1. A couple of years ago I wrote a pretty long essay about rereading Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, a dark, compelling, violent, mysterious book that I’ve reread in full three times now, a book that I frequently return to, a book that seems to leer from the shelf too often, Hey, you’re not done with me, you know that, right?
What Bolaño and Baring-Gould do in these books is explore madness and violence and the ways that our world tries to (or fails to) contain madness and violence.
—and suggested that
Bolaño’s werewolves are, in line with Baring-Gould’s, people fated to madness and violence, but also relatively normal people. These werewolves contain within them a dreadful capacity for violence.
3. (What I want to say is that any speculation I might offer about the forthcoming conclusion of season one of True Detective I have already offered, at some length, in an essay (about two other texts) which I composed a few years before True Detective aired).
4. Well so and anyway: “After You’ve Gone,” the penultimate episode of True Detective.
In some ways the most straightforward episode to date, even disappointingly so, a bit of a police procedural, serving mostly to realign Cohle and Hart, demonstrating that despite their fight and their differences, they are also very similar. But you already know that, you know what happened in the episode, right? The obsession then is for an answer: Where does this all go? Who did the crimes? Who is The King in Yellow? How does it end?
5. I now lazily link to an article that rounds up some of the conjecture — the “theories” — about how the show will end. You’ve read some of these, right?
6. This kind of conjecture is fun, or maybe “fun” isn’t the right word—maybe what I want to say instead is:
True Detective compels many of its viewers to obsessively hunt down clues in each frame. There’s a thickness to the show’s repetition of key images and phrases—spirals, stars, sets of five figures, antlers, crowns, crosses that dissolve into targets, etc.—a seeming preciseness that invites us to impose our own order, our own narrative.
(This is the kind of conjecture that Hart repeatedly warns Cohle not to indulge in).
7. I’m reminded here of Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas’s prologue to Roberto Bolaño’s unfinished novel Woes of the True Policeman:
What matters is the active participation of the reader, concurrent with the act of writing. Bolaño makes this very clear in his explanation of the title: “The policeman is the reader, who tries in vain to decipher this wretched novel.” And in the body of the book itself there is an insistence on this conception of the novel as a life: we exist—we write, we read—so long as we’re alive, and the only conclusion is death.
True Detective, like True Policeman—and, like Bolaño’s masterpiece 2666—all invite the active participation of the reader. But also the woe.
8. There is no supernatural solution to the mysteries of True Detective. From the outset, True Detective has posited (the illusion of) human consciousness as a part of nature that seeks to define itself against nature: the real.
In True Detective, the supernatural is the product of terror and fantasy. It is imaginary. (And of course therefore no less real than the natural, the real, thanks to human consciousness).
9. From the beginning of Baring-Gould’s The Book of Were-Wolves:
It will then be seen that under the veil of mythology lies a solid reality, that a floating superstition holds in solution a positive truth.
This I shall show to be an innate craving for blood implanted in certain natures, restrained under ordinary circumstances, but breaking forth occasionally, accompanied with hallucination, leading in most cases to cannibalism. I shall then give instances of persons thus afflicted, who were believed by others, and who believed themselves, to be transformed into beasts, and who, in the paroxysms of their madness, committed numerous murders, and devoured their victims.
The emphasis is mine.
10. In the sixth episode of True Detective, Cohle says to Hart: “You, these people, this place … you’ll eat your fucking young as long as you have something to salute.” The indictment is broad, dark, and perhaps paranoid, but it serves to highlight the series’s keen attenuation to infanticide, to the infinite loss and dramatic mourning that underpins begetting.
11. Cohle has lost his daughter, and her death at such a young age, he says, spared him “the sin of fatherhood.”
Hart has essentially lost his daughters, ruined his life, ruined his (illusion of the) status as a family man. The thing that mattered—his family—was “right under his nose” the whole time.
On the job, both Cohle and Hart—separately—witness the awful deaths of infants; in both cases, the men snap, disconnect, quit.
12. (At this time, the reader is invited to sift through his or her own recollections of True Detective (if he or she so desires) and set aside examples of infanticidal violence).
13. Many fans of the show have speculated that Martin Hart is the King in Yellow, a notion fueled by the show’s stores of symbolic images, as well as Hart’s own actions.
The theory is intriguing, but I seriously doubt that Hart will be revealed as a perpetrator in the crimes of the Tuttle case. However, he is capable of slipping into werewolf mode: Threatening his lover Lisa’s new beau with horrific violence and then declaring, “I’m not a psycho–I wouldn’t have done those things” (the past perfect tense there is so strange); slipping on gloves to assault the boys who had consensual sex with his daughter Audrey; etc. etc. etc.
Hart’s actions are the strange double bind of the patriarchal lawman who sets to rule with sanctioned order—and, specifically, to rule and control the sexualized female body, which is oh-so-important to begetting. Does he serve and protect? Does he terrorize and menace? Both and at the same time.
But I’d argue that Hart is illusioned, that his identity is constituted in maintaining an illusion, an illusion that Cohle is too keenly aware of (“…you’ll eat your fucking young as long as you have something to salute”).
14. There’s a heap of corpses at the core of Bolaño’s 2666—women who are raped, murdered, discarded. Bolaño sends various detectives—many of them good detectives, true policeman—to find the killers, but there’s no satisfying answer: Just plenty of killers, plenty of werewolves. As the novel reaches its (non)end, we await the promise of a Giant (The Tall Man), a Big Answer. But the answer is inadequate, incomplete.
15. The capacity to transform into a killer, a werewolf is always there. Just put on some gloves. Just slip on a mask.
Or maybe take your mask off.
I had an intuition that “Haunted Houses” would likely be the weakest episode of True Detective. Structurally, the episode has a lot of work to do to set up the two final episodes (which I expect to be very strong—although episode four, “Who Goes There,” has set the bar really high). Metaphors like tying loose ends or connecting the dots don’t apply well to True Detective—which is, I’d argue, a show about the insanity of looking for satisfactory answers to, y’know, life and death—but “Haunted Houses” nevertheless underlines some of the plot points that will coalesce (or shatter) in the finale episodes.
We finally get to see why Hart and Cohle split up in 2002, and the moment is deeply dissatisfying in its obviousness and predictability, although there is a teleological neatness to seeing Hart fall apart, disappointing both of his partners—Maggie and Cohle—both of whom seem to have seen this coming. Indeed, in this episode, Hart fulfills a prophecy from the second episode, when Cohle wryly suggests that he’s putting a “down payment” on the child prostitute he feebly tries to “rescue” from the woodland brothel.
“Haunted Houses” focuses heavily on Marty Hart, which might be why I found it less engaging than what’s come before. There’s no aggravating Cohle monologue in this episode, and his actions are confined entirely to 2002, where he’s raking through the slime of old cases — “dead women and children” — causing headaches and pissing people off. Cohle, who has lost his own daughter, is keenly attuned to the infanticidal cost of existence. In the episode’s standout scene, he slowly, patiently extracts a confession out of a swampland Medea who has killed all of her children. Cohle has earlier revealed that the simple core of his interrogation technique is rooted in the idea that everyone has sinned and that everyone wants to confess—and he gently guides the mother to confession. Then, in a strange but somehow caring tone, he ends the interrogation: “If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself.”
Cohle’s detective work begins to knit together the major threads of what we now might as well call the Tuttle case: The big people who are involved in sick shit. The series isn’t at its best when it’s doing the police procedural thing, and even soaked in Southern Gothic noir, some of these scenes play out in broad strokes—but those broad strokes will likely build a foundation for the rest of the drama to unfold on.
The Cohle sequences that don’t involve his detective work seem to frame him from Hart’s point of view—his lines are never quite wholly contextualized as they are in earlier episodes, seasoned and weighted by 2012 Cohle’s dark ramblings. When Hart calls Cohle’s observations on the Tuttle (non)case “pure gibberish,” there’s clearly an invitation here for the audience to agree—or not.
Not that Hart has done anything meaningful lately—let alone “anything heroic,” in his own words. Most of “Haunted Houses” conjures him in wholly abject terms. In the opening scene, he mercilessly beats the two boys his daughter has had (consensual) sex with. The scene is violent and cruel, quickly telegraphing the fact that Hart is a bully. (When asked what types of detectives exist in the opening scenes of the first episode, “bully” is the first descriptor on Hart’s list). He leaves, gets in his car, shuts the door, then opens it again to vomit: Abjection: His guts spilling out, his borders unrestrained. He’s sick. That abjection is underscored later when Hart feels shame at carrying a shopping bag brimming with tampons, and then heavily underscored when his commanding officer refers to him as a “walking tampon.”
Hart attempts to reassert his manhood—his kinghood?—throughout the episode, first by violating the civil rights of the boys in the cell and then by having an affair with a woman young enough to be one of his daughters. When he finds out that Maggie has fucked Cohle in revenge (in brutal and confusing scene), Hart begins to choke her, threatens her, before redirecting his rage into a physical attack on Cohle. None of this behavior helps him to reassert his sense of identity; the 2005 segment closes out with Hart cuckolded, shamed, bloody, abject.
Of course that’s not the end of the episode. In episode four, Cohle left the interrogation room, having got a read on detectives Papania and Gilbough, and also severing (or at least displacing) one of the show’s formal conventions, the interrogation scenes. In episode five, Hart does the same. The interrogation scenes have been a simple but effective way for True Detective to reveal the ways that truth—and implicitly identity—is a construction, a narration: A performance.
Leaving behind the interrogation sequences opens the last two episodes up to something new, which begins in the most interesting part of “Haunted Houses” — the last few minutes, when 2012 Hart meets 2012 Cohle (his first appearance in the episode). Cohle has clearly been tailing Hart, and he hails him from behind (ex-cop pulling over ex-cop), a kind of anti-interpellation, or an interpellation into some other, darker (dis)order. While “Haunted Houses” doesn’t evoke the strange thrills and weird questions that made the first half of the season so compelling, it nevertheless sets the stage for something dark and ugly—some kind of monster at the end of the dream.
Two new handsome fellas from indie press Sunnyoutside:
James Brubaker’s Pilot Season, which I read over the past few days, is a fun little volume that is better than its thin premise suggests (blurb from the back):
Pilot Season opens with a television executive attempting to save his floundering network’s fall roster. As his own anxieties, disappointments, and alienation from his own family play out through a steady stream of absurd television pilots, we are treated to sardonic parodies of the contemporary reality show-obsessed media culture. While critiquing the cruelty and exploration of the medium, Pilot Season also manages to laud the human spirit’s ability to trump our flaws.
Pilot Season shares a strong overlap with Matthew Winston’s This Coming Fall; the central conceit of that story is a voice that blithely announces a schedule of dystopian TV shows. (I read the books more or less at the same time—both are slim enough to fit in a pocket and can be discreetly absorbed during meetings, for example).
Rusty Barnes’s Reckoning is Appalachian noir propelled by dialogue, sex, and violence. Blurb from the back:
Richard Logan begins his summer day as any fourteen-year-old might: working at a farm job bringing in hay, avoiding his hard-headed father, and hanging out with his friends. When he stumbles onto an unconscious woman in the woods, he has no idea that the process of helping her will lead him into the darkness o fa the deeply held deceits of his rural Appalachian town. Both brutal and beautiful, Reckoning shows the seams and limits of family love and community tolerance while Richard discovers where manhood truly lies.
Reckoning and Pilot Season will be released in Spring of 2014.
1. In his essay “All in the Game” at The Oxonian Review of Books, Clif Marks points out that
Before the opening credits of the first episode, The Wire introduces its main themes of capitalism, violence, and decay, as well as the trope of the game. The murder of Snot Boogie over an alleyway dice game is the problem of urban America writ small, and The Wire spends the next five seasons elaborating the theme on a progressively broader canvas.
2. As Marks suggests, the scene explicating Snot Boogie’s robbing the dice game—the opening of The Wire—somehow encapsulates the entire series. Here’s the scene:
3. Later in “All in the Game,” Marks analyzes the way The Wire uses “the game” as a dominant formalizing conceit. I’ll quote at length:
The first institutions so portrayed are the police department and the drug trade, which is aptly called “the game” by all of its participants and those in the world surrounding it. At every level the game provides certain goals to its players who are governed by strictly enforced rules of conduct. The drug trade is organised in the form of a bureaucratic hierarchy, and even spawns its own particular ideology through which participants justify their own actions, and interpret and evaluate the acts of others.
The “game” operates as a metaphor for all institutions. In addition to its role as adversary in the drug game, the police department is also the setting for a second game of career advancement, which is entirely controlled by appearances. Crime statistics must be shown to be dropping, whether or not there is any real effect, and anything which might embarrass the higher-ups must be concealed. Likewise, educators’ teaching strategies are largely controlled by the need to perform on standardised state testing on which their funding, and local control of the school, depends. Thus, the explicit aims of public institutions are subverted by internal games that they set up. Even well-intentioned cops and teachers are forced to play bureaucratic games in order to survive in their organisations.
4. I’ve spent points 1-3 of this essay trying to contextualize what anyone who’s seen The Wire probably already knows—namely, The Wire can be understood as a series of games folded into one ultimate game—the game—where the rules, the players, and the stakes are repeatedly displaced. I think that Marks’s essay is a particularly salient analysis of the costs that institutions and individuals alike incur playing such a game, and the extractions above, along with the first clip of The Wire might entice anyone who hasn’t seen the show to check it out. It’s great. In fact, it’s as great as everyone says it is.
The following points of this essay will trace a game piece that slips through various players’ hands in season four of The Wire. My argument is that “the game” is not merely an operational metaphor for the institutions depicted in The Wire, but an inescapable ideology that permeates every aspect of The Wire’s universe. Put another way, it’s not possible to not play “the game.” And while it is possible to affect change in “the game”—even to change its rules—individual agency is always susceptible to chance or chaos (or fate, if you prefer), which most likely comes in the form of some other player’s assertion of agency.
There are significant spoilers in the rest of this essay; I suggest not reading anymore if you haven’t yet seen The Wire but intend to see it at some point.
5. In season four, a large ring catches the eye of several players. This game piece changes hands through instances of both agency and chance. A compilation of all the ring exchanges exists as one YouTube clip, but I’m going to belabor the point by handling one exchange at a time (hat tip to Read Jack for having already organized these clips and making my work easier):
6. Old Face Andre to Marlo:
The ring initially belongs to Old Face Andre (the verb “belongs” should be placed under suspicion, of course). “I’ve had it for a long time now; it’s got some sentimental values,” he reports to Marlo, who immediately and coldly dismisses sentiment, demanding instead, “What’s the real value?” Andre, already owing a debt to Marlo, tries to deflect the conversation by claiming he doesn’t know the ring’s appraised value. Marlo, a sinister bully, says “I’ll find out for you” before essentially forcing Andre to hand over the ring that had so much “sentimental value” to Andre.
Marlo’s promise is ironic beyond his (not-so) coded intention to steal the ring from Andre: He will, in some way, become an arbiter for the “real value” of the ring.
7. Let’s step outside of the ring narrative for a moment to consider Marlo’s question again: “What’s the real value?”
The ring is a wholly appropriate game piece to illustrate the strange contours of the game in The Wire precisely because of its apparent superfluity. Let’s contrast the ring with another symbolic item from The Wire, the nailgun that Snoop buys in the opening scene of season four:
Besides delivering the horror/comedy axis that seems to mark all of Snoop’s scenes, the nailgun purchase also demonstrates some basics of capitalism. The nailgun, in contrast with the ring, is not superfluous. Furthermore, not only can the nailgun’s value can be fixed, so too can the services of the home store employee (“You earned that bump like a motherfucker”). So even when Snoop appears to break the rules of the store’s game, she’s actually reifying the essential rules of the game by paying appropriately for goods and services.
In contrast, the ring’s value isn’t so much constituted by the game (like the nailgun’s value)—instead, the ring’s value constitutes the rules of the game itself. We can see this ideological operation more clearly in the ring’s transfer from Marlo to Omar.
8. Marlo to Omar:
Omar robs the card game (need I remark the meta-structure here?). Marlo says that the money being stolen is his money, to which the Robin Hood figure retorts, “Money ain’t got no owners, only spenders.” This is clearly one of the rules of the game, although by rules what I really mean to say is structuring properties, a structuring property that Omar demonstrates by robbing the card game. Tellingly, Omar repeats Marlo’s gesture in his attraction to the ring, which arrests his attention momentarily.
9. Omar to Officer Walker:
Dirty Officer Walker (perhaps the most evil character in season four) arrests Omar for the convenience store murder Marlo’s outfit has staged. Omar insists there are “rules to this here game”; Walker repeats “Rules?” and throws Omar violently to the ground. By apparently breaking the rules of the game, Officer Walker of course demonstrates the existence of such rules. Omar is not the first to observe that Walker is in violation of the rules to the game. However, there is no authority for the players to appeal to—the game is the authority. Hence, the game is self-regulatory (it cannot be otherwise), and Officer Walker’s rule-breakings will be punished.
10. Officer Walker to Michael:
The boys at the heart of season four (I wrote about them earlier) humiliate Walker by throwing paint on him. Michael repeats the same gesture of arrested (if brief) attention when his gaze falls on the ring. Significantly, he unmasks himself at the same moment he steals the ring—from a police!—suggesting the revelation of true/new identity at this moment.
When Marlo takes the ring from Andre, the act isn’t so much a theft as it is an assertion of agency, or, more to the point, an infringement on Andre’s capacity to assert agency in the game. When Omar takes the ring from Marlo he commits the robbery unmasked and unashamed, confident in his identity as a strong player. When Walker takes the ring from Omar he does so in the confident ease conferred upon him by his mask of authority (his uniform) and his false morality (his badge).
When Michael takes the ring from Walker he signals a decision to play the game fully (and not just through a surrogate like Chris). Brash and unmasked, his bold move echoes Omar’s bold card game robbery, foreshadowing his eventual ascendancy to independent agent.
11. Marlo sees Michael possesses the ring:
So the ring moves through an ellipse of sort, orbiting past Marlo, who seems stunned (okay, as close as Marlo gets to stunned) that Michael possesses it. Maybe this is because he thinks Michael took it from Omar, although this seems unlikely—what he really perceives is the strength of Michael’s agency to hold on to something that he himself has lost. What perhaps signals Michael’s strongest power is his apparent willingness to give the ring up to Marlo. I intuit perhaps a bit too much here, but I imagine that Michael, who we know wishes to earn his way in the world, is likely eager to repay Marlo as quickly as possible for the various debts he owes him—his accommodations, a contract murder, etc. Unlike Andre who hems, haws, and equivocates, Michael asserts the right to give and in this way retains power (of a sort) in the scene. Put another way, Michael has realized the “real value” of the ring—namely, the “real value” is slippery, unfixed, and contingent upon the ring’s relationship to other players.
12. The various transfers of the ring in season four of The Wire illustrate a convincing and realistic take on relationships of value and power. The game is ideology itself, always external, uncentered, and changing, ultimately offering no fixed meaning. Sure, common consensus might exist for a time, a lifespan even, but the rules of the game are always subject to change simply by the fact that they can be understood to be rules—and it’s the players themselves who change the rules (players don’t usually bother to tell other players that they’ve changed the rules, of course). The characters who most strongly assert agency in The Wire tend to be highly individualistic and thus in conflict with institutions. And this might be The Wire’s central insight into institutions—that institutions are, at their ideological core, monolithic teams of players bound to outdated or ineffective or even cannibalistic self-imposed rules. It’s the agents who attempt to impose upon or infringe or cheat or revise these rules who succeed in the game—but only for a time. Because it’s not possible to win the game.
13. Let’s end by taking up the notion of chance. Why shoot dice? Why play poker? These games impose both risks and rewards; they allow players to assert agency through skill. But such games are also subject to an apparent force operating outside of the game—chance. An apparently random or meaningless death might be the strongest signal of the role of chance in the game, and The Wire often used an apparently chance or circumstantial death as a means to open another level of game play. Examples of such deaths include the floater in season two, Pryzbylewski mistakenly shooting another officer in season three, and the state’s witness who dies from a ricochet in season four. And yet The Wire functions here as a sort of panopticon, a omnipresent viewing machine that allows the viewer an impossible view of how the game (which is to say the structuring principals of The Wire itself) supersedes chance; chance is not actually outside of the game, but another constituting element of the game. There is no outside of the game. Or, as Omar succinctly puts it, “It’s all in the game.”
1. I’ve been rewatching David Simon’s Baltimore epic The Wire, generally regarded as one of the best if not the best, TV series ever. I’ve been watching with my wife, who’s never seen the show before. I’m going to riff on a few of the themes of season four of The Wire here, and there will be spoilers.
If you’ve never seen The Wire and you think that some day you want to see it (it’s as good as everyone says it is, so you should want to see it) you shouldn’t read this post because of the spoilers.
2. Season four of The Wire takes education as its central subject. Specifically, it examines the different ways in which personal circumstance and chance (and maybe fate) intersect with institutions. The simplest example of one of these institutions might be Edward J. Tilghman Middle School, but there are other institutions too—the city’s political core, including the Mayor and his advisers, the police and their various detention centers, and even the criminal organizations that foster their own trainees.
3. Season four gives us four eighth graders to care about. The first episode of the season, “The Boys of Summer,” establishes these characters as they prepare to head from childhood into a more complex—and violent—world:
Childish joy and youthful agitation mixes with real territorial violence here; everything that follows in the season shades this scene with a bleak irony.
4. Season four presents a series of possible mentor relationships, wherein various principal characters contend to steward, foster, educate, or otherwise help these four kids turn into four men.
Roland Pryzbylewski, one-time detective-cum-fuck-up, becomes the teacher Mr. Presbo. He idealistically tries to help the four kids, who all take his class together. Parallel to Pryzbylewski’s efforts in the classroom are Dennis “Cutty” Wise’s efforts in the boxing gym; he hopes to take these kids off the corners as well. Initially, Presbo fosters Randy and Dukie while Cutty tries to make headway with Namond and Michael.
As the season develops, different mentors present themselves for each of the kids. Almost all fail.
Cutty loses whatever inroads he had on mentoring Michael, who comes under the tutelage of the dark assassin Chris. Tellingly, Michael enlists Chris in killing off his brother Bug’s father; the assassination is Oedipal.
Mr. Presbo helps Dukie in real and meaningful ways, making sure that the indigent child has clean clothes and a place to shower, but also showing him a kind of loving respect wholly absent in his relationship with “his people,” hopeless, horrible drug addicts. However, after Dukie is promoted to high school early, Mr. Presbo realizes that he will have to limit his involvement with the boy. He sees that there will always be another Dukie to come along, and that he can’t “keep” the boy—only steward him for a year or two.
After a series of institutional bungles, Carver tries to protect Randy, but loses him to a group home. The last time we see Randy he receives a savage beating at the hands of his roommates.
5. (I should now bring up Sherrod, a dim bulb of maybe 15 who seems to have dropped out of school years ago. Homeless, he’s “schooled” by Bubbles, who first tries to make him return to Tilghman, and then, seeing the boy won’t go, tries to teach him some basic survival skills. Sherrod ends up dead though, and Bubbles, feeling that the death is his fault (which it is in part), attempts suicide. Another failed mentor.
We can also bring up Bodie, whom McNulty attempts to help, albeit the relationship here is hardly on the mentor/avuncular (which is to say, displaced father/son) axis that the other five boys experience. Still, McNulty tries to steer Bodie to a path that would help absolve the young man’s conscience. The path leads to the young man’s murder).
6. And Namond?
Namond is perhaps the most fascinating figure in season four, at least for me. He’s a spoiled brat, hood rich, the son of infamous Barksdale enforcer Wee-Bey Brice who is doing life for multiple murders. Namond is petulant and mean and immature. He bullies Dukie, yet he doesn’t have the “heart” (in the series’s parlance) to manage selling drugs on his corner, a weakness that comes to harsh light when a child of no more than eight steals his package of drugs. Namond is a mama’s boy, but bullied by an overbearing mother, a woman who encourages him to drop out of school to sell drugs for her own material comfort. He is not made of the same stuff as his father.
Namond is also creative, funny, charismatic, individualistic, and intelligent. Bunny Colvin sees these qualities and sees an opportunity to help—to really help—one person. And here is the moment of consolation in season four. It’s a consolation for Colvin, who has experimented twice now with programs that bucked the institutional path (Hamsterdam in season three; the corner kids project in season four), and perhaps it’s a consolation for Cutty, who is instrumental in connecting Colvin with Wee-Bey. But it’s also a consolation for the audience, who perhaps will concede that one out of four ain’t bad. (Although clearly, three out of four children are left behind).
7. The Wire’s emphasis on Baltimore locations, specific regional dialects, and its use of local, semi-professional actors afforded the show a strong sense of realism. Straightforward shots and short scenes added to this realism. What I perhaps like most about The Wire’s realism is its near-complete lack of musical cues: other than the opening song and closing credits soundtrack, the only music that appears in any scene in The Wire is internal to the scene, i.e., we only hear music if the characters are hearing it (in their cars, on their stereos, etc. — a la rule two of Dogme 95).
The Wire breaks from these formal realistic conventions at the end of each season, using a montage—a device it almost always avoids—overlaid with a song. Here’s the montage from the end of season four:
8. I include the montage as a means to return to point 6, Namond. The images unfold, giving a sense of where our characters (those who survive season four) will go next (the universe of The Wire is never static; our characters are always in motion). The montage settles (about 4:40 in the video above) to rest on Namond, working on his homework, clearly more comfortable if not at ease in his new life with the Colvins. A family embraces on the porch of the house behind the Colvin house, signaling that Namond has finally arrived in an institution that can protect and foster and nourish him—a loving family. A reminder of his old life as a corner boy enters the scene as the young car thief Donut pulls up, smiling; there’s an implicit offer to return to the corner life here. Then Donut blazes through a stop sign, almost causing a wreck. Namond’s troubled face signals that he’s learned something, but it also twists into a small grin. The shot lingers on the crossroads: open possibility, but also the burden of choice.
9. (Parenthetical personal anecdote that illustrates why season four is, for me, easily the most emotionally affecting entry in The Wire:
For seven years I taught at an inner city high school that was plagued by low test scores, low student interest, and violence. The school’s population was about 95% black, with most students receiving free or reduced lunch. I was still working at this school when I first saw The Wire’s Edward J. Tilghman Middle School, and although the depiction was hyperbolic in places, the general tone of chaos and apathy was not at all unfamiliar to me. There were fights at my school. Brawls. Gang violence. Murders even—student-on-student murders that still haunt me today (these didn’t happen on campus, but they were still our students). I recall one day leaving early—I had fourth period planning and my principal allowed me to leave once a week to attend a graduate school course—and being stunned to see two swat trucks pull up around the school and unload teams of militarized police.
Most of our students were good people trying to get a good education despite very difficult circumstances that were beyond their own control—poverty, unstable family environments, severe deficits in basic skills like reading and math. And most of our teachers were good people trying to help these students as best as they knew how in spite of a draconian, top-heavy management structure that emphasized the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) as the end-all be-all of education.
I’m tempted here to rant about tests like the FCAT and legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act, rant about how they drain schools of resources, rob children of a true education, and limit teachers’ and schools’ ability to differentiate instruction—but that’s not the point of this riff.
Probably more productive to let The Wire illustrate. I’ve sat in meetings like this one (I imagine many educators have):
The primary goal of the institution is always to maintain the institution, no matter what the mission statement might be.
What I’m trying to say here is that The Wire’s Edward J. Tilghman Middle School strikes me as very, very real).
10. I’ll conclude by returning to Namond and Colvin and suggest that this is the closest thing to a happy ending that The Wire could possibly produce. The Wire perhaps boils down to the evils of institutionalism (of any kind); Colvin (and, to be fair, Cutty and Wee-Bey to a certain extent) must take an individualistic response to bypass institutional evils. (In season five, McNulty will carry out an individualistic response to institutional apathy—which is to say practical evil—on a whole new level).
The Wire plainly shows us that life costs, that all decisions cost, and that decisions cost in ways that we cannot calculate or measure or foresee. Namond’s future comes at the cost, perhaps, of Michael, Dukie, and Randy, the children who are left behind. And here is the real evil of a mantra like “no child left behind”—its sheer meaningless as a philosophy inheres in its essentially paradoxical nature, whereby if no single child can be left behind then all children can be left behind—the institution simply redefines or “jukes” what “behind” means. Colvin’s solution, on one hand, is to pragmatically assess the costs and payoffs of managing his interest in education, in being “a teacher of sorts” (as he calls it). (This pragmatic side echoes his Hamsterdam experiment in season three). Colvin’s pragmatism is successful though not only because he realizes his limitations—he cannot help just any child, and certainly not every child—it is also successful because it is tempered in love.
Your word for today is: doh, int.doh, int.Pronunciation: Brit. /dəʊ/, U.S. /doʊ/Forms: 19– d’oh, 19– doh, 19– dooh.Etymology:Imitative. Compare oh int., duh int.Popularized by the American actor Dan Castellaneta who provides the voice for the character Homer Simpson in the U.S. cartoon series The Simpsons. The quotation below is his own description of its origin:1998 Daily Variety (Nexis) 28 Apr., The D’oh came from character actor James Finlayson’s “Do-o-o-o” in Laurel & Hardy pictures. You can tell it was intended as a euphemism for “Damn”. I just speeded it up.
Although the word appears (in the form D’oh) in numerous publications based on The Simpsons, the scripts themselves simply specify annoyed grunt (as did the very earliest). Unofficial transcripts of the programme suggest the first spoken use was in a short episode, Punching Bag, broadcast on 27 Nov. 1988 as part of The Tracey Ullman Show. Its earliest occurrence in the full-length series was in the first episode Simpsons roasting on an Open Fire, broadcast on 17 Dec. 1989.colloq.Expressing frustration at the realization that things have turned out badly or not as planned, or that one has just said or done something foolish. Also (usu. mildly derogatory): implying that another person has said or done something foolish (cf. duh int.).1945 T. Kavanagh It’s That Man Again (B.B.C. radio script) 8th Ser. No. 166, Tom: Yes, out of the nest–Diana: What nest? Tom: In those whiskers–Diana: Dooh! Its [sic] no good talking to you.1945 T. Kavanagh It’s That Man Again (B.B.C. radio script) 8th Ser. No. 167, Diana: The man I marry must be affectionate and call me ‘Dear’–Tom: Oh you’re going to be a stag’s wife–Diana: Doh!Tom: Same thing.1952 A. Buckeridge Jennings & Darbishire xii. 183 ‘Doh!’ An anguished gasp of exasperation rang out loud and clear as Mr Wilkins found his voice again.1989 Beano 11 Feb. 23 (caption) [Speaker is a man who is knocked against a bus stop.] Doh!1991 Chicago Tribune (Nexis) 15 Nov. (Friday section) Pg-h, ‘The movie had one good point: It wasn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen.’ ‘It was the worst movie I’ve ever seen.’ ‘Doh!’1993 HP Professional (Nexis) July 28 Along their long path ISO sort of missed local area networks and network management, which gave the market over to TCP/IP and related technologies. As Homer Simpson would say: ‘Doh!’1996 A. Fein et al. Simpsons Comics strike Back! 14/2 ‘Look out, you dern fool! You’re gonna cut off your…’ ‘D’oh!!!’1998 N. Jones Hollyoaks (Mersey TV transmission script) Episode 256. 44 Cindy: What are we doing here, anyway? Paul: Doh! Use your head, eh?
From The Paris Review interview, William Gibson on on Charles Dickens’s Bleak House—
The Victorians invented science fiction.
I think the popular perception that we’re a lot like the Victorians is in large part correct. One way is that we’re all constantly in a state of ongoing technoshock, without really being aware of it—it’s just become where we live. The Victorians were the first people to experience that, and I think it made them crazy in new ways. We’re still riding that wave of craziness. We’ve gotten so used to emergent technologies that we get anxious if we haven’t had one in a while.
But if you read the accounts of people who rode steam trains for the first time, for instance, they went a little crazy. They’d traveled fifteen miles an hour, and when they were writing the accounts afterward they struggled to describe that unthinkable speed and what this linear velocity does to a perspective as you’re looking forward. There was even a Victorian medical complaint called “railway spine.”
Emergent technologies were irreversibly altering their landscape. Bleak House is a quintessential Victorian text, but it is also probably the best steampunk landscape that will ever be. Dickens really nailed it, especially in those proto-Ballardian passages in which everything in nature has been damaged by heavy industry. But there were relatively few voices like Dickens then. Most people thought the progress of industry was all very exciting. Only a few were saying, Hang on, we think the birds are dying.
1. The Sopranos is widely considered to be the best TV show of all time, but you already knew that, right? I watched all six seasons over the past few weeks; although I’d seen most of the episodes over the last decade, I was never a regular viewer, and I certainly didn’t evaluate the episodes I saw through any kind of critical lens. What follows is hardly an in-depth analysis, but rather my thoughts on the show. There are spoilers.
2. Tony Soprano is a vile character. Hard to relate to. He kills his friends and even family members; he lies to his family; he cheats on his wife. He’s a bad guy. He’s not a hero. He’s not an anti-hero. He’s both protagonist and villain of a series that begs us to identify with him, to see in him the expression of our own throbbing id. The gambit pays off at times, but over the duration of the series identifying with Tony becomes exhausting, painful, depressing.
3. I’ll go ahead and submit that I view the series as a study in existential nihilism against the backdrop of American-Dream-as-flow-of-capital. To put it in the series’ own terms, life is “all a big nothing.” In the series’ final scene in a diner, we’re reminded that the best we can hope for is to enjoy the “good times,” to focus on those moments of peace and happiness with our families. But ultimately, the series suggests nihilism, the “big nothing,” a void signaled in its famous closing shot of extended, abyssal blackness.
4. To be very clear, Tony dies at the end. I do not think that the ending is ambiguous. Any other reading is unsupported by the arc of not only the episode’s internal logic, but the arc of the sixth season, and indeed, the arc of the entire series. Any reading that allows Tony to live is wish fulfillment.
5. Pretty much everyone dies in The Sopranos. Again, “big nothing.”
6. There are lots of scenes of people eating sandwiches in The Sopranos.
7. The Sopranos is a commentary on and perhaps rejection of psychoanalysis as a mode of therapy, yet it uses the techniques of psychoanalysis to frame its stories.
8. The Sopranos is a Oedipal drama. I might submit that any drama about a family contains some kernel of Oedipal tension, but The Sopranos is formally Oedipal.
9. The Sopranos aired from 1999 to 2007. That’s a long time. When viewed successively over a short period, the series’ gaps and seams show prominently: characters appear from nowhere, story lines disappear, and key plot points often have to be explicated through clunky exposition.
10. A cultural value of The Sopranos: the series documents the Bush-era zeitgeist.
11. An easy criticism to make about The Sopranos: it’s ultimately an exercise in style and tone rather than plot and character development. Its themes and motifs build and simmer, but they are not enriched by this process. Rather, the series’ themes and motifs swell like thick plaster, obvious, concrete, depressing. Again, The Sopranos can only point to its own nihilism, to its “big nothing.”
12. The show is depressing. I mean, watching the show is a depressing process. It normalizes murders, lies, bullying, and violence—that’s pretty bad—but what becomes especially distressing is that the Sopranos are always fighting with each other. They are usually angry or sad. There aren’t really too many of those “good times” to remember.
13. TVs are always on in The Sopranos, usually tuned to documentaries about war or war movies.
14. Some favorite episodes: “College,” “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano” (season one), “Commendatori,” “Funhouse” (season two), “Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood,” “University,” “Pine Barrens” (season three), “Calling All Cars,” “Whitecaps” (season four), “Rat Pack,” “Irregular around the Margins,” “The Test Dream,” “Long Term Parking” (season five), “Join the Club,” “Mayham,” “Live Free or Die,” “Soprano Home Movies,” “Made in America” (season six).
15. For years, I thought that the Comorra enforcer Furio Giunta, played by Federico Castelluccio, was played by Brent Spiner, who played Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Looking at pics of these actors, I do not understand my previous confusion. This comment is in no way germane to this “review.”
16. I don’t know if I’ve ever hated a character as much as I hate Paulie Walnuts.
17. Chris Moltisanti, played by actor Michael Imperioli, is probably my favorite character on the show. He too is vile—a drug addict, a thief, a woman-beater—but he’s also tender and funny. Maybe I just like Imperioli.
18. Steve Buscemi’s run on The Sopranos was pretty great, although it was part of a trope that the series leaned on too often—the guy-gets-out-of-prison-and-now-what? storyline.
19. Buscemi directed what might be the best episode of the series, “Pine Barrens.”
20. It’s easy to forget or overlook or understate the impact that The Sopranos had on HBO shows in particular and TV shows in general, but that impact should be noted here. Its formal elements either influenced or paved the way for the superior shows Deadwood and The Wire. It’s hard to imagine Mad Men without The Sopranos.
21. The early episodes of The Sopranos look and feel surprisingly cheap, perhaps in part due to the heavy use of canned music and an emphasis on longer takes. Plus, the need for exposition and character grounding leads to a kind of clunkiness. These episodes compensate with graphic violence and nudity.
22. Lots of strippers on The Sopranos.
23. You could argue that The Sopranos is a study in patriarchy, in patriarchy-as-capitalism.
24. One of the major themes of The Sopranos traces how women attempt to find agency within this strict patriarchy, a patriarchy that repeatedly objectifies, dehumanizes, uses, and discards women. Carmella, in particular, seeks to find voice in freedom, and her plan to do so invokes, again, the American Dream—the accumulation and sale of property. The flow of capital is freedom.
25. As a way of closing, I’ll return to the series’ final scene, probably one of the most remarked-upon moments in TV history (I cringe now at having written the execrable and odious phrase “TV history”). For me, the ending is unambiguous—the cut to black is a POV shift into Tony’s consciousness at the precise moment that he loses that consciousness forever. The ending is neither cheap nor gimmicky, but a formal masterstroke that corresponds to the series’ overarching themes of nihilism. This nihilism perhaps prevents the series achieving the cohesion of, say, The Wire, an equally dark series that takes capitalism as its major subject. The Wire proposes struggle itself as raison d’être. The Sopranos makes no argument for that struggle, finds no honor or humanity in it, instead shifting philosophical emphasis to “focus on the times that were good” against the face of a “big nothing.” The end of The Wire is a beautiful montage that suggests that even though history may be cyclical, this fact alone does not foreclose human agency. It is difficult to call the end of The Wire “happy,” but the series conclusion nevertheless suggests generative possibility: there might not be space for the viewer in that particular world, but David Simon suggests that that world will nevertheless continue without the viewer. In metaphorical terms, it lives. The formal device of the cycle-montage at the end of The Wire would feel cheap or even hackneyed had the series not earned it by establishing its threads years in advance. The end of The Wire shows us everything; it gives us the future. It is big everything, the perfect end for a show that attempt to measure the everything of one particular place. Similarly, the final shot of The Sopranos is formally and thematically appropriate. It gives us that “big nothing” that the series has repeatedly promised is ours to collect. The black thematizes the profound moral failures of its characters and dramatizes the loss of enlightenment and moral vision that permeates the family members in the final season. It’s a clever, elegant, and ugly way to end a very depressing show.
In case you missed it: Last night’s episode of The Simpsons featured an intro directed by graffiti artist Banksy. The intro is a fairly grim, mostly unfunny satire of the how cheap South Korean and Chinese labor is used to produce The Simpsons animation and merchandise. Observe–