‘The Wire’: Season 6

‘The Wire’: Season 6 March 24, 2012

“It’s a thin line ‘tween heaven and here.” — Bubbles

The Wire, David Simon’s gritty, haunting, novelistic series about Baltimore, ran for five seasons on HBO.

The first season set the stage by showing us the pain and violence of the city’s drug industry and how the police department, as an institution, was incapable of addressing the problem in any meaningful or effective way. Each subsequent season explored the same theme of institutional dysfunction, culpability and surrender, focusing on, in turn, labor and business, government, the schools, and the press. Year after year we saw each of these institutions crippled by the same problems, saw how they all were trapped and doomed by the same dynamics at play in the dysfunctional police department (and in the drug gangs).

The reality it showed was depressing. The honesty with which it examined and portrayed that reality was exhilarating.

I’m both relieved and disappointed that the show did not continue for a sixth season. That left another key institution spared from this same harsh examination. I’m thinking of the church — a powerful, visible, historically important institution in Baltimore and other great American cities.

I’m relieved that the church was never the central focus of a season of The Wire because it’s an institution that’s dear to me and one in which I have a personal stake. Season 5 was painful for me to watch as I was, at the time, working in the newsroom of a daily newspaper. The show’s portrayal of the press as impotent, incompetent and self-destructive was withering. It was cruelly precise and uncomfortably true-to-life. It was painful to see on the screen a distillation of the same wretched reality I was watching unfold slowly in real life — to see this once-great institution to which I was committed being exposed and examined in such an unforgivingly truthful light.

So part of me is grateful that another once-great institution to which I am committed — the church — escaped such a treatment.

But part of me is also sorely disappointed, because if the church is ever again to be a great institution, then such a brutally honest evaluation may be a necessary first step. It would be a painful process, but a positive one, to see the church’s institutional dysfunction and self-inflicted irrelevance portrayed and examined with the same ferocious eye that Simon turned on the Baltimore Police Department.

While never a central focus, the church is not wholly absent from the Baltimore of The Wire. Power-broking clergy flit around the edges of daily life in City Hall as powerful players in city politics. Black churches and Catholic churches appear as aging refuges for the weary — providing a measure of shelter from a world they are no longer able to influence. Such churches are a place for people like Omar Little’s grandmother, but they cannot reach people like Omar.

On a more positive note, there’s the Deacon — the nameless AME elder played by Melvin Williams, who pops up unexpectedly almost everywhere, gently nudging things in a more hopeful direction. And the best the church has to offer in The Wire is found in its basement, in the meetings where Steve Earle and Bubbles find salvation, redemption and rebirth.

I suppose the main reason The Wire didn’t focus more directly on the church is that the show’s creators hadn’t experienced it as a central, meaningful part of the fabric of the city as they knew it. David Simon was a former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun and his writing partner, Ed Burns, was a former Baltimore homicide detective. Their experience gave them an intimate knowledge of those institutions and their shortcomings in dealing with life on the city’s streets. Simon and Burns didn’t have that same level of experience with the churches of Baltimore.

That itself may be an indictment of the church as an institution: For the police, the beat reporters and the world of the streets, the church seems, at best, peripheral.

But it may also be that there was no need to revisit the theme of the show yet again in a sixth season. That theme and the clear pattern were so well established and richly developed over the first five years that it might have been redundant to sing the same song one more time. Just because the show never turned its focus toward the church doesn’t mean we don’t know what Season 6 of The Wire would have looked like. All the dysfunction and irrelevance of the Baltimore Police Department paralleled in the labor and business world, in City Hall, in the schools and in the press can be found in the institution of the church as well.

There’s no shortage of books calling for reforms of the institutional church. Some of those books follow much the same path Simon follows, tracing the way that institutions come to put their survival as institutions ahead of their mission and purpose — losing that mission and purpose along the way. Other books on the church just seem to be praying for a miracle — for a grand revival or great awakening, for the Holy Spirit to blow through like at Pentecost, miraculously bringing about the renewal of purpose we can’t seem to engineer or imagine ourselves.

If you’re interested in reviving or renewing the institutional church, then before consulting those many books, I recommend that you watch all five seasons of The Wire.

It shouldn’t be hard to draw the parallels and to make the analogies that will allow you to imagine exactly what Season 6 would look like, set in your own city or town. Look at the top brass of the BPD — the cronies and careerists and ladder-climbing, power-seeking incompetents obsessed with their own importance. Look at the mid-level leadership, the lieutenants and sergeants “gaming the stats” because they have more incentive to do that than to do the job itself. Look at Lester Freamon, natural police and a master of the craft, exiled to the Pawn Shop Unit for 13 years and four months because he did the job instead of playing the game. Look at Bunny Colvin, punished for the unpardonable sin of effectiveness.

Do any of these people look familiar? Do any of these stories remind you of anything? The characters, stories and themes of The Wire resonate in any institution. Not only in the church, but certainly there.

If there’s a problem with The Wire, it’s that it can be seen as counseling despair. It shows with perfect clarity that institutional change is desperately needed, but it also shows just as clearly that such a necessary transformation is close to impossible. The Wire offers a grave diagnosis and provides little in the way of a prescription.

But there’s a big difference between impossible and close to impossible. If transformation of broken institutions is only close to impossible, then it may prove to be very, very hard, but it still can be done.


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  • Ursula L

    Well one reason not to focus a season on the church is that cities, in the US, don’t generally have an institution that can accurately be described as “The Church.”  The closest you get is the Catholic Church, in the few cities where a significant majority of the population is at least nominally Catholic.  (Such as Buffalo, where I live.)  You may have “The Baltimore Police Department” or “The Baltimore Newspaper (the last one left…)  But you can’t point to any institution or organization as “The Baltimore Church.”  

    Otherwise, you don’t have “The Church.”  You have churches.  Lots of them.  Different denominations and sizes and styles.  Different theologies.  Different organizational structures.  And synagogues, and mosques and gurdwaras and temples, etc., etc. 

    A whole mess of small, conflicting, competing organizations, sometimes coming together for a minor activity, more often each doing its own thing. 

    You can tell the story of the church in the life of an individual.  For any individual, their church can be looked at as the church in their life.

    In the life of a city?  Not so much.  

  • Amaryllis

    I hate to say it, as an immigrant Marylander, but I’ve never seen any of The Wire.

    From what you say here, though, I’m tempted to send a boxed set of the entire thing to our new Archbishop.

    Enough said.

    (If this posts twice, apologies: Disqus and my network are both acting up on me.)

  • i want to give a shout out to one of the more effective religious “institution” from The Wire: the Catholic Worker house where Bubbles became a volunteer in the soup kitchen.  i think one of the reasons why Catholic Worker houses remain effective is that at their best they are independent, adaptable to the needs of the community, and carry on the anarchist communitarian sensibilities of their founders. 

  • Anonymous

     You could do an interesting series about the role of a city’s religious organizations in the life of a city, although it wouldn’t look much like what little I know of The Wire.

    One important thing other than just the ability to say “The (X) Of Baltimore” is that the variety means you can’t extrapolate one as a microcosm of all. For instance, even if Baltimore has four newspapers instead of one, and none of them is The One Baltimore Newspaper, you can do a series about The Baltimore Sun and treat it as a microcosm of newspapers as a whole – you can critique the entire newspaper industry of America with a focus on one newspaper because they all have essential similarities in what they do, how they work, and the problems they face. You can do a story about a prison and make it about Prison. You can do a story about a school and make it about Schools, because in all these cases, even the ones that aren’t affiliated (leaving aside Montessori schools and other unusual/experimental exceptions) will follow a similar basic structure and face similar systemic problems.

    If you do a series about a church, it is definitionally not going to be about the problems facing a synagogue, a mosque, a temple, or any other religious group, and something that bothers me is that a lot of Christians just don’t seem to realize that.

    (Related: I don’t think it’s, as Fred thinks, a problem with “the church” that it is peripheral to many people’s lives. Churches should have no influence on my life, less than they do, because I am not a Christian. If a church is an influence on the police, that is a direct problem for me as a Jew. It doesn’t usually turn out well for us when the church is a significant presence in the police and the press.)

  • Anonymous

     Us atheists and other assorted heathens are probably thinking along the same lines Benly…;)

  • Josh

    Well, if the church is peripheral to the police officers’ and the beat reporters’ lives, it means not enough clergymen are being arrested. The church should be as important to them as other hotbeds of corruption, no?

  • A focus on a black church that was involved politically a la Al Sharpton might work with the general theme of The Wire. 

  • Example above about Catholic soup kitchen. Feeding homeless people and rehabilitating drug addicts possibly makes an influence in your life, or would if you lived in a relevant part of some city; I suppose conditions in the inner cities have something to do with your life wherever you live. So therefore you object to Catholic soup kitchens?

    “not going to be about the problems facing a synagogue, a mosque … ” Maybe you could expand on that a little bit? Jews don’t have characters like Bunny, Lester, or The Deacon? Dysfunctional organization only happens to Christians?

  • El Durazno de la Muerte

     I think that Benly just means that a synagogue or a mosque would face different kinds of challenges and corruptions than a Christian church, and that treating a particular Christian church as a microcosm of the religious life of a city wouldn’t represent them very well.

  • Anonymous

     Okay, let me be more clear for you here. There’s two things to address, so I’ll address them for you separately.

    First, I assume when you make the bizarre assertion that I’m opposed to Catholic soup kitchens, you’re responding to me saying “churches should have no influence on my life”. Because, y’know, clearly that means I hate all Christians. I’m going to bring out the one line in Fred’s post that this was a response to:

    That itself may be an indictment of the church as an institution: For
    the police, the beat reporters and the world of the streets, the church
    seems, at best, peripheral.

    A church, as an institution, should be peripheral to a story about the police and the beat reporters. In America, there should not be a “the church” which is presumed to necessarily play a central role in all narratives. Those stories are not about “the church”. When you imply that “the church” being peripheral to a story about the police is bad, you imply conversely that police should be more involved with “the church” than you perceive in these narratives, in turn advocating for what amounts to a stronger direct or indirect influence by a specific religion’s beliefs onto the practice of law.

    I don’t think Fred wants that. I’m fairly sure he didn’t think of that implication of the line when he typed it – but it’s there.

    As for the ways that a story about “the church” is essentially different from a story about a synagogue or a mosque, there are two. First, no American synagogue has the political power of the Catholic church or several major Christian denominations. No synagogue has the financial power or breadth of influence in the American populace that those institutions do. That in itself opens up an entire can of worms that is simply irrelevant to minority institutions – or is relevant in the sense that the minority religious institutions are victimized by it.

    And that there, victimization, is the other one. Nobody in America is afraid to go to church because they think some drunk asshole will decide to get his jollies beating up a Christian. No Christian in America will get things thrown at him because he is a Christian, nobody uses “to Christian” as a derogatory verb, nobody refuses to rent space to a newly-formed congregation because he thinks Christians are suspicious.

    When you’re part of the majority, it’s easy to think of stories about the minority as special-interest and stories about the majority as universal. They’re not. You just don’t notice because their special interest group is you.

  • Anonymous

    So Fred you still got no job…


    Still this idea has a lot of potential.

  • While religious institutions should have no affect on other public institutions and major businesses, it would be disingenuous to say that these religious institutions have no effect on the community that they inhabit.  

    However, location has a lot to do with it.  In some places, these institutions have a lot more influence than in others.  I do not know what the situation is like in Baltimore though, but any institution with influence over a community has to share some of the responsibility for how that community turns out.  

    In any case, if a community prospers or falls apart, it would be either partly because of or in spite of the institutions that influence it, including the religious ones, regardless of the particular faiths or denominations.  

  • Simon has addressed what a sixth season would look like: it would have focussed on the Hispanic community.  The main reason they didn’t really go for it was that neither he nor Burns had enough experience with it.

    Also: Generation Kill (the show they did after The Wire) is fantastic.  Treme (the one after that) I don’t personally like that much, but I think regular Slacktivist readers probably will.

  • Ursula L

    Example above about Catholic soup kitchen. Feeding homeless people and rehabilitating drug addicts possibly makes an influence in your life, or would if you lived in a relevant part of some city; I suppose conditions in the inner cities have something to do with your life wherever you live. So therefore you object to Catholic soup kitchens? 

    If a group of people who happen to be Catholic want to run a soup kitchen, there is no reason for it to be a “Catholic Soup Kitchen.”  There is no reason to set it up in a way that excludes other people who would be happy to help feed the poor.  There is no reason to expect the poor to be open to your religion as a condition of being fed.  

    When public services – food banks, soup kitchens, hospitals, etc. are provided by religious organizations, it’s a problem for society in general because it gives the religion control over the services provided to people who don’t follow that religion.

    For example, if I were hurt near my house, and was taken unconscious, to the nearest hospital, it could be dangerous.  Because the nearest hospital is Catholic, and there are large categories of basic health care that they refuse to provide.  And if the best treatment for whatever happened to me falls in those categories, and I’m taken there, then I’m screwed.  

  • taha

    fuck u niggas

  • Nigga

    man fuck u im from baltimore and fuck marlo that motherfucker avon should have win the game not marlo 

  • Glyn Worthington

    the church? That would be crap, do the prison system.