Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

The Dickensian Aspect: Thoughts on the Wire

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Spoilers for the last season of The Wire are below, if you haven’t seen it yet.

One of the clearest villains in the final season of The Wire is Baltimore Sun editor James Whiting, constantly instructing his reporters to uncover “the Dickensian aspect” in the stories they cover. For Whiting, prophet of the bottom-line, these appeals to Dickensian social realism are completely cynical as the rest of the management style that has eviscerated newspaper journalism in the Internet age. But there’s a self-critical irony here, and possibly even a bitter self-loathing, as The Wire in its final season has never been more Dickensian, nor its characters more typological. This aesthetic is made inescapably clear as the entropy of the series winds down in its final season, with most of its main characters defeated or destroyed (often by their own hands) and new characters arising to fill their necessary social space. The players change, but the game goes on.

The musical chairs surrounding the police commissionership, the drug “connect,” and various desks at The Sun are just a few salient examples of this. The Major Crimes Unit’s most quiet cypher, Lt. Sydnor, quite literally steps into McNulty’s shoes (and even his suit), taking up the slack as the last man standing from the unit. The most unrepentant and unsympathetic characters of the entire series, defense attorney Maurice Levy, seems to double himself twice in the final episode, taking both Herc and Stanfield on as corrupt protégés.

Most poignant for me—and even moreso for Jaimee—was Duquan’s slide into oblivion, reproducing the resurgent Bubbles just as clearly as Michael’s new brutality stepped into the void left by the superheroic Omar. Omar’s killer, another cold cypher, the demon child Kenard, has a thousand-yard stare on his face as he is led away at the end of the season that brings to mind the brutal stoicism of Marlo Stanfield.

(That last sentence contains the three moments from the season that stick more clearly with me. The one thing for the whole season I was spoiled for was Duquan’s use of heroin, so I had a few weeks to prepare for it—but it hit poor Jaimee like a ton of bricks at the end of episode 5.9. Omar’s shooting was so entirely unexpected that I refused to believe it had happened for several minutes, and only really accepted it when the body was zipped up at the end of the episode. And Bubbles’s final ascent from the basement to the kitchen was structurally obvious in retrospect, but totally unexpected until the moment it happened; I was nearly moved to tears.)

Seasons four and five of the show dance to the same score, the story of how the situation of late capitalism reproduces itself along explicitly Althusserian ideological status apparatuses like the school, the mayoral bureaucracy, mass media. The city of Baltimore becomes not a character, as some have said, but in some ways the only character—a reality that is best seen in the long montage at the end of the season, which stops following the characters we know and begins to flash shots of unknown, presumably authentic Baltimoreans, as the original theme song begins to play. We’re back where we started. In fact we never left.

In the face of this ideological steel trap my attention is drawn again to the few characters able to escape the grinding of the machine. The poignant, hopeful shot of Namond on Bunny Colvin’s porch that ended season four—which I said somewhere or another could have been a beautiful last shot for the series as a whole—is called back by the late discovery of a Namond who is now thriving as a champion debater. Pretty to think about—until we remember Randy, Michael, and Duquan, each with the same or more potential, just unluckier.

Likewise, Poot, the last of the original Barksdale kids—not the best, not the most worthy—is able to walk away from the game. He gets a job at Foot Locker. He seems happy.

Still more complicated is the ambiguous final image of Marlo Stanfield, cut in the street in his fine suit. Stanfield, always powered by an inexorable inner drive and an interiority that has always been totally inaccessible to the audience, remains just as frighteningly inscrutable at the end as he ever was. Is he going straight, as Stringer wanted but never could? Is he unable to stay off the street, like Avon? What is he thinking?

I’m sorry these thoughts are so late and so fragmented, but the show is much bigger than a single blog post. So here are a few others:

* A shot-by-shot commentary on the final montage from New York Magazine, alongside 10 Unanswered Questions and a last long, boozy Irish wake for the show.

* The MeFi thread.

* The American Prospect‘s roundtable.

* The Wire and women. This is a rather important topic I didn’t even get to in my ramblings above.

* Alan Sepinwall’s interview with David Simon, and his end of show recap. The House Next Door’s recap.

* Heaven & Here, The Wire blog.

* Kottke has a whole lot of other links, and I notice now that I’m finally going through my links that he keyed into the same doubling I wrote about above. He gets a few I didn’t mention, too: Carver is the new Daniels, Kima is the new Bunk…

Great show. Perfect, almost. In the last year and a half we’ve lost The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood… I’m afraid the Golden Age of Television finally ended last week.

Written by gerrycanavan

March 16, 2008 at 1:54 am

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