Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, March 10, 2008

Learning From the Wire


I'm typing this in a Daylight Saving Time change-induced fog, so bear with me, (info on the pointlessness of DST, including its effects on cows here).

Last night The Wire closed out its last episode, a hugely satisfying end to the greatest show on television. This season was not the greatest of the five, that honor surely goes to either Season 2 (the docks) or Season 4 (the school), but it still was immensely satisfying to see everything wrapped up and yet coming back full circle: Leander as the new McNulty, going behind his department to a judge, Valchek as the new Burrell, Carver as the new Daniels, Michael as the new Omar, Slim Charles as the new Prop Joe, Dukie as the new Bubbles, Chris Partlow as the new Wee Bey, and Marlo back on the streets as a fusion of the striving Stringer Bell and the tough Avon Barksdale. In the end things are pretty much how they began.

So why was this show so good?

People often talk about the "Dickensian" aspect of The Wire as a shorthand to refer to the complexity of the show, and they're somewhat right -- it's intricately plotted across all levels of society, there are multiple intersecting plotlines, and at times it's difficult to follow. But what is really complex about the Wire isn't the number of plot threads, it's the characters. Every single character on the show, down to the last bit player, is a complex, nuanced individual with his/her own particular set of goals, vices, and motivations. There aren't "good guys" and "bad guys." Nothing is ever that simple.

What makes these characters so complex is that the creators of the show never fall back on storytelling crutches to provide the characters' motivations. In The Wire's Baltimore, people don't deal drugs because they're bad people, they simply can't even begin to envision a world beyond the Baltimore they know. Some of the most amazing moments have come when these characters are out of their element: the kids from Season 4 are more scared in a Ruths Chris Steakhouse than they are in the dangerous streets of Baltimore, Wallace is terrified of the countryside in Season 1, and Marlo doesn't even seem to know how to operate an elevator in the finale.

Similarly, there is no such thing as good or bad cops, only ones who are motivated by vice and self-interest or ones who are motivated by a true search for justice. Sometimes the same character vacillates between the different sides. There is never an easy explanation for why characters do what they do.

This is because there is no such thing as "good" or "evil" in the Wire. There is only "The Game," an all-encompassing and ultimately pointless battle to rise to the top in a world that rewards self-interest and mediocrity. The only "evil" moments in The Game come from inevitable acts of self-interest, since The Game's battle for survival does not reward altruism. Cheese betrays Prop Joe out of selfishness, Marlo picks off his enemies to build his name and consolidate power, Rawls throws everyone under the bus to pursue his career. And meanwhile, The Game cuts down visionaries who see a way out of the tangled mess of crushing meaninglessness - Stringer Bell democratizes and pacifies the drug trade by corporatizing it, but he's taken down. Bunny Colvin creates "Hamsterdam," concentrating the problems of the drug trade in one area so the rest of Baltimore can rebuild itself, he's taken down. Then Colvin helps formulate a new educational system that teaches kids to live in the world instead of teaching to a test, it begins to work, he's taken down again. The only people who can win The Game are people like Rawls, Levy, Valchek, Marlo and Clay Davis -- people with no concern other than their own enrichment and survival. The only winner in the end is the status quo. And you saw that in the last episode when things came full circle.

Personally, I think novelists looking to The Wire for writing advice could learn a lot from Season 5, not because it was the strongest, but rather because the show betrayed itself just a bit with the Baltimore Sun storyline, and in its weakness it illustrates why the rest of the show was so amazing.

Many people were down on Season 5 in the early going, and in particular the Baltimore Sun storyline (check out David Plotz and Jeffrey Goldberg's indispensable 60+ post discussion of the season on Slate. It came together somewhat in the end, but why didn't the Baltimore Sun plot work as well as the docks or the schools or Hamsterdam?

Because for the first time in the history of The Wire it was easy to break down the characters into "good" and "evil." The good characters (Gus, Alma, the anonymous old time newsmen) were really good and never once did a bad thing, the bad characters (Templeton, Klebanow, Whiting) were really evil and never once did a good thing. It was way too simple. After the first couple of episodes of Season 5 it was abundantly clear where everyone stood on the good/evil spectrum and everyone had a decent sense of the directions things would go from there. It was predictable. We hardly got the sense that the "evil" characters were decent people being subsumed by The Game or that the "good" characters may not have really been so good after all. Gus was the most saintly person on the entire show by a wide margin.

Some people have chalked up the weakness of Season 5 to David Simon's grudge against his time at the Sun -- I doubt it was this simple. The intersecting and mirroring plots of Season 5 were just fantastically complex, even for The Wire, and I think they ended up relying on the good/evil shorthand of lesser shows because they were constrained by getting through the (ultimately satisfying) plot. The scope of Season 5 was so vast it was nearly impossible to maintain the show's level of complexity.

But there is more than one way to show complexity, and you often see these differences in literary and genre fiction. In genre fiction, one of the major ways authors show complexity amid packed plots, even in a relatively simple good/evil binary, is through plot reversals: after a major plot twist (i.e. Darth Vader is Luke's father), that feeling you have is "Wow, things aren't as simple as I thought they were." The Wire is more like literary fiction -- literary fiction usually takes the time to complicate the plot by adding nuance and complexity to characters' motivations. Things are never simple in literary fiction. But even if in Season 5 they didn't have the space for the literary fiction route, there still could have been some reversals that would have made the newspaper plot more complex.

For instance, one way the Wire may have gotten around the too-easy good/evil binary in the newsroom would have been, say, if Gus' zeal for the truth could have led him too far in his pursuit of Templeton, to the point where he got out of hand. Or Templeton could have been motivated by more than simply a desire to move up the chain, perhaps also motivated by some real concern for making the world a better place. The editors could have been battling the Internet or their own financial pressures. There were ways the situation could have been more complex.

But rather than creating a reversal that revealed other sides of the characters, instead, Gus was good in Episode 1 and good in Episode 10, Templeton was bad in Episode 1 and bad in Episode 10 (and every episode in between), end of story. The creators of the show created a polemic, and that doesn't really work in fiction because it's too easy. It's never interesting to find out that our first impressions are precisely correct.

Still though, best. show. ever, and I think Season 5 was a spectacular achievement, showing the way we are all so invested in the fictions we create.

Ok, enough prattling. What did you think of that finale?


Adaora A. said...

I didn't catch the finale I was working. But you've given a very nice and tidy summary. I'll have to youtube it to catch it.

I almost went late to work thanks to DLS and someone else at work actually did. I work cash in retail so I needed to be there when the store opened.

Do you get annoyed when people do the traditional "first post comment?" If so, forgive me but,


Precie said...

1) That's why my primary interest is in writing/reading literary fiction...the complexity of character. (Not that complexity of character doesn't also exist in genre fiction...)

2) I did wish the "bad guys" at The Sun were more complicated...there were occasional nods to the fact that a potential Pulitzer was at stake, but still...

3) I know it was the last episode, but I expected more tension about Kima's admission.

4) What I think I liked most from this season was Bubbles' subplot...I guess because his character embodied that complexity, and he managed to become a kind of success story by clawing his way to normalcy.

{PS--Turns out there's a good reason I claim Homicide: Life on the Street is arguably better...they're both brainchildren of David Simon, both spectactular, but Homicide had more moments of optimism, more clear good vs. bad, even though there were shades of grey.)

Steph Leite said...

Hahaha looooooong post. Good advice though, Nathan :)

Nathan Bransford said...


It's all Daylight Saving Time's fault. I'm a mess.

Steph Leite said...

Oh, by the way, will we be getting any other query critique lessons soon? ;)

mlh said...

Wow, I started to feel sorry for the cows until I read that mammoth of a post. Lots to think about while I'm having a glass of milk.

Other Lisa said...

I had to skim this post and the comments because I missed the finale and am going to watch it tonight. Ack! Spoiler warnings, please!

Emily said...

I never watched the Wire, but you've nearly convinced me go out and buy it on DVD. Sounds like one hell of a show. Character complexity is hugely important to me, so it sounds like a show I'd really enjoy.

BTW, I'm sure you've already seen this article, but I found it and thought of you.

John Arkwright said...

People act according to self interest each with a different preference set. That is economics.

It is good to know that homo economis is a valid character--I mean that sincerely. When I first began writing, I thought that my" would be seen as a drawback in a world populated by touchy-feely soft-side liberal arts/English/Lit majors.

John Arkwright said...

Grr . . . edited

People act according to self interest each with a different preference set. That is economics.

It is good to know that homo economis is a valid character--I mean that sincerely. When I first began writing, I thought that my "PHD economic outlook" would be seen as a drawback in a world populated by touchy-feely soft-side liberal arts/English/Lit majors.

Heidi the Hick said...

I hate the time change and wish it wasn't happening so early... I love daylight as much as anybody but it feels so forced.

I feel sorry for them cows. My horses always go a little wacky this time of year too, but they don't have the heavy burdens that the cows do. If y'know what I mean and all.

pmrspl said...

I think I'll have to wait to rent the DVDs now until all those spoilers leak from my head. ^._.^

Anonymous said...

Nathan, I just have one thing to say: sheeeeeeeeeeeetttttt!

If you know the Wire folks, you'll get the reference.

Er, that was more than one thing to say.

Marva said...

Don't know since I don't have HBO. Of course, A&E or TBS will pick it up. Maybe I can see what all the bruhaha is about.

On the other hand, didn't you also go on about America's Top Model? I'm not sure if I can trust your judgment, Nathan.

Julie Weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie Weathers said...

I would just continue milking the cows at the same time regardless of what the clock said.

Stud farms regularly put mares in light barns where they are kept under lights to fool the body into thinking it is later in the spring. They come into heat sooner and have foals earlier. Good to a point.

Some also feed the mares melatonin to get them to come into heat. I take melatonin to sleep but never noticed any... well, we won't go there.

Point being, longer daylight hours do have an effect on the body, but I wish they would just leave the time alone. Messing with my internal clock just makes me mean and retailers don't reap many benefits from that unless they are training people on how to deal with snarling customers.

As for The Wire, I hate to admit it, but I watch very little television and have never seen it.

Allen B. Ogey said...

Um, never seen it, never heard of it before reading this blog.


Linda said...

I'll miss The Wire because it rally does show the grittiness of Baltimore. Tough city. I walk through one section every morning and always have some image or another to fuel my writing: a rat smudged into the pock-marked asphalt, a nervous hooker looking for her fix, a sparrow pecking on vomit. There is a palpable hopelessness in the West Side, where a chunk of this was filmed.

I missed the first two seasons - not a subscriber to HBO (still not, but a friend tapes it for me) - but hope to catch when it goes into syndication.

What I particularly appreciated about The Wire is the clear story arc, a defined beginning, middle, and end. Like a good novel. Peace...

Anonymous said...

How can people find time to watch so much TV?

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with your assessment of the Wire: the characters. The writers did an incredible job of creating well-rounded characters that evolved over time, experiencing success and failure along the way. And each character, regardless of where they fit into the good guy/bad guy spectrum, was all good or all bad. The Wire showed positive qualities in even the worst offenders (ie. Wee Bay giving his son a second chance).

I also found the plot lines compelling, but that was because I was so personally invested in the characters. (I am still mourning the loss of Omar, one of my most favorite characters ever, and I was devastated by Dukie's drug-addled fate. I found it so upsetting, I had trouble getting to sleep last night.)

I do have to disagree with a few of your summaries:

Chris took over Wee Bay's role in season four. Last night, he received the same fate. And like Wee Bay, he leaves fatherless children.

Dukie, in my mind, is the next Gerard (the boy who lived with Bubbles), soon to OD on the streets. Bubbles was able to get clean (if it will last), but I was left with an impending sense of doom for Dukie, a kid who in season four showed so much promise, despite his horrible home life. It's such a terrible tragedy.

Like you, I could go on and on. I thought it was truly a terrific show, one of the best on television. I watched it as both a fan and as a writer with a critical eye. I need some time to mourn my favorite characters, and then I will watch the entire show from beginning to end, so I can analyze how they created and developed such compelling characters.


P.S. I wish they had given us some tidbit about Randy, another one of my favorite characters. I fully expected him to reappear more than just a cameo in season 5. I became very attached to Randy in season 4, and wondered what might become of him.

Anonymous said...

Oopps, quick typing on the last comment=typos. I meant none of the characters were all good or all bad. Each had their despicable traits as well as their endearing ones.

Thanks again!

LindaBudz said...

Wow. Great analysis, Nathan. I loved the finale, though I wondered about that bit of "viewer trickery" there toward the end at the wake. They resolved it quickly, so it was kind of fun, but had it gone on for another fifteen seconds, I might've been real annoyed. My heart was in my throat.

I was expecting the worst for the MCs, which I would have been OK with so long as the writers kept it real, but I was so glad it ended the way it did. And I loved the whole cyclical thing.

But ... I guess my prediction that Gus might be vindicated in my comment last week was way off base! LOL.

Anyway, for a writer, the show's an inspiration. And your post has given me lots to chew on with my current WIP, so thanks!

Lisa Allender said...

You have roused my interest in t.v., I believe I'll hop over to store and pick up the first Season of "The Wire"..
.I stopped in at your blog after hearing about you through Atlanta Writers' Club, who is hosting you this Spring for Workshop/Pitch sessions. Great Post, Mr. Bransford.
Lisa Allender

molybloom said...

When McNulty faked the serial killings, I figured Simon and Co. had jumped the shark. Yet McNulty's outrageous plot led to a perfect storm of police, press and politicians. It even caught up with Marlo.

I really wanted him behind bars, but this ending works for me. Though he's back on the street, his cred is shredded. Omar won that battle - he consistently called Marlo out and when Marlo didn't show, the street believed Marlo's a coward. He can't go home again.

I never got hooked into the newspaper storyline because none of their lives were in danger. Compared to the daily struggle on the street, the Sun crew seemed sheltered. You could argue that the politicians had it pretty easy, too. But they were more compelling because they had the power to affect so many lives.

I was struck with all the shots of Baltimore in the finale: the rising and setting sun (several times in a row), the traffic, people, skyline, etc. It seemed the writers were pulling back their intimate tracking of each character's story. They were making us look at the "Big Picture": life goes on. Better for some (Carcetti & Rawls), worse for others (Dukey), and for most everyone else, a mix of the good, bad and ambiguous.

I came late to The Wire and devoured the backlog of seasons on Netflix. I loved Season 3 (Stringer Bell! Omar! Brother M!), but Season 4 is the best because we get into the heads of the kids who might soon turn into Avons, Marlos, Cheeses and Omars. These kids broke my heart (especially Randy), but at least Namond got pulled off the streets.

Other Lisa said...

Okay, now that I've watched the finale...

This little nugget from the Salon wrap-up for some reason sums up the show for me:

"And what was really depressing to me about all of this was what a friend said to me as we watched: She couldn't think of any of these people as actually doing evil, because it all seemed so natural. They were all just doing their jobs. This is such a dark vision of how the city works; the various lying and manipulating is just the real and natural way of doing things."

Somewhere in my Net meanderings, I read an analysis claiming that Simon's vision is Marxist at its heart, that it sees these characters enmeshed, trapped in a larger system, and that the only redemption possible is on an individual level, not on a societal one.

I don't know enough about Marxism to speak to the accuracy of that analysis (I can never keep that whole superstructure/substructure stuff straight), but it does seem to me that these characters play out roles that are embedded in a larger structure. This sense of context and the consequences of it is generally lacking in American popular entertainment, which tends to perpetuate the fiction that we are all individuals acting with free will, who can rise above our circumstances and determine our fate.

Anyway, I liked it a lot and am looking forward to catching up on the earlier seasons.

Heidi the Hick said...


what the heck is that farmer doing milking cows at 2am????

Time change my ass, does he ever sleep?

Luc said...

Nathan, any comment on the Large and Troubling Artistic Issue that the show was widely seen as great, but failed to garner a sufficient audience to continue? It would seem to have some important ramifications for writers, since we might be encouraged to emulate some of the things The Wire does, but not want to suffer its fate!

I'll put in a guess, but don't know enough for it to be a well-informed one: maybe the show's world view was so bleak that many viewers found it depressing and sought out cheerier entertainment?

For what's it's worth, my favorite show of all time, Firefly, had the same basic problem (acclaim from critics and fans, insufficient viewer base). My guess there is that it was a bad pairing of genre to execution: what I loved about the show were the characters and their interplay, but the show is basically an SF Western, which might be expected to attract people more interested in laser firefights than in watching someone nurse a grudge about a lost war or another guy care for his mentally ill sister.

John said,
> People act according to self interest each with
> a different preference set. That is economics.

That's just self-interest, not the whole of economic behavior. People don't always and consistently act in their own interest: sometimes people act by habit, or expectation, or desire to help a group they're part of, or out of despair, or ... well, there are a lot of options, surely?

Nathan Bransford said...


Interesting question. I think the reception of The Wire is similar to any work that strives for artistic genius over strict commercialism; we're just really unused to seeing that kind of show on television because it's a medium that heavily favors commercialism over art. I doubt HBO lost money on the show, but I think The Wire really is sort of like the literary fiction of TV, which is a genre that doesn't tend to last very long: other great but unwatched shows like Firefly, My So Called Life, Freaks & Geeks, etc. only lasted a season or two. We're fortunate The Wire got five seasons.

Hopefully TV will continue to be a place where there are some artistic gems among the commercial rubble (not that I don't love me some rubble as well), but if not, we'll always have The Wire.

And for all the people who aren't watching it -- to me, this is like not reading great literature. It's a significant step forward in the history of storytelling. As aspiring storytellers, I think it's important to keep up with this stuff.

Julie Weathers said...


It takes a while to milk 300 cows. I'm assuming he does as most dairy farmers do and feeds his cows while they are being milked. Milk has to be processed and I imagine he has a milk truck picking up so that puts him on another schedule.

My grandparents had milk cows and were up before three to start milking. They only had around 100, but no running water or electricity so the cows were all milked by hand.

I was always mad because they wouldn't wake me up to help milk. Foolish child.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heidi the Hick said...

I'm still trying to process the 2 am cow milking!

All my dairy farmer friends get up at 5 and they have 2-300 cows. Hmm. Mennonites must work faster. Haha.

I am still reeling from the time change and it's looking like maybe I should watch more TV. I think I'm missing out on something. How will I watch TV and read at the same time??? Good thing I don't have any cows.

LindaBudz said...

Nathan, I don't know if you've ever seen this site on Stuff White People Like, but their post #85 on The Wire is pretty hilarious.

(Ability to laugh at yourself a must when perusing this site.)

BTW, #21 is on writer's workshops ... also a hoot.

Keely said...

I read this article yesterday..
in The Guardian, interviewing the actors who played Omar - and Snoop,
having just read your blog on The Wire and being a huge fan of it too, I figured you'd enjoy this...

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