Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Perspective on The Wire

You've probably been too busy following Lost or American Gladiators to pay much attention to The Wire, which is the best, and most disillusioning, show to ever cross the airwaves and not come into your house. I'm surprised I went seven weeks without talking about it, and I've been particularly shaken by the final season so far, walking away from three shows agape, "Holy shit..." This season's Institution of Massive, Unabashed Failure is the media, and the storylines explore what's been hinted at previously: the twisted, co-dependent relationship between the hegemony of news organizations and, the root cause of all the world's ills, you (yes, you) and your simple-minded complacency. Set a year after "A New Day in Baltimore" never materialized, the broke-ass city is still perpetually desperate for political capital but also actual, monetary capital. Carcetti sold his soul to the powerful upper-middle class white wing of the Democratic party, brushing off the governor's offer from last season and leaving the schools in the same unacknowledged decrepit, useless condition from last season. The cash crunch has reached into the Baltimore P.D.; the five percent raise Carcetti enthusiastically promised the police department is being paid out ━ or, more precisely, not paid ━ in sheets of office paper, to be redeemed on that glorious day when the city actually has a few coins in its coffers. The media, the once-venerable Baltimore Sun, not a real newspaper but "still a pretty good newspaper," is beset by similar financial privation and, suffering takeovers from the Los Angeles Times and then the Chicago Tribune, abandonment from a corporate structure with other things on its mind. The institutional mantra in Baltimore is "more with less," which is even more retarded than it sounds.

The one institution thriving in Baltimore's new day is the New Day Co-Op, and particularly Marlo, who's consolidating his power after a year-long hiatus while under scrutiny from the MCU. The MCU, which was shit-canned twice when the city did have money, is disbanded along with its investigation into the row house murders, and McNulty is shipped back to his perch, and continuing downward spiral, in homicide. This season, more explicitly than any of the others, asks how the common people, shlubs like McNulty, just trying to do their damn jobs for Christ's sake, get ━ that is, wheedle or extort ━ basic resources from The Powers That Be, y'all and your wallets, and what that makes them and their society. It would involve using you, an ATM for your own good, and examining the moral consequences later; I'm reminded of House: "I teach you to lie and cheat and steal...and as soon as my back is turned, you wait in line?" So The Wire presents three parallel scenarios: McNulty, after a lot of alcohol, tampers with crime scenes and old cases to manufacture a serial killer terrorizing Baltimore; Clay Davis finally faces exposure of the shady non-profits he's been skimming from; and a Sun reporter, Templeton, makes himself the paper's new golden boy by fabricating quotes and making up the news. How do we get what we want, what we're entitled to, or what we believe we're entitled to? We give you what that base, emotional, jumping to conclusions part of you wants ━ whatever that is, it's pretty cheap ━ and you reciprocate.

That's where the press comes in. The utopian idea is that the media is supposed to provide us with the information we the people need to run our country, it being a democracy and all, but with that in mind, I'm starting to realize how phenomenally irrelevant it is. I'm talking about the opening to the six o'clock news: a minute on someone shot in Rockaway Beach, another minute on somebody stabbed in Bayonne, then three people shot in Morrisania, all in critical condition, with some blonde reporter standing by at the hospital's ambulance bay. This, followed by, "Danger in the kitchen: which household product that you own can kill your whole family? We'll tell you, at eleven." What am I supposed to do with this "news?" More to the point, shouldn't we assume that all this, and the context it creates ━ You are not safe if you leave your home! Also, you are not safe in your home! Buy plastic sheeting and duct tape! ━ is bullshit anyway and the weather forecast is the most honest, straightforward part of the news?

So McNulty creates a "Homeless Strangler" character (that would be a guy who strangles the homeless, not a homeless guy who strangles ━ important difference), broadcasts it around, and gets nothing. I've always wondered this about the media, especially the sensationalist tabloids: in the exploitative, parasitic relationship between the papers and their readers, which comes first, the public's interest or the media's interest? The Chicago Tribune, being a business operating in a free market, would argue that they give their readership what it wants; as a (potential) reader, I note that my options are limited to what the media chooses to provide me. The serial killer story McNulty gives the press ranks somewhere in the middle of the Metro section. It seems formulaic: Alma's triple homicide story wound up in the same insignificant nether-zone. Number of victims, divided by how far on the fringes of society they were, plus salacious details equals location, with some bonus points for being white, an ex-cheerleader or pageant queen, missing in Aruba. Templeton, always the attention glutton, has to pretty much beg McNulty for some gripping detail for the story, something front-pageworthy, something the Post and Daily News could make a tasteless pun on.

Certain critics, who I respect even though I wish I had their jobs, read this, McNulty's serial killer yarn, as the moral decline that really costs him his soul. His transgression: making shit up? Deceiving people? He hits rock bottom ━ which is inane hyperbole in The Wire; rock bottom is more like Bubbs accidentally poisoning Sherrod ━ after giving Larry, a crazy homeless guy, a hundred bucks to relocate to Richmond and pretend to be the Strangler's next victim. Which is wrong, but morality on The Wire isn't merely a mess of gray areas but a complete condemnation of the right-and-otherwise dichotomy Sepinwall forces on it. (Oddly enough, Sepinwall lets this quagmire slide when it comes to Dexter: he does bad things for a good reason, but he's working through it.) There are bad consequences and there are bad consequences; so in this week's episode, Kima has to tell the parents of McNulty's crazy homeless man that their son, who they could no longer care for and had to let go on the street, was probably a victim of the Strangler. And it is awkward, quoth Sepinwall:

Last week, I talked about how Jimmy's abduction of Larry was the moment where he took his scheme way too far, but Kima's interview with the parents of an earlier "victim" show that Jimmy's actions have been reprehensible from the start. Sure, the dead guys are in no condition to care about what's being done to their corpses, but Jimmy's lie is devastating the family members. Like the parents say, it's bad enough to live with the knowledge that you didn't (or couldn't) prevent your son from killing himself with drugs and alcohol, but it's far, far worse to believe that you failed to protect him from being murdered and sexually molested.

Interesting, in a season that twice called out Sepinwall's medium (he's the TV critic for New Jersey's own Star-Ledger newspaper) for showing more sympathy for white victims than black victims, and for upper-class victims than poor victims, he complains about how McNulty's lies affect a white, middle-class family with nary a word about the twenty-nine (by my count) black people that Marlo had murdered, including our friends Bodie, Prop Joe, and Butchie. The Wire gives us this amazing omniscient panaroma, where the full butterfly effect of everyone's actions become clear, and still our own parochial viewpoint takes precedence. Let's review: The MCU's budget and personnel are slashed, Marlo immediately resumes consolidating his power. Marlo consolidates his power, he represses the West Side community, pays more to shady lawyer Maury Levy, makes more "donations" to Prop Joe's fake churches and New Orleans hospitals (which are likely connected to Clay Davis, especially given the land deal Nareese brokered for that drug dealer slash strip club owner), and in particular buys more heroin from the Greek. The Greek sells more, he ships more Slavic prostitutes to America in cargo containers, not to mention whatever he does with his implied terrorist connections. Reading in the paper that your son was murdered and molested (assuming the Sun printed that, even though there's no confirmation that Crazy Larry was either) must be horrible, maybe even almost as bad as being dragged to a vacant by Chris and Snoop, or working as a sex slave in freaking America.

It's not that Sepinwall's ethical take is wrong, especially given that, as I said above, McNulty isn't extorting resources because he wants to catch Marlo but because he thinks, as a homicide police, he's entitled to some resources. But The Wire is full of characters who make ethical decisions that are, let's say, short-sighted, and the degenerate world thrives on them. This season I may admire Bunk and Kima for doing the right thing, real policework (although it seems like Bunk wouldn't have re-opened the Marlo investigation if McNulty's selfish jackassery hadn't put him in a bind), but at least McNulty isn't taking the ethical shortcut the System lays out for him and passing responsibility to somebody else.

This attitude is persistent in Baltimore, under the guise of "fairness" and "political correctness." We saw the same thing last season in the schools, with our sympathies reversed because it was children at the bottom of the shithill instead of drug pushers. I'm thinking of the scenes where Donnelly socially promotes a finally thriving and clearly unready Dukie to high school, effectively ending his education. "Did I do something wrong?" he asks. No, it's just too much trouble, from the superintendent, the media, City Hall, having him in the school and she is long past that. "Have some kids of your own," she tells Prez, who's protesting Dukie's promotion, as if helping nobody is morally superior to helping just one person. All of these institutions that are supposed to make us civilized instead leave a Hobbesian world where there's no loyalty, and no altruism, to anybody but you and yours. Then the police complain that these gangsters won't snitch.