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.
The Wire and complex 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.
Blurring good and evil
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.
What writers can learn
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.
The importance 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?
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations!
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter and check out my newly revised and updated guide to writing a novel now available in audio!