Thursday, January 15, 2009

HBO's The Wire: Series Review and Analysis

The Wire castThe HBO drama, The Wire, recently completed its fifth and final season.

It would be harder to find a serial that was better written, developed, acted, and which stayed truer to its themes over the course of multiple seasons.

The Wire explores the sub-cultures of various groups within society. Those in positions of power within each group better understand the dynamics and exploit them for their own personal gain. All the relationships, whether group or individual, are a struggle for power and control.

At the same time, the rebels and mavericks challenge and question the way things are done, upsetting the harmony of the establishment and creating conflict.

Inevitably, the various organizations bang up against each other. While the outward manifestations are different, the inner workings of each group have many similarities.

In the process, viewers are treated to one of the most relentless, in-depth dramas to ever grace the small screen.

Season One


Season one focuses on the Baltimore police department and the drug gangs operating in the inner city. Police officer Jimmy McNulty, a maverick within the force, is largely responsible for the The Wire season oneformation of a special unit to target a drug gang, the largest in the city, operated by Avon Barksdale.

McNulty is the de facto lead throughout the entire five year run of The Wire, though there is a large ensemble cast that expands every season.

McNulty convinces himself that the questionable tactics he uses are acceptable because playing by the rules would leave the police at a disadvantage. That is accurate to a degree but self-interest as a motivator is a realistic aspect
of his and most of the characters in The Wire.

The commanders who are pressured to do something about the Barksdale gang throw together a special unit comprised of a rag-tag bunch of rejects and eccentrics from the force. The police establishment are convinced the unit will make little headway and the status quo will remain.

The newly formed unit begins tracking Barksdale and his minions. But they only start making progress in their investigation when they get the go ahead to wiretap various telephones located within the projects where the drug dealers operate.

Season one sets the stage for the entire run of The Wire. There is never an easy payoff for the police and, similarly, the viewer must be willing to invest the time and energy to see characters and plots develop. Probably one of the reasons the show was a critical success but also perhaps a clue as to why it has never enjoyed the viewing popularity of other HBO hits such as The Sopranos.

Season Two


In comparison to any other television drama, season two stands up incredibly well. However, within the greatness of The Wire franchise, it is easily the weakest. Again, that isn't to diminish The Wire season twomany of the good story-lines and scenes that play out. Comparisons are inevitable and when such a standard has been set, season two falls somewhat short.

The police and drug gangs still make up the core of the show but the spotlight is now also on the local dockworkers. Times are changing and a unionized job working on the docks no longer guarantees a lifetime of steady employment and security.

Frank Sobotka is the head of the longshoremen's union. Sobotka is a self-doubting and frazzled individual who puts up a blustering exterior. And the walls are starting to close in. A major drug smuggling operation is operating through the port. Sobotka turns a blind eye to the illicit activities his men engage in, tacitly allowing them to work with international drug gangs who supply the inner city drug peddlers we are already familiar with.

What happens when the leader of a tribe is vulnerable and weak? How does he deal with the doubts from within and the attacks from those trying to corrupt and use him for their own gains? Humans have an innate sense of the weaknesses of those around them and inevitably go for the jugular when the time is right. Sobotka tries to do what he thinks is best, but ultimately fails his son, who also works on the dock, and others around him.

The roles people play within various institutions and subcultures is again a strong theme in season two.

Season Three


While seasons one and two established The Wire as a show that was willing to challenge the viewer and introduce difficult and long running narratives, season three ratchets the quality of The Wire season threethe show to a level that is hard to believe.

City hall enters the scene as The Wire continues to build the city of Baltimore for the television viewer. The brazen politics of race take centre stage and for a change, blacks have the upper hand in terms of numbers and power. No political correctness in the story-lines except as the characters themselves deal with and shamelessly exploit it for their own agendas.

The drug gangs surge out in front of the police in the third season. While the final show of the year culminates in an important bust for the major crimes unit and the arrest of Avon Barksdale and some of his key thugs, it simply allows Marlo Stanfield and his gang to fill the void.

Idris Elba as Stringer Bell puts on an incredible performance during the third season. Driven by his desire to get out from under the control of Avon Barksdale and get involved in more legitimate business dealings, Stringer violates numerous codes that govern the street. Betrayals and duplicity from all sides result in a brutal end for Stringer. Despite his ruthlessness and cold blooded nature, many viewers probably felt a twinge of regret at seeing him expire. Both because his character accomplishes what so many writers of drama aim for: to elicit sympathy for even the nastiest of the nasty, but also because the viewer will no longer get to see him perform.

There are some great new characters introduced in season three as well. Dennis "Cutty" Wise gets out of prison and has a hard time re-adjusting to life as a free man. He is briefly drawn back into life on the streets but eventually opens a boxing gym that is somewhat important in season four and five.

Season Four


After the dramatic intensity of season three, many fans probably thought it would be unrealistic to expect the quality to continue at such a high level. Incredibly, season four matches and, The Wire season fourperhaps for some viewers, even surpasses the previous season's tour de force.

The character of Roland Pryzbylewski, who was a member of the special unit but had to leave the force after mistakenly shooting another officer during season three, is back as a school teacher in one of the city's troubled districts. The school system takes centre stage while all of the previous institutions and its members (save for the dockworkers, whose story-line essentially ended after season two) continue on.

A group of talented teen-aged actors steps into the line-up as students at the inner city school and some other characters introduced in earlier seasons are given more prominence.

The lure of the street for many of the youngsters is a focal point for much of the action in season four. The results are both fascinating and heart-breaking.

As with all the myopic and bloated bureaucracies in The Wire, the ostensible goal of the school system--to educate children--often takes a back seat to politics, personal ambitions, and numbers games.

Season Five


Season five introduces the newspaper and its news room workers as the final social group to be splayed open for analysis. As usual, some excellent characters, interrelationships, and story lines The Wire season fivecome from this new element. And, as is the pattern, the characters from the newsroom become involved with the other characters and institutions already in play.

The series title "The Wire" describes both the listening devices the police use to gather evidence and the fact that the audience gets a glimpse inside all the various social institutions explored on the show. So it's fitting that the newsroom is the last major social unit examined as it is concerned with observing and bringing information to people.

A theme that has cropped up numerous times throughout The Wire is the manipulation of the truth, and the effect that shared beliefs of reality have on groups of people. In season five this theme takes centre stage.

One of the last major plots confirms that The Wire remains relentless and unyielding in its realism and cynicism to the bitter end. However, like the character of McNulty, who has a fatalistic smirk and an ability to enjoy the ride despite the despair and corruption that permeates the city, The Wire gives viewers small and genuine glimpses of hope amidst the violence and filth.

No show that lasts five seasons and provides such compelling and in-depth story-lines can ever close out in a way that is satisfying to everyone. But The Wire has provided so many angles, reflections, fantastic characters and intriguing plots, that most fans will be hard pressed to feel anything but a wistful admiration and disappointment that there aren't more seasons left to come.

Gay Characters


The Wire contains at least three gay characters, a relatively high number in comparison to most dramas. This is especially significant because homosexuality is not the focus of the series or any particular episodes. Also, none of the character's homosexuality becomes an issue per se, nor is this aspect of their characters examined in any real detail.

So why it relevant at all? It simply reflects the maturity of The Wire that characters who happen to be gay are included without it necessitating the usual cliched crap and cringe-worthy stereotypes. It is an incidental aspect of the characters' lives and reflects the way society has evolved.

The gay characters are: Kima Greggs, a detective who is part of the major crimes unit, Omar Little, a lone criminal who robs drug dealers of their cash and wares, and Snoop, a female gangster who is part of the Marlo Stanfield crew.

Omar LittleThe choice of Omar as a character who happens to be gay is especially interesting. He is the most feared individual in the neighbourhood and, until his demise in season five, is nearly invincible. The writers use Omar as one of the only instances when they step outside the realism that makes The Wire so powerful. He is painted as an almost mythical figure capable of making otherwise nasty individuals shake with fear.

A fourth character, Major William Rawls, is also apparently gay. In a season three episode, he is briefly seen in the background during a scene in a gay bar. If the viewer blinked, they would have missed it. Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell seem to hint that they are aware of this bit of information as well, as if the fact will be exploited by them for blackmail purposes down the road. Then later in the series, some toilet-wall graffiti also alludes to Rawls's sexual preferences. However, this is one thread that is never explored or again touched on in any way. But in fact, it really is perfectly in line with how the issue of incidental homosexuality is dealt with throughout. Perhaps it's a way for the writers to make the viewer ask "What did you really expect to come of this anyway?"

A Rare Accomplishment


One of the most rewarding aspects of The Wire is that it makes the viewer think. It is rammed full of ideas, themes, and well developed narratives. Many viewers may disagree with many of the observations I have made here. And they may have seen things that didn't even occur to me. The Wire is like a great book that is worth reading more than once. It gets better on every occasion, there is something for everyone, and half the enjoyment is in the times you put it down to reflect.

The Wire is a unique, profound, and moving drama that not only establishes itself for the stories it delivers but also for the look and feel of the show. The stark inner city settings are easily the most memorable. The language the characters use is also effective and rare for a television drama. Taut dialogue rammed full of the slang and jargon specific to each group is a feature that continues throughout.

The Wire took numerous risks (for example, it was the longest running television drama with a predominantly black cast) and many of them paid off, at least in terms of the credibility and artistic acclaim it received, if not huge viewing numbers.

Here's hoping that The Wire has set a new standard in television drama to which others will aspire.

1 comment:

  1. This was written a long time ago, and I just now found it. People still continue to enjoy the wire, and analyze it, such as myself.

    I wanted to comment on your paragraph about Rawls being gay. I felt that Rawl's being gay, and the episode showing him in a gay bar, says a lot about his character. Once you find out he is gay, you'll realize all of Rawl's lines involve some very graphic sexual epitaph. "I'm into some kinky shit, but chewin' on a homeless fella" ... he also says "cocksucker" just about every other sentence. So, given Rawl's attitude and demeanor while being a Major, the graphic language he's always using, and the gay undertone, it all shows he was abused sexually as a child, and now desperately needs the power he has to not ever feel that vulnerable again. All pretty interesting stuff, given it was a one-second moment revealing a character is gay.

    Also, regarding gay themes, in season 4 there was Michael, Michael's Dad, and allusions of sexual abuse... Plus Michael's distrust for Cutty because of his past experience with his abusive dad. It is a similar parallel to Rawls in that the show never says much, but through knowing general psychology, we can fill in the character's past.

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