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The Wire Symposium

The Wire is over and respects are due. We could, with much enthusiasm, join in with the chorus of proclaiming and superlative-happy critics. The sweep of the show is astounding; huge. Anyone taking part in this symposium could probably spend an entire night just telling you why it's the best show ever.

But there's a lesson in The Wire for writers: the big is in the small. The show manages a sweeping scope precisely because everything at the smallest scale is so keenly observed. There are more than eighty characters of significance on this show, and they all get their due, their humanity. They bounce off each other in short, compressed scenes that explode with the meaning and consequence of human imperatives, blind spots, and consciences. What do you get when you multiply 80 characters by 25 scenes by 13 episodes by 5 seasons? You get something like an entire city and you get it from the ground up. Character by character, action by action, code by code, tribe by tribe. This is something exponential in the show's many dramas—in the scope to which they aggregate, sure, but also in humble and singular engine that first drives each one. A gun. A church crown. A corner. A body.

We posted a call: 500 words on your favorite scene of The Wire. We felt it was important that the pieces be brief and focused like the scenes they honor and that a variety of voices be heard. In both, we hope to pay a sort of homage.

The responses we got were enthusiastic, insightful, and are compiled below. Just one caveat—this is an exercise in spoilers. You really shouldn't read on if you haven't watched the show in its entirety.

- Pete Coco

Season 4, Episode 38, Snoop and her nail gun
by Nick Adams

In the August 2007 issue of The Believer, David Simon was interviewed by author Nick Hornby. In the piece, Simon expounds on his standard for verisimilitude.
Fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.
Any artist who feels—and is willing to show—that much contempt for his potential audience is either a genius or an asshole. My belief is that to achieve true greatness at anything, you need to be a little bit of both. But he's right. Good writers shouldn't be forced to write down to the level of the US Weekly subscribers of the world just because they happen to work in a medium originally conceived as filler between Lucky Strike ads.

The first scene of Season 4 demonstrates Simon's attitude perfectly.

For the average television viewer, the nail gun scene probably feels damn near impenetrable. Snoop's dialogue sounds like Portuguese when compared to most of what passes as "urban" on television. The average TV writer's idea of infusing reality into a scene like that would be to have the character throw the word "dog" around a lot. (Breaking Bad, I'm looking at you.)

If you watch this exchange while ironing clothes, changing a diaper, or sorting your mail, you'll come away knowing that Snoop purchased a nail gun. While those who paid close attention get that basic plot point, they also come away with details that help to flesh out a secondary character that is twice as compelling as the lead in most programs. She casually refers to doing five "jobs" last month, so you know that she and Chris have been busy. She gives a brief but descriptive dissertation on the damage that can be done by a .22 caliber bullet, so you know she's seen a fair amount of gunplay in her life. She insists on giving the clerk a $130 tip, because she's genuinely appreciative of the customer service that she's just received. Then, she walks out of the Hardware Barn with the almost $700 power tool with no receipt because, fuck it, she knows she paid for it. And just in case you forgot that you're dealing with a cold-blooded killer, she tells Chris that the new nail gun is powerful enough to use for the actual murders themselves.

As Lester Freamon would say, "All the pieces matter." But to even be aware of those pieces requires more from the viewer than the average television watcher--or Emmy voter—is willing to give.

Nick Adams is a Los Angeles-based stand-up comic and writer. His debut work of non-fiction, MakingFriends with Black People, was published in 2006. He's currently developing projects for television, and working on another book.
Season 4, Episode 50, Bubbles and Walon "up in D-Ward"
by Peter Bebergal

The moral ambiguity of The Wire is the core of the series, but this does not mean that every character is morally ambiguous. And there is no more decidedly moral character than Bubbles. Even more than Omar, Bubbles sees the world as it is, despite the heroin haze of his gaze. Bubbles, while compelled by his addiction to do terrible things, knows there is a certain line that he cannot cross. His is the heart of an addict, bigger than yours or mine, and so he lives within a world where every action carries moral weight. This is why the addict's remorse is so great. When in his attempt to prevent Fiend from tormenting him and Sherrod, he laces his dope with sodium cyanide in the hopes that when Fiend rips him off again, he'll shoot the poison dope. Sherrod ends up accidentally shooting the deadly mix meant for Fiend. Bubbles finds his comrade dead and it looks like he has finally hit his bottom.

But this is not the scene that reveals his ultimate redemption. This death has happened like so many others, on the street, amongst those who are already invisible. It would be easy to Bubbles to flee, to find a new home, to shoot more dope. What he does instead is admit to the police about the tainted vial. But if he wants to be saved there is one more thing he has to do.

In the final few minutes of season 4, some of the finest television that has ever been produced, there is a montage of each character confronting the finality of the choices they had made over the course of the season. There is no dialogue, and for one brief moment we see Bubbles lying in the lap of his sponsor Walon (played by Steve Earle) as he wails. This the single moment of moral clarity in the whole series. (The only other that comes close is Ziggy crying in the car after he kills Glekas in season 2.) It's not simply that Bubbles feels guilty for what he had done. It's that he recognizes that his whole life has been a series of decisions that led to the fatal loss of someone he loved. It's a moment for the addict when he or she understands that we are always responsible, even when our circumstances seem to take all choice away. And it's the moment when to be human means accepting help from another person even when accepting that help means owning everything you have been up to that point. To live a moral life is to surrender to an idea that we are not alone, and that thinking we are alone is where our doom lies. (Is this not what leads Dukie down into the alleys?)

In James Baldwin's essay, "Notes From a Native Son," the author recounts his growing up in the ghetto with his violent and angry father. Everyone was afraid of him, but at his funeral, no one spoke of his sins, only of the man that was possible if not for the circumstances of his life. Baldwin writes, "Every man in the chapel hoped that when his hour came, he too would be eulogized, which is to say forgiven, that all his lapses, greeds, errors, and strayings from the truth would be invested with coherence and looked upon with charity." In a similarly framed moment, we see Bubbles escape from the basement and sit with his sister for dinner in one of the final frames of the final season—but even this does not speak to the beautiful redemption of Bubbles as powerfully as his breakdown in the arms of Walon, when he allows another human being to witness his suffering and to not judge him.

Peter Bebergal is the co-author, with Scott Korb, of The Faith Between Us: A Jew and a Catholic Search for the Meaning of God (Bloomsbury, 2007).
Season 3, Episode 36, Stringer and Avon talk for the last time
by Michelle Falkoff

I find it sad but telling that the scenes from The Wire that are the most memorable to me center around death. It's not always about the death itself; often what's more striking are the moments when it becomes clear that death is coming, and there isn't a whole lot anyone can do to stop it.

To back up a bit: from the beginning, I have loved Stringer Bell. I'm not sure my motives are pure here; he's a pretty good-looking guy. But I'd like to think my feelings for him stem from something a bit more substantive. To the extent that a middle-class white female can relate to any of the characters on this show, I've always related to Stringer. He helped Avon Barksdale build an empire from nothing, something they joke about as they share a drink on the roof of Avon's fancy condo, procured by Stringer while Avon is doing time. They used to steal toys as children; they didn't even have a yard. Now they sit high above the harbor, their old playground, living as good a life as they ever could have imagined.

What Stringer tells Avon, as he looks out across Baltimore, is about how he wishes he had money back then, so he could buy the security they have now. It's all about the property, to him; that's what makes everything real. As far as he's concerned, any chance he and Avon have at making it in the world involves becoming legitimate businessmen, transferring their assets out of the game and into the world. And this makes sense to me: two smart men, raised in a difficult environment, took their natural intellect and created this empire, and now they have the chance to be respectable. It's as close to a meritocracy as two boys raised on the streets can hope for.

But this is why a middle-class white female can never really relate to someone who grew up on the streets, and this is why Stringer is doomed. The game is not a meritocracy. Becoming legitimate isn't the goal, and it isn't a reward, either. To play the game is to love the game, and Avon loves the game. When Stringer talks about real estate as tangible, better than Avon's dreams, Avon can't look at him. The only real estate Avon really cares about is the corners, corners they've lost because of Stringer's efforts to shift their role in the game from sales to distribution. Avon wants to play, and Stringer has turned into a hindrance.

And so we face one of the horrible moments The Wire handles so beautifully: Stringer tells Avon he can't stay up too late because he has to go to the construction site, and Avon casually asks what time he's going. We all know what this means, but what makes the scene so hard to watch is seeing that knowledge on Stringer's face. He hesitates before telling him the time, as if he's contemplating whether to lie to Avon, but I can't help thinking that it makes sense that he didn't, once he realized what was going to happen. If it wasn't the construction site, it would just be somewhere else, and at least now he knows. Now we all know, even if we wish we didn't.

Michelle Falkoff watches far more television than she should. The rest of the time, she teaches legal analysis, writing, and research at the University of Iowa College of Law.
Season 4, Episode 48, Freamon, Bunk, and the vacants
by Cristina Henríquez

When I first heard the term "epiphany" in a creative writing course, it struck me as more of a contrivance than anything else (does a story always have to end with an epiphany?). I've learned, though, as people eventually do, that the things in my younger, more contrarian years that seemed woefully hackneyed and formulaic are often the precise things I accept now as being part of convention for a very good reason: they work.

After all, is there anything more spine-tingling in popular entertainment—in books, in film, on television—than that split second when the hero of a story finally solves the problem that's been obsessing him from the beginning? That crystalline moment when everything falls into place and the hero, at last, gets it?

For me, the final scene of episode 11 in season 4 is about just that.

The scene, of course, doesn't stand alone. Its brilliance depends on the build-up that precedes it. Early on it becomes clear that the question to dog the police will be what Marlo Stanfield, the reigning king of Baltimore's drug trade, who, the police presume, gained control of the corners by dropping more than a few bodies, has done with the corpses. For ten glorious episodes, even as they tackle other problems, the police return again and again to the same unremitting issue. At times—when they pull over Snoop and Chris, when Randy snitches—they tread tantalizingly close to open doorways that would lead them to the answer. But as all good writers know, the longer the tease, the greater the payoff. So the audience is forced to wait until episode 11 for the light bulb to click on at last.

The scene itself is riveting. In three continuous minutes, there are but six lines of dialogue. Detectives Bunk and Freamon saunter around in a playground (an unkempt stamp of land littered with an old desk chair and trash bags snagged on a wire fence ballooning in the wind) until we get a panoramic sweep of the surrounding neighborhood and Freamon pauses meaningfully before striding to a boarded-up door. There's a close-up of his fingertips running over a nail head. Then, the epiphanic moment.

Freamon says, in a way that lacks astonishment or sentiment, "This is a tomb." Then, he simply walks away, back to the car, leaving Bunk staring at the row houses with their innumerable boarded doors as the screen cuts to black. It is understated yet powerful, cavalier yet grave, unaffected yet heartbreaking. In thirty years of watching television—and I watch a lot—I can't recall any individual moment more satisfying.

Cristina Henríquez is the author of Come Together, Fall Apart, a collection of eight stories and a novella. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and other journals, and she was featured in Virginia Quarterly Review as one of "Fiction's New Luminaries." Her first novel, The World in Half, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books. She lives in Chicago.
Season 1, Episode 12, Bodie and Poot kill Wallace
by April Simpson

For me, this scene's strength is in its subtlety—the gun shaking in Bodie's hand and the silence just before he pulls the trigger. It reminds me of a line uttered at least twice over the show's five seasons: "You cannot lose if you do not play." Bodie, Poot and Wallace were just pawns in the larger Barksdale drug organization. They were teenagers who often betrayed their age. But once you're in the game, it's nearly impossible to leave unscathed. We all knew that Wallace was going to die.

And yet I still hoped that maybe he would be spared. He didn't understand what he was doing by reporting that he saw Omar's boy Brandon playing pinball, and his guilt was so strong he stopped selling drugs and began using them. He was a gangly teenager who talked about going back to high school, although it meant starting several grades behind. He was compassionate, and the numerous street children for whom he provided school lunches and help with homework depended on him.

But as we learned time and again on The Wire, it doesn't matter how "good" you are when you exist in a place with few options for "civilian" life. "This is me, yo, right here," Wallace says upon returning to The Pit. In this world, those who are fortunate enough to put their criminal pasts behind them, like Namond and Cutty, are rare.

All day, Poot insists that Wallace never talked to police, while Bodie maintains that they must follow Stringer's orders. Pointing the gun at Wallace, Bodie berates him for being a little boy, wetting his pants, failing to stand up straight. It's as if Bodie is trying to blame Wallace for having to kill him, and is also trying to convince himself that it needs to be done. Wallace's voice cracks as he begs for his life. But when its time to shoot, Bodie hesitates—he too is having second thoughts. It's at this moment you wonder whether Bodie and Poot might actually reconsider. The camera focuses on the gun, which is shaking and looks disconnected from Bodie's hand. But the silence draws out for too long, Poot tells Bodie to get it over with, Wallace falls, and the two young men look surprised.

Just when you think the scene is over, it takes another violent turn. Poot takes the gun from Bodie, and with a vacant look on his face, shoots his friend. The moment underscores the differences between the three young men. Bodie and Poot's lack of compassion and their failure to question the cruelty of the game ultimately lead to Wallace's demise.

If it's true that you cannot lose, if you do not play, the same is also true in reverse. In the end, just about everybody loses.

April Simpson is a journalist who has had reporting internships with several newspapers including The Boston Globe and The New York Times. She graduated cum laude from Smith College, where she studied American Studies and Government.
Season 5, Episode 59, Dukie and Michael say goodbye
by Patrick Somerville

As the final season of The Wire has rolled on, I've been forced to update my selected scene a couple of times; about a month ago, I was certain I would write about the appearance of Randy in foster care, when Bunk finally tracks him down. To see Randy in his new body—tall, muscular, angry—to see him as a man—was one of the more unbearable, sublime moments I'd ever experienced in front of a television; as I watched, I knew in my heart that this was where Randy's story ended, and that I wouldn't be seeing him again. Sad's not the word.

But beyond just straight-up rocking me, the disturbing experience of witnessing Randy's completed physiological adolescence—placed alongside his obvious retreat into himself—reminded me of how the nature of The Wire fundamentally changed upon the introduction of the children in Season 4. Until Episode 38, "The Boys of Summer," The Wire had been a tremendously complex and sophisticated drama of crime and punishment in contemporary Baltimore. Okay. Social messages and institutional paradoxes made their way to the audience in the subtext, and while the seeds of the show's deeper activist ambitions were certainly planted in characters like Wallace (who I take to be Michael's precursor—remember him out at that farm, with the crickets?—and now remember Michael dropping off Bug?), those themes hadn't yet exploded and taken over the show's core. That changed in the battle against the Terrace Boys. Guns could only do so much. It took piss-filled water balloons to take The Wire deeper.

My all-time number-one heart-crushing moment in television history, then: Dukie and Michael's goodbye, episode 59.

I think you could probably fruitfully parse every bit of dialogue in that scene, but most important, by far, was Dukie's attempt at reminiscing about the same day we met all four boys. Our own memories at the ready, the formula is thus in place for the show to exploit an unexpected and interesting dollop of dramatic irony. Dukie's remembrance of the day is vague, rushed, and over in only a few lines, and I have to think that most avid fans of The Wire remember that day at least as well, if not better, than Dukie's version. At the very least, we remember it, presumably as Michael remembers it. Dukie asks Michael if he recalls having ice cream, or recalls any of the day. Michael says, after quite some time, "I don't."

For me, this scene is The Wire. It's the refined version, the quick version, but there it is, there's no doubt. It's the final achievement of the show's ultimate M.O.: to dramatize, in emotional terms, in human terms, the permanent changes a broken society imposes on individuals, against their will. Michael has an empty space where childhood should be; Dukie's intellectual promise has been erased. In more abstract terms, somewhere in that car with Dukie and Michael, Friedmanian economics are dead, as are the major tenets of the American Dream. The notion of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is a ridiculous, horrible, hallucinated joke--not to mention stupid.

I think of Kurtz, in a weird way, whispering at the end of Heart of Darkness. Here's the horror, right here in this car, with these two boys we've come to know. It's also with Randy at the foster home, and in a strange way, it's with Namond, whatever AP classroom he's in. That's why I picked this scene. The horror. It took The Wire 59 episodes to show itself entirely, to show the depth of its hopelessness. Some of our favorite characters may very well end up okay, yes, but the majority will not escape to another world. They'll die or fold into themselves. That's it. And it's not that they've chosen it, or chose against escape; it's not that they don't see it happening or are insulated by a numbing false-consciousness; it's simpler: it's that escape, for most, was never even a possibility.

Patrick Somerville is a writer living in Chicago. His first book of stories, Trouble, was published by Vintage Books in September of 2006. A forthcoming novel, The Cradle, will be available from Little, Brown and Co. in 2009. His short story "Xylophone" was featured on Please Don't in 2007. You can read more of his work at
Season 3, Episode 34, McNulty and Theresa D'Agostino have dinner
by Scott Stealey

My favorite scene in The Wire comes near the end of the third season, as Hamsterdam is beginning to crumble, when it's only a matter of time before all the reform will implode into itself like one of the Towers collapsing. Jimmy McNulty at this time takes it upon himself to court his current romantic interest, the campaign strategist Theresa D'Agostino, in order to turn a corner and get himself a "life;" make some personal reform of his own. He wants to find a relationship, something outside his job, because, as Lester tells him, "the job won't save you, it won't make you whole, it won't fill your ass up." McNulty realizes he needs to change from his womanizing, drunken-door-knocking way to something rooted in the right direction, something that won't close on him, like a case always will. Unfortunately for McNulty, his only relationship with the campaign strategist up until this point has been some late-night fucking; so he knows nothing about how completely different they are until this, their first doomed dinner date.

The scene begins innocuously enough, but quickly you realize these two don't have any chemistry whatsoever. They have nothing in common except for their time spent in the same hotel bed. McNulty is apolitical and doesn't even remember John Kerry's name. He then bashes how little the D.C. machine D'Agostino works for knows about "what's really what's going on," because he only can see from his limited perspective of the drug trade in West Baltimore. To McNulty, "it never connects," and his anti-authority nature never will see the big bosses, the men at "the money faucet," as people capable of any real reform. He doesn't care about leadership, he loutishly mocks the chain of command, he's not up on current events. He probably doesn't even read the newspapers, because if he bothered to do that, he would have found his way to a sex column advising that you should never, under any circumstances, go on a real date with a "fuckbuddy." McNulty is palpably pathetic, and you can't believe it.

You're used to seeing him be that noble badass who is always doing the right thing no matter who stands in his way. He's become almost like Fox Mulder from The X-Files: his instincts are never wrong, he is completely involved in his work, and is always righteous, because he's always right. He's got charisma, he's slick. You've seen him be a ladies man, a heroic detective, a ball-buster of authority, and a proponent of the just cause, such as when he tries to investigate D'Angelo's "suicide" at the hands of a belt and a prison library door. (Which, of course, he was right about.) If you gave McNulty a basketball, he probably would never miss a jumpshot onscreen.

But now his Mulder-like defiance is something that makes McNulty a childish asshole (but just the same, a better character). Everything is about the micro, the life right in front of him. Maybe in this scene McNulty realizes himself that he'll never change. You begin to notice that The Wire has just compressed the great chaos of Hamsterdam into the dinner-table space between these two mismatched characters. That grand tension of reform is still there, funneled into this bite-size little conflict, going on around and inside of one of Baltimore's finest. Unlike McNulty, we get to see it all connect, we get to watch the micro and macro mingle side by side.

Scott Stealey is one of the editors here.

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