Alex Massie

The Politics of Being Way Down in the Hole

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Back to The Wire: Ross is of course correct to argue that one of David Simon's great achievements was creating a television show that was open to multiple legitimate interpretations. Though I might see the show as grist for a certain libertarian strain of thinking, I can quite see why an ardent drug warrior could also find plenty of evidence to support his analysis. As much as anything else, in fact, its this argument between competing worldviews that proves the shows' brilliance. "Shakespearian" is a word bandied around far too often, but it's apt and worthwhile in this instance. And of course the validity of these multiple interpretations is in no way compromised by the fact they may be very different from, or at odds with, Simons' own views.

As Ross put it, the show was "the rarest and most precious of beasts: A work of art that's intensely political but rarely devolves into agitprop." I think that's true though I also agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates (and I think Ross would too) that Season 5 was much less successful than its predecessors, partly because it did descend into agitprop.

Mr Coates argues, with more than just some justification, that the final Series was too pock-marked by a nihilism that, though always present, had not before become the defining element of the show. I think that's true and that Mr Coates is also correct to say that both strands of Series 5 - the newspaper and the serial killing - lacked the complexity and the nuance of the show's first four years. Plot was driving character, rather than character leading plot.

Yet there was another problem too: the nihilism was accompanied by sentimentality. I'm more of a sceptic of Pulitzer-hunting than the next guy, but Simon's argument that there was once a Golden Age of journalism that had been squandered by a venal managerial ethos that corrupted everything that was once sweet and noble about journalism was, well, naive. Seriously, folk should read newspapers from the past. Yes, there are some things they did better than we do now, but by god they were just as often thin, dull, worthy affairs. Newspapers have always been imperfect beasts, as anyone who reads an article on a subject they know well can tell you. But Simon wants - like most journalists - to believe in the heroic reporter. That's fine, but there was no irony, no humour in his treatment of the Baltimore Sun.

He said that no=one got the fact that the real story of Season 5 was that the paper wasn't covering the real story of Baltimore. Well, I kinda thought that point was made pretty damn obvious. And it was the obviousness that was depressing. Equally, of all the characters on The Wire, just about the only two who had no redeeming moments whatsoever were the two senior executives on the Sun, while the only virginally pure character was the lng-suffering City Editor. Well, fine. But also, Come Off It!

You can argue that such sentiment played a role in earlier seasons too. But the struggles of the dock workers, no longer promised a job for life, were explained as the unfortunate, even terrible, consequences of modernity and shifting economic patterns. Equally, Bunny Colvin's paens to a warmer, gentler past when everyone knew the name of the local Cop on his beat were, though sentimental in some respect, rooted in a genuine wistfulness for what was, in some respects, a kinder, more communal past. Here too, Simon seemed to be demonstrating a nostalgia for a 1950s ideal that, one could argue - and not altogether implausibly - was in tune with a Dreherian crunchy-style conservatism.  

And of course plenty of people do think like that. Whereas the sentimentality of his treatment of journalism could only really, I think, make sense to other journalists. Or, to put it another way, Simon demands more from newspapers than do most readers. At the docks or in the wider community you could see that the stakes mattered. At the newspaper? Not so much. And, as I say, it was done with a depressing lack of nuance and carried a definite whiff of score-settling.

(I'd also suggest that the fabulist story was boring, not least because The Wire's HBO viewers would know all about it, having pored over, and perhaps enjoyed, the Jayson Blair fiasco. Tell us something we don't know! And most viewers, of course, were some way distant from the mean streets of West Baltimore or the impact of economic decline on working-class communities.)

Sure, Series 5 had its moments, but having just watched the first three years again the final season was a grievous disappointment. Yes, because of its nihilism but also, I think, on account of its unfortunate and solipsistic sentimentality.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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