Analysis / The Wire

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    Institutions vs individuals 

The establishment versus the individual is The Wire’s main source of conflict. Be it the schools, the police, or the gangs, any kind of an organization is ultimately self-serving. The main moral of The Wire is this: each and every one of us is guilty in running the institutional machine which eventually destroys those involved with it. We’re all complicit in the system, but we’re also all cheated by it. As Bodie Broadus laments:

“I ain't never fucked up a count, never stole off a package, never did some shit I wasn't told to do. I've been straight up. But what come back? <...> They want me to stand with them, right? But where the fuck they're at when they supposed to be standing by us?”

Of course, there are characters (high up on the power ladder, since "seniority sucks...if you ain't senior") who reap the benefits of the flawed system, often at the expense of their integrity. The one shining exception is Ronnie Pearlman, who doesn't lose sight of her ambitions yet never comes across as amoral, and on occasion goes out of her way to help the police investigations. However, apart from the lucky few, the system is ultimately dismissive of (and detrimental to) the individual’s well-being.

Some people try to change the institutions from within; this is most evident with Jimmy McNulty and Stringer Bell, characters who are naturally talented in their chosen field of work yet opt to fulfill the roles of rebels and innovators. Both are unwilling to accept the system they think imperfect; both take drastic measures in order to alter the status quo; both pay dearly for their (prideful and individualistic) initiative.

Meanwhile, there’s one character who at first glance seems to be truly liberated: Omar Little, who forges his path through life untainted by affiliation with any kind of institution. “I am the American Dream”, reads his T-shirt, and it’s hard to disagree: here’s a man who embodies the values of self-sufficiency and individualism. He has his code and that, for him, is enough of a compass in life. Still, even he falls victim to the system; in the end, he’s just another statistic in a miserable, decaying city. The system, in short, is unbeatable; “the game” stays the game, and there’s really no way to win it.

    “The Game” 

The concept of “the Game” is a major recurring motif in The Wire, tying in with the above theme of institutional failure. From the epigraphs at the start of the episodes (“You cannot lose if you do not play”) to D’Angelo explaining the rules of chess via drug trade analogies, we are reminded over and over again of one simple truth: we are not autonomous in our decisions.

David Simon called The Wire "a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces." The system has assumed a status similar to that of the gods in antiquity: our lives do not happen in a vacuum, but are influenced by things beyond our control. Life’s not about people making difficult choices, but rather about difficult choices being thrust on people. Neither the powerful nor the powerless are free: a politician is as much of a pawn in the game as an orphaned boy from the low-rises; both are part of a greater vicious cycle that dooms them to breed violence and corruption.

“We all got a role to play”, says Bunk, and most other characters share the same point of view. Because of this the thefts, the snitching, the brutality are viewed as part of a natural order of things.

In short, life is a game, and like in all games your actual skill and compliancy with the rules do not really guarantee you a victory. To quote Bodie: “The game is rigged, man. We like them bitches on the chessboard”


"[F. Scott Fitzgerald]'s saying that the past is always with us", asserts D'Angelo during the prison library club's discussion of The Great Gatsby. "You can change up, you can say you somebody new, you can give yourself a whole new story - but what came first is who you really are." D obviously identifies himself with the book's protagonist, and as he grapples with his conscience and tries to live a better life, he still finds himself unable to liberate himself from the evils he's done.

However, for all its cynicism and bleakness, The Wire is a series that believes in redemption and reinvention and offers its characters the chance to turn their lives around. Be it Bubbles, who comes clean and stays clean, or Daniels, who puts his dirty past behind and becomes a paragon of authority, or Cutty, who opens a gym after failing to reintegrate into a life of crime, or Carver, who grows from a thieving, snitching Dumb Muscle into an excellent cop – the opportunity for character growth is always there.

Oftentimes it stems from external factors. Namond, a boy from a drug dealing family, is saved from going down the same path by virtue of adoption. Prez, an incompetent cop, is forced to resign from the force; he starts working as a teacher, and the career change is a fresh start – nobody at the school knows about his violent record, or about him shooting his own car, or about him being the commissioner’s son-in-law. Two years down the road, he’s a respected member of his new profession.

In the end, McNulty, too, is forced to reconsider his identity, as he is stripped of the one thing that gave him motivation and a sense of self-worth – his job. His future is uncertain, and at the end of the series he seems lost - but not particularly unhappy, as he’s seen getting his personal life on track.

However, there’s a sad truth behind all of the above examples: while certain individuals may escape the vicious circle, the circle itself is always there, and for every Bubbles gone sober there will be a Dukie to take his place.


“As rough as that neighborhood could be, we had us a community. Nobody, no victim, who didn't matter. And now all we got is bodies, and predatory motherfuckers like you...”

This comment, made by Bunk Moreland, epitomizes the longing for a mythical time when people mattered as individuals. In the world of The Wire, the underclass is practically anonymous, just a faceless statistic: when Nick Sobotka, once a well-liked stevedore, reappears for a short scene in season 5 after falling on hard times, he’s dismissed by Mayor Carcetti’s staff as “a nobody’. The scene is brief, and it takes an astute viewer to recognize the character: since he’s fallen from the focus of the series, he’s of little interest to the audience. We are thus reminded that we’re the ones shaping society’s indifference toward the downtrodden.

The two Omars

The Wire’s very first episode starts at the Snot Boogie murder scene, which sets the tone for the rest of the series and establishes the overarching criticism of devaluing human life. Snot Boogie is a petty criminal gunned down in the streets; all McNulty can do is remark on the kid’s unfortunate nickname. Once the scene cuts to the opening credits neither Snot Boogie (real name Omar Isaiah Betts) nor his fate will be revisited; he’s just another homicide that will go unsolved.

A couple episodes later we meet another Omar, the resident stick-up artist. This Omar, despite being a major player, too ends up only a statistic, a corpse in the morgue with the body tag accidentally misplaced. The city newspaper refuses to run the story of a black thirtysomething male shot to death; nobody cares, and neither would we had we not been following this man’s story for five seasons.

Oddly enough, Omar’s something of a subversion of the tendency to strip characters of their identities: he may be dead, but he’s a mythological figure of such proportions that his name – and his legacy - lives on.

The nameless

“My name is my name!” shouts the enraged Marlo after his reputation on the street suffers a blow. A name – that is to say, the most primitive basis for an identity – is a perk all humans are entitled to. However, the lowest of the low, the people at the very bottom of the social structure, lack this attribute; they are truly, and wholly, faceless and anonymous.

Such is the case with the Eastern European prostitutes in season 2. McNulty, despite his usual "it's all about me" attitude, goes out of his way to identify the body of a dead girl he finds in the water. It’s of no importance to the investigation, but for once he cares about something other than solving a case: he simply doesn’t want the girl to go on the record as a random Jane Doe. Most other characters don’t understand his concern and theorize that it's his Catholic guilt talking.

The homeless in season 5 are also an anonymous, dehumanized mass, seen as a means to an end for several characters, allowing McNulty to fabricate the Serial Killer case and giving the city paper gets a sensational story to run. This goes to show that the forsaken are viewed as largely disposable by those better off.

    Novelistic aspects 

The Wire has often been compared to a “visual novel” in terms of structure and subject matter. The grand scope of things, the big cast of characters and the long plot arcs allow for such a comparison to be made.

Despite the fact that it’s practically impossible to start watching the show in the middle with no knowledge of prior events, each season of The Wire can function as a reasonably independent installment, with its own plot and a focus on a particular segment of urban life. The seasons consist of 10-13 episodes, which cannot be viewed as standalones and instead form several multi-layered narratives.

The show lacks many attributes typical to television: there’s no voice-overs, no flashbacks, (usually) no cliffhangers at the end of the episodes or the seasons. The exposition is subtle and piecemeal, with the viewers having to deduce the larger truth from the bits and pieces scattered throughout the show.

Literary devices

The Wire makes good (if on occasion overly blatant) use of metaphor: sometimes the characters consciously reflect upon their lives (the chess pieces as an analogy of the gang organization), sometimes the viewers are left to discern the allegories for themselves (“The Wire” is titled that way because the wiretaps provide the cops in a look into a secret world).

Epigraphs are another device employed in the series: each episode is prefaced with a quote taken from the dialogue in the same episode, with the aim of adding extra weigh on the utterance. Visible in the statements are the show's themes: the decay of the postindustrial society (“They used to make steel here, no?”), the rules of survival in “the game” (“…when it’s not your turn”), the helplessness of the downtrodden (“What they need is a union”), the futility of breaking away from "the game" ("How come they don't fly away?"), etc.

There’s also a significant amount of parallelism on the show, especially with regards to character stories: McNulty and Stringer Bell as backstabbing rule-breakers in their respective trades; D’Angelo Barksdale and Nick Sobotka as unenthusiastic members of uncle-nephew crime teams; etc. Tying into this tendency are the numerous cases of History Repeats: Michael becomes the new Omar, Dukie the new Bubbles, Sydnor the new McNulty, Carver the new Daniels. The series on the whole is based around the Book Ends trope as well, with the final montage (set to the intro song from the first season) showing how nothing has ultimately changed.