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The Wire: Another Hard Truth About the Justice System

As a Baltimore Maryland native, it’s customary to have seen HBO’s “The Wire”. The series depicts Baltimore City as crime ridden and devoid of any sense of justice; where drugs and other vices flood the streets and the police turn a blind eye. If you have ever been to Baltimore City, you know there are nice parts and not so nice parts. A heavy financial interest is taken in the Baltimore Inner Harbor and other neighborhoods like Federal Hill and Otterbein, but what of the rest of the city. Only a few blocks away from the Inner Harbor you’ll find burnt out town houses, an abundance of litter, and those affected by the heroine epidemic. East and West Baltimore, the areas sandwiching the economic centers of Baltimore, are home to the highest murder rate per capita in the United States. 

HBO’s “The Wire” does a good job of depicting the gritty side of America’s cities. Often times, fictional TV doesn’t focus on crime or injustice in America, going for a more upbeat and cheerier to city living. I like “The Wire” as its filmed in the city; it feels real. I’ve driven on Eastern Ave, played sports in the city, I drive past the prison that displays a big sign “drop the gun or pick a room” on 83 on my way in and out of downtown Baltimore. By filming “The Wire” in the actual places it wants to represent, much stronger feelings are evoked. When I see Barksdale or McNulty, I see someone native to the city, acting as a real person would. I credit this to the realness of the writing and the director’s immersion of the characters into Baltimore life. This works very well for me, as it helps viewers understand the dark underbelly of major American cities, where crime in constant and police presence only plugs some holes. That there is no real solution and the war between law and unlawful is and always will be ongoing. 

Like “To Kill a Mockingbird” details justice in the rural south during the 1960’s, “The Wire” similarly throws viewers into a new environment where a lot is working against the main characters. In “To Kill a Mockingbird” race and society are constantly undermining Atticus and Tom Robinson’s case and justice slips away from those who deserve it. Not everyone can relate to those living in the America’s cities. In “The Wire” bureaucracy and politics slows the police in trying to apprehend Avon Barksdale while Barksdale’s soldiers are fighting against their own adversaries while trying to fulfill their tasks. “The Wire” is ambiguous with its definitions of “law and “justice” like many of our other readings. There is no real prevailing moment

Surely there would be some improvement in the city’s conditions since “The Wire” aired in the early 2000’s. One would hope so, however, Baltimore is still in a sense hopeless. Its last three elected mayors have been removed from office for some sort or crime. Its most recent mayor, Catherine Pugh, was sentenced to three years in jail for tax fraud. Six of her properties were raided by the FBI and the IRS conducted an audit where fraudulent dealings were found. Baltimore City’s helplessness is rooted in its core and its elected officials not only procrastinate on reviving the city but are dealing in their own criminal enterprises. Sheila Dixon, who stepped down from mayoral office amidst a embezzlement and felony theft scandal, is currently the frontrunner for the upcoming mayoral election. The cycle continues. 

I like “The Wire” for its darkness. There is no real sense of optimism, no real sense of progress, and no real sense of victory. Everything comes at a cost and there are no real happy endings. The mood is dark. Much like “Country of my Skull”, the mood is eerily depressing, and each story or arch emits a certain darkness. In “country of my Skull”, personal witness accounts are at the forefront of the book and readers are treated to the authors reaction. This is similar to the perspective of the Baltimore police; when viewers follow their stories, they see murder and horrible drug crimes and witness the reactions of public servants. McNulty and the rest of his unity work out of a dank dark basement using outdated equipment and receive no real funding. They’re trying to scrape what they can together to get their job done. DeAngelo Barksdale and his crew have to deal with addicts and gangsters while trying to protect their only source of income from rivals. They’re kids fighting to keep themselves fed and their families with a source of income. “The Wire” highlights how politics slows down public sector life. Approval from a superior or permission from a judge can take too long and a police target moves on and an opportunity is missed. How life in Baltimore City is devoid of any progress, how the burnt out and abandoned buildings in West Baltimore filmed in 2002 still stand today. “The Wire” is distinctly different than any literature our class has read thus far, yet the underlying themes of “law” and “justice” are at the forefront of the show. “The Wire” has a modern take on law (or lack of) in America, where crime is rampant, and the police are ineffective. There are characters we fall in love with on both sides of the law, characters we sympathize with but at the end of the day the depravity of Baltimore City eats at every one of them and there is no resolution and no happy endings. 

One thought on “The Wire: Another Hard Truth About the Justice System”

  1. I had forgotten, when I offered The Wire up as a viewing option, that I had a Baltimore native in the class! I’m really compelled by your observations about the realism of the series. Of course realism doesn’t always just mean realisticness; in the case of The Wire, as you note, there’s a fidelity to the physical location of the city as well as a sense of its social problems, and the “darkness” of the show – its refusal to embrace a facile optimism – is part of that. I wonder, as a local, whether you are also aware of aspects of the city that the series perhaps doesn’t quite capture to the fullest. Simon has certainly been subject to criticism for what he doesn’t cover or perhaps covers in the wrong way. For example, it could be argued that the show ends up being pretty cynical about social programs and social activism. Would be interested to hear more of your thoughts on that.


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