The Wire: A Lesson In Pop Culture Perseverance

A friend of mine was recently plowing through the Harry Potter books, something I’ll likely do at some point, if only to cleanse my palate of the depressing flash-forward ending to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Vol. 2. I know great children’s lit has its share of melancholy, but the only thing I could glean from this, the final scene of an eight-movie opus, was that if you’re not a kid anymore, you might as well kill yourself.

But I digress. When I expressed this same sentiment to my friend, he insisted that the books were great, and I should read them right away. With one caveat, however – “The first couple books are just OK, but then they really get good.” Well, screw that, I thought. How could it possibly be worth my time to read two books I don’t like? Why don’t I just pick up a good one right now instead?

I’ve since come to learn that this kind of thinking is wrong-headed. Not because I’ve read Potter; I’ll get to it one of these days. It’s another long-overdue pop culture rite of passage that’s making me recalibrate my expectations of art – watching The Wire. My wife and I both had never seen an episode of this show that’s had critics and fans hyperventilating for the last decade. We just finished season two, and are hopelessly hooked. There isn’t much that hasn’t been said about David Simon’s gritty, novelistic depiction of corruption and struggle on the streets of Baltimore, but it lays waste to the concept of heroes and villains with more skill than any cop show I’ve ever seen. The police department is a mess of career ambitions and personal vendettas, a place where doing the right thing will get you excommunicated to the pawn shop unit or the evidence division – Avon Barksdale’s drug empire runs like a well-oiled machine in context. Both operations have good soldiers who follow the code, and shabby ones who use violence as a crutch. Both are comprised of people trying to make something of themselves in the midst of a dying city. The main difference is best summed up by Lt. Carver: “They fuck up, they get beat. We fuck up, they give us pensions.”

This show has me by the short hairs, to an immersive, dominating-my-daydreams level that only Deadwood and Breaking Bad have reached in recent years. But a short while ago, it wasn’t that way. Even midway through the first season, I wasn’t sold on The Wire. I knew the dialogue was great, the plotting ambitious, the visuals stark and uncompromising, but with so many characters and nicknames flying around, I could barely understand the DVD episode descriptions. After nine episodes, I thought the show was like some of its characters – too ambitious for its own good. Then came episode 10, “The Cost,” and the dramatic peak of the season, when officer Kima Greggs is shot by two of Avon’s bagmen. And everything clicked. The homicide detectives started working in concert with the wire detail, with everybody’s roles clearly outlined. The shockwaves of the shooting ran through Avon’s operation in a way that spotlighted the personalities of its members – Stringer the steely mastermind, D’Angelo the doomed philosopher, Wee-Bey the loyal muscle. Add in the effect Kima’s shooting has on her informant Bubbles’ fragile, newfound sobriety, and the emotional impact of the episode is staggering.

Seeing all of these story threads come together at once, to form a compelling, interlocking whole, it made me feel like Professor Xavier using Cerebro for the first time, seeing this once-formidable mass of humanity and understanding every component of it. And this experience couldn’t have been possible without those confusing episodes of television that led up to it. I don’t know if I’ll get the same feeling when I read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (which I’m fairly certain doesn’t have a subplot about a strip club owner getting killed after double-crossing his drug kingpin boss). But if it’s anywhere close to the enlightenment I received from The Wire, I shall bow to J.K. Rowling’s wizardry.