“The Wire,” again and again

For this week’s VideoReport, I’m suggesting “The Wire,” even if you’ve seen it before… and especially if you’ve seen it twice through.

Watching David Simon’s deservedly legendary HBO series “The Wire” for the first time is a bit like learning to swim: you’re thrown into the complicated worlds of Baltimore’s overtaxed Homicide division, a special unit developed to study drug kingpin Avon Barksdale’s syndicate, and the many members of the syndicate itself. It’s a sprawling cast of characters with dozens of interweaving story lines and realistically complicated relationships, spread out through several separate but intersecting subcultures. The closest we get to a traditional first-episode dramatis personae is a police photo board putting names to faces — but only of a handful of the gang’s street-level soldiers.

Rewatching the first episode last night, I suddenly looked at the elapsed time and thought “We’re more than eight minutes in and we’ve learned one person’s name — the corpse lying in the street” — who never comes up again in the entire series.

After the spoon-feeding that most dramas do to keep viewers up to speed, this reserve is a bit jolting, but “The Wire” demands your attention and then utterly, completely rewards you for it.

That’s the first time through. The second time through, you know the characters and the story arcs. The second viewing, like the second reading of a great novel, allows you to fully immerse yourself in the characters’ arcs. This time, you know who they are, where they came from, and — devastatingly, in many cases — where they’re going.

Now that you’re not struggling to follow the complex stories, the show’s greater theme of institutional decay becomes strikingly clear at every turn, even in the first few episodes. The D.A.’s office with its staggering stacks of paperwork on every desk, lining the walls, and precariously propped on office chairs: that’s not just set-dressing for an overworked office but a symbol of a legal system smothering under its own weight.

The parallels between cops and robbers become strikingly clear. When a hand-to-hand drug dealer commands a crowd of waiting junkies “You all know what this is! Up against the wall!,” it’s not hard to imagine why he chose those precise words. When a surveillance van drives off having given up on finding the dealers’ stash, the camera shifts to the van of the rival criminal crew (as yet unnamed, of course) who watched longer and smarter than the cops.

Again, like a great novel, the third time through, even greater resonances and symbols emerge. To pick just one example, let’s look at Detective Thomas “Herc” Hauk. At first, Herc seems as dumb and as dangerous as an untrained and neglected dog, but as the series develops, he is the very embodiment of the institutional decay and socio-political resentment that obstructs true and meaningful changes.

Lazy, abusive, shiftless, untrustworthy, and almost hopelessly naive, Herc nonetheless believes his initial stagnation in the ranks is the consequence of affirmative action or favoritism, not of his own woefully poor police work. Herc routinely and offhandedly refers to his whiteness as a mark of some obscure authority: with his (black) partner in a pointless argument about which of them is Batman and which is Robin; with a citizen while phonebanking for a (black) mayoral candidate; when griping about instructions given to him by more adept and experienced (black) fellow detective Kima Greggs. His simmering racial resentment only fuels his apathy for police work; Herc cuts more and more corners as the show proceeds.

But, dumb and destructive as he is, Herc is a constant unwitting catalyst, both for his colleagues and for those outside the police force. [SPOILERS] It’s astounding how many major events in the universe of “The Wire” are precipitated by some fool thing Herc says or does*. To list just a few: Prez beating a teenager, the identification of the elusive Avon Barksdale, linking the dock workers to the drug trade, Carver’s life-altering introduction to Major Colvin, the dissolution of Hamsterdam (and the end of Bunny Colvin’s largely productive police career), the release of Marlo Stansfield, and — most heartbreakingly — innocent Randy Wagstaff loosing his stable home and enduring daily beatings as a snitch. Herc is like a force of nature, a tornado, moving heedlessly through the landscape with destruction trailing behind him, blissfully unaware of the miseries he visits upon those in his wake.

Perhaps the answer to the riddle of both Herc’s destructive nature and his personal success lies in his utter lack of integrity. Most of the characters on the series, cops and criminals both, struggle to align their personal morality with the strictures of their institutions. As Omar points out so poignantly, “A man got to have a code.” All the players recognize that their wins and losses occur within those strictures, that they are, in some greater sense, a consequence of the system. “The game is the game.” Even when Bodie concedes that “the game is rigged, man” that he’ll do “what I have to,” he adds a principled caveat: “just don’t ask me to live on my knees.”

But Herc has no code, no guiding principle, no sense of a greater system, no passion or ambition other than bettering his own circumstances. Herc will live on his knees if it means living comfortably. We see him switch alliances, insincerely fawning over different leaders, over and over: from unit to unit, commander to commander, candidate to candidate, even switching from cops to robbers by taking a job with Levy (the lawyer representing Barksdale, thus working against his former units’ interests), and finally (though briefly) betraying Levy to his former partner only to accept Levy’s fraternal embrace at the end. Levy’s no fool; despite his words, he probably knows that Herc is no one’s mishpocha. Herc’s only loyalty is to Herc.

*For more on Herc’s centrality to the events of the series, read The Life and Times of Fuzzy Dunlop.

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