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World Goin’ One Way, People Another: Subcreation and Politics in The Wire

Image from The Wire
"If academia has anything to do with the staying power of a media text (and for my own sake, I hope it does), The Wire will undoubtedly live on as a cultural touchstone for years to come."

“If academia has anything to do with the staying power of a media text (and for my own sake, I hope it does), The Wire will undoubtedly live on as a cultural touchstone for years to come.”

The creation of fictional universes with carefully crafted economies, histories, and cultures has long been a hallmark of storytellers the world over, from West African griots to Russian novelists to Greek tragedians. But as terms like “transmedia” and “shared-universe” bubble up out of academia and into the zeitgeist, it is easy to think that the technique of worldbuilding is a contemporary phenomenon and not a method of narrative construction as old as storytelling itself. The false perception of this tool as a contemporary development is due in part to the recent academic “study of imaginary worlds which is occurring in a variety of fields” (Wolf 6). Conceiving of fictional world construction as a novel development is dangerous not only because it limits the understanding and history of the technique but also because this mindset focuses on the most obvious and contemporary ways in which worldbuilding is employed despite its history dating back millennia. The result is a perception of fictional world construction that is too often conflated with speculative fiction, needlessly restricting this tool’s ability to breath coherence and heft into any story, whether fiction, non-fiction or some liminal combination of the two.

While a fictional work, David Simon’s The Wire is undeniably grounded in real events, locations and people, placing the series firmly in this middle ground between fiction and alternative reality. As David Lerner notes in his essay on the show’s symbiotic use of Baltimore, The Wire “[relies] on actual events and the blending of real people to compose its characters and scenarios,” blurring the line between fact and fiction (214). Similarly, Margaret Talbot’s profile of David Simon titled “Stealing Life” focuses on his knack for vernacular dialogue, which allows him to know which parts of street life to appropriate in order to create a gripping sense of realism.

This use of non-fiction trappings as inspirational fodder is too often cited as the main reason that the show is so successfully able to craft a believable world when much of the series’ logicality actually derives from the incorporation of classic worldbuilding techniques. Nowhere is this better on display than in the third season of The Wire, where Simon integrates an additional political element into his tightly- constructed, fictional Baltimore city ecosystem, relying on the hallmarks of worldbuilding to create a local electorate that seems like it has always existed right off-camera. The incorporation of this political system into his complex city in the third season allows the series to include two additional plotlines that detail the way in which America’s contemporary political system, built on appearance and image, retards the growth and recovery of imperiled cities such as Baltimore. Given the beginning and completion of these plotlines in the third season and the expansion of Simon’s world and worldview through various cinematic worldbuilding techniques including serial plotting, expository character interactions and contrastive cutting techniques, a close reading of the first and last episodes of the season will demonstrate how The Wire’s multifaceted Baltimore allows Simon to articulate the far reaching consequences of a political system built on grandstanding.

J.R.R. Tolkien "On Fairy-stories" was the 1939 Andrew Lang lecture at St Andew's University
J.R.R. Tolkien
“On Fairy-stories” was the 1939 Andrew Lang lecture at St Andew’s University

In the seminal worldbulding text, “On Fairy Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien defines the difference between the “Primary World”—the world which we currently exist in—and “secondary worlds” that are the creation of authors. For Tolkien, in order for a story-teller to be successful, he must “[make] a secondary world which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside” (Tolkien 12). Of utmost importance to Tolkien is making sure that the fictional world has a coherence that inspires “secondary belief” in the “subcreation” or constructed world. Secondary belief is not a willful suspension of belief but is instead a state that the reader enters when the secondary world adheres to an “inner consistency of reality” (Tolkien 5). This thread of subcreation of secondary worlds first characterized by Tolkien has been picked up and expanded upon by Wolf in his primer on worldbulding, Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. In this book, Wolf expands on what actions are needed to inspire secondary belief in the logicality of created worlds. The three principles of worldbuilding to Wolf are invention, the process by which “the Primary World has been changed” (34); completeness, the way in which the world contains “explanations and details…which suggest a feasible practical world” (38); and consistency, how “details are plausible, feasible and without contradiction” (43). Of course, the incorporation of one of these techniques is not simple as “completeness demands more invention as more of the world is revealed. The more invention the world contains, the more difficult it is to keep everything in the world consistent” (Wolf 34). However, the successful combination of these three methods is key to creating a functional and logical world for a creator to fully flesh out his or her ideas.

As a work of media, The Wire has been described as everything from Greek tragedy (Sheehan and Sweeny) to science fiction (Lerner) to even a non-interactive video game (Mittell) in an effort to understand the true essence of the series. However, all of these viewpoints put the media format or genre first instead of the world which Simon is crafting. The most useful way to understand The Wire is not as a procedural cop show (Mittel) or even as HBO’s antithetical “not TV” but instead as a secondary world that Simon is allowing us a glimpse into via the medium of television. If we begin to think of Simon as a “subcreator” instead of an author, we can then see how he strategically “[provides] background richness and verisimilitude to the story” (Wolf 2) in an effort to demonstrate the terrible effect of capitalism on society. Each season, Simon broadens this secondary world he is constructing in an effort to display the complicated institutions and economic forces that control and inform the lives of his creations. Rather than simply telling a narrative built on facts he is striving towards completeness through invention while maintaining consistency. This method of viewing his work allows us to interpret the third season of The Wire, which “moves in the direction of a properly political plot (networks, personal relations either of services rendered or of personal animosity, taking credit, passing the buck, ducking blame, etc.),” (Jameson 363) as an attempt to map a political system on top, between and below the drug gang-law enforcement symbiosis that Simon has detailed in previous seasons. Throughout this season, the viewer becomes privy to the inner workings of Simon’s local political system and its previously unexplored interactions with these two urban spheres. Through the incorporation of this additional institution, Simon focuses on the need for politicians to “appear” as if they are doing the credible thing rather than actually do it. This primacy of appearance means that the candidates must politically grandstand, forcing them to do what appears best to impress prospective voters rather than what would be best for the city itself. The terrible truth of this situation becomes evident throughout the third season in two competing plotlines that take up the majority of this season’s narrative and touch nearly every character in some way, large or small.

The first of the two season spanning plotlines begins with the dismally under planned destruction of the Franklin Terrace Towers, a cluster of in-universe public housing high-rises where much of Baltimore’s Westside drug trafficking took place. This plotline, inspired by the “historical demolition of the housing projects in Baltimore in the mid-1990s” (Lerner 219), starts with a speech from the incumbent Mayor promising renewal and revitalization and ends with a disastrous gang war resulting in numerous deaths and the dominance of a new, much more brutal drug regime. Rather than a terrible situation that begins with political grandstanding, the second season-long narrative arch is the utopian success of Hamsterdam, a drug enforcement free zone that slowly emerges as a ray of light in Simon’s Baltimore until a nascent Mayoral candidate sees an opportunity to crosscheck the current regime. These two events, one a blight which arises due to improper political planning, and the other, a success which is demolished due to political machinations, are both bookmarked by the first and last episode of the third season of The Wire. As such, a close reading of these two episodes will reveal the ways in which Simon uses worldbuilding techniques to intertwine the political sphere into his subcreation, allowing him further room to detail the repercussions of an electoral system that privileges style over substance.

Time After Time
Drug Lieutenants Poot (left) and Bodie (right) attend a meeting to discuss the fallout of the Franklin Terrace Towers demolition.

The first episode of the third season of The Wire, “Time After Time” opens with a scene that shifts back and forth from one focalizer to another. Three drug “soldiers,” two of which are the familiar Bodie and Poot from previous seasons, approach the political rally of a previously unseen, sitting Mayor Clarence Royce. This rally is a ceremony to celebrate the impending demolition of the Franklin Terrace Towers, previously a hub of drug activity that served as the base of power for the series’ main criminal association and Poot and Bodie’s employer, the Barksdale Organization. At the same time that Royce is declaring that the demolition of the Towers will remove some of the city’s “most entrenched problems,” Bodie, a young drug lieutenant known for speaking truth to power, is countering to Poot and their friend that the destruction of these buildings has nothing to do with the desire to start anew, for as Bodie knows, “they don’t care about people.” To Bodie, Royce is just another politician purporting to care even as he articulates that “reform is not just a watchword with my administration, unh-huh, no, it’s a philosophy.” By juxtaposing these two conversations, Simon is not only showing the interaction between the two represented social spheres, the criminal and political, but is also hinting at the performative aspect of Royce’s demolition. As the focus shifts back and forth between an unknown Royce espousing the benefits of the demolition and a trusted Bodie’s declaration that this is all an act to “snatch up the best territory in the city,” the viewer is forced to question who truly benefits from the demolition. Here Simon is relying on the audience to determine who to believe: an unknown politician with trite declarations or a drug trafficker who has endeared himself to the audience.

Mayor Clarence Royce
“By juxtaposing these two conversations, Simon is not only showing the interaction between the two represented social spheres, the criminal and political, but is also hinting at the performative aspect of Royce’s demolition.”

Later in the scene, as the actual destruction of the Towers occurs, the dust from the ill- conceived demolition blows through the audience, choking the Baltimore residents as the resulting gang war will over the course of the third season. This fallout, caused by a lack of proper planning, foreshadows the consequences that will occur throughout the third season as a result. Much like the demolition of the high-rises was improperly planned to prevent actual fallout, the destruction of a major trafficking area was improperly planned to prevent gang fallout. This is attested to in Simon’s choice to not include a single member of Baltimore Police Department (BPD) on the podium. This fundamental lack of coordination between these two public offices will play out over the remainder of the season as the body count stacks up while the dislocated Barksdale Organization forcefully tries to push other gangs out of their own territory, including the Stanfield Organization which they eventually come to war with. The first scene in the third season interblends existing characters representing the drug trade along with the new political players to be explored throughout the season showing that although often seen as worlds apart these two organizations are intricately linked. This scene serves to briefly articulate the way in which different societal spheres interact with one another. Up until now The Wire had dealt with criminal organizations interacting with law enforcement agencies, but immediately the third season demonstrates a break from this tradition where Simon the worldbuilder instead incorporates an additional element of the city in an effort to give the audience a more complete view of how his Baltimore functions.

Whereas Royce’s introduction cements his character as both a major political actor and unbeknownst progenitor of the Barksdale-Stanfield War, Hamsterdam is at first decoupled from the politician who would eventually destroy it as a means of political appropriation. The “safe-zone,” however, does likewise have the roots of its origin in “Time After Time,” as its progenitor Major “Bunny” Colvin is similarly to Royce introduced through the viewpoint of already existing characters. After Bunny berates two young policemen for not knowing their location, a recognizable police officer, Herc comments that “Bunny Colvin’s been giving that speech as long as you guys been sucking air.” Simon is here using invention as a means of completion showing Bunny as a character who not only has existed in this universe for years but also as someone who has deep roots into the local community and the police force. Later in the scene, when Bunny directly inquires why Herc and Carver, another known BPD officer, assaulted a young “drug runner,” he repeatedly asks “what did we learn?” When Herc responds with a stock chest-thumping answer, the Major walks away in disgust. In contrast to how Royce was immediately denigrated by Bodie upon introduction, Bunny is set-up as having complete credibility through his interactions with Herc and Carver. Furthermore, this scene introduces Bunny as a character who is fed up with the regular status quo of the BPD and whose storied legacy within the department gives him the type of pull necessary to instigate change. In this scene, as much he did in the opening scene of the season, Simon is integrating new characters in a way that feels logical within the complex narrative he is trying to articulate. This effort towards completion of his world duly serves to make Bunny’s creation of Hamsterdam all the more believable, subtly sucking the audience deeper into Simon’s diegetic musings on criminality.

City Councilman Tommy Carcetti
City Councilman Tommy Carcetti

One final character is introduced in the first episode of the third season of The Wire whose presence fills out Simon’s new political plotlines. Again, as with Bunny, and Royce, the viewers are introduced to City Councilman Thomas Carcetti while he is interacting with characters that the audience has already grown used to, Police Commissioner Burrell and Deputy Commissioner of Operations Rawls. Not only is Carcetti seamlessly incorporated, but, much like Bunny, he is first shown interrogating the two existing police officers on their low law enforcement efficacy. This scene serves to display Carcetti as both idealistic and opportunistic, two traits that will continually be at odds for the character as he exists in Simon’s cynical subcreation. Apart from the character development accomplished in this scene, Carcetti’s introduction mirrors that of Royce’s in a number of interesting ways. Whereas Royce is a political envoy interacting—albeit obliquely—with a criminal organization, Carcetti is a political emissary interacting with law enforcement. In both situations, a crucial element of the three sided dynamic is left unexplored—at no time in Carcetti’s questioning does he delve deeper into what may be causing the spike in criminal actions. In this scene, Simon is setting up Carcetti as a member of a preexisting political class that commands great influence over the police sphere with little actual knowledge of the criminal underworld. Later in the episode when Carcetti meets directly with Burrell, they even further marginalize the criminal element, never at any point discussing the actual criminal organizations that they are trying to restrain but only the link between the political sphere and law enforcement. This complete lack interaction between the three spheres causes much of the harm to the city. The introduction of each of these three characters into the neat logical ecosystem of Baltimore presages the way in which their relationship will form the background of the third season, giving Simon the ability to demonstrate the terrible consequences of political grandstanding.

Their relationships also elucidate the strange stratification of the three major societal spheres that are focused on in the third season. And as the season continues and an ensuing turf war erupts between the Barksdale and Stanfield organizations, the audience is continually berated with the simple fact that at no point during the demolition of the towers were the cops aware that the destruction would cause a major drug war. This lack of information flow from the cops who should be aware of what is going on at the street level to the politicians who should be aware of what is going on at the police level is further evidenced at numerous occasions throughout the third season. For instance, at one point, Bunny must trot though several branches of the BPD, until he happens to stumble upon the only law enforcement department that has any actual information on the drug dealers (“Straight and True”). Later, Bunny tells his protégé, Carver, that he “ain’t shit when it come to policing” (“Reformation”) because Carver has no idea what is going on at the street level, no knowledge of the community. Of course, what may be most disheartening is that even when the politicians are fully aware of what is going on at the street level, as Carcetti is after his stroll through Hamsterdam, they still choose to act in the interest of their appearance.

The last episode of the third season of The Wire, “Mission Accomplished,” is rife with the repercussions of the Barksdale-Stanfield War. It opens on the scene of the murder of “Stringer” Bell, the number two in the Barksdale Organization, who has continually tried throughout the season to broker peace between the two warring drug organizations. The first establishing shot of the episode lingers on a billboard advertising “B&B Enterprises,” Stringer’s attempt at a legitimate company. This evocative shot demonstrates the death of the dream of the character who continually tried to civilize the drug trade, implement a tribunal organization for settling “beefs,” and avert the Barksdale-Stanfield war. In a later scene of pure posthumous character building, Detective Jimmy McNulty, who at this point has been hunting Stringer for several years, enters Stringer’s apartment replete with book- lined walls and bourgeois furniture and is forced to ask himself “who the fuck was I chasing?” Of course, one might argue that the Barksdale-Stanfield war did not directly cause Stringer’s death, but it did force him to counter-attack his future murderer under duress from the war and it likewise caused the eponymous head of the Barksdale organization to betray Stringer out of fear of having to fight a war on three fronts. Some may argue that his death is not a straightforward through line from the Towers falling, but in a world as minutely crafted as Simon’s, it does not need to be, for the effects of one action are easily visible. Royce never pays for tearing down the Towers without consulting the BPD, but the ramifications of his need to be seen as an effectual Mayor permeate throughout the season and the rest of the series as the terror that is Marlo Stanfield looms over Baltimore.

The second main plotline wrapped up in “Mission Accomplished” is the experiment of Hamsterdam that Simon created within his replica of Baltimore. Hamsterdam is an attempt by Bunny to make sense of a fundamental flaw in the rhetoric of the “War on Crime”—that criminals are enemy combatants rather than American citizens. As his experiment to present citizens with an area in which drugs are legal develops in its own intricate way, it is tested over and over again by the outside forces that exist in Simon’s world. Armed robbers, journalist, social workers, sex workers and religious organizations all test the plausibility of this thought experiment but the safe drug zone is able to stay afloat until the ultimate pernicious malefactors discover it: politicians. Once the political class becomes aware of the social experiment, it is only a matter of time until Hamsterdam collapses in order to be churned into fuel for political maneuvering. This is first shown when Carcetti calls the media after he is made aware of the success of Hamsterdam. During this scene, the mayoral candidate is shown stating that the BPD “surrendered portions of the police district to the drug trade and the Council was not informed.” This lie, as Carcetti was made aware, is meant to downplay his own knowledge of the situation. The focus of the multifaceted world created by Simon then switches from Carcetti discussing the event with newscasters to Royce viewing the same newscast. This technique allows the viewer to see how the media’s reception directly causes Royce to recant his dream of using Hamsterdam for political gain. For Royce, who has for days been debating whether the merits of the situation offset the political costs, the dream of Hamsterdam becomes untenable when he realizes that it will be perceived negatively

Later in the episode, in front of the same police committee that served to introduce us to the character, we see Carcetti deploring Baltimore as a whole, fully exploiting the fall of Hamsterdam that he so greedily manufactured. Here, through deft plotting, Simon employs dramatic irony, allowing the audience full view of Carcetti’s duplicitousness as he grandstands while purporting to disavow the “politics” of the situation. During this speech he states, “this is more important than who knew what when or who falls on his sword or whether someone can use this disaster to make a political point or two.” Of course, thanks to Simon’s methodical construction of this character and intricate plotting leading up to this moment, the audience knows that this speech has everything to do with image, from Carcetti being coached to sound more inclusive, to his manager, Theresa D’Agostino, telling him to use his “winning hand” to destroy Hamsterdam. Simon has left a series of clues hinting at the fall of an idealistic man who has finally decided to trade in his idealism for political points. This moment is Simon’s own perverse eulogy for Hamsterdam, espoused through a character who was simultaneously the architect and main benefactor of its downfall.

The Wire - Mission Accomplished

Like every other season finale of The Wire, “Mission Accomplished” features a montage that wraps up the major themes and plotlines of the third season in a way that captures the repercussions that the introduction of the political class into his subcreation has wrought. The ramifications of both Hamsterdam and the fall of the Franklin Terrace Towers are keenly felt throughout this wrap-up. Better than any other moment in the season, this scene articulates the way in which Simon’s secondary world has allowed for him to show the harmful effects of such pernicious shoot-from-the-hip political grandstanding. Only in a world as consistent and complete as the one created by Simon, exists the ability to show the fallout that the ending of these two narrative arcs has on the larger universe. Cops continue to arrest criminals that they do not understand or care to know, drugs continue to get sold to imperiled addicts, the far crueler Stanfield gang now dominates Baltimore, and all the while Carcetti begins his official stumping on the campaign trail: in short, the “game” continues. The montage ends with a final scene of Bunny looking out over the destroyed promise of his utopian dream. Later in the scene, Bubbles, a character from the first season who has never met Bunny despite his intimate relationship with the BPD, discusses Hamsterdam. During this brief conversation, Bubbles laments the loss of Bunny’s elegant solution to the intolerable reality of living under the thumb of the drug trade stating, “You probably don’t know, but it’s rough out there, baby.” Again, Simon uses his subcreation to make use of dramatic irony, poignantly showing an unaware Bubbles giving Bunny some sort of affirmation that his experiment was not in vain. In a show with so few moments of comfort, Simon chooses to end the season on this bittersweet note, causing the viewer to reflect on what could have been.

If academia has anything to do with the staying power of a media text (and for my own sake, I hope it does), The Wire will undoubtedly live on as a cultural touchstone for years to come. Indeed, as Drake Bennett writing for Slate in 2010 noted “barely two years after the show’s final episode aired…there have already been academic conferences, essay anthologies, and special issues of journals dedicated to the series.” However, within academia, it is important that The Wire is viewed in the correct way, as a world unto itself invented by a skilled subcreator. The artful, meticulous detail of this world can be glimpsed in the first and last episode of the third season, which serve to bookend an introduction to how the local political class effects their city. That the destruction of a housing project would cause a major drug war is believable but the appearance of a drug enforcement free zone for several months in the middle of a major American city is more speculative fiction than nearly anything else in the show (fifth season serial murder plot I’m looking at you). But what is explicitly clear is that it feels believable because this world is so logically created that it seems hard to disbelieve any plot element that Simon introduces. As the audience is granted secondary belief in the situation, Simon is in turn granted further space to test out radical ideas with complete credulity. Thus, the destruction of Hamsterdam by Carcetti, an informed party who knows that it is one of the lone successful parts of the city comes off as all the more sinister. And likewise, it is not until the viewers realize that the destruction of the Towers caused the Barksdale-Stanfield War, that they similarly understand the true pernicious effects of political showboating without thinking of the consequences. But whereas the destruction of Hamsterdam was cause by an informed party pretending not to be, the destruction of the Franklin Terrace Towers was performed by an uneducated party barely aware of the repercussions of his actions, highlighting that a political system built on appearance will of necessity betray underclass. The brilliance of Simon the subcreator is to show us through an attempt at completeness that in a world built on capitalism, one can only ever have a political system built on appearance.

Works Cited

Bennett, Drake. “This Will Be on the Midterm. You Feel Me?” Slate 22 Mar. 2010.

Jameson, Fredric. “Realism and Utopia in The Wire.” Criticism 52.3 (2010): 359-372.

Lerner, David. “Way Down in the Hole: Baltimore as Location and Representation in The Wire.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 29.3 (2012): 213-224.

Mittell, Jason. “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling and Procedural Logic.” (PDF) Third Person (2009): 429-437.

Sheehan, Helena, and Sheamus Sweeney. The Wire and the World: Narrative and Metanarrative.” Jump Cut 51. Spring 2009 (2009).

Simon, David, et al. “Mission Accomplished.” The Wire New York: HBO GO, 2013.

Simon, David, et al. “Reformation.” The Wire New York: HBO GO, 2013.

Simon, David, et al. “Straight and True”. The Wire New York: HBO GO, 2013.

Simon, David, et al. “Time After Time.” The Wire New York: HBO GO, 2013.

Talbot, Margaret. “Stealing Life.” The New Yorker 22 Oct. 2007.

Tolkien, J. R. R., ‘On Fairy-Stories.’ The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien, pp. 109-161. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983.

Wolf, Mark J. P. Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. New York: Routledge, 2013.

The paper was originally written for the CMS graduate course “Major Media Texts”, taught in Fall 2015 by Professor Heather Hendershot.

Evan Higgins
Written by
Evan Higgins

Evan Higgins is a video game writer and critic. His work has appeared in the BioWare video game Star Wars: The Old Republic: Nights of the Eternal Throne, as well as journalistic outlets.

Thesis: The Allure of Choice: Agency and Worldbuilding in Branching-Path Transmedia Universes

Evan Higgins Written by Evan Higgins