The Wire, Politics, and Greek Tragedy

The Wire was an HBO series broadcast from 2002 to 2008, set in Baltimore focused on the conflict between police and drug gangs.  Other aspects of city life receive attention, in particular city politics, school teaching, unionised workers in the declining docks, and s city newspaper.  The main creator was David Simon who had been a journalist on the Baltimore Sun.  The main co-writer on the series is Ed Burns who had been a Baltimore policeman and school teacher.  Evidently the series drew on their experience of the city of Baltimore, and whether we take the show episode by episode by episode, season by season, or as a whole, it produces an effect of being in the middle of life in the city, and of a kaleidoscope, where any sides of the city are simultaneously present.

Simon is Marxist in politics and some Marxist cultural critics have been attracted to the show, but it is not obviously guided by Marxist thinking.  The most Marxist element is the portrayal of one of the drug gang leaders Stringer Bell (played by the English actor Idris Elba) as student of economics and business studies, trying to bring knowledge of those areas into entrepreneurship in the illegal narcotics sectors.  When he dies, at the hands of other criminals, the policemen who searches his apartment, the best known character in the series, Jimmy McNulty (also played by an English actor, Dominic West) sees a copy of Adam Smiths’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations on the shelves.  This apparent dig at capitalism as all implicitly criminal is not likely to satisfy serious Marxists though, who will be aware that Smith was himself a man of high moral character and intentions, who goes to a lot of trouble to distinguish between what he sees as genuine commerce  according to natural liberty and anti-social manipulation of economic power.

The aspect of the show that has attracted most attention from marxist commentators is the theme of unions on the docks.  The workers are portrayed sympathetically, particularly through Nick Sobotka (played by Pablo Schreiber) and his uncle Frank Sobotka (played by Chris Bauer).  Frank runs the union, and though he is given some of the grandeur of a Shakespearean tragic hero, it is clear that the union is deeply involved in what can most kindly be described as petty criminality of a kind likely to drive business away.  Nick becomes involved in more serious criminality leading to Frank’s rather noble and redemptive death.  Some Marxist commentators are inclined to see this theme as one of capitalism destroying a working class community, they are not likely to find success in persuading those of a different political orientation.  What is shown to destroy communities and social morality more is the war on drugs.  The show overall is more concerned with corruption within politics and the public sector, so is not surprisingly popular with free market libertarians, who also appreciate the decriminalise drugs message.  The most popular character in the show, Omar Little (played by Michael K. Williams), is a romantic outlaw who only commits crimes directed at drug gangs (he is one of Stringer Bell’s killers).  Other features are that he is gay, takes his mother to church on Sundays though he appears to have no religious inclinations himself, and mixes his extreme outsider status with concern for  communal values.  It seems to me to be foolish to try to pin a political label on him.

Getting on to the main purpose of this post, Simon and the most loyal fans of the show, who really are a most fervent bunch, like the ideas that the show draws a lot on Greek tragedy.  Aeschylus’ Oresteia tragedy is the main reference here.  I don’t really see the relevance except in the most general sense that one killing can lead to another, which leads to another and so on.  The story line that comes up in relation to Greek tragedy most is that round D’Angelo Barksdale (played by Larry Gilliard, Jr), who is locked into drugs and associated killing by his family. His uncle Avon (played by Wood Harris) is the leader of the drug dealing community.  D’Angelo is pushed into fast track drug gang career, and when he wants to make a deal with the police, his mother puts emotional pressure on him to stay loyal and stick out his time in prison.  We first see D’Angelo after  he has publicly killed a man (though not in a way which pleases his uncle) and escapes conviction through witness intimidation.  While he is in prison, Stringer Bell realises that his heart is not with his uncle’s gang (Stringer is Avon’s business partner),and arranges for him to be killed in prison in way which looks like suicide.  The resemblance with the Oresteia, or any Greek tragedy are so general as to lack meaning.  D’Angelo’s act of murder does lead to his own murder, he finds that he cannot escape fate, in the sense that he cannot escape his family’s leadership role in the drug dealing community.  The Oresteia tells of the murder of King Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra, in revenge for the sacrifice of their daughter to the gods at the beginning of the Trojan War.  Their son, Orestes, then kills Clytemnestra and her lover.  The furies pursue Orestes, who flees to Athens where a divinely ordained court acquits him of any illegal killing.  The background is the killings within the House of Atreus to which Agamemnon belongs, as a result of divine displeasure   Death leading to death, and the sense of fate, are n0t really enough to strongly connect the trilogy with The Wire.

It has been noted that the complex presentation of Baltimore is very novelistic, which is certainly in contrast to the strong unity and narrow focus of tragedy, ancient and modern.  Like a novel, the TV series incorporates fragments of tragic rather than following tragedy as a unified form.  The newspaper office which is a major theme in the final season is important here.  A newspaper editor, who is a negative character nevertheless expresses an important truth, when he tells a journalist to make it Dickensian.  The portrayal through multiple view points has many parallels in Dickens, Bleak House takes this aspect of his work to its greatest extent.  The misery of Baltimore in the show could also be seen as Dickensian in a rather vulgar use of the word.  Perhaps Simon thinks there is something more pure and culturally elevated about references to antique tragedy.  He would do his show more service by dropping any claim that any storyline in the show strongly resembles any storyline in Attic tragedy.


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