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"Precarious Lunch": Conviviality and Postlapsarian Nostalgia in The Wire's Fourth Season

From: Criticism
Volume 52, Number 3-4, Summer/Fall 2010
pp. 529-546 | 10.1353/crt.2010.0044

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

Marlo:

You want it to be one way.

Security guard:

What?

Marlo:

You want it to be one way.

Security guard:

Man, I don't know what you . . .

Marlo:

You want it to be one way.

Security guard:

Man, STOP! Stop saying that!

Marlo:

But it's the other way.

"Refugees," The Wire

[The Wire is] really about the American city, and about how we live together.

David Simon, The Wire, series creator

The major thematic intervention of The Wire's fourth season is its refocusing from the institutional worlds of adults to the ripe world of pubescent boys as they emerge into young adulthood against the backdrop of a Bushian educational apparatus that the viewer, prima facie, knows will render the children among the Left Behind. While it has been said many times, by the series' creators and others, that the school system in the fourth season is configured as a serialized manifestation of a general decline, it would be hard to locate in the series' logic a high point from which the schools have descended. The Wire's depiction of the school system in its fourth season seems to hinge neither upon nostalgia for schools past nor on any effable models for schools future. This marks in the fourth season a tonal shift in the series' affective investments in nostalgia. Whereas with The Wire's other institutions—policing, government, various criminal organizations, the press, etc.—decline is mapped teleologically and characterologically, with paragons and avatars of the better days pitted against progressive failure and its avatars, the schools' past is unmarked, or is at least unmarked as past, and insofar as the crisis depicted is one that is derived from history, the origins of the crisis seem to fall outside the series' apparent scope as a critical refutation of the recent past. Contrast with organized labor, community policing, or the fourth estate; the "better days"—found in the recent past—of each is often cited within the series as an object of postlapsarian nostalgia. Even Baltimore's drug dealers and murderers bemoan the passing of the lapsed code of conduct that maintained honor amongst the criminals and a putative stewardship of the community, as illustrated by Slim Charles's dressing-down of two Barksdale gang employees who violated the long-standing injunction to refrain from bloodshed on the Sabbath:

Slim Charles:

On a Sunday morning?!

Gerard:

We called to ask . . .

Sapper:

And Shamrock said to go . . .

Slim Charles:

On a Sunday morning?! Y'all tryin' to hit a nigga when he takin' his wrinkled-ass grandmas to pray? And y'all don't hit the nigga neither? All y'all kill is grandma's crown? . . . Ain't enough y'all done violated the Sunday morning truce. No! I'm standing here holdin' a torn-up church crown of a bona fide Color Lady. Do you know what a Color Lady is? Not yo' moms, fa' sho. Because if they was that, y'all woulda known better than that bullshit.

But for these institutions, decline is contingent on being outmoded by the exigencies of a changed world—labor power succumbs to the creep of neoliberalism, local policing to a global War on Drugs, journalism to corporatism and new media; fellows like Lester Freamon, Jimmy McNulty, Frank Sobotka, Gus Haynes, Bodie Broadus, and Slim Charles are left sputtering in their negotiations between the usable past and an uncertain present.

This isn't to suggest that The Wire primarily reenacts pitched battles between Good Guys and Bad Guys—indeed, one of the series' crowning achievements lies in its convincing, relativistic muddling of those very tropes—except to note the extent to which the fourth season's refocusing on a school system that lacks precisely a usable past facilitates an acceleration of that muddling. While a few of the schools' adults, especially Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski, clearly wear white hats, the children of the series, within this vise, can be neither good guys nor bad guys. This is a feature inherited from the series' early days, in which the audience was first introduced to the cohort of Wallace, Poot, and Bodie. Even when these characters encountered and enacted some of the most brutal...