I guess I could simply say The Wire is great, that the tension was so well crafted, that nothing on television has ever felt so real and that so much of it hangs over your head long after you finish watching. It paints this extremely detailed, heart-wrenching, terrifying and incisive picture of an American city where everything is connected and everyone is doing their best to get by with varying degrees of morality. But everyone is also reacting and doing things they don't want to because of things they can't control, and you, as the audience member, are the only one with the omnipotent point of view that knows the real problems.
Except even knowing the real problem doesn't mean you have the real solution. Everything is so wrapped up together and fucked up and inescapable that it feels like this slow lurching towards doom is the only place this story can go, with very little exception and wiggle room. I guess that's what gets you the most: It feels like the real world, and the real world is such a fucked up place with small victories and bigger losses. Nothing ever really gets resolved, no one really wins. Situations change, and those come with new baggage that will continue to compromise and cripple any and all hope.
But if you've even heard of The Wire, you've probably already read all kinds of ranting and ravings about how amazing and powerful and important the show was. I don't have anything new to add except an agreeing nod, a subdued "Yep." It is probably the greatest show I've seen so far. But I was particularly interested in its depictions of criminals and criminality.
See, I was uneasy at first with the "politics" of The Wire if you want to call it that. It regularly showed police overstepping their boundaries and beating up on street level gang members. Except the way it was portrayed in the first season, it was completely warranted on an emotional level because they were, indeed, bad people doing bad things. The cops would skate rules and do their best to avoid procedure when they were sure that they were right. And, because we are omnipotent viewers, we know they really are right -- and so we are inclined to be okay with the broken and bent rules. Hell, we're even led to root for them to just buck the laws and do some vigilante gangbusting.
For anyone who has ever been an activist in any sort of police, prison or criminality related topic, it's uncomfortable to see. A big reason reason activists rally against authority figures breaking rules meant to keep their powers in check is because they can't be trusted to always be right and always know better. They will inevitably be taking innocents, purposely or not, with the unchecked power.
But, to its credit, The Wire doesn't care about your moral uplift. The Wire seems to say that this is the world as they know it, and your objections have no bearing on it. The thing is, though, the show approaches the problems of policing and criminality with a far more artistic, powerful and overall more important concern: it imbues everyone, from shitty cop to powerful drug dealer, with a sense of understandable humanity.
Any activist involved in the dismantling of the prison industrial complex will tell you that one of the issues is the dehumanization of it all. Criminals are a statistic, communities are torn apart, people are put in cages with no eye towards reform or rehabilitation or anything resembling humanity. Society at large looks at our prisons and our inner cities as full of demonic element that we can only hope to keep bottling away in infinite bottles. Nevermind the money involved, or the overpopulation, or the arguments for basic humane treatments.
Instead of showing us that police with too much power do bad things, it shows us a complex image that is harder for everyone to swallow: that everyone has some worth in their lives. Because even though Stringer Bell orders a hit on a child, you forget that some episodes because you admire that he's trying to get out of the game with dreams of legitimate business. Even though Avon Barksdale is the kingpin of all the drug crime in Baltimore, he's really the only avenue for someone like Dennis Wise to secure funding to support and honest, helpful and positive community gym. Even though Bodie starts off as a mindless soldier, his first wavering at execution eventually evolves into a sense of honor and decency. The cops may skirt the rules to get the bad guys, but you also remember these are more than just bad guys, they're people.
The cops get a good and bad shine, too. You're never really pulling for the complete demise of anyone, save for two or three characters -- a lying reporter, a ruthless up & coming young kingpin, a weasel lawyer. Those characters get a few dents in them, but they are never really taken down or get what they deserve. But everyone else, you kind of just want them all to make it without hurting anyone. Your sympathies as a viewer are often crossed and confusing. Whatever happens to these lives we're following ends up feeling half-okay, because they deserve it on some levels and don't on others.
Humanization is a hard thing to articulate, because on first impression it may sound like you're excusing the evils done by evil-doers. It's not. A true humanizing portrayal is about affording a character, or in this case archetypes, with the benefit of doubt and a modicum of sympathy. It recognizes that even you, the viewer, have capacity for good and evil, but perhaps your perspective and geography allow you to rise above your station. Humanization asks you to see yourself as fallible, and others as opportunity for redemption.
And that's what's really important, isn't it? In all the talk and discussion about police brutality and the prison industrial complex and the war on drugs, isn't the starting block trying to remember that we're dealing with the complexities of humanity? That regardless of your beliefs, there are real people here, not caricatures of evil, doing their best to work in the situations handed to them and the circumstances outside of their control? Everything is circular. Everyone is eating their own tail.
The show does something amazing in the last season where the police rule breaking and bending gets taken to a new, totally unacceptable level. Except the way they write it, you are inclined to pull for them and hope it turns out okay. They are crossing lines on an astronomical level, harder than on the comparatively tiny bullshit from the earlier seasons. Yet here you are, on the edge of your seat, hoping it works out. And when it all threatens to fall apart, you hope that everyone just swallows the lie and lets it stand.
The result is another non-victory. Some bad people are punished, some bad people are not. Some good guys get rewarded, some do not. The problems remain the same, they just change shape, and a new class comes into a position to scrape and claw and politic their way into a better life.
And, of course, you the viewer are left to examine yourself and your politics and how you truly feel about policies and life and things. It's all very exhausting and satisfying.
That's the thing when you're writing about the real world and real world problems. You can never solve anything, because even if you take out the drug kingpin, or the corrupt cop, or the evil lawyer, the audience knows that isn't real. We know that once we turn off the TV that world is still out there, so any resolution falls flat and rings hollow. It's one of the hardest things to write. The Wire has details and complexity, but above all, it's built on heart. I don't mean that to mean love or even anything inherently positive. Heart is simply the complex, sometimes sympathetic humanity. Heart is what drives people to destroy each other for the hope of better lives.