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City of the Dead

FROM THE FIRST GLANCE, the mise-en-scène of The Wire was Waterworld with the water let out, Mad Max come back from the future, The Battle of Algiers crossed with Black Orpheus, or the back streets of Robocop where only a metal man dares go. But no, it was just a hopeless stretch of residential Baltimore emptied of jobs, amenities, and civilization before being filled up with black males, not one of whom looked likely to be a candidate for the presidency anytime soon. Instead, they had their minds on drugs: everyone who wasn’t using was dealing. When you got into it, however, it soon emerged that Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) would have been an ideal candidate for the presidency, if his naturally fine mind had not been wasted from his childhood by the unremitting violence of his surroundings. Imagine Stringer telling you that a vote for him would stop the rising ocean. From him, you would believe it. That’s the impression the show gives from the start: waste. Later on, the show-runner David Simon published his opinion that there should be no criminal prosecutions relating to drugs unless an innocent party got hurt. He meant that the war against drugs was unwinnable. But he scarcely needed to put us on formal notice: the show conveys no other message. This is the Waste Land; and in its beginning is its end. Nothing can fix this. Entertainment never looked more bleak.

But entertaining it was. I saw my first episode of The Wire when I was in Australia, and I flew home to England already programmed to buy a box as soon as I landed. The first character to catch my eye and ear was Jimmy McNulty, played by Dominic West, the Eton alumnus who came to world prominence through a switch of accent and a plunge into the unknown. In a context where most of the cops, like most of the crooks and victims, are black, there was no compulsion to make the hero white except to avoid the same ratings as a rerun of Shaft on a junk channel in the early morning. As things turned out, The Wire never did get the ratings, just as it never got the awards; but it was an instantaneous and enduring succès d’estime with an intelligent audience worldwide, and if my own case counts, then that appreciation had something to do with gratitude for seeing the question of color treated with such bravery, which is to say, with such a lack of sentimentality. The leading outlaws in the show—Avon Barksdale, Marlo Stanfield, Omar Little, Proposition Joe, and the whole bunch of lethal adolescents jostling to replace them—aren’t dumber than McNulty: it’s just that most of them didn’t learn anything in school, because the school was just another branch of needle park. McNulty’s colleague Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce), who did learn something, makes a fitting, smart-talking friend: they get drunk together very well, and the time they visit the crime scene together and say nothing but “fuck” every time they find a piece of evidence is the one scene in modern television that everyone in the family can quote if allowed to. (My wife, normally resistant to the putative charm of foul-mouthed male dialogue, laughed her head off.) But McNulty, if we ourselves are white, is our representative traveler down into the nightmare: as Dante says of himself in Inferno XXVIII, he stays in the ditch to watch the ruined people, how they spend their time.

McNulty’s story on its own could have made a series: as a highly believable magnet for women, Ted Hughes with a gun, he could have sustained a plotline in which he did nothing between making arrests except get his rocks off in various directions. But part of the show’s lavishness is that McNulty is only a single thread in the sad tapestry we see before us as we go in. It looks like chaos, but the chaos proves to have a pattern: the drug-runners own the corners, and every corner is a center of a circularity, where the supply arrives from the upper level of distributors and leaves again in the hands of the consumers. Somewhere at the top of the upper level is a kingpin, monitoring his own system while he prepares himself against incursion from other kingpins.

It’s a whole society, except that it’s entirely antisocial. Very soon the show works the magic trick of any successful myth, and convinces you that the phantasmagoria you see in front of you is real and inevitable, and that the major characters are aspects of your own complex personality. I have no trouble seeing myself as Idris Elba. It’s as easy as seeing myself as Denzel Washington. (I speak as the kind of Denzel fan who watches Man on Fire again every time it comes on screen.) Stringer Bell has beauty; grace; brains; energy. Why, this man is me! So of course he has to kill a few people here and there. Just as long as he continues with his programme of self-education in business practice, which will surely save him from the cycle of death. One of the show’s many triumphs is that we are so thoroughly convinced that Stringer Bell is an invulnerable mastermind right up until the moment when he gets blown away, and that he gets blown away so casually, as in one of those real-life tragedies that make real life so hard to bear. On the other hand the trash scavenger Bubbles (Andre Royo) lives forever, though he has no powers to defend himself. We have art in order not to perish from the truth, as Nietzsche said in a notebook: a remark that Camus cites in The Myth of Sisyphus when telling us how to survive in an absurd world. Nietzsche, Camus, and Bubbles, The Wire’s philosopher with a shopping cart full of scrap.

The terra nullius of The Wire is an absurd world that works. At the cost of occasionally killing even someone like Stringer, and of eventually quite possibly killing everybody, the drug world continues indefinitely. Its plan of organization, however, is defined with clarity; and the plan is what fascinates, to the extent that the second season seems comparatively negligible when it moves away from the drug-dealing areas to the docks and puts the action in the hands of a few corrupt white stevedores and standard imported Greek and Balkan heavies. There aren’t enough black people. A few containers get parked profitably in the wrong place; a few foreign cars get heisted; but that’s as fascinating as the skulduggery ever gets, although some might say that the Port Authority officer Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan), who finds thirteen corpses in one container, is fascinating enough to make up the difference. Back in the days of On the Waterfront, the corrupt union bosses took a percentage of everything that moved in and out of New York. On the Baltimore waterfront they are taking a piece of a diminished traffic. The real action is back in town, to which, thankfully, we are frequently referred in subplots during the second season; and from the third season onward the various narrative lines are all directly concerned with the main event, which is how the black people live in a postindustrial residential landscape, and how easily they die. The docks are interesting enough, but it’s in the houses that we are faced with a more complex and inexhaustibly interesting code of misbehavior.

And that’s what we get: a code. The show makes the move that will ensure its greatness when it takes us into the network of expertise by which the drug hustlers work their sad supremacy. The key is in the communications between the bosses and the minions on the corners. The messages are coded. Listening in to the phones of the miscreants (the show ought rightly to be called The Tap, not The Wire, but let that pass), our basement full of cops have to crack the code or lose the battle. Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) is our mastermind in charge, but detective Ronald “Prez” Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), a white guy of Polish background with an established rep as a violent klutz, is the one who comes up with the goods, almost as much to his own surprise as ours. The code depends on the dialer touching or skipping certain buttons on the touch-tone dial. It’s simple to use but hard to figure out. The smart move of the script at this point is to follow the figuring out. Luckily the code, though complicated enough to be plausible, is just simple enough to allow this treatment. The result is screen magic. Almost always, elsewhere in screen history, to show the characters solving a technical puzzle is a formula for screen death, or else the matter is fudged, resulting in screen stupidity. One need only think of the 1980 mini-series Oppenheimer, in which the script avoids both the physics and the engineering of the atomic bomb, leaving us with nothing but a character analysis of the hero. Nor do any of the television or movie accounts of the World War II code-breaking at Bletchley Park come anywhere near making a drama out of the problem: they make their drama out of the characters. (Take a look at what Charles Dance has been given to do in The Imitation Game—grit his teeth and keep growling that the code must be cracked by dawn—and you get some idea of just how grateful he must have been for his long and manifold role as Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones). Between them, Robert Harris, who wrote the novel Enigma, and Tom Stoppard, who wrote the screenplay, get close to transmitting the Bletchley thrill, but they can do so only by developing the subject into a spy story about how Saffron Burrows and Kate Winslet crack the secret of the Katyn massacre. Nobody cracks the actual Enigma code except by looking tense. They might as well be sucking pencils. Not even Stoppard, who has a mind in the Bletchley league, can show a mind at work. An image just can’t do it, unless the puzzle is almost within our grasp.

In The Wire we see Prez make the leap. It’s pure screen drama. Fittingly, Prez has another such moment at the end of the final season, when, in his new persona as a successful schoolteacher—having been useful in the fight against the drug lords was what put him on the road to fulfillment—he realizes that a treasured pupil is not going to escape the drug world after all, but is being sucked back down to doom. Along with the bid by the white “Tommy” Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) to replace a black mayor, education is one of the big themes in the later chapters. The good guys, like Prez, put every effort into it, but they can’t win the youngsters away from the bad guys, because really there is no good and bad, there is just the system. An even bigger theme is even more depressing: the black senior policeman Major Howard (“Bunny”) Colvin (Robert Wisdom), definitely a good guy, gets the impossibly bold idea of establishing his district as a zone where drugs are effectively legal as long as the gunfire stops. For a while it seems to work, but that’s just why it can’t last. So the total effect of the show is entirely pessimistic: a rare event in American culture. The show-runners are essentially saying that in the postindustrial landscape, with no real work for anyone to do, the black minority becomes the majority only through being locked into its depressed status as a subclass. David Simon went far enough toward deserving our applause for such an unflinching view of circumstances determining behavior. We can’t ask him, in his screen work, to raise the question of whether there might be such a thing as an individual choice independent of determinism. It should be noted, however, that in his off-screen work, he did so, if only at one point: in his real-life book of reportage The Corner he brings on a young black character who is so gifted at legitimate business that he looks like breaking out of the deadly system which has brought all his contemporaries to early ruin. Having built up a bank balance of money legitimately earned, the character is sufficiently excited by achievement; but he eventually takes a taste of the poison anyway, and likes it. So down he goes into the same pit as everybody else.

In my crowded memory of the show, which I might not have time to sit through again while I yet live, two things stand out even in a maelstrom of outstanding things: the androgynous young enforcer Snoop (Felicia Pearson), who shoots people simply because she likes it, and Lester’s discovery of the nailed-up houses in which the bodies have been left to rot in their thin dusting of quicklime. Of The Wire, so full of life—who wouldn’t like to get drunk with Bunk?—the abiding image is of a City of the Dead. It’s all so cruelly pointless that it makes you long for a real crime.