The last four episodes of The Wire have begun to shape the thematic narrative of this season to a greater extent. The media plays a really important role this season as it begs the question of what value media serves. In the sixth episode of this season “The Dickensian Aspect”, Gus makes the statement “If it bleeds it leads”. This is a common statement used when talking about the media and in many ways, it exemplifies the message of this season
“If it bleeds it leads” refers to sensationalism, stating that the media draws attention not towards that which is the most relevant but rather that which is the most exciting for the observer. Twenty-two dead bodies were found in the vacant housing of Baltimore and while it did draw some attention, it did not cause the Mayor to increase funding for the investigation. However, once McNulty doctored a serial killer case and leaked it to The Sun, drastic action was taken to solve the problem. Beyond that, Scott’s involvement in the case allowed him to portray himself as a hero on television and as a result gains acclaim. Scott begins to write in a hyperbolic manner and though Gus chastises his use of exaggerated language, the other editors opt to run the story as it is in order to sell more papers.
Sensationalism is very important to this season. Nearly every plot running through the show is directly related to this idea. In the most literal sense, it is manifested in the storyline of Scott, who is exaggerating and making up stories for the sake of his career and McNulty uses sensationalism to procure funding for the police. But this also takes place when looking at Carcetti, whose decisions are always based upon what will help his image, such as his decision to begin working from a homelessness base. This is important because it presents us with the idea of image and reputation. The Wire shows us the importance of images. Everything that is happening in the show is impacted by the image of the character.
Many critics of this argument state that sensationalism is often called out when it is unwarranted. They state that merely the use of sensational language does not necessarily entail sensationalism, as it does not mean it was written using doctored facts. Regardless of this, it is clear that Simon seeks to explore the nuances of sensationalism, and how it can lead to misconduct in the interest of personal gain.
The role of police officers is to prioritize, above all else, the public safety of the community in which they serve. However, at this point, it isn’t surprising that the law enforcement in The Wire is willing to turn the other cheek on a situation spiraling out of control for the sake of their image. Most of the time it’s all about the politics, and in this week’s episodes, we really have the chance to see police department corruption at work. Freamon discovers that Marlo is able to control the streets without producing bodies because he disposes of them in the abandoned homes. When Freamon informs Landsman on this phenomenon, he is quickly turned away because the department has already reached their murder threshold for the year. According to Colin Wood in Finding the Motivation to Mobilize “self-interested people would pass on such a proposition [to fight against corruption] unless pushed to extreme bounds of indignity or suffering.” If they were to surpass the limit, Jay’s job would be on the line and that is something that he is not willing to risk- not even for the citizens of Baltimore. In this regard, Jay has no code; he will not waver in his stance and it would take someone who outranks him to change his mind. This is exactly what happens, Freamon continues to move higher up until it reaches Mayor Carcetti, who orders for the department to begin looking for the bodies. In Freamon’s case though, he fights against the corruption of the police department simply because he is a good cop, he has a code. It is the constant power struggle between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” that makes The Wire so interesting.
In Laurie Calhoun’s The Problem of “Dirty Hands” and Leadership, she argues that “The problem of dirty hands refers to the alleged necessity of compromising or abandoning moral principle in order to play the role of government effectively.” Here she is saying that when one is in a position of power, they will inevitably come to the point where morality is abandoned for effective governing. We can even push this argument further and say that effective governing or leadership is only achieved if one were to abandon morality.
In this week’s episode, we see that there is a clear dichotomy between staying true to your morals or abandoning them in the name of power security. In episode 12 when Bodie is talking to McNulty he states, “This game is rigged man, we’re like some little bitches on a chess board… pawns.” Bodie is arguing that the Stanfield organization is breaking the rules of the game because they kill whoever they want JUST because they can. David Simon’s choice to let Bodie of all people say this is extremely significant. Throughout the entirety of the series, Bodie was seen as the cold-hearted character whose compatibility with the streets seems to be unrivaled. This becomes fact to viewers after his part he played in killing Wallace, who was symbolized as the remaining piece of the humanity of those around him. Bodie is angry at the fact that Marlo and his gang have no morals. The Barksdale Organization, Omar, and the entire co-op of drug organizations alike each have their code. For example, Omar doesn’t kill any innocents or kids, and everyone involved in “The Game” doesn’t shoot on Sundays. Marlo, however, is the show’s only outlier. He has no code to go by, which makes his organization so infamous and tainted that it makes a character like Bodie, who served as the epitome of the soldier, tremble and take lengths as far as snitching to bring the organization down. Not only this, but the fact that Bodie is checkmated by the Marlow organization only further proves the point that Marlow monopolizes the idea of what it’s like to have a heart with no remorse.
This week’s episodes, exhibiting the ideals of loyalty and betrayal, both serve as continuities in The Wires overarching theme of corruption within law enforcement and organized crime.
In the aftermath of Kima’s shooting we see that the only officers who are truly concerned with her wellbeing are those closest to her. We have seen the cliche story of the corrupt cop who let’s his desires in the moment destroy his judgement entirely. However, now we see another example of the struggles that are in place for the good cops on lower levels of hierarchy.
In the scene at the hospital, it is no longer about Kima and giving Barksdale maximum jail time. It is instead about how Commissioner Frazier can use this incident to make a public statement. Immediately after the shooting, the task force is ordered to use the evidence that they have to issue warrants and seize as much physical evidence as possible (drugs and money). Freeman tries to explain that this “Dope on the Table” strategy will hurt them in their grand plan and damage their entire operation. However, this is a political statement and it is no longer about the case itself.
In another matter of political pressure, Daniels is cornered by Burrell. He is encouraged to leave out important information in regards to the money because of how it may affect the politicians in the city.All of these issues are examples of the cracks in the hierarchy. The system is broken. Everyone is using the power that they have to their personal advantage and then expected to never “snitch” on others within. You are expected to support your colleagues because that is how it should be done. The cops on patrol abuse their power within the violence of their arrests and the commissioner abuses his power with his expectations of his Lieutenants.
McNulty addresses this issue. It rolls back around to the issues of insufficiently dedicated police officers. Everyone is more occupied with their next promotion than the lives of the people involved in their cases. In other words, as Lester Freeman stated, “You follow the drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But when you follow the money you don’t know where the fuck it’s going to take you.” Those occupied with their next promotion are too preoccupied with following the drugs to get drug busts, instead of following the money which would open up the opportunity to shine light on the roots of the drug problems in America.
There is direct parallelism in this example between Law Enforcement and the community within the Low Risers. In this city “the law enforcement acts as a criminal gang with legal guns and badges.” There is an atmosphere within both communities of self preservation. It is essential first to take care of yourself in whatever manner that entails. We see this directly through the killing of Wallace. Bodie is more concerned with his lateral promotion and less with his horizontal relationships. Bodie and Poot are Wallace’s closest friends so he could not even imagine that his life would be in danger with them. This made it transparent that in navigating “The Game” there is a thin line between companionship and occupational responsibilities. It is a job to them and the more you exhibit that you are willing to do, the better off you will be. To Bodie, this was his time to shine as “a smartass pawn”.
Just as Daniels is expected not to prosecute against the politicians, Wallace and Dee are expected to stand by Barksdale. Both systems are propelled by these ideas. The same aspects that keeps the drug business afloat Is what cripples law enforcement.
Overall, these episodes also show how intertangled the two communities are. As the drug business gets more sophisticated the corruption in the law enforcement follows. As we have seen, you cannot truly tackle one without taking down the other. This is why America has truly lost the War on Drugs. We attack the wrong subjects and continue to prosecute with the wrong motives. You need more than just the “drugs on the table”. You need the money trail and everything else that kept the operation afloat.
Welcome to the University of Richmond and the First Year Seminar on “Watching the Wire”. I’m one of your co-instructors, Andrea Y. Simpson, Associate Professor of Political Science. Erik Nielson, Associate Professor and Assistant Chair of Liberal Arts, is our guest co-instructor this year. I look forward to teaching it every year, and this year “The Wire” resonates with the state of our cities more than ever before. Be warned, future “Wireheads”–this is not a series about gangsters. It is without a doubt entertaining, but it is also a reflection, a contemplation, a protest, and a critique of mainstream views on urban crime, policing, politics, education, housing, and the economy. Strap yourselves in–prepare for what we hope will be a challenging, stimulating, and revelatory experience in media as a tool for social change.