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 second half of season 2 took us in some interesting directions. We saw Frank’s crusade for the canal dredge, Nick’s desire to provide for his family, Ziggy’s quest for respect, and Stringer’s fight to survive in the drug world. Frank’s story really takes shape in episode seven “Backwash” when he attends a seminar on robotic dock technology and becomes enraged by the fact that these machines would make stevedores obsolete. This scene and others, most notably in episode eleven with the line “You know what the trouble is Brucey? We used to make shit in this country, build shit, now we just put our hands in the next guys pocket” really demonstrate what Frank wants, which we will address later. Stringer’s storyline is centered around his struggle to maintain the towers, as a result, he turns to Proposition Joe for good product. Ziggy’s storyline is all about respect, he doesn’t care about money, everything he does is to feel like he means something. No one gives him this respect which eventually leads him to murder. This season asks some really important questions, what are we willing to do to get what we want? and what are we willing to do to protect what we have?
Frank is the embodiment of these questions. We’ve seen throughout the season and particularly in the second half of this season what Frank is all about. Frank does not care about himself, all he cares about is the union and his family and we’ve seen that through the season. When he finds out that the members of the state legislature that he had bribed were backing out, he responded with “so what so I’m dirty, the grain pier still the grain pier right? They ain’t voting for me Brucey it ain’t about me”. Frank just wants the union to survive and will do whatever it takes to make that the case but this is not a selfish goal. This is why he’s so infuriated by the prospect of automation, he wants to keep everyone else’s jobs intact. This also relates to Stringer and his need to keep the towers up. They worked hard to get those and they’re not about to lose them. This causes Stringer to turn to his main rival as a source for product, he has to keep this up. Both of these characters are losing what they have due to circumstances beyond their control, and do anything and everything within their power to keep that from happening.
Season Two of The Wire directly addresses this disillusionment with the American Dream that we see in modern times where one wants to live a good life while also ensuring success for their loved ones. One key scene that reflected this is in Episode Seven where Frank talks with Mr. DiBiago about their children’s futures. Mr. DiBiago’s son goes to Princeton and will have unlimited possibilities once he graduates, while Frank’s son and nephew will be forced to work as stevedores for the rest of their lives. This reflects the growing trend among White Americans where many feel that their children will not have the opportunity for social mobility or even better lives. The best metaphor for this is when Ziggy asks Mr. Diz, the duck owner, why they don’t simply fly away. Since the ducks’ wings are clipped, they lack the ability to fly away. In a similar sense, throughout Season 2 and the entirety of The Wire, David Simon argues that the working class is like the ducks. Capitalist institutions and declining opportunities in work and education are keeping the working class in a subjugated state that prevents social mobility and forces them to remain in their social class for their entire lives. This mindstate has been shown to affect how people in this predicament behave and act. In Simon’s world, the American Dream that was so fabled by older generations is no longer accessible or even imaginable for new and future generations. For example, owning a home was once seen as just a way to provide a happy life for your family. However, we see through Nick’s dilemma that a home is not just a material possession but also an investment, which he hopes he can keep in his family for their sake. Unfortunately, we see how difficult it is for him to afford a home without resorting to selling drugs, which could be seen as an additional barrier for Nick to move to a higher socioeconomic status. Overall, David Simon’s portrayal of the American Dream throughout The Wire reflects on how the American Dream is becoming increasingly unattainable by the lower and middle classes due to increasing institutional constraints and their effects.