The Wire as Greek Epic

The Wire can be viewed as an epic poem that reveals the absence of justice in modern American political economy. The Wire is about two worlds: one ruled by Force and Might, the other ruled by Cunning Intelligence. Sometimes the two are in conflict, sometimes congruent, but both operate without Justice as an organizing principle.

The first great epics of the Western canon are the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, and via these works Homer is said to have been “the teacher of all Greeks”, who in turn are the founders of Western Civilization. Modern scholars have characterized the two works in this way: the Iliad is the Epic of Force or Might, (Greek word bié), while the Odyssey is the Epic of Cunning Intelligence (Greek word métis). Both epics take place in a moral ecosystem of the rule of Zeus, the Greek god of Justice (diké) and the god of kings.

The Wire articulates two worlds: a world ruled by Bié –the world of the streets and the drug dealers, and a world ruled by Métis –the world of bureaucracy and politics. This epic begins, as most do, in the middle of the action, after the Barksdale organization has won a war to dominate the drug trade in West Baltimore. It begins with a dead man, “Snot Boogie”.thumb_the_wire

Det. McNulty articulates the simple unfairness that a man christened Omar Isaiah Betts by his mother would be called “Snot Boogie” for the rest of his life because one day he had a cold. In epic poetry, the utterance of a name ensures fame throughout time, ensures immortality. Your name is your rep. Forever.

Snot Boogie’s friend tells McNulty that Boogie used to rob the dice game every time, get caught, get beat up, and that was that. But “the mother fucker didn’t have to put a cap in his ass, coulda just whooped him like we always do”. There is a sense of the excess of violence, of Bié, but it is conceded that Bié is the organizing principle nonetheless. The man with an unfair name would have received “a whooping, like always.”

In the world of the police, we see Métis applied to the manipulation of crime statistics with no relationship to reality. Police are concerned about pensions, promotions, and manipulated numbers to facilitate their advancement. Only accidentally does this system affect the world of crime. Métis is used to navigate bureaucracy, to avoid hassles as well as internal and external political fallout.

Interestingly, while in real life the police have a monopoly on legal violence, The Wire does not focus on the use of police violence, nor on the increased militarization of the police due to the war on drugs. As with the other modern bureaucracies in the series: the school system, the Baltimore Sun, and city hall, the police department is depicted as a milieu of Métis. For the real modern horrors are born in the bureaucracies, in the world of Métis, as CS Lewis wrote:

The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

We learn two things in season one: The first is that world of Bié has no sense of proportion with Snot Boogie, nor has it mercy when young Wallace is killed by his childhood friends. Secondly, we see the corrupting influence of the institutional “games” that the characters have committed to. In the world of Métis, the manipulation and lies build on themselves. Even for well-intentioned police, gaming the system with falsehoods leads to spiraling miscommunication and tragic mistakes. Internal systems meant to optimize external functioning become goals unto themselves: game the paperwork to avoid the hassles of serious work, instead of seeing valid paperwork as serving the goal of criminal justice (evidence chain of custody, witness statements, medical evidence, etc.).

On several occasions the two worlds meet beyond the drug and murder investigations themselves. In the final season, the world of Métis employs the money from the world of Bié in what Josef Schumpeter would call an act of the Capitalistic Creative Destruction: the “revitalization of the docks”. Crony Capitalism is not only Cunning, it is an unstoppable Force.

[… T]he capitalist process, in much the same way in which it destroyed the institutional framework of feudal society, also undermines its own. –Josef Schumpeter

The organic, ethnic Polish community that is already on its last legs will be wiped out by gentrification, outwitted by the Cunning class, out financed by Bié. Crony Capitalism is a destructive force, “creative destruction” without justice. The alienation of the ethnics from their work means alienation from their homes, here Bié and Métis join together to destroy Community.

In the world of Métis and Crony Capitalism Stringer Bell, the Barksdale organization’s COO, becomes deracinated, increasingly cut off from his roots and his people. Senator Davis rips Bell off, Métis defeats Bié, and because Bell is not exercising his Bié in any service of Justice, is not exercising his leadership in the service of his people from whom he is now alienated, his money is taken by those adept at the life of Métis and Bell’s life is taken by those adept at the use of Bié (Omar Little and Brother Marzoume), whom he in turn had tried to kill through Métis.

In a similar way, or possibly in the film negative version of Bell’s attempt to merge the worlds of Bié and Métis, Major Colvin legalizes drugs de facto in certain sections of his precinct. Drug violence virtually ceases and public health workers are able to bring in services. However, there is Truth and “What is Right” and there is the politics of the world of Métis. The inability of Colvin to communicate clearly, his need to use subversion, even in doing the most efficacious and well intentioned actions, leads to the implosion of the experiment, the destruction of careers, and, in the world of Bié, the emergence of “the spawn of the devil”, Marlo Stanfield.

Paralleling Stanfield’s rise to power is an exploration of the school system. Like the police, the schools are a bureaucracy, where internal systems such as standardized testing are gamed. Any higher teleology of education, which such things as testing might serve, are non-existent.

Aristotle notes in the Politics that, as opposed to animals, “humans master speech to disclose what is useful and what is harmful. And what is just and unjust.” In the world of Métis this is inverted, speech is used to dissemble and create ambiguity. At the intersection of the police and school bureaucracies lies the destruction of Randy Wagstaff’s life. His home is firebombed, his foster mother gravely injured, and he returns to the foster system to become a no-snitch thug.

The feedback loop of lies in the world of Métis comes to fruition in the final season via the schools and the police. Bureaucratic opacity in the school budget leads to police department cuts. McNulty fabricates a serial killer, which garners resources for the police which Freamon diverts to the Stanfield investigation and the unsolved murders in the abandoned homes. A Baltimore Sun reporter wins a Pulitzer based upon lies on top of McNulty’s lies and the editor who calls him on it is demoted. Greggs exposes McNulty’s lie and that in turn is ordered covered up by the mayor. Former cop Herc betrays the wire tap to his boss, Marlo’s lawyer, after he had stolen the number from the lawyer in the first place. Lies and cunning on top of lies and cunning.

As McNulty says to the Sun Reporter:

“You lying motherfucker, you’re as full of shit as I am. And you’ve got to live with it and play it out as far as it goes, right? Trapped in the same lie. Only difference is, I know why I did it. But fuck if I can figure out what it gets you in the end. But, hey, I’m not part of your tribe.”

It is a world without Justice, where Might makes Right on the street and cunning lies get you promoted until your pension. But there are hints that there could be a different world, that there could be another way for these worlds to interact.

In the Iliad and the Odyssey there is another organizing principle that anchors Bié and Métis, and that is Justice, Diké. Both epics take place in a moral ecosystem of the kingship of Zeus and the political kingship of Agamemnon. The Wire is a genus/species inversion of Homer’s works in that those with a proclivity to Justice are subservient to Bié or to Métis. It should be the other way around.

Agamemnon embodies a higher “Zeus” principle than either Bié or Métis, and that is Diké: that each man has his place, and in that place he can flourish and become a hero. While much of the Iliad is about coming to terms with Achilles and the role of Bié, it is also about Agamemnon coming to terms with his appropriate role as king, honored by Zeus.

In The Wire however, there is no mediating character to dispense Justice, even badly. There is only Bié and Métis. Several characters appear to have the potential to be just leaders in The Wire, but they are all undone and wrecked: McNulty, Frank Sobotka, Bunny Colvin, Cedric Daniels, Michael Lee and Omar Little.

The late philosopher Dr. Joseph Palmour described what happened to young men who had both empathetic hearts and strategic, big picture intelligence to be just leaders. He often found that they were emotionally destroyed in Middle or High School, their empathy seen as a weakness and so it was shut down.

“These young men become hired brains once their moral and emotional desire for justice is beaten down. Their empathy becomes too much to bear so they shut it down and live in their head.” –Dr Joseph Palmour

These men often go into work that they themselves describe as being an independent “hired brain”. They operate well intellectually but withdrawn from emotional attachment, both to the people within the organization, the organization itself, as well as the actual creative work of the organization.

From within the world of Bié, the two characters that seem to exhibit the most potential for just leadership are like these “independent brains”, except they become independent stick up men on the edge of The Game –Michael Lee and Omar Little. Both are smart and strategic, both question the parameters of “the Game”, both have a rough moral code. Neither is completely co-opted into “the Game”, though they operate in the milieu of Bié.

Somewhat between the two worlds, Frank Sobotka tries to safeguard the livelihood of his men and thereby their homes and the community. But he makes a deal with the devil, the criminal world of Bié, in order to have the money to play in the game of Métis and politics. In the end he is crushed by both.

In him we see true tragedy as classified by Aristotle: Sobotka mistakes friends for enemies and enemies for friends. We see the ruthlessness of Bié, its complete disregard for commoditized human life. We also see how the lies necessary to navigate the world of Métis spiral out of control. Or, as military theorist B. H. Liddell Hart wrote in The Strategy of Indirect Approach, black operations (by definition operations of métis) always get out of one’s control, as they do for Major Valchek against his co-ethnic.

Bunny Colvin has played his game well and is almost set to retire and move on to head up security at Johns Hopkins. But in the end, in his attempt to stop the violence of the drug trade by bypassing the system ruled by Métis, the system retaliates and crushes him. The peace and space that he had carved out in his fiefdom is lost because of the inability to be honest within the world of Métis.

Colvin’s protégé out of the West Baltimore precinct, Jimmy McNulty seems to have a sense of justice from the very first scene. A name has significance in telling us the true nature of a thing. It is unfair that Omar Isaiah Betts is called Snot Boogie. It ain’t right. As Det. ‘Bunk’ Moreland says to McNulty, “There you go. Givin’ a fuck when it ain’t your turn to give a fuck.” McNulty gives a fuck, which is not the same as a fine-tuned adherence to justice however, but injustice bothers him.

The actions of McNulty in season one set off a chain of events that allow others to find their true natures, to articulate their true callings, to try to apply Justice in their lives and work. McNulty is the prime mover who sets a tone and creates the space for others to do their work well. He empowers others and they in turn follow his lead. His agency on the other detectives is tellingly revealed in the very last episode when Bunk says the same words to Det. Deggs, “See now, there you go giving a fuck, when it’s not your turn to give a fuck.”

The most obvious characters who flourish after McNulty’s agency in their lives are Freamon and Daniels. Freamon is brought out from his exile investigating pawn fraud and his brilliance and passion come alive. Daniels sheds his go-along to get-along political maneuvering to stand up for what is right and just. In the end he returns the favor to McNulty by calling him out for going too far with his lies and manipulations. In the Iliad Hera similarly reminds Zeus that he too must obey the natural law and fate when he is tempted to rescue his son from death on the battle field.

But McNulty lacks balance and integrity to his life. While he may desire Justice and strive for it, he cannot square the circle of how to operate both in a just manner and in the world of Métis. As a “hired brain” he is a “natural police”, but he has a disordered moral and emotional life as a result. He has to drown himself in alcohol and sleep around.  This inability to be integrated leads to a complete moral dissolution of the man over the course of the story. He destroys his family and only finds a sort of peace with a new family when he shuts his brain down and becomes a simple beat cop detached from the bigger picture of justice for the people of Baltimore.

Daniels too is permanently affected by the series of events set in motion by McNulty. He and Deggs become the “external or antithetical necessity[i]” to the unbalanced McNulty, whose lies have gone too far. Daniels’ ex-wife tries to convince him to play ball politically in the world of Métis in order to become the Police Commissioner. She says, “The tree that doesn’t bend, breaks Cedric.” He responds, “Bend too far, you’re already broken.” In the end, he neither bends nor breaks, but he no longer has agency either.

There is no escaping Diké, once you set it in motion, as ultimately McNulty acknowledges in his final words to Deggs when she tells him at his “wake” that she exposed his lies to Daniels. McNulty’s response is one of justice: “Detective, if you think it needed doing, then I guess it did.” It was brave of her to come and admit it, but to do so was in line with what McNulty had started in the first place. He honored her bravery and devotion to truth at this moment.

Jimmy McNulty can only find integrity and peace by being just to himself and those he loves. There is no room for him in the world of Métis, in the res publica. All those who step out of line, either in the world of Bié or the world of Métis, and seek a different organizing principle are destroyed. Omar Little is killed, Michael Lee loses his family and becomes a lone criminal. Colvin is burned, Daniels is forced out. Sobotka knowingly goes to his death, unwilling to continue participation in injustice once the full scope of it is revealed to him.

In the world of Bié there is no Justice, there is no memory. In the Theogony, when Zeus impregnates Memory, the Muses (Learning and the Arts) are born. It is only when our memories are joined with the justice of proportion and natural law, the idea of things having their proper place, that we see patterns and can learn.

Before he is shot by Slim Charles, Cheese rants, “There ain’t no back in the day, there is just the Street and the Game and what happens here today.” There is no memory, no justice, and there is no learning, only an endless cycle of retributive violence and the exercise of Bié.

Homer is the teacher of the Greeks because he taught them that men of Bié and men of Métis will lead you to death. If a society wishes to undertake a democratic strategy for governance, it should first know whom not to elect.

No Justice, no Peace.

[i] “The Greek ananke or moira (fate) is in its normal form the internal balancing condition of life, it appears as external or antithetical necessity only after it has been violated as a condition of life, just as justice is the internal condition of the honest man, but the external antagonist of the criminal.” –Northrop Frye


3 thoughts on “The Wire as Greek Epic

  1. I’ve actually never seen “The Wire,” but I LOVED this post. I’ve despaired about the absence of justice in today’s society–yet just thinking about it in the frame of Greek tragedy and the need for the dike/Zeus force makes me assess a lot of my thinking about the problem in an entirely new light.

    1. Thanks Leslie that means a lot, especially coming from someone with so much constant, good, written output! I am working on something right now about how important I think Hera is in making justice possible. I think that Zeus/Justice is only possible with the complement of Hera, whom I imagine represents what I will call ‘governance’ -the internal controls (habits, customs, etc.) that make justice possible in everyday life… the son of Zeus Heracles/Hercules (his name means the Glory of Hera) has a big role to play… the recent movie most likely missed it but I want to see it to see if the might have stumbled upon it by accident. 😉

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