Character Count
Breaking Down The Wire
Character Count
Talking television.
Oct. 16 2006 2:28 PM

Breaking Down The Wire


Hey, David and Steve,

Well, Episode 6 ("Margin of Error") appears to be the springboard for the second half of the season. Now that Carcetti's won, we get to see him try his hand at ruling the damn city. You know that's not going to be easy. Omar's setup on the murder of a "civilian"—as the police so nimbly refer to nonplayers—has brought McNulty back into the picture. I've missed having McNulty around. He knows his nemesis well enough to realize that it's not like Omar to shoot someone not of the street. And then, of course, there are the kids, each of whom feels more defined with each episode. I'm keeping my eye on Namond, who looks like he's about to get caught in a tug of war between his mom and Colvin, the former police major. And Prez is keeping his eye on Dukie, who now, thanks to his teacher, has a place to shower in the morning.


In past exchanges, we've alluded to the storytelling genius of the show, how it mirrors great literature. It does and it doesn't. It does in its unbending loyalty to story. And it does in its seemingly magical ability to elicit empathy for virtually all its characters, from drug addicts to drug sellers to cops and—this is where the writers really get my admiration—to politicians. It's what makes great literature: its ability to get inside the skin of its characters, to see the world through their eyes, to understand their motives. It's where The Wire departs from most other television. We're looking at this landscape through all these varied perspectives. I feel Namond's utter confusion about where his loyalty lies—to his self-absorbed mom or to himself. I get Carcetti's ambivalence about his chosen vocation. I know Prez's growing attachment to a group of kids who regularly tell him to fuck off.

But where The Wire diverges from most literature is its ability to juggle this vast array of stories, and with such a full cast of characters. Look at this last episode. You had stories unfolding involving Carcetti, Omar, McNulty, Randy, Namond, and Marlo. That's just in one hour. And I'm sure I'm leaving someone out. The Wire has such faith in its audience. With all these balls in the air, you'd think much of it would be a blur, but the stories seem to unfold in slow motion. As fast-paced as the show is, there's this sense of lingering—on moments and on characters. (Not being a film guy, I'm sure there must be something going on here with the way the show is shot.) It's not that some literature doesn't do this. The more ambitious novelists juggle lots of seemingly disconnected characters, as well. But usually there's a convergence of all these various stories—and where many novelists fail is in pushing too hard to bring all the characters together in the end. We'll see, of course, how The Wire pulls it off this season, but as it stands now, I'm not convinced that The Wire's writers feel compelled to have all their stories and characters meet up in the end. It's the ability to look at this particular landscape—the contemporary city—through the eyes of all these characters, each with their own demons and their own travails and their own loyalties, that makes the storytelling in The Wire so extraordinary. For all its comparison to literature, in the end The Wire's created its own genre of storytelling.

David, is there something about the way The Wire is shot that separates it from other television? That gives that sense of lingering? And in mapping out the season, do the writers first figure out the ending, and then try to figure out how the characters get there—or is it more of a journey, letting the characters lead you to what feels like their most natural destination? It's great to have you back for another week.


Alex Kotlowitz is author of There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River.

  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Feb. 5 2016 1:37 PM Are Grown-Ups Too Old to Get Grades? Think you’re more than just a number? Not if you work at Yahoo!