The Wire and Mimesis

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The Wire and Mimesis

The notion of hindsight is based on that of foresight. To be prudent in life, one attempts to foresee the future ramifications of one’s actions; we constantly grasp for the prescience to make the right decision. What is the right decision? In a game of chess, the right decision is the move that advances against the opponent and simultaneously continues to defend the position of the king. To make the right move one must sift through all other options that are available, marking their pros and cons, searching for hidden caveats that may strengthen or weaken one’s position on the board. And it always comes down to a choice, a move, a decision – an action – that in its very existence is a flirtation with chance. We can only truly understand that moment of chance through hindsight, defined as “the perception of the nature of an event after it has happened.”[1]

The genius of David Simon’s The Wire is its utilization of vignette, mirroring, and harmony to create a mimesis of foresight and hindsight. The viewer is subtly encouraged to weigh the actions of characters, not just for the obvious moral judgments, but also as smaller moves on a greater, existential plane. We are never given a whole story, a bird’s eye view of the broader, socio-political themes that are a constant throughout The Wire. However, we are given vignettes like little clues, encouraged through mirroring to connect them, and the harmony of all these seemingly disparate pieces creates the beautiful phantom character of the city of Baltimore.

Simon himself intended that “Each story arc must provide episodes that stand alone as dramatic television, but at the same time the whole must make a cogent argument about the national condition, using the streets and stories of one city as a microcosm.”[2] And interestingly enough, that’s how I first encountered Season 4 of The Wire – channel surfing through primetime right into the middle of Episode 8, “Corner Boys.”

The scene is in a classroom and the teacher is lecturing the students, telling them “the word around school is you’re down here because you beat the system.” We sense the irony, that these kids were kicked out for misbehaving and yet they view their special class situation not as punishment, but as winning. It’s an ironic reversal, emphasized by the overwhelming response to the teacher’s question, “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” Most of the class, seemingly none of them much over the age of thirteen or fourteen, answered “Dead.” The camera keeps switching from relatively clear, medium shots of the teacher, Professor, and Bunny (who are all standing) to crowded shots of the kids, who are sitting at desks in a semi-circle. The camera angle invites one to become an observer of the kids, spying on them from behind the teacher. Like one strives to see the entire chessboard, observing from each possible source of action, the scene tightens when Bunny takes over, moving to close-ups signaling the beginning of the kids’ interested engagement in the conversation. Everyone begins to talk over everyone else, the camera pans out giving us the full picture of this, and end scene.

This scene, as a vignette of the Professor and Bunny’s prototype class, stayed with me until I recently reconnected with The Wire. Stand-alone, there is so much to be gained from this vignette, but even more layers and sub-strands of plot come together when watching the entire episode and connecting that episode to its place in the season. As the intro to a show is usually suggestive of some of its larger themes and motifs, the intro to Season 4 of The Wire is as well. The ubiquitous theme song, “Way Down in the Hole,” is recorded differently each season and matched with a different montage of clips. The Season 4 intro is, for the most part, a pastiche of clips from Season 4, and as one watches their way through the season the clips become recognizable. On the way, they act as tantalizing hints as to the direction of the season as well as how one is supposed to piece together the story.

In the same line of reasoning, if we look at the collection of vignettes that make up each episode in the same way that we look at the clips in the intro, we realize that we are piecing together a tapestry of a story from disparate, and differing patches. The sphere of the Professor and Bunny’s classroom is connected to the larger sphere of the school, the sphere of the mayor, the sphere of the police, and of course, the sphere of the streets. And it becomes the game of watching The Wire to figure out the interconnections between these spheres. If The Wire is the game that it is constantly referring to, who is making the moves? Who is making the rules and then rigging them? Who’s playing who?

Through mirroring, we are given the sense that these questions are coming up in all of the spheres, both in regards to manipulation from the other spheres as well as manipulation within single spheres. Keeping with the same vignette, Bunny literally suggests this when he explains to the kids that they’re using school as training for the streets. But it is also evident in the first minute of “Corner Boys” when former cop and current eighth grade math teacher Mr. Pryzbylewski (Prez) is schooled by one of his students. Calling out the student for talking, Prez asks him for the answer of a math problem on the board. Taye, the student, immediately replies with the correct answer. When Prez asks him how he knew, Taye explains that the “dinks” on the chalkboard around the answer tipped him off. Instead of knowing the answer because he has learnt the math, Taye figures out the answer by reading what, in an analogous situation, would be called Prez’s poker face. It’s not training for school, but training for the street.

The strength of Simon’s episodes “that stand alone as dramatic television” was what drew me out of the ether into my very first episode of The Wire. However, what has kept me with the show – or is it better to say the story? – is its ability to be “a vehicle for making statements about the American city and even the American experiment.” Simon continues, “The grand theme here is nothing less than a national existentialism …”[3] In order to make these statements, one must somehow show great and vast political movements and at the same time their effects on individuals. In this way I think we can look at The Wire as the epic story of Baltimore, told through the individual tragedies of its citizens.[4] All this then, the vignettes and the mirroring that connects them, come together to create what Aristotle called harmony and what, in modern television provenance, is the flow of The Wire.

The interconnections between the spheres of influence on The Wire are impossible to miss. There are many, from obvious to subtle, and just as the wiretap itself is a theme that ties together each season, so too does it harmonize each sphere’s Season 4 obsession with knowing. Most obviously, as this season focuses on the schools, knowing and knowledge come to the forefront. But beyond school learning, as we discover in Bunny and the Professor’s class and in the vignettes of Namond, Michael, Randy, and Dukie that there are many other things that can be known. This is the story of a city; all the information is not just laid out on a single chessboard. And we begin to see the consequences for knowing through Randy.

In a particularly important vignette in Episode 6, “Margin of Error,” Randy is called into the principal’s office. Wrongly accused of helping two eighth grade boys rape an eighth grade girl, Randy gives up a rap sheet of minor crimes around the school trying to prevent the principal from calling his foster mother. The topper is when he admits that he knows about a murder. And this is where the mimesis of foresight and hindsight becomes so true in The Wire. With Randy’s information a physical linking of spheres begins to take place; as a kid, it’s not so much Randy’s lack of foresight in giving out this information but rather the handling of that information by the school, the police, and eventually the streets. What makes the mimesis so real is that we can see the characters trying to make sense of their situation without the larger picture that we, the audience, have pieced together. The dramatic irony of the situation directs the audience to analyze the pros and cons of the characters’ movements and decisions.

There is a sort of meta-dramatic irony going on as well and it relates directly to the social commentary in The Wire. Beyond what can be covered by dramatic irony itself, we have hindsight. And the realism of The Wire is causing confusion between the two. Because if one really does begin and end solely within the scope of The Wire’s diegetic story, then it is just dramatic irony. But it is impossible to watch The Wire and not make comparisons between its Baltimore and the real Baltimore, the story of American City X and our actual cities in America. In the strangest way, this fictional story carries the truth of hindsight – not hindsight into the actions of its characters, but the understanding of a perceptual truth behind the actions of the actual forces governing America.


[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hindsight (12/17/2009 12:50:12 PM).

[2] David Simon, http://kottke.org.s3.amazonaws.com/the-wire/The_Wire_-_Bible.pdf, 3.

[3] Simon, 3.

[4] Aristotle, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.1.1.html (12/18/2009 2:19:13 PM). “Epic poetry agrees with Tragedy insofar as it is an imitation in verse of characters of a higher type. … They differ, again, in their length: for Tragedy endeavors, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit, whereas the Epic has not limits of time. … All the elements of an Epic poem are found in Tragedy, but the elements of a Tragedy are not all found in the Epic poem.”

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One Response to “The Wire and Mimesis”

  1. alexholson Says:

    Jess – I really enjoyed reading this and I love how you translated what our group talked about! Have a great break!

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