As I mentioned earlier this week, I see “The Wire” as the essential episode of the series, and so I thought this would be a good time to discuss the shared title. “The Wire” is a literal reference to the investigation technique used by the detectives, and it draws particular focus to the superiority of complex surveillance over traditional buy/bust methods of investigation. This superiority is suggested in some of the other possible meanings of the word–a wire as a conduit for information, or a medium of connectivity.
I see another possible interpretation of the title, and it goes back to Franz Kafka. Later in life, Kafka wrote a series of 109 aphorisms, short enigmatic passages that seem to possess great insight, but often defy rational analysis. David Simon and Ed Burns know these aphorisms, since they selected one of them as the epigraph to The Wire’s predecessor, The Corner: “You can hold back from the suffering of the world. You have free permission to do so and it is in accordance with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.” (Aphorism 103)
If The Wire doesn’t use a Kafka aphorism as overtly as The Corner does, its title still bears a clear link to the very first of the aphorisms:
“The true path goes over a wire that has been rigged just above the ground. It seems to have been placed there more to trip you up than to be traversed.”
Aphorisms, like jokes, are often best left to speak for themselves, but I can’t think of a better description for the challenges that all of the characters face on the show as they try to balance their own needs with the needs of the game that they are in, or as they try to figure out whether they are powerless in a rigged universe, or significant agents of change.
I can think of no better example of this than the moral crisis that Wallace experiences after the revelation of Brandon’s mutilated body, and how that crisis is reflected by the political challenges faced by Wallace’s his new mentor, D’Angelo.
It starts when boss and worker discuss the aftermath of Brandon’s murder. Although both Wallace and D’Angelo had a role in the murder, only Wallace seems to feel guilty. His tense posture and agonized tone show that he is as torn up emotionally as Brandon was physically. D’Angelo, on the other hand, gives the boilerplate corporate response, echoing the words of both Stringer and Avon. “Sometimes you gotta send a message, yo.” He then reminds Wallace of the phone call he made that night at the Greeks. “When you picked up that phone, what did you think they was gonna do?”
Wallace reminds D’Angelo of some of his more idealistic utterances about how the game could be played differently, without the violence, but by now D’Angelo seems to adopted a more realistic view. “Yeah, I know, I remember that, but it ain’t like that, is it?” Wallace replies in agony: “Yeah, I know, it ain’t.” Wallace is haunted by the sight of Brandon, the all-seeing corpse. All D’Angelo can do is give the easier-said-than-done advice to not think about it and to “let it go.” But Wallace can’t let it go.
If D’Angelo seems unaffected by Brandon’s death, it is not out of coldness. For one thing, he didn’t have to see the body the way Wallace did. For another thing, he already coped with a similar level of guilt when he saw Gant’s body, and he got past that. But the main reason why it doesn’t bother him is because he recognizes that he had no choice but to relay Wallace’s call to Stringer. D’Angelo understands the game, and he knows that the failure to pass on such crucial information is an offense as bad as snitching.
Here again, we see D’Angelo trapped in his role as a middle manager. He is subject to the whims of his superiors, but he also feels morally responsible for those below him. If these two responsibilities run up against each other, though, he will side with his superiors every time out of sheer self-preservation. And yet, sometimes there is the opportunity to have it both ways. We see this in the case of his employees Sterling and Cass.
It is a subplot that falls between the cracks, easily forgotten in the midst of the higher-level politics of the show, and yet it is so essential to the way Season 1 develops, both in terms of plot and in terms of ethical dilemmas. It started in Episode 3, when the twin raids by Omar and the police rattle Avon and Stringer enough to arouse suspicion that there is a snitch in the Pit.
So, in Episode 5, Stringer orders D’Angelo to withhold pay from his young hoppers in the hope that the alleged snitch would “stay eating” while the honest ones are reduced to “begging ass bitches.” That scene is a clear example of corporate ruthlessness. Stringer is willing to starve his lowest workers in order to confirm a baseless suspicion. It is a calculated move, and Stringer even laughs at the absurd notion that the hoppers will quit. He knows that they have no other options in life. He even promises D’Angelo a boost in his authority, saying that the hoppers might put up a fight, but they will respect him in the end.
D’Angelo is forced to act against his own workers, and the results are predictable. We see Sterling and Cass, sitting with Poot and Wallace and complaining. “This shit ain’t right.” As I mentioned in my piece on Wallace’s discovery of the body, it is also likely the reason Wallace decided to make the call. Later, in the very first phone call that the detail listens to, (the one Freamon shuts off because it is unmonitored), Cass complains bitterly about D’Angelo’s management, saying “he think he all that because he got his family back.” The respect that Stringer promised may not be there, but the resentment that D’Angelo predicted certainly is.
So it should come as little surprise that D’Angelo catches Cass coming out of the store with a bag full of groceries (she almost gets hit by a car when she crosses the street without looking). “Little late in the month for this shit, don’t you think?” He proceeds to smash the eggs on the ground one at a time. It is a cruel moment, one where he literally takes the food out of her hands (food that has symbolic connections to family and rebirth), and one made even more cruel with the memory that the episode began with Shardene cooking up the eggs that D’Angelo keeps stocked in his spacious, well-outfitted apartment.
If D’Angelo seems cruel in this scene, what happens next shows another side of the situation. We don’t see it, but it is clear that Cass confesses to D’Angelo. As he later tells Wallace, Sterling (the hopper who got his knee blown away by Omar) was shaking up the vials and passing them off to Cass to sell for their own profit. As punishment, D’Angelo demotes both of them to lookout. Wallace confronts D’Angelo about this, asking why he “punked” them.
But D’Angelo did no such thing. In fact, he put himself at risk to do the two of them a huge favor. By explaining the situation honestly, D’Angelo might also be doing Wallace a favor. D’Angelo has very little control in the crew, but he is savvy enough to recognize and take advantage of the opportunities he does have. So when Avon and Stringer pay a surprise visit to the pit (the less said about that slo-mo entrance, the better), D’Angelo shows how to walk the line like the most seasoned of tightrope walkers. He freely accepts both reward and congratulations for passing on the info about Brandon. But when Stringer asks about the snitch, D’Angelo says that the hoppers are all still broke. By giving the information about Brandon he enables himself to hold onto the information about Cass and Sterling, saving them a beating or worse.
There is another way to control things as well, and that is to educate. As D’Angelo explains the Sterling and Cass situation to Wallace, he is simultaneously instructing him on him how the game really works (no chess set needed, anymore). When Wallace asks why D’Angelo didn’t tell anybody about the thieving, he responds “if I tell them, what you think they gonna do? They’re gonna take a baseball bat to Sterling, probably one to Cassandra too. It’s too much drama.” He teaches Wallace a valuable lesson, one that applies directly to what happened the moment Wallace picked up that phone outside of the Greeks.
D’Angelo mentors Wallace through their cruel, merciless world. He teaches that we can’t control most things, so we have to take advantage of the few things we can control. This idea gets stated in a different context in the following episode in the form of the serenity prayer recited at the NA meeting that Bubbles and Johnny attend. “God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.”
I have read commentaries on The Wire (like this one by Chuck Klosterman), that suggest that, since the show inhabits the grey area between good and evil, Simon and Burns created a morally-relative universe. That means that the typical considerations of right and wrong don’t apply to a world like The Wire’s Baltimore, because the impersonal institutions render meaningless the individual’s moral choices and free will.
I believe that it is more complex than this. The Wire portrays a world where characters have extremely limited control over their actions, but those actions all have massive consequences as they ripple out through the interconnected worlds of Baltimore. Or, to put it in Kafka’s terminology, the wire will trip you up most of the time, so you need to try to traverse it on the rare occasions when the opportunity allows it.