Watching every episode of all 5 series of The Wire was an endeavour quite different to the other viewings of DVD box sets which I undertook during my hiatus in terms of both quantity and, more importantly, quality. It is one of those, relatively rare, items which undoubtedly belongs on both my blogs (which is why it appears on both!).
Writing anything about The Wire on the basis of a single viewing is almost inevitably going to be naive, inadequate and jejune. Is this ‘the greatest television ever made’? I don’t know, but I do recognise that one could make a serious case for this claim, and that alone indicates its stature, standing, weight and importance. And it also means that there is a very substantial literature already in place so that if I were to begin to write anything seriously I would need not only to watch the entire sequence again, but also to read some, at least, of the literature.
All I will do here is briefly draw attention to what I see as the main reasons for The Wire’s claims and advance one single comparison which occurred to me when I finished watching the cycle. In terms of the reasons I think the first must be that the makers set out with a certain perspective they wanted to demonstrate : the way in which institutions effect those who are inside them, challenge and often warp individuality personalities. ‘Institution’ here is used in a very wide sense – the police, a drug cartel, a union, a political party, a bureaucracy, a school, a newspaper – and perhaps indeed a city itself. This overarching design informs the series and gives it a thematic consistency which lends tremendous weight. It is of course very far from the usual televisual or cinematic concern with the autonomous individual shown and examined in a multiplicity of forms. Only television or a novel sequence could really attempt an undertaking of this kind because it demands length. Sheer length. It would simply not be possible to deal in a similar way with a theme like this is a single film or book. The Wire is preeminently sociological. To say this is not to deny that there are many fascinating individual characters studies – far from it – which engage and move the viewer. But the preeminent concern is with individuals in society and institutions and the effect of the latter upon them.
A key demand which a series of this kind makes is that it be watched in its totality. This is where the risk comes in. The Wire’s genius is only revealed to those who watch the entire series, and that of each series is only revealed by those who persist to the end of it. This is indeed a high risk strategy, particularly in terms of a television series. Indeed I would admit that after a couple of episodes I was quite unable to see what the fuss was about and was tempted to give up. Almost ironically I might have done so if I had been well and therefore had a lot of other options available; as it was given that the choice was golf or cricket I persisted! The Wire in fact, like much great art (and whatever its precise standing in the ladder of television series it is certainly that), is hard. This is as it should be and means that the rewards are, as always, much more significant. This is really the second reason for the series’ claims – its weight and difficulty. These are also what making intelligent comments based on a single viewing so impossible. The complexity demands that one watches at least twice and preferably repeatedly. Another aspect of this is that it is very obvious that the makers refused to compromise. They stood out for difficulty. Taken together I think that the sense of overarching design, the thematic scheme, the breadth, the unconventionality, the depth and difficulty comprise the fundamental bases for The Wire’s claims as truly great, at the very least, television.
I want finally here (and it is my hope that in the future I will find time to re-watch The Wire and write with more intelligence about it) to discuss one comparison which occurred to me. This only came to me fully with the concluding sequences to Episode 5; in other words the way in which the series is ended. The comparison is to Antony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time (Dance) sequence. Now it is probably a common-place to observe that The Wire has something of the features of a roman-fleuve: I quote the excellent Wikipedia definition….
The roman-fleuve (French, literally “river-novel”) refers to an extended sequence of novels of which the whole acts as a commentary for a society or an epoch, and which continually deals with a central character, community or a saga within a family. The river metaphor implies a steady, broad dynamic lending itself to a perspective. Each volume makes up a complete novel by itself, but the entire cycle exhibits unifying characteristics.
This description, with appropriate alterations, fits The Wire perfectly (this is especially true of the last sentence if we substitute ‘series’ for ‘volume’) and my observation both as to this and as to the series’ novel-like qualities are undoubtedly hackneyed. But there is something different or additional about Dance as a sequence which is only fully seen in the last book. This is circularity. Events repeat themselves. Not in exactly the same way and sometimes with different characters. But sufficiently to suggest that the underlying philosophical or literary perspective is fundamentally circular. Now it should at once be observed that in some ways this disqualifies both Dance and The Wire as roman-fleuve since the notion of a circular river is tautologous and circularity is not ‘dynamic’. However I think that the first sentence of the definition is the important and commonly understood one so do not wish to pursue this wider discussion.
What I do want to come back to is this circularity. In The Wire this is shown in numerous ways with various characters either reenacting scenes from much earlier in the series, even using the same lines on occasion, or a different character embarking on a career which is clearly going to follow the trajectory of another character who has died ( Michael ‘becoming’ Omar is possibly the clearest example of this). There are of course many example in Hearing Secret Harmonies (the last volume of Dance) the most famous being Murtlock’s reincarnation of Trelawney and Widmerpool’s running. It is vital to emphasise that in neither television series or book is the circularity ever exact. There is always due weight given to the differences between individuals and circumstances. But in a wider sense, in both cases, while an individual character may be much changed, chiefly by experience and age, from the point at which they started (Jimmy in The Wire, Nick in Dance) the world, or at least the world with which each is concerned, has not. Now this circularity is something of a rare thing in either film, television or novel. The natural tendency of the narrative form is to progression (or possibly regression), to some kind of movement, some kind of conclusion. It is probably a deeply desired development for the reader/viewer. And both Dance and The Wire offer us those kind of consolations through the trajectories of Nick/Jimmy. But as a philosophical/literary/televisual conceit the notion of circularity is immensely powerful.
One interesting aspect of this circularity is its political implications. It can certainly be right-wing. Nothing changes and human efforts to make things change for the better are at best ill-advised and at worst venal, self-seeking , corrupt and disastrous (when they take the form of revolutions). I think this is why many readers and enthusiasts for Powell are right-wing. But, and I think this may be what amazes some of the aforesaid right-wingers about some of Powell’s fans (Tariq Ali is the most prominent example), another conclusion is very left-wing: namely that reformism, tinkering with existing institutions, trying to reform them from within, is doomed and only a revolution which completely re-orders society will lead to real change: until then we are indeed trapped in a history which repeats itself. Now it is true that Powell’s intention and beliefs were unquestionably right-wing. I am sure he would have been uncomfortable with left-wing readings and these do have to be somewhat counterintuitive. But when one sets Dance alongside The Wire (not that I am suggesting the makers of the latter are preaching revolution) the left-wing reading becomes clearer. There are two responses to circularity – one is that it is the natural order of things and the resultant melancholy and stasis is desirable and in some ways peaceful and desirable; the other is that you need to blast away the walls which make the water flow in this way and create a non-circular path for it flow down (I realise this over-extends the river direction metaphor!). If Dance would tend to suggest the former, The Wire would tend to suggest the latter. But these are just tendencies with many reservations.
These political reflections are something of a digression. My basic point is that I perceive similarities in the concluding circularities and repetitions (with their own variations) of both The Wire and Dance to a Music of Time. Both are, I believe, fundamental to the works’ overall integrity and brilliance of conception and execution. They leave the viewer/reader with a peculiar sense of melancholy (I know this is straight from Powell but he was clearly well aware of this effect) which is far from unsatisfying – it manages to be both downbeat and yet uplifting. How or why this is so I am not enough of either a literary theorist (although I doubt they would concern themselves with such trivialities as emotional effect) or psychologist to start to ascertain. What matters, in any case, is the extraordinary connection and comparison between two such outwardly different works. And in fact their endings are only the start of this, as there are many other comparisons – in terms of the use of characters both on-going and occasional, the paralleling of situations and institutions (for when one thinks about it Powell too is fascinated by institutions – school, social world, artistic world, army etc.) and the varying of emotional state – which would be valuable in thinking about and further understanding what makes both novel and television sequence so great.