The language problem

Written as election returns came in. I decided this morning that it’s all raw political undercurrent, and thus have edited it barely;I hope the price you pay is not too steep. Minor #46 spoilers, so if you’re doing things the old-fashioned way go here.

Admit it, you got defensive when the entire media first swooped down upon The Wire. You looked for signs that they hadn’t properly absorbed the earlier seasons, or that they just didn’t get the streets like you did, par. One of my personal favorites was columnists complaining about, or merely bemused by, some of the characters’ heavy accents. I saw more than a few half-joke about subtitles, and I smugly assumed that this proved how little they belonged. Maybe even, more generally, how poorly equipped they were to understand the subtleties of the show.

Here we are, a striking nine episodes into Season 4, and I’m the one pressing rewind. Maybe it has something to do with my insistence on watching it the second it goes up on OnDemand—not a good look, considering that this comes after a long day of football, dehydration, and pre-week dread. But regardless of how much I could or should decipher each and every word uttered, the truth is that the speech this season is more inaccessible than ever. This has to do primarily with the satanic triumverate of Marlo, Snoop and Chris; Marlo mumbles, Snoop is Snoop, and Chris’s cadence is completely disorienting. The kids, too, can be tricky to decipher, though less so for our little leading men, and an oft-distressed Bubbles isn’t exactly crystal-clear. But it’s mostly The Three, who are pretty obviously the catalysts for everything that happens on the street side of the narrative.

Yes, The Wire has always insisted on authentic accents. Yet this was local flavor, not a semiotic commentary on the nature of the speech-act at hand. Here, the distance created between the characters and many audience members is integral to understanding what these creations stand for. Stringer was the gangster whose speech was the most “properly” eloquent; he was also the one who, in effect, tried to quit the streets, and learned the hard way that the outside world didn’t want him. Part of what makes Marlo and company so unsettling, so evocative of the Iraqi resistance, and such a clear embodiment of the game getting more fierce is their rejection of all meaning beyond themselves. Marlo showed in Season 3 that he wasn’t interested in respecting authority or the elders’ plans; we’ve talked at length about how impossible it is to interpret Chris and Snoop according to any known societal forms. They don’t even sound like each other, which furthers the sense of a general breakdown of culture. Marlo’s crew aren’t just outlaws, they’re isolationists; by making the dealing enterprise retreat even further into itself, they’re taking provinicialism to a nihilistic extreme. 

I don’t think I’m the only one out there who senses this is the gloomiest season yet. That’s in large part due to the sense that we’re seeing a new generation, another cycle of the first three seasons’ narrative, and its looking even grimmer. Maybe that’s because we know how the story goes, maybe things are really getting worse. Either way, the fact that we’re presented with any number of characters who are impenetrable, alien, or otherworldly (Dukie) only heightens the sense that these neighborhoods are drifting further and further away. Perhaps we’re supposed to reach forth and understand them, but this is markedly different from learning the workplace rhythms of life in The Pit, or coming to understand Omar’s code. This isn’t just a ghetto, where things are different from what we know; I honestly at times think that we’re supposed to be peering into the pale of society, where vacants, mutant drug gangs, child soldiers dominate the landscape and the parallel world is fast deteriorating. If this is case, then the linguistic gulf is a necessary effect, one that should perhaps be making us think there’s a lot else we barely grasp. No matter how well we knew the Barksdale crew.

A lot of the discussion of Snoop and Chris has tended to look on them as at least a little outrageous. Or eccentric, or sociopathic, or demented. They’re singularities, colorful sidemen that have always made Marlo seem a little more interesting than he probably is. I’m pretty confident, though, that Snoop and Chris aren’t supposed to be defiant individuals. Instead, they’re afflicted with the symptoms of, or themselves symptomatic of, a collapse that leaves a vacuum. No connection with the outside, no internal structure to sustain meaning, and they’re too consumed with the cold-blooded dominance to care. Granted, they’re the most extreme examples we’ve seen of this. But as the kids wander toward oblivion of one kind or another, you wonder if they’re also hanging onto intelligible lives by a thread. The “family unit” reading of #46’s final scene captured this perfectly: it was cast in terms that made it appealing to Michael, but all involved seemed slightly off because, well, that wasn’t them.

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26 Comments on “The language problem”

  1. Sahu Says:

    The show tries to be as authentic to baalmor as possible in showing the different dynamics of the city. Season 1 was about a refined criminal organization where the primary income came from the drug trade and so the leaders were more refined and mature. Season 2 was about the union/dock workers and their corruption and their grittiness was shown clearly (all the bar scenes and the backroom deal making). Season 3 was about the downfall of the refined/mature origination and showed the local government/PD in action or inaction (Hamsterdam and Clay Davis’ corrupt nature). Now Season 4 is all about the corner and the corner is a different culture mostly defined by all the rawness that we have seen so far and what is to come. And you can easily juxtapose this against the political narrative which is more about race in the majority minority city.

    Also just an FYI your first or second paragraph refers to the “Iraqi resistance” but in your picture you have is of an Afghan (some sort of taliban guy)…not saying that you think all brown bearded people are the same but that is what it implies🙂.

  2. Shoals Says:

    i was hoping someone would say that. . . that’s actually a photo of nek mohammud, my favorite tribal leader/radical ever.

    marlo and his gang evoke the iraqi resistance in their rejection of hegemonic society (be it local or imported), and that’s a hardly an original comparison on my part. but if the analysis includes elements of provincialism and spatial isolation, cultural disparity, and extremism as the sole unifying factor. . . well, that’s much more today’s waziristan than iraq.

  3. Joel Says:

    An anti-western militant with ties to the Taliban, bin laden and Al-Queda. Let me guess, the proliferation of Che Guevara t-shirts worn by middle-class whites such as yourself was so anti-freedarko that a new, lesser-known favorite murderous prick had to be found..

  4. jetsetjunta Says:

    Man nobody had any problems with my posting that portrait of Brezhnev. Sheesh.

  5. christycash Says:

    this has no relation whatsoever to your post, shoals, but i wanted to share something that doesn’t warrant its own post, which is that i filed a report with the police last night (long story; don’t want to get into specifics on the internet), and my Detective’s name is — wait for it — McNulty. Oh. Yes.

  6. Shoals Says:

    i don’t see why i can’t be as fascinated by a real life villian as i am marlo stanfield.

  7. Gukbe Says:

    I’m sure this must have been mentioned somewhere, but while the gloominess of the season could be attributed to the fact that there are four kids at the centre, I think a large part is the fact that there’s not been any proper police work done on the case and we’re already up to episode 9. Prevoius seasons had cases that did progress in one way or another, episode by episode. Yes, the resolutions to them weren’t satisfying in a ‘everything is okay and wrapped up in a neat little package’ kind of way, but at the end of them you knew the police were going to move onto something else. So not only do we have the constant worry over the kids, plus our favourite characters from seasons past being caught up in one way or another with a murderous tyrant the likes of which we’ve not seen on the show before, there is little expectation of any level of resolution for the case itself.

  8. jetsetjunta Says:

    Yeah that’s something that has been concerning me. With so few episodes left, and still nothing but blunders and missteps in the casework connecting Lex and Marlo, or any of the pieces in that puzzle, it almost seems like the police drama aspect of the show could remain unresolved, possibly ripe for continuation in the final season but also ripe for just getting dropped and things moving on. The focus on the children, as well as a large focus on the political structure have left less time than fans of the show are used to for the cops and robbers plotlines that filled so much of seasons 1-3. I think the show’s writers and producers did this intentionally, wanting the arc of the series to encompass many aspects of the city’s life, but I wonder if from a purely narrative-focused, genre-conscious, and basically aesthetic standpoint they may have lost their way a bit, at least when it comes to satisfying fan expectations. Until now, each season in some way dealt with police surveillance and investigative techniques and the criminal world’s reactions to them. I mean, the show is called “The Wire.” I would prefer to not make this another round of “well that’s your problem if you don’t like the most perfect show ever,” but it isn’t about liking or not liking, just about artistic vision, and I’m not sure I’ve wrapped my head around the moves made this season in that arena.

  9. christycash Says:

    Wait is no one commenting on my meta real-life/fiction obsession cross-over? come on people.

  10. Sahu Says:

    I think the main reason we have not seen much PO-Leees work is because there aren’t any bodies on Marlo and his crew. The tax paying citizen in Old Face Andre’s shop and the members from the NY crew have been the first that have left out. All others are in the vacants. I think as the lex investigation and the tax paying citizen investigation move forward (which I think will happen in the next episode or 2) we will see the po-po much more involved. Also hopefully Daniels reinstates the major crimes unit and convinces McNulty to head it up.

  11. SP Says:

    “marlo and his gang evoke the iraqi resistance in their rejection of hegemonic society.”

    I was going to go into a long response in which I disagree, but I don’t really understand your statement as it is somewhat vague. What do you mean by hegemonic society? Are you saying he is divorced from the society we all live in? That his organization doesn’t share in the same principles which drive other organizations?

    In many ways, I feel that Marlo is much closer to the American occupiers rather than the Iraqi resistance. But I’ll save that for until after I have a better understanding of your statement. Thanks.

  12. jeremy Says:

    Bunk has been trying his best – in return for springing Omar, I feel like Bunk owes the other two homicide detectives (forget their names, they took Old Face Andre’s report and put out the APB on Omar) a name in black on the board. Maybe that’s how it will shake out.

    I have a hard time believing that Mcnulty is gonna be a major focus of the show again. Lemme rephrase Sahu’s comment…

    “Also hopefully [Slim Charles] reinstates the [Barksdale Crew] and convinces [Avon] to head it up.” – not gonna happen. Mcnulty’s time in the sun is done, bringing him back to “save the day” or whatever seems a little too contrived for me.

    Reminds me of the terrible predictions that the retards on the hbo.com forum make. For instance (this isn’t verbatim but was really posted immediately after the 3rd season episode where String gets got) “I can’t believe they would kill Stringer! He’s so hot! I think in the next episode we’ll find out he was wearing a bulletproof vest and he’ll come back on Omar and Mouzone.” Yeah… one of those bulletproof vests that can absorb point blank shotgun blasts and are filled with fake blood packets for realistic effect….

  13. Shoals Says:

    okay, i’m watching #46 again. think about all the different meeting places the barksdales had: over a strip club, the funeral parlor, that weird warehouse. marlo? none. he hangs out in a completely blank concrete park. with a boombox. nothing but criminal operations in a void.

  14. Shoals Says:

    fuck, i deleted both of those by accident.

    imported=americans
    homegrown=organized institutions that aren’t militias or otherwise precocupied with fighting

    the resistance is comprised of disparate groups who may or may not want the same thing. and may or may not have any clear objectives other than driving the coalition.

  15. hoopinion Says:

    I’ll risk Jeremy’s wrath and make one sort-of prediction: that Prez attempted to engage his students in the standardized test-telling of Damon & Pythias in an episode that ended with Michael approaching Marlo in an attempt to protect Bug from his father seemed far too neat for THE WIRE.

    But, Damon & Pythias weren’t (half-)brothers, they were friends. Herc’s hamfisted attempt to interrogate Lil Kevin (here’s hoping Herc’s icompetence inspires Sydnor to come into his own as an investigator) implicates Randy as far more of a police informant than he was/is. When that gets back to Marlo, Randy’s life will certainly hang in the balance. Michael may or may not succeed in being Randy’s Damon. If he does succeed (and taking into account Randy’s success in the dice game and what that says about his potential value on the streets), I’d keep in mind that in some variants of the myth, Damon and Pythias, once pardoned, are taken in by Dionysius.

    With Herc in Major Crimes, it looks the Stanfield crew will survive into Season 5. He may have two new, young lieutenants by then.

  16. hoopinion Says:

    Shoals, are you talking about Cheese? If so, please elaborate.

    And I guess if you’re not talking about Cheese, I’ll need even more elaboration to figure out where you’re going with that.

  17. Shoals Says:

    i don’t really like trying predict the future, but cheese could pop up if randy’s in danger. not sure what the relation is, nor am i so naive that i think having the same last name=kin 4 life. still, last time i checked cheese was still with prop joe, and joe is gaining some leverage within marlo’s operation

  18. jetsetjunta Says:

    Randy WAGSTAFF = war

    Keep in mind that Cheese is Prop Joe’s NEPHEW. Marlo and Prop Joe have a very strained balance which keeps them from going to war. Prop Joe clearly has an entire universe of power, access to information, and money at his command. Randy is going to be a crucible for change at some point, but how and to what end?

  19. Shoals Says:

    this is kind of lame, but from the official site:

    Having lost his mother to the streets at a young age and having never known his father, reputedly an eastside corner boy who later became a major drug trafficker

    there are all sorts of geneological possibilities there.

  20. hoopinion Says:

    It may be my pessimism, but I’d think that any close biological or familial relationship between Randy and either Cheese or Prop Joe, would, at this point, become clear or be acknowledged by the adults after something happened to Randy. At his age, having been with Miss Anna for a while and in group homes prior to that, I doubt either Prop Joe or Cheese has been tracking his journey through the social services system much less be able to recognize him on sight.

  21. jeremy Says:

    Damn, great detective work, that all seems to work. I could see Marlo getting at Randy with Michael, then sacrificing Michael up to the co-op as payment for Randy’s death, OR just as likely straight up war between the co-op and Marlo. Prop Joe seems a little too pragmatic for all out war though.

  22. Shoals Says:

    all that said, it seems a little odd that such a gigantic clue would be sitting out there like that in randy’s character profile.

  23. hoopinion Says:

    Depending on the provenance of the character profiles, that “reputedly” could be a clue or simply the work of a salaried employee of HBO expressing the same wonder about the importance of Randy’s surname as we are.

  24. James Says:

    No idea what will be the case here, but in some previous HBO shows (I’m thinking of Carnivale here), minor but significant details were revealed through the character biographies. Stuff that for extreme fans could be construed as spoilers, but for your average viewer, would be in no way, shape or form.


  25. […] och ingående. För några år sedan skrev författaren Bethlehem Shoals ett inlägg under rubriken ”The Language Problem” som jag tycker sätter ljuset på ett återkommande problem i tv-serier som utger sig för att […]


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