Breaking Down The Wire

The David Simon Code
Talking television.
Oct. 30 2006 6:20 AM

Breaking Down The Wire

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Alex,

Episode 7 was another strong one for me. The opening teaser was among the most intense in memory. Omar sends a message to other county jail inmates that he's not to be trifled with. But it's clear he fears for his life. He's more vulnerable than we've ever seen him in the show. Prezbo continues to rise to the challenge of teaching and relating to the kids in his classes. He discovers new textbooks and a computer squirreled away in a storage room. And he engages the kids in math through gambling with dice and monopoly money. Namond, the paper tiger, lashes out in school and in the boxing gym. He's not cut out for the life that's been chosen for him, yet he has too much pride and pressure to walk away. While waiting for the general election and expected coronation as mayor, Carcetti goes on some fact-finding tours within the police department. And Detective Kima solves her first murder case with a "no dialogue" crime scene investigation reminiscent of the famous Bunk/McNulty "fuck, fuuuck, fuuuuuuck" scene from Season 1. The Braddock murder, which launched Carcetti to victory, turns out to have been a random, accidental shooting. Great touch.

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Last week, you and I had the pleasure of sitting in the audience at a David Simon Q&A at Northwestern University. A couple of points he made that night have stuck with me. He talked about how he always envisioned that the series would (hopefully) play five seasons and be done. If HBO came to him next year and wanted a sixth, he said he'd turn them down. If only David Chase were so inclined. Simon also hinted that the fifth season would take on the press as an institution. As a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, he would clearly bring an insider's perspective to that story line. In fact, he was pretty incensed over the current state of journalism in America today. Not so much about the cliché "hordes of mindless, aggressive reporters" but rather the slow attrition of quality reporting at the higher end. He lays most of the blame on the huge corporations that control much of the media in this country. He seemed particularly unhappy about what's happened to his old paper, where the reporting staff has declined from around 500 to 300.

Pressed to articulate what The Wire is ultimately about, he summed it up in one simple but devastating sentence. Paraphrasing here: The Wire is about how all our lives are worth less each day. Despite some well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) people in various institutions, modern life for Simon would appear to be about the decline of meaning and happiness. This comment sent me back to the companion book published on the series. In the introduction, Simon wrote:

The Wire is not about Jimmy McNulty. Or Avon Barksdale. Or crime. Or punishment. Or drugs. Or violence. Or even race. It is about The City.

It is about how we live as Americans at the millennium, an urban people compacted together. Sharing a common love, awe, and fear of what we have rendered in Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles. At best, our metropolises are the ultimate aspiration for the American community, the repository for every myth from rugged individualism to the melting pot. At worst, our cities—or those places in our cities where most of us fear to tread—are vessels for the darkest contradictions and most brutal competitions that underlie the way we actually live together.

And to try to retard our collective slide into "worth-less-ness" (to "keep the Devil down in the hole" as it were), I suspect Simon believes that people need personal rules and codes of conduct: whether it be on a police force, or in a school, or on the streets. In Episode 7, Namond becomes so frustrated when the school won't suspend him for his misbehavior like they always had before, he sputters helplessly, "School gotta have rules!" And when Omar reaches out for Bunk's help, he tries to explain that he couldn't have possibly murdered a civilian because they aren't "in the game."

"A man got to have a code," Omar says.

Steve

Steve James is the director of Hoop Dreamsand Stevie.

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