Das K.R.E.A.M.

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.

enough time

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.

gin lane

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.

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17 Comments on “Das K.R.E.A.M.”

  1. anon, son. Says:

    No comment on the Dickensian point. Instead I’ll use this post to complain about Wire writing amidst this mostly awesome and deserved troop surge in s5 coverage from the MSM.

    I wish they would take the time to read the 4+ years of coverage par excellence from blogs like this or the house next door or even that bastard machine dude. If the new viewer has to catch up from s1 to s5 to truly appreciate The Wire, journos writing about the new season really need to catch up on s1 to s5 critiques and coverage in the blogosphere before they go poppin off about the essence of the show.

  2. anon, son. Says:

    Not that I don’t appreciate the flurry of coverage. I do, yo.

  3. […] TV: It’s not Dickensian… it’s far less optimistic than that. […]

  4. Ethan Says:

    I really like the point about Herc. He reminds me a little bit of Orlando. He fails to appreciate his fantastic luck and pushes it only to find himself in way over his head. All he had to do was sit back and do his job “the right way” and he would have been set. But, he let his ego run and ruined the good thing he had going. I just hope that Levy somehow screws Herc as nicely as he screwed Orlando.

    Unlike Orlando, Herc actually fits the villain role because Orlando pretty much screwed only himself (and Kima I guess). The Barksdales were going to fall eventually. Herc, on the other hand is seemingly profiting on his past incompetence with no penalty for how badly he screwed Randy.

    I actually don’t understand how Carver is able to even look at Herc anymore after all he went through with Randy. This is made even worse by the horrible morale that Carver now has to preside over as SIC, only to see Herc making more money working for the guy that represents all that the cops are ostensibly fighting against.

  5. John Peterson Says:

    In terms of characterization, the show has more in common with Tolstoy’s writing than Dickens’. There are certain little tragicomic episodes that strike me especially, such as the Bubbles/Herc narrative. It’s something no one else knows about except we the readers.

    In saying so, I am arguing that the show does in fact have a sense of redemption, like Tolstoy’s works. Examples would be Prezbo (I don’t know how to spell his name), McNulty, Daniels and Perlman in Season 4, Sabotka in Season 2, Cutty, Namond Price, Duquan temporarily, Lester Freamon, his girlfriend, etc.

    More importantly, however, there is the logos, found in War and Peace, that history and how things happen is not a cause-and-effect. Many things happen incidentally (Carcetti ‘gets to be mayor’ because someone accidentally shoots a state’s witness) and without reason. The detail, like Kutozov, is constantly fighting against inanity (street rips, sallies), but recorded history will represent something totally different as the cause of whatever happens, and what it says will ultimately be irrelevant.

  6. Larry Sheets Says:

    Tolstoy is a useful comparison — striving characters bumping up against history/System/inevitability, with the author’s hand firmly guiding the outcome. I always thought the Dickensian talk wasn’t supposed to be so much about the urban decay, London = Baltimore, but rather just “a bunch of lovable, flawed people all pursuing their own aims in the same crowded space.”

    Simon’s Camus reference is interesting too, though I’m not sure who’s really Sisyphus here. Bubbles, maybe, or Cutty? Actually, I guess Bunny is probably closest. But, man, that first episode knocked the rock backwards before it even got moving — McNutty drunk, Carcetti looking for stats…

  7. runner-runner Says:

    I guess if you want to try and please everyone you need to say there are two possible definitions of ‘Dickensian’, popular and literary. The literary being somewhat as Larry Sheets has above, based more on the style than the content, and the popular being this kind of grab-bag catch-all term evoking grinding poverty, misery, and indifference to suffering, both institutional and personal (the indifference, not the suffering, natch). A thing needn’t necessarily be reminiscent of Dickens in any particular way to be ‘popularly’ Dickensian, then, just as many things are called ‘Kafkaesque’ which when examined are merely badly thought-out or confusing… not unlike this comment. What do they say about trying to please everyone again?

  8. Did anyone else think the ‘Dickensian’ comment on the show was a hilarious nod to the fact that journalists have been using that term, correctly or incorrectly, to describe the show since the first season?

    I almost laughed out loud when I heard it.

  9. Paco Says:

    wouldn’t a more accurate literary comparison for the show be to Emile Zola and naturalism? if you look at his body of work, you see a lot of overlap in the themes and issues dealt with, as well as a similar approach to presentation in terms of scope–Zola examined all of 19th Century 2nd Empire France in his 20-volume Rougon Macquart series, and would routinely immerse himself in the worlds of what he was writing about, like mining, railroads, etc. He was also not shy about presenting grim realities, and had, as I recall–I am no Zola expert, I just read some in college–pretty jaundiced views about things. Also, “J’Accuse” wouldn’t be so off the mark as an alternative title for The Wire, would it?

    Please excuse me if this ground has been covered somewhere in the annals of this blog.

  10. Jack Says:

    To me, the Dickens’ reference is a little bit lazy, but it makes sense. At the least, they should probably at least clarify that its in works like “Bleak House” that Dickens comes closest to this territory: the court system’s ineffectiveness, the inner city poor being used and discarded by the wealthy, the “sprawling” quality of the novel and the large cast of characters are all most similar to The Wire in this novel. Of course, the similarities are much more in style than in substance. As you have pointed out, Simon is much more of a pessimist than Dickens. I appreciated the Hogarth picture; another chroniciler of inner-city decay, although one who used pointed satire.

    Re: the last paragraph, have you guys done a definitive post on Simon and Marxism, or is that at once too simple and too large a brunt to bear? Politically, Simon has always struck me as a liberal reactionary as opposed to a progressive. He seems to want to return to some halcyon days where everyone was in a union and had industry jobs and drank beer together and went on strike; as usual, I find the questions he asks in his show much more interesting than any answers I surmise he might propose, based on what I can glean of his political beliefs. Great post

  11. jetsetjunta Says:

    Terrific stuff here. Tolstoy and Zola are both excellent alternatives as lenses through which to understand the storytelling. I think mostly I was thinking about tone and style, the ways in which characters inhabit a universe with even the possibility of redemption, or whether there’s another term that might work better (the nobility of resistance?).

    It would be fun to compile a reading list to accompany the show, pick novels that deal in the same sorts of narratives but also the same sorts of social comment, and then choose some ancillary political and sociological works. And of course it would have to include some newspaper stuff. It could make quite a course of study really.

    As for the marxism thing, I meant that more in terms of theoretical marxism than in any sort of communist ideology. I think Simon’s notion of labor rights and the necessity of work to shore up American life is deeply rooted in a view of marxism shared by labor pioneers which isn’t expressly dogmatic but based on the tenets of labor being the motivating force of history, and important a such to bring some sort of dignity to the machinations of government or any other imposed system. Wow what sloppy wording. I hope you all get my point. I would love to do a marxist critique of the show, or to read one written by someone who actually knows their stuff.

  12. Mal Says:

    Jack, I found the line “He seems to want to return to some halcyon days where everyone was in a union and had industry jobs and drank beer together and went on strike; as usual,” very interesting.

    I took a slightly different reading of (what I presume) Simon’s views are – less a case of “wouldn’t it be great to be back in the old days”, but more that those old existing groupings and systems (Whether the Stevedore’s Union, The old ‘gangsta’ code, The ability of City hall to truly, democratically, represent its people, or the ability of school to teach rather than train) no longer work as they were supposed to, if they ever did.

    Yes, you can say that any individual who attempts to change or reform the system usually ends up paying for it – but in most cases, anyone who relies on traditional methods of support also gets shot down. Examples that come to mind – Carver trying to help Randy, anyone relying on Herc, Daniels early reliance on the chain of command..

  13. Jack Says:

    Mal- I would agree that your point is basically what the show is saying. I was referring more to Simon’s personal views that he has expressed in interviews and comments and whatnot. In terms of the characters on the show, I think you’re right on.

  14. JJ Says:

    Funny, we just viewed that Hogarth in my Restoration lit class. In class the professor mentioned something about how much people feared the streets of 17th/18th century London after nightfall; there was no policing at all until the 19th century, apparently. As frightening as the Wire’s Baltimore and many of our real inner cities can be, it’s almost comforting to remember that urban desolation has been around as long as there’ve been cities.

  15. dustin Says:

    I’m stoked that someone is finally saying something about the persistence of that adjective–“Dickensian”– in the wave of David Simon hagiography presently washing over a newspaper Arts section near you. And I take jetset’s point that a crucial difference between The Wire and A Christmas Carol is the former’s refusal of the kind of tidy sentimental resolution that lets the latter paper over the constitutive contradictions of industrial capitalism through recourse to individual epiphany, holiday cheer and a warm Christmas pudding.

    But that said, I also think that there is something utterly (if inadvertently) apt about the comparison. Namely: in both The Wire and in Dickens’ work we confront an ontological spectrum of character. To say this in less of an asshole way: we find McNulty and Marlo in the same show, but they aren’t just different dudes, they are qualitatively different entities in the aesthetic totality that is The Wire.

    McNulty is a person–is familiar and lovable in his pop-psychology legibility. The ugly elements of his character (his reckless sexuality, his joyless alcoholism, his general tendency to compulsive self-sabotage) offer themselves to us as problems to be thought–or better yet, felt–through. McNulty’s untidiness lets us manifest our own capacity for detached reflection and sophisticated sympathy. Precisely because he doesn’t make it easy, because he fucks up his family and fucks over his friends, we love him all the more. His difficulty flatters the liberal complacency underpinning our interpretive practices (“Some people may seem bad on the surface, but if I just think about where they’re coming from, I’ll know how they feel…”)

    But The Wire’s interest in the Dickensian grotesque complicates our desire for the equation character=understandable person. I mean, who roots for Marlo? Our feel-good liberalism (and the readerly techniques that attend it) short-circuits when it runs against his crew–Marlo and co. are utterly beyond the pale of sympathy and psychology. In some fundamental way, the character “Snoop” is inhuman–her very verbal and sexual illegibility register a more general unsympathizability that bucks our smug attempts to narrativize her into comfortable familiarity. Whereas the Barksdale regime had a humanizing culture–a set of codes surrounding family and masculine honor that constituted a way of life in excess of mere survival–the rise of Marlo marks the perfection of the inhuman and inhumane abstraction of Capital itself. He takes corners he doesn’t need. The Barksdalian cultural codes we find so legible give way to an imperial logic of unfettered expansionism. The old maps don’t work anymore. Marlo is not a person, but rather an impersonal process given a face.

    I’m not suggesting that Dickens and the Wire share any kind of politics–only an aesthetic technique. In Dickens, the grotesque figures (those characters rendered unsympathizable by their lack of depth, by their own refusal to sympathize with others) are often just bad guys born bad (and thus, beyond the reach of political intervention). But the Wire, I want to suggest, takes up Dickensian characterization to stage the confrontation of a familiar liberal humanism (our own) with the resoundingly inhuman realities of a social systematicity it can’t get its big, bleeding heart around.

    Anyway, killer post, jetset. It got me thinking…

  16. […] at Heaven and Here, and elsewhere, commenters have been suggesting others: Tolstoy (tragicomic elements and narratives of redemption); Zola (the social scope and sense of […]

  17. fnv Says:

    Incredibly insightful commentary! dustin, the disparity between McNulty and Marlo is even more fascinating given their parallel journeys through season 5. Hopefully this gets discussed more after the post on the finale.

    Wish I had found this blog while the show was running.

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