The Wire: Printing the Legend of the Western, Part 1

by zunguzungu

Basically, from now until I finish this paper, this blog is going to be mighty heavy on The Wire and the “Postcolonial Western.” For those of you who aren’t into that, je regrets sana mucho. For the other two of you — and you know who you are — enjoy.

At the beginning of season five, almost the very beginning, there’s a moment where McNulty and some new guy who I never got interested in are on the roof, surveying Marlo. They can see him clearly. They watch every step he takes, and they know where he’s going to go. If, like me, you’re re-watching seasons one and five at the same time, you’ll notice a sharp contrast: while the major problem with Barksdale’s crew was the fact that they were essentially in unserveillable space (eschewing cell phones and so forth), Marlo manages to do his business right out in the open. Avon Barksdale beings season one in a heart of darkness; Marlo begins season five in the open, watching his watchers. That seems like a good way to characterize the difference in how the two seasons conceptualize the problem of space and surveillance: while Avon Barksdale exists in a “traditional” conceptualization of the inner city (an off-the-reservation space defined by the difficulty the central authority has in penetrating or incorporating it), Marlo makes himself seen because there’s nothing to be seen. Season one begins with the work that McNulty and Bunk can do to peel D off from the Barksdales, but season five attacks a different kind of problem: what can they do with someone for whom knowledge gives you no advantage? About whom there is nothing to know? Thus, both his quasi-aesceticism and his amoral approach to corporate entities: more than any other character, he succeeds because he comes closest to the capitalist ideal of existing within institutional frameworks whose limitations only affect others, ruling structures whose rules only he can ignore.

It’s interesting to think about how much has changed in the interim between seasons one and five; for one thing, season five is a narrative that exists within a history. Not only does the title sequence flip us through a series of “dead soldiers” before showing a vial get crushed under someone’s heel, the characters themselves are freighted with a certain amount of baggage. We see Bubbles spend a lot of time alone, and it’s a powerful thing to do with the character because of all the people who are absent from his life (and an interesting contrast with someone like Omar, whose lovers are essentially faceless and replaceable, more on that later). The story of Michael, Dook, and Bug, too, can only work because of where they’ve been, and how they’ve gotten here. Much is unsaid. And in some ways, it shows season one for the prologue that it couldn’t help but be: McNulty, our trickster figure, can only drive the story along because there isn’t much of a story going on already.

By season five, however, McNulty, too, has a history, and the uninteresting guy on the roof with him has even heard some of it. And in this exchange, we learn something of how McNulty’s history in “the Western,” Baltimore’s Western police district (corresponding with but definitely not identical to Baltimore’s “West Side”) has become legend:

Uninteresting Guy: Hey, I heard a story about you when I was back in the Western.

McNulty: It’s not true.

Uninteresting Guy: You haven’t heard it, yet.

McNulty: Whatever it is, it’s not true.

Uninteresting Guy: [story about McNulty with a prostitute from season two which, interestingly, atually is true]

McNulty: You believe everything you read?

This sets up the entire season, naturally, but it’s also, as I’ve bludgeoned you over the head in indicating, a riff on John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, one of those movies that’s such an ur-Western that a great many movie critics have forgotten it came pretty much at the retrospective end (rather than the beginning) of the genre:

Ransom Stoddard: “You’re not going to use the story?”

Reporter: “No, sir. As our late and great editor, Dutton Peabody, used to say: “It ain’t news. This is the West! When the legend becomes a fact, print the legend.”