As explained, we’re not up on #52 yet, so we now understand the woe of all you non-on-demand folks. Of course, this has been a sticking point of mine since they implemented the ludicrous rewarding of the haves and obliterated the possibility of water cooler life for the not-technologically-possible-to-haves. We fall into the latter category for the moment, and it sucks.
But season 5 is not really the time to rally behind good old-fashioned television and broadcast worldviews, especially since, individual luddite tendencies aside (hooray for books!), this is the new media we’re using right now, and the future, though unwritten, will certainly not occur on a rigid schedule allowing families to gather ‘round the warm glowing flatscreen. So be it.
Something that has been bothering me about the deluge of stories on the show lately (which is , as Shoals said to me earlier today, “split now between nay-sayers and people drowning in their own adulation,”) is the loose use of the term “Dickensian.” Some stories are simply grabbing onto the upcoming plotline of the Sun editor assigning a story on “Dickensian” kids, but more often than I like, I see lazy writers using Dickens as a sort of shorthand for intricacy, urban despair, and nightmarish institutional breakdown, as if he owned the patent on all that.
Now, I don’t mean to enter into a dissertation of what Dickens was and was not, as I’m certainly not equipped to answer that question too satisfactorily. However, I would like to distinguish Dickens’ vision of city life (and he certainly envisioned plenty of country life too). Whether in grimy London or on mouldering estates, Dickens’ work dealt not strictly in decline, despair, and nihilism. Perhaps treacly it’s true, still everyone knows “A Christmas Carol,” and everyone knows that in the end Tiny Tim is still crippled, but lessons have been learned, so let’s eat some Christmas cheer. Much of Dickens deals in people less clearly “saved,” people moving up and down the dignity chain, passing one another on the way, yet always the thrust is about the good getting their due and the bad getting thrashed. Dickens world is also deeply comic, in the sense of embracing the absurd and ridiculing its subjects.
The Wire shares some of these properties, but in an essential way the show is not interested in saving anyone, redeeming their character, or providing them with a pure villain to work against. In this sense the show may in fact be less realistic than Dickens’ world, because however fantastic the notion of heroes and villains might be, it is still a motivating fantasy in a lot of our lives. Yet The Wire’s universe allows for very little development in the sense of individuals finding themselves, making deep and meaningful connections with others, or somehow working their way out of the diabolical machinations that determine their lives. Sure, there’s some dire wit lurking in even the darkest shadows, but there’s also Wallace, Sharrod, and Bodie (and these, I would argue, are not merely occasions for pity).
Dickens loved writing about humans lost in industrial modernism, but he also loved watching them shine on through and make something of even the most debased circumstances. On The Wire, conversely, humanity is in many cases beside the point. Dignity is one thing, because it’s a process of striving for dignity that can at least temper life’s absurd, often pointless struggle, but full-bore humanity? Maybe out in the county. Simon seems to think so.
This isn’t an effort to split hairs per se, just to clarify that when we use analogy we need to take care to point out that we’re simply providing a general direction for analogic thinking. Perhaps to put a finer point on it: it’s dangerous and useless to confuse Charles Dickens with that other observer of industrial Victorian England: Karl Marx. To that end, if there is a pure villain I have seen emerging through last season and into this one, it’s Herc, and if his villainy has a beginning and an end, it is with capital.