I recently rewatched The Wire from start to finish, and it got me thinking.
(Warning: spoilers ahead. If you haven’t watched the show yet, go do it now.)
The Wire is often accused of being a pessimistic show, of depicting efforts to make social change as futile and doomed, and there’s some truth to that charge. The series’ five seasons are strewn with noble failed attempts to reform massive impersonal institutions.
But there’s another, more subtle and more hopeful, message lurking in that rubble, and it’s a message that’s got real relevance to student activists.
It’s true that The Wire depicts very few large-scale victories. But this is, I think, less a function of any intrinsic pessimism than of the demands of drama. If any of the schemes the show nodded to had been successfully implemented, The Wire would have risked becoming a mere policy paper for specific reforms, an axe-grinding exercise in “this is what you should do.” That would have been an artistically and intellectually unsatisfying path.
Could The Wire have done more to offer solutions to the problems it raises? Yep. This article, among others, suggests how. But its failures and defeats aren’t, for the most part, presented as inevitabilities. Yes, it argues, there are profound structural and institutional impediments to positive change. Yes, human frailty and weakness — and sheer bad luck — can undo the work of years in an instant. Yes, progress is fragile and regression is a constant threat. But it does make room for hope as well.
The Wire’s biggest, most compelling characters tend to be hacks or heroes.
The hacks — Clay Davis, Marlo, Herc, Levy, Burrell, and so on and on — are out for themselves, and uninterested in anyone or anything else. They generally prosper, though sometimes they do get eaten by bigger fish.
The heroes — McNulty, Omar, Stringer, Freamon, Sobotka — want the world to be different, and they’re not satisfied just wanting. They’re smart and savvy enough to see how things work, and audacious enough to try to fix what’s wrong. They’ve seen what happens when they try to go through channels, do things the way things are done, and they don’t have the patience for that. So they bend the rules, and then they break them.
The Wire’s heroes all fail, and it’s this fact, as much as anything else, that prompts the charges of cynicism leveled at the show. Some of the hacks thrive, and some of the hacks get taken down, but by the end of the fifth season, all the heroes are out of the game. (Those who work for the police have all been fired or forced to quit, and those who live outside the law are all, without exception, dead.)
But there’s a third category of characters in The Wire who collectively meet a very different fate. They’re with the heroes in seeing the flaws in the world as it exists, and in wanting the world to be different, but they’re not temperamentally inclined to go cowboy. They look for their chances to make small differences, stand up for what’s right when they can, and absorb all the punches they can absorb. They don’t have much use for grand gestures, and they’re skeptical — if at times admiring — of those who do. They just keep plugging away, doing what they can.
And at the end of the series, all of these pluggers are still plugging away. Kima and Bunk are still working homicides. Carver is rising through the ranks. Bubbles is still clean, and Walon is still running his meeting. Alma is still covering stories. and Gus is still editing them. Cutty has his gym, Prez has his classroom, and Pearlman has landed a seat on the bench. They’re all getting up in the morning, going to work, and doing what they do, and each one of them is making a difference in his or her own small way.
In the world of The Wire, as in the world of … well, the world, work is what makes stuff happen. You pay attention to the details, you learn from your mistakes, you check yourself and those around you, and you get stuff done. Probably not big stuff, probably not all the stuff you’d want, but you get stuff done.