I have been watching (obsessing over) HBO's The Wire lately. Don't bother looking for it on your television, the show's fifth and final season wrapped up March of this year. The Wire was a show that I always wanted to watch but never had the time or HBO access to. Finally, now that the show is over, I decided to start watching the show online thinking that "hey, if the show is over, I can't possibly fall any further behind."
Now, the show never won an Emmy but the critical consensus was something along the lines of "this show is so damn good that it puts every other TV show ever recorded to shame and makes you want to claw your eyes out in its brilliance." After finishing the first season I can safely say that yes, in fact, this show is so damn good that it puts every other TV show ever recorded to shame and makes you want to claw your eyes out in its brilliance. It is just the classic old story of "cops and robbers" only with a special unit of the Baltimore PD equipped with wire-tap technology trying to bring a drug dealer known as Avon Barksdale and the rest of his organization to justice. With such a simple concept, why is the show so superb?
Well, realism, for one. I have never lived in the projects of Baltimore, selling drugs to make a living, but if I had I imagine my experiences would pretty much mirror those of the show's characters. The Wire is dedicated to sober realism more than any other piece of art I have ever seen (including most documentaries). The actors don't look like actors at all: they look like working class soldiers and political bureaucrats who just happen to have their lives being filmed. It is the truth, nothing but the whole truth, so help them God. And it is in this super-realistic environment that The Wire tells what it wants us to know: we are slaves to institution.
This is a powerful, controversial notion and one that I have struggled with for a long time. Not only does power corrupt, but so do rules, and organization and bureaucracy. Many times in The Wire the police are just as evil and backwards as the drug lords they hunt. Office politics don't just hinder a drug investigation, they make the objective search for truth and justice an impossible achievement. Similarly, individuals in the drug trade are all slaves to their violent drug-running lifestyle that they perversely refer to as "the game." In "the game", you may not want to murder your best friend in cold blood, you may not want to spend 20 years in jail for a cause you don't believe in, and you may not want to turn your community into a degenerate population of hopeless addicts but the organization insists that you must. It is just all part of the game.
It is one thing to read philosophers's words: "imitation is suicide" or "man is born free but everywhere he is in chains", but it is another entirely to watch an entire society to eat itself alive from the inside out. And it is all in the name of the game; all in the name of following the rules of whatever institution you are bound to. That is the show's essential argument: the individual is free and decent and fair, but he is bound by the rules of his institution and the institution can do no good. One doesn't need to watch The Wire to see that.
Group think exists. Human beings naturally want to be part of a collective; it is simple pack mentality. How ironic then is it that the very thing that humanity craves, company and conformity, is the very thing that robs it of its humanity. Have you ever seen a Democrat abandon what he truly believes to fall in line with the Party? Have you ever seen a teacher go on strike with a teacher's union even though she believes that teaching the next generation of Americans is the worthiest cause there could ever be? Have you ever seen a corporate recruit engage in unsavory business tactics in the name of career advancement and profit? I am betting you have seen or heard of all of this.
People may be good, but larger social structures quickly rob them of any decency that they may have possessed. The Wire acknowledges the competence and decency of individuals in its portrayal of a few characters. On the side of the law is the task force responsible for bringing Barksdale to justice. The Baltimore PD clearly does not have much confidence in the case or respect for its cause. The unit is given a small, dank room in the Police headquarter's basement. It is only here, far away from the bureaucracy, that they can finally engage in some good, honest police-work. It is in that basement that the unit tries to satisfy justice and not just the demands of the boss upstairs. Of course, one can only stay underground for so long and once the case begins to implicate politicians' money in the Barksdale organization, the Police shut it down.
There is another character, however, that represents the potential for an individual completely free from any institution, legal or illegal. Omar is a street warrior who can be described as a Ghetto Robin Hood. He rejects all institution: the drug trade, the police, politics, wage labor and lives only for himself and his "code." He robs drug dealers and gives the money back to the community. And he seems to be having a great time doing it. He loves being a thorn in the side of organized crime and loves his independence. As if to hammer home the importance of his individual and free lifestyle, The Wire gives him the final line of Season 1.
"It's all in the game," he says, mocking the traditional phrase for life on the Baltimore streets, pointing a pistol in a drug dealers face and laughing his ass off.
So watch The Wire. And good luck not getting goosebumps when you see a Police Chief tell his lieutenant that lying, cheating, ignoring the truth, letting the guilty walk and the innocent die is just "part of the game." And ask yourself if you really want to be part of that game. The game of silencing yourself in favor of majority and letting yourself be defined by the institution you "do work" for.
On second thought, maybe it just isn't that important.
Life is just a game, after all.