The Wire is held to be the greatest TV series of all time by some. An approval as ultimate as that would be a matter of taste, nevertheless The Wire depicts the human game at an epic scale and it does so more or less flawlessly. It is a grand achievement and can be compared to a classic novel series, Balzac´s Comédie humaine comes to mind, although The Wire is better than many of Balzac´s works. Revolving around drug trade and drug related crime in the city of Baltimore as the ultimate nexus The Wire depicts different institutions and social realms and their relationship to law enforcement in the five seasons of the series (illegal drug trade in season 1, the seaport system and trade unions in season 2, the city government and bureaucracy in season 3, the school system in season 4 and the media in season 5). It is a police/crime series as well as a social drama as well as it illuminates how things actually work (and is, in this respect, infotainment). The main interest of the series is to depict how individuals are formed by institutions and how individuals try to maneuver themselves through institutions for the better or the worse, for the greater good or for self promotion, for trying to improve their institutions or blow them up (with usually the anonymous institutition being the stronger one, swallowing, eating and digesting the individual – unless the individual is able to make career, which is a main endeavour/obsession of most of the characters). The main message I got is how policies and almost everything that happens in the human realm is the result of a compromise or a countertrade between different endeavours or between different logics in an effectively heterogenous world. Kissinger says that people usually do not understand politics as politics, in reality, means the choice between two evils. That is, somehow, a permanent message of The Wire; that the actual problems are dilemmas in nature, i.e. they cannot actually be solved just managed in a more or less clever and effective way.
Some (like Stephen King) said The Wire depicts human hell. In some instances that is about true, in general the situation is purgatory-like, although personal achievement or endeavour and what people want is frequently out of sync with what people get and how they are rewarded. The intelligence of the series lies, among other things, in depicting how both their endeavours and their rewards may be seen as just and fair from one perspective (e.g. the individual or the ethical perspective) and unjust and unfair from another (e.g. the institutional or the juridical perspective). There are few happy endings and resolutions in the individual storylines (which is uncommon for a TV series or movie), however there usually are organic developments and life trajectories (without much change in personality and character of the individuals however). Truly outstanding (or likeable) characters are few, if any, although most of them have their positive qualities and talents; the series does a great job at displaying the individualities of the characters and one is able to empathise with them, and after all even many of the gangsters don´t even actually seem that bad. The series does a good job at establishing not only various but truly individual perspectives – and it is actually magical how well and organic the performances are by the actors who were to a considerable degree not very prominent: all the characters appear incredibly real and convincing. The nexus, however, is „the game“ and „the corner“ that will „always remain the corner“, with individual humans only populating and being around the corner for a while until they get displaced by other individuals. In one of the more depressing scenes the death of Omar, the most idiosyncratic character of the series, is depicted as to not cause much interest or affection (yet however people trying to excel each other at inventing grotesque fairy tales about the circumstances of his death after a while); likewise as the infidel and unreliable McNulty gets told by his spouse Beadie that family may be the only one who actually cares when you are gone (McNulty, an assumingly terrible husband, is divorced from a wife that often exaggerates and is egoistic and he has two sons who don´t show exaggerated individuality). It is a „cold world“ in which we are living, as is effectively said on more than one occasion. The series starts with a police hunt on the criminal Barksdale organisation which displays a dangerousness and lethality hitherto unknown in Baltimore only to be, after it gets destroyed, replaced by the even more sinister Stanfield organisation (with a probable return to a more casual state of affairs in the Baltimore drug scene after the Stanfield organisation gets blown up). Yet the big wheel keeps on turning and it is almost meditative how the great flow is depicted by The Wire.
The creator of The Wire, David Simon, had a long experience with the drug scene and the law enforcement in Baltimore (and a vast perceptivity) which finally cumilated into the wisdom of the series. Jimmy McNulty, more or less the cental character of the series, is a portrayal of a cop who is not actually out there to help people or to empathise with victims of crime but to be able to feel intellectually superior to the criminals he is chasing (which, according to Simon, is not so uncommon among the personnel of law enforcement). McNulty is the most capable detective, but he is loathed by superiors for frequnently being disloyal and egoistic (although he always has a point (which usually carries a higher truth) in his soloistic maneuvers), and because of his pride and apparant shallowness in other psychological respects he is a failure in private (a notorious womanizer and alcoholic who does not seem to have true friends). Female officer Kima also has a rather wobbly private life, however that is because she likes the (inherently dangerous) occupation and she is a more balanced character (there is an indication that she likes to play the tough cop when she rather needlessly beats a drug dealer in one of the first episodes but such a suggestion of imbalance isn´t prominent later in the series); Kima is also one of the more complex and likeable characters. The elderly Lester Freamon is the most intelligent and wise officer of the team, despite his laid-back demeanour a kind of intellectual alter ego of McNulty who also has frequent trouble with authority. It is satisfactory to watch that he gets hot and sensible Shardenne as a spouse and they obviously live a harmonious relationship. Carver and Hauk are a kind of Laurel & Hardy team with Carver obviously becoming a good officer and Hauk degenerating into becoming an employee for Maurice Levy, the amoral lawyer for Baltimore´s drug kingpins (that Levy is jewish is not an antisemitic stereotype but due to the fact that many of those lawyers for Baltimore´s drug dealers are jewish, says Simon (himself jewish)). When, in an obvious attempt by superiors to sabotage the investigations against the Barksdale organisation, the special unit deliberately consists of especially lazy and incompetent officers at the beginning of the series Pryzbylewski is portrayed as brutal and stupid (and probably racist) but he soon proves his value as a code breaker and puzzle solver as well as a nice and unassuming guy who rather likes to work behind the scenes as he is too nervous (or so) for acting in the streets – which tragically proves true as he accidentally kills a fellow officer and then leaves the police and becomes a devoted maths teacher at the school for Baltimore´s troubled youth. Bunk is the firmest figure of the series as he is morally concerned (but not naive) and seems to be able to connect to everything and all the different realms without losing himself. Daniels also is one of the more ethical as well as effective officers who may be willing to sacrifice some of his career (and also his marriage) but gets overcompensated when he becomes useful for superiors – only to find out that as a police chief he would have to engage in unethical activities to please his political superiors (e.g. manipulating statistics) which causes him to resign and become a lawyer. The cholerical Rawls is depicted quite as devoid of personality as he maneuvers through the ranks and spills down the pressure that is exerted on him by higher ranks – a creature of the hierarchy.
D´Angelo Barksdale calls his subordinate dealer Wallace a good guy who, „unlike the other niggers“, has a heart and since both have some moral sense they prove as to frail as to effectively be gangsters – they meet their tragic end not as they break out of their criminal organisation but as they get liquitated as potentially untrustworthy by the superiors of the organisation. D´Angelo is probably the most tragic example of an individual who had become a gangster not by his own choice or because he is particularly bad and draws satisfaction out of what he is doing but because he was born into a family who runs a criminal organisation as a family enterprise with the individual family member´s worth being reflected in how much he is useful to this organisation. His uncle Avon, the head of the Barksdale organisation, is the offspring of a criminal and his brutally criminal ways rather seem to be a lifestyle to him he is accustomed to and the killings he orders a matter of ruthless professionialism – it is difficult to decipher how much psychopathological pleasure and narcissistic gratification he may receive from upkeeping his image as a fearsome drug kingpin including a notorious womanizer or whether he just acts as a professional gangster inside a fiece battle of competition. When it is effectively too late and his organisation about to be blown up he however ruminates whether the approach of his partner Stringer Bell (to become businessmen not anymore directly involved with the drug trade on „the corner“) wouldn´t have been the more intelligent one. Stringer Bell is one of the most noteworthy characters of the series, a cerebral gangster who in his spare time studies business administration at the university (and recceives good grades and is obviously well liked by his professors with whom he intellectually conversates) and who wants the Barksdale organisation to finally engage in normal business and to buy political influence. Nevertheless he is as ruthless as Avon, he orders the murder of D´Angelo and finally betrays Avon whose gangster style he increasingly sees as dangerous and so (accidentally) blows the Barksdale organisation up – while at the same time he is betrayed by his „brother“ Avon and gets killed by Omar and Brother Mouzone whom he betrayed before – an almost Shakespearean end to the Barksdale organisation which collapses over itself (the fearsome hitman Brother Mouzone, who obviously belongs to the Muslim brotherhood and reads Harper´s magazine is also one oft he more remarkable characters of the series). Marlo Stanfield who starts a war with the Barksdale organisation is a young gangster who is primarily driven by lust for power and who is quite expressionless in most other respects. All he strives for is „wearing the crown“ and he is even more ruhtless in ordering killings for minor reasons than Avon. Proposition Joe embodies the „reason of state“ among the Baltimore drug dealers. Like most other dealers he simply wants to sell his drugs and refrains from brutality. Nevertheless he is clever at manipulating situations to his own advantage. A friendly fat uncle who officially repairs radios and watches he is almost a highly likeable character. He meets his end as he gets betrayed by his own nephew to Marlo who wants to take over Joe´s drug supply line via the organisation of the Greek and to take revenge for Joe´s accidental collusion with Omar. Omar Little is the most idiosyncratic (and, actually, a bit strange) character of the series. He lives by robbing other drug dealers (and, occasionally, giving away drugs to junkies for free) making him a bit a Robin Hood-like character. He is highly intelligent, fearless and feared by other drug dealers, homosexual and even seems to possess superhuman qualities and pain tolerance. Nevertheless he gets killed by 12 year old Kenard in the end, the probably most sinister and sociopathic character of the series (next to female/tomboy killer Snoop).
You have bad mothers in The Wire, like drug addicted Raylene who lets her husband living with her despite he had been sexually abusive towards his children in the past or De`Londa who becomes furious over her son Namond as he proves incompetent as a drug dealer. You have weak family ties, not only illustrated in the Barksdale family where they (sexually) betray each other but also in the case of McNulty. Chris Partlow, Marlo´s primary enforcer, on the other hand seems to be devoted to his family, despite he has the highest body count of all he cannot stand being spared from his family for a longer time (he gets desperate because of this when he is on the run from Omar) and he also displays geniune care for his subordinates. If he wasn´t a killer Chris also comes in as an example of being a somehow nice guy as well as a ruthless criminal. In the end he goes to prison for life after being assured by Marlo that his family will be taken care of. One of the more astonishing (and uncanny) scenes of the series is to see how little the gangsters seem to care about being thrown into prison for many years or for the rest of their lives, contrasting and effectively destroying their assumed struggle for a good life which made them criminals in the first place. The seaport workers (occasionally or more systematically) engage in petty crime, their trade union, led by Walter Sobotka, is forced to support the criminal activities of the organisation of „the Greek“ as they need to collect money for their political struggle in order to survive as the seaport is under threat from environmental legislation, prestige projects to use the territory for other purposes and, most of all, technological progress rendering more and more traditional jobs obsolete. It is depicted how Sobotka and his trade union (as an epitome for American labour) are alone in their struggle with nobody showing interest or affection for their concerns. The second season sets in as the trade union gets into a struggle for the approval of the church with the police, an actually petty feud which however causes officer Stan Valchek to react furiously on a personal level and, despite that, professional as he tries to investigate obvious criminal activities of the union. The Greek, an unassuming elderly gentleman, heads a criminal organisation which engages in various criminal activities from drug trade and smuggling to human trafficking. According to David Simon the Greek is an embodiement of unfettered capitalism, using and abusing American labour indirectly for the purpose of enrichment. The second ignition for season 2 is 13 young women from Eastern Europe found dead in a container in which they were shipped to become sex workers in America. Tommy Carcetti who is quick to run for major and, then, for governor, is an opaque figure and it is difficult to distinguish whether his actions as a politician are motivated from pushing his career or promoting the common good. As the series continues, Carcetti gets more and more swallowed by career motivations and what originally could be held as emanations of rhetoric talent sounds more and more unbearable as stereotypical and disposable statements of a career politician. One of the most memorable scenes of the series is when it is disussed in the city council about who is responsible for the dire financial situation and no one is willing to accept any responsibility. Dire straits is also the condition for the local newspaper which gets sandwiched between depleting funds and capitalist diktat from above making its editors turning a blind eye on unethical and sensationalist journalism in order to attract attention and secure their position (they finally get the Pulitzer Prize which they hope makes them more immune but it is foreseeable that the obvious flaws will sooner or later be uncovered). The most uncanny season is the fourth which depicts the situation at public schools for the children of the black lower class. The children are brutal, refuse to learn anything that is not of practical use for their future in the streets and, in most cases, obviously don´t even understand content that is more abstract (which is quite common among humans yet in that case comes in a more undisguised fashion). Nevertheless Pryzbylewski becomes a devoted teacher who cares for his pupils. Academics from the university try to set up programs to improve their situation but they eventually fail, not least to lack of funding (with the academics regarded as unworldly and quixotic by the police and Dr. Parenti, the sociologist being a bit a colourless figure who however is at least exited about how the scientific community will applaud his findings after the program got terminated).
Despite being suspenseful and exiting and, at its core, a great crime series, despite being informative, epic and pandemonium-like and despite high critical acclaim The Wire was a moderate success in commercial terms and proved a bit too complex for a larger audience. At the same time The Wire was popular all across the political spectrum as liberals, conservatives, Christians, Marxists, etc. were able to draw out something that seems to confirm their worldview. Simon however strongly opposes ideological dogma, according to him the main endeavour of the series was to show the complexity of the city, demanding a complex and multidimensional understanding of problems in order to effectively cope with them. Despite his strong standing against asocial neoliberal capitalism (Simon says the dimension of collective responsibility has become refuted, even viewed upon as obscene in nowadays America – the question of individual and collective responsibility in the makeup of a good society is something we accidentally just had in the note about Michael Neder) The Wire isn´t so openly and outspokenly critical towards neoliberalism in the end (maybe because the producers did not want to effectively polarise and repel the more conservative audience). The Wire does not tell why Balitmore became such a dangerous place (or why crime rates fell in many American (inner) cities in the later 1990s, excluding Baltimore) or why you have drug abuse in any Western city but usually not such high levels of crime as you have in many American cities. The Wire is, in the end, an overly pessimistic series. – But the big wheel keeps on turning, and as for now good night, po-pos. Good night, fiends. Good night, hoppers. Good night, hustlers. Good night, scammers. Good night to everybody. Good night to one and all.