artphoto by splunge
artphoto by TheophileEscargot
artphoto by Kronos_to_Earth
artphoto by ethylene





Mecha Wiki

Metachat Eye


IRC Channels



Comment Feed:


03 September 2010

So, I finished the whole season in one marathon viewing session of the last 5 episodes.

I'm stunned that Stringer is dead and Avon is headed back to prison indefinitely. Like McNulty, I can't believe how much Stringer's death troubles me.

Look, both of these guys were true psychopath, whether or not they were smart or good looking. Stringer lied without conscience, tortured at least one person to death, arranged the murder of another, betrayed his "brother" Avon, and aimed to become a property tycoon on the money extracted from hopeless drug addicts. Avon was even more violent, although he showed some teeny flares of loyalty to his community, and seems to have been genuinely attached to Stringer and his own family.

I'd add that although I currently see Marlo as a pitiless snake, I'm worried that The Wire is somehow going to suck me into caring about him and sort of rooting for him, too.

What is this show doing to me? What happened to my moral compass?
posted by bearwife 03 September | 13:18
What happened to my moral compass?

I think that question is central to the show, a big part of its message and of its appeal. Unlike most shows, "The Wire" portrays a morally complex universe, one where no one is purely motivated, where redemption is possible but grindingly hard to achieve and even harder to maintain, where there are no simple answers to systemic injustices.

The show is structured so that we see the milieu, the daily working lives, the social and economic environments not only of the nominal Good Guys (the cops and the politicians) but of the nominal Bad Guys (the drug dealers --- and in later seasons we'll see other nominal Bad Guys emerge)... and we see that, though there are plenty of Bad guys, there are shockingly few genuinely Good Guys. Of course there's full-on corruption, but the real culprit in many cases is inertia and entropy. The system falls apart, and no one person is capable of overhauling it.

Man, this is bumming me out.

"The Wire" is about the crumbling superstructure of the American city as much as it's about anything, and about the difficulty of reforming it. For all the tragedy --- and I do think "The Wire" depicts full-scale tragedy as truly and strikingly as Shakespeare did --- there are surprisingly heartening moments as the show builds. I envy you the experience of watching it for the first time. I wish I could approach it once again as a clean slate, ready to be surprised and heartbroken and twisted and (very, very occasionally) uplifted.
posted by Elsa 03 September | 14:43
I never could get past the first season. It was such a slog to get that far, that I've given up. Everyone seems to love that show but and I tried really hard but just couldn't get into it.
posted by octothorpe 03 September | 15:05
Try it with subtitles (in English), octothorpe. Once you understand what everyone is saying -- and it also disturbs me that I now hear street slang so clearly -- it is gripping.

Elsa, did you actually get to the point of caring about Stringer and Avon? That's the aspect that is making me a little upset.

I loved the Sopranos too, and was surprised how interesting I found the doings of (another) bunch of psychopaths, but frankly felt no real grief at Tony's death and lack of redemption, which was about what I expected from him. This is different, for me.

I feel as though I'm shocked and in semi mourning for a couple of great white sharks.
posted by bearwife 03 September | 16:53
Elsa, did you actually get to the point of caring about Stringer and Avon?

Oh, absolutely! Especially Stringer Bell. I wept when Stringer died (and I think The Fella shed a tear or two as well), in part because the show would be less rich with this fascinating, complex character gone, in part because the show had allowed us to feel deeply acquainted with this ruthless, intelligent, charismatic, powerful person --- and then ripped him away from us.

From the moment that we learned he was going to business school, I felt like Stringer was one of the most promising characters in the show, someone with real depth and subtlety.

His death was shocking precisely because Bell was pulling himself up out of the criminal enterprise he'd built, he was learning how to legitimize himself, he was parleying his drug-empire fortune into something even bigger --- which raises the larger moral issue of the show: that the legit world welcomes funding and tactics from the criminal underworld.

Then his death symbolically pulls him back down into the muddy, bloody trenches of gang warfare he'd striven so hard to leave. It's powerful, it's heartbreaking, and yet there's some rough justice in it as well.
posted by Elsa 03 September | 17:09
If you're thinking about Bell and Barksdale as villians, it might be useful to consider some of the great villians of theater and literature. (I think TV tends to be a little broader, a little less nuanced in its treatment of villiany.)

Think, for example, about Macbeth. He does some viciously cruel things --- and unlike Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale, he is a well-established, much-admired figure before he starts to commit heinous crimes.

Bell and Barksdale started committing crimes (before we meet them, before the series begins) in an environment where crime is normalized, and rise to prominence in that same environment. Their initial criminal careers --- or the initial criminal careers of their families --- very likely were the only thing between them and horrific poverty, and they may see their later actions as part of the same socio-economic structure: these are the rules of the ruthless game that they're playing.

The same cannot be said of Macbeth: he's a man in a position of enviable power, an intimate of the King, wielding tremendous privilege and wealth for his time. His crimes are about ambition, not survival.

Yet, if you feel deep sorrow or empathy for Macbeth, that's not surprising. Despite his monstrous acts, he is not a monster but a fellow human, and his failings and cruelties could be our failings and cruelties.

It's great writing that allows us to empathize with someone capable of such viciousness, just as the great writing of "The Wire" allows us to see the acts of these characters and still understand them well enough to feel affection, sorrow, and heartache for them.
posted by Elsa 03 September | 17:20
Great comments, Elsa. Thanks.

I do think that one big difference between Stringer and Avon, versus Macbeth, is that MacBeth genuinely regrets his criminal acts. Stringer and Avon regret nothing . . . and of course, nothing about their background compels the ruthless and wrongful things they do. (Compare D'Angelo, or Bubbles, Kima's informant, who both had or have a way superior moral code, or Cutty, who seems genuinely to regret and reject his past behavior.) Stringer and Avon are frankly more like Tony Soprano, who has a real shot at redemption but turns away from it.

In fact, when I think about Shakespeare's very worst characters, they tend to be more like Iago and Claudius -- truly bad and also unrepentant. Which, in my experience, is just how real life psychopaths work too.

Do you really think Stringer or Avon were headed for true remorse and contrition if not killed/sent back to prison?
posted by bearwife 03 September | 18:04
[Keep in mind it's been a couple of years or more since I completed the series, so even longer since I saw season 3. It's not nearly as fresh for me as for you, so that will certainly leave me with some gaps in my memory.]

For starters, I think you and I view the characters very differently, which is not to say either of us is wrong, just that we received them differently. I don't see them as sociopaths, but as powerfully ambitious, driven people placed in a position where their drive only had one visible, readily attainable outlet. They're ready to do what it takes to be successful, and they're playing by rules that are well established before they arrived. And, if I recall correctly, Avon had been groomed for that position from childhood; is that right?

(I can't remember --- is there a death early in the series that violates the norms of assassination? The one I'm thinking of would have been an associate or lover of Omar's.)

They do horrible things, it's true --- but many, many of those horrible things are pretty well normalized in the environment in which they are performed. The violence that they perpetrated or ordered, however horrific, is widely seen as the cost of doing business. And the characters upon whom that violence is performed often acknowledge that, tacitly or otherwise. I can't think of an example from the first three seasons or I'd cite it, but it does happen that characters from the Barksdale drug army find themselves looking down the barrel of a gun and nod sagely... because the business comes with known risks and that's one of 'em.

So I'm not sure that remorse is the key question here, any more than we'd ask if Macbeth felt remorse for his tactics on the battlefield. (That said, I really did think Stringer Bell's long-arc story might bring him fully into legitimacy, to a point where his history would cause him at least embarrassment and possibly remorse. His death really jolted me.)

I took a much dimmer view of the cops on the take, the politicians who took bribes or laundered money, the supposed Good Guys who undermined the system at every turn, because they're operating falsely under the auspices of authority and order. Bell and Barksdale make no such pretense: with some exceptions, they're playing by the extremely tough rules of their professional community.

I'm not saying that their crimes are excusable, because they aren't --- just that they make a horrible kind of sense in context.
posted by Elsa 03 September | 18:30
Just to clarify: I don't think you're wrong in your assessment of them; I just think we have different opinions, which makes a conversation so much more complex and fun!
posted by Elsa 03 September | 18:41
Your memory is great, Elsa.

Actually, all the Stringer orchestrated murders bothered the hell out of me: 1) the murder you recall, of Omar's lover, which included torture. That one did violate the norms of assassination, enough to send Omar into a pattern of targeting the Barksdale organization and ultimately, in concert with the professional hit man, killing Stringer. 2) the witness in D'Angelo's trial 3) D'Angelo 4)Wallace, that poor loyal kid who was killed because he witnessed Omar's lover's death.

Also, I was initially rather touched that Stringer decided to take Donette's calls, particularly since she clearly always cared about him. Then I realized it was so he could keep track of what McNulty had to say to her about D'Angelo's death (while McNulty was doing that because he wrongly thought Donette cared about D'Angelo.) Stringer was really good at faking affection and compassion when it suited him -- toward Donette, and in an even more appalling scene, toward D'Angelo's grieving mother.

Avon seemed, by contrast, to have in mind some street rules about murders, although one terrible killing he arranged was of the honest witness in D'Angelo's case, and he also ordered Wallace's death. Not to mention the wholesale killing of heroin addicts in prison he arranged by causing the delivery of tainted heroin so he could set up a guard and argue for his own early release. And yes, Avon was the son of a notorious Baltimore criminal, but no, no indication he was led into the business: rather, he apparently set it up in his teens with Stringer, in the course of a gang war with a rival.

So, both very, very bad guys with no regrets who made no amends. And, ironically, almost simultaneously betrayed each other. Their last meeting is their hug on Avon's balcony as "brothers."

I guess there is just something compelling about powerful, intelligent characters, though they were bad to the bone.
posted by bearwife 03 September | 19:14
Let me explore the idea of redemption, as a separate thing from remorse. As I was watching the show, I believed it was possible --- even narratively probable --- for Bell or Barksdale to redeem themselves, because Simon created a universe in which redemption is possible.

Look at Prez as an example of that. At the beginning of the first season, Prez is one of the most despicable characters in tv: he's the beneficiary of nepotism, he's incompetent, he's destructive, he's wantonly abusing his small amount of power, and he demonstrably makes life worse for everyone around him. He's not intentionally evil, but he is a mindlessly, stupidly destructive person acting with authority of The Good Guys, which to me is even more troubling than A Bad Guy who does Bad Things.

By the end of the first season, he's useful. He's developed a skill and a certain amount of dedication to duty.

In the second and third season, he's crucial to the success of the unit. (Again, it's been a while since I saw it, so the timeline is fuzzy for me, but he certainly becomes a crucial part of the working team.)

[I'm about to make a remark about Prez's career in the fourth season. It's vague and I don't think it even qualifies as a spoiler, but still: if you don't want to know anything about the fourth season, don't read the small print.]

Prez features prominently in the fourth season. I won't talk about what precisely he does, but I will say that I admire the hell out of him for trying so hard, for finding a small way to strike out against the enormity of institutionalized injustice. That's something I thought impossible in the middle of season 1.

I think Prez is one of the great portrayals of redemption in modern art... and if that useless, stupid, panicky, venal fool can become a force for good, however small, then anyone can seek redemption and find it, if they're willing to see their flaws and fight to overcome them. Most characters won't, and that's their tragedy.
posted by Elsa 03 September | 19:23
I've enjoyed reading what you guys have written so far :)

The Avon/Stringer arc is the Wire at its best, definitely. I enjoyed it, even if I had to put up with a whole bunch of $#@! Ziggy in the middle of it.
posted by fleacircus 03 September | 21:20
This conversation has persuaded me that I do need to see the series again from the beginning... but I suspect I'll find it too heartbreaking to make it very far now that I know everyone's fate.
posted by Elsa 03 September | 21:37
I like the Prez comparison. Though at the end of season 3 where I am, part of his redemption seems his genuine regret.

What Ziggy stuff, fleacircus? I am not tracking.

posted by bearwife 03 September | 21:43
Ziggy. Though I really don't remember a lot about his arc, I do remember that I found him pretty trying.
posted by Elsa 03 September | 21:48
Oh, yes. Me too. I blocked him out. A contagious loser.
posted by bearwife 03 September | 22:55
Yeah ZIggy is unlikable, but there he is on screen a lot. I guess they do take care to show him getting more and more deranged and desperate as his ambitions are thwarted. Maybe the point is that he's unsymapthetic and annoying, but how do those characters ever work?

I think the show's definitely worth a second viewing. I don't want to spoil by being specific, but the first time through you may be wishing more for this character or that, or for the plot to go one way, and then it goes another. The second time through, I think I accepted more where it was going to go, and viewed it more on its own terms. A second viewing also gives another chance to appreciate the plot connections as they happen since they are so hard to remember afterwards. And another opportunity to catch a missed line from Snoop.
posted by fleacircus 03 September | 23:40
I enjoyed reading this, like I enjoy the book group discussions for books I haven't read or read decades ago, but ultimately, I'm with Octothorpe, though I made it through season 3 (on DVD). I don't think the problem was the street slang, nor was it the story itself. It was stylistic, having to do with how it was told--something I lack the literary skill to characterize.
posted by Obscure Reference 04 September | 07:54
Don't worry about Wallace, he's doing well as a quarterback for Coach Taylor now.
posted by gaspode 04 September | 09:13
On the commentary tracks, David Simon repeatedly makes the point that a core theme of the series is the nearly total collapse or corruption of all the major institutions: police (juking the stats), unions (organized smuggling), the schools, the press, politics - nothing is working.

the few character arcs where people end up better are completely without a social aspect to the success, it's mostly luck, random circumstance and (sometimes) character. The few people who do flourish in this toxic environment do so without or despite the failed institutions.

Simon took particular glee in pointing out how the press never once got the story of what was going on in Baltimore. They were ultimately irrelevant to anything going on and any stories they played up were either wrong or manipulated.

This extremely grim dystopia is the foundation on which all the stories in The Wire are built. Nothing works, change is futile or just random dysfunction.

So if you're take-away from the series is existential despair, then the writers were doing their job.
posted by warbaby 04 September | 09:17
I'm actually OK with existential despair. I agree with Simon that many things that should work simply don't. I personally have hope and have dedicated a lot of my life to trying to make sure my small corner of the world does work, but I have no problem with the very real criticism and negativism of The Wire.

Really, I was just bothered that I cared so much about dreadfully bad people who made and tried to ensure their success based on other people's suffering. Thank goodness the show doesn't make me feel that way about the fat cats in city and state government it depicts.

I am really sorry this show only ran 5 seasons. It's been masterful so far. I will have to try it with the commentary tracks when I have finished the whole thing.

gaspode, the actor who played Wallace is on Friday Night Lights? I'll have to check out that show sometime. (I tend more toward gritty shows as you may have surmised.)
posted by bearwife 04 September | 19:39
Vox is closing. || Tabloid Hack Attack on Royals, and Beyond: