The Wire & The City How the third season of David Simon's TV series epic chronicled urban fault lines.

Editor’s note: This essay, one of five in a line-up, complements the theme of this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), ‘Mean Streets: Viewing the Divided City Through the Lens of Film and Television,’ presented Nov. 11-13 at the Missouri History Museum. You will find a full schedule of this year’s SLIFF offerings here.

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Often praised as one of the greatest series ever presented on American television, The Wire is not only relevant to any discussion of American race relations but also reflective of just how much the urban sociopolitical landscape has—and has not—changed since the HBO crime drama began its five-season run in 2002. The series was set in Baltimore, whose history of black disenfranchisement and white flight is not unlike that of St. Louis.

Created by David Simon—a former Baltimore Sun crime reporter who wrote the book on which the well-regarded NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street was based—The Wire was not a conventional cop show. Chases, whether in cars or on foot, were few and far between, as was gunplay. Instead, ideas served as the ammunition that zinged through the stories. Largely written or co-written by producer Simon, the series enlisted the talents of top crime writers including Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos.

In an interview after being awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2010, Simon said the narrative that unfolds in “The Wire” is “a hard and practical reflection of what’s happening in America” and a commentary on “the end of empire—what it’s like for a society no longer to have the will to pull itself as a whole—as a single entity—forward.”

Simon would go on to produce and co-write last year’s Show Me a Hero, an HBO miniseries about a white middle-class neighborhood that resisted federally mandated public housing in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Released around the same time was City of Hope, a 1991 film by writer-director John Sayles that in part addressed big-city racial politics.

The first season of The Wire dealt with a team of wiretapping detectives—including de facto leader and persistent wild card Jimmy McNulty (played by Dominic West)—and their efforts to bring drug dealers Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell to justice. The second season continued that storyline while shifting the focus to criminal and union activity on the Baltimore docks.

In its third season, the series expanded its scope to politics, taking on an even more novelistic breadth and suggesting that the unethical maneuverings of elected officials might be just as harmful to society as the drug trade.

The phrase “playing the race card” has come into common usage in the United States as a denial mechanism, as if racism were not a reality. Among the triumphs of The Wire, and particularly its third season, is the finesse with which it addresses race.

Presumably, the wire unit’s pursuit of drug dealers and dedication to seeing them arrested and eventually imprisoned is part of a strategy to protect the city from crime and make it safer. But ordinary Baltimore residents who are not involved in what the cops and crooks call “the game” are rarely seen. It is the players of that game who are brought to vivid life.

Perhaps the most memorable is Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), a stick-up man who separates drug dealers from their cash. Omar is something of a legend, but not to homicide detective Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce), who recalls the days when the streets he grew up on were safe to walk:

“As rough as that neighborhood could be, we had us a community … Now all we got is bodies,” Moreland says. “It makes me sick how far we done fell.”

Viewed through the lens of the present, the depictions of young black males in the third season of The Wire (which debuted on Sept. 19, 2004) might be considered problematic. Low-level drug dealers—some of them teenagers—are routinely jostled about by the police, and lined up against buildings in a manner that can not help but bring to mind the recent controversy over New York’s unconstitutional “stop and frisk” law. And plainclothes narcotics officers Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam) and Thomas “Herc” Hauk (Dominick Lombardozzi) flaunt an “us-against-them” attitude.

The role of the news media has been crucial in shaping the debate over whether police have been too quick to pull the trigger in racially charged situations. As street protests proliferated over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, the Ferguson police released a video of the teen intimidating a storekeeper. That action was widely perceived as an attempt to portray Brown as a criminal amid the outrage at his death.

The phrase “playing the race card” has come into common usage in the United States as a denial mechanism, as if racism were not a reality. Among the triumphs of The Wire, and particularly its third season, is the finesse with which it addresses race.

Some might argue that the white, Irish-American McNulty is positioned as the lead character in an attempt to appeal to a white audience. But the character’s prominence has more to do with his conflicted personality than with his skin color. And unquestionably, the most intriguing member of the unit aside from McNulty is Lester Freamon, a police veteran who has at last found a position in which his skills are most useful and appreciated.

Played by Clarke Peters, Freamon is a formidable problem solver who respects authority, values loyalty and is rankled by McNulty’s tendency toward insubordination. In season three, the two almost come to blows when McNulty goes behind the back of their African-American superior, Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick). But the subject of race does not come up.

Neither is race explicitly addressed in the portrayal of black drug dealers. The unit’s goal is simply to thwart their operations—a goal that would be no different if the dealers were white. Only when the political scene comes into focus does race become a primary consideration.

It is very much on the mind of Thomas J. “Tommy” Carcetti (Aidan Gillen), an ambitious city councilman who aspires to become mayor. Carcetti is all too aware that the chances of a white politician being elected to that office in the predominantly black Baltimore are extremely slim. Much of season three is devoted to his political strategy, as he attempts to enlist the help of acting police commissioner Ervin Burrell (Frankie Faison) in his plans to replace Mayor Clarence Royce (Glynn Turman), who is black but is having trouble with his constituency. Carcetti is also counting on African-American councilman Tony Gray (Christopher Mann) to run for mayor and split the black vote.  

Carcetti has his moment to shine in a public hearing focusing on crime and drugs:

“Gentlemen, what we can’t forgive – what I can’t forgive, ever – is how we … turned away from those streets in west Baltimore,” he says. “The poor, the sick, the swollen underclass of our city, trapped in the wreckage of neighborhoods which were once so prized. Communities which we failed to defend, which we have surrendered to the horrors of the drug trade …

“If we don’t have the courage and the conviction to fight this war the way it should be fought, the way it needs to be fought, using every weapon that we can possibly muster. If that doesn’t happen, well then, we’re staring at defeat. And that defeat should not, and cannot, and will not be forgiven.”

A theme throughout the season is the conflict between politicians who demand that illegal drug activity and other crime be reduced, and police officials who must meet what they consider to be unrealistic goals. One such cop is Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin (Robert Wisdom), who comes up with an envelope-pushing solution: Setting aside areas in which drugs may be sold legally, and no longer pose a danger to law-abiding citizens. Colvin realizes that his plan, inspired by Amsterdam’s tolerant approach to drug enforcement, would not be embraced by the higher-ups. But he sees no better way of addressing their mandate.

Colvin shares McNulty’s skepticism that the police establishment and the politicians to which they must answer can effectively deal with the drug problem. In fact, as the season progresses, it is suggested that McNulty may have more respect for Stringer Bell than he does for his superiors.

A theme throughout the season is the conflict between politicians who demand that illegal drug activity and other crime be reduced, and police officials who must meet what they consider to be unrealistic goals.

Bell is the true brains of the Barksdale operation—a man who can see the big picture, and envision a life in which he is a legitimate player in the city’s hierarchy. In contrast, Barksdale is solely interested in playing the “game” and can not understand Bell’s interest in developing real estate. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the series’ third season is that the two men, who have been closer than the closest of brothers, end up betraying each other.

Implicit in the tale of the successful and highly organized Barksdale operation is that individuals with impressive entrepreneurial skills have been forced into the underground economy because of racism. As Bell learns to his frustration and bitterness, politicians such as African-American state senator Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) have a game of their own that allows them to play fast and loose with big money without fear of imprisonment.

Corruption is also at the heart of City of Hope, a portrait of urban malaise with an ensemble cast including Joe Morton, who starred in Sayles’ 1984 film, The Brother from Another Planet. Morton plays Wynn, a black city councilman trying to make sense of the system—and make it work for everyone. But Wynn finds himself stuck between a black community that doesn’t trust him and a white establishment that’s not interested in ceding power.

Things come to a head when the city announces plans to convert public housing into a high-income condominium and shopping mall. Wynn challenges his constituents to demand to be heard:

“When they needed our rent,” he says, “they jammed us in there, they didn’t turn the heat on, they didn’t collect the garbage. They didn’t provide streetlights, or police protection, or any of the other services we should have expected as residents of this city. But now—now—now that they can smell a profit, they want to burn us out, and plow us under.”

Wynn then implores his listeners to take advantage of one of the most effective weapons available to them: the vote.

That symbol of democracy is repeatedly sought after by Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), the central character in “Show Me a Hero.” Based on the 1999 nonfiction book Lisa Belkin, the series traces Wasicsko’s career from shortly before his election as mayor of Yonkers, New York in 1987 to his suicide in 1993.

Wasicsko is elected in part because white citizens are angry with incumbent mayor Angelo R. Martinelli for not bringing plans to integrate their neighborhood to a halt. What they fail to accept is that the influx of black residents is inevitable, and all that the mayor can do—whoever he is—is cooperate. Wasicsko does so, only to pay the same price as Martinelli.

Show Me a Hero made its HBO debut on Aug. 15, 2015, but the issues its raises regarding American racial politics took on new relevance with the presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump—some of whose supporters have indulged in ugly rhetoric similar to that of the fearful, bigoted homeowners depicted in the series.

Perhaps because of its meticulous attention to the ins and outs of maintaining a political career, “Show Me a Hero” attracted only a modest audience. Or viewers may have avoided it because of Wasicsko’s tragic trajectory. But then, The Wire was never a huge hit.

The third season of the series ends with Barksdale facing another stint behind bars. Bell has been killed by Omar Little and hitman Brother Mouzone in an act of retribution. And with Bell forever beyond his reach, McNulty has decided to leave the wire unit for a job as a patrolman. Meanwhile, Carcetti prepares for a run at the mayor’s office.

As a season finale, the episode—entitled, perhaps with a touch of irony, “Mission Accomplished”—provides the necessary closure while hinting at things to come. In its fourth season, The Wire focused on the public school system; in its final one, the series addressed the decline of the newspaper industry.

But while each season of the series is must viewing, the third gave us a vision of a society in all its complexity and contradictions that has rarely been equaled in any entertainment medium.

The Wire would not necessarily be described as a series about race. But that was the beauty of it.