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.

It’s hard to make this distinction precise enough, and Simon himself wavers wildly in the task, or in a very similar one. He wants to separate HBO from what he calls television, meaning whatever the major networks put out; and his cop show from all other cop shows. His latest stab, in the introduction to Rafael Alvarez’s rambling but useful book about The Wire, is perhaps the boldest: ‘Swear to God, it was never a cop show.’[*] It was never various other things either: ‘The Wire was not about … crime. Or punishment. Or the drug war. Or politics. Or race. Or education, labour relations or journalism.’ This rhetoric is clearly heading for trouble. After such denial, what forgiveness? Well, The Wire, Simon says, ‘was about the City. It is how we in the West live at the millennium, an urbanised species compacted together, sharing a common love, awe and fear of what we have rendered not only in Baltimore or St Louis or Chicago, but in Manchester or Amsterdam or Mexico City as well.’ Of course it’s good to go for the big argument if that’s where your ambitions lie. But what Simon says The Wire is not about seems huge to me, and West Baltimore is a lot more concrete than the collective declining West. Give us back our crime and punishment, our drugs, politics and race.

Fortunately, this is what Simon does. He is just grandstanding in the sentences I've quoted, and he has two other apparently contradictory but actually identical arguments: The Wire is an anti-cop show; and The Wire is a cop show but different from all the others. It’s anti because it’s different. ‘No one … can watch anything like CSI or NYPD Blue, or Law & Order again without knowing that every punch was pulled on those shows.’ Every punch? In this instance Simon is pitching his show to its future producers, so he has to go for it. But the claim is going to ring a bit hollow to anyone who likes these other series, glossy as they are, or thinks Hill Street Blues and LA Law are among the best things American television has ever done. I don’t really doubt the authenticity of The Wire, its proliferation of unpulled punches, but it isn’t good because it’s authentic, it looks authentic because it’s good, and if one day I learn that Baltimore cops and criminals do not deduce and die and kill with the magnificent style they show in this series, I shall be unsurprised and undisappointed.

In fact, what makes The Wire so good is not what it is, or what it is about, but how it plays and how it looks: how it’s written and how it’s shot. Consider some of that killing and dying, for example. In Season Five a drug dealer we have come to know well, Proposition Joe, a sort of godfather and chairman of the board among the gangsters, begins to fear for his life. He is fearing the wrong person as it happens, but he is right to fear. Enter Marlo Stanfield, the cool and evil king of the drug world in the later parts of the series. He seems to be alone, but Joe knows the visit isn’t good news. ‘I treated you like a son,’ Joe says. Marlo replies, with an indifference that amounts almost to kindness, ‘Wasn’t meant to play the son.’ Then, as a shadowy figure, Marlo’s hitman, appears behind Joe, Marlo says: ‘Close your eyes. It won’t hurt none.’ Now we see the gun to Joe’s head and the hitman’s face. Joe closes his eyes. Marlo says: ‘There. There now. Joe, relax. Breathe easy.’ He nods at the hit man, we scarcely hear the shot. End of episode. At the start of the next episode a man who has known all about the killing, and done nothing to stop it, chats about how much he liked Joe, how much he meant to the community. ‘Joe will be missed. Very much missed. He was a hard man not to like.’ Marlo nods. He doesn’t disagree but he wasn’t meant to play the person who does a lot of agreeing either. He says: ‘Tomorrow ain’t promised to no one.’

This is so stylish you almost think you are at the movies. Joe is played by Robert Chew, a vast, creepy, cunning whale of a man. Marlo is Jamie Hector. He looks like a sleek teenager and is a master of the most minimal (but unmistakable) changes of expression. Simon says Marlo represents ‘that strange combination of self-love and self-loathing that rarely dares speak its name openly’. This makes sense, and Simon should know. But it isn’t quite what we see. What we see is a man who is wary but confident; elegant; not cruel, merely (from his point of view) pragmatic. In another kind of show he would get his comeuppance for being so much cooler than we are, but here at the end, with everyone else dead or demoted or in prison, he walks away with all his money, puts on a suit and moves into high-end real estate. This is America, man.

And of course this cop show does have cops, all kinds of cops. Every self-respecting fictional police detective, from Morse to Tennison and from Starsky to Hutch, tussles with an obstructive superior who sits behind a desk; but the cops in The Wire are faced with desks behind desks, superiors above superiors, each one closer to the local politicians and especially the mayor, who most of the time wants to be governor. There are many political zones in The Wire, and the mayor’s office is an important one. There is also the dying world of the Baltimore Docks in Season Two, and the only slightly less dying world of the Baltimore Sun in Season Five. Still, the heart of the thing, as it should be, is cops and robbers, or more precisely cops and dealers. The cops have virtue on their side, some of the time, and the dealers have sharp organisation, money and even the law on their side most of the time. What are cops to do if they want to solve crimes rather than wait comfortably for their retirement? In one large sense the whole series is a set of inventive answers to this question. I think of Marlene Dietrich’s epitaph for the Orson Welles character in Touch of Evil: ‘He was a great detective and a lousy cop.’ He understood crime, that is, but didn’t care about the law. The detectives in The Wire are, mainly, goodish detectives and excellent cops, but the law doesn’t help them much, and sometimes they have to get around it.

There are many memorable figures among these detectives, and many people would pick out Lester Freamon and Bunk Moreland, played by Clarke Peters and Wendell Pierce respectively, both of whom reappear in David Simon’s new series Treme, and Kima Greggs, played by Sonja Sohn. Lester is the sly intellectual, Bunk is the solid guy who feels a lot more than he lets on, and Kima is the bustling smart woman who was a lesbian in the early seasons, but seems to have forgotten her sexuality in the later episodes – or maybe the writers just decided not to let her remember. But the source of most of the energy and turmoil among the detectives, along with most of the action, is Jimmy McNulty, played by Dominic West, the roaring, oversexed, hard-drinking Irish-American cop of legend and cliché. It’s a tribute to West’s disciplined acting (every excess perfectly timed), and to the writers of the series, that this cliché never for a moment feels tired. Another case of style turning into vivid substance.

Two other fine instances of the same magic are the montage sequences at or near the end of Seasons Four and Five. In Four we see, set to a Paul Weller song, all the bits and pieces of the world laid out like a memory or a promise, a sort of album of moving snapshots. One of the street kids is going to school instead of hanging out on the corner – maybe. McNulty stares at a photo of Marlo Stansfield. Marlo and his hitman work out a few drug supply details. Other detectives, faced with a list of 23 unsolved murders, go over the ground once again. A lawyer and a police chief lunch with the mayor. Other kids work their corner. A group of even younger kids is scolded for just hanging around. A sweet-looking young black man helps his little brother with his homework before he goes out to drop a gun down a drain – the weapon he used for a small piece of housekeeping on a character we can scarcely remember.

Close to the end of Season Five the montage simply shows the city in various lights and from various angles. The narrative information here is ‘Time passes’: darkness succeeds to dusk, daylight returns, there’s a lurid sunset over the river. We see skyscrapers, traffic, a brightly lit police station, the offices of the Baltimore Sun, a skyline, ragged housing projects beneath a highway. There is no music, only a selection of city sounds, horns, car engines, tugboats droning. And there is no drama, no recounting or announcing any of the story, none of the characters we know. This is a perfectly timed visual version of Simon’s claim about the city as his subject, except that here, with the plot as wrapped up as it is ever going to be, the message is not the decline of the West but a long, baffled goodbye to a scene made beautiful by the camera and by our sense of what has happened here. What has happened has not itself been beautiful, and this is true in a special sense of Season Five, which is more about fakery than about violence and crime: faked evidence at the police station, faked stories at the newspapers, the usual lies in the mayor’s office. But if punches have not been pulled, still every punch has looked and sounded beautiful, and the curious, lyrical regret registered and provoked by this montage is an acknowledgment of a double moment: the end of various lives and careers within the narrative and the end of our pleasure as viewers.

If we put the two sequences together, we can hold the city (home of dealers of all kinds) and the City (the imaginary civic stage on which we watch what we imagine we have become) in a single thought. Business as usual is an unending nightmare; but this grand nightmare is ending with a terrific grace.

Part of the lure of The Wire, of course, is its drawn-out storylines. Not only are there multiple narratives in any given episode, but a single complex story threads its way through a whole season. This is a method that creates both a sort of viewing leisure, and an unusual, slow-burning suspense. Richard Price, the author of Clockers and Lush Life, who worked on several episodes, calls The Wire a ‘Russian novel of an HBO series’, and Simon himself is fond of this metaphor too, speaking of ‘a novel for television’. We need to be careful not to lose the drama and the visual flair of the series by insisting too much on the metaphor, but it does signal the notion of living with fictional characters over time, returning with them to fresh scenes in an old place. This is exactly what Simon is doing with his new series, Treme, named for a neighbourhood in New Orleans and set in the aftermath of the Katrina disaster.

It’s too early to make any serious assessment of the series – it’s only four parts old as I write – but it’s clear that Simon wants to put to use everything he has learned in his earlier work, and to do something slightly different. There are lots of storylines here, no overarching narrative that I can see yet, and a diverse array of characters. They have family troubles and money troubles, there is music everywhere, and the failed (and in many cases worse than failed) official response to the hurricane makes Baltimore politics look very local. It’s all very slow, engaging but not gripping. Couldn’t we have said this of The Wire in its first few episodes? Well, it was slow, but it didn’t feel scattered. What made it better than Homicide, for example, as a TV series, was the absence of familiar actors and steady old tropes, the absence of merely wasted, semi-glamorous screen time. And what made it gripping was the sense of an insidious system, what Simon calls the bureaucracy among the gangsters as much as among the cops and politicians. Whenever something happened, it happened as part of a desperately consistent world, not just a historically specified place, and this is also part of what the metaphor of the novel makes us think about.

Let me evoke another killing, or rather the feel of a killing, as an illustration. One of the most haunting characters in the whole series is Snoop, played by Felicia Pearson. She is described as androgynous in the Alvarez book, but we don’t have any real doubt about her sex: just about her age (she could be a little old lady or an infant), and about anything she says (her drawling jargon could give anti-elocution lessons to us all). Her smooth, moon-round face, her neat corn-rows, her slumped posture, generate an air of innocence, totally contradicted by her affectless performance of her job as Marlo’s other bodyguard/assassin. She kills people the way others drink coffee – well, with less interest perhaps. But her time comes too. The young man we have seen dumping a gun and helping his brother with his homework takes a drive with her in an SUV. She thinks she is delivering him to a destination of some sort, but she is his destination. He asks her to turn off into an alley so he can take a pee. She does this, but he doesn’t leave the car, just pulls a gun. She is not surprised. ‘You was never one of us,’ she says. ‘You never could be.’ Then she turns her head away, looking into the side-mirror, and says: ‘How my hair look, Mike?’ He says, ‘You look good, girl,’ and shoots her.

The resemblances here to the killing of Proposition Joe are obvious: the calm, the fatalism, the futility of discussion, the sense of merely reasonable behaviour, an undertone of impersonal courtesy or kindness. But there is a difference. Joe was a thinking man who thought he could beat the system. He was wrong – because he was a thinking man, a believer in alternatives. Snoop is a psychopath who knows the system can’t be beaten, only lived with for a while before it kills you. She is right about the world of The Wire, because it is a complete world of its own, and because the implacable logic of its corruption, unlike the messy, multiple logics of the world we live in, cannot fail.

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