Invisible City

The Wire: The cycles of urban life in television's most novelistic show
by Dana Polan  posted July 28, 2008
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Making The Wire, Museum of the Moving Image, July 30, 2008

This article is part of a series on The Wire. Also on Moving Image Source: Nelson George on the show's complex portrayal of black America, David Schwartz on its view of life as a chess game, and video essays on the Season 1, Season 2, Season 3, Season 4, and Season 5 credits by Andrew Dignan, Kevin B. Lee, and Matt Zoller Seitz.

In the last scene of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film, Straw Dogs, out in a godforsaken countryside the film’s protagonist, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), is driving a mentally handicapped man, Henry (David Warner), back to his abode after having violently slaughtered a band of ruffians who were out to get Henry. David slows down the car for a reflective moment. “I don’t know my way home,” says Henry, “That’s okay,” replies David. “I don’t either.”

In the last scene of The Wire, out on a barren highway Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) is driving a mentally handicapped man back to the streets of the big city (Baltimore) after exploiting him in a scheme to get uncaring police officials and politicos to start doing something about urban crime. McNulty slows down the car for a reflective moment. After a lyric montage pops in to show the surviving characters from the show going about their lives in the big city, McNulty says to his passenger, “Let’s go home.”

The similarities and contrasts between these last scenes, though perhaps unintentional, are instructive, not least because each may be saying the opposite of what it first implies. The expression of indecision at the end of Straw Dogs might appear modernist in tone, typical of movies from the early 1970s in its open-endedness. But the film is very classical in its concentration on a single protagonist who goes through a journey of the soul and finds himself a different man from where he started out (now a macho man his wife can respect—this is, after all, a Peckinpah film). Conversely, the apparent sense of clarity at the end of The Wire—here, it might seem, there is a definite end-point to the journey—is belied by the fact that neither the handicapped man nor McNulty really has a home to go to. (McNulty’s passenger literally is a homeless person and it is an open question whether McNulty’s live-in relationship with Beadie, played by Amy Ryan, will survive his most recent displays of dishonesty.)

In this respect, the montage that precedes McNulty’s pronouncement, “Let’s go home,” is particularly telling in the ways it depicts what’s happening to all the major characters in the world of The Wire. On the one hand, the images in this montage are pointedly not from McNulty’s point of view—they are not his vision of things. On the other hand, what they reveal is the cyclical nature of life in the city, where the new is continually replacing the old: a new police commissioner for the old one, a new Robin Hood gangsta for the old, a new addict for one who’s recovered, new cops going on the beat that their predecessors patrolled, and on and on. This is not a glimpse into the future of the sort that concluded another HBO series, Six Feet Under, and gave closure to its characters’ stories: instead, it is a look at the current state of things with the implication that the future will simply be more of the same. The Wire either suggests that many fates are still un-closed (for example, the Greek gangster who goes unpunished, drug kingpin Marlo left out in the street wondering if the turf is still his, and so on) or that none of it really matters since the end of one story means the beginning of another (the vigilante outlaw Omar dies but young Michael takes up his Robin Hood-ish cause).

The Wire is strikingly bereft of a central figure from whose perspective the story is told and whose voyage of self-awareness provides its raison d’etre. Instead it suggests that in the complexly knit fabric that is the urban environment, any one figure is little more than a place-holder, a token that can always be replaced by someone else. Although it might seem in certain episodes that McNulty is being groomed for the role of protagonist, he is a strikingly failed and empty figure within the narrative, less hero than zero.

Critical commentators would sometimes call another HBO crime show, The Sopranos, Balzacian, by which they seemed to mean simply that it was like a classic novel in being character centered, plot-driven, and big and sprawling. But The Wire actually comes closer than The Sopranos to the Balzacian universe in which a city is examined, almost sociologically, at all its levels of power dynamics and interpersonal relationships. Not an epic (since many of its characters are too fallen for that), The Wire is also not a classic narrative of personal progress. In this, it is like Balzac’s fictional project, which aimed to offer a total physiognomy of the urban experience in which individual stories mattered only for their place in a larger context. Instead of offering an overall emphatic narrative, The Wire moves forward through cycles of substitution—for example, Marlo Stanfield takes over from Stringer Bell who takes over from Avon Barksdale, and at the end we see that already the street is forgetting who Marlo is—that don’t really move anything forward in consequential narrative fashion, and through patterns of expansion by which the show’s representation of the city keeps getting broader and more comprehensive.

Here, the sociological leap that the show made as it transitioned from the ghetto wasteland of Season 1 to the labor conflicts and corruption on the docks in Season 2 was revelatory. A show that had seemed to be about one self-contained fictional world—the inner city—suddenly clarified that its first view of the urban experience was only partial. Like a crane shot that lifts up over a locale to uncover ever new spaces beyond it—and The Wire itself sometimes employed this expansive technique—the movement from season to season had to do with filling in more and more of the factors that determine city life for its inhabitants at all levels. Thus, if Season 2 added blue-collar labor and white ethnicity to the mix, Seasons 3 and 4 were all about government and schooling. Perhaps, as some critics and hitherto fans lamented, the new, and sudden, inclusion of media in Season 5 in the form of the city newspaper and its reporters didn’t work as well as the incisive look at other institutions and ways of life in previous seasons. The very abruptness by which the newspaper plot was introduced (a sudden cut to Gus the editor and his buddies talking out by the loading dock) suggests that this new concern didn’t fit as well into the overall expansive depiction of the city. But one understands why the makers of the show felt they had to include media in the mix: they hoped to capture the multifacetedness of urban life, and a city’s own discourse about itself in the media is an integral part of that.

Historically, television has often been treated by critics as a superficial medium of less resonance and less reach than cinema. But the very span of time covered by shows like The Sopranos and The Wire—the span of the actions within them but also of the time they take to recount these actions over season after season—allows the ambitious television series representational possibilities that the feature film never could come close to achieving. In the case of The Wire, the stake is the socio-critical one of showing urban life in its complex totality, something that television has rarely concerned itself with. The politics of The Wire may be downbeat in its cynicism about ever breaking away from the endless cycles of power grabs and corruption and exploitation at all levels of city life, but at least it has the ambition of a politics. This makes it exceptional in television history. 


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Courtesy HBO
Clarke Peters, Sonja Sohn, Dominic West, and Wendell Pierce in The Wire
Photo Gallery: Invisible City


July 30, 2008 Making The Wire


television  |  The Wire


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Dana Polan is a professor of Cinema Studies in the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. He is the author of six books on film and has two books, The Sopranos and The French Chef, forthcoming in Spin-Offs, a new Duke University Press series on groundbreaking television shows.

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