Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Socratic Method

(NOTE: there are some who read this blog, and some who post on it, who don't have/choose not to watch OnDemand, so they've only seen up to episode 57, "Took", so please everyone else no spoilers...this would be, as of right now, anything that happens in episode 58, "Clarifications")

Re: his last post, specifically the final paragraph, I totally agree with, uh, Mr. Sulzman.

David Simon has said many times that "The Wire" rips off writers he knows can't sue him: The Greeks. No, I don't mean Vondas and the old guy with the beads who's "not even Greek", I mean those old-school motherfuckers who thought every time they looked up to see an overcast sky they'd pissed somebody off up there.

In ancient Greek tragedy, the idea of Fate, indifferent and all-consuming, is the motivating factor that moves the stories along. The gods up on Mt. Olympus sling curses, hurl lightning bolts and inflict all manner of plague and pestilence upon the hapless humans below, and often for no discernible reason other than, much of the time, boredom.

Fast forward several thousand years and Baltimore is the new Athens or Thebes; instead of Zeus, Athena or Apollo the new gods are faceless, postmodern institutions-the police department, City Hall, a city newspaper, the school system or even the drug trade. No matter where you are in this world, there ain't much chance of getting ahead, and honestly it's hard enough just making sure you don't get your head blown off (to varying degrees of figuratively) in your day-to-day life. You probably won't get to "make something of yourself", but if you can cope with whatever your station in life is, you'll probably be more or less okay. There are exceptions of course, but actually the more I think about it the fewer I think there are; nearly everyone who gets fucked in "The Wire" (certainly every major character) in one way or another deserves it.

Now don't jump on me. Wallace didn't "deserve" it in season 1, and neither did, say, Bubbles in any season but S4 in particular (assuming nothing too awful happens to him in the final two episodes eeeeks). This is true. And Sobotka wasn't the most honest and noble of men but is there anyone who thought justice was served when that fucking undignified cargo net usually used for fish and boxes pulled him naked and brutalized out of the Patapsco? Did D'Angelo deserve dying (and being made to look like a suicide, no less) in a dank, shitty prison library simply because Stringer Bell THOUGHT he might rat on them...someday?

No. But, off the top of my head, there's only two people who were truly fucked in the show that didn't deserve it (ripple effects, e.g. the parents/kids/loved ones of someone who gets killed or something don't count, I only mean characters we've met): one is the little kid who gets killed by the stray bullet during the gunfight between Bodie and co. and the rival corner boys in S2, and Randy Wagstaff's foster mother (who, in case anyone wasn't sure, actually did die from burns and smoke inhalation). Both are total innocents AND, more importantly, neither did anything to incur the wrath of "the gods".

Bubbles, in season 4 (actually late in S3 but basically in 4...I only bothered to make the distinction so that you nitpicking bastards don't take me to task on it) decides to try and ease up on the dope and try to make a real living. Easing up, as he knows, ain't all that easy, and neither is making a real living when he's spent who-knows-how-many years living the game for real out on the street. So, like a true American, he sees a natural money-making niche for himself as a traveling discount all-purpose convenience store, and so he finds himself a shopping cart and Bubbles' Depot is born. Of course now he's sticking his head up, trying to change his station in life, break out of his caste, and the gods take notice and wag their celestial fingers in the form of an un-named assailant who beats the crap out of him and steals his money, goods and hard-earned drugs every time. Ironically enough, from the assailant's perspective, what's more American than that? Anyway, rather than quit, Bubbles keeps selling, and the "bad boy" keeps beating. Finally, at his wits' end, STILL instead of quitting, Bubbles endeavors to remove the "bad boy" permanently...and we all know what happens then.

Do you see where I'm going with this? It's the same thing Dario (I can't call you Mr. dude, at least not until we're in our 30s and/or a professional setting) was talking about at the end of his post. Colvin tried two ways of reforming a broken system, one each for seasons 3 and 4, and what happened? Basically, nothing. His ideas, because they actually were fairly good ones, worked, but nobody cared and they shut him down. That's how he got fucked. Now, this isn't the same as getting brutally beaten daily and accidentally killing your only friend when you try to retaliate, but it's on a scale. I don't think Carcetti, for another instance, will get killed, and since he's probably too astute a politician he'll probably never even be fired as Colvin was, but we see the price he has paid. His ambition for power used to be neck-and-neck with his desire to actually "make a difference", but each episode we see it slipping further and further away. It's not his fault and I don't blame him (one thing I really wish "The Wire" hadn't done was, unbelievably, make me understand and thereby some of the time actually hate less all the politicians); he probably still wants to make a difference but knows he can't if he loses the next election because he spent all his time actually trying to fix things rather than kissing the appropriate rings, cheeks, and other less desirable areas. It's not like those who have the kiss-needing locales are wrong either, they want their particular issues heard, but they add up. They add up to more time than anyone, even the mayor of a major American city, has.

I don't think I need to overly explain the other instances, do I? Sobotka tried both stepping outside his ordained duties to make money illegally and tried affect real change in a time and place that wouldn't allow it. Of course too he was too proud to give in to Valchek over that stained glass window, even though even a suburban white boy like me knows it ain't worth it to mess with the cops, even when they're unconscionable assholes (here's something maybe you didn't know-a great many of them are, it's the kind of job tailor made for good, moral, noble and upstanding men but also for unconscionable assholes). Finally, he decided to rat on his criminal buddies, and all moral judgments about snitching aside it would've been fine had he not gone against all his better logic and reason and met with them that very night.

Wallace tried to toss off his entire previous life and get out of the game, which actually would've worked had he not gotten lazy and/or scared and skipped back to Baltimore. He didn't "deserve" his fate, but he certainly brought it about.

Stringer hit the glass ceiling, as it were, when he realized the drug trade was a finite growth industry and when the growth inevitably stops, there aren't many options and none of them look good. He was smart enough to know that, but not smart enough to immediately make the transition into, essentially, a completely different world. Thinking he was too big for the one he was in and not knowing he was too small for the one he strove for, it led to his downfall.

Bodie? Well, Bodie tried to fit himself into a square hole when he knows damn well he's a round peg. It is no surprise when he gets pissed off and bucks...and it's no less a surprise when he's gunned down. D'Angelo is even simpler-he just said he wanted out. Voluntarily and for no reason other than itself, he wanted out, and as we know that didn't sit well with certain individuals. There are many, many other examples but I think those are the best, and even if they aren't they're enough.

And of course there's McNulty. Every goddammed year, often more than once, it's always McNulty. The central theme of his character, where everything he is comes from it seems to me, is summed up by his/Bunk's quote from the very first episode: "Giving a fuck when it ain't your turn." Nailing Avon/Stringer might have been a good idea, even, gulp, "the right thing to do" in a bullshit high-school classroom-morality sort of world (although, ha, not one in Baltimore) but it was too much for him to take on, so the gods crushed him. In season 2, same basic thing. Then, in season three it was even worse-the gods decided to go even harder on him...and let him win. Avon went to jail, probably for a good long-ass time, Stringer dies and the majority of their crew goes away, and then what? Nothing. He expected maybe a Jimmy McNulty Day parade. Kegs busted out. His name on every officer's lips, saying "Man, Jimmy McNulty? He is natural police." Maybe he is...I am unsure/leaning towards he falls just short of it, and by it I basically mean Freamon but maybe he is. No matter. It's not enough.

So what is? Well, Lester told him already. "A life, Jimmy. It's the shit that happens while you're waiting around for moments that never come." And he STILL hasn't learned, has he? This time, though, it'll be harder for him to get away, and assuming he doesn't the upcoming fucking (sounds like a song by The Eagles of Death Metal doesn't it) will be much harder, and, ah, shall we say, far more comprehensive.

I think one of the main themes of the show is for people to accept their station in life. Not that they shouldn't aspire to do more, but only to do what they know is in their grasp, because, let's face it, when you exceed your grasp 9 times out of 10 you're gonna fail. This makes for amazing TV but extremely depressing material for all us wannabe "artists" of all stripes. Well what the hell, I knocked out this thing easily enough. On the other hand too, if no one ever risked anything we wouldn't have the light bulb, or the iPod, or Penicilin, or them newfangled horseless carriages. Or "The Wire", as I'm sure David Simon would claim (though we know better). Or, to be fair, the atom bomb, or anthrax...or heroin.

And therein lies my favorite tie-in between "The Wire" and the ancient Greek classics of those wild, pre-Christian days: the Greek chorus. You remember them, those anonymous fools standing off to the side, always saying shit but usually only pointing out the obvious, and only later did you realize they were all in mourning, speak-singing a funeral dirge for the characters, the country, the world, humanity itself, driving the point home such that it couldn't be laughed off, ignored, or even misunderstood...you have little choice but to see the situation as it is, to awkwardly grope with its enormity, and make what little sense of it your mind will allow.



"Plymouth ROCK yo!"


1 comment:

Angela Lovell said...

I'm aaaalways comparing The Wire to Greek Tragedy! Thanks for reaffirming, Mr. Tripp. Very nicely written.