Why I Watch the Wire

June 29, 2017

Between 2002 and 2008, the critically-acclaimed but marginally-rated show The Wire ran on HBO. In the first episodes, the show appears to be yet another police procedural show, drowning in the white noise of shows like Law and Order or The Shield. The Wire began slowly, focusing on the struggle between the Baltimore police and the narcotic-dealing empire of the Barksdale family. Like other police procedurals, The Wire paid attention to the numerous casualties in this struggle: family relationships, corner boys, reputations. But it did something different than shows of this nature in two ways. First, it highlighted a diverse cast of black and white actors, drawing on the diversity of Baltimore itself. But secondly, and more audacious, Simon’s show began to build an entire world for its viewers.

After spending the whole first season on the struggle between the Barksdales and the police, the scene of the show abruptly shifts in the 2nd season to the docks of Baltimore—and after that, in Season 3, to city hall. Seasons 4 and 5 unpack the school system and the newspaper industry. Along the way, various characters and plot lines resurface and are woven back into other story arcs, but the world of The Wire rarely engages in nostalgia: characters—even fan favorites—were prone to be done away with as the relentless world of Baltimore rolled on. Real-life Baltimore natives criticized the way that Simon depicted various aspects of their city, but Simon, himself a veteran of the city’s newspaper, was creating what he called “a love letter” to his city, by showing both its promise and its abject failures.

In constructing an entire world, The Wire highlights a much more complicated way of approaching moral life than is often attempted. Let us take Season 4, which examines the public school system as an example. When a film like Stand and Deliver, or Dangerous Minds, or even one of my most beloved films, Dead Poets Society, explores the issue of how to fix a stagnant or failing school, the answer is universally given: find us an inspirational teacher! If only we could find an inspiring teacher willing to give themselves totally to the art of teaching, multiple lives could be saved! As a teacher myself, let me attest that there is no way to underestimate the value of a good teacher who prepares, exercises skill in their task, and attends to student needs.

But this is precisely the mythos that The Wire wants to deconstruct. By the time we get to the school system, viewers have watched as children are lured into the struggle between corner boy and cop, how the decisions of city hall are made in the abstract and bear out consequences in the concrete, and how neoliberal economics place restrictions on what resources can be spent on any social good, including education. And so, by the time Season 4 appears, the viewers know that there is more to saving education than having inspiring teachers, or even teachers (such as Roland Pryzbylewski) who go far beyond the school hours to try to rescue their students. Successful education is buffeted by innumerable factors: home life, hunger, city policies, racism, and fear—to name a few. Tragically, the world of The Wire does not shy away from showing how the struggles played out in the drug trade are played out in the schools, in ways which make the inspiring message of Dead Poets Society seem all too naive. If anything, The Wire shows how Mr. Keating’s enigmatic approach to pedagogy ignores the stresses outside the classroom which break his students apart.

The Wire can be a challenging watch for a Christian audience for other reasons. Vulgarities abound, even if they are elevated to an art form at times; a famous scene in Episode 4 of Season 1 is a masterclass on the various intonations and usages of the f-bomb. Nudity, adulteries, and moral double-dealing abound. So then, why The Wire? What is to be profited? Apart from the sheer artistry of the story-telling, which has propelled the show to the tops of multiple “All-Time Greatest Series” lists, the show is a powerful exercise in moral thinking. It forces the viewer to ask systemic questions about personal actions, and to think corporately about our piety.

Like many of the modern anti-hero shows, the problems faced by its people are not “church problems.” Churches, when they appear, are themselves swept up into the power dynamics of Baltimore politics, as pawns of one faction or another. This, too, has been criticized, that Simon’s vision of church does not account for many of the grassroots movements which sidestep the politics of city hall in their ministry. But for the most part—particularly in a post-election year—Simon’s criticisms of a church which seeks the goods of Rome rather than the city of God ring true.

Hope within Simon’s Baltimore is not absent, as some have suggested, but rather it is one which is cyclical and incremental, fragmentary and fleeting. The question of whether Simon’s vision of a renewed Baltimore, capable of democratic life and social flourishing, is too terrestrial is one worth asking. But in a different way, his work pushes the Christian viewer to ask in what ways God might be working—especially those which are hidden for the time being, or those which go unnamed by communities of faith. In what ways is the redemption of Baltimore taking place in the anonymous spaces where Bubbles—the drug addict magnificently depicted by Andre Royo—undergoes recovery and relapse? How is an ongoing story made of the descent of Michael (one of the schoolchildren of Season 4) into a life of criminality? In what ways should we see the hand of God in the deaths of The Wire’s secular martyrs?

Having watched the entirety of the series multiple times, I still find myself hoping for a different outcome to well-worn storylines. This is the nature of hope in The Wire: that the pieces through which redemption may come are already at hand, unrealized and in fragments. And this is the challenge for the Christian viewer: to learn how to attend to what goods may already be present for the healing of creation, by God’s grace.

About the Author
  • Myles Werntz is Director of Baptist Studies and Associate Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University, where he directs the Baptist Studies Center in the Graduate School of Theology. He is the author and editor of five books in theology and ethics, and writes broadly on Christian ethics of war and peace, immigration, ecclesiology, and discipleship.

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