Friday, September 18, 2009

Tragedy, Spoilers, and The Wire

We've recently been watching HBO's critically acclaimed highbrow cops-and-robbers show, The Wire, and are about to finish the third season. Prior to this, my primary experience with The Wire was catching a few scenes when visiting my parents; my mother was a fan. While two of the scenes were nothing terribly important, another of them happened to be arguably the biggest event of the first three seasons.

Note that this will, of course, have major spoilers for that event.

The Wire is formally somewhat similar to Battlestar Galactica. Its ensemble cast weaves in and out of a master storyline, usually presented with individual episodes in media res, presented in a naturalistic directorial style. It focuses on a police unit assigned to heroic distributors and dealers in Baltimore. There are four main groups of characters: street-level cops, police administration, street-level dealers, and the drug bosses.

By the third season, the most important character is drug boss "Stringer" Bell. Stringer is the focus of the police investigation, internal politics in the drug world (including a hilarious council using Robert's Rules), the return of his former boss whom he has partially supplanted, the dredging up of his past crimes, and his attempts to go mainstream as a politician and real estate developer.

Stringer is, in many ways, a classic tragic hero perhaps most closely related to MacBeth. He's an extraordinarily competent, intelligent, ambitious man. He makes a few bad, violent choices as shortcuts on his path to achieving his ambitions, and eventually finds himself in over his head and unable to escape his brutal past. All this culminates with his assassination by two men out for vengeance, abetted by his former partner angered at Stringer's usurpation of his power.

The scene I saw and remembered was the assassination. I remembered one of the assassins as well.

Watching the entire series, several years later, and remembering this one scene actually, despite the spoily nature of it, added to my enjoyment of the show as much as not knowing might have. Knowing how important Stringer was; knowing how he died; seeing his ambitions to get out of the game; seeing his inability to stop playing the game; and watching his mistakes pile up all added to my reading of his character arc. It was almost Shakespearean, knowing the main character dies, but not knowing exactly how.