The Wire is, as many folks will tell you, the greatest show in the history of television. I’m obsessed, as are many. And so, in the history of great obsessives, I’ve decided to give myself an excuse to indulge my almost unhealthy need to watch the whole darn series one more time, glorious start to slightly underwhelming (but possibly underrated finish). The deal I’ve made with myself is simple: blog about it. And so, starting today and carrying out for a good long foreseeable future, I’ll be posting compilations (of the roughly one thousand word variety) of my thoughts on each and every episode. I will primarily approach things from the writing angle, but anything goes.
You should probably have seen the show before you read further. I’ll be sensitive about spoilers, but the intended audience here is those who’ve put in time with the series already.
The Wire S1E1
“…when it’s not your turn.”
For me, it starts with Snot Boogie. The Snot Boogie story is one of the few moments in The Wire that doesn’t directly connect to the McNulty/Barksdale narrative, but it immediately and effectively sets the show’s tone. The anecdote itself is both funny and, when you really look at It, incredibly hopeless and sad; Snot robs the same craps game every Friday night, because really, what else is there to do? The kicker, of course, is the final line of the opener: “Got to. This is America.” You’ve got the whole series summed up right there: there are established ways of doing things in this country, and even when what’s happening is clearly insane and easily to remedy (don’t let Snot get in the game), things get done the way they’ve always been done because things always get done the way they’ve always been done.
A lot of people talk about needing a few episodes to get into the show. In theory, I get that. If you’re expecting to know exactly who all the characters are and how they fit together immediately, you’re out of luck — although really, you see everything you need to know about most characters within their first scenes: Stringer is cool and quiet in the court, able to identify McNulty as the detective from a previous case, entirely unafraid of him, all about his business; Herc and Carver are fuck-ups, but where Carver respects Kima and wants to learn how to be a good cop, Herc just wants to bust heads. Either way, the very minutes of the first episode establish this as, at the very least, an incredibly detailed and inside cop show with characters that we simply haven’t seen before. The problem, for many, is that absolutely nothing gets resolved in this episode – we don’t even know that special detail is going to end up being the heart of the entire endeavor. Still, through the first twenty minutes or so of episode one, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re just watching a well-written cop show. (Admittedly, I was a fan of Homicide and Oz before diving in here, so maybe I was a bit more well-prepared for what I was getting myself into.)
Then it all changes. We’re cruising right along, watching McNulty stumble into the start of what will turn out to be the investigation of his career (in every possible way), and suddenly we’re in a luxury SUV, watching D’Angelo run off at the mouth, instantly proving he’s got no head for the game, especially in comparison to Wee-Bey, the ultimate soldier. We learn the rules: don’t talk in the car, don’t talk anyplace that isn’t Barskdale-run – these criminals are already anticipating exactly what the cops want to do, which is get them on tape and bring them all in. It’s a different show than we’ve seen before, and you can see that right here; there are smart cops, smart criminals, dumb cops, dumb criminals, people cut out for their jobs on both sides of the game, and some who should find a new line of work. The more time we spend with the Barksdales, even in episode one, the more we start to see the central premise of the show: there’s absolutely no difference between the “good guys”and the “bad guys.” It’s all about institutions. You’ve got a role to play. Trouble starts when you step out of your lane.
Following this argument, this particular round of trouble for Baltimore starts not with Avon and Stringer and their drug trade, but with Jimmy McNulty’s need to attack something that falls outside of his lane (or as The Bunk says: “…giving a fuck when it’s not your turn to give a fuck”). It’s not a homicide detective’s job to attack the root cause of a larger problem like the drug trade. His job is to quickly and effectively put out the fires that pop up in front of him. The entire Baltimore police department is, like any institutional system (particularly any American institutional system), charged with handling the immediate problem, not cutting it out at the root. McNulty means well. He wants to do what he sees as right in the grand scheme of things – get Barksdale off the street and make life better for West Baltimore – but (a) it’s not his place to do that, and therefore (b) he’s disrupting a carefully calibrated (if wildly ineffective) system. It’s like The Gong Show back in the day – that show works incredibly well because everyone – everyone – involved in it is high out of their mind on cocaine. When everyone’s high, being high completely works. When one person has a different agenda, it’s trouble for everybody.
Maybe Jimmy McNulty is the only guy in the Baltimore police department who isn’t high, but yo – he’s the only guy who isn’t high.