Stephen King on ”The Wire” — The pop of king tells us why he’s entranced by the gritty HBO drama
In David Simon’s version of Dante’s Inferno, Hell is played by Baltimore and all seven of the deadly sins are doing just fine, thanks. Midlevel drug dealers welcome fall by giving their corner boys money for new clothes — a little perk to keep them happy and moving those spider-bags and red-tops. The bigger crooks give to the politicians to make sure the influence keeps flowing. The only difference is the amount changing hands. And Lester Freamon, a detective Sherlock Holmes might hail as a peer, has an aha moment while looking at an abandoned row house — one of thousands in the city’s decaying core — on a chilly winter afternoon. ”This is a tomb,” he says.
Welcome to Hell…and to the world of The Wire, season 4, bowing on HBO in September.
Lester’s right, by the way. There’s a body in the row house he’s looking at, and two dozen or so others. They are victims of a stealth gang war being waged by Avon Barksdale’s successor, the handsome, dead-eyed Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector). But it wasn’t Marlo who kept me riveted, or kept me plugging HBO’s semidefective preview discs into my DVD player with increasing dread and fascination; that honor belonged to Marlo’s hired hit team of Chris (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and Snoop (Felicia Pearson). The latter is perhaps the most terrifying female villain to ever appear in a television series. When you think of Chris and Snoop, think of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, only smart.
And with a nail gun.
The Wire is smart too, but never too smart for its own good. There’s enough going on about the decay of the urban environment to scare the living crap out of you, but no one climbs up on a soapbox. Not even Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen), the white man who would be mayor in a black city, does any preaching; he only runs, harder and faster, as he sees a chance of winning — slim, but real — appear late in the primary campaign.
Season 4 of The Wire is a dazzling three-ring circus of interwoven plot threads, and its take on America’s drug war makes Miami Vice look like a Saturday-morning cartoon, but what I kept coming back to was Detective Freamon looking at that boarded-up row house and saying, ”This is a tomb.” Simon and his gifted co-conspirators (they include novelists Richard Price, George Pelecanos, and Dennis Lehane) aren’t shy about extending the metaphor to all of Baltimore…and then suggesting you connect the dots to your own urban jungle.
Roland ”Prez” Pryzbylewski has quit Baltimore PD to become a middle-school math teacher, only to discover that in the age of No Child Left Behind, he’s working another part of the same cemetery. He scrapes the gum off the bottoms of desks, takes attendance, passes around out-of-date textbooks (while new computers gather dust in unopened boxes due to a bureaucratic snafu), and preps students to pass state tests. He finds himself still ”juking the stats” to please his superiors, only now in his grade book instead of his arrest reports. And cleaning up the blood when a disturbed child cuts another in class, disfiguring her badly. Prez gets at least some good news (because even in Hell, there’s good news): The kid who was cut tested negative for HIV. So no worries there, mate.
When this run of 13 episodes begins, the original wire — a listening post designed to target and build cases against drug barons like Marlo — has been taken down, mostly by that constant need to juke the numbers. But in the school where Prez is actually making some progress, another kind of wire pops up: a unique class for corner boys and girls, the Marlos of the future, run by another Baltimore PD burnout who veteran Wire watchers will recognize: Maj. Howard ”Bunny” Colvin, now retired. It’s a classroom where there’s some hope for change; it’s also a room where adults can look — and listen in — on a world that is otherwise closed to them.
In a normal TV series, this is where AU (Automatic Uplift) would kick in. Not in Simon’s Baltimore, where uplift is possible…but where viewers will also be shocked when one beloved character inadvertently feeds his friend a hot shot, killing him. Shocked, but not surprised. Because the world of The Wire is a tomb filled with the living dead. A few fight their way out, but not unless they can beat the streets, themselves, and the vast dead engine of the entrenched bureaucracy.
Even City Hall is a tomb, as Tommy Carcetti learns: ”You’re sitting eating s— all day long, day after day, year after year,” a former mayor tells him. For a politician in David Simon’s Baltimore, there’s only one thing worse than losing, and I probably don’t need to tell you what that is.
The Wire keeps getting better, and to my mind it has made the final jump from great TV to classic TV — put it right up there with The Prisoner and the first three seasons of The Sopranos. It’s the sort of dramatic cycle people will still be writing and thinking about 25 years from now, and given the current state of the world and the nation, that’s a good thing. ”There,” our grandchildren will say. ”It wasn’t all Simon Cowell.”
No. There was also Chris and Snoop. Their terrible nail gun. And the empty houses that have become tombs, standing as silent symbols for what has become of some of our inner cities. The Wire is a staggering achievement.