The Wire has a Hero’s Journey, in case you missed it. It is also the one TV show I keep going back to. The HBO production first aired in June 2002, and since then, the show won a large following of people who – like me – call it the best show on TV, ever.
The original broadcasts were in standard definition, and in the old 4×3 aspect ratio. Only at the end of 2014 – seven years after the last season premiered – a remastered version was released in 16x9HD. For me it was a reason to revisit 60 hours of spectacular drama.
60 hours of spectacular drama.
The Wire immerses us in stories from the street, in drugs beleaguered Baltimore. We live with the dealers on the corners and among the high-rises, and we follow homicide and narcotics police struggling to curb the unrelenting death toll. We see the connections with politics, the role and impotence of the education system, and the power of the press.
The Wire is pure mythical storytelling. We get an insight into the Hero’s Journey of an addicted Baltimore homicide cop, and we learn about the complexity of a micro-cosmos that is very much a metaphor for modern day America.
Creator and executive producer David Simon is one of the smartest show runners around. He managed to fit an issue as complex and far-reaching as the urban drug trade into a one-hour entertainment concept, without dumbing down characters and plot (much). The feat is simply mind-boggling. That said, the Hero’s Journey myth helped Simon in his sheer insurmountable challenge.
David Simon genuinely cares about his characters. All of them. Long after the show had aired first, Simon keeps lobbying for the plight of his cast, many of whom weren’t professional actors, but plucked from the streets of Baltimore.
The ‘war on drugs’ is effectively a ‘war on the poor’. The Wire is a dramatic testimony to this fact. In the series, Simon also shows us how politicians have a stake in the trade, and therefore will never make serious attempts to fight it.
The ‘war on drugs’ is effectively a ‘war on the poor’.
Hero’s Journey In A Serial
Given Simon’s tremendous integrity when it comes to representing the Truth, I didn’t expect him to build a Hero’s Journey. Rather like a docudrama, I thought he would waive a more realistic narrative, without a conventional ebb and flow, let alone neatly closed storylines. Looking at the individual episodes, indeed it seemed he didn’t stick to the classic 4-act ‘clock’ one-hour drama.
I didn’t expect him to build a Hero’s Journey.
Then, we approached the mid of Season 1, and I realised a few things. We had not seen the face of the Shadow character Avon Barksdale until well into the series. Hero McNulty uses his little sons when he shadows Stringer Bell, and for the first time his addictions are mentioned explicitly in dialogue (work, woman and booze). Meeting with the Hero’s Journey Shadow, things becoming personal, and awareness of the Hero’s flaw; three typical aspects of a strong mid point in any major dramatic story.
It doesn’t end there. As we move towards the end of the season’s 2nd act, things get more and more difficult… and McNulty must approach his ‘inmost cave’. Like in every Hero’s Journey story, it means the character is facing his own weakness, and a confrontation with death…
Three typical aspects of a strong mid point
in any major dramatic story.
When True Detective was released, my industry peers raved about the long one-take shot at the end of Episode 4. Admittedly, it was an impressive feat. More impressive even, was the sense of scope, the relative powerlessness of the heroes under the circumstances, and the feeling of dread and impending doom.
While watching that shot in True Detective, I remembered something. There is this brilliant sequence towards the end of The Wire S01E10, an episode written by the core team of David Simon and Ed Burns; and directed by Brad Anderson (“The Machinist”).
More impressive even, was the sense of scope,
the relative powerlessness of the heroes under the circumstances,
and the feeling of dread and impending doom.
Officer Kima Greggs goes undercover to witness a drug deal. She is covered by colleagues, who are tailing her in several unmarked police cars, all ready to jump in, if and when necessary.
Then, things feel wrong… Kima has lost track of where she is. Street signs don’t seem to make sense… and furtive shadows approach the car. What follows is a brilliant, cinematic sequence, brimming with menace and suspense: The Hero’s Journey Ordeal.
Not a single note of music, other than the diegetic hiphop track from the car radio.
No need for subtitles.
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Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.