Monday, July 16, 2012

Trip through your wires

I will never forget the English class I had sophomore year of high school. There were lifelong friends, a great teacher, and plenty of good books to go around. As a class (with Ms. M-P leading of course) we deconstructed every move that Ivan Denisovich, R.P. McMurphy, or MacBeth made and tried to figure out what the author was trying to use their book to say. It was difficult, frustrating, and thrilling to learn that so much meaning could be pulled from the slender pages of any given book. By the time spring rolled around we were bona fide scholars of literature.

Which was good because Ms. M-P saved the best for last: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Over the course of what had to be months, we dissected every detail. The plot was simple enough: Marlow (the narrator) is sent by The Company to retrieve Kurtz, a wildly successful ivory hunter from deep in the Congolese Jungle. But the symbolism! What did the colors – black, white, yellow – mean? Howabout that decaying railcar Marlow, the narrator, spends pages describing? Why did the accountant dress the way he did? And we got to watch Apocalypse Now in class, so that was pretty sweet. With Ms. M-P as our guide, we were all shocked at how much we were able to pull from a novella written by a man who didn’t even speak English until his third decade.

However, when it came time for us to pin down the theme of Conrad’s work, it was Ms. M-P’s turn to be surprised. Removed from the constraints of society, in the most primative setting possible, it was clear that Kurtz’s humanity had become something dark, twisted, and sinister. The class decided that his famous quote “The horror. The horror!” meant that Kurtz had realized that his path was not unique – that any man, removed from the confines of society, would suffer the same fate. At its core, mankind is savage.

Ms. M-P was floored. “Surely, you must have found some sliver of hope,” she asked. “Every other class before you did.” We shook our heads glumly. We wanted to find something, we really did. We just couldn’t.

It was a strange feeling, having no hope. There is always supposed to be hope and even when there isn’t, it’s only because it’s not that big of a deal anyways. Well here was a man saying there was no hope. Not in a the-Twins-will-never-get-past-the-Yankees-in-the-playoffs kinda way, but in a there-is-something-fundamentally-evil-within-humanity kinda way. Before and since, I have never encountered something that had a theme like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – until I finished “The Wire.”

If you haven’t seen David Simon’s five season opus the rest of this won’t make much sense so I suggest you stop reading and start watching immediately. This blog will be waiting for you when you finish.

The HBO miniseries follows a hodgepodge of characters through the underbelly of Baltimore’s…well…underbelly. The show takes a four-minute Randy Newman song and gives it names, faces, and life. Ostensibly, the first season is about the cops, the second about the dockworkers, the third the drug dealers, the fourth the schools, and the fifth the newspapers, but characters drift in and out freely and the storylines weave to and fro like playful dolphins, trailing the wake of the last ocean liner bound for Patapsco terminal. The show also raises serious questions about education, drugs, justice, race, family, and the general state of the American city.

The plot lines are certainly entertaining, but it’s the characters that drew me in. Amongst the dozens, three stood out to me in particular. There’s Norman, Carcetti’s aide who never loses his sense of perspective and is the only other person in the room (besides me) chuckling when Daniels and Rawls reveal just what their department has been up to during season five. There’s Chris Partlow, Marlo’s* hobo-styled hitman. Somehow, Partlow comes across as a consummate family man while simultaneously being Stanfiel’s ruthless assassin. Then there’s the cop, Sgt. Thomas Hauk. He never kills anyone (at least directly) and is more stupid than dirty, but there’s something about Herc that makes me think he is the worst human being I have ever met.

*Marlo. Marlow! Willard? Whoa.

As a matter of fact Grantland found 32 characters so compelling they made a mini-bracket out of the thing. Of course Omar won*, but more interestingly I think, David Simon got mad, saying:
“…they [those doing things like the Grantland bracket] want to break it down like a deck of cards, and argue over whether the jack of spades is better than the jack of hearts.. "The Wire" wasn't about whether Stringer was better than Omar, or this scene better than that scene, or season 2 versus season 3.
He’s right, and right in more than just a he-made-the-show-so-what-he-says-goes sense. The bracket (and discussions like it) is fun but misses the point because “The Wire” isn’t about cool at all. It’s not about good versus bad or winners versus losers. It’s about what happens when all that stuff gets lost in the flood and you start creating serial killers or inventing quotes or whaling on commuters or killing citizens just because. David Simon’s Baltimore is a picture of what happens when all those rules that bind and govern our society just fall apart, and a man is left to run a station deep in the jungle all by himself.

So after everything. After Sherrod, Carcetti leaving Tony Gray out to dry, Randy, Avon and Stringer, Ziggy, Alma going to bat for Gus, Wallace,* the cop Prez shot, Butchie, Hamsterdam, and Carver doing Colicchio. After D'Angelo, McNulty using his kids to tail Stringer, Bodie, Frank, Kima getting shot, and Cutty what really changed? What about Baltimore is substantially better or even just different from when the series began?

*Where’s Wallace String?

People move on but the roles remain. Bubbles comes out of the basement, but Duke picks up his needle, just like Michael picks up Omar’s gun. Carcetti politicked his way to governor and as a result won’t really be any better than his predecessor. The co-op finds a way to keep it together, the dope still flows, and the Greek perseveres. Clay Davis keeps his seat and Scott wins a damn Pulitzer. At least Cheese gets got and Namond has a good home. But really, after all the evil done in the name of both good and bad – after five seasons of all that shit – what does it mean when the only thing that’s different is Commissioner Stan fucking Valchek? I’ll admit that I don’t know for sure, but I really think the best explanation might have been given by an ivory trader nearly 200 years ago.

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