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"The Game Is the Game": Tautology and Allegory in The Wire

From: Criticism
Volume 52, Number 3-4, Summer/Fall 2010
pp. 373-398 | 10.1353/crt.2010.0043

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) waits to testify for the prosecution at a murder trial. He is not at all nervous. The sheriff guarding him works on a crossword puzzle but is now stumped by the name for the Greek god of war. His best guess—Mars—doesn't fit. "Ares," Omar announces breezily. "Greeks called him Ares. Same dude, different name is all." Surprised that a black thief from Baltimore's West Side would have such knowledge, the white sheriff tries out the word and then thanks Omar. "It's all good," the thief purrs. "See, back in middle school and all, I used to love the myths. Stuff was deep. Truly" (2.6). Omar is open about all his loves and as fearless as the Malcolm who shares his surname. His comment on Greek and Roman mythology hints further at an unusually high awareness of alternative codes of behavior in battle.

The gods of classical Greek and Roman mythology toyed with mortals while the latter flailed—whether desperately, humorously, or honorably—against fate's constrictions and mysteries. The Wire brings Ares and the other gods and their powers down from Mount Olympus to the faceless modern institutions towering over the series' characters. The series, according to creator David Simon, "is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces." Many of the characters understand well enough the grim machinery of the institutions they work in, though such knowledge hardly promises satisfying results. A parade of battered idealists and would-be heroes—among them Jimmy McNulty, Cedric Daniels, D'Angelo Barksdale, Frank Sobotka, Howard Colvin, and Gus Haynes—flail dramatically against their fates. Meanwhile, the deputy police commissioner barks to a room of nervous police commanders, "The gods are fucking you; you find a way to fuck them back. It's Baltimore, gentlemen. The gods will not save you" (3.3).

The series' would-be heroes repeatedly chafe at the frustrating institutional logics defining the works and days of Baltimore life, whether the underground drug economy, local law enforcement, organized labor, urban politics, public education, or the local media. The assorted institutional layers are hardly disconnected; the show's slow-moving storytelling weaves them together into a dense fabric of ambition and wreckage. In the second season, for example, the real estate developer Andy Krawczyk lays out a plan for a waterfront condominium redevelopment. Public money will partly fund the construction, and the coffers of city and state politicians will need to be lined throughout the process. Krawczyk's redevelopment plan, however, comes at the cost of local dockworkers whose livelihood and very workplace face obsolescence. While Frank Sobotka, their union leader, turns in desperation to illicit enterprises to fund a political lobbying effort to defend their jobs, a few chronically underemployed dockworkers, including Frank's own son, move further still into the world of drug dealers introduced in the first season. The harder Frank tries to save his union and his family, the more certain is his murder by the ruthless "Greeks" (organized crime figures who only pretend to be Greek).

The gods do not save Frank Sobotka. His efforts to actively improve a bad fate only worsen the situation. Here as elsewhere, "all the pieces matter" (as Lester Freamon would say) in a jigsaw-puzzle narrative whose figures and shapes can be made out only from above, if not from a perch on Mount Olympus. The relative sociological precision of The Wire suggests that the series is not only about how Omar Little, Frank Sobotka, and many other imagined members of contrasting social groups make a living in a particular mid-Atlantic port city. The second-tier metropolis also stands as a template for many similar urban centers in the United States. Praise for the show's novelistic storytelling, snippets of highly quotable dialogue, air of social realism, and vast ensemble of finely drawn characters became commonplace during its original airing. Pushing back against the problem of a consistently small viewing audience during its original airing, the effusive compliments became so predictable that the series writers ultimately twisted the celebrated "Dickensian aspect" into a bitter punch line during the final season.

As another punch...