This article is adapted from Brett Martin’s Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos to Mad Men to Breaking Bad.
By the time the fourth season of The Wire rolled around, it had already become a cocktail party cliché to say that the show operated like “a Dickens novel.” In many ways, this was totally apt, considering the show’s serialized nature, its liberal political conscience, and its sprawling canvas. But David Simon found his literary reference point centuries earlier—centuries, even, before Shakespeare. The Wire, he said, was essentially a Greek tragedy.
“The ancients valued tragedy, not merely for what it told them about the world but for what it told them about themselves,” he said. “Almost the entire diaspora of American television and film manages to eschew that genuine catharsis, which is what tragedy is explicitly intended to channel. We don’t tolerate tragedy. We mock it. We undervalue it. We go for the laughs, the sex, the violence. We exult the individual over his fate, time and time and time again.”
In his Baltimore version of Olympus, the roles of gods were played by the unthinking forces of modern capitalism. And any mortal with the hubris to stand up for reform of any kind was, in classical style, ineluctably, implacably, pushed back down, if not violently rubbed out altogether.
“That was just us stealing from a much more ancient tradition that’s been so ignored, it felt utterly fresh and utterly improbable,” he said. “Nobody had encountered it as a consistent theme in American drama because it’s not the kind of drama that brings the most eyeballs.” It was possible in this time and place because, in the new pay cable model, eyeballs were no longer the most important thing.
Yet The Wire was also inescapably modern; its characters operated based on real, idiosyncratic psychologies, refusing to be pushed around like figures on a board. Sometimes they surprised even their creators. One passionate argument in the writers’ room was about a major moment in Season 1’s next-to-last episode, “Cleaning Up”: the execution of the young drug slinger Wallace by the tougher, only slightly older thug Bodie Broadus. Just before shooting his friend, Bodie hesitates, gun shaking. Ed Burns, the co-creator of the series, raised an objection: The Bodie we had seen to that point, he argued, was the very incarnation of a street monster, a young person so damaged and inured to violence by the culture of the drug game that he would never hesitate to pull the trigger, even on a friend.
“It didn’t go with the character. Bodie was a borderline psychopath almost. I was like, ‘We’re leading the audience down this path, and now this guy is backing off?’ That’s fucked up. That’s bullshit,” he said, remembering his feelings on the scene.
In future seasons, though, Broadus would emerge as the drug game’s answer to the rogue detective Jimmy McNulty: a soldier who tries to make his own way and ends up ground down by the system. His death would be unexpectedly poignant. All of that, Burns granted, was set up by his unexpected moment of humanity in Season 1.
“What it did was it allowed for a wonderful dynamic that went on for four seasons. It brought out a lot of comedy that psychopaths don’t have,” he said. “It was a learning curve for me. Originally I just didn’t like it because you don’t pull punches like that with the audience. Now, when I think about it, I think, ‘This is cool. This is something that allowed for another dimension.’ It worked. It worked fine.”
Such debates were only one aspect of what became, as The Wire’s scope grew to encompass more and more of Baltimore, an intimate, complicated, ever-evolving dance between the demands of reality and of fiction. And if that creative tension was a constant theme in the writers’ room, it was also an everyday reality for the actors who brought the show’s characters to life.
Whether it was born of institutional transparency or overwhelmed disorganization, the Baltimore Police Department extended an open-door policy to The Wire’s actors, many of whom were brought down for educational ride-alongs. Even for those who regarded themselves as reasonably savvy about urban realities, it was a shocking experience.
“I’d grown up in housing projects, but it wasn’t blocks of boarded-up houses and naked babies in the arms of 25-pound heroin addicts,” said Seth Gilliam, who played Sgt. Ellis Carver. He and Domenick Lombardozzi (Herc) were assigned to a ride-along with a notoriously gung-ho narcotics officer who went by the nickname Super Boy. On one ride they found themselves crouching in the back seat during a firefight. “I’m thinking, ‘My head isn’t covered! My head isn’t covered! Am I going to feel the bullet when it hits me?’” he remembered.
Wendell Pierce, who played Bunk Moreland, and John Doman, the formidable Major Bill Rawls, and Dominic West (McNulty) were in another group. “We went to shootings and stabbings. There was a guy with a knife still in him. Another guy who got shot, and the cop was still trying to take him downtown for questioning,” Doman said. “All of us were like, ‘This is unbelievable.’”
Far from most of their homes and families in New York, Los Angeles, or London, the cast spent a lot of time hanging out together. At least two social groups developed. The first centered on the townhouse that Clarke Peters, who played Lester Freamon, had bought after Season 1. Peters was an erudite, 50-year-old native New Yorker. He had left the United States as a teenager for Paris, where there were still the remnants of a great black American expat community. Within weeks of arriving, he’d met James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and the blues pianist Memphis Slim, among others. When the musical Hair had come to France, he’d worked as one of the production’s costume designers and eventually joined the cast. He’d settled in London, acting mostly in the theater, but he had history with David Simon, having played the avuncular junkie Fat Curt in Simon’s first HBO series, The Corner.
In Baltimore, Peters’ house became a kind of groovy bohemian salon for an older set of cast and crew members that included Doman, Jim True-Frost (who played Roland Pryzbylewski), and others. Several ended up renting rooms in the house. Peters, a strict vegetarian, would cook elaborate group meals. There was a piano and impromptu jam sessions fueled by red wine and pot smoke. For those seized by the after-hours impulse to watercolor, there were canvases on easels set up in the basement. Among its habitués, the house was called “the Academy.”
Meanwhile, a rowdier scene existed among the younger cast members—untethered, far from home, and often in need of blowing off steam. This social group was centered on the Block, the stretch of downtown East Baltimore Street populated by a cluster of side-by-side strip clubs (and, in semi-peaceful détente across the street, BPD’s downtown headquarters). The cast of The Wire became legendary visitors to the Block, with a core group including West, Gilliam, Lombardozzi, Pierce, Andre Royo (Bubbles), J.D. Williams (Bodie), and Sonja Sohn (Kima)—holding her own among the boys in one of many on- and off-screen parallels.