It is, confessedly, unforgivably unoriginal to say that The Wire is objectively one of the best pieces of art produced by mankind. But, often overlooked is the way that The Wire succeeds in making us see marginalised members of society as human. The series is a more powerful political statement than any article, statistic, or impassioned speech could ever be. Ultimately, The Wire provokes a sense of collective responsibility.
The Wire is closer to reality than fiction. Real-life Baltimore drug gangs have watched the show’s representations of police surveillance to improve their methods of evasion. Creators Simon and Burns wanted, if nothing else, for their creation to speak to the locals depicted.
Thanks to the show, Felicia Pearson, who plays street-smart, short-tempered, adept-at-combat ‘Snoop’, found employment in spite of her criminal record. She recreated her lived experience as a drug-peddler on The Wire.
Melvin Williams, highly successful Baltimore drug-peddler turned community outreach worker, also plays himself. And, in his former life as a detective, Burns helped bring down the drug kingpin. In the writer’s words, the plot is ‘stolen from real life’.
In the series, the personal is interwoven with the political. Season 2 paints blue-collar workers’ heartbreaking loss of identity, accompanying the shifting economic landscape. Throughout the show, you get an acute sense of the futility of the war on drugs. The territory of Barksdale’s gang – pursued by police throughout season 1 – is invaded by rivals. This makes characters (and audience) question whether their assiduous police work has been for nothing.
‘Hamsterdam’, a zone in which drugs are decriminalised, yields promising results – but sullies the conscience of police ordered not to intervene in this hive of transgression.
Characters shatter our preconceptions. Snoop defies placement in the conventionally feminine category. And the show depicts the destruction wrought by such prejudice. In season 1, three violent policemen posturing outside a high-rise tenement block are rained on by television sets and glass bottles. Police and supposed criminals reinforce conceptions of one-another.
Whether they are in crime or in law enforcement, black or white, male or female, the characters share each other’s virtues and vices – especially vanity. Detective McNulty works doggedly to prove his intellect; drug kingpin Barksdale pines for status – even at the expense of money-making; mayoral candidate Carcetti delights in watching his own political and sexual performances.
But the show is unwaveringly sympathetic towards its characters; seeing those who differ by every facet of identity, we learn to see ourselves.
Image: Don Ramey Logan @ Wikimedia Commons