Greek tragedy and ‘The Wire’

Posted on April 10th, 2009 by

Thanks to my persistent brother-in-law’s recommendation, Sean and I just finished watching the acclaimed HBO show ‘The Wire’ a couple of weeks ago.  Each of the five seasons is loosely structured around a single wire-tapping case in Baltimore that sheds light on some aspect of the city’s institutions (drug trade, unions, real estate/politics, education, and journalism).  This is what the creator had to say about the way he conceived of his project:

In a few opening remarks, Simon repeatedly cited Greek tragedy’s influence on “The Wire,” explaining that in the place of the meddlesome Greek gods who randomly ruined people’s lives he subbed in modern institutions. In what seemed a preemptive nod toward any outraged […] fans in the audience, Simon also leaned on the same source to explain the fate for some of his show’s most popular characters. “Those who want to know why […] had to die, why […] had to die,” he said, “Strap on a helmet, get in the game and read Antigone. Read Medea. It had to happen.”

A lot of work has been done recently on the Western as America’s version of Homeric myth, there’s a scene toward the end of season 3 depicting a tense stand-off between two charismatic urban gunslingers, if you will, who meet in the shadows of a dark alley rather than at high noon in the town square.  The Iliad’s codes of male conduct and the rituals of combat always seem to hover in the background of any form of warfare, whether it takes place in another country, in the Wild West, or in the streets.

Structural resonances aside, there are a couple of sly allusions to the show’s Greek tragic inspiration–a reference to Ares and a mysterious Greek drug smuggler who sends text messages in, not surprisingly, modern Greek.

Also, I wonder if the show’s title, “The Wire” has some significance. As a tool for trying to access the truth, the wiretap kind of functions like the poet, who expresses the engimatic words of the Muses.  It’s not a perfect analogy, but the parties on both ends of the wire (the drug dealers and the cops) are to some degree defined by their ignorance because the drug dealers don’t know they’re being tapped, and the cops have to decode and interpret their verbal transmissions.  But even when the whole situation comes to light and goes to trial, neither side really knows what will happen and what significance the wire and the communications it records will have for their respective cases.

In any case, stuff to think about.  (Click here to see what Obama thinks.)

 

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