Sunday, November 16, 2008

"Trapped in the same lie": Artifice and absence in the last episode of The Wire

(And now for the inevitable anticlimax, goaded out of me by Realdoc and others. Just be grateful that I've trimmed most of the Baudrillard and all the Barthes from it - at one point, it was about twice the length, not including footnotes. I did think a SPOILER ALERT might be appropriate here, but since The Wire is officially the greatest show you've never seen, and probably never will, there's not much point. Unless this provokes one or two of you to join the club, of course.)

The Wire is lauded for its realism; but of course, it is not real. We know the names of the actors who pretend to be cops and gangsters, teachers and students, politicians and journalists and dockers and priests and junkies and hookers; we know the names of the writers who put words in their mouths, and the directors and the producers too. The true obsessives know the cameramen and the editors and the stunt performers and all the musicians who recorded the various versions of the Tom Waits song and the person who crafted Brother Mouzone's bowtie.

But that's not what realism means, of course. Realism at its best means the art of lulling the viewer into two parallel states of consciousness: deep down, they know it's not real; but at the same time, they care as if it is real. The fun is in the tension between the two states. By the last episode of the last season, the makers had grown confident enough to play metafictional games with the audience, dancing in the spaces between The Wire's universe and ours, without severing that emotional, unironic bond.

It's in similar territory to Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt: deliberately alerting the audience to the artificiality of the drama to remind them that the big themes are more important than the imaginary characters. But David Simon (the most appropriate candidate for the role of 'author' here, if such a job title still exists) goes one better; he downplays the reality of Wireworld by allowing real Baltimore to intrude. Entangle yourself with the hyperreality of Omar and Kima and Carcetti; just remember that there's something approaching reality (that's real reality) going on at the same time.

Think of the relationship between the actors and the roles they play. Many characters take their names from real individuals in Baltimore; Sgt Jay Landsman for example, who appears both as a character (played by Delaney Williams) and as an actor (playing Dennis Mello). Journalist Bill Zorzi and convicted killer Felicia 'Snoop' Phelps, meanwhile, play themselves, or at least characters who share their names. Elsewhere, the producers cast from the headlines: reformed drug dealer Melvin Williams (who was arrested by David Simon's colleage Ed Burns) plays the Deacon; disgraced police commissioner Ed Norris plays a cop called, uh, Ed Norris, And sometimes it's just a matter of settling scores: Simon named a loathesome police lieutenant 'Marimow' to get back at one of his bêtes noires from his days on the Baltimore Sun. That's the real Baltimore Sun, by the way, not the fictional one on screen...

Ah, the paper. Which brings us to the last season, and the last episode, and the title screams its intentions. "-30-" is journalese to signify the end of a piece of copy. Not only is our attention drawn to the fact that this is the last episode; it also labels The Wire as a piece of journalism, something purporting to be true. Except that, as Scott Templeton's concoctions spiral out of control, and his paymasters turn a blind eye, we know that any claim that journalism may once have had on the truth is long gone.

Not that anyone else has clean hands, of course. As Norman Wilson says at the beginning of the episode: "Everyone's getting what they need behind some make-believe." Mayor Carcetti has just realised that his ascent to the Governorship may be derailed because the serial killer that he used as a way to lambast the State for lack of funding doesn't actually exist. He's a politician, so he's used to lying; what throws him is the fact that this time he thought he was telling the truth. Similarly, Templeton is a journalist, and well used to embroidering the truth; but on this story, he's unaware that his embroidery is decorating an invention. It's empty and, as his colleague Alma discovers, so is the notebook he wields as a badge of his journalistic integrity.

This emptiness, this absence, becomes a central theme when McNulty finds himself confronted by a classic simulacrum - a copycat of a killer that doesn't exist. "The lie's so big," he declares, channeling Goebbels, "people can't live with it." But they can, and they do, as the (conveniently insane) copycat is blamed for the other killings and Carcetti gets his photo-op.

But there's one more absence, one more lie to deal with. In the past, policemen who died have had wakes staged for them; this has also been a handy way for the makers to acknowledge the passing of cast members (both Foerster and Cole were honoured thus when the actors who played them died). These were fictional funerals to mark real deaths; McNulty now receives a wake when he (the character) isn't even dead. Except that this is the last episode, and as far as the viewer's concerned, he may as well have taken a bullet; Landsman's eulogy is for The Wire itself. -30-. It's all make-believe after all; the only difference is, the make-believe in The Wire won no prizes, unlike Templeton's Pulitzer-worthy creations.



In the end, only two characters break free from the cycle of mendacity, although they both express their moral purity in unlikely ways. Daniels, unwilling to help the new mayor by producing statistical bullshit, leaves the force entirely and becomes a defence lawyer, in which role, presumably, he lies for a living; but at least he and everyone else knows it's an act. And Marlo, encouraged by Levy to reinvent himself as a legitimate businessman, slips away from the posh party, knowing that his true self can only exist on the street. By acknowledging himself as irredeemably evil, he achieves a sort of nobility through self-knowledge; a sort of truth.

11 comments:

Pisces Iscariot said...

A conclusion for sure, and admittedly you have obviously done some deep editing in order not to write a thesis :] The thing that I took from watching all 5 series over a period of 7 weekends, is that this particular parallel world is as real as it gets - a fact which has me viewing he world with reference to The Wire: Obama in the light of Carcetti's slow corruption by the need to move onward and upward (Carcetti for governor; Obama for his next term)
Corruption is, of couse the key to The Wire: Corruption by money/power/apathy/drink/poverty/bureaucracy. Moral corruption; corporeal corruption and urban and societal decay wthing Capitalism's need to exploit.
The only real way to sum the story up is to watch it.
Thanks for the piece Tim - well worth the wait.

Annie said...

Well you made me want to watch it, will do as soon as I get a DVD player. (It sounds a bit like one of my favourite films, The Big Easy, which though a comedy, was all about power and corruption and how the cops in New Orleans were just as crooked as the criminals.)

Sniffer said...

Hm... first criticism I've seen on The Wire from a metacritical standpoint. Most of the commentaries on and praise for the series has rather focussed on its old-fashioned virtues; David Simon and gang as heirs to Balzac and Zola etc.
I supoose from now on and for better or worse it's increasingly going to be meat for the cultural theorists. Hm, hm...

Robert Swipe said...

I'll have to come back to this once I've got past Series one, episode 1 of the boxed set, Tim.

I liked the look of it though, from what little I've seen. Surprising really, as I find the magazine it's adapted from tends to be a bit on the 'dry' side...

Can't wait for the bit about early synthesizers/musique concrete in the Soviet bloc...

*Yummers* as they say...



xxx
Bob

p.s. very nearly put Tunnel of Love on Bobcast #53....maybe next time...


p.p.s. Wired Vrecifificatoon: enominge

Really, you couldn't make...

Robert Swipe said...

...p.p.p.s


@Sniffer:

I have forgiven you for Wembley 1972...

Sniffer said...

@swipe:
What's to forgive? We bossed the game, should have won by more than a one-goal margin. Tragedy of the game was Mick Jones' broken collarbone in last minute. Meant we had to play the game at Derby two days later, from which we only needed a point to be champions, without a key player.
Anyway, have you ever noticed the resemblance between Allan Clarke and Mark E Smith? First Fall single I bought was Totally Wired

Tim Footman said...

Thank you, Pisces. Of course, the notion that corruption is the human condition goes back to Eden...

Hadn't thought of that, Annie. A bit, but the clothes in The Big Easy are a cooler.

Sniffer, I did the David-Simon-as-heir-to-the-19th-century-novel thing about a year ago. The answer is Hardy.

Well, Bob, if they ever do a sixth season, we can petition for a theme tune by John Cage.

And I'll let you and Sniffer fight it out. Although I've always been impressed by the success of a team featuring members of the Hollies, the Clash and Rockpile...

Robert Swipe said...

I was only 5 at the time Sniffer, so the memoryof that Cup final's a little hazy (honoured to meet you, btw...) I did see the Amateur Cup final at Wembley that same year (Enfield v. Hendon) mind, and for a long time had a Centenary Cup final programme someone had brought back for me from the game.

I have to admit to having had a minor dalliance with that great Leeds side at the time. I think it was the sock tags...

Yes, I always think of 'The Ghost' as being a sort of Mark E. Smith with talent. Terry Collier is perhaps the more poetic comparison though.

The first one I remember hearing was 'How I wrote elastic man'. It was all down hill from there, really...

Maybe there's a post for Tim in all this: Mark E Smith as an alternative index of social stratification - i.e. the more you rate him, the less likely you are to be swigging carpet cleaner on a sink estate, banging your Somalian social worker and living off the immoral earnings of your Auntie Sandra, perhaps?

;?

xxx
Bob

p.s. wrude voracification: rowchebag

You couldn't...?

Sniffer said...

@swipe
I was ten and proud owner of a pair no. 8 stocking tags. Had my photo taken a few weeks later with a yellow, white and blue ribbon-bedecked F.A. Cup trophy in tap room of our local pub. Lost the photo when my suitcase went missing at Helsinki airport in the mid nineties.
Anyway, Enfield, eh? Manor of the late, great Reg Varney, aka Stan from On The Buses, another 70's icon
Stan tucking into big greasy fry ups, a Senior Service dangling from his lips and a brylcreemed forelock dangling in his bacon as his Mam looked on indulgently. Little did she know her fifty-something lothario son was plotting a way he could remove her from the house that evening so he could douse himself with Old Spice, put on a Matt Monroe L.P and stick his hand up the skirt of some new clippie on the dralon couch, under dimmed lights and a painting of a blue-faced oriental lady.

"Sure you don't mind looking after little Arfur while we go to the bingo Stan?"

"No, don't you mind me Mum, you get yourself off, go on ..."

Must relate my Mark E Smith/Wings of Desire true-life horror story sometime

realdoc said...

Sorry I'm a bit late to the party Tim. The Wire is the only TV show where I have cried genuine tears, not sentimental schmaltz tears provoked by clever lighting and judicious music. It made me think about my life, the world, the corrupting influence of the very organisations who define civilisation.
I don't know enough about all the cultural theory stuff to comment on why it does what it does but as a piece of art I think it is up there with Shakespeare and Michaelangelo. I only hope the President elect (favourite character Omar) remembers what he has seen.

Tim Footman said...

Thanks, realdoc, for getting things back on track. I was expecting Norman 'Licks Your Thighs' Hunter to join in. Yes, there are times when I think The Wire joins the ranks of art that transcends any kind of critical analysis; it just is. Accept it.

As for the Obarmar thing - I did think it was telling that he had to clarify that he liked the acting and writing, rather than *liking* the Cheerio-fixated stick-up artist himself. Well, if BO could be tainted by having gone to a couple of meetings with an ex-terrorist, then surely someone could make mileage from his associations with a fictitious character...