“They’re dead where it doesn’t count,” says Fletcher, a newspaperman, in an episode of the current and last season of HBO’s The Wire, which I saw recently. I don’t subscribe to HBO, so I was watching at a friend’s. And I was jumping ahead; since discovering the series on Netflix six months ago, I’ve spent the winter catching up with Seasons 1-4, which portray the tragic complexity of a decaying industrial city. In this case, it’s Baltimore, but it could be anywhere. There’s a lot of media attention to The Wire, whose smallish audience is largely and interestingly composed of inner city African Americans and educated, affluent and white liberals.
My niece, Maura, a little spitfire if there ever was one, graduated from Northwestern not long ago and then taught at an inner city Baltimore secondary school. Her students, almost all of them black, usually had lives almost as wretched, surprising, and heroic as the kids on the show. Each season of The Wire–it’s now on its fifth—is organized around a topic: “The Game” of the drug trade, the unions, politics (the stories of which I found the most repellent, but that’s probably because I’m from Rhode Island). In Season 4, the school system is depicted by following the lives of several middle school boys—man-children, with the awkward beauty of kids at that age.
Watching Michael, Dukie, Randy and Namond, I thought about Maura’s tales of the invisible city, the city that whites are afraid of and avoid driving into by mistake. A lot of her students’ parents or siblings had died of AIDS or drugs. The kids sometimes lived in group homes. They had had friends killed and generally had been pushed way, way beyond their limits. The school had metal detectors, but there was no money to staff them. Maura and the rest of the Teach for America kids, almost all of them white, didn’t go to the cafeteria and they stayed out of the halls. They did get Advanced Placement courses reinstated and took the students, some of whom had never been out of B-more, on college tours. Then, of course, the Teach for America kids left.
It’s pretty much the same story in the series, which resists the cultural imperative of happy endings. That’s good, because there aren’t many. If one wants to encounter the complexity of the Christian challenge to love, just look at the lives of the boys. Handsome, intelligent Michael resists the lure of the streets until his stepfather, who is also Michael’s sexual abuser, returns to live with him, his small brother and his drug-addled mother. Michael fears that little “Bug” will be the stepfather’s next victim, but if Michael goes to social services, he will probably be separated from Bug. So he turns to feral Marlo, a drug lord, who has the man beaten to death. The triumphant look on Michael’s look when he tells his mother that the man “won’t be coming home,” is chilling. But equally chilling is the viewer’s small, reluctant satisfaction in that look.
And so it goes. What makes the show more horrific is that The Wire is a kind of creative nonfiction—many of its stories address topical events, as when a Baltimore row house was firebombed a few years ago because the family complained about drug activity. But there is also the everyday banality of evil; when Carver, a cop, desperately tries to save Randy from a brutal group home, the state social worker numbly repeats that there’s a waiting list and it can’t be breeched. When “Bubbles,” a streetwise, endearing addict, calls another cop, “Herc” for promised help, Herc ignores the call because he’s in a meeting, thus setting off an awful chain of events.
But neither Herc nor the burnt-out social worker is an easy villain, because there is no convenient Other in The Wire—which accounts for much of its appeal, on spiritual and artistic levels. It is violent, but most of that simply is—a fact of life that becomes obscene because it is invisible and it is invisible because it is unpalatable to us. Thinking of that, I also understand that there is a certain frisson of white self-congratulation in being a fan of the show. Watching it, I think of how, in Seamus Heaney’s The Haw Lantern, Diogenes seeks “one just man,” his eye “that scans you, then moves on.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Ann Conway
Ann Conway has published in Commonweal, Maine Arts Magazine, Faith and Leadership and other venues. Her essay, “The Rosary,” originally published in Image Journal, was placed on the notable list of Best Spiritual Writing 2011. She received a fellowship from the Collegeville Institute in 2013 and received her MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. A former regular blogger for Good Letters, she currently writes at “Commonplaces” where her subjects are often disability, Maine, the voiceless, and spirituality.