“It’s all in the game.” The last line of season 1 might be the most important one. The Wire is a show about a lot of details, a lot of procedures, and a lot of rules. While the cop side of the show draws upon the real-world rules that must be followed in the American criminal justice system, there are the rules of the street that must be followed as well. While the cops follow explicit rules, many rules of the street are implicit. You know them because you’ve grown up in the game.
And yet, there’s much more to the game than the rules. You’re not just playing the board according to the rules, you’re playing the players, sometimes that means playing against your own team. There’s an entire game of politics going on within the department involving rank, possible promotions, who has dirt on whom, and how far one is willing to go to push someone.
All of this means is that you can only get so far playing by the rules. More than once the cops have to break the rules, play dirty and outright cheat in order to get what they need. It brings up the ethical question of do the ends justify the means. Police brutality, false statements, and unauthorized invasion of privacy are just a few of the unjust acts officers commit in order to try to bring Avon to justice. And yet, The Wire presents this idea as more of an implicit theme. It’s not something the characters are self-aware about because they’re used to it, this is the game they play.
The rules are still important. The Wire dedicates a lot of time to getting into the gritty details of casework, including presenting a lot of the tedious, unglamourous casework that is often a brief scene in most crime shows. Scenes like where Lester talks about the complexity of chasing the money trail or watching as the titular wire slowly picks up calls lack the glamor of the typical crime show, but The Wire always finds a way to make them fascinating.
The writing is another major aspect of the craft of the show. There’s a lot of talking in any given episode and for something so immaculately written, it never comes off as showy or manufactured. Part of it comes from the lingo, which you have to pick up on your own as the show develops. Another factor is the stellar performances of the cast. Some of it is that intangible pacing which makes each exchange enthralling. In the moment, you’re probably not aware of it, and it’s hard to talk about how it works as well as it does, it’s one of the most intangible traits of great writing. A meter that draws in the audience.
Another aspect of the show that remains consistently impressive is how events build off one another. As Lester says, “all the pieces matter.” The tiniest player in the game can make a big difference Bubbles becomes a key component of giving the investigation that groundwork it needs. But it’s often little events, tiny things that you figure aren’t that important which end up coming back. There are few unimportant moments in the show. Every piece is building to something, it just sometimes takes a while to get there.
Therefore, it’s an unconventionally paced show. Each episode doesn’t necessarily end on a satisfying conclusion or with a hook to reel the audience into watching next week. The early episodes lay the foundation for the big moments. In this way, the format of The Wire as a show emulates the real-word nature of casework. There’s a lot of time spent doing things that aren’t that thrilling, but they lead to those big moments.
And when we get to those big moments, they don’t play out how we expect. Crime dramas often find a way to make violence, or the threat of violence, exciting. In The Wire, the sense of excitement is almost always undercut. A lot of times, it remains offscreen. We’re often left dealing with the aftermath of the violence as the cops try to piece together what happened. It’s still engaging, but there’s never any catharsis or release from the violence. It’s not made to be as exciting, attention grabbing or thrilling as most crime dramas.
Even the culmination of all the work, when they finally arrest Avon, isn’t an epic moment. Daniels and McNulty walk into the club where Avon and Stringer are waiting. The scene plays out with only a single line. We don’t get an epic shootout or a big chase scene where they finally nab their man. Avon knows he’s cornered, but he also knows to say anything or to run will only make things worse.
All of this is to say that The Wire is a lot smarter than most TV. People often designate certain kinds of stories as smarter than others but The Wire is one of those rare cases where just about everything else in comparison looks dumb, gaudy and childish. It’s a scholar among shows, it’s done the research, put in the work, and produced something that isn’t interested in mass appeal, but is a much richer and edifying experience than the typical crime drama.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing