How The Wire Uses Character Moments to Convey Its Themes


In Season 5 of The Wire, Gus, a newspaper
editor says this. This is an ethos that The Wire takes to heart
and uses to develop it’s themes and ideas. As I laid out in part 1 of this series on
The Wire, show creators David Simon and Ed Burns, had intentions for the show that went
far beyond creating entertainment. They were interested in “what feels true”
and they used moments to examine and develop their themes. In this video I’m going to show how the
wire uses narrative structure, and the juxtaposition and relationship of scenes and characters
to illustrate ideas. To do this, I’ll have to spoil aspects of
the show. If you haven’t seen the show yet, and you’d
like a spoiler free overview of why it’s great, make sure to watch part one in this
series. All in the Game: The Wire’s Message The Wire deals with many issues, but it’s
primary focus is illustrating the city of Baltimore by showing its various institutions,
and the individuals that make up those institutions. The show portrays how economic, political
and individual motivations affect how institutions operate. Key to the story is how these motivations
keep the institutions in a cycle of failure, and make it difficult for individuals to reform. But how do you lay these ideas out on film? How do you portray them without beating your
audience over the head with preachy, complicated exposition? One way is to use the technique that Gus describes. You show individual moments, and use the relationship
between moments in different character’s lives to infer certain ideas. Here’s an example, early in season 2 there
are two scenes that mirror each other visually and in content. Stinger Bell and Avon Barksdale communicate
through the chainlink fence of a prison. Daniels and McNulty communicate through the
chainlink of the evidence room. The conversations in the two scenes are different
in how the relate to the story, but It illustrates the dysfunction of the police department,
who is punishing the officers that successfully arrested Avon Barksdale. None of this is in exposition. The Wire doesn’t tell you these two institutions
are similar, it just lets you see that they are. The idea is simply established through context
and the visual of the two chain link fences. Through these kinds of associations the show
creates the City of Baltimore as a character. Each institution and character touches every
other in some way. Shifting an aspect of one, affects the others,
the failure of one, makes the success of another less likely. Corner kids will take money that’s being
given away, just like Clay Davis Clay davis is told he shouldn’t flip and
needs to carry the charge against him, just like Deangelo is told the same thing. Deangelo is scolded for being unloyal to his
family, just like Carver is scolded for being unloyal to his police unit. Carver is also scolded for going outside the
chain of command, while Carcetti later thanks Daniels for doing the same thing. Carcetti is trying to do politics differently
but struggles against the cons of Clay Davis, just like Stringer Bell does when trying to
reform his drug empire. Stringer Bell is punished by his institution
for that very attempt to reform, just like Bunny Colvin for his attempt to reform. Bunny Colvin reaches for a hairbrained illegal
scheme to try to force reform when all else fails, which is mirrored by McNulty’s hairbrained
illegals scheme to inspire change in season 5. McNulty’s actions in season 5 lead to him
losing what he loves, Police work, just like Marlow’s mistakes lead to him losing what
he loves, his reputation. Even though Marlow tries to reform, he’s
drawn back to the streets, Just like Avon Barksdale was after an attempt to reform. Avon Barksdale is more interested in sending
a message than in effectiveness, just like Police Commissioner Burrell. This is just a fraction of the ways that characters
and moments are interconnected on The Wire. Doing this provides some of the context necessary
to seriously examine the issues. Separate individuals are also used to tell
aspects of a broader more general story. A great example of this is Deangelo and Denis
Cutty. Deangelo is on a path to reform. But he’s killed before he has time to complete
this arc. Killing off Deangelo is necessary to illustrate
the forces that keep reform from happening. But what if he had made it out of prison alive. What would that have looked like? The Wire provides us with Denis Cutty. Who illustrates what Deangelo’s path might
have looked like had he lived. There’s an amazing amount of nuance that’s
available with this type of storytelling. It’s one of the ways The Wire balances precariously
on the edge of cynicism and hope. Seeing Deangelo die is heartbreaking. Getting to see Cutty successfully reform provides
a ray of hope. But even then, the struggles of reforming
are made very clear. This technique of relating characters allows
the show to cover much more ground and give far more context than it would normally be
able to in only five linear seasons. Another example of this are characters Jimmy
McNulty and Kima Greggs. We meet McNulty in season 1 as a talented
but dysfunctional detective. He has a drinking problem, has trouble keeping
relationships together, and is jaded by his career. Kima’s arc over the entire show, helps to
illustrate how Jimmy ended up how he was in Season 1. By doing this The Wire tells the individual
stories of Jimmy McNulty and Kima Greggs, but it’s also telling the broader story
of the “Jaded, dysfunctional detective.” It tells the individual story of Deangelo
Barksdale and Denis Cutty, but the broader story of “reformed gangster.” It tells the individual story of Micheal and
Omar Little, but the broader story of “stickup man” Ultimately the story of the kids and seasons
4 and 5 are the largest piece of this inter-character narrative. By showing each kid’s struggles and what
leads them to their final destinations, we see how characters like Omar, Bubbles and
Bunny Colvin might have come to be. It allows us to connect the failure of the
school system to the dysfunction of the institutions in season 1-3. But the show isn’t so deterministic as to
say that the individual adhering to the broader story is inevitable. Through great effort, some individuals can
break out of the cycle and behave differently. Unfortunately though, it often takes great
trauma to inspire an individual to reform. This is illustrated in Season 4 through Bubbles
and Nehman. Two characters that successfully reform. Their reform is inspired by painful events. It’s the Wire’s call for individual reform,
but also an insinuation that, similarly true reform for institutions may only come through
trauma to the institution. And understanding this broader narrative about
institutions helps us understand why a character like Omar is so compelling in the show. In a world where so many characters are bound
or hobbled by the failing institutions around them, a true rogue, a lone rebel, is someone
we can root for. But all this is left for the audience to extrapolate
for themselves from individual moments, which keeps the show from feeling like it’s shoving
a message down your throat. There are layers to unravel, and depths to
examine and interpret. The show allows you to use your worldview
to see the issues it’s laying out, even as it might challenge your own assumptions
and worldview, and present its own. In the final part of this Series I’ll be
examining more layers of the onion, and showing why each season of the wire is important to the story.

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Reader Comments

  1. blagovest doganov

    You know, after many times I have watched the show, I still learn more about it by talking to people and watching these videos. It both warms my heart that after 10 years, people seem to still be intersted, and saddens me that work of cinema such as the wire hasn't been made ever since. It's a perfect storm of characters, events and writers.
    Many cinema authors today seem to be fixed and focued on the themes themselfs without adding enough substance to the actual story.
    However I must strongly disagree with the sentiment that the end result of The Wire isn't entertainment. I mean, sure, the writers wanted to make a political and thought-provoking peice of art, which it is, however I must say that all the themes, the character drama, the political messages (which as you said aren't propagandistic), the way you could view the show from a collectivist point of view as well as an individualistic point of view, the acting, the writing, the world building, the realism as well as the suspence and many, many other elements of the show all add to the overall entertainment factor of the actual content on display. I say this, because, just because something requires attention of the viewer, and just because something is complex, that doesn't mean it isn't entertaining. I would argue the opposite, and I wish more screen writes attempted to replicate The Wire's style of writing.
    Although, frist time I watched the wire, I was about 14, didn't understand english so well, couldn't understand most of what was happening, I still felt deeply invovled in the characters, because they ware so relatable and humanistic.
    Don't mistake my comment for dislike, I love your videos man, and I hope you make more videos of The Wire, you are a true homie!

  2. beanie0112

    Yeah, videos like this just confirm my sentiment that The Wire is the greatest television show ever.
    The Sopranos is great, but it is not The Wire.

  3. Devon Michael

    Another brilliant video essay from you Tom, can I call you Tom? Anyway, great stuff. I always get excited when I see an upload from you. You've done a great job of putting into words just how real and straightforward The Wire is, while at the same time highlighting it's humbleness and the intricacies of Simon and Burn's storytelling.

  4. dakritic

    So you praise the show for using moments to signify the strength of the characters and then you turn around and edit out their words because they curse? Talk about irony.

  5. Isaak Allen

    I like how the fall of the towers and the dust billowing represents the chaos and violence that Marlo's rise to power will bring. Also as an aside I personally find the best single season character arc to be Frank Sobatka. He was just so flawed and deeply complex that I feel he is the best character developed over only one season.

  6. Stevie Wonder Stan

    Stringer wasn't "punished" for trying to reform his drug empire rlly he got shot bc he was being a snake & he made formidable enemies.

  7. Frank Castle

    David Benioff: I know how to write a show…

    David Simon and David Chase: 😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂

  8. Johnathon Haney

    While people love boosting Breaking Bad these days (and it certainly has its merits, though it never connected to me), The Wire remains more rooted, thoughtful and cutting. It offers truly grey characters, unsettling similarities between both sides of the law and hard questions about all institutions that are failed by pat and easy answers. In too many ways, it remains relevant to our times.

  9. blamous

    dude I really appreciate your work here. keep it going. I love this show and feel everything you are connecting but I'm not of the mind to make those connections in the moment. very good stuff man.

  10. Louie Lurati

    I just finished watching The Wire last week. I am so happy I finally started watching it this year. This video has added to my understanding of this series. Great job!

  11. Appleby’s Travel videos

    Just got done watching and As someone who lives in a Baltimore suburb and grew up in Maryland and worked in Baltimore city this show is the most accurate portrayal of what Baltimore is like. But the funniest thing about this show is that we are in 2019 and the same shit that happened in this show are still going on today in Baltimore city. Dirty cops, corrupt politicians, murders everyday, it’s crazy realistic. As someone who lives in Howard county when they said the KKK live in Howard county, I’m sorry I had to pause it and laughed out loud (literally) for 5 mins. 😂😂😂😂

  12. Nideen

    Great analysis i'd really love to see you do this kind of video on The Sopranos after you wrap up The Wire both of the shows deserve a closer inspection even years after their conclusion.

  13. Al Simmons

    It's funny, cause right now i'm currently watching Oz & a huge chunk of the cast is up there too… Seeing Daniels, Herc & Carver play as prisoners, Avon as a corrections officer & Lester Freeman as a Muslim just shows how versatile these actors are… "The Corner" is another show, people should check out… Seeing Prop Joe working at Footlocker, was weird lol…

  14. deviouswhales

    You put things I've always thought about The Wire into words so well, and you point out things I've never consciously noticed before, even though I've lost count of how many times I've watched this show through. Thank you so much for making these videos, they're fantastic.

  15. YEE CHRAVIS

    While I've seen a lot of breakdowns, and this is the most obvious that the wire portrays, is the good guys sometimes come off as the bag guys, and the bag guys come off as the good guys. The quote unquote bad guys, are just trying to make ends meet as they have fallen victim to their surroundings; while the good guys have to do bad and unsavory things to make ends meet, the "good guys" are human as well, and could have just as easily been part of the streets. Those directors show us constantly how close the two organizations are through character mirroring.

    Job well done sir, i could tell you had a lot of fun making this, i would LOVE to see the same (kinda) content of the Sopranos. 🙏👍🤜🤛

  16. Young Frantz

    Wow man, you're really showing me an entire different perspective on this show. I really didn't catch all these mirror scenes (ex. Davis and Corner Boys taking money if he's giving it away")…I have to watch the Wire again

  17. Supreme H

    Best written show , period….If you know what great writing is. What this video is saying is this, "Who is your favorite character in the series?" If you are able to name a certain person than you don't get it. You see each character in the series has had their own individual moment as described. You get to see how that person is as if they were real. In a sense these people are stars on the show in their own right because there is no focus on just ONE individual but a dozen or so. Ive never watched a show where I could name the entire cast of a dozen people or more…MArlo, Clay Davis, Omar, Slim, Kevin, Snoop, Chis,Bunny, Lex, Springer, etc etc Get it?? What other show can you watch and fall in love with the entire show???

  18. MatthewB

    Great vid and great analysis. The only hang up I have is I don't think characterizing Avon as "trying to reform" at 5:19 is entirely accurate. The reform was kind of thrust upon him by Stringer after Avon got out, and Avon really only seemed to care about his corners and gangsta shit

  19. frankzeppelin

    Great job for the video so I'm reluctant to even say it, but please don't use "infer" for "imply" (2:03). I'm not usually so touchy about language, but to me misusing "infer" is the verbal equivalent of watching someone hold a tool from the wrong end. "Implication" is sending subtle message, "inference" is reading a subtle message. That's the one word my 9th grade English teacher would always call us out on.

    To tie it in with the Wire, we should say that buildings get evacuated, not people. At least not without a mess. 🙂 And yes, I subbed for this video.

  20. King Petty

    The theme of the show is simple… there's no reform… it's the game… whenever you try to change the game you get played and someone else hop in… that's life.. same ole stories, different characters.. but same ole shit

  21. Sean Beads

    You're fucking brilliant man. I love these breakdowns and just finished watching The Wire for the fourth time. You still mention stuff I hadn't figured out.
    Please do one of The Sopranos afterwards. It's not quite The Wire, but the second best thang.

  22. Brian Valencia

    All around on of HBO's BEST series EVER from beginning to end, especially with a perfectly-timed ending that was SHOCKING and UNEXPECTED but done WELL.

  23. Joshua Morriston

    This was all quite compelling. Good call about how presenting moments makes it compelling and lets the stories themselves yield the insight about how the world works – rather than trying to jam a message down our throats. Interestingly, this meta-narrative seems to do it as well to an extent, since the narrative isn't really pushing us to think differently about the Wire so much as giving a voice to what it let us feel on our own. I had made the connection between Bubbles and Dookie, as well as Michael and Omar, but the parallel between Namond and Bunny Colvin slipped through. I had been looking for a connection between Namond and Bunk, because Omar and Bunk had been friends, just like Namond and Michael were friends, but I'll have to contemplate this other possibility for a bit and see where I land.

  24. Jordan St. Julien

    Greatest Show Ever. And it’s for reason like you’ve been stating. Please make as many videos dissecting this work of art. Your work isn’t going unheard.

  25. nevermindshort3

    The analysis is really bad, sorry. It starts out well with Gus telling the reporter to tell a story through what feels true, but after that comes a lot of very simple and overanalyzed connections which simply don't hold imo.

  26. Sidd Sen

    Relishing these short but immaculately crafted analysis videos.

    Glad that the best television series attracts the very best of what this platform has to offer.

  27. Emran Daas

    I never feel bored watching this show. Whenever I feel not in the mood to watch new shows I always put the wire on because the story it tells is so vivid and realistic you don't feel it will ever get old.

  28. Drty _ALGreen

    Bunny is right and would bring immense positive change to the US. The characters were so great I felt so many emotions with them all. Dookie's final scene breaks my heart every time like Cutty's/Namon's give me hope every time.

  29. Drty _ALGreen

    The only continuity problem from the show is Nico showing up to protest Carcetti. Nico is supposed to be in WitSec, why is showing up at the place his enemies know him from and making a scene?

  30. SLR Edition

    WOW! This blew my mind! I’ve watched The Wire 3 times now & I’m 2 episodes from the finale on Sky Atlantic. I never saw the correlation between Burrell & Barksdale, or Deangelo & Cutty or any of the others! This is amazing man please part 3/4/5 and more 👏🏼👏🏼😉

  31. illiterate thug

    Thomas you are to Youtube analysis videos what The Wire is to television.

    Another amazing and insightful video, keep 'em coming 🙂

  32. Janani Amalraj

    The ugly truth behind institutions set up to protect and reform the society. global relevance… the rawness of the show is unmatched…. one of a kind..

  33. Alex W

    Honestly when I look back on it… I have to say I’m my mind and I appreciate people may disagree but the wire should be hauled before sopranos as the best show.

    I get the sopranos did the character development/analysis show first… But I genuinely can’t recall a show before the wire that was as intricate and made the assumption of the intelligence of the viewer as heavily as the wire.

    I mean even if you watched every episode of the wire when it aired you won’t truly appreciate the details in the writing, the set ups, politics and how overall the system is working for and against everyone within the show.

    It really is a masterpiece in my mind regardless of what people say of season 5.

  34. Daniel Martinez

    There aren't enough channels that can dissect a piece of art like this one does. I've recently skimmed through your channel and If I hadn't subscribed already, this video would have gotten to.

  35. 48162342

    I was telling this girl about how good this show is and she said she couldn't stay awake while watching. She also watches keeping up with the Kardashits and bachelor. Smh had to never see her again.

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