Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Wire (2002–2008)

Creators: David Simon & Ed Burns
Cast:       Dominic West, John Doman, Wendell Pierce, Michael K. Williams, Idris Elba, Andre Royo, Sonja Sohn, Lance Reddick etc

Plenty of things have been told about 'The Wire', with it being unarguably the greatest TV drama series of all time. Like good films, during it run it had a limited audience and won very few awards and they made season by season without knowing for sure there will be another one. We are all lucky that HBO let it run for five seasons of total perfection. 

I saw it for the first time about 2-3 years back. I had seen the first episode and it took me a one year gap to get back into it. As many fans of Wire would testify it will take about three episodes to get into it. After that you will be like an addict who cannot wait to get his next fix. I started my re-watch again from season  one in April this year and finished the first three seasons in no time. Over the last two weeks I finished the last two seasons. It gets better on every watch as all good things usually does, with you noticing all the things that you missed on the first watch and marvel at the way in which the creators have carefully carved out characters who you might think playing just minor roles: Slim Charles, Bodie, Poot, Randy etc. As the joke goes-difference between 'The Wire' and a 'Tweet' is that the former has more than 140 characters. 

The shows creators are David Simon was a journalist with the Baltimore Sun and Ed Burns who was a Police detective. They manage to depict the reality of their city 'Baltimore' with all its problems and ultimately the main character of the series is the city itself. By the end of season five all the human characters get replaced by new people who take over their roles and for the city nothing really changes which is ultimately the message of the Wire. There is no happy ending or resolution. It just puts a mirror in front of the society. Even though drug scene in Baltimore is at the center of the series, whatever it depicts is applicable to many other parts of the world as it deals with corruption, bureaucracy, inequality, failure of institutions, cyclicality cynicism etc. Its all very 'Dickensian' if you know what I mean.

The realism with which it is made will make you feel like you are watching a docu-drama. It doesn't conform to the usual TV norms like ending episodes on a cliffhanger, resolved standalone episodes or explaining/reminding the viewers to actually connect the dots or making seasons stand on their own so that people can choose to watch it anytime at any point of the series. It has to be seen from the first episode to the last as it is just like a 60 hour film. David Simon followed a 'Fuck the Average viewer' policy while making it. Your intelligence is taken for granted and there is hardly any explaining done. The street drug lingo will take some time to get used to but it is not a significant obstacle. Hoppers, 5-O, Testers, G-Packs, Carrying weight, WMDs, Pandemic etc, don't worry: you'll get used to it yo.


                                                        ****SPOILER ALERT****

The First Season focus mainly on the Barksdale gang and the police effort in getting a wiretap going to nab the kingpin Avon Barksdale, who is the gangster type, and his associate Stringer Bell who is the brains behind the group. Stringer want to do things professionally without much bloodshed whereas Avon cares more about his reputation in the streets and the corners he holds. The characters like D'Angelo Barksdale, Bodie, Poot and Wallace who operates in the lower end of the food chain gives us a peak into how it is done at the street level.The series start with the killing of a citizen who was a witness against D'Angelo Barksdale in a murder case. Dominic West's Jimmy McNulty leaks this info to a judge who starts a shitstorm because of which a unit is formed under the leadership of Daniels played by Lance Reddick. Case gets a breakthrough when Omar Little (Michael K.Williams), who moonlights as a guy who robs the drug dealers, comes forward as a witness to the killing. The Barksdale gang is using codes through pagers for communication and Lester Freamon  (Clarke Peters) uses the wire to crack the code and finally to put Avon Barksdale behind bars. The first season primarily shows the ground level activities of both the Police and the drug dealers. We see that the both sides are just trying to do their job within the constraints they are operating in pursuing their own self-interest. They are just two sides of the same coin.

The Second Season of series take a serious deviation from the first by focusing on the plight of stevedores in the Baltimore city port. It examines the problems the blue collar people in the developed world are facing because of the globalization. Baltimore's port is one that suffered greatly because of increased trade between US and China as most of the cargo is handled by the ports in the west coast. The protagonist for the second season is Frank Sobotka who is the union leader for the stevedores. He is trying to improve the infrastructure of the port through lobbying. He is getting money for it by aiding smuggling of goods through his port. Problems start for him when a container turns up unclaimed with dead women who were meant to be sold as prostitutes. This causes attention to fall on their activities which included abetting smuggling of drugs into the country. The East Side drug lord Proposition Joe has the connect to these high quality drugs. Meanwhile Avon's territory of West Side is overseen now by Stringer Bell and he is struggling with poor quality drugs. Stringer starts sharing territory with Joe to get access to the higher quality drug behind Avon's back. We start conflicts developing between Avon and Stringer as Stringer uses Omar to thwart Avon's plans to get back the territory. Street level drug story is just a sideshow this season setting things up for the third season. It is more about the wholesale side of the operation through the ports and story is told through the travails of the Sobotka family. Many viewers had a problem with this but it is one of the most heart breaking story of the entire series told in a very powerful manner with all the inevitability surrounding it.

The Third Season starts to focus more on the upper section of the Police Department and the City Hall. We see that the unholy relation between the two is leading to short-termism, juking of stats and corruption in the Police Department. A new character, councilman Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillan), who has mayoral ambitions is introduced. Another new character is Major Bunny Colvin who is fed up with the futility of the 'War of Drugs'. He starts the project 'Hamsterdam', designated areas in which people can buy and sell drugs without fearing the police so that other parts of the city could be kept clean, without letting his superiors know. It is ultimately David Simon's opinion that the legalization of drugs is the only solution is shown through the Hamsterdam story arc. Why it is not possible is also shown as the politicians use the issue for point scoring even though they know it is perfectly feasible solution.

Meanwhile in the drug trade business Avon gets out of jail and a new gang led by Marlo Stanfield is starting to compete for territory in the west side. Rifts between Avon and Stringer continue to widen leading ultimately to Stringer's demise. As Avon says to Stringer he really was a character who ended up in the middle neither comfortable with the gangster bullshit nor the business side of things. Avon is nabbed again by the Police through a wiretap but the cycle just repeats as Marlo Stanfield takes his place as the Kingpin of the west side.

The Fourth Season takes a look at the school system showing how it fails the students who inevitably falls into the drug system. We are given the teachers' side of the story through the character of Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost) who is an ex-detective from the previous seasons. Colvin is also there, after getting chucked out from the Police, as a consultant for an educational research project wherein which to study the behavior they create a separate class for the troublemakers who are more or less the corner kids from the drug trade. We learn that the school system is also very similar to the police department with short-termism and juking of stats through the gaming of exams whose results decides the fate of the teachers and school.

Meanwhile in the drug trade business Marlo Stanfield establishes his dominance through his muscle Chis Partlow and 'Snoop' Pearson who executes people for him leaving the bodies in boxed up vacants. The rise is very bloody but the Police are not aware of it because of the lack of bodies. Marlo is not part of the co-op established between the drug gangs led by Proposition Joe. To induce him to the co-op Joe uses Omar to create trouble for Marlo. Finally Marlo joins the co-op and but one of their resupply is sabotaged by Omar who retires from the game and leaves the city. The bodies in the vacants are finally discovered by Bunk and Lester but they don't have enough evidence to convict anyone.

In the Democratic Mayoral race Tommy Carcetti is facing almost an impossible task being a White Candidate in city that is too Black. He chips away continuously at the Mayor's base and with plenty of good luck and chance (another witness killing which was just an accident) he manages an improbable victory. His story has great parallels to the Obama story. In the political side of things the fourth season ends on a high note with Carcetti promising plenty of things and grooming Daniels as his next Police Commissioner. It is apparently a 'New Day'.

The Fifth Season starts one year on from Carcetti's election to the office with the promised new day having not arrived. Meanwhile Carcetti has set his sights on next year's Maryland governor race. Police are facing extraordinary budget cuts because of the fiscal issues with the school system. This causes winding up of the Marlo investigation without any results which brings out again the rebellious nature of Jimmy McNulty who fakes some of the random killings of homeless guys as the work of a serial killer. This catches media attention and we are given a glimpse into the media through the office of the struggling newspaper 'The Baltimore Sun' where a journalist eager to rise through the ranks is faking stories and quotes. The attention gained by the serial killings give more people to McNulty to divert for real 'Police Work'. They are diverted to investigate and ultimately nab Marlo but the evidence is tainted. Finally a deal is cut so that Marlo walks free with the promise that he won't enter into the game again.

The whole media side of the story is an allegory to the Iraq War showing how easily they can be manipulated. When the fact that Jimmy faked the serial killings comes to light no action is immediately taken because Carcetti cannot afford it due to the Governor election. In the closing montage we are shown some of the characters taking the roles of the main characters like Omar, McNulty, Bubbles, Burrell etc to drive home the point that nothing really changes without the system getting changed.



The greatest thing about the wire is that it lacks sentimentality and is very realistic and pessimistic. As David Simon himself put it, 'It is a Treatise on the decline of the American Empire'. I gave an idea about the plot for all the seasons because they are necessary to show how the series continuously expands on things that they are taking a look at. There are plenty of characters I have not mentioned who are the life and blood of the show. Hats off to David Simon and HBO for creating the greatest television drama series of all time.

'Its all in the Game Yo, All in the game'.

Rating: 5/5