This is America, man

Michael Wood

A detective is chatting to a young local at a crime scene, the body a few feet away, all the technicians and policemen going about their business. What has happened, the boy says, is that the dead man, who has been coming every Friday to a craps game on the street and snatching all the money as soon as the pot grew large enough for him, got killed because one of the other players ran out of patience. Or ran further out of patience than usual: usually they just beat him up. The detective is puzzled by the back story. If the man stole the money every time, why did they let him play for so long? The boy says: ‘Got to. This is America, man.’ We get a quick glimpse of the staring eyes of the corpse, and the credits start to roll. The first season of The Wire has begun.

The meaning of the explanation seems clear enough: brutal and old-fashioned, or entrepreneurial, if you prefer. This is the land of opportunity, and an opportunity is an obligation. You take what you can when you can, until you can’t. Everybody knows this. But gradually, as the episode develops its complicated and multiple plot lines, we realise this is not what the boy meant at all. The dead man was connected to the local drug lord, and so it would have been (it was) extremely unwise to stop him doing exactly what he wanted to do. ‘This is America’ means power is at the heart of every story, and understanding power is the way to stay alive. The drug lord keeps his men out of jail by threatening witnesses or having them murdered, and there is nothing the police can do about it. Indeed for most of the time and for various reasons (hopelessness, habit, the need to massage crime statistics, the internal politics of the police department, the image requirements of elected officials), they are supposed to do nothing about it. ‘Live and let live’ is the motto, or rather ‘Let deal and let die.’ The city is Baltimore. The first season of The Wire ran for 12 more episodes after this one, from June to September 2002, and now runs whenever you feel like slotting the DVDs into your machine. There was a hiatus after season Three, which ended in December 2004. Seasons Four and Five picked up just under two years later.

The creator of The Wire is David Simon, who wrote many of the episodes and by the third season was executive producer. He is a reporter who became a full-time writer of books: Homicide (1991) and, with Ed Burns, The Corner (1997), both of which were turned into successful TV series. Both concern drugs and death in Baltimore; Simon has said that ‘what drugs have not destroyed, the war on them has.’ The Wire is different, though: more ambitious, more grounded, more analytical. The subtitle of Homicide is ‘A Year on the Killing Streets’, and the text has fine noirish lines like ‘you go back to your desk and wait for another call from the dispatcher, who sooner or later will send you out to look at another body. Because in a city with 240 murders a year, there will always be another body.’ This sounds like probability rather than detection. It’s true that the line ‘This is America’ also appears in Homicide, but the overall effect is not one of understanding this murderous world, only of eerie and meticulously detailed helplessness. There is plenty of helplessness in The Wire too, but everyone knows what everything means.

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[*] The Wire: Truth Be Told by Rafael Alvarez (Canongate, 582 pp., £20, October 2009, 978 1 84767 598 9).