The German philosopher G W F Hegel described tragedy as a conflict, not a conflict between right and wrong, but a conflict between two rights. This conflict arises out of a flawed consciousness of the protagonist who claims a justifiable position but fails to recognise the validity and the unavoidable truth of the other position.
How is this conflict resolved? Only through the death of the protagonist, Hegel argued.
The Wire, widely acclaimed as the greatest television series ever made, went beyond the Hegelian concept of tragedy. As argued eloquently by Avram Blaker, the most tragic ending in The Wire isn’t when people die; it’s when they go on living in a deteriorating society. The tragic conclusion isn’t the death of the hero; it’s the re-establishment of the power structures and the institutional status quo that constrain the shape of individual lives.
The show’s central premise is that the main ambition of post-modern institutions, which ostensibly exist to champion individual rights and maintain law and order, is self-perpetuation, maintaining status quo. This is the main reason behind all problems that plague our societies.
The Wire aired its last episode exactly 10 years ago. However, the past decade has done nothing to temper the show’s relevance. The Wire was, and still is, a different kind of a television show. It transposed the idea of the Greek tragedy by using post-modern institutions in place of the Greek gods. Or as David Simon, the show’s creator, once put it, “instead of the gods being petulant and jealous Olympians hurling lightning bolts down at our protagonists, it’s the post-modern institutions that are the gods.” These institutions are our political, economic and social constructs.
On the surface a police procedural, The Wire has been fittingly described as a portrait of “the social, political, and economic life of an urban city with the scope, observational precision, and moral vision of great literature.” Each of the five seasons of the show peels a new layer away, revealing the interconnected nature of our institutions, and how we live together as a society.
The first season focuses on the war on drugs, it follows a police unit’s drug investigation, from the points of view of both the drug dealers and the police. This investigation is depicted as an ill-conceived exercise whose outcome is the mass jailing of non-violent offenders.
Season Two examines the disappearance of jobs and the devaluation of labour, whereas Season Three dissects the shady world of city politics.
Season Four, easily the strongest chapter of the entire series, points its lens at the crumbling education system by following the lives of four middle-school children in Baltimore, and their efforts to escape the drug corners. The final season focuses on the news media, examining journalistic integrity and media sensationalism through The Baltimore Sun, warning us about “fake news” back in 2008.
All these institutions and social forces aggravate inequality. Through its meticulous exploration of drug gangs, the police,
politicians, unions, public schools and the media, The Wire shows us that individuals don’t determine their own fates so much as the institutions they belong to. Bad things happen to characters rarely because of malevolence, but because the various institutions and their guardians are working to maintain the status quo.
Despite the show championing such a strong point of view, few watched it when it aired. Award voters mostly ignored it. The Wire faced cancellation almost annually.
However, the power of the show’s commentary has only intensified over the last 10 years, and it informs debates around drug policy, policing and race relations in the US today. Yale and Harvard are among the many universities that have featured conferences or classes that examine the show’s enduring impact. In 2015, the show was championed by Barack Obama as “one of the greatest, not just television shows, but pieces of art, in the last couple of decades”.
The show may take place in Baltimore, but the issues it tackles are being confronted in our cities everyday. India and its interconnected network of paralysed institutions are not dissimilar to the America of The Wire. People die and people suffer, but nothing really changes on the ground.
Today, Lok Sabha is in a logjam. Unemployment is assuming critical proportions and youth disaffection is on the rise. Farmer distress is escalating. But any explorations into the root causes of these issues are shelved in favour of quick fixes or showy press conferences and news debates that have become stages for grandstanding and showmanship.
Each government institution is devoted to creating a perception of progress in ways that impede legitimate institutional goals. These institutions end up having a pernicious effect on the society that they are supposed to help.
It is in this context that The Wire is an essential exploration of our problems. Unless we look at the broader symbiotic relationship between the police, the various levels of government, the media, the education system and other institutions, we can’t even scrape the surface of what’s wrong.
The Wire and its portrayal of Baltimore might not have all the answers to our problems, but it suggests how we might begin to find them.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines