I spent my winter break watching The Wire, which has been on my watchlist for a long time.
Beyond curiosity about a hyped up prestige drama, the show was also a carrot dangled in front of me because of Fredric Jameson’s often-discussed 2010 essay “Realism and Utopia in the Wire.” Many people have spoken positively to me about the piece as a work of criticism–one that is especially interesting given it anticipates a form of social commentary on TV that has become a standard part of cultural criticism.
Now that I’ve finished the show, I was finally in a position to read Jameson’s piece.
As far as I understand his position: The Wire is a kind of post-procedural, which hybridizes elements from the organized crime romance, the thriller, and so on, set in a structure that blurs lines between “epic” literature and the instantly consumable evening television serial.
Jameson interprets the core problematic of the show through the lens of detective literature: the show is a mystery, rooted in the struggle of the detectives to uncover the truth about the various organized crime factions. The Major Crimes Unit, led by Lester Freamon and manipulating the wiretap itself, emerges as the protagonist of the show.
The article also stresses the fundamentally “sociological” character of the show. The investigation of the criminal underworld is as much an investigation of the nature of the city itself, an inner world hidden behind its phenomenal “appearance.” Thus, the discovery in question is not so much the target of the conventional whodunit, but really, a solution to “a whole milieu, the world of a whole society” (363).
This question of solution gets to the heart of Jameson’s deployment of the concepts of realism and utopia, to which I’ll return below. But, Jameson’s article helped me clarify some of my own thoughts.
What follows is an attempt to present a few of my thoughts in dialog with the essay. In general, I find much convincing in the piece, and some of what I do find objectionable strikes me as somewhat contingent. I wholeheartedly agree with Jameson’s framing of the show as a sociological work. Indeed, this fact is perhaps the show’s most interesting aspect.
I would present the thought in somewhat different terms. Baltimore itself is the subject of the show, and what is at stake in the program is the understanding of the city as a place. The Wire could perhaps be said to present a physiognomy of the city: an exploration of the contours of the world, locating its essence in the streets, buildings, and people–from the heights of power in government to the darkest corners of the schools, jails, housing projects, docks, drug corners, and homeless encampments.
I would add that the city is a subject in a second sense: Baltimore is the subject, the agent seeking information–as well as growth. The city is both the investigator and the investigated, taking itself as subject. Of course, I don’t mean this observation in any magical sense. The agency of the show is manifest in the sum total of the actions of its characters. What we encounter is their subjective experience, their growth as members of a dynamic, living city. Each and every figure, from Lester and Avon to the most minor of characters, is locked into a struggle for knowledge and power over their world.
I do think Jameson’s fixation on genre obscures this problematic a bit. (His puzzlement about the show is understandable. The prestige drama was still a somewhat novel form at the time, and perhaps might have presented some anxiety. Now, it’s perhaps obvious that even the least interesting shows in the format take for granted the synthesis of many discrete genre types–and an audience eager to half-attentively binge-watch.)
While a key aspect of the show is certainly the work of the detectives as they probe the depths of Baltimore, we quickly learn that there is no secret to be uncovered. We also learn that neither they nor anyone else are in a privileged position to solve the problem of the city.
Rather, as the show progresses, we experience many different, competing perspectives. First, there are other branches and factions within the police, who themselves struggle internally over power and resources. Then there are the politicians, the drug gangs, the unions, the reporters, and the school functionaries, set alongside dozens of other axillary institutions. Finally, there there are factions and sub-factions, all the way on down to isolated individuals such as Bubbles, Omar, and Brother Mouzone. Effectively, The Wire offers a tour of the entire social structure of the city.
In this sense, The Wire is less a detective story than a social phenomenology of Baltimore.
If the show about the development of Baltimore as a world of living social subjects, then a new group of questions emerge: where do we find Baltimore at the show’s end? Do the citizens of Baltimore progress in their struggles? Or, are they fundamentally inhibited in their path? Either way, what do we as viewers learn about the city?
In addition to his arguement about sociology, Jameson’s essay introduces a core dichotomy between realism and utopianism. This schema becomes relevant here.
Realism, as Jameson argues, centers in that attempt to understand the city as it is: an investigative impulse, the search for the unknown in a “society that must be opened up to representation and tracked down, identified, explored, mapped like a new dimension or a foreign culture” (362).
Utopianism, by contrast, is a “deliberate processes of transformation, to human projects, to the working out of Utopian intentions that are not simply the forces of gravity of habit and tradition” (365). Thus, it stands is at odds with the deterministic elements of social typology, reflecting a desire by actors to transform their world rather than be constrained by it. Utopianism is a view of the city as it could be.
Jameson interprets a number of gestures as indicative of this insuppressible strain of utopianism: Frank Sobotka’s wish that the union will help revitalize post-industrial Baltimore; Bunny Colvin’s attempt to “legalize” drugs; Pryzbylewski’s classroom experiments; and McNulty’s trick to restore funding to the police department. (There are a number of other examples, but I’d add two to the list of core utopianisms: Carcetti’s reform campaign and the work of the first Major Crimes Unit itself.)
The conclusion of Jameson’s essay is a tad ambiguous, and part of the argument seems to rely on an (unsubstantiated) claim that the utopian element of the show makes it unique in mass-cultural narratives. A real question persists about whether we should interpret these flashes of utopianism as appeals to some unquenchable spirit in the face of impossible odds, moments of naiveté in an otherwise determined universe, or something else.
I think recasting this question in terms of phenomenology is productive. If The Wire is about the life of the city, then by nature, it is concerned both with the understanding of and transfiguration of the city. Actors seek to understand their world as they seek to change it, so their actions are responses to an objective situation as much as they are critical gestures.
If this is the case, then the question more substantively concerns the extent to which the city of Baltimore appears susceptible to social transformation, the extent to which Baltimore can be changed for the better—and by whom. In other words, it concerns the question of narrative. Does The Wire present an optimistic story about Baltimore, or a fatalistic one?
Of course, if the show is a genre hybrid (and one that chronicles the lives of many discrete individuals), one might expect it even less it to follow a singular classical narrative schema. Elements of tragedy and heroism dwell side-by-side.
Often, the tragic seems to outweigh the alternative. We see dozens of people betrayed by their friends, or simply buried under infrastructural problems. Baltimore is constrained by its structure, which set limits on the roles as well as the potential of each actor. The issues turn out to be so deep and substantive, that even ostensible sources of positivity unwittingly turn into sources of trouble. Along the way, idealists such as Carcetti, McNulty, and Sobotka discover that even when they try to play the game, the whole thing turns out to be rigged–or, so fundamentally broken as to be effectively unplayable.
Tragic failure therefore appears in myriad forms throughout the show. We learn about all the ways that city life will beat you down: the defeat of the highest and the lowest characters, the innocent and the guilty. Often, the villainous win out while the most deserving people languish: by series end, Valchek is promoted and Templeton earns his ill-begotten Pulitzer, while many of our favorite characters have perished along the way.
The most significant moment of tragedy is probably the first season itself. Despite the “success” of the police, we see Avon Barksdale subject to minimal punishment–justice without true reconciliation. Thus, we learn that the very premise of the show has changed, that the wiretap is no path to the change we seek.
Other times in the series, there are small moments for optimism. Thus, at the finale we see: Bubbles’ reconciliation with his sister, Daniels’ escape from the police world, and Slim Charles’ act of vengeance.
At times, the show strays in the direction of outright romanticism. Many of the heroes of the show are rebellious outsiders; figures such as McNulty, Omar, and Michael, who refuse to accept the prisonhouse of Baltimore’s social structure.
Particularly representative is McNulty’s mock wake, which ends with a moving eulogy for the fallen hero. In that moment, The Wire really starts to drift away from tragedy to comedy. We see a reconciliation between Freamon and Greggs, as well as between McNulty’s iconoclastic path and the structure of the police. As Landsman says, the detective “was the black sheep. The permanent pariah. He asked no quarter of the bosses and none was given.” And yet, he concludes that, in spite of his inability to assimilate to the realities of police life, “in the end, he gave you the clearances. He was natural police.”
Thus, we see Baltimore is home to acts of individualistic heroism after all. Of course, that moment is meant as something of a lieto fine–a happy ending, grafted on to what might otherwise stand as a tragic play. And the exact ending of the show itself–which shows McNulty standing on the highway, looking out on the city of Baltimore (set against a montage representing the thousands of unique individuals and locales of the city)–shows that there can be no singular form of closure in the great human comedy that is the American city.
Indeed, the show seems most torn between the tragic and the comic. On the one hand, we witness the tyranny of structure, seen above all in the impossibility of triumph in the face of Baltimore’s endless blight. On the other hand, we see moments of individual courage and hope, a willingness to try in spite of the realist’s impulse to give up. I would argue less that The Wire is novel for its holding out for a bit of utopianism, which at times strays in the direction of the pure romantic individualism common to lots of TV drama. (Carver’s Hamsterdam strikes me as the most absurd of such moments, where we are presented with the idea that one man’s social Band-Aid might have worked if the powers that be were only willing to listen.)
Rather, The Wire is at its best as a sociological work, as an attempt to understand the city as a dynamic, living place. This is true not just in the sense of realism, as a descriptive work, however dynamic that description might be. Rather, we encounter Baltimore as a problematic, one yet to be solved, and indeed, one that cannot be solved–until the problem of the American city finds its own solution.