Brendan Shorb '24
Apr 21, 2023
HBO’s The Wire packs a punch with its thematic detailing of a failing city’s infrastructure. The five-season drama set in Baltimore realistically unveils the various components behind the city’s drug trade and reevaluates the systems keeping it in place. By revealing the missing political puzzle pieces of the inner city, the true red herring of the illicit War on Drugs is the drugs themselves. Government cover-ups, an impoverished street culture, and a lack of funding in the metropolitan school system are what truly keep the youth down in the hole of crime, addiction, and the never-ending cycle of police violence. It’s this level of subversion that makes the complexities of The Wire feel less like fantasy and more like gritty nonfiction.
The first season is misleading. On the surface, the series portrays itself as a typical police drama in which the detectives always catch the low-level street dealers by the end of the season. Instead, the main characters explore the intricate methods that the dealers use to avoid police detection in the projects. What they find is a community with drugs at the epicenter. For the children, all they have known is selling drugs. For the adults and growing teens, they die defending their corners and are quickly replaced by the children.
Compelling characters represent this sorrowful, powerful, and impactful cycle of human expenditures: the stick-up man Omar, the notorious Marlo Stanfield, and the sleazy mayor Thomas Carcetti. White politicians give grandiose speeches to win votes, show up to black churches, and lie and falsify the numbers to make it seem like they are improving the city, allowing them to maintain power. Famously, Omar mocks the justice system by showing how robbing drug dealers and defending drug dealers in court is no less moral than what the politicians are doing. A lawyer claims that because Omar robs drug dealers, he is leeching off the drug trade. However, Omar is self-aware, shouting, “I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. But it’s all in the game though, right?” He is right, the drug trade is a money game: the best means of exercising police brutality and keeping the poor, well, poor.
In the third season, drug-trading corners are secretly interrupted to push dealers to the outskirts, lowering homicide rates and making the current government look proactive. In the fourth season, the inner-city school systems prioritize school performances and benchmarks rather than caring for the emotionally damaged youth. The racial disparities of the school system highlight the rich white administrators' attempts to understand the impoverished African American neighborhoods and how to properly educate their children. In the fifth season, an infamous drug dealer, Marlo Standfield, retires to live life among the rich. Unfortunately, he finds himself unable to adapt to civil society because of his upbringing and background.
It’s these changes of expectations that make me, as a screenwriter, intensely passionate about good television writing and making masterpieces like The Wire. The series becomes Shakespearean in its tragedies and Roman in its politics. Each character's death feels thought-out, without over-dramatization, symbolic of the unforgiving nature of the War on Drugs. Throughout the series, the political figures do not suffer the consequences that the street characters face. While police deaths occur, they are few and accidental, a byproduct of irresponsibility and prejudice. For example, a white cop accidentally kills a black undercover cop because he automatically perceives a “suspicious” black male as a threat. I admire these types of depictions because they convey emotion that evokes an almost angry, intrinsic response in the audience.
Audiences quickly realize that the main character of the show isn't a person, it’s Baltimore. Signs of good writing are the writers’ ability to capture the complicated spectrum of life that doesn’t exist in black and white but more in gray. Shows like The Wire are important, spectacularly crafted forms of art that develop the gray without bias and without restraint. Higher forms of television writing ask their audiences to interpret the art themselves. Like the War on Drugs, it’s not drugs; it’s a culture. HBO’s The Wire is worth a shot.