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September 11, 2006



"[D]epiction of liberal society in decay" seems like a more accurate description of The Wire than the usual "trenchant rendering of the plight of..." praise. Put that way, it sounds like The Wire is sequentially undermining all the appeals that liberals have made in their (our, really) quest for a ruling plurality: law, solidarity, rights/liberty, "the children."


The Wire isn't really undermining those appeals--just showing how the institutions of liberal society are already in decline.

Political liberals might have built those institutions, but the problem is larger than any one political philosophy. It's classical liberalism in the largest sense, the rule of law as determined by the people, that's at stake. The Wire simply admits that all the institutions built to solidify that rule--representative government, civilian-controlled police, public schools, manufacturing jobs that enabled the working class to live like the middle class for a while--are crumbling. One of the culprits it names is the large-scale abandonment of public institutions, especially in black inner cities. Another is the militarization of civic institutions like law enforcement (a theme from season three that bears a lot more discussion). Another is the disappearance of American manufacturing. These are fundamentally liberal (as in modern left-wing liberal) critiques of a post-liberal society.

Brian Nicholson

Courtesy of Matt Fraction, I find out that The Wire has been renewed for a fifth season, and that it will cover the mass media. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr/television/brief_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003121184#TheWireHBO


That's welcome news! Last Saturday Simon said he didn't know if there'd be a fifth season--I wonder if he was diplomatically waiting until HBO announced it or if word really just came down.


I didn't know O'Malley was running for governor. That certainly adds a layer to a show that already has plenty going for it. God, a dying newspaper would be *perfect*.

I trust the show to do the usual excellent job on the civic institution end of season 4-- but I'm curious how they possibly hope to make the criminal institution end of season 4 as riveting as the Barksdale story was in season 3, especially as much as they've set up in the first episode that Marlo's organization is so much less sophisticated. I trust they have something pretty horrifying up their sleeve which sort of adds to the tension this season. one episode in, anyway.



I wouldn't be so quick to minimize Marlo's sophistication. Freamon's been up on his crew's phones long enough to need a wiretap-warrant extension, but he doesn't know anything about the murders. We saw two just in the first episode, and Snoop's old nailgun appeared to be well-used in the first scene.


Yeah, it looks like Marlo is going for low-tech means of surveillance avoidance (dumping bodies in the abandoned rowhouses, discussing all the important stuff like murders in person rather than on the phone) whereas Barksdale and Bell went for the higher-tech, higher-cost option of dumping burners and building isolated networks. Both are pretty appropriate for their bosses' personalities; so far it looks like the low-fi option is equally effective, at least until the police realize they haven't thought of it yet.

I was wondering how the show would handle Marlo's relative lack of experience. I was glad to see they made him a novice about electronic surveillance, as he should be, but I'm even more glad to see they've made him clever in new ways that may stymie a unit that's gotten very good at its game.

Abhay: there's even more to the Wire/O'Malley relationship, possibly a full-on feud. I need to put that up in the weeks to come. And then there's the stuff about how Freamon and McNulty both incorporate elements of the real-life inspiration for Frank Pembleton, the latter as a pretty harsh critique. Probably enough material for a full season of posts...

Dave Intermittent

Not sure it's really about the "decline" of institutions; I really don't get the sense that any institution on that show was ever treading a high and lofty path. I'm not sure Simon is ever going to say there was a golden age in Baltimore (but, I haven't scoured his interviews, so...). It's always seemed to me about how larger, nobler, institutional goals are always distorted by the more petty personal incentives its members.


You don't have to have a golden age to be in decline. The union in season 2 (and industrial America in general) clearly saw better days, and Bunny comments several times about how the police have degenerated from knowing their neighborhoods to warring on them. His monologue to Carcetti about the racist funeral home owner reminds us that the past wasn't all roses, but it's clear that these institutions used to do better than they are now.

It's always seemed to me about how larger, nobler, institutional goals are always distorted by the more petty personal incentives its members.

Maybe the opposite. McNulty's vendetta against D'Angelo Barksdale is petty and personal but it's also born from a desire to make West Baltimore a better place. (With the caveat that there will always be another Marlo ready to step into the gap.) That investigation is ruined by the police force's petty, impersonal institutional goals of quick, risky, worthless buy-busts and headline-grabbing drug seizures. Bunny's personal, ill-conceived project in Hamsterdam is born out of a noble desire to rewrite the rules of a rigged game and it makes the Western district better (at a cost, localized but intense) until institutional fear in the police, city hall, and the federal government crush it and undo everything. These institutions may have had noble goals once, as part of a liberal state that protected its citizens, but in the age of liberal decline they've warped into self-serving entities that war on their citizens as a means of self-perpetuation.

You know, I've long thought that Jim Henley would really enjoy season 3. Wish I'd told him that while HBO was rerunning it.

Dave Intermittent

The institutional fear you mention is really the fear of a certain layer of individuals within the force; buy-busts and media attention are encouraged because they provide good stats for the people who need stats to thrive. That's my point: the police force, as an institution, certainly still has it's heart in the right place; the problem is that actual individual officers act in ways that benefit--not the police force--but individual officers.

Anyway. Pet theory of mine, born of hard experience. If you had email, the stories I could tell. Sorry to get all "cranky old man" in your comments.


Maybe. But when that layer of individuals includes the mayor, the commissioner, and the deputy commissioner for operations, and when their goals support and are supported by the interests of the city, state, and federal governments, then they are the institution--they set the rules everybody else has to follow.

When we see officers acting as individuals in The Wire, they're likely to be mavericks acting on some personal code of what real police should do/once did: McNulty, Colvin, Freamon. (On the other hand, there's that patrolman who took Randy's money.) That can be poisonous and destructive in its own way--more on that soon--but they're the ones who have their hearts in the right place, not the Barrells and Rawlses.

Here's Simon from the Post Mortem to the new edition of Homicide:

Listening to Garvey over drinks that day, I came to realize that there was something emblematic here: that in postmodern America, whatever institution you serve or are served by--a police department or a newspaper, a political party or a church, Enron or Worldcom--you will eventually be betrayed.

I'd like to hear those stories, though. I'll drop you a line.

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