same-sex-loving, shotgun-toting free agent who robs drug dealers of their cash and stash. He’s fearless yet tender. He could be as viciously cold-blooded as any thug, yet he’s the show’s most constantly hilarious presence. He is as scary a human being as ever depicted on television, and yet he is one of the only characters who never has a doubt about right and wrong. Omar and his unlikely running mate in season three—Brother Mouzone, the Harper’s-reading Muslim hit man whom Omar dubs “Bowtie”—always cut through the double-talk as assuredly as they pull triggers. During cross-examination in Bird’s season two trial, Omar calmly equates his living off the drug trade with what lawyer Maury Levy does for the Barksdale crew. “I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase,” he says, stating in plain English one of the series’ overarching themes: that everybody involved in drug crime is complicit in its decimation of the city. (BM)


4) “Not my seat. Not in this town.” —Mayor Clarence V. Royce

The new wrinkle season three added to this theme was city hall. And politics is rarely portrayed with the claustrophobic, behind-closed-door intimacy that The Wire achieved. What may look like police brass, city council members, political consultants, and the mayor’s office acting like self-centered careerists—Western District commander Bunny Colvin implementing his own quasi-legalized drug area called “Hamsterdam”; ambitious white City Councilman Thomas Carcetti considering a run against incumbent African-American Mayor Clarence Royce; Royce and his aides meeting with consultants about whether they could successfully sell Hamsterdam to the public—is politics in action. It’s a group of people making decisions, and wondering how they may come across to voters. In treating politics with the same sober bluntness as police work and pushing packets, The Wirecasts it as the same sort of stilted institution, where the only explanation needed to justify a decision is, “It’s just business.” It’s just how things are done. (BM)


5) “Get on with it, motherfuckers.” —Stringer Bell

The murder of Stringer Bell at the hands of Omar and Brother Mouzone was season three’s most arresting moment, an event that brought almost every plot line to a violent, jarring boil. Stringer was Avon’s lifelong capo, a running buddy since they were young, a socially ambitious mind who took economics classes at community college. He was moving away from how Avon wanted to do business, but Avon was the first to act, giving Stringer up to Omar and Bowtie.

Attentive viewers probably noticed that that Stringer’s above last words are almost exactly what Colvin says right before Deputy Commissioner William Rawls relieves him of his duty as the fall guy for Hamsterdam’s eventual media fiasco. No matter how long you’ve been in the game or how hard you work your job, in the end, everybody is expendable. (BM)


6) “Thirteen years—and four months.” —Det. Lester Freamon

The comic, human gerbil wheel called work has rarely been dramatized as thoroughly as onThe Wire. From the glacial bureaucracy of policing and prosecuting, to season two’s struggling-to-survive union men, to the middle managers and runners in the drug trade, work is the inescapable weight that everyone carries. Barksdale front-liners Bodie and Poot can’t win for losing, getting reamed every time they make a decision and twice as hard when they don’t. Headstrong detective Jimmy McNulty is practically Willy Loman with a badge, a guy who scalds himself more and more the harder he tries to do his job—even though when he’s not being an asshole he’s pretty damned good at being real police.

His co-worker Freamon is the man who has found a balance between his work life and his private self, an equilibrium that came at a price. Freamon languished for 13 years—and four months—in the Kafkaesque hell of the department’s pawn-shop unit before he was finally transferred in Lt. Cedric Daniels’ investigative unit. And it’s Freamon who tries to slap some verbal sense into McNulty whenever the young detective lets his impatient heart get in front of his head. “A life, Jimmy, you know what that is?” Freamon asks. “It’s the shit that happens while you’re waiting for moments that never come.” In the Wire’s world, this is the attitude of the truly dependable and competent in the American work force. (BM)


7) “ . . . and then he dropped the bracelets.” —Det. Shakima “Kima” Greggs

That being said, no cop show in recent memory has dared present the painstakingly tedious legwork that goes into major police cases, much less so sincerely portrayed those cops who take a shoulder-wide pride in doing their thankless job well. The “real police” on The Wireare flawed humans who genuinely love being cops. Policing is not about putting dope on the table and making a good show in the newspaper. It’s sitting in cars all night, filing paperwork, gathering evidence, and following through in court to see your time pay off. And then starting all over again. And detective Greggs’ first-season rookie remembrance of chasing down a perp and getting that first rush of doing her job well remains one of the most understated and moving stories of self-respect ever to hit the small screen. (BM)


8) “Makes me sick, motherfucker, how far we done fell.”—Det. William “Bunk” Moreland

If Omar is The Wire’s conflicted moral compass, Bunk Moreland is the last sane man in its insane world. Sure, he drinks too much (Bunk and McNulty’s epic drinking sessions are the show’s lone running gag), cheats on his wife, and tosses off ribald comments that would probably earn him a sexual harassment charge in any workplace outside the Homicide unit. But you get the impression that given what his job entails such are the trifles that keep him from losing his mind.

Season one subtly established the Bunk-Omar relationship as the axis around which The Wire spins. During an interview at police headquarters, Omar informs Bunk how he got started, quickly clarifying that “I ain’t never put my gun on nobody that wasn’t in the game.” Bunk replies, “A man must have a code.” Turns out Omar came out of the same neighborhood as Bunk, a few years behind him at the same high school.

This diverging tale of two local boys comes to a seething head in season three, when Bunk tracks Omar down about a street shooting Bunk knows Omar was involved in yet can’t prove, and he focuses his frustrations into a monologue that cuts through Omar like a blade: “Rough as that neighborhood could be, we had us a community. Wasn’t nobody, no victim, who didn’t matter. Now all we got is bodies, and predatory motherfuckers like you.” (BM)


9) “This is me, yo, right here.” —Wallace

Just as Stringer Bell’s murder galvanized season three, the first-season murder of the teenage, entry-level drug soldier Wallace by his so-called friends knocked the wind right out of your lungs. It was a jolting turn demonstrating that after all the bureaucratic red tape cops go through to make cases against drug criminals, after all the codes, slang, and strategies that dealers orchestrate to maintain their business, at the end of the day the gains and losses are numbered in the dead bodies of young black men. The Wire merely came out and showed how the brutal murder of one young black man is a soul-flattening blow. It didn’t climb up on soapbox to do it. It didn’t beat you over the head with it. It simply had two young black men shoot another young black man at close range without telling you how to feel about it. Storytelling this unabashedly honest is too good to be called television. Of course, it’s not. (BM)


10) It’s Not TV. It’s HBO.

Reviewers have called The Wire “Dickensian.” Broadcast literature, if you will. A demanding, challenging, compelling show—adjectives that ring like nails sinking into a coffin. How many people will sit, riveted, for an unbroken hour in front of their light-boxes, trying not to miss essential twists and commentaries? The Wire requires undivided attention, no commercials, and no talking, not even whispering, when it’s on. So viewership fell. But on-demand cable subscribers, a growing sector of viewers, can save, play, and pause episodes to fit their attention spans. The money is out there, somewhere—and a show this good must find it and die a natural, literary death. (Van Smith)

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