Behind The Wire
David Simon on where the show goes next.
Slate: Do you feel the well is starting to go dry?
Simon: We're catching up. We started with a case Ed did in the late '80s, then a case in the '90s. And all along we've been pulling things that are going on in Baltimore contemporaneously. We still now consult active detectives, journalists. The processes we're describing are not timeless, but they are time-tested. In Season 2, we said if someone didn't fix the grain pier [a shipping facility on the Baltimore harbor], someone would come along and turn it into condos. At the time it was sitting idle. By the time we were working on Season 3, they had sold it, and now there are condos over there. The bar where we had the stevedores hang out is being remodeled for a yuppie fern joint. We discussed how police officers can juke stats to make it look like crime disappears, and that was a huge issue in the recent election. The same games are always being played.
Slate: The show is a bleak yet accurate portrait of social realities in Baltimore's inner city, and you have said in interviews that the show is designed to be "a political provocation." Would you consider yourself a social crusader? What, if any, changes would you like to see the show catalyze?
Simon: I don't consider myself to be a crusader of any sort. I was bystander to a certain number of newspaper crusades. They end badly, in terms of being either fraudulent or by inspiring legislations that makes things worse. So, I regard myself as someone coming to the campfire with the truest possible narrative he can acquire. That's it. What people do with that narrative afterward is up to them. I am someone who's very angry with the political structure. The show is written in a 21st-century city-state that is incredibly bureaucratic, and in which a legal pursuit of an unenforceable prohibition has created great absurdity.
Slate: You have been pessimistic in public comments you've made about the possibility of political and social change. Do you think change is possible?
Simon: No, I don't. Not within the current political structure. I haven't met any politicians with that kind of courage. I wasn't fond of his performance as mayor, but Kurt Schmoke's merest suggestion that we discuss drug decriminalization was very brave. The idea that we would address this issue as a matter of effective social policy! He was pilloried. It destroyed what remained of his political career. He was a prophet without honor in his own city. People, especially people from outside the city, want to say that Schmoke was soft on drugs. But the police department had locked up more people than any previous administration. To no avail! He had the temerity to say so, and look where he is now. He is dean of Howard Law School. Martin O'Malley has arrested so many Baltimoreans that the ACLU and other civil rights leaders have rightly, to my mind, questioned the constitutionality of the city police department's arrest policy. When we finish filming at 1 in the morning, it's even odds that one of the African-African members of the cast and crew will be detained. My first assistant director was arrested, dumped unceremoniously at central booking, and ultimately released after seeing a court commissioner. The charge against him was never brought into court. This is common in Baltimore under the current administration. Other members of my crew have suffered similar indignities. And it hasn't reduced crime significantly. That's not how you reduce crime.
Slate: Let's talk a little about process. In contrast to other shows on TV, The Wire seems to me to have a remarkable degree of narrative compression; there's a sense that every detail is planned and relates to another detail. I don't normally feel this on TV, where there's a sense that shows exist to fill up the hour.
Simon: I keep using this metaphor whenever I'm on set and we have problems with the actors—and we don't have many problems—losing sight of the whole. I say, "We're building a house here. Every single one of us, all the writers, all the actors, all the crew, all the directors; everything in our bag of tricks, it's all tools in the toolbox. It's not about how often the hammer comes out; it's about the house we're building. So, all the details are essential. The only thing I care about in the end is the house. In the writers' room at least, that's a given.
The big thematic heavy lifting was done in Seasons 1 and 2, when Ed and I were figuring out what we wanted to do: how many seasons, etc. We came up with five. We talked about many things; nothing seems substantial enough for a Season 6. When other writers came onto the show, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, we would throw it at them: This is what we came up with, five things. If there's anything else you have, any ideas for extending the series, say so. There was no general agreement on anything but the five. When I've done my begging with HBO—and begging it is—it has been on behalf of those five seasons. To be honest, one writer came up with another idea, and a really good one, but we realized that it would require so much research on our part that we couldn't do the work quickly enough to keep it in this dramatic world.
Slate: It wasn't this idea of examining the influx of Hispanics in Baltimore, was it?
Simon: Yes! It was.
Slate: David Mills mentioned it in the Slate "TV Club" on The Wire. I thought it was a fabulous idea.
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.
Photograph of David Simon by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images. Photograph of Michael K. Williams on Slate's home page by Paul Schiraldi/HBO.