Redemption in The Wire


I just finished all five seasons of The Wire on DVD.  The Wire is an astounding artistic achievement and devastating social commentary. I think its going to take  several blog posts to discuss it’s effect on me. As profound as it is profane, fans of Dickens, Shakespeare, Classical Dramas, or the Bible will find echoes of those literary themes and characters in The Wire. It deals with big themes like power, compromise, deception, and redemption in the lives of broken people in a broken society. Baltimore is full of the social ills that plague modern society.

The beginning credits run to Tom Waits’ song Way Down in the Hole. Lyrics about about holding on to Jesus, avoiding temptation, and keeping the devil “way down in the hole” are sung against a backdrop of flawed characters and gritty street life. Many reviewers have identified the City of Baltimore as the main character in The Wire. The 2nd  and 3rd chapters of The Revelation of John call out churches in particular cities for sinful behavior, compromise, and sins of omission in light of the evils in each of those cities. Just as in the cities described in the Biblical Revelation, the devil is on the loose in Baltimore and its institutions are unable to stem the tide of evil. Season one establishes the police and drug cultures and carries their stories throughout all five seasons of the series. Different artists sing the theme song as subsequent seasons explore corruption and temptation in different city institutions: season two- unions; season three- city hall; season four- schools; and season five- the media.

The Wire presents a believable portrayal of each of these subcultures. It takes several episodes to get used to the vocabulary of the various cultures. Gang bangers, police, and even the press have their own jargon. Each institution holds to particular moral imperatives and characters have to adapt to societal expectations. The Wire is both a realistic, gritty revelation of city life and an epic about survival, power, compromise, temptation, and deception within each of the various subcultures and the lives of the characters that inhabit them. Within each of these instututions there are rules followers and rebels, characters motivated by self-interest and others who act for the good of others. Even some of the darkest characters have redemptive moments and some of the most admirable makes disturbing choices. The Wire is about keeping the devil in the hole in a city that seems well on its way to losing its soul. In many ways the characters are as much products of the city as they are independent moral agents. The message seems to be that the city is not salvageable but some of the characters might be.

So much of The Wire involves downward spirals in the lives of the characters, because those characters involve some instructive and masterful storytelling, but right now I want to look at five characters who have redemptive story arcs. Four also act as redemptive agents. Major Colvin, Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski, Cutty Wise, and Reginald Cousins aka “Bubbles” initiate and respond to positive change in ways that impact their own lives and the lives of those around them. Major Colvin actually wants to address the city’s problems instead of juking the statistics so it only looks like he’s doing his job. Though his risk-taking, all-in attitude may not save the city, he does manage to save a little piece of it. Cutty Wise and Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski  realize that the work they do will not turn the tide of evil in the neighborhood but they recognize that they might be able to make a difference in the lives of a few and that’s enough. The more powerful story for them is the difference their work is making in their own lives. “Prez” Pryzbylewski begins the series plagued by his own incompetence and anger. The right job provides purpose and fulfillment for his life. By series end it really does seem to be more of a calling than a job. Cutty Wise tires of violence but feels too mired in his past to get out. He determines to remain in the neighborhood as a positive presence. He is a sort of wounded healer as is Bubbles. Reginald Cousins, who goes by “Bubbles” has a gentle, humble, almost joyful attitude. He always has a younger street addict under his wing, trying to protect and teach. His redemptive arc is the most complete and one of the most satisfying parts of the series. The redemptive journeys of these characters are bright threads running through a very dark story.

The redemption story of Namond Brice is a little different.  The son of a violent soldier of the drug trade, Namond’s future is fortold in the lives of older drug kingpins like Avon Barksdale or Marlo Stanfield. He has the intelligence to run a drug operation but does not have the heart for the violence required of the job. Without intervention from people like Colvin, Pryzbylewski, and Wise he has no hope for change. Like a true recipient of grace Namond does not initiate his own salvation, but he fully embraces the opportunity.

At its core The Wire is a classic tragedy, but it does gives us hope that, at least for a few, the devil is down in the hole. These characters’ stories are reminders that the environment that creates our grief and temptation is not going to change first. Positive change in our own lives requires that we push against the tide. Change means risk and commitment. I’m reminded of Paul’s words in Romans 12:2 telling us to reject what seems inevitable and to refuse to embrace the circumstances and attitudes of a broken environment. Renewed minds discover purpose, develop gifts and talents, and seek good. The process of transformation spills that good over into the lives of the people around us and leads us toward the fulfillment and peace that comes with becoming the people God created us to be.

I considered including Jimmy McNulty as a redemption story. He certainly experiences a redemptive arc, actualy more than one, but maybe he deserves his own blog. Anyone with thoughts on McNulty?


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