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.