In Case You Missed It: The Wire shows how the American Dream fails

The series is a televised study of urban decay

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The Wire TV series cover featuring a man in a car with the window pulled down looking out the window with a scowl on his face. In the window reflection, a man is scowling back at him.
PHOTO: Courtesy of HBO

By: Yildiz Subuk, SFU Student

Content warning: mentions of death, drug use, and violence.

It is not often that a piece of television frames an important social issue from its first few lines of dialogue. The Wire is an HBO drama set in Baltimore that explores the interconnected lives of law enforcement, drug dealers, and residents, exposing the systemic issues that contribute to urban decay in American societies. Urban decay is the “decay and deterioration of an urban area due to neglect.” 

The opening scene introduces detective Jimmy McNulty talking to a witness, after a young man called Snot was killed for attempting to steal money from a dice game. The witness explains to McNulty how Snot has a habit of stealing from dice games, and usually when he gets caught, all he does is catch a beating. McNulty then asks, “If Snot always stole the money, why did you let him play?” The witness then answers his question with, “You gots to. This America man,” a statement that precisely conceptualizes what the show is trying to prove: the American dream — the notion that America gives everyone an equal opportunity to achieve success through hard work — fails.

A common misconception is that The Wire is a fictional documentation of the war on drugs, which can be traced to 1971. When then-president Richard Nixon launched a campaign stating that drug abuse is “public enemy number one,” what followed was the mass funding and establishment of the Drug Enforcement Administration in the US. While the war on drugs is a part of the show, it’s used to shed light on other issues, such as corruption within law enforcement and the criminal justice system, the frustrating bureaucracy relating to criminal prosecution, underfunded education systems, and the role of media representation. 

The editing’s intentional juxtapositions highlight how a city could be so divided and unequal: a small percentage of Baltimore is filled with high income neighborhoods and high-rises, which tend to be police buildings, while the rest of the city is essentially considered “the projects,” consisting of abandoned buildings where drug dealers and people with substance abuse disorders reside. There are also underfunded schools where the classrooms seem as if they have never been properly renovated. These are the results of a capitalist society that prioritizes the interests of the elite by funding law enforcement instead of investing in public institutions and social programs, which would benefit the neglected working class.

There are parallels with Vancouver’s opioid crisis, as social programs to address the housing crisis, houselessness, and substance use crisis are not a priority for the government. Vancouver’s image as a result is a city that looks glamorous and modern in many respects, while many parts of the Downtown Eastside, including the well-being and safety of individuals that reside there, have been neglected. There is a cyclical pattern of universal significance within the story of The Wire: anyone is free to participate in the American dream, but only the small minority of privileged characters ever see the benefits. While claiming to celebrate multiculturalism and freedom, Canada follows the same capitalist ideals of American society.

Despite its critical acclaim, The Wire did not gain high viewership. The truth is, it’s difficult to binge due to its length and slow pacing, while it also deals with dense subject matter that challenges the audience to engage critically. At first glance, there is a lack of attention-grabbing scenes (shootouts, intense interrogations, intriguing mysteries, etc.), but the show rewards the audience for sticking with it. The Wire refuses to overlook the smallest of details, while providing a nuanced look at the aftermath of disastrous capitalist societies.

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