Life is an Institution


“[The Wire is] “really about the American city, and about how we live together. It’s about how institutions have an effect on individuals, and how whether you’re a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge or a lawyer, you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you’ve committed to.” – creator David Simons, from the DVD commentary for episode 1.1, “The Target”

So, I didn’t watch the Wire on DVD, or listen to the commentary: I found this quotation on Wikipedia while looking for background information about the show. However, I found it somehow illuminating while watching the show.

I wasn’t interested in the Wire for a long time because I always used to confuse or equate it with the Shield, which my dad watched when I was younger. I did NOT like the Shield; maybe it was because I was young and didn’t watch it often enough to get a good sense of the show, but I didn’t find any of main characters especially sympathetic or relatable (again, it’s been a long time, I don’t know if any of this is actually true or not). I didn’t see or feel the heart in the show.

The Wire is full of heart. Maybe it’s easier for me to see in this show because I’m older, or maybe it’s because the Wire is a better show, but it’s everywhere. Within each institution, we are shown how individuals struggle between what is asked of them and what they think is important (their own morals? ethics? consciences?) That is where the heart of the show comes from. The show has no end of sympathetic characters, be it the rogue cops, the murderous drug dealers, the scamming junkies. They all have to balance what is asked of them with what they think is right, within their lives and the institutions within which they exist.

When McNulty pisses on a railroad track with a train bearing down on him and decides to do the case right, when D’Angelo walks away from the murder of the man who testified against him, when Bubbles gives information to Det. Greggs, they are subverting their institutions and the expectations of someone in their respective positions. We the audiences are watching how these characters contend with and perhaps compromise themselves for each institution. At what point does the compromise become too much? And when that happens, is it possible to escape the institution?


One Response to “Life is an Institution”

  1. Administrator Says:

    I think you put your finger on something very unique about the show–it IS about how individuals do or do not represent their “institution.” It manages to do that without making them into High Noon heroes or shallow Rebels without Causes. Very provocative line of inquiry, I should think …

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