The first episode of “The Wire” opens with a shot of flashing police lights reflected in a trail of blood flowing from the body of a young black man named Snotboogie. A friend of the victim tells Officer Jimmy McNulty that Snot was shot dead by a peer for stealing during a game of craps. McNulty struggles to understand the entirety of the story, from Snot’s unfortunate nickname to why his friends would let him into the game when he would always snatch the money and run.
“Why’d you even let him in the game?” he asks.
“Got to. This America, man.”
Snot’s murder is inconsequential to the rest of the series, but the discourse between McNulty and the friend reflects a discrepancy not just between the police and the urban poor, but between the urban poor and everyone else.
The kid’s “it is what it is” disposition represents the attitude of a significant fraction of the characters on the show, both within the police department and the community of West Baltimore: The few characters who dare to challenge the power structures or change their circumstances typically end up dead or otherwise worse off; the Barksdale detail struggles to build substantial convictions against the drug empire’s top dogs due to the apathy and selfishness of the commanding officers at the city police department; after trying to go over their heads in taking the case federal, McNulty is exiled to the docks, following in the steps of Det. Lester Freamon, who had been reassigned to the dreaded pawn-shop unit after defying the chain of command in another homicide case; poor Wallace, upon realizing he isn’t built for life outside of the corner, tries to return to it but ends up murdered by his childhood friends, fellow low-level Barksdale dealers.
This pattern of enforced stagnation continues throughout the series. While prisons become unjustly overpopulated, the world outside becomes more of a prison in itself for the people of West Baltimore. As D’Angelo Barksdale demonstrates through a metaphorical game of chess in one of the series’ most iconic scenes, the rules and roles of “the game” are set. Season one establishes the barriers in which “The Wire” universe exists. Survival in Baltimore is resignation to the circumstances and laws of the city—in the office, in the home, and on the street.
In that famous chess scene in episode three, the original HBO-subscribed audience of “The Wire” came to a greater understanding of street-level drug trafficking through the rules of a familiar board game. Conversely, Wallace and Bodie learn the rules of chess through their understanding of the dynamics of the Barksdale empire. But the profound complexity of chess is nothing compared to the complexity of the impact of the drug war and overpolicing.
The second episode addresses police brutality directly when officers Ellis Carver, Thomas “Herc” Hauk, and Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski terrorize one of the towers in the middle of the night after drinking. In the same episode Prez clumsily discharges his gun in the detail’s basement office, he pistol-whips a kid and leaves him half blind. To save his own skin, Lt. Cedric Daniels commands Prez to cover up the attack.
“He made you fear for your safety and that of your fellow officers,” he informs Prez with his cold, hair-raising glare. “I’m guessing now, but maybe he was seen to pick up a bottle and menace officers Hauk and Carver, both of whom had already sustained injury from flying projectiles. Rather than use deadly force in such a situation, maybe you elected to approach the youth, ordering him to drop the bottle. Maybe when he raised the bottle in a threatening manner, you used a Kel-Lite, not the handle of your service weapon to incapacitate the suspect. Go practice.”
Daniels’ wife Marla spells out the game to her husband as they discuss the dilemma over dinner.
“The department puts you in a case it doesn’t want,” she says. “You’re given people who are useless or untrustworthy. If you push too hard and any shit hits the fan, you’ll be blamed for it. If you don’t push hard enough and there’s no arrest, you’ll be blamed for that, too. The game is rigged. But you cannot lose if you do not play.”
In a complete lapse of logic, Deputy Commissioner Burrell responds to the brutality of the officers by insisting Daniels limit his detail to street-level arrests and abstain from building credible cases against Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell. As in the show, the perpetual routine of militarized street-level arrests and zero-tolerance policing has done more to alienate the community from the police and enforce the virtual imprisonment of West Baltimore. The game is even more rigged for the people than it is for the police.
The hopelessness reflected in “The Wire” was hanging in the air before season one was written, and has been since. Baltimore has been confirmed as one of the worst places for poor children to thrive. The chance for people like the characters on “The Wire” to achieve upward economic mobility falls the longer they spend growing up in Baltimore. Months ago, during a class on “The Wire” I took at MICA, co-creator Ed Burns said that since his 20 years as a homicide detective following the war in Vietnam, the effects of the drug war in Baltimore have become even worse.
Baltimore is so segregated by class and race that citizens who live in the same square mile—even if they’re just separated by a couple blocks—experience completely different worlds. Geography is not so much a factor in this disconnect as a result. The extent to which the show’s audience could comprehend the experience of people living in West Baltimore was limited, and not simply because of the inherent distortion of fiction. And the same goes for David Simon, Burns, and the other writers on the show who, regardless of their well-informed perspectives, existed outside of urban poverty. Nonetheless, the show—season one in particular—effectively demonstrates the existence of that cognitive gap and does so more extensively than any other television drama before or since.
This isn’t about the mere subjectivity of reality—every individual experiences everything differently from everyone else. The social and economic barriers created by the drug war draw tighter over time, isolating the urban poor from the rest of the world to an extreme. In the words of Carver, “You can’t even call this shit a war. Wars end.”