The City is Complex: Lessons from The Wire

How HBO teaches us to exegete our cities.
Appears in Summer 2014 Issue: The Other Side of the City
June 1st, 2014

It is fashionable these days to be enthused about cities: about how many of us now live in them, their role in global trade and politics, and the misery and potential they represent. Conferences, books, articles, networks, movements, and personalities associated with cities abound. The critical contexts for many of the most pressing issues today are significantly urban in nature. Naturally fortified Wendell Berry devotees may still scoff at cities (suburbs in particular are in vogue as pariahs of modernity), but by and large cities are now the right places to be—the grittier, the better. Religious leaders with profiles like Tim and Kathy Keller have demonstrated that to dismiss the city, even with a family in tow, is to forego the rich opportunities for art, culture, employment, service to others, and life awareness that human densities represent. Faith communities followed people out to the post-war suburbs and, with at least some of that tide turning, some of them are following them back downtown.

Alongside this growing interest, however, is a need to mature our understanding of how the organizations and institutions that comprise the city—both formal (legally organized and recognized) and informal (developed outside of officially sanctioned or regulated processes)—can both harm and help.

A Modern Allegory of Flawed Urban Institutions

The intricate tensions of the noble and depraved that constitute the institutional landscapes of urban settings form the central theme of the HBO series, The Wire (2002-2008)—sometimes described as a long story about how the institutions of our cities actually function. The five seasons (sixty episodes) of the fictional truth-telling of The Wire explore the characters of five different institutions: policing, education, unions and trade, city hall, and the news media. The first season (to which I will limit my references) explores the Baltimore Narcotics and Homicide divisions in pursuit of the notorious Barksdale drug operation who operate freely in the West Baltimore projects.

Our expectations about clear lines between good and bad institutions are challenged throughout the thirteen episodes. Traditionally, law enforcement is expected to be the context where good guys and bad guys play for clearly differentiated teams. In The Wire, however, everyone seems framed, hemmed, caught, and watched—angling, hoping, and fighting to find a way to get what they want. As writer/executive producer David Simon tells the story, the default categories of good and bad, and the institutions that embody those clear boundaries, are profoundly changed by the human realities of the people in them. With artful care, the fictions of The Wire draw us into a deeper consideration of our own experience of life in and among the varied organizations and institutions of our cities. We live in a time when institutions have been so scandalized that The Wire doesn't shock us; we very nearly expect the reversal of categories. But Simon's work sustains a tension of complex dynamics that prevents a simple inversion of moral categories. Following the intersecting lives of the characters, viewers grapple with a social web that winds around the variance between what is and what we think ought to be.

So Who Are the Good Guys?

Early in the story, the apprentice drug boss, D'Angelo Barksdale, escapes a murder conviction simply because his uncle's enforcer is sitting in the gallery intimidating witnesses who will later be murdered as a precaution. The ruthless self-protection generates deep internal conflict for the young D'Angelo who struggles to orient himself toward respectability, human decency, and intelligent consideration while serving in an informal (illegal) organization that thrives by exploiting drug addicts. D'Angelo is portrayed as more thoughtful, aware, sensible, and human than many of the police officers who allegedly serve the public good. He shows mercy when others expect unthinking brutality. D'Angelo mentors his younger drug crew runners by explaining that the violent exchange among themselves is not necessary. He explains that the police don't care about blacks selling drugs to blacks, as long as there are no bodies to investigate, that there might be a more honorable way to undertake their dishonourable work. By birth (D'Angelo) or profession (officer McNulty), the conflict of institutional dynamics and personal convictions appear inevitable. The art form of the The Wire places us within a story where we feel those contrasts keenly.

The Wire complicates categories. Viewers are not given the luxury of easy defaults—that the Baltimore Police Department, being on the side of justice, acts justly or that the Barksdale operation, being outside the law, only acts lawlessly. Early on we meet young law enforcement officers who drink their way through a trunk stash of beer and then conceive of the idea of going to the "towers" (the territory of the Barksdale Operation) to confront the community and show them who is really running things. Their unwarranted (and brutal) assault of a young black teen leaves him blind in one eye and generates a car-burning, rock-and bottle-throwing reaction from the tower residents that shakes up the young officers and threatens to scandalize the Department. Nothing is accomplished; the attack merely fuels mutual hatreds while eroding further any residual institutional credibility policing in Baltimore might have. As viewers, we are unsettled by the results, reminded of incidents of police brutality that were not fictional.

Simon's uncomfortable contrasts interfere with simplistic ordering of institutional categories; we aren't always sure whom we should be cheering for or how the visual cues he uses should be interpreted. The detectives and officers may be well dressed, but they are often lazy, incompetent, crude, and uncooperative. The special unit investigating the Barksdale operation works in a grungy temporary office, backlit by dismal street settings. Everybody seems to be competing with someone else—officers have to watch out for fellow officers trying to please power-hungry supervisors, positional leaders who seem content to use their underlings as human shields to hide their corruption or as bargaining chips for their own promotion. These are the good guys. On the other hand, Barksdale drug bosses have to watch out for rival gangs who want their lucrative market, addicts who want to steal their stash, pawn off counterfeit money, or inform on them; it's the same clawing for position in different settings. Young gang members take care of their siblings from the earnings of their work, making sure they get to school, advising them on how to stay out of trouble, and accepting the bone-wearing daily duty of providing food and shelter for them in the abandoned row houses of West Baltimore. D'Angelo tells his charges that they are pawns, that they will stay pawns, that the system works that way. These are the bad guys.

Individual Virtues and Institutional Failings

Baltimore police officer Jimmy McNulty, a central character, wants to do good police work, to find a way of engaging in his work that enables him to honour the public trust, disrupt the drug trade, and avoid being professionally exiled by an unhappy boss. In a world of greedy and corrupt institutions, it turns out to be very dangerous to hold a virtuous line, to act nobly, to attend to honour, or do the right thing. D'Angelo Barksdale, ironically, seeks a similar kind of honour in a very different system. His risks are also considerable. The desire to be virtuous and seek wisdom on the part of an individual may often run counter to their institutional context regardless of the stated mission of that institution. Institutions are not an unmitigated good. M. Scott Peck in People of the Lie (1986) contemplated the institutional nature of evil, how the increasing specialization of our common organizing, designed to maximize our ability to specialize and improve efficiency, also dulls our sense of individual responsibility and set up atrocities in Vietnam such as the massacre of unarmed villagers by American troops at My Lai. But institutional pathology is not limited to guns and death:

When I say that evil has to do with killing, I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is that which kills spirit. There are various essential attributes of life—particularly human life—such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy, will. It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body. Thus we may "break" a horse or even a child without harming a hair on its head.

The Wire shows us how police bureaucrats, under pressure from politicians and the public to improve conviction rates, may put lower-level officers, citizens, children, addicts, and other less powerful people at risk to do so. The institution of the police force doesn't consciously do this but the structures of the system can unwittingly create these very unjust dynamics. Far from the realities of profoundly difficult lives of impoverishment and discrimination, law enforcement bureaucrats attend to their own ambitions.

Careful consideration of the perversion of collective behaviour as represented by institutions is increasingly urgent as more and more aspects of our lives are directed and shaped by systems that standardize, organize, regulate, and watch us. These organizational structures and processes are greatly intensified in urban settings where increased complexity is demanded by greater densities. If institutions are not an unmitigated good, we must be alert to the ways in which their actions become heinous or produce dynamics that lead to human tragedy. Different settings require different exegetical skills but all institutional spaces require that we engage in difficult interrogations and constant vigilance; if no institutions are exempt, inattention is not acceptable in any setting.

Acknowledge the Social Complexity of City Life

A natural reaction to this portrayal of how a supposedly noble city institution such as law enforcement can act so badly would be cynicism. Instead, I would ask that we consider The Wire as a parable. Life in a city—among the institutions that drive it, shape it, and constantly change it—requires us to sharpen our institutional hermeneutics: to learn to interpret, exegete, and understand what is going on around us. More than forty years ago, Ivan Illich asked us to consider the ways in which something designed to do good could unwittingly become the source of the problem being treated—the cure creates (or contributes to) the pathology. If we reject both cynicism and naiveté, we must take on the increased responsibility of discernment and leave behind simplistic institutional and organizational categories. Good and evil comingle in all of our human enterprises and the density of human enterprise in cities makes the mingling all the more complex.

The Wire reflects the very intricate relational web that life in cities entails and it acts as a creative exploration of the social fabric of the city. This fabric is traced using a range of different themes—follow the relationships and you get other people; follow the drugs and you get drug dealers; follow the money and it leads everywhere. The investigating teams sent to find Barksdale use surveillance wire-taps and pagers to make the invisible web of social ties visible. Watch people. Use technology. Take photographs. Arrange them and find the patterns to understand the dynamics that take place on those networks of relational connections. There is a lot about cities that entails patterns and The Wire is a well-developed study of urban social patterns.

We take for granted the patterns of physicality in cities: tall buildings, crowded streets, bridges, roads, sidewalks, trees in parks, shops, rivers, shores, docks, and the street lights that guide our way. Maps, guidebooks, and mobile technologies help us find our way in the city. But the human patterns of conversation, listening, loving, parting, taking, giving, working, and hating represent highly diverse ties that are constantly changing and about which we still have much to learn. These interactions permeate both the informal and formal organizing that is required for cities to function. The relevant lesson here is that for us to achieve the levels of material, social, cultural, and educational benefits of contemporary urban society, complex collaboration is essential; these outcomes are dependent on the rich and diverse interactions of a constellation of elements. In attending to the pathologies and nobilities of the institutional life of cities, we must not hide behind the difficulties of the exegesis that is required of us.

With no access to traditional employment opportunities, no room in the formal, "legitimate" side of the city, young people in the projects work at the craft of drug dealing, underwriting an economic system that supports the lives of those around them. The Wire shows that the frontline workers in the drug trade are exploited by their wealthy masters in ways that seem little different from the ways that the low level police officers are exploited by their organizational masters. The need to grow, protect markets, find new business ventures, and keep people in their places means many of the small players, the "pawns" as D'Angelo explains to his crew, are fully expendable, disposable in the service of the more powerful. In the Barksdale operation, expendable can mean you are shot. In the Baltimore Narcotics and Homicide departments, you get professional exile and demotion. What becomes clear over time is that neither individual nor institutional virtues can be assumed to be present or absent. Without the individual desire of McNulty and D'Angelo to honour a code higher than selfish gain, their respective organizations would degenerate further. Ironically, both the informal and formal organizations have well-developed codes that guide them beyond the individual. Law enforcement has public safety at its heart and the Barksdale operation has the preservation of the Barksdale family at its core. The nobility of these respective organizational ends, however, is not sufficient to protect against the temptation of ruinous means. Our institutions can be perverse and noble, whether we are part of a religious charity or a crew running a corner in a city. It is disconcerting that the institutions and organizations engaged in socially legitimated causes and work can be blind to the ways that they perpetuate abuse, cruelty, discrimination, paralyzing dependency, and injustice.

Being in an organization or institution that pursues what is good does not make individuals in it legitimate or good by extension. Being in an organization that pursues exploitation and illegal gain does not, by that same logic, make the individuals in it bad. Garrison Keillor is famous for noting: "You can become a Christian by going to church just about as easily as you can become a car by sleeping in a garage." We can see that by extension, an organization with a mission to do good or act justly does not by that declaration alone actually accomplish the good intended or make its constituents good.

D'Angelo Barksdale had so little chance to choose to do anything other than the drug business his family was deeply invested in. But he wanted something different. He knows that having money doesn't make what they do okay. When he's out with his girlfriend at a fancy restaurant on the "good" side of town where the corrupt businessmen, crooked politicians, and perverse newspaper owners live, he worries that people know they really shouldn't be there, that they aren't legitimate. She says that it's just about the money and they have it, that's all that's needed. But D'Angelo doesn't buy it. He knows there's more to it than that.

Officer McNulty is a good exegete: doesn't believe that what the police do is good just because they are the police. To be "good police" you have to do what is right, honour the code, be trustworthy, tell the truth, sacrifice yourself, and follow the leads to the bad guys, even if they are in your own department. Being good police means you forego being political to protect your pension, your promotion, or your corrupt partner who's stuffing a stack or two of bills under his Kevlar vest during a drug and money seizure. The good at many points is a deep inconvenience in both the formal and informal worlds that McNulty and D'Angelo inhabit. If you disregard the order of a corrupt supervisor, you may well end up demoted or re-assigned to the least desirable positions in the department. If D'Angelo disregards the Barksdale operation code or the decisions of leaders, he risks becoming a loose end that will need to be taken care of. Institutional commitment in both cases puts severe demands on personal virtues.

It is troubling that the lines can be so blurred. The "good cops" can be every bit the thugs and bullies of their street counterparts. Suspects are arrested, hand-cuffed, and beaten up in interrogation rooms in violation of their formal legal rights—they deserve it, after all, for being on the other team. The deep corruption of financial services where money is stolen from people by clever paperwork, complex legal agreements, mismanagement, or direct lying is a significant part of our formal, good, legitimate city life. Informal economies represent the means by which billions of urban poor in cities around the world survive. Exegeting the life of cities requires that we forego simplistic definitions, naïve enthusiasms, borrowed categories, and willful blindness. We want the officers we see patrolling our streets to be the good guys who are saving people from the bad guys who lurk in the shadows. Doubtless, that is true of many of them. But the intention of the institution of public policing, as just one example, does not make members of that institution noble people who always choose what is good. It doesn't mean that the structures, decision-making, reward, and discipline functions of such institutions are effective and lead to the outcomes we want. The Wire is less a statement of despair about our contemporary urban institutions and more an astute and useful set of observations about the intricacy and complexity of the institutions that comprise our urban social landscapes. If our institutions must be divided neatly into good and bad, The Wire will complicate our categories in important ways. The Wire will not suit everyone's palate but it can be a catalyst to contemplate the difficult work of acting wisely, of discerning where harm and corruption are present in the institutions of the cities where we desire to attend faithfully to our common good.


Core ideas that orient a significant amount of my work include the exploration of complexity science by means of various network approaches. Network dynamics are a persistent feature of our human interactions including the organizations, institutions and societies that Cardus is working to support and make sense of. Planners are also in constant interaction with these social structures at a wide variety of levels.


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