This post contains spoilers for The Wire, Season One – and only Season One.
What’s the message behind Season One of The Wire? This essay is based on the statements of the show-writers, and on repeat viewing of The Wire itself. It’s aimed at new viewers who have just finished the first season. I’ve also written about The Wire’s relationship with the theme of moral responsibility. Or, if you want less serious commentary, read my theory that The Wire is secretly vegan propaganda…
Baltimore’s institutions – in Season One of The Wire, the police department and the Barksdale gang – represent the Greek gods of tragedy, with a lofty lack of interest in the lives of the individuals they profoundly affect. These self-serving institutions strike down those who defy them, because it is in the interests of those who buy into them, principally “the bosses,” to avoid rocking the boat. McNulty and Freamon get marginalised into dead-end jobs for doing good police-work that caused trouble for their superiors, while Wallace’s conscience gets him killed. In the decaying city of Baltimore – but with resonances across the Western world and beyond – the institutions try to dictate the actions of everyone who is a part of them. And in the tightrope – the wire – between serving the institutions and serving one’s human individualism, everyone is morally compromised.
In The Wire, the way the institutions are run depends on who has political suction over whom, and power naturally resides in the institutions’ higher echelons; the bosses climb towards that power, which is their reward for serving the institutions’ interests. In the police department, the main investigation would have been impossible if McNulty did not initially have influence over Judge Phelan, who has the power to make life very difficult for Deputy Commissioner Burrell, who in turn can control Daniels and Carver by holding their careers in his hands. Mirroring Burrell’s power, Avon Barksdale, the king, can dictate whether Wallace and D’Angelo, the pawns, live or die. The political game means that who has suction is more important than who is competent: Prez’s various disasters are swept away because his father-in-law is an important major, while D’Angelo is reprieved after being put on trial for foolishly and unnecessarily killing someone, because he is Avon’s nephew.
Because of the importance of not offending the institutions, several characters consequently have to choose between their careers and doing the right thing: Phelan distances himself from the Barksdale case when he realises that it might cost him the political support he needs to get re-elected as a judge, while Daniels stands by the case at disastrous cost to his previously rosy prospects for a successful career. On the other side of the law, Bodie and Poot kill their friend, Wallace, and are rewarded with promotion. The alternative for them would have been to defy Stringer Bell, their one source of security, when they know that the system discards those who inconvenience it, if they do not have political suction: Wallace, Little Man and Orlando are all Barksdale men killed by their friends for rocking the boat. Meanwhile, McNulty and Santangelo are buried in dead-end units for giving Major Rawls a headache. Those who play by the rules of the institutions get rewarded: Freamon is forgiven and rewarded after he makes the police department look good, and Carver, Bodie and Poot are all promoted for betraying their comrades in order to fulfil the wishes of one of their bosses. The bosses only do this to further their own interests, however – as D’Angelo knows when he sneers at Wallace’s naiveté for suggesting that the inventor of Chicken McNuggets got rich: “it ain’t about right, it’s about money… The n**** who invented them things is still working in the basement for regular wages thinking of some shit to make the fries taste better or some shit like that.” Both the police department and the Barksdale organisation – which is a facet of the wider drugs trade – feed on its lower-ranking members with no true concern for their wellbeing.
The true problem, The Wire argues, is that the system is broken. The police are incentivised to look for superficial solutions, and are afraid of the political consequences of going further: Deputy Commissioner Burrell and Major Rawls both detest the investigation and the bad light it can shine on the department. It would cost Major Rawls political capital – and thus damage his chances of advancing in his institution – if he had to admit that the Barksdale gang was getting away with its murders, including of Gant, the witness in D’Angelo’s trial. Deputy Commissioner Burrell, meanwhile, orders Daniels to return $20,000 to Senator Clay Davis’s driver, because he does not want to ask questions that might make Clay Davis cause trouble. McNulty complains to Rhonda Pearlman that nobody will investigate corrupt lawyers like Maurice Levy, because it will damage their career prospects. And while the FBI is interested in the political corruption exposed by the Barksdale payments to Clay Davis and others, its warped priorities mean that it would offer generous plea deals to Avon and Stringer in order to make its case. The police department only truly cares about the Barksdale case, and the shooting of Greggs, because of the political fallout that it causes: to Carver’s disgust, the Commissioner, while quick to associate himself with superficially successful police work, shows no interest in meeting Greggs’s distraught girlfriend, getting Burrell to comfort her instead. In search of quick answers that will look good in a press conference, Burrell insists more than once on premature police raids on Barksdale targets, fatally damaging the case and leaving the job half-finished. None of this can really tackle the damage that the culture of drugs and gangs is wreaking on communities, as murderous criminals control neighbourhoods and perpetuate a cycle of violence and despair. This is shown in the travails of Bubbles and Wallace as they fail to escape this culture. Wallace was almost a foster-parent for the many children living with him, who must now survive without him; Bubbles’s addiction has cost him the trust of his sister, leaving him with no roots in the honest community.
The institutions trap the individuals who are caught up in them. Both Wallace and D’Angelo are desperate to get out of the system, but both eventually realise that they have no other viable options. The violent street culture is their life, and though both try to escape, they are both drawn back to it – so Wallace is killed and D’Angelo has to accept the weight of his prison sentence. Even more than McNulty, the figure in The Wire who embodies defiance of the system is Omar, unafraid of death or what people might think of him as he remains boldly individualistic; but not only does Omar suffer heavily for standing up to the Barksdales – hunted, shot in the shoulder, having his boyfriend brutally murdered – even he cannot truly escape the system. There are no options for him outside the Game, so inevitably he is drawn back to Baltimore and the drugs trade because that is the only life he knows.