David Simon says The Wire is “political.” Do you agree?

I agree with this statement in every single way.  Even upon watching the entire series a few years ago, the politics of every group of characters stuck out at me like a sore thumb.  Obviously, politics completely defines the inner-workings of the Baltimore police command within the series.  McNulty, Greggs, and Lester have to respect their chain of command and cater to what Daniels orders (despite the fact that McNulty often ignores the hierarchy of power), just like Bodie and Poot have to follow the exact orders of D’Angelo Barksdale, who follows Stringer Bell, who in a way follows Avon Barksdale.  Believe it or not, even the gangsters follow a certain law of politics and chain of command.  However, what struck me as perhaps the most political characteristic of the gangsters’ daily dealings was the way in which appearance had such an effect on their decisions.  For instance, when Marlo’s crew begins to steal Avon’s corners and take out some of his men in Season 3, Avon’s primary concern is not appearing weak in the face of his enemies as well as on the street.  This is political in its very nature.  Furthermore, it is fact that political campaigns spend most of their time protecting secrets and information that would cause their candidate to appear weak, inferior, and unfit for office.  Just as Tommy Carcetti makes strategic moves in order to pit himself against the multiple black candidates and make himself appear as worthy of the mayor seat, so too do Avon and Marlo conduct their business in order to make clear who really runs the street, and who maintains ultimate authority and power.

The Merriam Webster dicitonary offers multiple definitions for the term “politics”, many of which align so closely with the nature of the characters within The Wire.  For instance, one definition states that politics is: “political affairs or business; especially : competition between competing interest groups or individuals for power and leadership (as in a government)” (Merriam-webster.com).  While the gangsters in the series are not directly involved in government (aside from Stringer Bell in the 3rd season), they can easily be seen as individuals competing for power and leadership.  In perhaps an even more appropriate definition, politics is also defined as: “the total complex of relations between people living in society” (Merriam-webster.com). This is exactly what The Wire sets out to depict even from the beginning of the series.  In Season 1, episode 1, we are introduced to over 25 characters both on the street and behind the curtain of the police hierarchy and governmental offices in the city of Baltimore.  What is even more amazing about the series and how it is almost completely defined by this trope of “politics” is the way in which both environments often cross paths and work together in some instances to make the relations between people living in Baltimore even more complex, dramatic, and totally involved.   Even early on in the series, we see the way in which Clay Davis practices dirty politics, often aligning himself with the gangster world in an effort to dominate politically and secure an immense profit for himself.  Similarly, we see Tommy Carcetti manipulate Burrel in an attempt to further his campaign, and we see the political motivations that factor into Daniels’ complex relationship with his wife.  In almost every scenario of the show, politics rears its ugly head.  From time to time there are characters who simply ignore the political aspect of the police and street realms, but they are few and far between, and often face negative consequences in defying such an ancient code of municipal business.  For example, Bunny Colvin defies the norms of his position and purposely braves possibilities of being blacklisted within his command in order to make a real change on the streets, and actually single-handedly decreases the stats for his district.  Similarly, McNulty is seen throughout the series to go behind the backs of his superiors, even creating an elaborate lie in the 5th season in order to make a real, tangible difference as coincides with his case, and the state of crime in Baltimore in general.  However, as we see time and time again within the series, these decisions lead to negative consequences and severe punishment, making clear the dominant role of the overwhelmingly powerful upper hand of politics over every one of the show’s characters.

(A wonderful scene from Season 3 in which Carcetti calls out the political incentives behind Burell and Rawls’ castigation of Bunny Colvin.  Meanwhile, Carcetti’s speech itself is a political move in its very nature… EVERYTHING in The Wire is political!)

Bunny Colvin's "Hamsterdam" initiative is one of the few plot-lines throughout the Wire's that is seemingly unmotivated by politics. However, it ends up causing intense political strife for the higher ranking officials above Colvin, thus reminding the viewer that no decision is made in this series without some hint of politics at its very core.

As Christopher Wilson explains, David Simon’s book and series “turns out to be a labor-centered account, focusing on the tension between the underpaid, overworked, but dedicated calling of the detective and politicized department that values the quantity of cases over the quality of work” (Wilson, 157).  This tension between the quality of work and quantity of cases  is perhaps the most poignant characteristic of the intense political nature of the series. However,  perhaps the most crucial way in which The Wire remains political in each of its episodes relates back to this ominous and looming conflict between the murder police and the higher ups.  As Wilson explains, The Wire is labor-centered in every way.  As anyone who has ever worked a job knows, labor is never ever void of politics.  Chains of pay, command, and reputation are seen throughout the series’ five seasons to completely dominate over real strides in effective police work.   However, as George Lipsitz explains, it is not just the cops that are caught up in bureaucratic nightmares:  “It is not just the cops and the criminals who are trapped in The Wire. Every significant institution in the city has its own form of corruption that contributes to Baltimore’s urban nightmare. The same kinds of conundrums that confront police officers and drug dealers vex union officials and business executives, elected officials and their appointees, teacher and journalists.  Institutional pressures inside bureaucracies encourage people to prefer the appearance of solving problems to actually solving them” (Lipsitz, 98).  This emphasis on “appearance” is what is key in analyzing the political nature of the series in general.  Politics is so intertwined with appearance in every circumstance that it pervades.  Thus, the plethora of scenarios and characters within the series inevitably fall prey to the heavy hand of politics given the fact that almost everyone within the series- drug dealers, gangsters, and politicians included, are just trying to maintain their appearance of power, whether it be genuine or not.  The Wire is political almost down to every shot, and that is what makes the show so compelling.  Real life is political, police work is political, and David Simon makes no attempt to cover that unfortunate truth up with smoke and mirrors.

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