Monday, January 14, 2008

Do Stories Matter?

Well done Dario, and welcome to the blog. I think you really hit the nail when you say the resistance to Marlo’s ways - from Bunk, Omar, Bodie and in this last episode Michael - stems from a nostalgia for simpler times.

In this post I'd like to talk about expectations. Naturally, viewers have high expectations this season. The question among Wire fans has not been is season five good, but is it good relative to season four.

After watching episode two, it's clear to me that the two cannot be compared.

I admit I was seduced to compare in the beginning. Given how much I loved season four, it was only natural to wonder if I would enjoy the new season as much. This being the last season only made the question more relevant. For a short time I even wondered whether the choice to make season five about the media was a good one. Season four was billed as being "about the schools," but it could have easily been described as "about the roots." It dealt with where the Stringers, Marlos and Barksdales come from. Wouldn't the roots have been an equally worthy place to end?

Having seen episode two, I know now that the answer to that question is a resounding NO. Furthermore, I am even more eager and excited about season five because I now see why the media is the perfect place to end.

It's complicated, so let me take you through my process:

In episode two there's a scene in the newsroom where, during a staff meeting, the editor proposes a feature piece on Baltimore's schools. He wants to follow the lives of a few children as the move through the system, using their stories to highlight the flaws in the schools. He says he wants it to be a "Dickensian" series of articles.

I immediately recognized this as an allusion to the fourth season made in the language typically used to discuss the Wire by fans and critics. People are always saying the Wire is great because it is "Dickensian," and the fourth season did exactly what the editor suggests (Though perhaps better. The editor's idea is actually rather simple compared to season four. It is really Gus' suggestion to take into account the context of these childern's lives that resonates most as the true plot of season four. And that idea is shot down).

It struck me as a strange convergence on materials in one scene, and at first I thought, has the Wire gone meta on us? The scene is, ostensibly, one in which characters in The Wire are talking about The Wire. But there's more than mere fun and games at work here.

You have to ask what's really going on in this scene. In the most basic sense, reporters and editors are developing a story. The story they develop is a familiar one to us: it is the story of season four. Once you realize this, a tragedy emerges: they're too late. Namond, Randy, Michael, Duquan, and all the other children we never met already suffered the shortcomings of Baltimore's schools. That the newspaper is only now discussing a story about what everyone who has watched season four knows highlights the basic failure of the story. It's come to late to save anyone, to affect any change. That the story The Sun plans to do is really just a watered-down version of season four (since Gus' idea is dismissed) means that not only does the story come too late, but it is also wrong.

I wonder if this will be the great tragedy of season five, the brutal truth we will find: stories don’t matter. They always come last and when they do arrive their subjects are beyond saving. This, I realized, is why season five HAS to be about the media, because ending with a story about how we tell stories is the only place for The Wire to end.

I pose these final questions to you:

If I'm right, then what should we make of The Wire as a series? It’s a story, too. Does this mean The Wire itself doesn’t matter? Have the writers turned the lens inward, suggesting, subtly, that despite the praise leveled upon it the show is too late to help Baltimore…or any of America’s cities. It's a bit self-destructive, and that might make the idea unpalatable, but it could be a beautiful explosion.

What do you think?

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