reflections on the end of the wire.
The Wire, RIP.
In its final season, The Wire continually poked meta-fun at those who called the show a Dickensian social drama. Every time a character used the phrase, David Simon and fellow writers seemed to be implying that viewers needed to shift focus from sentimentalized character stories to a systemic critique, from the neoliberal focus on individuals to a radical analysis of larger systems.
The lesson of the show always seemed to be that save for a few miracles, systems ate individuals alive, especially any individual who fought against the logic of the larger system. In a way, this is “Dickensian” since Dickens wrote novels that were as much social allegories as character studies.
But the moral of many a Dickens novel was that some improvement in the larger system could occur when individuals changed their ways. The Wire seemed much less certain on this point. Individuals either got eaten alive by larger systems, struggled to be outlaws against those systems, or became refugees from the system’s barbed-wire coils.
I wondered, by the end of the final season, if there was a kind of darkness at the heart of The Wire‘s critique. Did the show, ultimately, lack belief in the viability of democracy as a system?
In the final season, only the outlaws—McNulty, Freamon—were able to pursue justice, to make change. But the way they seek to make change was to lie. In this way, they paralleled Templeton, the liar at the fictional Baltimore Sun. But while Templeton lied for fame, McNulty and Freamon lied for justice.
Did the ends justify the means in their case? Is that what defines an outlaw: the use of the wrong tactics for a just end?
And what about the rest of society? Can we all be outlaws when a system goes to rot? Must we be?
The Wire asked these sorts of questions. Though it never developed the systemic pressures on the bosses of the Sun this season adequately, perhaps the implication of this lack of development was that the system stops where we begin: the audience absorbing the media, surveilling the lives of citizens, caught up in our own addictions to individuals’ stories while the system keeps beaming us into its gears and cables, never unleashing us.
That is, ultimately, a Dickensian approach: The Wire asked us to recognize and empathize with others, and from that recognition and empathy, to forge a democratic ethos that could forego institutional systems for some kind of deeper humanism.
Humanism as a kind of functional systemless system…
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