The first comprehensive, season-by-season analysis of the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire, this book explicates the complex narrative arc of the entire series and its sweeping vision of institutional failure in the postindustrial United States.
Series: Texas Film and Media Studies
Critically acclaimed as one of the best television shows ever produced, the HBO series The Wire (2002–2008) is a landmark event in television history, offering a raw and dramatically compelling vision of the teeming drug trade and the vitality of life in the abandoned spaces of the postindustrial United States. With a sprawling narrative that dramatizes the intersections of race, urban history, and the neoliberal moment, The Wire offers an intricate critique of a society riven by racism and inequality.
In Connecting The Wire, Stanley Corkin presents the first comprehensive, season-by-season analysis of the entire series. Focusing on the show’s depictions of the built environment of the city of Baltimore and the geographic dimensions of race and class, he analyzes how The Wire’s creator and showrunner, David Simon, uses the show to develop a social vision of its historical moment, as well as a device for critiquing many social “givens.” In The Wire’s gritty portrayals of drug dealers, cops, longshoremen, school officials and students, and members of the judicial system, Corkin maps a web of relationships and forces that define urban social life, and the lives of the urban underclass in particular, in the early twenty-first century. He makes a compelling case that, with its embedded history of race and race relations in the United States, The Wire is perhaps the most sustained and articulate exploration of urban life in contemporary popular culture.
- One. Season 1: Drugs, Race, and the Structures of Social Immobility
- Two. Season 2: The Wire, the Waterfront, and the Ravages of Neoliberalism
- Three. Season 3: Drugs, Space, and Redevelopment
- Four. Season 4: A Neoliberal Education: Space, Knowledge, and Schooling
- Five. Season 5: The Demise of the Public Sphere—News, Lies, and Policing
- Conclusion: The Wire and the New Dawn (Maybe)
The Wire has been widely acclaimed as one of the best television shows ever produced. The HBO series, which ran from 2002 to 2008, provides a highly articulate vision of life among the underclass—poor African Americans, struggling working-class whites, the homeless—in a city, Baltimore, that is pictured as having seen better days. It also captures those groups’ relationships with the police, the city bureaucracy, and a group of city real estate developers who benefit from their connections with the political class.
It constitutes something of a watershed in television history—along with its HBO predecessors The Sopranos (1999–2007), Oz (1997–2003), and even Sex and the City (1998–2004)—and in the history of mass culture. Its creator and showrunner, David Simon, employs five seasons and some sixty episodes to show the maze of relationships and forces that define urban social life, and the lives of those in the urban underclass in particular, in the first years of the twenty-first century. With The Wire’s very broad and deep canvas as my object, this study details and analyzes this distinctive view, paying particular attention to its picturing of a built environment and a relative geography in the era of neoliberalism. These emphases emerge from my discussion of the complex narratives presented. Indeed, The Wire is perhaps the most sustained and articulate exploration of urban life in contemporary popular culture.
Initially, The Wire asks to be approached as a series that employs the genre conventions of the crime drama and then as a subcategory of that type of presentation, the police procedural. Its initial season begins with a murder, and though that particular murder is not the topic of investigation that drives the season-long narrative, which is a departure in itself, the police inquiry into another murder and the efforts of law enforcement to control the reigning drug gang in Baltimore soon move to the center of the narrative. In each subsequent season there is likewise a central crime that needs to be solved and the presence of a police force that seeks to solve it. In season 1, as the central action becomes clear, it is the murder of a “civilian”—one who is not directly involved in the drug trade—who comes forward to testify against one of the Barksdale drug gang. In season 2, Officer McNulty discovers a woman’s corpse floating in Baltimore harbor. In season 3, a drug dealer shoots Officer Dozerman, and his gun is stolen. In season 4, Bunk Moreland and Lester Freamon search for missing bodies in West Baltimore, specifically, the body of a young drug dealer—Lex. In season 5, McNulty leads the search for a nonexistent murderer of the homeless. Such plot devices define the show only in broad generic terms and tell us little about its emphases or scope.
Since its status as a crime series is only a surface feature, it develops—and emphatically so after season 1—as an exploration of how the social forces of the time affected a discrete section of Baltimore. Briefly, season 1 focuses on the absence of work in the African American neighborhood of West Baltimore and the resulting proliferation of the drug trade. Season 2 focuses on the decline of the shipping industry and the impact of that decline on unionized labor. Season 3 offers a return to the topic of drugs in the African American community and the attempt by certain members of the police force to legalize drug use and trafficking within a discrete area. Season 4 focuses on the vicissitudes of public education for the poor in a world where those children have little access to social capital, and where the public domain has been largely defunded. Season 5 talks about the decline of the daily newspaper as its business model proves insufficiently profitable for its corporate owners. The season dramatizes the result of the demise of this institution on the contemporary body politic and, more broadly, on perceptions of the public sphere. But beyond these emphases and the very involved narratives that develop around them, the series is a compendium of people and relationships, individuals and their social world. Indeed, each season’s narrative focus adds new complexity to existing characters and introduces new social networks.
The series invokes the specificity of Baltimore by emphasizing its locales and accents and history—including references to historical figures and events. For example, as Tommy Carcetti, who many say is based on the Baltimore political figure Martin O’Malley, runs for mayor in season 4, we see him meet an older politician, a one-term mayor, in a famous restaurant known to locals for its popularity with that group. The former mayor refers to the real-life one-term city executive Thomas L. J. D’Alesandro III, who is also famous as the son of another former mayor, Thomas L. J. D’Alesandro Jr., and as the brother of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. According to former mayor Kurt Schmoke, whose comments regarding drug decriminalization were the inspiration for season 3: “Longtime residents of the city could provide you with the names of people bearing great resemblance to the politicians, policemen, drug dealers, dock workers, teachers and preachers portrayed in this television drama.” But my goal is not, as has been the practice of some working in the social sciences, to mine the series for its “fact content.” I look at the overarching contours of the narrative of each season and its means of formal presentation—its structure, emphases, and discrete visual elements—and develop an interpretive strategy that begins with the concepts of place, space, and time and focuses on the narrative as an interpretive response to a historical and social materiality.
If there is a “star” of the series, it is Jimmy McNulty, the first face we see in the first episode of season 1. McNulty is a police officer who moves from homicide to special investigations to the marine unit to a beat as a uniformed patrolman back to homicide and then back to special investigations. He is a deeply flawed character, a compulsive womanizer, an alcoholic, an officer of the law who has difficulty staying within the confines of legality. Though he is a rogue cop, he is not exactly corrupt. McNulty is emblematic of the moral complexity that the show ascribes to the early twenty-first century. He is a deeply fallible human being, one often mastered by his compulsions—women, alcohol, crime solving— yet our sympathies are frequently drawn to him, and he is the most effective crime solver in the series. Simon also introduces a complementary character named Omar Little, a bandit who robs only drug dealers. Like Jimmy, Omar appears in all five seasons, and like Jimmy, his often-questionable behavior is defined by an explicable and, in ways, admirable code. Such characters complicate Simon’s use of genre and place the series more broadly within the moral ambiguities that define the neoliberal moment, which rewards a kind of theft and moral vacuity with riches and which treats a more honest kind of taking as a violation of the law.
This complication of moral categories builds on the legacy of leftist films noir produced in the late 1940s, films that employed crime drama, and even procedurals—such as the notable “problem fi lm” Crossfire (1947)—as a means of trenchant leftist social critique. I am also thinking of the cycle of films called film gris, which exhibited a leftist pedigree and offered both direct and metaphoric critiques of midcentury capitalism, films such as Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul (1947; written by Abraham Polonsky), Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948), and Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950). These films also define the murky line where law and morality become disjunctive. This is not to say that The Wire engages substantially in the formal strategies of noir, though there is an occasional high-angle shot, and at times those shots occur in black-and-white; however, more broadly, it offers a tone of despair, derived from the ineffectuality and corruption of key civic institutions.
Tracing The Wire back to its noir and film gris antecedents connects it to the breakthrough fi lm Naked City (1948), also directed by Jules Dassin, which offered location shoots of New York and tried to integrate the city-as-place into its crime-procedural narrative. This film inspired the noirish police procedural television show Naked City (1958–1963), which is a direct antecedent of The Wire in its emphasis on place, its gritty urban situations, and its abiding realist aesthetic. (Each episode ends with the voice-over, as did the film, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”) To further define the lineage of productions that led to Simon’s series, it is notable that Naked City (the film) was shot with reference to contemporary Italian neorealist films such as Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946), and Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946), films that sought to integrate the texture of urban postwar Italy into naturalist narratives. Such emphases have appeared intermittently on television in shows to which Simon’s The Wire can be connected, including N.Y.P.D. (1967 to 1969), starring Jack Warden and produced by David Susskind, which also featured noir-like effects and location shooting.
In more recent times, Simon owes much to Steven Bochco, most particularly his Hill Street Blues (1981–1987), as well as his later series NYPD Blue (1993–2005). Hill Street features urban textures but is not place-specific. The latter is explicitly set in New York. A realist aesthetic akin to that of The Wire’s is notable in both Bochco shows. Their dialogue features staccato cadences that create an edginess, language that is both notably colloquial and on the verge of the poetic. It pushed the edges of that which was allowable in broadcast television. Bochco’s shows are like The Wire in that both marshal large casts of multidimensional, deeply flawed characters, and, perhaps most importantly, in how they introduce complex, intertwined narratives that are rarely, if ever, resolved in a single episode. The Wire draws on these innovations and extends them. Its language is scatological and obscene. It features nudity and some explicit sex as well as considerable and disturbing violence. It uses innovative dialogue, editing, characterization, and plotting as means of elaborating a complex and trenchant critique of the neoliberal moment. As an HBO show, The Wire extends the domain of the possible for cable television in the United States.
It is no accident that Bochco emerged as an adventurous showrunner in broadcast television just as cable television was becoming ensconced. Bochco’s shows push the genre of the police drama to a new place, distending its formula in the interest of a kind of “realism.” Simon’s own earlier efforts, which are even more closely connected with the Bochco series, such as the Baltimore-based Homicide: Life on the Street (1993–1999) and, particularly, the miniseries The Corner (2000), are clearly steps on the way to The Wire.
Simon’s dramas—including The Wire—ask for a referential reading, one in which significant attention is paid to their historical touchstones and their expressions of relative geography. By a “referential reading, I mean that the series makes explicit its connection with a discernible world and therefore asks to be read not as a document of that world but as an intervention, an interpretation of that historically specific entity. Such a reading strategy, following the insights of the critic and linguist Roman Jakobson, responds to a text’s specific qualities, recurring elements that direct a reader toward its material-temporal context. In the case of The Wire, its geographic and temporal specificity, its topical emphases, and even its use of dialogue and costume all direct us—to some extent—out of the show and toward its worldly commentary.
The series was possible only as a cable production for a decidedly niche market, even though it was not particularly commercially successful even by those standards. The Wire never garnered impressive ratings, nor did it ever win an Emmy, though it was nominated for writing awards in 2005 and 2008. It won a Peabody Award in 2003. These honors aside, the network at one point contemplated terminating the series. According to a 2009 story in the Telegraph: “In 2005, HBO almost cancelled The Wire because its modest viewing figures couldn’t justify the $50 million it costs to make each series. The show was saved after Simon pitched the storylines for series four and five to Chris Albrecht, an HBO executive. Albrecht was so taken with Simon’s script ideas that he signed HBO up for two further series, even though they were unlikely to attract many new subscribers. It is hard to imagine an executive at any other US network putting a compelling plot before profit.” HBO was aware of the distinctiveness of its particular audience and the way that the show’s prestige enhanced its brand. This distinction was further shown by the nature of its ever-increasing audience, during its run and then after, which included significant numbers of educated and primarily politically liberal urban and suburban dwellers. In addition, the show has made its way into college and university curricula in sociology, communications, film and television studies, American studies, African American studies, cultural anthropology, and urban history. This academic and general interest seems to be continuing apace, even though the last episode of the show was produced in 2008. The show remains broadly watched and widely available via Netflix, cable reruns, HBO’s streaming service, public libraries, and DVDs purchased privately.
This depth and scope can be attributed in large degree to the impact of David Simon. Simon was given far more creative control than most television executive producers. He writes of his ability to resist executive interference even as the first episodes of season 1 were awaiting production. Simon’s role in The Wire was central. While he was not responsible for every shot, scene, or word of dialogue, he was substantially responsible for the narrative arc of the seasons and the relationship of one season to another. He writes in the introduction to the compilation The Wire: Truth Be Told: “By the time we returned to shooting the first season, Ed Burns and I had drafts of the first six episodes in hand, as well as elaborate beatsheets that brought us all the way to the final episodes. Deliberate planning and overarching professionalism had nothing to do with it, but rather a sense of a story so intricate, with so many characters and so much plotting had to be considered a single entity.”
Naming Simon as the creative force behind the series recognizes his role in creating that “single entity,” though the process of writing particular dialogue and developing the story lines for the show was clearly collaborative. Specific writers had more or less important roles in particular seasons: Simon and Burns in season 1; Rafael Alvarez in season 2; Simon and Burns—with an assist from Bill Zorzi, whose experience at the Baltimore Sun gave him insights into the politics of city hall—in season 3; Ed Burns in season 4; and Simon and Bill Zorzi in season 5. But Simon was the constant and the ultimate decider in this fairly open and clearly collaborative process. One of his cowriters, the crime novelist George Pelecanos, affirmed: “All the scripts are minutely mapped out . . . In the end, the final word is David’s.”
In interviews and talks, Simon affirms that the general outline for The Wire came into focus as he finished work on the book and HBO show The Corner and felt he had taken that project as far as he possibly could. This illuminates the beginnings of The Wire and its particular emphases and innovations. The Corner derives from Simon and Burns’s book about a particular sector of Baltimore’s west side, which is also the area that The Wire depicts, and its role in the drug trade. In The Corner, the introduction of crack into the McCullough family results in the loss of virtually all the accoutrements of middle-class existence, and both Gary and Fran, husband and wife, find themselves addicts, like so many others. Life becomes a daily exercise of scrambling in the streets to get enough drug money. The focus of this series is not so much a matter of context but of the individual family. That is, it is distinctly about the failings of the McCulloughs and the vicissitudes that their bad choices cause. It also shows, though somewhat indirectly, how precarious middle-class solidity is in a world economy and a regional social system defined by neoliberalism and haunted by the residual and contemporary impact of racism. Simon’s representational strategy and narrow sampling is affirmed by a case-study conceit and a quasi-documentary introduction to each episode. In contrast to the broad sociological approach of The Wire, The Corner’s point of view affirms that the McCullough family is being explored, not their historical situation—which, in a different framing, could be employed to explain their fate.
The Wire, as Simon affirms, picks up where The Corner left off. The earlier show is about individual choices, the road to and the power of addiction, and the implications of that condition for the addict and his or her nuclear family. The Wire, on the other hand, opens a discussion substantially focused on how urban despair is created and enabled by the institutional structures that articulate the terms and limits of ghetto life. Drugs are not so much the catalyst for misery as a symptom of the extremes of inequality and social isolation. And in developing a systemic view of drug use and its connection with race and class, Simon develops a place-specific narrative that delves into the social effects of isolation.
The Baltimore that Simon provides us with is substantially African American in its “civilian” population. Its police department is also one-half to two-thirds African American, and the preponderance of those involved in the drug trade share this racial identifier. There are a few white addicts, including Bubbles’s white friend Johnny, who we see in some detail, and we encounter the white Narcotics Anonymous leader Walon, played by the musician Steve Earle. In some views, the proportion of black criminals may point to a kind of uncritical racial determinism; however, this detail of inner-city life leads us to a backstory—sometimes explicitly noted, sometimes merely gestured toward, sometimes fully embedded in the narrative. This story is a broader historical recounting of black migration to the North and the lived experience of race in the urban United States. These factors point to the related impact of segregation in housing, as well as racial restrictions in labor and the way in which race exacerbates the impact of a declining industrial sector.
The representational power of a series like The Wire stems from its historical vision, and like all historical visions, this perspective is animated by a point of view, an interpretation of what makes a set of verifiable facts cohere. There is little or nothing materially represented in the course of this season, or any of the others, that is not socially and historically either verifiable or plausible. But such accuracy merely defines the undergirding of the show’s worldview. The Wire dramatizes an urban environment that expresses, among other things, the wreckage and social chaos caused by historical racism, topics that are barely expressed explicitly but that, as a deep historical cause, can be found everywhere— work, housing, access to capital, and urban geography. In broad terms, The Wire focuses on the economic impact of the decline of the public sector, the effects of the globalization of finance, the far-flung production of all commodities, and the massive social inequality resulting from these policies and practices.
Baltimore, Then and Now
Simon affirms that his focus on Baltimore has added to the disposition toward referential reading as well as to the show’s realist effect: “By choosing to tell our story in Baltimore and by showing fealty to the details of Baltimore, we reduce by some meaningful amount the artifice. We create an additional, though tacit argument on behalf of the stories themselves.” As a former Baltimore Sun reporter, Simon writes about what he knows, and this creates a series that is place-specific. His Baltimore is historically precise, but also similar to other cities of comparable size, employment structure, and demographics. It is like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati (where I live, a place I know well), and Buffalo: its post–World War II economy was mixed between the industrial and service sectors, and it benefited historically from its geography, including its proximity to a major shipping lane. Like those other cities, Baltimore was also the site of significant migration from the South, including a large African American contingent. But it is not like New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Houston in that it lacks a major financial services sector and does not draw appreciable population from regions outside the United States. Unlike those cities, it has little claim to world-city status and therefore lacks the economic dynamism that accompanies that designation.
In the 1950s and 1960s cities such as Baltimore—those with significant industry and a role in international shipping—were a destination for those who had been displaced by the shrinking demand for labor in the agricultural sector. Ironically, while migrants continued to come to cities like Baltimore and Detroit, the jobs that had lured them were already moving elsewhere. By 1966, Baltimore was experiencing the beginnings of deindustrialization. Even in the 1950s, a period of national economic growth generally, the city’s manufacturing base fell by 12 percent. This was a harbinger of things to come: between the early 1950s and 1990, employment in the manufacturing sector fell from 127,000 to only 40,000. This loss of manufacturing jobs was largely part of a national trend, one that saw production increasingly moved to lower-wage locales in Asia and other places in the Americas.
And though Simon’s Baltimore is far from a world city, it is by no means isolated. It at times looks out to the world beyond the local decay and connects with New York, Philadelphia, and even Europe, the Americas, and Asia. But primarily the Baltimore depicted is a city outside the central sweep of globalized trade. For example, contemporary gentrified Manhattan has more in common demographically and transactionally with the City of London, the financial district of that metropolis, than it does with elements of New York City’s outer boroughs; this disjunction between conceptual and physical proximity is an aspect of the contemporary system of globalized commerce. A city like Baltimore is emblematic of a secondary or tertiary metropolis struggling to find a means to prosperity. According to Simon, “Baltimore is a postindustrial city, wedged between DC and Philadelphia and struggling to find its future and reconcile its past. In that sense it’s like St. Louis and Cleveland and Philly and a lot of other rust-belt American places, and so stories from here have a chance of being about more than Baltimore per se. The storytelling here might be quite detailed in referencing local geography and culture, but it translates easily to elsewhere and therefore acquires additional relevance easily.” Baltimore is more regionally, rather than globally, connected, looking to the larger cities to the north: Philadelphia, New York (certainly), and nearby Washington, DC. Indeed, all these relationships find their way into the show.
Statistics also show, as Simon pictures here, that among African Americans, unemployment among women is relatively lower than among men. The Wire features any number of African American males, particularly younger men, aimlessly inhabiting the corners of Baltimore. Deindustrialization has disproportionately affected African American men, who have historically had a difficult time keeping pace with African American women in getting and keeping jobs. This long-standing condition is, to some degree, a matter of the racial politics of the employment market over the last seventy or so years. Since the primary mode of remunerative work for black people has been in the low end of the service sector—food service, cleaning, and other menial tasks—it has disproportionately been gendered as women’s work. When African Americans were allowed into the industrial sector, mostly after the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s and then during World War II, men made strides both in numbers employed and in income. Deindustrialization has undone those gains. Indeed, for relatively uneducated black males, the financial possibilities of the drug trade seem particularly attractive.
Historically, Baltimore has long been home, as has Washington, to a significant African American elite. Figures such as Thurgood Marshall were products of this class. And while Simon does not differentiate among the full range of African American classes, the distinctions between the middle class and the class of people living in the projects is clear. The African American police officers—Lieutenant Daniels, Detectives Freamon, and Moreland—do not talk like Bodie and Poot, drug dealers from the projects, nor do they live among them. Initially at least, Daniels lives in a gentrified townhouse with his politically ambitious wife, and though we never see Moreland’s residence, he states that he lives outside the city limits and is married with two boys. Also significant to the articulation of his class status and his self-definition is that he attended Edmondson High School with Omar Little, where Bunk was a star lacrosse player. This is one of his defining characteristics, revealing him as one who bought into the educational system far more deeply than a liminal character like Omar did, and that he involved himself in a “white” sport that had little prestige in the African American community.
To comprehend deeply the world as pictured, it is important to extend the show’s represented chronology back toward an era of significant African American migration to the city. African Americans moved to the city incrementally in the first half of the twentieth century; the city’s African American population grew from over 108,000 in 1920 to just over twice that in 1950. But between 1950 and 1980, the African American population doubled again, and by 1990 it constituted 60 percent of the city’s population. Primarily, African Americans migrated on the assumption that the relatively plentiful industrial jobs of the 1940s would provide economic opportunity and that the relatively open social structures found in post–World War II northern cities would provide further avenues of mobility.
This migration, both during and after World War II, defined a significant shift in the nation’s demographics, affecting virtually all northern cities. The ultimate outcome of this movement for many African Americans in the next generations would include social ills represented in The Wire—poverty, substandard housing, limited avenues to economic mobility. Some writers, such as Nicholas Lemann in The Promised Land, define the impetus for this wave as the industrialization of cotton picking; after 1944, International Harvester introduced machines to do the work that once employed numerous African American fi eld hands, men, women, and children alike. Lemann provides details: “In 1940, 77 per cent of African Americans still lived in the South—49 per cent in the rural South. The invention of the cotton picker was crucial to the migration of blacks from the Southern countryside to the cities of the South, the West, and the North. . . . In 1970, when the migration ended, black America was only half Southern and less than a quarter rural” (6). And while Lemann’s accounting for the role of the picker in this shift is significant, that technological development is far from the only cause. Also at play were the pull factors of better-paying industrial jobs, removal from a system of dejure segregation, and the relative persistence of the opportunities afforded to African Americans during the war. Further, in the general tradition of conservative analysis of African American urban poverty (Charles Murray and other critics), Lemann places the subsequent lack of social success substantially on the shoulders of the migrants, arguing that these later residents of urban environments brought with them self-defeating social practices—single-parent homes, child bearing in their midteens, questionable work habits. Such generalizations are problematic at best.
The world we see in The Wire is distinct from the African American neighborhood of some four decades before, a space in which a variety of classes were represented. As an unintended consequence of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, class and space differentiation among African Americans became far more pronounced than before. What we see in The Wire is the flight of the more comfortable classes and the resulting disinvestment in the neighborhoods and houses where they had lived. Thus, our vision of West Baltimore contains an astounding number of vacant buildings. Indeed, the city of Baltimore, as of the filming of season 1, had 14,000 vacant houses and 12,000 vacant lots, giving it one of the highest ratios of vacant houses to population of any US city. Part of this was as a result of a loss of population from its peak of over 949,000 in 1950.
As in many cities in the Northeast, Baltimore’s public housing was built in the late 1930s as an extension of New Deal initiatives that began to address the conditions of urban poverty. Baltimore was a likely site for such improvements, since it possessed a substantial quantity of substandard housing, structures lacking central heat, indoor plumbing, and other amenities common in houses of the working and middle classes. From the beginning, public housing was segregated, reinforcing the patterns of segregation that were both a matter of law and white-mandated custom. In Baltimore, one of the primary considerations in decided-on sites for public housing was geography within a black-defined segregated zone. Thus, besides being built within the boundaries of segregation, this high-density housing, since it added units in the African American district, was seen as a buttress against further black encroachment on white areas. But this effort failed, and when African Americans began to live in areas around those projects, white flight increased. Further, local and federal authorities showed little respect for the role of small businesses in fragile, economically at-risk neighborhoods, razing viable businesses in order to build public housing.
After World War II, in the US more broadly, public housing gradually lost its white component and eventually became almost uniformly inhabited by African Americans—a condition we see in The Wire. This occurred as a result of the migration of African Americans to the city, the decline in well-paid jobs in industry, and the massive flight of whites from the city. The impact of these factors caused applications for public housing among African Americans to rise substantially as available and affordable housing became scarce. Further, Federal Housing Administration lending policies made it virtually impossible for blacks to become homeowners, even if they could qualify for conventional home mortgages. Black neighborhoods were uniformly redlined by that agency, making federal loans unavailable for them, and black applicants were refused funding for properties in historically white neighborhoods, since the FHA professed a desire not to “destabilize’ white areas. Public housing became one of the few viable options for lower-income African Americans.
In the 1950s, as demand for subsidized housing burgeoned, the housing authority altered the means test for residency. This meant that better-off tenants were subject to not having their leases renewed. Thus, while the housing projects of Baltimore were already segregated by race, they increasingly became segregated by class. Douglas Rae has written in his study of New Haven how public housing works to fix a population in place even when the original reason for moving to that place—jobs—has ceased to exist. Thus, public housing reduces geographic mobility and, in a declining regional economy, may be responsible for maintaining an urban underclass. This analysis assumes that there are jobs elsewhere for a given demographic, but his analysis also has significant validity. As Baltimore continued to lose jobs, particularly good-paying unionized industrial jobs, those recent migrants ensconced in public housing tended to stay in place.25 It is, however, important to emphasize that not all of West Baltimore’s African Americans lived in public housing. As the African American population of Baltimore grew, the real estate practice of “block busting” increasingly accelerated the momentum of white flight—and the riots of 1968 accelerated it further. According to a study of Baltimore’s demography: “While in 1950, almost two-thirds of the region’s white population lived in Baltimore, only 12.5% lived in the City by 1997.” In the period after 1990, the number of African Americans within the city limits began to decline as middle-class African Americans followed middle-class whites to the suburbs. The impact of both of these systems lingers on in the world of The Wire. When we see men without work, we can note that the historical impact of racist practices has important ramifications for contemporary economic conditions.
Perhaps as a result of the structural unemployment that particularly afflicts African Americans in The Wire, black characters from a variety of economic levels are engaged in a range of entrepreneurial efforts; Bubbles, the part-time informant and full-time drug addict, sells metal and T-shirts, and Bodie, the lower-level drug dealer, takes pride in the volume of his sales. By making enterprise a recurring motif, Simon seems to be directly rebutting notions of the “culture of poverty” thesis put forth by conservatives, who posit that habits originating from living as a oppressed minority in the South—such as lack of ambition, criminality, illegitimacy—have affixed themselves to African Americans intergenerationally and have resulted in a persistent inability to participate in the American dream. Rather, Simon aligns himself with those who see the wave of African Americans migrating from the South during and after World War II as having no singular or fixed character; he shrewdly reads the historical record and rebuts the conservative view.
A General Note on Method
When I began viewing the series, I found it immediately compelling and soon began binge-watching into the night. Beyond its narrative energy, the way in which it pictures lives proximate to mine, but not accessible as a matter of my experience, drew me in. As the seasons went on, I began to see how Simon employs the show as a means of developing a social vision of his historical moment, and as a device for critiquing many social givens. I wrote this book as a means of explicating the features of the series that lie below its narrative surface, including its embedded history of race and US race relations, and its related but less explicit attention to the category of class. My study contextualizes the series within urban history, sociology, and geography generally, and particularly in relation to the social history of Baltimore in the early twenty-first century.
One of the factors that attracted me to The Wire was Simon’s emphasis on place and his representation of an articulate and discrete relative geography. This book follows my study Starring New York: Filming the Grime and Glamour of the Long 1970s. In that volume, I extended an earlier consideration of film and history to include a third feature: space. I considered a large group of films shot in New York City from 1969 to 1981, approaching them both for their narratives of urban life and for their visualization of urban geography. Every film narrative, since it is told with a substantial visual component, has a system of spatial relations. In films and television shows with a realist inclination, like The Wire, that vision of space is, in effect, a distinctive interpretive map of the world. As in the New York book, one of my analytical emphases here is the series’ representation of distinctive relative geographies. Analysts and critics of the neoliberal regime, many of whom were trained as geographers, have come to see that what Edward Soja calls “the spatial turn” has an explanatory power that is a necessary complement to the temporal, and that this concern with relative space is particularly powerful when dealing with visual texts.28 That is, representational visual texts provide viewers with a map of relational places and spaces. David Simon’s Baltimore creates certain emphases that are lodged in his visual definitions of places and their connections with other places and spaces. On the other hand, certain places and spaces fall from his world completely.
Our intellectual and cognitive understanding of relative space is a vital determinant for defining the logic of a particular temporal moment. As Soja iterates, these concepts are mutually necessary: “Putting space first does not mean that spatial thinking should be practiced alone, divorced from life’s social and historical realities. . . . [A] spatial perspective does not represent a rejection of historical and sociological reasoning but an effort to open them up to new ideas and approaches.” The spatial turn emerged from a group of Marxist geographers in the late 1970s who employed the precepts of postmodern thought to allow the concept of space to be decoupled from absolute empiricism. Space then became a relative term, one with significant implications for analyzing the post-Fordist regime of capital, a mode of production that employed the idea of space flexibly and conceptually. In The Wire, sometimes a precondition for a season’s narrative, as in season 1, and sometimes a condition, as in season 2, commodity production is not place-dependent. It can occur anywhere. “German” automobiles may be assembled in Brazil from parts made in South Asia. And all those places involved in the production of such automobiles can be other places in a virtual wink of the eye. This is the domain of the postmodern, an era when the concept of place is subordinate to that of space. It is less a matter of where production occurs, than of how far in cost and time it occurs from targeted markets. Thus, place becomes a particular or lived locale, while space (or location) is general and tied to operative meanings of relative distances.
In addition to Soja’s seminal writings on time and space, I employ the considerable works of David Harvey and, to a lesser degree, Henri Lefebvre as aids to comprehending the role of space in defining a place and its broader meaning within a more expansive relative geography. Lefebvre’s work is foundational in the conceptual recasting of space as a social construct, subject to the shifting definitions of its use by a broad undifferentiated public, as well as by elements of civic authority, including the state and its incarnations—the police, planners, housing inspectors, and so forth. When Lefebvre discusses “the production of space,” he casts this conceptual process as being subject to the logic of a given historical situation and to the relative power of particular constituencies.
This recasting of space as other than reductively material and as broadly plastic allows for figures such as Soja to argue for its efficacy as an analytical category. In addition, George Lipsitz’s How Racism Takes Place enhanced my understanding of the spatial dimension of race and class. Lipsitz discusses The Wire in a chapter focused on the series. He shows how segregation and ghettoization have become historically embedded practices defined by what he terms the “white spatial imaginary.” He describes this means of conceiving of urban spaces as racialized and characterized by policies that “hoard amenities and resources.” Such strategies, Lipsitz astutely shows, become a “nearly universal strategy for class advantage [that] follow a distinct racial pattern in the United States.”
The most prominent social theorist for my broader study is the geographer David Harvey. He has done nothing less than reimagine an integrated field of political economy with an important spatial dimension.32 Harvey’s evolving methodology increasingly provides a comprehensive means of seeing neoliberalism as a system of space relations that transform economic conditions and relations. This vision of an economic system with a prominent spatial component was invaluable for analyzing the range of assertions that may be gleaned from Simon’s picturing of Baltimore. Harvey’s discussion, connected with that of Neil Smith, of spaces being intentionally “left out”—and so not fully left out—of the circulation of neoliberal capital sheds light on the impoverished zones of Baltimore. Indeed, he allows us to see how such uneven development was both strategic and inevitable.
My study follows the series in its presentation of an increasingly involved problematic. The Wire can be viewed as a developing representation or critique of the neoliberal city, one that takes on what is represented as fundamental aspects of public life. My goal is to explicate the deep frame of reference suggested by the components of the season’s narrative. In chapter one, I follow The Wire’s portrayal of a community, paying particular attention to its represented spatial contours. The season provides a portrait of a group that is spatially segregated and economically self-contained. In addition, it pictures a world that is largely defined by the history of race relations in the city and nation, and by the ways in which race becomes definitional for certain spaces. The chapter employs work by the cultural geographers mentioned earlier to show the series emphasizing the spatial dimension of poverty. It also is prominently informed by the work of the sociologist William Julius Wilson, who has written extensively about the social and economic situation of the urban underclass in the postindustrial era. In particular, his landmark study When Work Disappears notes the impact of the prevalence of the drug trade and its centrality within these impoverished and isolated locales. Indeed, it reads like a template around which Simon developed his drama.
Season 2 focuses on the devaluation of labor, employing the waterfront of Baltimore and its embattled dockworkers’ union as a case. To see how that example typifies the historical moment, I employ the social insights of David Harvey to show the dialectic between the local and the global at work. Harvey helps us see the space-specific contours of a particular labor market even as its workers are engaged in activities with global economic implications. Harvey employs Marx to show how the concept of “variable capital” allows capitalists to revalue the cost of labor within a world where technological change effectively can shrink relative space. I also employ work by the theorist of global social systems Arjun Appadurai for his vision of how the increasing volume of world trade and the search for low-wage production has produced a kind of resistance to those far-flung processes and a revaluation of the local, including beliefs, customs, and common affiliations.
Season 3 focuses on the decriminalization of drugs within a specified zone, called Hamsterdam in the series. This focus builds on the representation of relative space found in season 2, but rather than focusing on labor and capital in the production of space, season 3 goes back to a more refined concern with Baltimore itself, particular delineations of real estate, and the means by which those discrete zones are connected. Those lines of demarcation become a factor that informs how we look at class, race, comportment, and even the definitions of time. In this chapter, the dialectics of space become even more complex than in chapter two, as the relative relation among spaces and the contingencies affecting their value come into play. This broad emphasis leads to a discussion that employs Harvey’s and Jason Hackworth’s considerations of the meanings of relative urban space within the neoliberal regime.
Similarly, the vexed and complex issue of inner-city education in season 4 leads me to consider its representation of space-specific knowledge. I employ the sociologist Elijah Anderson to help show the relationship between race and space. The season develops a complex view of the idea of situated knowledge, and of education as the production of knowledge, an idea that I explicate through the work of the educational sociologists Edward Buendía and Nancy Ares. But beyond these commentators, I see in this season Simon and his fellow writers developing their most explicit analogy between the early twenty-first century and the early twentieth century. Developing this visual and thematic analogy allows us to see the similarities between contemporary neoliberalism and the doctrines of laissez-faire, which were dominant a century before— including the justifications of Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism.
In Season 5 I cite commentators on the media, including astute voices such as Michael Schudson and Daniel Hallin, to locate the terms and efficacy of Simon’s critique of the contemporary urban newspaper. I also start “reading against” Simon’s apparent pessimism and bring in the social theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri to tease out a more hopeful strain embedded in Simon’s series, emphasizing, as I do in the conclusion, how the gradual privatizing of civic institutions—schools, newspapers—may lead to a reevaluation of their role in public life and a generalized will to redefine them as part of what Hardt and Negri refer to as the “common.” I develop this idea further in the conclusion, which emphatically reads The Wire’s often-dystopian urban landscape as symptomatic of its possible utopian alternatives.
This study of David Simon’s series locates the spaces where urban geography meets Baltimore noir. I approach The Wire as a key expression of a period because of its depiction of the social logic of that time. But that social logic emerges from the complexities of the narrative of the series as a whole and the narratives of each season. Indeed, as I developed a more intimate and extensive knowledge of each season, I revised my prior vision of both the story arc and the emphases of its narrative. Events that I remembered as central remained important but were redefined by the extensive context in which they were lodged. Generally, the event that viewers generally think of as the key to a season, such as the public schools in season 4, do not occur for two or three episodes, so that by the time we get to Tilghman Elementary, a considerable geographic and social context has been elaborated, one that allows us to see the school in the context of a neighborhood and of the lives of the students we are tracking. But more broadly, as a realist text that derives both its power and authority from its connection with a palpable actuality, The Wire provides the perspicacious viewer with insights into the spatial logic of the neoliberal regime of a particular city, but one that is applicable to a number of others.
“[a] smart, engaging book-length examination . . . . Stanley Corkin, in his deep analysis, approaches David Simon’s masterful series from a media studies perspective without losing any of the sociological focus.”
“Despite The Wire’s run on HBO ending in 2008, many of the themes and topics examined are still relevant today. . . Connecting the Wire provides a comprehensive resource for utilizing the HBO series as a device for further geographic, sociological, and media studies research and discussions. Whether a loyal viewer of the series while it aired, or someone only vaguely familiar with the show (which can easily still be binged watched today), Corkin’s treatment of the television show provides depth, insight and context for what the back cover touts as “critically acclaimed as one of the best television shows ever produced."”
Popular Culture Studies Journal
“In reading Stanley Corkin’s book, one can fully understand why HBO’s The Wire successfully used the freedom of artistic expression to deftly weave together the range of social forces that profoundly impact the lives of poor inner-city residents, including the fundamental features of inequality in our social, economic, and political arrangements. As someone who has watched every episode of The Wire at least four times, I can say that Corkin’s comprehensive discussion of this remarkable television series is insightful and compelling.”
William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Harvard University