Give the user some

CC and I had some incredibly productive words last week on the subject of gettin’ high and its relevance to The Wire. What we both seem to agree on is that, while The Corner was draped in junk, rot, and renewal, over its four seasons the show of our dreams has taken some drastic steps to minimize (no NA) the role of actual drug use in its tapestry of facts. At this point, Bubbles has shed his pathetic, self-destructive self, once symbolized by Johnny, and become a self-made hustler, friend of the law, and advocate for education. Even Hamsterdamn, which could’ve been cast as a blow for the rights/personal struggle of the individual, truly had the block like the Dawn of the Dead.

While no one should expect The Wire to glamorize controlled substances, it has also been surprisingly opaque when it comes to their role in the socio-psycho-drama known, mightily informally, as THE GAME. Season 1 at times seemed cut from the same cloth as what I’ve seen of The Corner, going so far as to introduce a ludicrous “Bubbles and Johnny clean up” storyline, have Steve Earle drop by to give a motivational speech, and just generaly languish over this most grimy of human predicaments. Depending on how much interest you have in this matter of business, this was profound or disastrous. Now, though, users are a broken feature of the landscape, imbued with meaning only when they push along the plot or dramatically break the mold.

Funny about all this is that, in my limited experience with such lost souls, drug addicts love The Wire. While no one would ever want to identify with the kind of shit-out addicts depicted therein, there’s a general consensus that, in some sense, this show belongs to them. I take it to be something along these lines: The Wire illuminates absolutely everything surrounding an individual’s use without confronting it in itself; especially if one is looking to downplay the murdrous consequences of addiction, this is a cozy way to glom onto an near-operatic context. Most addicts would prefer to think of themselves—like Bubs—as a streetwise component of the grand hustle, rather than its object, the hustled. In emboldening the noble junkie, situating him within the web of bad-ass machinations, and reducing the lesser addicts to wandering scum, Simon successfully allows every self-glorifying user to embrace his show and their lifestyle with precious little honesty.

I would like to take this gorgeous opportunity to compare this to a certain strain of hipster’s love of cocaine rap, one that I don’t doubt plays a role in Wire-mania. Tales of moving crack by the bushel are exotic, raw, and decidedly alienating; after all, who among us wasn’t raised to consider crack like rat poison? However, when Clipse, Jeezy, Weezy, Juelz, Rick Ross, and any number of others switched it up and made yay the primary focus, it became something these kids could relate to. Hearing rappers exult over enormous quantities of powder cocaine is, for anyone remotely incline to themselves get excited about coke, a lot of fun. Thus, their affinity for consuming a drug opens out onto a gigiantic vista of hardcore fantasy, the original meaning of Scarface‘s climax reclaimed by some of the last people on earth to cop the anniversary DVD.

Allow me to head your rage off at the pass: this is not necessarily meant as a condemnation of The Wire or drug users. As someone who started a blog devoted solely to this program, I don’t think that my respect for it can be stressed enough. I simply want to suggest that, in the same way that schools are getting explored this season, perhaps the use side of things is a quadrant also deserving star treatment. And as for my frank discussion of drugs and people and music. . . just take it on faith that I know what I’m talking about.

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29 Comments on “Give the user some”

  1. christycash Says:

    Oh shit, we are so psychically in tune, it’s crazy. I just posted a comment about this on the “Fallen Angels” post, but Jetset and I had a whole talk about this last night — I think you’re totally right on in this post, and furthermore, I’m convinced that Season’s 4 whole purpose in the grander scheme of The Wire is to break the romance with the game by showing you the world outside of it. Seasons 1-3 draw you in and allow you to reveal in the excitement over corners and warfare and keys and all that, but at the end of Season 3, with the destruction of Avon/String and definitely in Season 4 you start thinking, What the fuck does it matter who controls what shitty block in the ghetto?, and You start wondering what it really takes to get out from under the ceiling. This season is calling all the principles and rules of the game into question. At least that’s what I think. Oh man this post got me really excited to talk more about this.

  2. ReverendDrGladhands Says:

    Apropos of nothing, I thought I might bring this interesting tidbit to light: Felecia “Snoop” Pearson is essentially playing herself. Not only are actress and character namesakes, but they also share eerily similar criminal records. The real Snoop served a six year bid for a murder one charge that got plead down to murder two. She also faced charges of possession of a deadly weapon with intent to injure and conspiracy to manufacture/distribute narcotics.

    http://casesearch.courts.state.md.us/inquiry/inquiryDetail.jis?caseId=5B00060345&loc=3&detailLoc=CRIMINAL

  3. jhoshea Says:

    bubbles is a walking tragedy: a brilliant, good natured man who, at his best, is selling huge white tshirts to drug dealers and futilely trying to mentor the lost boys who cross his path; a hopeless role model displaying only unfulfilled potential; a total victim leveraging his last scraps of human agency.

    that bubs is such a sympathetic character is a testament to the writers et al commitment to displaying humanity in the bleakest situations and cause he was, you know, a real guy.

    he has no more specific purpose than to point out how subhuman the situation of street addicts is. of course the show doesn’t have much to say about drug enthusiasts who aren’t in the scum of the earth demographic. functional users cop and roll back to civilization – just the 8ball thx.

    yr getting closer w/the coke rap analogy – the wire doesn’t give a shit about civilians. they’re just clueless ghosts from out of town, occasionally rubbing up against the game and getting played. anything solely concerned with the game will afford heaping helping of voyeuristic distance to most.

  4. Shoals Says:

    first of all, i’d like to thank everyone for bearing with my html woes.

    it’s telling that, for all the acclaim heaped on the wire for broadening perspective and bluring boundaries, its heart and soul has always been the cops/robbers axis. the relative absence of CHARACTERS on the use side of things is telling, since, like CC says, it does really emphasize the guns, cash, and power. while the ever-expanding game would seem contradict this version, the fact that the junkies ‘n’ crackheads side of things was present and then squeezes out is a little weird.

    like do we see season 1 as in some ways immature and call it mulligan? and maybe they could come back later in a more complex light?

  5. Shoals Says:

    j–what about a redeemable junkie who still behaved like one, i.e. lied a bunch and was constantly manipulating everyone? as much as i agree with you about the recreational crowd not having a central place, what about if one of frank’s boys had had a little habit? there’s some middle ground between full-time derelict and weekend dabbler.

    and i totally forgot about wallace. . . now THAT’s what i’d like to see more of.

  6. ReverendDrGladhands Says:

    Season 4 seems poised to examine the ripples that spread out from drug abuse, as opposed to the blunt impact of use itself. I predict that we will se the ravages of addiction as it applies to the life of a character like Dookie. Users aren’t the only victims.

  7. Shoals Says:

    no way this gets its own post, but anyone who has wandered over here from freedarko knows i’m squirming about today’s column by bill simmons, aka the sports guy.

    rdrg–all ripples aside, why should it be an invisible point of origin?

  8. Shoals Says:

    no way this gets its own post, but anyone who has wandered over here from freedarko knows i’m squirming about today’s column by bill simmons, aka the sports guy.

    rdrg–all ripples aside, why should it be an invisible center?

  9. jhoshea Says:

    ha you can’t get away from that guy – it’s love, admit it.

  10. jhoshea Says:

    shoals – good point about the relative absence of shitty junky behavior. uh, bubs and johnny stole a bunch of stuff. best i can do.

    one could take the corner as the first season and it goes like so:

    1 junkies
    2 cops + robbers
    3 working men
    4 politicians
    5 teachers + students
    6 (i forgot what they said the last season was going to be about)

  11. jhoshea Says:

    oh right, the media.

  12. jhoshea Says:

    and when the stripper died at the party they were all high.

  13. christycash Says:

    I don’t think Season 1 was immature — I prefer to see the whole series as this very purposeful and plotted orchestration, where the writers and creators pulled you into one aspect, one limited aspect, and then pulled out to hit you with the rest of it. (please if anyone has info that contradicts my vision don’t ruin it for me.) Also, not to be all bringing up the Corner ever five minutes, but again, the Corner really shows that junky characters in all their humanity, fully drawn, do not equal entertainment. It’s just too fucking sad. I don’t think the Wire would have had ANY viewers if we had to contend with more addicts. When DeAndre (more Corner) starts dealing (both his parents are addicts, for the un-initiated), and then when he starts using: it’s like this perfect slide down that shows the inside and outside of the game, and how the business of drugs is a parasite enterprise — but the Wire is only just starting to unlock that. jetset was arguing with me about this last night, saying that all criminal enterprises, be they drugs, gambling or prositutition, leave the same wake of destruction, and i guess i don’t want to get into the business of ranking tragedies, like it’s worse to be a junkie than a prostitute, but whatever, criminal gangs/families leech onto systems, already broken, or not, and drain them dry. But I think that the show was designed to do this, to get you to accept one set of premises and then challenge those premises. or maybe not. maye it just worked out this way, which is alright, too.

    What’s interesting, too, is the way that “the game” — as figured in hip hop and also tv, film, etc. — has become a fixed narrative convention of our time. like, the pleasure one takes in listening to “soul survivor” is not just that it’s fun to think about mountains of cocaine (which it is) but that it’s a narrative system that structures a lot of the fiction, and reality, too, of course, of our time (and older times): striving, rise, fall. i’m saying this inarticulately but i do think the whole player narrative, itself derived from older conventions about struggle, and military tropes, and heroism and hubris and all that, as well as actually being rooted in the reality, of course, is not going to go away. And I think that the wire is deeply, deeply invested in that — i mean, duh, not winning any originality points here with my deep thoughts — and to some extent preserving that fantasy requires putting aside the consequences of it, which is addiction.

    And yeah, right on with Wallace. OK I promise not to comment again unless I have something to say besides agreeing or babbling.

  14. Tom Says:

    The show is more about the futility of institutions in Urban America than it is about drugs – I think Simon covered this angle in The Corner pretty damn well.

    Still, this is another good, thought-provoking post.

  15. jhoshea Says:

    ha just read the sprts guy thing – he forgot blackness. and fun.

  16. PostmanE Says:

    Preface: I’m a Wire virgin. The only three episodes I’ve seen are 38, 39, and, today, 40, but I think I agree with Tom. Thus far, season 4 seems dedicated to exposing the institutions that foster a cycle of self-decay and that swallow up even the most strong-willed idealists, whether child or adult.

    That said, did anyone else think Simmons column was terrible right until he got started on The Wire, and then got slapped in the face with a couple of searing last paragraphs. Maybe I’m just disjointed today…

    (By the by – I’m picking up Season 1 DVD’s tonight, and I could not be more excited.)

  17. PostmanE Says:

    And wow, the puncuation in that comment was awful. Let’s make up for it:

    ?

    ?

  18. hardtokill Says:

    so ARE junkies worse than prostitutes?

  19. 3pointshooter Says:

    Whoa – I can’t believe you are slagging the rehab scenes from Season 1. You don’t think addicts like Bubs aren’t constantly thinking about getting off junk and turning their lives around? I thought the scene with Bubs taking the stage and claiming his prize for being clean in Season 1 was as sweet and funny and real as anything this show has done in its 4 years. It blended perfectly the addict’s low self-esteem and corresponding desire for love and belonging with the bullshit that permeates the addict’s life. I’m actually disappointed we haven’t seen more of that since, because, as I just said, the prospect of rehab (however elusive or unrealistic) is ever-present in the street addict’s psyche.

  20. Shoals Says:

    3ps–you’re right, him getting his keychain was really well-done. but so much else about that storyline was just a little too facile for me. running buddies go to meetings together, the one there to babysit gets inspired by a mysterious burly speaker, then falls apart when the one person who believed in him won’t pick up the phone

    i guess it’s cool that it happened, but i would’ve like to have seen it done in a less contrived manner.

  21. David Simon Says:

    Um, I spent three years researching every facet of narcotics addiction, writing a book about it, then spent another two years translating that book to a six-part miniseries that walked for a year in the lives of various adedicts and treated a single, drug-addicted family in microcosm. In The Corner we committed to depicting drug addiction largely to the exclusion of the drug war, deindustrialization, and all the attendant politics. The fact that those subjects were not covered in The Corner led, ultimately, to The Wire.

    Given that prior effort, is it okay for the Wire to be about what we want to write about in urban America, and have yet to address in my writing? Because the truth is this: If there is more room made for Bubbles or the stories of other street level addicts, there is less room police work, or politics, or port story, or a lot of other stuff that was only in the Wire that had no place in The Corner.

    Reviewers discussing what isn’t in a narrative rather than addressing the presentation of what is actually there need, I think, to first explain what part of the narrative they are ready to discard in its entirety. Because the episodes can only be a maximum of 58 minutes, 30 seconds.

    Or they might acknowledge that every story told is fundamentally a choice to tell THAT story, and that other stories, de facto, will not be told. And further that this is the storytellers role and obligation, and that no storyteller and no story can be every narrative at once. Or if it tries to be such, it probably will suck.

  22. Shoals Says:

    not that this should matter one way or the other, but i have chosen to believe that the above comentor in in fact david simon.

    mostly, i just wonder if drug addicts not figuring more prominently in the show as a whole says something about what’s being said or what there is to say. if given more time per episode, could they take on a more prominent role in this current, ever-evolving narrative? or are they like labor, where one season would’ve been enough to wrap up most of their relevance to the urban landscape?

    as for my gripes with some of the bubbles/johnny plotlines. . . i think this comes as much from how ghetto-ized they were, how much they seemed ends-in-themselves, as their specific content. how much they did seem isolated from the rest of the show.

  23. David Simon Says:

    those are valid points. i see what you were after now.

    the truth is even on fayette street in those years, we saw all kinds copping. working men and women, suburbanites, college kids, and many like Bubbles or Johnny.

    Practically, we knew we had room for only a couple of users to represent not only demand, but the street information that might come back to the detail unit — i.e. a police informant. We chose to base Bubbles on, well, Bubbles — a longtime informant of Ed Burns who gave him many cases when he was working escaspe & apprehension squad and who I got to meet a few times before he succumbed to AIDS in the early 1990s. Johnny was based on a white kid that used to follow Gary McCullough around and was schooled by him in the ways of the corner in summer 1993. They happened to be a pair in our heads.

    we wanted the terminus of the economic pyramid of drugs represented in the piece — and we wanted that terminus to interact with the police, of course — but we did feel that we had devoted the entire previous narrative project to the entire diaspora of addiction. the wire was intended less as an opportunity for character study — tho worthwhile characters are of course a responsibility in any storytelling — than as an examination of systems, be they economic, social and political. Users are what they are in those systems, and they are not what they are not — and further depicting the myriad variety of addicts and the myriad manifestations of their addiction doesn’t seem likely to alter their basic political or social standing within the system.

    again, there’s always more we could do to expand on any subset within the story. different types of cops, of politicians, of working men, of…

    question is, would more of anything serve the story we are trying to tell.

    i probably shouldn’t have interposed on the blog, i know. but this site is very sharp about the show and i probably overreacted to your particular note about drug users because Ed Burns and I gave five years to that theme and it was hell getting anyone to stay in their seats for The Corner. you were speaking to the world of The Wire and what you’d like to see more of. I was thinking to myself, you’re about the only one in America. I guess I felt somewhat defensively that I’m about the last writer in television that can be critiqued for failure to address the subject of drug addiction in a serious, comprehensive way. fact is, The Corner can be regarded as season one of The Wire in many regards. It is the core of the core to the first season, which moves outward from that low-rise courtyard where the Bubbleses and Johnnies and — by extension — Gary McCulloughs and Ronnie Boices and Fat Curts and Blues go to cop.

    Sorry if I was at all belligerent. I just felt like I had labored in that vineyard for quite a while.
    Mostly, I just try to lurk and read and keep my big mouth shut. But this blog and a few others like it are doing such credible work deconstructing the show that I broke the rule. What I most want to say, and failed to, to everyone posting here about the show is: Thanks for treating the work so seriously.

    Simon

  24. pat Says:

    thank u for making a show that is worth watching

  25. trackMark Says:

    “the episodes can only be a maximum of 58 minutes, 30 seconds.”

    Pardon me for my justifiable skepticism about these David Simon comments, but I distinctly remember several episodes that were longer than 60 minutes, particularly near the end of the second season. This occastionally happens on other HBO shows too, including the Sopranos and Six Feet Under.

    I think we may have been had by this “Simon” character.

  26. Shoals Says:

    the email address i got with notification of his comment convinced me this was for real. trust me on this one.

  27. PostmanE Says:

    I’m going to go with Shoals here – the 58 minute, 30 second thing seems a bit like an arbitrary number he used for effect rather than an identity-revealing warhead.

  28. ttravis Says:

    Simon’s decision to focus on the political economy of the drug trade and only depict addiction on the margins is, to my mind, one of the things that makes The Wire so smart and so original. The typical depiction of addiction (and clean-up) in the mainstream media has been heavily influenced by the master narrative provided by the 12-Step recovery movement and its institutionalized offshoots in the social work and criminal justice field. that narrative prefers to bracket out social and structural factors in order to advocate for individual transcendence and personal responsibility. You can find iterations of that narrative all over the place– it’s displayed on *Oprah* pretty much daily, and even “quality” media products purporting to show the complexity of addiction– like *Traffic,* (the U.S. feature film version)– end up making addiction into a personal problem whose solution lies in the individual spirit and, to a lesser extent, the nuclear family. (This arc actually seems to be on display in the new season of the Wire, where we see McNulty– classic alcoholic of the last 3 seasons– now redeemed and, while not abstinent, sober in mind and “nursing that thing like a baby,” as Bunk said this week. I am very interested to see how that storyline plays out.) The individual spirit and the family both play key roles in creating and fostering addiction (and recovery), but, more important, for the last 30 years or so, they have made for compelling tv/film/pop fiction drama– squeezing out narratives more attentive to structural factors of political economy, like *The Wire.* I’d argue in fact that it’s decades of seeing reductive narratives of personal uplift and achiveing sobriety through “self-love” that has created the mind-numbing and irrelevent “self-esteem curriculum” that Prez and co. were sitting through in their in-service meeting before school started.

    So beyond the points that David Simon raises– that, as the show’s creator, he’s licensed to tell the story that interests him; he dealt with addiction in *The Corner*; he’s constrained by the limits of form– I’d say that there are excellent reasons for choosing not to focus on addicts and/or attempts at recovery in the show. It’s been done (and continues to be done) plenty, and in ways that are neither formally interesting nor socially incisive.


  29. [...] From Anya Kamenetz’s recent HuffPo piece on The Wire, we learn about a group blog on The Wire called Heaven and Here, a pretty meaty exploration of the show. Show creator David Simon checked in recently. [...]


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