Season 1 of The Wire ended on BBC Two last night. For years I’ve heard friends and critics alike bleat on and on about how it’s “the best show on TV” and how it “redefines television writing” and other such hyperbole. Watching The Wire for myself revealed that they may well be right.
Although I’ve only seen Season 1, the show seems to be about the institutions that govern ours lives and how, at its core, living in society is nothing but a series of games. We live and succeed by following rules – arbitrary often nonsensical rules – that everyone else follows as well. We never talk to each other about the game or the fact that we’re playing it but we are. Every time you fill out a job application or go to a job interview, you’re playing a game: you’re trying to make yourself look good without explicitly stating why you’re good. You know what you’re doing, the interviewer knows what you’re doing. But no-one says it because that breaks the rules of the game. Even in something as basic as human interaction, both participants in a conversation are playing a game because there are certain things that are not said. There are rules about what can be said to someone of a certain level of acquaintance and what cannot be said. There are rules governing physical contact, appearance, mannerisms, everything. Because of these arbitrary rules that everyone unthinkingly accepts, we end up with societal paradoxes such as the Abilene paradox. It’s all in the game.
In The Wire, the characters are stuck playing the same game. On the one side are the police and on the other are the drug dealers. This is illustrated early in the series by D’Angelo who sets out a chessboard through analogy to his uncle’s drug empire. Both sides are engaged in a game with rules that they all understand but that no-one talks about. The drug dealers know what the police are trying to do; the police know what the drug dealers are doing. But neither side can talk plainly to the other side because then they would lose out. This was shown in the brief scenes between McNulty and Stringer: whenever the two were together they would exchange knowing glances with each other, both aware of exactly what the other is doing but unable to say it out loud. Both sides are stuck in an eternal Prisoner’s Dilemma whereby the rational, self-interested choice isn’t particularly good for either side. The characters are trapped by their circumstances and by the institutions that they’ve aligned themselves with. As illustrated by D’Angelo and Wallace at the end of the season, no-one can break out of the roles that circumstance has dictated for them. The characters are trapped within a determinism not created by the metaphysical structure of reality but created by society. Humans create and maintain their own prisons in the form of these institutions and the accompanying games.
The season ended on a note of ambiguity. By the end, every character has evolved and moved on. But fundamentally the roles are still the same. The whole Barksdale case appears to be nothing more than the Mad Hatter yelling at random for everyone to “change places!” Freamon and McNulty have swapped their roles as successful homicide detective and good cop stuck on a bad detail; Herc has taken Greggs’ role; Ellis has become the career-minded young officer in place of Daniels; Stringer moves up to Avon’s position as head of the empire. By the end of the season all the roles of the game are still filled but by different people. The pieces change but there will always be two bishops, two rooks, one queen and one king. The final message is ambiguous – it’s either positive or negative – “Omnia mutantur, nihil interit”: Everything changes, but nothing is truly lost.