"Lambs to the slaughter here."
-- Assistant principal Marcia Donnelly, "The Wire"
"They don't see innocence in our behavior. They do not think that what is being done to them is a mistake."
-- Jonathan Kozol, "Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation"
At the start of the fourth season of "The Wire," we meet four boys on the brink of becoming teenagers on west Baltimore's bleak streets, four children with distinct charms and talents and qualities that might bring them happiness and success in any other setting. By the season's final episode, only one of them appears to have any chance of a future that doesn't include incarceration or death. What happens in between is an exercise in frustration and hopelessness, a confusing cavalcade of wasted opportunities and escapable misfortunes, a series of missteps that, even with the intervention of several concerned adults, leads down a ruinous path. In the end, every system or institution that is supposed to shield these innocent lives from danger fails to protect them; in some cases it even places them in harm's way. At the close of the episode, three boys we've grown to care about, to believe in and to cheer on are left to tragic fates.
If Sunday night's finale of "The Wire" didn't leave you unsettled and depressed, you might want to check your vital signs. The bleakness of David Simon's award-winning HBO series comes as no surprise to loyal viewers, but this season, it was impossible not to hope for some happy endings, given the vulnerability and powerlessness of its young protagonists.
Of course, a sugarcoated, uplifting ending wouldn't honor the countless kids in our country who are let down by the system and left to fend for themselves. Simon captures the myriad ways this can happen through four children, all of whom we quickly recognize have heart and soul and loads of potential. Michael (Tristan Wilds) is alarmingly self-possessed and principled ("Big paws on a puppy" is how drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield puts it) and looks out for his younger brother with tireless ferocity and affection. But when his mother, a drug addict, invites the man who abused Michael back into their home, Michael turns to the only people he knows can do something about it: Marlo (Jamie Hector) and his crew. From there, Michael's slide into the criminal life seems inevitable. Interventions by boxing coach and youth mentor Dennis "Cutty" Wise (Chad L. Coleman) are rebuffed, and Cutty ends up getting shot twice in the leg for his efforts.
Randy (Maestro Harrell) is clever and charming and extremely grateful to his foster mother, the only foster parent he's had so far who's been good to him. But when he mentions to a teacher, in passing, that he might know about a murder, he's passed into the hands of a police department that wants information in exchange for protection that it's incapable of giving. Targeted by Marlo's people as a snitch, Randy is harassed, then his home is burned down and his foster mother lands in the burn unit. Sergeant Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam) makes several calls to keep Randy from landing in a group home -- he even offers to foster the boy himself -- but he's told that the process takes three to four months, too long to keep Randy safe. Finally Carver drops Randy off at the group home, then sits in his car and beats his fists against the steering wheel in frustration over what will become of the boy. Sure enough, the last we see of Randy, he's being beaten up by four teenagers who've heard the rumors that he snitched on Marlo.
Duquan (Jermaine Crawford) is shy and dorky, but he's loyal to anyone who'll give him a moment's notice, since his home is a revolving door of drugs and desperation that leaves him unwashed, unfed and lonely. Former cop turned teacher Roland Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost) notices Duquan's sorry state and arranges for him to shower at the school, plus he hangs out with him each day during lunchtime. In the middle of the school year, though, the school decides to send Duquan to join kids his age in the ninth grade, even though he's not performing with them academically. Pryzbylewski tells the administrators that Duquan will get eaten alive if he's sent to the other school, but the school simply doesn't have the space to accommodate him or other students his age regardless of their proficiency levels. Even worse, the school principal lectures Pryzbylewski for being too involved in Duquan's life, so when Pryzbylewski finds the boy lingering around his old school, he hesitates to offer his help, even though he can see that his former student is rudderless and desperate. Making a concerted effort to be somewhat remote, Pryzbylewski tells the kid he can stop by anytime, but we can see from the boy's face that this isn't enough. Soon after, Pryzbylewski spots Duquan, after years of avoiding the corner, selling drugs with Marlo's crew.
When we meet Namond (Julito McCullum) he already has a swagger in his step. His mother wants him to get a package and start dealing full time like his father, Wee-Bey (Hassan Johnson), an imprisoned member of Barksdale's crew. But despite his outward boasting, Namond is shaken by Michael's sudden brutality, and he quickly shows that he can't stomach street life. Seeing that the kid clearly wants an exit from this path, Howard "Bunny" Colvin (Robert Wisdom), a former free thinker in the police department who was forced to leave after his experimental reforms were called into question, approaches the boy's father in prison and convinces him that the kid has the potential to succeed at more than a dealer's life. In the last scene, we see that Namond is living with Colvin and his wife; he's one boy who was essentially rescued from a doomed existence on the street.
Although Namond's story provides a small ray of light on an otherwise dark landscape, what's most memorable about Simon's exploration of education in American cities is how the efforts of so many well-meaning individuals to help these kids could fail so miserably. As Simon told Reason magazine, "The Wire" is cynical about institutions, but not about human beings. In Simon's dystopian picture, the institutional culpability is crystal clear: We find schools that don't keep kids off the streets or even educate them; police departments that don't investigate messy drug crimes, don't make neighborhoods safer and serve the politicians more than the people; and politicians who, rather than effecting real change, sway helplessly in the winds of monetary and political manipulations. We're shown how the whole system is hopelessly corrupt, polluted by years of mediocrity, neglect and political opportunism. We witness how even the most well-meaning individuals eventually become corrupted by the system as well; after years of fighting the good fight, they become too cynical, self-preserving or just plain weary to stick their necks out and struggle against the status quo.
This is the beauty of Simon's vision: He forces us to put ourselves in the shoes of these often disappointing characters, to experience the impossible challenges presented by their circumstances. While most TV shows are populated by demonic criminals up against idealistic hero-cops, or earnest, good-hearted teachers willing to sacrifice anything and everything for every one of their young charges, "The Wire" introduces us to a complex community of human beings, each fallible in his or her own way. Or, as Simon told Salon in 2002, "Good and evil at this point bores the shit out of me."
This departure from good and evil allows us to understand why Mayor Thomas Carcetti or Police Commissioner Ervin Burrell are forced to compromise the best interests of their constituents; to do otherwise spells career suicide. We can also see why Bodie (JD Williams), an old member of Barksdale's crew, doesn't make waves or leave the game after all these years: Knowing what he knows, how could he walk away without getting a target painted on his back? And what else is the kid qualified to do? When Bodie finally does speak up and condemn Marlo's mercilessness after a lifetime of accepting the injustice handed down by his bosses, he's summarily executed.
In this heartless environment, though, even those with the purest intentions end up outmatched by their circumstances. One of the show's most sympathetic characters, a junkie named Bubbles (Andre Royo), takes a young homeless kid under his wing when he sees the kid has nothing. After being terrorized and robbed by a fellow junkie several times, Bubbles poisons a vial of heroin so that the thief will steal it, use it and die. Instead, his young friend dips into his stash and Bubbles wakes up to find him dead. Devastated, he turns himself in to the police for the kid's murder, then attempts to hang himself when he's left alone in an interrogation room. In one of the most memorable scenes of the season, Bubbles, right after being revived by EMS, tries to explain to Sergeant Jay Landsman (Delaney Williams) how the kid was killed. "The child had no one for him; no mother, no family. He in the street like I'm in the street. I tried to, um ..." Bubbles suddenly looks like he's gong to fall apart again. "Like I ain't know who I am, right? Like I'm pretendin' I ain't been a dope fiend my whole damn life. Just lock me up, man. I killed that child."
As heart shattering as these stories are, Simon and producer Ed Burns, who spent 20 years in Baltimore's police department and seven years teaching in its public schools, tackle this world with such affection and wit and grace, we can't help feeling privileged to move among these flawed yet forgivable human beings. More than any other show on TV, "The Wire" has a profound respect for its subjects. The producers never take shortcuts in order to make the stories or the characters simpler, easier to understand, easier to enjoy and therefore easier to dismiss. Thanks to their diligence, the world of "The Wire" feels incredibly real, and we share in its characters' victories and disappointments.
Simon has asserted that he doesn't expect his show to make a difference in the world; it's just TV, after all. But watching the brilliant and moving fourth season of "The Wire," it's impossible not to feel crushed by the unhappy fates of these kids, and to inherit Simon's fierce anger at the systems and attitudes that let these children fall through the cracks. The show is heartbreaking in the truest sense of the word: it was designed to break your heart, and it does so with unsettling precision. Simon shows us no mercy, and as a result, we have a palpable sense of the cruel and merciless lives that so many children in our cities are born into.