Taking Tiger Mountain
I surprised myself this past week, as I’ve been having some lingering thoughts about this final season when I though I was all used up. Yet here I’ve been, musing about the purpose of the show in general, and about David Simon’s agenda(s), and about what he might think are the uses of the program to its viewers. Call it force of habit, or the final thrashing out of my system of this program’s grip on my imagination and my conscience. I’ve fallen so in love with the way The Wire frustrates, brutalizes, challenges, and inhabits me that there will be a real absence. It’s nice having this dependably screwy prism through which to refract our own conceptualizations of our society and culture. I guess I’ll just have to read the papers.
And the newspaper is the thing to which I would like to return for just a moment, particularly since it was the ostensible primary theme this season. Of course when Simon has spoke of it before the season he didn’t say “the media” but talked more about “how stories get told and how information reaches the public,” which is as much about “newspapers” as season 4 was about “schools” versus how people get educated, how they learn, and how some don’t learn despite the best intentions. I would argue that while so much of this show is about laments for lost things and the flashes of ancient glory, Simon in some ways offers the show itself as a starting point to something new, the beginning of whatever the next world of storytelling might look like.
When Simon turns up in that Sun newsroom, pencil or pen clenched in his teeth (to prevent a wry smile?), it struck me that behind all the accusatorial plotting and rhetoric that’s come out of the show and out of Simon’s mouth, with the supposed intention of creating a conversation about the decline of good city newspapers and why our standards have fallen just as conglomerates consolidate and blandify local papers, that behind all that Simon just desperately misses being in the newsroom. He cut his teeth on all the issues we see transmitted through the show’s five seasons in that newsroom, learned not just how those issues got covered but who were the human faces behind those issues, and what were the stories behind the stories (in other words he started piecing together how “it’s all connected”).
It’s how he got to Homicide, and HLotS, and The Corner, and The Wire, and it’s how he will get from here to the next thing. In that sense, his final insertion of himself into the show isn’t simply some Hitchcockian cameo, some Where’s Waldo distraction, but rather an admission that for Simon, this is all deeply personal because this is all about some aspect of his life or the lives of those he has sought to make a career examining, and not simply as an entertainment, but as a life experience. The newspaper is not just another (particulary weighty) character in The Wire, the institution of the newspaper is the genesis of The Wire‘s very existence.
By placing himself in that newsroom he’s telling the viewer that these stories we love so much, even the stories about the paper, are captured in real life less and less, but can get captured in the teleplay. Newsrooms with depleted staffs and greenhorn reporters miss the tales of the Omar Littles and the Prop Joes, to say nothing of the Dukies or even the Namonds. Simon is romanticizing his conceptions of reporting and information-transmission because he feels that within these perhaps-arcain modes lie the stories that make us more engaged in the place where we live and the people who we live next to. And he’s managing to still tell those stories many years and miles removed from that newsroom. So there’s a kind of inversion, where the newspaper begat The Wire and now, in its admittedly circumscribed way, The Wire has achieved what the newspaper cannot.
It’s a sort of sentimentalized civics lesson to be sure, but I think that although Simon truly does lament the end of the honorable city paper, he would agree that any mode that can replicate its contributions is welcome. And modesty doesn’t befit him, so he’d probably admit that in the absence of the old ways, The Wire is at least a start on a new way of delivering stories, of getting to know our neighbors, and of getting down to the hard work of considering the best way to move on in this scarred, ailing, desperate, hysterical, terrific land of ours, or at least to start turning from the abyss.