David Simon is responsible for one of the greatest feats of storytelling of the past century, and that’s the entire five-season run of the television series The Wire. If that sounds like hyperbole to you, then you haven’t watched the show yet. It is the most intricate web of character, motivation, insight, action, repercussion, and emotion that’s ever been on TV, and it rivals the grand novels of the late 19th century, when novels actually, regularly, had scope. More hyperbole, but there you go. I and most of its fans are to The Wire as a Christian is to Christ or a junkie is to dope. It’s basically A FUCKING GOD. Too much hyperbole there, maybe. But you’re getting the point, right?
Before The Wire, David Simon was a reporter at the Baltimore Sun. During his time there, he wrote two meticulously researched and richly human books about his city. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991) was the result of a year spent with the murder police of a town where murder seems to be a major mode of employment. The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (1997, with writing partner Ed Burns) was the result of a year spent among the families, addicts, and dealers of one of Baltimore’s more infamous drug corners. Homicide resulted in the long-running cop show Homicide: Life on the Street, which was cool and everything, better than most cop shows, but also kind of just a cop show. The Corner resulted in an HBO miniseries that was pretty much a direct antecedent to what The Wire would end up tackling.
After The Wire, Simon and Ed Burns, who is a former Baltimore cop and schoolteacher, adapted Evan Wright’s book Generation Kill into an HBO miniseries. It stands as the most effective document yet produced on the daily reality of the life of marines in the current Iraq war.
And now, today, as I type this, Simon is filming his new HBO series down in New Orleans. It’s called Tremé, and it is said to take as its center the lives of local musicians. But I have a feeling that would be like saying that The Wire took as its center the Baltimore drug trade. Sure, it started there. But given Simon’s obsessions with the American city and the decreasing institutional value of life in this great country of ours, we’re pretty much guaranteed that Tremé will have the same reach and impact as The Wire. In other words, I wish I could be cryogenically frozen until the day this show debuts, because I can’t fucking wait.
Simon recently spoke with Vice from the Tremé production offices in New Orleans. This is the longest interview we’ve ever run by a long shot, but come on. It’s the guy who made The Wire. You’re lucky the entire issue isn’t about him.
Vice: I don’t know if the people who set this interview up for us related this anecdote to you, but you and I actually had an interesting run-in last year. I was waiting to get into a Pogues show at Roseland in New York City and—
David Simon: The fucker who cut the line. Yeah. Exactly.
The guy with Secretary of State’s Disease. That’s the guy. I was right next to you, right ahead of you. I’d noticed it was you after I realized that multiple strangers were coming up to the guy behind me and saying things like “Thanks” and “I love your work.” Then I looked behind me and saw a Homicide: Life on the Street Season 5 jacket and was like, “Fuck. That’s David Simon.” Next thing I knew some guy was cutting in front of us and you unleashed on him. You asked him if he thought he was the Queen of England.
Well, just don’t cut the line. You know? I found that guy afterward. Did you really?
Yeah, after we got our tickets I walked past him. We were both going to be on time for the concert. That was the thing. I said to him, “Was it worth it?” He just eye-fucked me. He didn’t seem to really understand.
Then later on we were both backstage after the show. Oh, really? What was he, some kind of record-label guy or something?
I don’t know who he was, but it was crowded backstage, and I was back there to say hi to the people I know in the band. The last thing I wanted to do was to make it about me or him. So I wasn’t going to pursue it. I was very scrupulous about not carrying it on with him then, but yeah, when I passed him before the show began, I was like, “You’re in. I’m in. The people who were behind me are in. What the fuck?” I hate that shit. I’m a little embarrassed about how profane that moment got, but hey. Shit happens. I loved it. I was like, man, he really fucking walks it like he talks it. I was happy.
I didn’t fight the guy or anything. I wasn’t going to swing first. That wouldn’t have been right. Well, I had your back.
And I also would have ended up getting thrown out of a concert that I had— A good reason to be at. Right. So I’ve always been curious about the way a season of The Wire would be structured before shooting. Can you outline, even really roughly, the process of scriptwriting?
There would be a series of planning sessions. First, at the beginning of every season, we did a sort of retreat with the main writers, the guys who were going to be on staff the whole year. We’d discuss what we were trying to say, but we were really having a current-events/ideology/political argument. The writers didn’t all think the same. We weren’t in lockstep on the issues of the day, whether it was the drug war or public education or the media. So we had to discuss the issue as an issue first. Never mind the characters, never mind plot. A lot of the people who came to write for The Wire were not from a traditional TV-writing background.
If there’s anything that distinguishes The Wire from a lot of the serialized drama you see, it was that the writers were not from television. None of us grew up thinking we wanted to get to Hollywood and write a TV show or a movie. Ed [Burns] was a cop, and then he was a schoolteacher. There were journalists on the writing staff. There were novelists. There were playwrights, too. Everyone began somewhere else. That probably made all the difference.
Well, we weren’t cynical about having been given ten, 12, 13 hours—whatever we had for any season from HBO. All of that was an incredible gift. The Godfather narrative, even including the third film, the weak one, is like… what? Nine hours? Yeah, about nine hours.
And look how much story they were able to tell. We were getting more than that for each season. So goddamn it, you better have something to say. That sounds really simple, but it’s actually a conversation that I don’t think happens on a lot of serialized drama. Certainly not on American television. I think that a lot of people believe that our job as TV writers is to get the show up as a franchise and get as many viewers, as many eyeballs, as we can, and keep them. So if they like x, give them more of x. If they don’t like y, don’t do as much y. Right. Between seasons of a lot of hit shows, adjustments will be made that are clearly based on network notes about what’s perceived to be most popular with viewers.
We never had that dynamic in our heads. What we were asking was, “What should we spend 12 hours of television saying?” And that’s a journalistic impulse. That was coming from the Wire writers who were journalists and, to an extent, the novelists who wrote for the show who write in a realistic framework, like researched fiction. People like Pelecanos, Price, and Lehane. Those three guys seemed to have the perfect backgrounds to bring a lot of valuable stuff to The Wire.
It wasn’t like we were putting Isaac Bashevis Singer on staff. I love his stuff, but we were looking for novelists who were doing researched fiction, and particularly in an urban environment. I’m also not mistaking The Wire for journalism. I have too much respect for journalism to make such a statement. But the impulse, the initial impulse behind doing the show? It was the same reason somebody sits down to write an editorial or an op-ed. To make a statement or to sound an alarm.
Yeah: “Shit’s going wrong. Here’s where I think it’s going wrong. Here’s what I think might make it right.” That impulse was the same in The Wire writing room as it would be at the editorial board of a good newspaper. “Good” being the operative word there. I don’t want to reduce The Wire to one big theme, but would you say that a major thrust of the series was the idea of institutions versus individuals?
Yeah, that permeated it. One of the things we were saying was that reform was becoming more and more problematic as moneyed interests—capitalism, which is sort of the ultimate Olympian god—become more entrenched in the postmodern world. Reform becomes more and more problematic because the status quo is arranged in such a way as to maximize profit and to exalt profit—particularly short-term profit—over long-term societal benefit and/or human beings. Which is kind of the classic problem that comes up with capitalism and industry.
But I’m not a Marxist. I am often mistaken for a Marxist. Oh, no, I wouldn’t guess that about you. I think of you as being, besides a writer, more of a critic and an observer.
It’s one thing to recognize capitalism for the powerful economic tool it is and to acknowledge that, for better or for worse, we’re stuck with it and, hey, thank God we have it. There’s not a lot else that can produce mass wealth with the dexterity that capitalism can. But to mistake it for a social framework is an incredible intellectual corruption and it’s one that the West has accepted as a given since 1980—since Reagan. Human beings—in this country in particular—are worth less and less. When capitalism triumphs unequivocally, labor is diminished. It’s a zero-sum game. People paid a much higher tax rate when Eisenhower was president, a much higher tax rate for the benefit of society, and all of us had more of a sense that we were included. But this is not what you really want to talk about, I know. Well, no, I do want to talk about this. It isn’t technically about writing, but it’s very relevant to your writing.
I guess what I’m saying is that the overall theme was: We’ve given ourselves over to the Olympian god that is capitalism and now we’re reaping the whirlwind. This is the America that unencumbered capitalism has built. It’s the America that we deserve because we let it happen. We don’t deserve anything better. The Wire was trying to take the scales from people’s eyes and say, “This is what you’ve built. Take a look at it.” It’s an accurate portrayal of the problems inherent in American cities. Absolutely.
Are there other parts of those cities that are economically viable? Of course. You can climb higher up on the pyramid that is capitalism and find the upper-middle-class neighborhoods and the private schools. You can find where the money went. But The Wire was dissent because of its choice to center itself on the other America, the one that got left behind. That was the overall theme and that worked for all five seasons. So that’s the institution versus the individual. It seems that wrapping up these commentaries on American society within fictions might be the only way to get a lot of people to engage with problems like poverty and drugs and the disappearance of industry. Have you seen the messages in The Wire resonate for viewers beyond the level of entertainment?
No. I think that some people got it and they may react differently the next time some shit-spitting politician shows up to say that with a little bit more of a business base and more cops and more lawyers we can win the war on drugs. There may be a little bit more dissent on some of the points we hit the hardest. But I don’t believe that a television show or, for that matter, even the systemic efforts of journalism can change the dynamic. Not even very good journalism, of which there is less and less. Why does reform seem so impossible?
We live in an oligarchy. The mother’s milk of American politics is money, and the reason they can’t reform financing, the reason that we can’t have public funding of elections rather than private donations, the reason that K Street is K Street in Washington, is to make sure that no popular sentiment survives. You’re witnessing it now with health care, with the marginalization of any effort to rationally incorporate all Americans under a national banner that says, “We’re in this together.” But then the critics of a system like that immediately cry socialism.
And of course it’s socialism. These ignorant motherfuckers. What do they think group insurance is, other than socialism? Just the idea of buying group insurance! If socialism is a taint that you cannot abide by, then, goddamn it, you shouldn’t be in any group insurance policy. You should just go out and pay the fucking doctors because when you get 100,000 people together as part of anything, from a union to the AARP, and you say, “Because we have this group actuarially, more of us are going to be healthier than not and therefore we’ll be able to carry forward the idea of group insurance and everybody will have an affordable plan…” That’s fuckin’ socialism. That’s nothing but socialism. It is, literally.
So the whole idea of group insurance, which of course everyone believes in, like that fellow on YouTube, “Don’t let the government take away my Medicare…” You look at that and you think there’s only one thing that can make people this stupid, and that’s money. When you pay people to change their votes on the basis of money, the wrong shit gets voted for. That’s American democracy at this point. And you get to the Senate and you’re looking at 100 votes, which don’t represent anything in terms of popular representation. When 40 percent of the population controls 60 percent of the votes in the higher house of a bicameral legislature, it’s an oligarchy. I’m getting depressed.
Now you’re listening to Joe Lieberman say that he will filibuster anything with a public option. Let me understand this: One guy from a small state in New England is going to decide on a singular basis what’s good for the health care of 300 million people? That’s our form of government, and I don’t get it. It’s not good.
Well, it is what it is and it has been for years, and it’s why we’re able to marginalize larger and larger percentages of our population. Fuck ’em where they stand. Five percent, 10 percent, 15 percent. How many people are you going to keep out of the gated community? How many guards are you going hire? The guards will be the only working-class people in the gated communities, I guess.
Right. You’re going to hire people to guard your shit, but you’re not going to give them health care. Season 2 of The Wire, the story lines about the longshoremen’s union, really hit me personally. Both of my grandfathers were steel-mill workers and—
Oh, really? Yeah, and my uncles too, and there were always lots of layoffs and worrying about getting shifts. It was a constant refrain. This was outside Philadelphia, at the Fairless Works US Steel plant down there. It’s completely shut down now and the neighborhood where I was born has become a company town with no company, and the problems with addiction there seem worse than ever. And that’s a postindustrial state, right? Watching season 2 made me wonder about how the drug trade relates to the postindustrial state
My writing partner Ed Burns said it best: “When the economy shrugs, it throws more people onto the corners.” It’s simple as that. Addiction is a growth industry in America. Not just in black America, but all across the country. Look at methamphetamine. Ultimately, because the drug trade is in part an economic imperative, meaning it’s the only factory still working in parts of America and therefore it is a viable employer where no other viable employer exists, it’s going to have its own fundamental lure. But it actually goes beyond money in this sense. People are defined by what they do in this culture. I think it’s the human condition. I don’t think it’s any different from any other time in history. You are what you do. You are your profession. You are your trade. I agree.
When you no longer have a trade, then you ache for meaning in a way that strikes to the very core of your being. It’s something that I think a lot of people don’t understand about people in the drug trade or people in the throes of addiction, which is that the choice not only offers them money. From the point of view of people getting high, it offers them purpose. It does. Addiction gives you a calling when you’re desperate.
We pretend to educate the bottom 10 to 15 percent of American society to join the ranks of the existing economy, but it’s all pretense. We’re not really giving them a good enough education to make that leap into the service economy. We’re really preparing them for the corner and ultimately for the prison complexes. And they may not be educated, but they’re damn sure not stupid. They get it. So if they get it, what do you fucking expect? They understand that they’re being built for the corners. The role is all laid out for them.
Every dope fiend I ever met knew what he was supposed to do when he woke up in the morning in just the same way that anybody with any other profession ever does. He was supposed to get $10 in a world that didn’t want to give him shit. He was supposed to get high and he needed $10 at the end of the day at a minimum. It’s a strong imperative.
And that guy had no existential crisis. Whereas a guy who accepts the economic cards that have been dealt to him by postindustrial America and just sits there on his porch and says, “Well, I’m not necessary…” In a way, that’s far more brutal than addiction and death, but we don’t get that. From our perch, from our middle-class or upper-middle-class perch, from the policymakers’ perch, things like “Just Say No” sound relevant. Yeah, that was a very effective campaign.
It draws on the morality that we can easily acquire and utilize— And it also assumes that everyone has the same set of choices.
Right. Like, “What the fuck was I supposed to say yes to, motherfucker?” The police department, schools, industry, the media—these are all institutions that were addressed on The Wire. I’ve always wondered if there were a couple more institutions that would have been dealt with if there had a season 6, like the finance industry or health care, maybe?
Immigration was a theme that I would have done. The problem was that there was actually a delay of almost two years between season 3 and season 4. It took HBO awhile to renew the show. They were on the fence about it. By the time they did and we got back together and got into their schedule, it had been two years. For us to then stop and to retool and to do the research on immigration… Is there a large Latino population in Baltimore?
Just in the last decade. Baltimore had almost no Latino population when I was a reporter there, like minuscule. Then, suddenly, Central Americans began showing up in Southeast Baltimore. They’ve created an incredibly vibrant immigrant community. It would have been fascinating to see how The Wire would have treated this.
All you’ve got to do is watch the national debate and realize that immigration is this incredibly potent source of friction and ideology, and maybe always has been in American life. So I would have loved to have done that, but none of us knew Spanish and none of us had done any research on it. It would have taken us a little time, as it always did. But we had researched the school system and we were ready to do that. And that was the focus of season 4. See, this sort of comes back to my first question, which is how does a show like The Wire gradually weave its web together over the seasons? It’s so intricate and yet all so clear, and all the pieces fit together. I wonder how the immigration thing could have fit in.
The problem was, if you think about how carefully it was created, coming up with the boys in season 4, you need the character of Marlo. You need the two-season arc of Marlo and the bodies in the vacant houses, and that was all planned out. And then we were going to have to go from there to the media. It was all of a piece. Seasons 4 and 5 are connected maybe more than any other two seasons of The Wire. Yeah, and you can really see it in retrospect. I just went back and watched the entire series for the third or fourth time over the past few weeks.
One of the things that I have unbridled contempt for—well, not unbridled—I don’t really give a shit, but when I read it I just laugh, is the amount of debate that happens over which is the best season and which is the worst season. It’s impossible to say because the entire run of the series is one big story. I don’t think someone can dislike season 2 but still really appreciate what comes after it. It’s all essential and cumulative.
I know there are some artificial divisions in terms of when we end it for a season, and we’ll end it at a certain point that gives it some resonance. I guess you can debate that. But it’s like, to me, season 1 is the weakest. It created the crucible, the core values of what we were going to build beyond. It did everything it was supposed to do, but to me something happens in seasons 3, 4, and 5 and it’s informed by everything you’ve seen in 36 or 48 or 60 episodes. Definitely.
So the notion that it was in this pure state early on and then we spun deeper and deeper? No, no, no, it’s the exact opposite. We were building toward the last 15 minutes of the show—and doing so for a long time. It’s great to go back and see things starting to dovetail. But yeah, I think the only really valid debate in terms of which season is better than which season is just which version of “Way Down in the Hole” is better. My vote goes to either the Blind Boys of Alabama or Steve Earle.
[laughs] To me it’s like, you can say that we caught this aspect better than we caught that aspect or we executed this story line better than that story line. That’s all legitimate. It’s open to debate. I know the thing isn’t perfect. All writing is just abandoned at some point to deadlines and budget and to whatever else limits it. But the problem was that once we thought of immigration, it couldn’t be the last season. The media had to be the last season because the last critique had to be… Well, the critique is more than the media. It’s more than critiquing a newspaper. It’s critiquing us. As consumers of the media, you mean.
Yes. Newspapers have less and less ambition and are demanding less and less of themselves as arbiters of what is actually important, of what our problems are and how we’re addressing them. The Wire was trying to say, at the end, “Look, if anything in the first four seasons struck a nerve with you, don’t think for a moment that anyone’s going to address themselves to it—least of all the watchdogs of society—because their teeth have been taken out.” They’ve done it to themselves. We had to say that last because ultimately we were saying: “This is the America you built and if you think the first alarm is ever going to go off in any sense, guess again.” And if anybody in our culture were going to sound any sort of alarm, it would be nice if it were newspaper writers doing it.
Still, it was critiquing not only the newspaper but also the people reading the newspaper and by extension the people watching television. It was basically, to quote Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Right. And after that was all wrapped up, you couldn’t just go, “Oh, by the way, immigration, too!”
Yeah. “And by the way…” We also thought about health care and we thought about a few other things. And I mean, I could make an argument for a sixth season if immigration had been introduced between seasons 3 and 4. It would need to have been starting to develop then.
Before the rise of Marlo. We could’ve held Marlo’s rise, with the bodies in the vacants, held that off until subsequent seasons and then began it in the last two-season arc, but then we would have been off the air for three years and I would have had to go back to HBO when I’d just talked my way back into the last two seasons and go—
“I’ve got one more story I wanna tell.”
Yeah. “I know that I said I’m out in five, but I meant six.” So it wasn’t going to happen for any number of reasons. Anyway, I’ve seen people say mistakenly that season 6 would’ve been immigration. No way. Season 4 would’ve been immigration if there had been six seasons. Got it.
That’s the only way it could’ve worked. And the only reason that we thought about other things and said no was because, at a certain point, even if you’re getting to address yourselves to some of the same dynamic—like the dynamic in health care, as we just discussed, it’s the same as the dynamic with public education. Right.
So even if you’re making that point, and you’re using a hospital setting to do it for another season of The Wire, say, you’re basically making the same institutional points and the same points about the inability of the political and social and economic culture to reform— Just relative to a different institution.
Yeah, you’re just shifting it. And how many times are you going to make Kima and McNulty and Daniels and Bunk, how many times are they going to walk up the hill and then see the rock slip back? At a certain point the characterizations, the bricks and mortar, would start to show the wear. How many times is McNulty going to fuck an alligator in the sewer and then do an honest thing and then do a fucked-up thing the next minute? [Laughs.] At a certain point you have to honor that the characters have to have arcs. So just picking a continual litany of things to critique in society, I mean, listen, I’d love to tell a story about the issues of health care and public health, but maybe it’s time to let the Wire universe go and do it with some other universe. A big thing I wonder about in terms of writing The Wire is how you went about constructing composite characters from real-life influences, like Omar is a big one, of course, but—
Why don’t I do Omar, because that’s the one everybody always asks about. Here are some people that we used for the Omar story line—and they are real people and real names that would be known on the streets of Baltimore. Anthony Hollie, Ferdinand Harvin, and Cadillac and Low. I don’t know their real names, but they were a team. And there’s also Donnie Andrews. He was the big man who went to war with Omar the last time. He got killed in the shootout in the apartment in the ambush. That’s actually the real Donnie. Oh man, the guy who was with Omar and Butchie and then he was Omar’s backup against Marlo? Oh wow. No kidding.
Yeah, that’s the guy. The actor who plays the Deacon was also from the streets, right?
He was a major drug trafficker. Melvin Williams, little Melvin. He was famous going back to the 60s. He had maybe 30 years of selling heroin and coke in Baltimore. He was busted by Ed in ’84 and got out in 2001. We all had lunch and then he came to work as an actor. So out of all these people, did you pick and choose traits and stories from their realities for Omar? For instance, Omar carries a shotgun. He’s gay. He’s got all these really great characterizations.
Listen, when he jumps out the window during that shootout, that was something Donnie Andrews actually did. He jumped out of the sixth floor of the Murphy Homes when he was caught in an ambush and out of ammunition. Did he think about it? No, but he did it and he survived and he was able to limp away. It happened. He also jumped off the Poplar Grove rail bridge another time. It’s legend. There are people who will tell you about it in West Baltimore other than Donnie. It’s not just something he’s making up. If you make that jump, you’re dead. If I make that jump, I’m a puddle on the ground. But he did it.
He needed to make the jump and he wasn’t gonna die that time. I love that Omar’s jump was based on a real story, because that was one of the things in the series where people were like, “Ah, that would never happen. He’d be dead.”
And we actually only had Omar jump from the fourth floor. Whereas Donnie really jumped from the sixth.
The building we had only went up five and we said, “Eh, the fourth is fine. They’re not gonna believe it anyway, but he did it.” Some other things we just made up. None of those names I gave you I know to be homosexuals, but at one point I was mistaken in my own head. Somebody had told me when I was a reporter years ago that Cadillac and Low were a gay team—that they were a couple. I just thought that was true, and then at some point that’s what got me to say, “This is an interesting character to have be gay because he can be openly gay because he’s not beholden to anybody.” It’s impossible to be an openly gay male cop. It’s OK to be a lesbian, but it’s hard to be a gay male cop. And with all the homophobia it’s hard to be openly gay in the organized drug trade. Unless you’re an outlaw even to the outlaws like Omar was.
Right. Omar’s playing by his own fuckin’ rules. So you look at that and you say this would be a good character for that and I thought I was referencing Cadillac and Low, but when I mentioned it to Ed four episodes into the show he said, “They weren’t gay.” So I just got that wrong. We also made up the Sunday truce. There are things we made up because they were fun. But we didn’t make up how important church hats are to women in West Baltimore. There’s actually a great picture book called Crowns. Oh yeah? I’ll check that out.
It’s glorious—photos of women’s Sunday hats in the black community. So you make some stuff up, you borrow from this guy, you borrow from that guy, and then you’ve got this guy Michael K. Williams playing the role, who just brings it and makes his own way into the characterization. He brings his own toolbox. It’s not like writing prose. Film is a synthesis, and television, since it’s ongoing, is a synthesis between what the actor brings and what the director brings and what the writer brings and what the crew makes you capable of in a given day. It’s very communal. I’ve always wondered how much of a character’s ultimate arc was known to you and how early it was known. For instance, did Omar always have to die? Did Carcetti always have to become governor? Was it just built into their DNA as characters?
It was. It was built in. You have to know where you’re going and one of the things that television in particular, more than film, certainly more than prose, suffers from is that there’s so much money in the product that once you get an audience, once you achieve an audience, your job is to stay in that audience ad nauseam.
Meaning if they love Omar, give them some more Omar. If they love Stringer, give them some more Stringer. Yeah. It’s not like they were going to kill Ross and Rachel on Friends.
Right. And they’re never going to kill David Caruso on whatever show he’s on, whichever one of the CSIs. Or even Tony Soprano.
Well, you know. That’s debatable, I guess.
But ultimately, if something is all about character, then character has to be served at all costs. And you know, we loved our actors. We never killed an actor because he was pissing us off. The only reason we killed an actor was for story, and we’d go to them and say, “We love your work. We’re going to work with you again sometime. I can’t wait till that day comes, except maybe it won’t because you’ll be a frickin’ movie star.” But it was never about any contract issues. We never played that game with our actors and they knew it. That probably made it more terrifying for them— That it had to be true to the story line.
I’ll never forget J.D. Williams, who played Bodie, he saw himself starting to have these conversations with McNulty, and when I finally came to him and said, “This is your episode. You’re goin’ out.” He said, “Oh, I knew it. I could see.” I said, “OK.” Because he knows the character so well by then.
And he has to know the show at that point. So every time somebody rises up and tries to speak a little truth… They die, basically.
And he was right. We were writing a Greek tragedy. What did it feel like to kill characters like Omar and Bodie? Did you feel sentimental?
Every time. The first time was when we killed Wallace in the first season. That was brutal, man.
The crew was fuckin’ mad at us. The crew was like, “This is a bad scene, man.” It was horrifying. We’re hugging the actor—a great kid named Michael Jordan. He’s got a good gig now. Friday Night Lights. I just put my arm around him and I said, “Look, people are going to remember this scene for a long time and they’re going to know that this is a young man who can act. I can’t write you a better scene than that.” And he brought it. All three of the young actors in that room did. Was it like that on the day Omar was killed, too?
Yeah, except by then we knew the show was going out. We knew it was our last season and so at that point if you’re Michael K. you probably want a great death scene. Right. And it was great.
But I guess where I was originally going is that nobody wants to write endings in television. They want to sustain the franchise. But if you don’t write an ending for a story, you know what you are? You’re a hack. You’re not a storyteller. It may not be that you have the skills of a hack. You might be a hell of a writer, but you’re taking a hack’s road. You’re on the road to hackdom and there’s no stopping you because stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s impressive that HBO took the ride for this entire series.
We didn’t know if we were going to get five seasons, and I certainly didn’t go to HBO at the beginning and say, “We’re going to build a whole city and there’ll be this über-theme and it’ll all build to this point where it’s an indictment of—” They would have laughed me out of the room and said, “What the fuck was that guy talking about?” Like, “Come on, now.”
So the first thing I said was, “Through the course of a police investigation you’re going to see the fraud of the drug war. You’re going to see how the drug war is not worth it and how nothing works the way we think it does when you establish prohibition.” And then it was after we came back to talk about season 2 that I had the honest conversation with Chris Albrecht and Carol Strauss from HBO about building a city. They said they could give me this and this and this. Wow.
One of the reasons they renewed for seasons 4 and 5 was that I was able to go in to them with beat sheets for every episode, for the remaining… I think I had 22 episodes. But I didn’t have specific episodes for season 4 or 5. I had storyboards for all of the characters, and I could tell them where everyone was going and what the theme not only of season 4 was, but of season 5—and how they were connected. I was able to say to Chris Albrecht, “If you’re in for a penny you’re in for a pound. You’re gonna have a hard time canceling it after season 4 because all these bodies are going to be in these houses and they’re going be discovered.” Yeah, can’t leave that hanging.
So he was in for a penny, in for a pound. That was liberating in a way. And we knew where all the characters had to go no matter what. Clay Davis has to survive. No matter what, Carcetti has to thrive. He has to become governor. The city can go to hell, but he has to become governor. That’s another thing I was thinking about. People like Clay Davis or Carcetti or Rawls or Levy, they all thrive. What unites them? I kind of know the answer to this, but I’d like to hear how you put it.
They sublimate any moral imperative to their own personal ambition. They wed themselves to the capitalist construct and they embrace the status quo at all costs. Some of them become that person by degrees, in the case of Carcetti, and some of them are that person from jump, like Levy or Clay Davis. Some people do it without a great deal of ambition or greed. Burrell, all he wanted to do was preserve his job. He wasn’t looking to get promoted. He certainly didn’t think he was going beyond commissioner in any way. He just wanted his institution not to be humiliated. He wanted to avoid all negative publicity. He’s literally the guy in a Skinner box. He’s a pigeon that doesn’t want to be shot. So he lives life on those terms. Even though that isn’t as conniving as someone like Clay Davis, it’s still pretty ignoble.
But all the characters who are serving the institutions, who are so self-preserving and self-aggrandizing, they are rigorous about always making the wrong choice when it comes to a societal good, to a communal good. And you know what? I was a reporter for a lot of years. I actually believe that’s how the city works or doesn’t work. I wrote a book about what was wrong with the drug trade, the drug war. It was very carefully researched and it made clear that this was a fool’s errand. I watched a councilman who was running for mayor go to the corner where I wrote the book, hold a copy of the book up in front of the TV cameras, and say that if he were elected mayor he would fight the drug war for real and he would win it. Well, he became mayor and he fought as a drug warrior and he clipped the stats and he made it sound like crime was going down when crime wasn’t going down and now he’s the governor of Maryland. Jesus Christ.
And he didn’t like The Wire. He didn’t think The Wire was a good thing. Not that surprising.
A lot of what The Wire was about sounds cynical to people. I think it’s very cynical about institutions and their ability to reform. I don’t deny that, but I don’t think it’s at all cynical about people. On the contrary—it’s very empathetic and human.
Which is why it’s watchable. It embraces the idea of everybody’s humanity at the same time that it says, “Oh yeah, we’re fucked, but we’re fucked together in our own way and we fucked ourselves.” I love the sense of humor that exists among cops. It’s some of the best black, gallows humor there is. I think that’s the stuff that really informs the humor of The Wire.
It’s pretty good among anybody who deals with life and death on a daily basis or who sees the fraud and sin underlying the human condition. The guys I knew who worked in ERs in Baltimore, the nurses and ICU people, they were pretty funny in their own way. If you don’t think a hospital’s a funny place, get a book called The House of God by Samuel Shem. It was probably some of the source material for St. Elsewhere and some other shows. It was written back in the 70s. It’s a book they give to every first-year resident in America. I’ll read that.
And if you think that it’s not present in the military, read Generation Kill— Of course. Generation Kill has real comedy in it.
I think that the closer you are to a flame and the more you see people getting burned, the funnier you get, if you’re at all human. Or you put a gun in your mouth. Either you laugh or you cry. This seems to play into what you mentioned earlier, that you were writing Greek tragedy, which certainly had comedic elements.
Yes. Before finishing the first season I’d reread most of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, those three guys. I’d read some of it in college, but I hadn’t read it systematically. That stuff is incredibly relevant today. As drama, the actual plays are a little bit stilted, but the message within the plays and the dramatic impulses are profound for our time. We don’t really realize it. I don’t think we sense the power in there because we’re really more in the Shakespearean construct of— Yes, the individualism kind of thing.
The individual and the interior struggle for self. Macbeth and Hamlet and Lear and Othello. These are the great tragedies—the dramatic branch that leads to O’Neill and our modern theater. But I saw a version of Aeschylus’s The Persians done on the stage in Washington, and it made my jaw drop. They put it on during the height of the insurgency in Iraq—after that misadventure in Iraq had made itself apparent. If you read that play and if you saw this production of it, it was so dead-on. I don’t know if you know the play. I’ve never read it, but I know what it’s about.
It’s basically the people back in the Persian capital wondering what’s happened to their army and, of course, bad things have happened to their army. And the young emperor who wants to be compared to his father—it’s Darius the Great, I think—he wants to win the victory that was denied his father over the Greeks. Sounds familiar.
Yeah. And of course they performed it in Republican ties and suits. It was a Washington audience. I was watching it and I was looking around, and some of these lines were landing, some of the dialogue was landing. I was looking around like, “Did everyone just catch that? Did they really just say that?” It was so ripe in its critique of Bush and Cheney and all those guys. It seems to me that people want to be sort of special, unique snowflakes, and the Shakespearean thing addresses that more.
Right! Let’s celebrate me and the wonder that is me. It’s not about society. The Greeks, especially the Athenians, were consumed with questions about man and state. They gave Socrates hemlock because his ideas were antithetical to their notions of state. Listen, that’s totalitarianism in any sense, but for him, he was cynical about democracy and he was an iconoclast about the democratic principles. That went to the heart of Greek thinking. It was like, “Don’t fuck with that.” Now, the thing that has been exalted and the thing that American entertainment is consumed with is the individual being bigger than the institution. How many frickin’ times are we gonna watch a story where somebody— Rises up against the odds?
“You can’t do that.” “Yes, I can.” “No, you can’t.” “I’ll show you, see?” And in the end he’s recognized as just a goodhearted rebel with right on his side, and eventually the town realizes that dancing’s not so bad. I can make up a million of ’em. That’s the story we want to be told over and over again. And you know why? Because in our heart of hearts what we know about the 21st century is that every day we’re going to be worth less and less, not more and more. Worth less and less as people, you mean?
As human beings. Some of us are going to get more money and be worth more. There are some people who are destined for celebrity or wealth or power, but by and large, the average American, the average person in the world on planet earth, is worth less and less. That’s the triumph of capital, and that is the problem. You look at that, and you think that’s what we’ve come to and that’s where we’re going and it’s like, “Can you tell me another bedtime story about how people are special and every one of us matters? Can you tell me that shit?” “Tell me again about that boxer who came out of the ghetto and became the champ.”
“And what about that musician whose genius was never recognized? What about him? And, oh yeah, somebody else overcame addiction. That’s great. Tell me that one again.” Listen, I don’t mind a victory if it’s earned. But if all you do is victory, if that’s your whole dramatic construct and that’s 90 percent of American television— It goes back to how you didn’t want to put characters like McNulty and Kima through the same framework again and again. But that’s what this big tradition of storytelling is nowadays. It’s just a tired retread. I found it kind of ironic that in season 5 there are a few really great scenes where you’re mocking the editors of newspapers who are asking for a Dickensian vibe, and then a lot of critics and writers compared The Wire to Dickens.
It was fun goofing on the Dickens comparison because I understood what they meant by Dickensian when they said it. You get this sort of scope of society through the classes, the way Dickens would play with that in his novels. But that’s true of Tolstoy’s Moscow. That’s true of Balzac’s Paris. It’s been done a lot in a lot of different places by a lot of writers. And I’m not the one doing the comparing. I’m just saying if you use those tropes you can go to a lot of places other than Dickens. The thing that made me laugh about it with Dickens was that Dickens is famous for being passionate about showing you the fault lines of industrial England and where money and power route themselves away from the poor. He would make the case for a much better social compact than existed in Victorian England, but then his verdict would always be, “But thank God a nice old uncle or this heroic lawyer is going to make things better.” In the end, the guy would punk out. Now that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great writer and they’re not great stories. They are. But The Wire was actually making a different argument than Dickens, and the comparison, while flattering, sort of fell badly on us. Sure.
So there was a little bit of tongue-in-cheek satire on the show directed at people who were using Dickens to praise us. But the other thing is much more simple, which is the editor of the Baltimore Sun when I was covering the drug trade, when I was trying to explain what was happening in the city in terms that made economic sense to me… When I was coming back off of the reporting for The Corner and preparing to go back to the newspaper, this editor and I talked about writing columns about life on the streets in West Baltimore. That, to me, would have been the narrative equivalent of telling some stories that you ultimately saw on The Wire, but using real people. The first one that I tried to tell, for a variety of reasons, some of them emotional and some of them due to the fact that we weren’t getting along, he spiked. It was about a guy very much like the Wire character Bubbles who was harvesting metal—two guys harvesting metal, actually. This editor spiked the story without explanation. Wow.
He came to me and said, “I want to do the stories that are about the Dickensian lives of children growing up in West Baltimore.” What he was saying was, “If you give me a nice, cute eight-, nine-year-old kid who doesn’t have a pencil, who doesn’t have a schoolbook, who lives in poverty, who’s big eyed and sweet and who I can make the reader fall in love with, I can win a fuckin’ prize with that. Write me that shit.” “Don’t hand me some struggling junkie.”
“Don’t give me a guy who’s, like, trying to get high but maintain his dignity. Don’t give me anything complicated.” And he really used the word “Dickensian.” Fucker.
I still have the email he sent me. It happened over a period of about two months, but that was one of the moments where I knew I had to go. So I was really just quoting this editor, John Carroll. I came back trying to explain how utterly bereft economically West Baltimore was, how distanced it was from the world that we were pretending to be, how it was not even a part of our world anymore. All he wanted to do was reach back and grab some cute kids and run with them to win a prize. That’s who he was. It’s the opposite of the impulse that we talked about for The Wire earlier, where you proceed from theme into character.
Exactly. First you do a bunch of reporting. You feel like you know the subject and then you ask, “What do we want to say that hasn’t been said and that deserves to be said?” That was the first question we asked ourselves at the beginning of every season. That question never got asked at the Baltimore Sun when I was there. What got asked at the Baltimore Sun was, “How can we bite off a little morsel of outrage and run with it?” And get a Pulitzer.
Yeah. “Let’s do 50 stories on lead-paint poisoning between January and December. We’re not going to do any more the next year because that’s past the Pulitzer year. But we’re going to show you how bad lead-paint poisoning is. In fact, we’re going to show you that if it weren’t for lead-paint poisoning, these kids would all be at fucking Ivy League schools. Never mind that their family lives have been decimated, that they’re in a school system that’s utterly dysfunctional, that the drug trade’s the only industry where they live. Never mind all of that. If they’d just stop eating the fuckin’ lead paint, they could all be at Princeton.” You would look at that and you would say, “This is the highest ambition for journalism? This is what you got? What the fuck happened to us?” It’s the definition of pandering, basically.
It was pandering. It was prostitution of a kind. It was pornography, is what it was. The pornography of poverty. The stakes are too high for journalism to do that. I understand why politicians do it. I understand why police industries cook their stats. I understand why school administrators cook their test scores. I understand people in a bureaucracy doing that stuff because I expect so little of them at this point after years of being a reporter. But the paper is supposed to be calling all the rest of them out.
Exactly. If the paper can’t address itself to hard truths, then what the fuck? So that’s where “Dickensian” came from. It was right out of John Carroll’s mouth. You worked with some great crime-fiction writers on The Wire. You’re also married to an excellent crime novelist named Laura Lippman. What do you think about the treatment of crime fiction by the literary establishment? I talked about this in an interview with Elmore Leonard earlier this year. I think that it’s really ghettoized.
It is ghettoized, but the funny part is that these writers wouldn’t want to walk out of the ghetto if they could. Now, I’m sure they would all love to be recognized for the literary merits of what they do. I’m not saying that. They’re not without professional pride. Richard Price, of course, began with literary cred and has not relinquished it. Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos and Laura, they began as crime novelists. Price began as a young literary lion and has nonetheless taken the milieu of crime as part of his demimonde. But what’s common to all of them is that they’re looking for the fault lines in society. They’re using crime to do it because that’s where these things are readily apparent. It’s where money and vanity and fraud and intellect and cultural dissonance all manage to show themselves in very blunt and fundamental ways. It’s a great bunch of tools in your toolbox. And it’s true, crime fiction often addresses serious problems in American society with much more insight and attention than literature-literature does.
Yes, what’s really notable about American crime fiction is how much more the best of it has managed to get to in terms of society and politics and economics—and how little the literary world has managed to address itself to those things. I was on this panel with this guy Walter Benn Michaels at the New York Public Library, and I didn’t dig it because he was basically using The Wire as a cudgel to beat up on literary fiction. But I don’t want to beat up on anybody. I don’t want to generalize, because there are some good literary novels. There’s also a lot of navel-gazing—and there’s a lot of navel-gazing on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I find that stuff unreadable and a waste of my time, but there’s a lot of good stuff, too. And then there’s a lot of really smart stuff and there’s a lot of crap in crime writing. Sure.
There’s no reason to generalize. But the highest end of crime writing is doing everything right now that literary fiction claims for itself. That is true. And much of what passes for quality literary fiction is not accomplishing very much at all that I find to have merit. So that’s my opinion. But having said that, this panelist took it to an extreme where he was literally saying, “Can we just write about economics and money and politics?” He was saying that literary fiction should be like The Wire, which is nice and flattering, but then he was saying, “Can we stop writing about slavery? Can we stop writing about the Holocaust?” He was basically saying that writing about cultural identity is bullshit. But it’s like, I don’t buy that either. I couldn’t write effectively about people if these sort of core 20th-century experiences or 18th-century experiences that still influence us were not part of who we are. Of course not.
I can’t begin to write one black character—much less 30—and have them all be distinct and different and represent different things if I don’t have some core understanding of where they came from. Not just them and their parents, but culturally—what they’ve acquired and what they expect of the world and what the world expects of them as blacks, as Catholics, as Jews, as whoever, as marines, as fuckin’ South Texas Mexican marines serving in Iraq. So I’m standing on a lot of literature that has come before and that is contemporaneous with me. Thank God somebody wrote Schindler’s List. Thank God somebody wrote Beloved. And there are two different kinds of relevancy. There’s current-events relevancy and then there’s larger human-condition relevancy. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah. So what I’m saying is I agree with your high assessment of the high end of crime writing and I agree with your low assessment of the low end of literary fiction, but there’s a lot of great literary fiction and there’s a lot of shitty crime writing and I don’t want The Wire used as a cudgel to beat up on anybody. Everybody should write the stories that matter to them and then we’ll figure it out once everything exists.
I know that I’m not supposed to ask much about your new series, Tremé, here. But can I just ask if the framework in terms of institutions versus individuals is informing that series also?
Well, there’s obviously a lot of that because New Orleans has been grossly affected by the aftermath of the storm and the behavior or misbehavior of institutions, but also in some ways this series is a little bit different in that it’s a celebration of what we’re capable of as Americans. The Wire tried to imply—and I felt it being from Baltimore, and I think Baltimoreans felt it, but I’m not sure how well it conveyed for the rest of the country—the value of the city as the essential American experience. We’re an urban people. Eighty percent of us live in metro areas. I don’t buy the whole Republican convention with its small-town values and “We represent the real Americans.” I live in Baltimore. I’m concerned with big-city values and I live among real Americans. I could give a fuck about the other 20 percent of the country. I care about how we live together in cities. I think there were some people who watched The Wire and said to themselves, “You know, why don’t they just all move away? That city’s unredeemable.” We never felt that. I’m vested in Baltimore and I love it, just as I now spend part of my year in New Orleans and I’ve always loved New Orleans. And what’s different in New Orleans?
Because New Orleans has created such unique cultural art in terms of music and dance, and it’s a very idiosyncratic culture, it shows the value of what the American melting pot is capable of. It does it in a way that is visual and musical and demonstrable, and it does it in the fucking street every day. Somehow this city is trying to find a way to endure while the political essence of the country doesn’t give a fuck. That, to me, is a fascinating dynamic. Thanks to Tim Small and David Feinberg.