Interlude 2: The Wire and the Event

I know that I probably watch too much TV, in fact, I once watched the whole first series of 24 in 18 hours, but when it comes to The Wire, I don’t think I could ever watch too much of it. The genre of cop drama/crime thriller has never been one to enthral me that much but this is a whole new ball game. Not only is it brilliantly written, with complex story lines that intertwine and then diverge with the single pull of a trigger, but it typifies the complexity of the urban in a way that very few urban geography textbooks or journal articles can.

If you have not seen The Wire then you should. If you are and have not seen season 3 yet then stop reading, it is far too good to be spoiled by this lowly blog. The reason I have singled out season 3 is because of it’s covert nod in the general direction of poststructural dialectics. A synopsis of the series is provided in the video below:

In season 3, we are properly introduced to Major Howard Colvin, a policeman coming toward the end of his tenure, looking forward to retirement. He hatches a plot to move all the street drug trafficking of the streets of Baltimore to three ‘safe zones’ in the Western district, where he then proceeds to let the drug dealers deal freely, turning a blind eye. All the time, in the rest of the Western district, he implements a zero-tolerance rule on any drug dealing on ‘the corners’. The resulting ‘free zones’ are by no means pretty, but they do succeed in helping the crime statistics drop for the rest of the Western district.

During this ‘experiment’ as Major Colvin refers to it, there is a mayoral race, with a white mayoral candidate – Thomas Carcetti, running against the black mayor incumbent, Clarence Royce. The ongoing drug feud between the ‘Barksdale crew’ and a new drug dealer, ‘Marlow Stanfield’ occupies the rest of the thematics of season 3.
What unfolds, eventually is that Major Colvin’s experiment, while keeping it under wraps (and in doing so, drives down the crime statistics in the Western district) is eventually found out by the police commissioner, and to turn a phrase, “the shit hits the fan“. Colvin is demoted and then kicked out of the force, the ‘free zones’ are raided, and the mayor and City Hall are left to try and explain away to the media why the city has effectively legalised drugs.Much of the last episode of the series is devoted to various characters reflecting on this ‘event’, with Colvin suggesting that ‘at least he tried something’, with the white mayoral candidate (and eventual winner) Carcetti giving a heartfelt lecture to the police commissioner arguing that while the motives may have been wrong, at least Colvin was trying something new. In echoes of Zizek, it was the “right step in the wrong direction“.

What this series said to me was that it takes monumental events, such as the ‘safe zones’ in Baltimore to effect a reaction from the societal strata we find ourselves enmeshed in. The laws that govern our lands are constantly shifting, and indeed the dynamism of globalisation is an important process to study and be aware of. But the seismic shifts in regulation like that witnessed in series 3 of The Wire are the very catalysts of effecting real change. Alain Badiou’s theorising on the Event has much influence here and in many ways, Colvin’s safe zones could very well be seen as one of Badiou’s ‘Events’.

The pace of change is something that we have become accustomed to in this complex world, so much so that tiptoeing through incremental change can either pass us by (and therefore be erroneously and sometimes harmfully mistaken for stasis), or cause as desire for more irruptive measures.

This, however, should not be read as an excuse for legalising drugs, revolution or any other peremptory strike on society or the economy, merely a lean toward Beckett when he said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”. Trying to effect ideological change through titanic events that make the world sit up and notice can be detrimental and even harmful, but failing is what humans are good at, but progress cannot be made without it.


  1. Gregory · October 22, 2008

    “Safe Zones” were the first jumping of the shark for The Wire; like in Oz when Cyril O’Reilly ‘gets old’

  2. olimould · October 24, 2008

    That’s pretty much confirmed my point! It takes a ‘jumping the shark moment’ (irruptive event) to effect any notable reaction in society and government these days.

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