“The Wire” and “The Sopranos”: tele-visions of a fallen world



omarI have recently finished watching all 5 seasons of “The Wire”, which tells the fictionalised story of the drug trade in Baltimore over a number of years, tracing its internal developments and its connections with the institutions of the city.

[spoiler alert – details of the plot development will be discussed below]

Gang leaders rise and fall. Police units investigate and pursue. Politicians respond and compete. Newspapers report. The school system struggles to cope with the consequences for the next generation. Courts are corrupted. The whole world of the city, as seen in The Wire, is deeply and profoundly distorted and polluted.

All the institutions portrayed, and the series scope is wide, are shown as so dysfunctional as to be best regarded as broken. There are a good number of characters who are portrayed as basically good people trying to make things better. In every case the little positive impact they can make is made despite and against or alternatively outside the structures.

Those who attempt to reform or improve the structures are either tamed by them, becoming as corrupt as everyone else (like the reforming mayor who is elected during the series and becomes as bad as the man he replaces) or is driven out (like the clean police commissioner he appoints who refuses his demand to fabricate statistics showing a decline in crime).

This is a bleak and unflinching portrayal of the state of the world, or at any rate of the declining cities of the north-eastern USA. The situation seems irremediable and the small and partial successes (every major gang boss is eventually caught or killed) seems utterly futile (as one falls another steps up, the concluding montage shows the latest city-wide leaders establishing themselves with the importers of the drugs). At the end every niche in the eco-system of drug use and crime is filled with new people, from the street addict who provides the core demand through the dealers and hustlers, from the “stick-up man” who robs the dealers to the kingpins who organise and direct the traffic.

We have seen a few people saved from “the game” through their own determination and the help of individuals who care about them but others have taken their places. We have seen efforts to reform and redeem the institutions fail and those undertaking them punished and expelled. There is no reason given to expect any progress and at the same time we have been offered a vision of what that progress might mean.

There is no doubt at all what those behind The Wire would want to see:

  • abandonment of “the war on drugs” in favour of regulation of drug supply and harm reduction measures
  • a consequent weakening of the power of those profiting from illegal drug supply
  • pursuit of those who corrupt political and judicial processes
  • honesty and openness in politics and the media

As it happens I agree with this view of what we should do about the awful problems that drug-related crimes causes around the world. from Afghanistan to Baltimore, from Thailand to Poland. In the same way the prohibition of alcohol was a great boon to Al Capone the current effort to prevent use of marijuana, cocaine and heroin is a huge benefit to those who traffic in them illegally, from crime gangs to the Taliban.

Whether one agrees with the implied programme of the programme is less important, though, than its existence. The Wire believes things could be better. We get a glimpse of this when one of the real heroes of the show Major “Bunny” Colvin of the the city Police Department, launches an unauthorised experiment in “legalisation”. He creates zones where dealing is tolerated and drives all the street dealers to them by persecuting those operating outside. These zones attract health and rehabilitation services and throughout his district crime falls and life improves for those outside the world of drugs.

The Wire’s energy comes in part from frustrated hope. This is not a show where total despair or nihilism reigns. It finds signs of promise everywhere. In a corrupt and demoralised Police Department there are, at every level, those trying their best to do the right thing. They fail but they are always there. Even at the end we see one of the most attractive officers promoted and another fighting to get things done in every way he can. Among the dealers there are those who have real loyalty and compassion and those looking for a way out. At the newspaper the editor who is punished and demoted for protesting against the lies that are being tolerated to win a Pullitzer Prize is replaced by a protege who follows his principles of sound journalism. Only among the politicians is there no redeeming light.

It is this, I think, that makes The Wire different from the other really great crime series, The Sopranos. That, too, is a case where television as a medium has been used to do something worthy of comparison with the best that literature can do. If The Wire is a contemporary equivalent of Dickens’ rendering of the city of his time then The Sopranos is something like the psychological explorations he also offers.

In it the focus is narrow rather than broad. It doesn’t even try to put the New Jersey crime bosses it examines in context nor to understand the other institutions with which they interact. Instead it probes with concentration and persistence the make up of one man, Tony Soprano. There are other memorable characters and other plot lines but the core of the show is Tony, in James Gandolfini’s extraordinary and sustained performance.

We come to know him very well and to understand his motivations and his methods. We see both how very controlled and capable he is, why he is the boss, but also how confused and compelled he is, how mysterious, to him as well as to us, his impulses and needs are. We come to feel the emptiness and loneliness of his life nearly as strongly as he does.

In the Sopranos there is no real sign or hope of redemption. There is no real alternative vision of life. Tony’s therapy, which provides a strong thread early in the series, is abandoned eventually as he comes to feel that it isn’t going to help him and his therapist comes to feel that helping Tony is the wrong thing to do, since it would make him a more effective crime boss rather than a better person.

The tone and experience of the Sopranos is actually much lighter and more fun than that of The Wire. The Sopranos is often funny in a way The Wire very seldom is. It has a deftness and agility that the plot-driven rather than character-driven Wire does not (which is not to say the Sopranos isn’t very well plotted or that The Wire doesn’t have great characters, just to observe where their drive comes from).

I think this is because the wider focus of The Wire gives more scope for real hope than does the narrow focus The Sopranos (even if the examples of redemption in The Wire all take place at the individual level).

This brings me to my theological point. It seems to me that a Christianity that is about individual salvation will always have a guilty conscience about those “left behind”, whether it admits it or not. Christianity needs the widest focus, a focus on the salvation of all creation. Otherwise it is likely to become as despairing as The Sopranos and to stop even looking for what might make a difference at that wide level. This may allow a lighter, happier, tone but underneath will be cynicism and abandonment.

We need to be as hopeful and therefore as angry as The Wire. We need to demand of God that all are saved, all are redeemed, all are lifted up, not accept that most or even some are cast out or forgotten. Out of that hope can come our individual and particular joys and progress.


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