Saturday, 18 April 2009


I've just finished watching the fourth series of The Wire on DVD, and while it might seem a bit belated, remember that the UK has been far behind on the show, and even then it had aired only on a small satellite channel before the BBC began a run of daily late-night showings of the first series a couple of weeks ago (and interestingly, on Wednesdays, let that re-run show bump Mad Men to an after-midnight time slot). But it occurs to me that, although we take it as a commonplace by now that The Wire is the best TV show any of us have seen, this fourth series marks a particular high point. It also occurs to me that this may well be the programme that makes watching on TV redundant. Although a daily run is a good idea, the ideal way to watch The Wire is via box set, in which you can move at your own pace, go back and rewatch bits to exercise your curiosity, in fact, watch it almost exactly the way you would read a novel.

Although the ensemble cast and multiple plot lines are nothing new to serial TV (in fact, one of the best things about Homicide was the underlying plot thread of corruption which ran throughout the series), I'm not going to stop and praise individual writers or actors--the standard has been incredibly high throughout. The Wire has been able to eschew completely the need for resolution in any one episode; it's been able to build its storylines on its own terms, and it's been able to do away with most of the distinctions between heroes and villains, especially in terms of its police story. The beauty of the fourth series is that all these factors have been allowed to move front and centre for two reasons. First was the withdrawal of Jimmy McNulty out of the main plot lines. If anyone had been the center of the show, it was him, and his personal demons could sometimes overshadow other stories; not that this was bad, but without him, the rest of the stories take on more meaning. In fact, as the series builds toward the re-construction of the original Wire 'team' of cops, we find their own positions more interesting, and more relevant, to the general story lines.

The other factor is the over-lying theme. Each series has tended to have one moral arch; the most effective previously had been the question of work in series two, the way the lack of opportunity to do real work affects a city, and that theme permeated all the story lines. Series four is about education, and by using four school kids as its focus, four kids who hadn't been part of the story before, it delivered a damning and depressing indictment of the state of our society—as well as powerful drama. The plot lines inter-twine: there is a mayoral election, the dirty politics will have its impact on the schools; the police are being asked to massage statistics, exactly the way the school system does to 'leave no child behind'. Bunny, forced to leave the police after his experiment to 'Hamsterdam' the drug trade in Baltimore ran afoul of the 'anti-drug' message, winds up working on a similar programme, to isolate problem children from classrooms, try to 'socialise' them, while allowing others to learn. Meanwhile, of course, Marlo is leaving more and more hidden corpses as he rises to the top of the drug business.

I said, the brilliant thing is that there are no heroes or villains, or perhaps it is that they are not the people you expect them to be. The heroic figures are those plugging away against a relentlessly uncaring system. We are drawn to think of Omar, who rips off drug dealers, as a hero of sorts; he and Bodie, who's grown since the first series, are true their codes. Bunny is, of course, a hero.

But many of the villains are simply playing their games as they know how. Crooked politicians and politicially inclined police chiefs have their roles, they are part of the system, not really creating the problems as profiting from them. Proposition Joe is their equivalent in the drug trade, corrupt, but in effect playing by the bent rules. But young uns like the brilliantly cold Marlo and his killers Chris and Snoop, don't have a code, which makes him a real villain, and his corruption of Michael is the closest the series comes to having a devil. But there is an equivalent kind of cold in the bureaucrats who insist the schools teach for the test, who spout sociological cant in the face of reality, and who use test scores to lie about progress. The saddest moment in the series may be when homeless Duquan receives a 'social promotion' to high school; leaving Prezbo and his class behind will guarantee his education comes to an end. But, in one sense, the real villain of series four is Herc, the otherwise likeable cop, simply because he doesn't do his job well enough, doesn't understand its responsibilities enough, and his lackadaisical self-interest winds up hurting the wonderfully sympathetic Bubbles and young Randy, one of the four kids.

Their fates are never going to be positive, and to some extent the transformation of Michael's character is the hardest to accept, in fact, it's delineated well only if you remember that he is the smartest of the four, the one who's best able to make the practical decision about what it will take to survive. That he takes DuQuan with him simply shows that there is nothing the system, even someone as caring as ex-cop Prezbylewski, can do. And interesting, rather than pull the melodramatic strings with any of the four, the show instead surprises you, by sacrificing Bodie, the most likeable of all the slingers, but not before referring us back to the first season, and the brilliant translation of the chess board into street analogy. Those little elements make watching in sequence particularly rewarding. Deputy Ops Chief Rawls was shown briefly in a gay bar in an earlier series, in this one there is a single piece of graffiti, in the womens room at the police station, that keeps that plot element alive. Will it be used in series five? It's the long game the writers are playing, what creator David Simon has referred to in interviews as a 'visual novel'.

The final episode is double the usual length, and even so is forced to use a coda to draw the elements together. Much remains unresolved, not least the ultimate fates of the four boys. But Marlo now has Prop Joe in his sights; the major crimes unit will be chasing Marlo and his killers; Omar is a marked man, and Michael now has a corner. I realised how attached I had become to The Wire as I watched the final episode, and realised I did not want it to end, the way you sometimes slow down when you're reading a particularly good book. Now the fifth season looms out there, and I feel the way I did when I started reading The Dain Curse, knowing once I'd finished, I'd never have another Dashiell Hammett novel to read.

1 comment :

pattinase (abbott) said...

The fourth season was the most brilliant for me, too. Those kids will haunt me forever and without a bit of sentimentality to boost it.