Design a site like this with
Get started

The Wire – No Place for a Moral Compass

I chose The Wire for my pop culture blog post, and I severely underestimated how long that show was. I just finished the first season alone. With as much content as they pack into a single forty-five minute episode, I feel more than qualified communicating what I learned from it with you all after watching only the first season. 

In this show we find a detective, Jimmy McNulty, as our protagonist. He is aiming to take down the “Barksdale” gang by cutting off its head. He has no interest in street level arrests as they only muddy up the investigation. He is continually bogged down by the bureaucratic nature of the police force as well as the politics played by his higher ups. An instance of his struggle is how he knows just enough to know himself that D’Angelo did kill a man and get away with it through gang affiliated courtroom intimidation, but not enough to gain any traction with the lieutenant. He speaks his mind to a judge friend of his only to make his world more chaotic when word trickles down to his boss, and he has suddenly created a previously nonexistent issue that needs to be solved. This correlates to a series of events that leads to his lieutenant demanding street arrests when he himself too knows that they will throw the whole investigation.

On the opposite end while Detective McNulty struggles with the infuriating police force, D’Angelo finds himself caught up in the high stakes life of his family of gangsters who have done great things to keep him out of jail. This makes him indebted to them causing him to strive to prove his loyalty. This begins to erode him from inside, however, as D’Angelo has no desire for harm to come to anyone that is not morally deserving of it. The problem is that brutality and violence are part of the order of running gang business. If people are already operating outside the law (buying and selling drugs), then the order has to come from a deeper level. He feels sympathy for a heroin addict, friend of “Bubbles” who is now a police informant,  who is brutally beaten for counterfeiting money to score some more heroin. He feels guilty again when he finds that the heroin is being cut so it is half as strong only so the addicts will buy twice as much.

In the case of Detective McNulty, we see a free thinking agent pursuing what he believes to be just. We see this when he relays his thoughts about the original murder to his friend who is a judge, and we see this when he refuses to accompany his fellow police on a raid he knows will kill the case. He is a worker in the justice system, but the justice system is not quite that. It is a system that acts based on rules for a desired outcome to those inputs relative to the rules. The end goal is something near an agreed upon idea of justice, but our detective sees that it often works in the other direction. This is comparable to the play “Death and the Maiden” where Paulina Escobar seeks justice in a system not catered to her idea of justice or any common sense of justice at all. Detective McNulty’s overhead will not let him operate in ways that get him the results he knows he can achieve while also not having immediate access to the equipment required to achieve his goals, and his boss has it out for him. Paulina Escobar is similarly not given proper justice seeking resources being a woman in her South American country that favors the rights of men while not having enough evidence beyond her word which is not respected, and the Truth Commission has grown distrust for her claims including her own husband. They both seek to bring down subjects they know to be guilty and demanding of justice, but are both caught up in the misaligned cogs of the justice system.

On a smaller side note: D’Angelo is in a similar situation to Max in the children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. He choses a life in disregard of the justice system, and is cast into a world only governed by the laws of nature. The only system of structure outside of the law is order by nature and brutality. D’Angelo becomes fearful of the world he has placed himself into. Unlike Max he cannot return home to the world of law and order, but he does attempt to amend his ways. After his arrest, he is ready to turn in his uncle, a higher-up in the Barksdale gang. 

In the end we find that D’Angelo has a genuine desire for true justice much like his police counterpart, Detective McNulty. This show is very compelling, and felt like an omniscient version of the other hit television series “Breaking Bad”. There’s a lot to be said for a moral compass, and while every member of a society may have that innate indication of good and evil that does not mean their justice systems will always if ever pan out the same way.

by – J. Davis Harrell, Jr.

One thought on “The Wire – No Place for a Moral Compass”

  1. Oh my goodness, one season of The Wire was PLENTY for you to watch for this assignment, Davis!!!! There’s some good thinking here about McNulty’s irreverent relationship to the criminal justice system, and the way in which the show reveals where that irreverence comes from (even if McNulty is also in many ways an anti-hero just like Walter White). I’d be interested to hear more about what you think the show’s ultimate verdict on “the system” (or really the systems – there are a lot of them) is. Shoot me an email after you finish the next four seasons! 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: