narrative arc

David Simon/Richard price gave a talk in New York last week that some of the H&H team attended. It was cute when one of our number, on the walk home, asked if we thought there were Wire superfans, the kind of viewer who would go to a Trekkie-equivalent convention. The rest of us quickly pointed out that the hypothetical Wire superfans he spoke of were us.

A few things Simon said really struck me — one was about the conception of the show as “Greek” versus a “Shakespearean” model. He argued that a show like the Sopranos — or most shows on television — are built around a central charismatic figure (Hamlet, Othello, MacBeth etc.). The Wire, on the other hand, is consciously fashioned as an ensemble — and when any one character starts acquiring too much power, he/she must be eliminated. Hence the killing of Stringer, and the demotion/domestication of McNulty.

Along with this, Simon said that The Wire is a show about institutions — that it is necessarily and purposefully negative about change in America, and furthermore, that it is always about institutions “fucking” the people they’re supposed to protect. Which makes me wonder, Are the characters’ lives overdetermined by this heavy control from above? One way to think about fiction, especially television fictions, is that the characters have their own agency in these imaginary worlds. But for Simon, the characters must be constrained in order to make a political point. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, just thinking it over.

Richard Price’s main contribution to the talk was to be dreamy and tell a pretty amazing story about a verbal spanking he got from Denzel Washington on the set of whatever movie he was working on, who informed him that he should “pretend” that his black characters are as smart as his white ones. It was pretty remarkable, I thought, that Price was so comfortable in admitting it, esp. given how good he is at writing for The Wire. (Another great anecdote from the talk was that apparently, the day after Stringer’s death aired, all the “real” wires in Baltimore were blowing up with dealers talking to each other about how they couldn’t believe it.)

Final note: My immediate impression of the first episode was that this season was going to be more depressing than even the ones that came before. Watching kids be kids struggling is, for me, even harder than watching grown-ups like Johnny throw everything away. But with a little distance I’m more optimistic. Those kids are alright.

And Mr. Shoals, I have to disagree. Marlo’s not losing composure. I don’t even think he’s getting arrogant. He’s just staking his territory, getting them while they’re young.

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13 Comments on “narrative arc”

  1. shoals Says:

    key to me was the “your name gonna ring out” reassurance from monk, even if it was for his generosity. seasons 1 and 3 both make it clear that names ringing out is no good; prop joe even has that monologue where he says just that.

  2. shoals Says:

    oh, and anyone not us who is reading this: the plan is for complete and total message board-like bedlam, albeit with 800 word posts. meaning there’s a good chance that the top TWO posts will be new.

  3. christycash Says:

    Right but if it’s bad for characters — if we know X is always bad — does that in some way deny reality, in which frequently charismatic people do come along, and in which institutions do sometimes bend and break and manage to serve the people? Clearly the show is trying to be “real” but it’s also trying to communicate a “message.” I think there’s enough breathing room and jetsetjunta keeps reminding me that bad things don’t happen to *everyone*… still the idea that the show is heavily orchestrated from above, even the way that lines are repeated and motifs resurface to give it extra oompf, the whole thing makes you feel like the show is quite fatalistic, and has to be so, to be itself.

  4. jetsetjunta Says:

    I think another element of the “Greek” vs. “Shakespearean” approach, not to get too English major annoying, is that here we have a moral universe where morality doesn’t get you anything, not even honor necessarily. Rather, characters learn lessons about pride or caprice only if they “deserve” to earn those lessons, while most sinners simply get screwed. Look at McNulty, whose pride and ambition should have given him honor, even if the powers that be undermined his actual progress. Yet he’s like some sap who’s thrown his lot in with Athena and done much with her help only to find himself left to the whims of Poseidon, stuck out on a boat in the harbor. That to me doesn’t scream of overdetermination so much as randomness and divine dice-rolling.

  5. christycash Says:

    That’s a good point, but how can something be random when it’s so carefully plotted? Nothing about the show strikes me as arbitrary. Maybe overdetermined was the wrong word to use. McNulty is deprived of honor or recognition because he’s ultimately a tool — an extremely three dimensional, well-crafted tool — in a bigger story about the corruption and venality of the police force as an institutition. Maybe Simon et al’s real gift is using character as a device so effectively — so much so in fact that viewers can still (more than anything?) relate to their humanity even as they are put in service of something else.

  6. shoals Says:

    wait, i’m confused. . .are you (two) distinguishing between learning a meaningful lesson, earning dignity/honor, and getting ahead in this world? if so, i’m kind of fuzzy on how 1 and 2 differ. and how, in the context of the wire, 3 has anything to do with 1 and 2.

  7. christycash Says:

    No, the distinction (I thought) was between agency and not agency… earning dignity or learning lessons would just be examples of agency…

  8. shoals Says:

    there’s also learning lesson vs. being used to teach others lessons. subjective journey versus object for the message.

    maybe mcnulty vs. stringer. as open-minded as that show is about drug dealers’ humanity, it seems like a disproportionate number of them count as the latter. or is that a testament to the nature of the game?

  9. jetsetjunta Says:

    But that’s just it. Learning a meaningful lesson and gaining honor have nothing to do with one another. Characters rarely learn lessons, that’s for audiences, but characters don’t even have to attain any kind of honor or even dignity for this to take place, and in fact when they strive for it but don’t get it, the lesson learned is even more dramatic. Getting ahead in this world is, to me, the wheel that moves along the entire series. So I’m saying it is a testament to the game that it is ravenous and cold, such that no matter the humanity or depth or, well jeez creed or content of character, if you want to go all the way, of a player, they all end up being object lessons.

  10. christycash Says:

    It seems like we’re speaking at cross-purposes, but it’s turning up some interesting stuff. Re what Shoals said, I think it is a testament to the game. People get the reward or punishments appropriate to their walks of life. Bunny is ousted; Stringer is killed. I think what that shows is that the game deprives its players of their humanity as a prerequisite — that death is the punishment available.

    But it’s not just “the game” that makes the series work this way, cause think about Season 2 or even Season 4, now that we’re in it. Built into the Wire’s worldview is the basic supposition that humans, under these socio political systems, can only lose. (McNulty’s an interesting case cause he seems so happy now — now that he’s given up on saving the world and has retreated into child-rearing, which is always the last province of white liberals.) So the idea of getting ahead may drive each individual but the bigger engine is the political machine, or the school system, or the union, or whatever.

  11. shoals Says:

    why does ths blog think it’s 7:30PM?

    re: “can only lose” there is still a difference between going out with real integrity (bunny colvin, stringer) and fool-hardily falling victim to these institutions’ model of it a la avon or mcnulty. maybe an obvious point, actually.

  12. jetsetjunta Says:

    Until just now, this blog lived in England, apparently. Ah, sweet Albion. We will miss you.

  13. trackMark Says:

    shoals Says:
    September 13th, 2006 at 7:55 pm e

    why does ths blog think it’s 7:30PM?


    I fixed the time thing, I think.

    Still too intimidated to post anything though…

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