What about the kids? While there’s a lot going on in season four of The Wire, looking at the season from a whole, the story of the kids often eclipses many of the storylines in terms of power, potency and relevance. It’s a critical look without being cynical, a representation of an urgent problem without being alarmist.
This continues one of the great strengths of The Wire: it refuses to prey on the audience’s emotions. Children as main characters in stories can be used to quickly gain the sympathy of the audience and craft easy antagonists without laying solid groundwork. However, The Wire is much more complicated. These kids can be cruel, wicked and mean, but also far more kind, stedfast and loving than their adult counterparts. The adults aren’t out to get the kids, they want to help them, but these children don’t respond well to authority, and sometimes with good reason.
Many kids come from broken homes. Dukie’s mom is a drug addict, Randy’s foster mother is too overbearing, Namond’s mother is pushing him to work a corner like his father, and Michael’s mom is selling their food and doing all sorts of other things to get her drug fix. All the kids have absent fathers, in their place people like Prez, Colvin, Denis and, one might even argue, Marlo and Chris try to step into these voids, but there’s a distance and a disconnect there.
It’s easy for those privileged to live outside of this world to condemn people caught up in the drug world, arguing that they made wrong life-choices. D back in season 1 talks about it as the only world he knew and in this season we see how kids grow up in this world and how there doesn’t seem to be an alternative. Imagine being Namond, having a father in the drug world, having a mother that expects him to be like his father, and expecting to enter the drug world yourself. Is it surprising then that he wouldn’t take school seriously? He expect himself to be working on the streets and figures he will be dead within ten years. Where do you begin with a kid who thinks like that?
What this season of The Wire does that is so essential is present us with a world that many people cannot even begin to imagine. Geographically, many of us may have grown up in the same country as these kids, but we did not grow up in the same reality. Who these kids are, what they think of their future and their day to day existence is something that does not begin to resemble anything I personally know or experienced.
This season of The Wire demonstration of the power of media at its finest. It has the potential to make us forget ourselves for a moment and enter into the lives and reality of someone beyond us. While popular media often does this with smart, sexy and adventurous characters on daring adventures, The Wire places us into the lives of kids, desperate, powerless, oppressed and faced with bleak futures. This kind of displacement takes us to a place where we are suddenly able to empathize with the marginalized and the weak.
Great art does this. It’s easy to step into the shoes of a hero, to enjoy the sense of power and excitement, to experience an idealized version of what we all secretly would love to be. It’s hard to go to the other end, to be disempowered, to experience life at the bottom, to take on a reality that is bleak and follow characters that don’t have any power.
And this is just one facet of season four of The Wire. Yes, it’s the most important, but in another show the school would be the bulk of the season. Here, the show explores so many more facets that both feed into the world of the school as well as paint a broader portrait of a problem that extends beyond the classroom halls, the urban reality of an America that many might never experience outside of this show.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing