The Land Before Land
When we sleep, we make noise. When we don’t write for months, it’s a lot less deliberate.
With that, here’s my attempt to follow in JSJ’s footsteps and get this site to pop again. There have been numerous reasons before now to get going, but the prequels (scroll down, on the off chance you haven’t seen them) have compelled me to speak. On paper, this idea is stupendous, especially given the density of the characters and the show’s allusions to an equal mired past. Yet somehow, these completely misfire.
Each vignette gives us a moment from the past that shows us the character’s essence. For our intents and purposes, these might as well be when Prop Joe, Omar, Bunk and McNulty became who they are today. And therein lies the problem: There’s something altogether too comic book-y about these, even when it’s Omar being revealed. I guess we could think of the The Wire’s character as clear-cut vectors made complex through circumstance. Prop Joe had it all figured out before puberty, and all that cherubic poise got grizzled needlessly. Our two favorite detectives were lovable, untroubled drunks recognized for their brilliance. And Omar was Robin Hood with even less to stand in the way of his righteousness. It was all so simple, and innocent, until the real world intervened.
And that’s exactly the problem. Exactly when did innocence become part of the The Wire? To presume that people know themselves all along, and simply get distracted or deterred, is way too Romantic. As is any kind of idealized version of the past. There’s just not any point at which the various societal forces are kept enough at bay to allow for this; if they could be, and tragedy always snuck up at the last minute, then Simon’s pessimism would be weepy, not frank. I seem to recall Season Four, in which a bunch of kids had about five minutes of finding themselves before getting refracted through the system. Randy couldn’t be Bobby Hill in a group home, and Michael would probably turn into Marlo.
These prequels are little more than retroactive sentimentality. We see these characters as uncertain adults in a dismal, violent city, but can rest assured that once things were better. They weren’t always subject to drama, and if that’s the case, we can feel better about their future prospects. Which, of course, is radically counter to everything we know about The Wire. There’s no confidence in its world, only arrogance, caginess, and long-suffering conviction.
Unless, of course, we’re supposed to infer that Baltimore was once a very different place. Sadly, the prequels give you no sense of context other than haircuts and music. And certainly, there’s none of The Wire’s patented collision of individual and social circumstances. Nothing about the local economy, or political climate, that might explain the halcyon tone. Did Prop Joe grow up in a time when brains trumped brawn among the kids? Was Homicide once less harried? What about growing up during crack’s heyday made Omar into a moralized stick-up kid?
I wish I knew.