Rereading The Wire: police procedural, social games and the magic of blood
Blood has been shed on the asphalt at night. We see it in close-up as thin red lines spreading in all directions into the darkness and the ghetto, and then the blood becomes what it really is in the cult American series The Wire – pulsating wires of electronic surveillance devices and a heap of drugs. This shot of treacherously flowing blood later connects Baltimore detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) to the widespread reality of drug trafficking, steering him like Ahab in pursuit of his own white whale from the Baltimore underground – the black drug dealer Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), who is also the invisible leader of the notorious Barksdale clan. This same shot of blood also hints at the existence of a particular system of American values. In this System the lawlessness evident in the ghetto disguises the broader lawlessness of the Law itself.
Many TV and film critics have seen this game between the Law and lawlessness, blood and the ghetto, the police and drug addicts in the series The Wire as one of the most radical attacks on liberal capitalism ever shown on the small screen and beyond. Others were simply delighted with David Simon, creator of the series. As a longtime police reporter for the The Baltimore Sun and someone very familiar with both the police and the street, he seemed to be some sort of clairvoyant “insider” to them, but also an unbiased chronicler of that “other,” invisible America, the flip side of the great story of the American dream. Today, with a remove of more than ten years, Simon’s seemingly uncompromising criticism appears less critical. A strange, conciliatory tone underscores the mammoth series. The scenes of deceit, betrayal, debauchery, onsite investigations and violent death are not only full of coarse documentarism, they are also a feast for the eyes and ears. And so I believe questions rightly arise that this essay will discuss hereinafter, casting doubt on Simon’s criticism of the American System’s institutions in which a tacit, almost cynical celebration of the broader values of American society can also be discerned.
But right here at the beginning it should be clearly stressed that not everything in The Wire is necessarily subject to the logics of disparaging revisionism. What has survived the test of time and even today captivates us with its creative daring is Simon’s epic sweep and humorous approach to demolishing once and for all the stereotype of the TV sub-genre police procedural. The traditional division of characters in this genre into good guys and bad guys, taken almost for granted ever since the first hit police investigation series, Jack Webb’s Dragnet (1951-1959), is readily exposed to derision here. From one scene to the next in The Wire, policemen and criminals not only resemble each other, they act as one.
For this reason if nothing else, The Wire is an unprecedented TV event. In addition, Simon’s inspired insertion of literary sensitivity into his complex characters has the logic of TV soap operas and the epic sweep of a Greek tragedy, reverberating like a bomb when the series premiered on HBO cable television in the summer of 2002. It is still exciting today. The Wire is therefore more than a TV series. It is a cultural phenomenon. But right there, in some sort of postmodern labyrinth between strong emotions and weak institutions, is where the depth of the problem starts to appear in Simon’s approach to the duplicity of the Law that makes such a labyrinth possible. In some other point in time, it would be easy to see the imposing gallery of amazing characters skillfully formulated by Simon as a psychotic distortion of human indecency viewed through the drunken kaleidoscope zoom of Robert Altman’s eye. This Altmanesque optical trick of “flattening” reality – e.g. in the middle of the hustle and bustle of group scenes in the common neo-noir detective story The Long Goodbye (1973) – is intended to deconstruct the genre and make reality uncommon. Through this aggressive visual penetration into the reality behind the readily apparent, in Altman’s most successful films, such as Nashville” (1975) or The Player (1992), he made it possible to read “between the lines” what Reality actually is, but nominally refuses to be. His zoom reveals what is inexpressible and psychotic through sudden, “flattened” images, stripping away intimacy and the absurdity of momentary sincerity. But this very risk of formal impurity and visual warping, this risk of the camera moving and “gaping” violently and shockingly at an actor’s face or a bullet hole, is what Simon refuses to see in The Wire. The bewildering melancholy at the heart of the series’ narrative flow gives its epic scenario a perversely conciliating and almost Chekovian tone. There is no real way out for any single one of the protagonists, but the thorny path to the bolted doors of state institutions is full of an almost sensual, enticing bureaucratic and gangland tension. The dark interrogation rooms are there as the sexualized confessionals of those hungering for power.
Police vehicles are mobile arenas for rapid-fire dialog and explosive, politically incorrect jokes. Everyone has something to say. And when the talk ends either bullets fly or bodies fall. Lively dialog is therefore not only the driving force of individual scenes, it is also the key to the main characters’ survival. Through this art of police jargon and the elusive, codified ghetto slang of the drug dealers, the general despair of both the institutions and the streets seems less desperate. Uncertainty and fear in The Wire are actually not by-products of the unparalleled, immediate danger of the System as such, rather they are an emotional excuse for lively conversation. Therefore, the fierce emotions and juicy dialog are not, nor can they be, the source of broader social wrath and organized revolt. The despair is individual. It is intentionally reduced to a personal story, a private worry, and the general loser’s horizon of independent responsibility.
But some of the series’ scenes, particularly those in Baltimore’s black ghetto, seem to cry out for an Eisensteinian hand. They require a composition of shots with such emotional tension that only an explosion of violence can be a satisfactory response to Simon’s untenable montage of verbal highlights on the sound track. This is why the sailors’ revolt in Battleship Potemkin (1925) is silent. It results as much from the class struggle against the elite captain and admiral as from the wildly excited acting of the nonprofessional actors who, owing to Eisenstein’s merciless direction, no longer know what they are doing. This type of Eisensteinian readiness to go all the way is painfully missing with Simon. In The Wire, he only nominally criticizes unbridled capitalism. But beneath the surface of the unsettling sight of spilled blood whose nocturnal redness starts the entire series, and behind the body on the asphalt and the black children on the side, watching everything that happens with wide-open eyes, hides Simon’s uncontainable need to use the vision of nightmarish streets for the broader fantasy of street dialog between detective McNulty and the kid he runs across who witnessed the ghetto murder. But the Machiavellian maneuvers in their game of slang expressions are the first signs of broader social maturity. The motto of the series is therefore unmistakable: Rules change. The game remains the same.
In other words, there are no social changes here nor can there be any. Accepting the status quo is what separates those characters in the series who know what they are doing from those who stumble inexorably in the dark. Just as getting rich quickly through crime in The Wire is not in itself an indication of moral decline, but rather an enticing harbinger of future economic and technological development. This is why both the police and the gangsters invest money and hope unsparingly in surveillance systems and security cameras. In one of the scenes, detective McNulty visits an ultra modern FBI surveillance center and when he sees the new mini cameras that can spy on the underground in real time, he is as excited as a teenager sitting for the first time in Daddy’s new Cadillac convertible. Simon therefore presents the anomalies of society, the streets of heroin-induced despair and violent murders as something that the System could resolve if it wanted using adequate espionage equipment and a certain political will. For Simon, the System as such is not to blame for this, nor should it be blamed. The problem lies in the misuse of institutions and in straying from the real capitalist path. The existing liberal model of unbridled capitalism does not require radical change, rather systemic reform, or reviving the forgotten human face of healthy consumerism lying behind the mask of inhumanity. And in this nominal appeal to humanity lies the key to Simon’s non-verbalized inhumanity. His criticism is superficial. It is a veil of words. And as such it is paradoxically the most effective in scenes without conversation – in the thud of ghetto footfalls and bloody ghetto eyes, and in the cries of young boys selling drugs – thus in pure sound and pure image. When dialog enters the scene, criticism fades away.
The real background of The Wire, despite Simon’s creative endeavors to convince us otherwise, is not human society infected by the inhuman virus of liberal capitalism. It is the other way around. It is the clumsy, human factor behind the matrix of the market that is perceived as a systemic disease, laid bare in the close-ups of tense faces.
This is why human faces, despite the indisputable viability of the skillfully reconstructed street language, are there to die one by one. And the potent, dark energy of the ghetto never gets a chance to be discharged in the light of day and outside the shot in the off space of resistance and revolt.
Let us take the example of one of the key characters in the series, D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gillard, Jr.), the nephew of drug king Avon Barksdale. In the first season of the series, the expression in the eyes of this clever young ghetto hustler, whose blood ties raise him above the ordinary down-and-out scum, goes through a traumatic transformation. And this transformation, resembling some sort of personal nose dive into the abyss of his origins, takes him straight from the ghetto to violent death behind bars. He makes a decisive attempt to extricate himself from the vicious circle of drug gangs and crime families, but in vain. Exceptions are there, but only to prove the rule – Rules change. The game remains the same. And there is no way, nor can there be, to flee the merciless shadow of one’s own lineage and corrupting surroundings. A similar, although less violent fate awaits those who are not on the wrong side of the Law. Detective McNulty tried to be what his colleagues in their codified jargon called a natural policeman – someone who does their job because they believe in it. But this sincere dedication to police duties later costs him his detective’s badge.
Underground and aboveboard, Law and lawlessness in The Wire are thus component parts of one and the same system of almost dystopian hopelessness. It is a world with no way out. The real social background of the series is much less an urban labyrinth infected by criminality and much more what the Wachowski Brothers called the “Desert of the Real” in the cult science fiction movie The Matrix (1999). That hole in the heart of illusion, the lazy nightmare behind the hyperactive, attractively packaged images of corrupt corporeality is what we might tritely call the Real behind reality.
What makes this garish nightmare of the symbolic superego of order sustainable in everyday life in The Matrix is little more than a software program for social mirages. A virtual sun rises above a megalopolis of false splendor. Business suits rush through the streets. Everything looks tidy and civilized. But it is this total, normative realism of the manifest world that enables the totalitarian chaos behind the scene. A crazy game with the human subconscious takes place in The Matrix on the unseen microcosmic level of the bloodstream. The progressive exterior of an accelerated futuristic super city is therefore nothing but a virtual veil of deformed reality injected by force through cables into the infantilized body of the broad masses. What the Wachowski Brothers clearly show in this manner is that the struggle against the counterfeit reality of totalitarian technology is only possible if one is outside of it. The battle against the hegemony of the “Desert of the Real” in The Matrix leads to political extremism. The lone and introverted hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) grapples with the computer program and its virtual police in the form of frenzied agents-holograms. And the key to his final triumph over the symbolic order of the computer program that uses human beings as man-like batteries from which it pumps energy for its unhindered operation, lies in Neo’s mysterious world-saving role. What is inexpressible and messianic is transferred from the human imagination to the virtual world of the computer like a systemic disease and is connected to the modest hacker’s crazy love for androgynous young revolutionary Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss). At the beginning of the movie, she wakes him like a male Sleeping Beauty from the systemic sleep of the matrix into the nightmarish reality of the “Desert of the Real.” It is this whimsical, postmodern mythomania elevating the Wachowski Brothers’ otherwise over-engineered film to the level of a modern fairy tale that is missing in Simon’s The Wire.
In spite of the fact, as Alisdair McMillan notes in his essay “Heroism, Institutions and the Police Procedural,” that Simon wanted the narrative structure of The Wire to resemble a Greek tragedy, the final result of his epic investigation of Baltimore’s underground lacks something that is so characteristic and key to the classical form, and that is catharsis. Even though “the Olympian forces set against the protagonists are ‘postmodern institutions’ rather than gods of Fate” (McMillan 2009: 51) the impression is given that by giving divine power to the state apparatus, Simon removed the passionate force of the lone individual and the marginalized group’s reason to act. The question that ensues concerns the “other America,” i.e. the disenfranchised sub-class of day labor slaves and delinquent losers in the great, unspoken post-cold war transfer of all remaining resources, goods and wealth from hands that work to hands that amuse themselves. If the alienated forces on the social pinnacle of the American food chain soared to Olympic heights, then why shouldn’t those who are at the bottom of that same hazy casino capitalism pyramid resort to their own secret weapon of class struggle? Why not resort to the primitive street voodoo magic of blood and mire and make new proletarian gods out of mud for themselves?
In spite of the increasingly aggressive long-windedness of Simon’s characters, he refuses to answer this question. What Karl Marx (1937: 33) calls “[d]onations and loans – the financial science of the lumpen proletariat” in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) is intentionally reduced in The Wire to just hunters in troubled waters and drug addicts. No one is able to raise their head anymore, let alone look the truth in the eye. Catharsis is impossible since society no longer has any force that would stand on its own two feet and offer organized resistance to the human grist mill of the corporative status quo.
This is where the blood from the first shot of the series takes on new meaning. What becomes increasingly apparent through the path of these scattered red drops easily turning into lines of cocaine and spy cameras panning in the sky is that the ideology of liberal capitalism in The Wire has wormed its way under all the protagonists’ skin. Human society no longer exists as a society. It is nothing more than interest groups. Friendship is a business partnership. Violent death is an insurance policy. And everyone on the scene, from the smuggler on the docks and the ghetto dealer, to bribable policemen, and lawyers and judges with one eye on legal procedure and the other on a political career, wants personal success regardless of the social cost. This is why liberal capitalism in The Wire is not so much a value system as the perversely envenomed bloodstream of an infected mind’s greedy impulse. This is why Simon does not and cannot answer the question of the Real in the heart of the matrix, even though at the time the series was taking shape, this Real was clearly heading in the direction of the inexpressibility of extremism; both the inexplicable act of individual terror (Anders Behring Breivik) and the psychotic spectacle of international terrorism (Al Qaeda or later the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). An additional reason for the powerlessness of Simon’s discourse, as noted earlier, is the corrupting power of the System itself. Even when a person, like Simon, is nominally critical of a state institution, for example the police apparatus that encourages street crime in order to spectacularly clamp down on it for the purpose of its media propaganda, they are so fascinated by the phenomenon of human wheels operating within a nonhuman mechanism that their eye wears out on the surface of the machinery.
Or what Michel Foucault calls the “how of power” in his 1975-76 lecture series “Society Must Be Defended” (2003: 24). Simon never goes beyond the gun and the car, connection and wire, blood and cocaine. His shots are most convincingly filled with the psychological state of predatory mercilessness which, however, never reaches the tragic lucidity of pure psychopathy as in Raul Walsh’s film noir White Heat (1949) where lone gangster Arthur “Cody” Jarrett (James Cagney) is caught in a police ambush; before he is blown into the the night sky of burning oil, he shouts crazily: “Made it, Ma. Top of the world!” In other words, Simon never raises the question of why a matrix and in whose name?
He does not see Baltimore as the geometry of horror, as brutal lines of howling urban structures that hide what is unspeakable and wild behind their façade. For Simon, Baltimore is a hotbed of crime and social poverty, as well as a powerful pillar of progress with abandoned shipyards that just need to return to shipbuilding and docks full of hardworking workers who need to be employed as soon as possible. For him the city is a beacon of light in the darkness and a sign of civilization. But in that civic-minded hope he does not see that the black ghetto has become not only some sort of free market concentration camp for casino capitalism’s losers, but also an experimental laboratory of the future ideology of technomanic tyranny. This gives rise to a second problem connected to the first. In the final analysis, what is painfully missing in Simon’s postmodern reading of Greek mythology is that non-entrenched element between fantasy and delirium that gives the Myth strength. Slips of the tongue and crazy coincidences, thus the Lacanian Abstract that eludes the symbolic order of language, is exactly what elevates Myth or Story above both formal and colloquial speech, making it relevant even today, in spite of remarkable technological progress and our post-essentialist times. Instead of listening to the hidden pulse of the street, looking behind the façade of well-established, normative behavior at what is not spoken and is unspeakable, in the end Simon relies on the cliché of psychological realism. The series directors, some as prestigious as Agnieszka Holland or as talented as Milčo Mančevski or Ernest Dickinson, use a simplified, politically correct version of Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio methods to hide the surreal motifs of the Matrix’s operations through the external realism of behavior.
From The Wire’s first shot of red blood spreading like an organic network of violent death and instant profit all around the city, bodily fluid is shown as the visual equivalent of the System as such. Hidden psychopathy is therefore another word for formal success. While betrayal is endemic. But Simon, paradoxically, is not concerned with this. Instead, he focuses all his creative attention on the repressive state apparatus of disciplining the individual and controlling the masses. He is simply fascinated by institutions! And what attracts him above all are those in power, the dinosaurs and colossuses at the top of obscure crime organizations and imploded police structures. The characters of drug boss Avon Barksdale and his right hand man Stringer Bell are among those given the liveliest portrayals. These two rear their venomous heads out of the neon web of “Orlando’s” stripper club like two maggots inside a crazed spider that are eternally hungry for a quick profit. Police chief Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) is nothing better. His terminator eyes sparkle with mechanized orthodox thinking. But what hides behind them is actually the unanchored impulse of the corrupting desire not only for survival but institutional power as well. The commotion in the corridors is his Greek chorus. And the perverse impersonality of the offices, cells and interrogation rooms gives authentic intimacy to the codified jargon of offenders on both sides of the Law.
It is from this standpoint of the verbal mimicry of institutional jargon that The Wire is an impressive undertaking. Already in the first scene of the series’ first episode where we meet detective Jimmy McNulty, aka Bushy Top, it becomes clear that casual dialog full of colorful slang has greater weight than the deserted road with spilled blood flowing down it. McNulty is some sort of maverick policeman with a loose mouth. He hardly ever keeps it shut. And he is hardly ever surrounded by the silence of tense expectation before an urban ambush, or even worse, the frustrating silence of absolute physical exhaustion from police work hanging like a crazy mute shadow over the head of Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) in The French Connection (1971) by William Friedkin. But McNulty is only interested in a verbal detective “art for art’s sake.”
In one scene when he is tailing Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) through the riot of colors and people at a market, with the help of a skillful story line to his two young sons, he gets them to do the dirty job of improvised espionage for him. Jimmy simply stops at nothing when he wants something and this is why every officer of law and order in The Wire has their underground double. The ghetto equivalent of Jimmy is the young homosexual gangster Omar Little, played with special bravado by Michael K. Williams. Omar Little and other criminal doubles of detectives and policemen will actually complement each other later on. Mimicking each other, imitating posture and speech, they create the impression of tacit acceptability of what is in itself morally unacceptable. This additionally reinforces the notion of a systemic vicious circle between rules and chaos, going together hand in hand, creating the final impression that there is no way out. But a good story line, in spite of everything, always becomes lasciviously and garrulously inflated. Or as the series motto reminds us over and over again: Rules change. The game remains the same.
In the end, the underground and the aboveboard are nothing but component parts of the same infrastructure of systemic Evil normalized by street language. And policemen like McNulty or criminals like Omar Little inevitably end up as victims of that Moloch hiding behind the façade of pop newspeak that eats its children behind the scene with atavistic passion. This is why the dialog in the first scene of the series between McNulty and an anonymous young witness of a ghetto murder is full of ritual understanding. They look at the dead eyes of the victim together like two scapegoats. But in Simon’s universe this is not a reason for anger or revolt. The virtual membrane between blood and despair here is a Tarantinian ironic story line that serves the entire scene of the nocturnal onsite investigation. And violent death is a component part of the “game” in which both one protagonist and the other surreptitiously participate. And that is really too bad. Because in some other version of The Wire, McNulty’s character could have certainly reached the true tragedy of Homeric heroes.
He could have been Odysseus, lost after the Trojan War in the Barksdale clan’s Baltimore ghetto. In the establishing shot of the same scene, the open-eyed corpse is glimpsed in the background. It would not be hard to imagine it as the floating body of a young warrior of antiquity tossed by the ominous ghetto tide onto the dark surface of the street. The group of policemen doing the onsite investigation could be a group of night fishermen sleepily fishing in the dark. The potential is there for both a noiresque tragedy and pure satire. But instead of this, the humorous dialog in the first exchange between the witness and McNulty is intentionally reduced to a conversation between two cartoon characters from the popular Peanuts comic strip.
We will return to this scene once more later, but here it should be noted that the key to the System in The Wire or the Hegelian law of the night that nominally prohibits what it tacitly allows is one single word – GAME. Here society is firmly reduced to the fascistoid competition of all against all. And the omnipresent word “game” not only runs through every scene, it also determines the series’ narrative and visual form. The placement of protagonists in every shot, their body language, the implicit look in their eyes and their nonverbal actions, betrayal and murder – they are its hallmark. The question of whether something is part of the game or not, and whether someone is a player, changes the relationship between characters. For this reason, it seems that characters in The Wire would appear much realer if they were less realistic, if they were less self-contained as characters and were more porous, gaping holes of human identity in space and time, boldly and angrily left to cheap hip hop narco-porn chic and ghetto violence.
Let us therefore look briefly at America’s media reality at the time The Wire premiered. A string of Hollywood movies and TV programs, ranging from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) to the reality TV series Survivor (2000-) introduced coarse images of pagan competition openly into public discourse. The simplified division into good-bad characters prevails in Gladiator. A hero is a hero, a villain is a villain. And the final showdown between good and evil, the Spanish-Roman General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russel Crow), who is blindly faithful to traditional Roman values, and the perversely revolutionary dictator Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) takes place in the gladiator arena. The gladiator arena here is a broader metaphor and can be discerned as the underlying ideological concept behind reality TV and WWE wrestling matches. A fierce all-or-nothing battle similar to that in a sports arena also prevailed on the commodities market and in the broader culture. While the political reality of the global village received and wore the colors of the same dissolute tribalism. A similar bloodthirsty gladiator logic seen, for example, in Peter Jackson’s fairy tale The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) or the TV show Hell’s Kitchen (2005-) is also seen in news reports from the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in the morbid tabloid shots of the capture of Saddam Hussein and the ritual pagan execution of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi recorded by the mobile telephones of his killers. In the middle of this broader picture of political circus and the market of profit-celebration spreading from continent to continent like a natural disaster, Simon’s criticism of liberal capitalism seems rather moot, to be honest. Using the Jean Renoiresque idea that “everyone has their reasons,” in the name of his artistic credo he actually forgoes the risk of this or that artistic vision that would either undermine or question his faith in America as such.
Thus, it should be noted that the broader, American difficulty with the Manifest and the Real in The Wire receives its formal equivalent in the evident documentarism of Simon’s esthetics. It seems that the series’ main creator wants to present himself to us as a neutral angel chronicler of America’s urban hell. But his constant insistence on the psychological realism of the characters he catches in the camera viewfinder, the realism of their behavior, and also the broader realism of the city setting, have only an ostensible connection to artistic constancy. The purpose of this right-minded procedure is actually quite lowbrow. The façade of naturalness is less intended to make Reality decipherable than to limit the Real to only what seems realistic.
Seeing how Omar Little strolls through the ghetto like a bloodthirsty phantom holding a pump-action shotgun and whistling into the wind, warning members of the Barksdale clan that he will kill them sooner or later to revenge the violent death of his boyfriend, the impression is given that Real and realistic have little in common. This scene tacitly confirms that Reality is always more unreal than it seems at first glance. It is either much more fantastic or considerably more nightmarish than that allowed by the symbolic order of language. For this reason, in films that successfully evoke the Real, what is inexpressible appears either in the elusive music, such as the ominous harmonica in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), or sound, such as the worms and ants in the deep darkness of the cutoff ear forgotten in the grass in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1988). In the scene with Omar Little, the Real appears through the grim psychotic whistling of the young avenger.
And the reality of the conflict between proletariat-gangsters and bourgeois-policemen on the streets of Paris described by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte takes place in the bloody farcical surrealism of Bonapartist Caesar-like tyranny after the collapse of French institutions. For this very reason, what is consciously left out of the dialog or takes place in inexpressible off space in The Wire, thus what is beyond words, seems to make the Real cry out for some sort of excess in the sound/visual domain. Because what is there, visible on the screen – for example daily life in the ghetto in the first or on the docks in the second season – filmed and followed by a camera on a car or from a crane, is so disturbing that it categorically requires extreme means of expression! In the hands of another author with a roused feeling for the bloody Hobbesian pulse of crazy urban life in the American city, for example Brian De Palma, The Wire would have surely taken flight. It would have become a psychotic baroque explosion. Satire would prevail. And through the twisted wriggling tails of the steady cam, psychopathy would become a flickering-visual Gorgon Medusa.
The name of Brian De Palma is not mentioned arbitrarily. Some of the legendary dialog from Scarface (1982) seems to be an implicit mantra for most of the protagonists in The Wire. From Omar Little and Avon Barksdale all the way to Jimmy McNulty, under their tracksuits and uniforms all the characters hide in one way or another their own Tony Montana, the charismatic loner, shooting at all or nothing, treading the line that separatesoff the “other” America. What De Palma shows with his controversial film is that the American dream of personal emancipation and success no matter what the cost inevitably leads to some sort of institutional fascism. The free market’s end of the line takes its final hyper-technological form in the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix. The ultimate capitalist in their dystopia is a computer program. And human blood is the last cheap natural resource after all other sources of energy have dried up. In this sense, perhaps The Wire should be viewed as TV fiction that heralds a transition from the extravagant street crime capitalism in Scarface toward a fascist, post-capitalist order of total control through the technically superior Big Brother state in The Matrix.
The pervasive control of everyone over everyone else today has otherwise become reality thanks to the Internet. In The Wire we witness the primitive beginnings of this globalized spy world view. In this sense, McNulty is some sort of unconscious herald of this new era of ruthless, vicious awareness regarding the pornographically omnipresent new technologies. Let us therefore remember with a bit of nostalgia the wondrous dolly zoom out of De Palma’s camera in Scarface, letting Cuban good-for-nothing Tony Montana, as played by Al Pacino, spread his criminal reptilian wings like an ominous hydra and say in the fiery Miami sun as he looks at the women’s shapes as though they were the bodies of fancy cars: “What did I try to tell ya? In this country you gotta make money first. Then when you get the money you get the power. Then when you get the power you get the women…” This is where the motto of The Wire takes on its final, ominous dystopian meaning. What we see in the first scene of the onsite investigation is not blood. It is just the fascinating, radiating reddishness of the night. The realism of illusion has unconditionally and definitively replaced the Real. And escaping from America therefore seems impossible. America is the final, terminal destination of all our illusions, luring us, like Tony Montana in De Palma’s film, where it should not with it lascivious, mercenary splendor. Rules change. The game remains the same could therefore be the postmodern title of Pieter Bruegel’s painting Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind (1568).
Rajko Radovic is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Canada.
Foucault, Michel (2003), “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76, New York: Picador.
Marx, Karl (1937), The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Moscow: Progress Publishers.
McMillan, Alisdair (2009), “Heroism, Institutions and the Police Procedural” in Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall (eds.), The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television, London, New York: Continuum, pp. 50-63.