If there’s a single theme that persists throughout all five seasons of The Wire, easily one of the best dramas of this decade and the last, it’s that the good guys and the bad guys are all playing the same game: The Game, which to nearly everyone in The Wire is synonymous with “life.” In this game, good guys and bad guys are flip sides of the same coin. Sometimes the good guys are bad guys, and sometimes the bad guys are good. The Wire doesn’t have a monopoly on this theme; hell, the central psychological draw of The Sopranos was the fact that despite the killing, adultery, etc., you, despite yourself, actually felt sympathy for Tony Soprano sometimes. But The Wire’s compelling twist has something The Sopranos, which focused on psychomachia and not The Game, hardly touched. The Wire takes it a step further: the good guys are complicit in keeping the bad guys around. Without the bad guys slinging on street corners in West Baltimore, you have no heroic police work. There’s a mostly tacit pact between good and evil in the world. At bottom, The Wire is about Faustian pacts. The Wire is about the deal. (Warning: Discussion of plot lines and the final episode ahead.)
Nowhere is the interdependence of good guys and bad guys more clear than in the third season. When Major Colvin commands the western district, he institutes a policy where drug dealing can exist on certain abandoned streets without interference by police, who are around only to make sure violence does not occur. He quietly institutes the policy without the consent of his superiors, who are more concerned with gaming the crime stats, as ordered by City Hall. Colvin’s intentions are to go back to the good old days when cops walked beats and knew the community members by name and their concerns. The citizens — as the civilians uninvolved in the drug trade are known — are mostly pleased with the results. The streets become cleaner, safer. Health workers are able to come into Hamsterdam, as the non-interference zone is called, and assist an otherwise hard to pin down section of the population. Colvin risked his career to change the game so that there aren’t two teams playing, the good guys and the bad. There’s only one.
Despite the positive effects of Colvin’s risky program, it eventually gets squashed. The police, unaccustomed to their new role as peacekeepers and community assistants and eager to return to headknocking, grow ever more bothered by the disruption in the game. Word leaks to the press, and soon the mayor knows about it. Although the mayor toys with the idea of letting it continue because of its success in dropping the crime rate, eventually he realizes the perception of the game continuing — cops putting drugs and guns on the table for photo-ops — is one on which his hopes for a second term rides. He cannot be seen as “weak on crime” in the city of Baltimore. The so-called good guys need bad guys to continue their appearance of goodness.
This all makes me think of Mikhail Bulgakov’s beautiful and colorful novel Master and Margarita, in which Bulgakov paints a sympathetic portrait of Pontius Pilate, retelling the betrayal of Jesus from his perspective. One effect of this is to make the reader consider the link between Jesus and Pontius Pilate and the necessity of their link in history. Without crucifixion, Jesus could not have been the savior. Jesus knew his debt to Judas and Pontius Pilate. The devil and the Lord are in it together. Without the devil, what is there to be saved from?
In the final episode, it comes together how the biggest deal of it all is made by Detective McNulty, Sun reporter Scott Templeton, and drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield’s lawyer, Maurice Levy. In the fifth season McNulty, seeking a way to up the overtime hours and resources for the police department, turns a few John Doe overdoses and natural causes into evidence for a fictional serial killer who targets the homeless. Scott Templeton fabricates stories and even victims in order to get the big scoop, fanning the flames of the fire McNulty started. Eventually, all the good guys (including the police department, the DA’s office, and City Hall) are in on the lie for their own self-interested reasons. In the final episode, 90 minutes long, the heretofore eternal balance of the game appears unmaintainable. It looks like the the series will end with either the good guys (McNulty, the police department, Mayor Carcetti) going down in flames, bad publicity, and possibly jail time for the lie, which has grown into a web of lies and the bad guys escaping unscathed; or else the BPD and City Hall will put the entire drug network behind bars, including the network of unscrupulous lawyers, developers, and politicians that enable them. The resolution is a return to equilibrium: a deal is made to save nearly everyone involved. The deal sullies everyone involved. But that’s what a deal is in The Wire. Everyone, even the most idealistic members of the good guys and bad guys alike, are forced by pragmatism to compromise. Mayor Carcetti, who had given so much hope to Baltimore citizens and viewers by promising “a new day in Baltimore,” is finally revealed as the status quo, sacrificing interests of the city for his political career.
Major Colvin stands as the Christ figure in the five-season arc of The Wire — not McNulty, as one would be tempted to believe in parts of the first four seasons. (McNulty is most aptly a tragically flawed hero.) Colvin is the only person who refuses to cut a deal. Cutty comes close to Colvin’s cleanliness via his transformation from dealer to boxing coach for hood kids. Too bad Season Five didn’t give him more spotlight and more of a role to play. He coulda been a contender.
Sometime during my childhood Sunday school lessons, the problem of evil in the world was explained to me as a necessary device devised by God, who needed a way to sort out who deserves to get into heaven. But if God already knows everything, I asked, why does he have to put everyone through this? Because He wants each of us to know it as well, the response came. He wants us to see we have choices and we can decide whether we want to be bad or good.
Perhaps it comes down what side we all should be on: the good or the bad. But that isn’t enough, to be on one side if you are constantly compromising the goodness of your position with deals. Maybe it is about how we will always have the good and the bad as long as we insist this game is played with different teams, as long as politicians focus on political ambition instead of the care of the city; as long as police departments focus on stats, or policemen think of their careers first; as long as reporters focus on prizes and not stories; as long as the educational system teaches tests and not students; as long as everyone everywhere is ambitious instead of just; and as along as everyone compromises their ideals for the sake of deals. To this litany of idealism, which might be something spouted by Carcetti on the stump, most of the characters in The Wire respond with the retort, “Yeah, but if I don’t make the deal, the next guy will.” Without hitting you over the head with idealism, The Wire endorses Colvin and his views as much as the realistic and not-preachy series allows. The pragmatic among us and in the show would argue that Colvin never changed anything in Baltimore. But he did change the life of Namond Brice, the troubled student he and his wife adopt, and that’s more than Carcetti and most others have to show for all their deals. In The Wire’s Baltimore, The Game never changes, but the lives of a few individuals do.