Tragedy

Posted by Piers Cawley on Mar 3, 2008

There’s always a moment, in a perfect tragedy, where you dare to hope that maybe the heroes are going to break the surface tension of the plot and escape. That perfect moment in Romeo and Juliet where, no matter how often you’ve seen it, you hope that this time, Juliet’s message will reach Romeo. Or, when watching Cruel Intentions, you find yourself hoping that the writers have managed to wangle a happy ending.

It never happens of course, and we’d be disappointed if it did. We are taken to the critical point, when everything seems possible, when the characters are pushed to their utmost… and fail. Give me the life and death struggles of two teenagers for whom love is everything and life isn’t worth living without it over the pat solutions of the Dream, or give me “Fortinbras, knee deep in Danes” over the cross dressing, weddings and cruel taunts of Twelfth Night. (Not that I don’t enjoy the comedies).

What brought this one?

Why am I musing on tragedy instead of code?

The explanation is simple: I just watched the last ever episode of The Wire.

If you follow the show yourself, nothing more is needed. If you don’t, why not? Okay, so if you’re in the UK you’re reduced to paying the Murdoch tax, buying the DVDs or watching through Bittorrent (and only Bittorrent is up to date), but you should. All five seasons of The Wire add up to being the best thing I’ve ever seen on television. It’s impossible to describe how good it is without misrepresenting the whole. It’s the kind of campaigning documentary fiction which would make Dickens or Mrs Gaskell proud. It’s a sprawling epic with a huge cast of fascinating and flawed characters. It’s the story of how a cop destroys his career, a junky kicks his habit, a school system fails its pupils, politicians fail their constituents, a newspaper fails its readers and how a policy of prohibition fails a country.

Prohibition and its consequences are shot through the fabric of The Wire. It’s easy to see how drugs destroy addicts. Easy (for liberal old me at least) to see how the money spent in the War on Drugs could be spent more effectively. What’s not so easy, and what The Wire does so well, is to show how “the game” destroys generation after generation of the best and brightest of the urban poor too. Why bother working to get to college, or getting a regular job when selling drugs is so easy and so profitable? If you’re going to jail for selling the stuff in the first place, why scruple to put a bullet in the head of a business rival, witness, or some mope who calls you a coward? How many “mute, inglorious Miltons” end up dead and decaying in a walled up vacant, or stuck behind the barbed wire of the state pen serving out their natural lives with no hope of parole?

And what does putting them away achieve? For every small victory, we’re shown a corresponding fall. New characters slot into the rôles they have vacated and the cycle begins again. It’s a perfect tragedy - the game is still rigged and only the players change. The gods are unmoved by the struggles of poor mortals, the lawyers get richer, incompetence is rewarded and money is siphoned away from the streets into the pockets of rich white men who already have plenty.

Welcome to Baltimore. Have a nice day.