This post is a part of a larger series about the kinds of stories video games tell. It is not the only kind they tell, but it is one the medium is uniquely good at because of the nature of games.
Oh, and spoilers.
Throughout this systems narrative project I have said The Wire is a prime example of a popular system narrative. There have been precursors to its form, like the police procedural or a complex spy thriller, but there are few stories focused so strongly on system rather than character. I figured it was time I went into that a little bit more.
The best way to highlight the ins and outs of the show’s style and system is by comparing it to another show, Breaking Bad, which deals with similar subject matter in a very different way. This isn’t an argument over which is better, just a way to talk about how system narratives work. I’ve watched every season of The Wire twice. I’ve watched the first three seasons of Breaking Bad once.
The biggest characteristic of a system narrative is that the characters don’t really change personally, they move around the system into different positions and relationships with one another. McNulty in The Wire is roughly the same person in Season 1 as he is in Season 5. When he’s outside of Homicide or not working a detail, he’s calmer and sober. When he gets placed in that environment, he gets angry and drunk. That compulsion hasn’t really been resolved at the end of the show, he’s just more aware of it. McNulty has chosen to take himself out of that position for his own well-being. This observation applies for the majority of characters, even Bubbles and his recovery from addiction. Bubbles is affected by the events of his life to change, he’s not different in the sense that he is a different person.
In stark contrast is Walter White. At the beginning of Season 1 in Breaking Bad he retains his sympathies and conflicts. At the end of the pilot he is so paranoid and apologetic that he is contemplating suicide for his actions. By the end of Season 3 he has killed either directly or inadvertently 5 people and distributed pounds of meth throughout the Southwest. He has become addicted to the danger and empowerment of being a drug dealer. This is very clearly a character arc.
What McNulty or Bubbles undergo acts like a character arc. It’s not that system narratives don’t have arcs, it’s that characters moving around a system is depicted differently than focusing on an individual. In Season 3, after the detail has failed to bust Stringer Bell or Proposition Joe for almost a year, the detail is switched to an easier target. McNulty, being the asshole that he is, ignores orders and continues to pursue Stringer Bell. We see him try to flip D’s girlfriend Donnette by telling her D was probably murdered. We see String getting angry with Donette a while later, we see D’s mother Brianne hearing the news, eventually confronting McNulty, and then realizing the truth when she confronts String. The act of one individual reverberates out into the others. There are so many examples of this happening in The Wire that on a fundamental level it’s what the show is about.
Compare this to Breaking Bad. Each episode has an individual crisis, whether it’s finding a new supplier, finding a place to safely cook meth, or getting stuck out in the desert because the lab camper broke down. At the center of these crises is Walter White himself. We see him hiding things from his wife, reacting to Jessie, figuring out some kind of chemistry solution, or reacting to the struggle of dealing with meth. Most of this information is conveyed in that episode, he is on to a new set of issues an episode later. There are exceptions to this, like Walt’s decision to expand their territory playing out across multiple episodes when their friend dies. But it’s still at best two or three reverberations playing out as the catalyst for another series of moments where Walt is the central focus. In The Wire, McNulty is only present for two or three scenes of the 7 or 8 his initial actions stir up.
These two approaches to telling a story are adept at conveying different sorts of information. The intricacies of actually being a drug dealer are never really discussed in Breaking Bad. Walt is handed sacks of cash for pure meth, it’s never explained that people are cutting it and making far more money than what they’re paying. Meth cooking montages are stylish music videos. During Season 2’s brief portrayal of dealing meth we see one robbery, one arrest, and one murder by a rival gang. None of these characters are particularly significant and most have only a handful of scenes. You get the drama of dealing drugs but you don’t really have any idea of how it actually works. Instead you see how it impacts a small group of people’s lives.
Contrast that to The Wire where by the end of show you have an intricate understanding of all the issues that go into selling drugs, along with how bureaucracies work, the shipping industry, etc. None of the characters dealing with these issues are anonymous. People at every level of the drug game are depicted in numerous scenes. The same goes for Police, whether it’s beat cops or homicide. Season 3 introduces how the bureaucracy affects the Police and Season 4 shows how the urban environments often puts people in impossible situations. It’s for this reason The Wire does not really have an individual main character as its protagonist. McNulty hardly makes up the bulk of the show and he’s absent for the majority of Season 4. The diverse cast and the time dedicated to showing the impact of various actions means that The Wire is ultimately about the system of relationships between these people.
The biggest thing The Wire can’t do is depict silent evidence. In systems this is just the idea of unknown elements, the multitude of absences or possible outcomes that did not happen for whatever reason. An example would be something like assuming Harry Potter is the best fantasy book about wizards. There are so many variables in play like books that never got much attention, books that have never been written, or old books we’ve forgotten. What if someone else had been in J.K. Rowling’s position? Silent evidence is just a way of saying unknowable variables because there’s no solid answer to that question.
In a show about numerous relationships that works by showing the impact of people’s actions, The Wire has no way of talking about things it can’t depict. This is most prominent in Season 5. David Simon has said that his ultimate message was to show how the media ends up ignoring what’s important. They go with a bullshit, made-up story about a serial killer rather than talk about Clay Davis’s corruption. This presumably leads to Clay Davis being able to fool a group of jurors into thinking he is innocent. The issue is we’re never shown this. We just have to assume that’s what would happen. Because the show is so busy showing so many other connections and reverberations in the system, all of the newspaper’s actions seem meaningless. This is because they ultimately are in a systems narrative, if your character is affecting no change in others, then they aren’t really a part of the system.
Silent evidence also gives the show trouble in its basic characterizations. I know how all of these characters work and interact together, but I don’t really know a lot about them as individuals. To borrow the Red Letter Media Test, without using their job, appearance, or clothing, how easy is it to describe a character from The Wire? More importantly, how much does that description do them any justice? In Breaking Bad you can describe Season 2 Walt as a guy frustrated with his life who has become hooked on being the best at something. That’s not all of it, but it covers a lot of ground. It’s easy for me to describe McNulty as an asshole or that the FBI profile of him is hilariously accurate. But that doesn’t really describe why he’s important or admirable in the show. For example, I didn’t realize what a jerk McNulty was to his co-workers, particularly in Season 3, until I rewatched the show and caught the details.
Breaking Bad, with its devotion to Walter White, has no problem depicting silent evidence. Long shots of Skyler wondering where Walt is, him missing the birth of his daughter, or the tiny domestic moments that show his marriage falling apart all make you aware of what he’s doing. With so much time devoted to his character we are much more acutely aware of what his actions, in isolation, are doing to others. The question of “but for Walt’s meth dealing, his marriage would be intact” is not really open to debate even though it is never shown. In The Wire, we don’t really know if Clay Davis would have gotten off the hook if the newspaper had been talking about him. The show doesn’t really have a way to talk about this because it’s about things that didn’t happen. In many ways the absence IS a character, like a person in the room sucking the life out of Skyler and driving her away.
The difference can best be summarized by the plane crash at the end of Season 2. His family is in ruins, Walt is responsible for 3 people’s deaths, he has helped produce a lethal drug to thousands, and all he has to show for it is money and an empty house. Rather than show all this by depicting and developing all the characters necessary to show the systemic damage, a tragic airplane accident occurs. It’s a metaphor, a way to represent all the damage that has occurred succinctly and in one episode. The Wire, on the other hand, just shows all this happening episode by episode with its large cast.
David Simon described his approach to writing The Wire as trying to appeal to the people actually involved in this world. The average reader, as an outsider, is encouraged to actually engage with the realities rather than just a brief visit. He compares it to spending a month in Paris as opposed to riding around on a tour bus. Simon even made this point literally in Treme when a tour bus stopped and stared at a local funeral dance. Breaking Bad, as a character driven story, is a tour bus of the meth world with an excellent tour guide.
Early in Season 3, Lester asks McNulty how he thinks it will all end. If he really believes everyone will think he was right and congratulate him when he finally catches Stringer. Lester warns him that he won’t find any satisfaction if that is all he has in his life. In Breaking Bad, we all know that there will be a distinct ending. It will be sharp and well-written, but the story of these individual characters must come to an end eventually. As the ending montage of The Wire plainly shows, in system narratives that never really happens.