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The Wire and the Art of the Credit Sequence

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<em>The Wire</em> and the Art of the Credit Sequence

walk the straight and narrow track.”

—Tom Waits, “Way Down in the Hole”

The Wire returned Sunday, September 10th after two years in limbo, a stretch equal to the last Sopranos hiatus. Yet while The Sopranos’ production gap was seen as an affront to the show’s fan base, The Wire languished in relative silence. Its largely non-white cast, tangled narrative, and bleak assessment of public institutions pretty much guaranteed a minuscule audience so it was unsurprising that HBO chairman Chris Albrecht shelved the drama after three seasons and then told TV columnists, “I have received a telegram from every viewer of The Wire—all 250 of them.”

After lobbying by fans and pitches by Simon, Albrecht reconsidered and gave the show another year (and the love continues: the show was recently picked up for a fifth and final season). Having viewed Season Four in its entirety, it seems to me that two years away from Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and the gang may have actually been beneficial, giving the writers the necessary time to think about The Wire’s vision of America and how each season progressively enlarges the scope of that vision.

Over time, the show has evolved from cops versus gang-bangers into a look at the similarities between organizations on both sides of the law, and how their struggle affects individual citizens and failing public institutions. Each main plot and subplot affirms that every part of society is somehow connected to every other part—that we’re all part of the same (to use a phrase that often crops up in discussions of Deadwood) “human organism.”

Unfortunately, that organism is made up of people who are mainly interested in protecting their turf. They often don’t know how their actions affect others and, if they do know, they cover their mistakes or pretend they didn’t make any, then hope that things don’t get too bad in the long run. Their behavior is akin to cutting the top off a weed and praying the root doesn’t regrow the moment you turn your back. Think of the hasty wrap-up of the Barksdale case in season one, which left Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) on the streets, or the fall of “Hamsterdam” in season three, where mayoral candidates used Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin’s (Robert Wisdom) doomed social experiment to screw one another over for the benefit of the cameras. When Season Four begins, the major characters have all spent time living with the consequences of their choices, and because of this experience they’ve become different people. They’ve taken promotions or moved into completely different professions; they’ve sparked up new relationships and abandoned old ones that have run their course. Like its characters, The Wire evolves, moving beyond themes it has already explored and letting itself veer into new territory. Each season represents not just another case to be solved, but an enlargement of the show’s pessimistic portrayal of America, a place where economic inequalities and institutional corruption reproduce themselves over time.

It is no surprise, then, that The Wire’s opening credits are not an ordinary credits sequence, but a series of four short films that distill each season’s themes, goals, and motifs. On most TV dramas the credits sequence is little more than a contractual pecking order with flashy graphics and catchy music—examples of what job-hunting production houses would call a “sizzle reel.” Even the credit sequences on HBO’s other programming, which are always evocative and given a full minute to breathe, usually seem detached from the shows themselves, to the point where they work as stand-alone mood pieces. But The Wire’s four credits sequences don’t fit any of these descriptors; the images are taken out of context from the season’s individual episodes and arranged in a pattern that only makes sense if you watch the show closely. The content changes significantly from season to season, yet each credits sequence adheres to the same basic editing rhythms and visual schemes. The theme music is always Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole,” but each season it’s performed by a different artist from a different genre. Working in concert, the audio and the visuals create a 90-second mini-narrative that alludes to each season’s victims and assailants, its legal and political strategies, its criminal schemes, its surveillance devices, and its instruments of death. The entire assemblage is scored to a mournful biblical cautionary tale about the necessity and difficulty of resisting temptation and sin.

Taking a cue from Homicide: Life on the Street (another show sprung from the pen of former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon), the season-one credits use police iconography and staged crime scene footage to convey the down and dirty feel of Baltimore’s killing streets. But the images aren’t suspenseful, glamorous, or even especially menacing. The compositions are often off-center or partly out-of-focus, conveying a world-weariness and a tedium on both sides of the divide. Accompanied by the octogenarian gospel act the Blind Boys of Alabama, the season-one credits sequence announces that The Wire is not a kicking-down-doors-and-busting-heads kind of cop show. There’s a patient and persistent atmosphere to the sequence, exemplified by its protracted running time. Instead of armories or Kevlar vests the credits display affidavits, court orders, mug shots, antiquated surveillance equipment (as the show progresses the tools of the trade move ever so slowly into the 21st century), and people dragging on cigarettes to pass the time.

As in the show proper, the credits display as much insight and respect for the process of maintain- ing a criminal empire and eluding prosecution as they do for honest police work. With the fanfare of an industrial training video, we watch gel-caps being assembled, dealers positioning themselves in a driver’s-side window, and the body language of a back alley hand-off. Just as the officers of the Baltimore police department are, in a manner of speaking, trained professionals, so too are the various dealers and enforcers under the employment of street kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and his formidable lieutenant, Stringer Bell. The sequence shows the series’s fondness for counter-intelligence and misdirection while setting the stage for a battle of wills in which neither side is inclined to lay down and die. In the most memorable shot—and one of the few images to be integrated into every season’s credits—we watch two dealers literally bring down a surveillance camera with a projectile. It’s a bold display of defiance and a reminder that both sides are aware of the other’s tactics.

A dialogue is brokered through the alternating images of law enforcement and those seeking to undermine it; the cutting creates symmetry through juxtaposition. To wit: a pay phone call in which a dealer orders a re-up of drugs is followed by a shot of an officer listening in through an ear-piece. Though their heads are out of frame, the man using the pay phone is clearly facing screen left, while the man with the ear piece is facing screen right. Yet bisecting the frame in both shots is the titular wire, occupying roughly the same position within the frame. The cop needs the criminal and the criminal is only forced to employ cloak and dagger tactics because of the cop.

Or consider this sequence: a hand in close-up hits the pavement, dropping a handful of vials. An indifferent foot steps on the glass and, in a match on action, we cut to the feet of a uniformed officer on mop-up duty. Simon has often used the show as a forum to address his frustration with the war on drugs, and in this brief sequence we see just how cyclical it has become. Drugs are made illegal, leading to decreased supply and increased demand, leading to substandard product and violence, leading to increased policing and the further manipulation of supply.


“If you walk with Jesus
he’s gonna save your soul.
You gotta keep the devil
way down in the hole.”

Though I’ve been unable to determine who is primarily responsible for the look of The Wire’s credits sequence, it’s tempting to single out the great Geraldine Peroni. (In addition to an illustrious career as Robert Altman’s regular editor—from 1990 until her death in 2004—Peroni also cut the first two episodes of The Wire.) Whomever the template can be attributed to, the decision to alter it can likely be credited to Simon. In an interview from 2003, the writer-producer is quoted as saying, “This is the same show [song], but this year the tale itself [singer, tonality] will be different.” He goes on to say, “No one writing this show has any intention of telling the same story twice. That’s not the point of this show.”

With Avon and much of his crew behind bars at the end of season one, and McNulty—the show’s ostensible lead—shunted off to port detail, the scope of The Wire’s second season was required to evolve. The writers recognized that bringing down another drug cartel so quickly after putting away the Barksdale crew would be tantamount to repeating themselves, so they wisely changed emphasis, shifting the Special Crimes Unit’s watchful eye to the corrupt labor unions at the Baltimore docks.

Operating less as procedural and more as tragedy (what Simon called “a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class”), the second season of The Wire creates a dilemma in the minds of the viewer. What happens when your antagonist is a hard - working family man who breaks the law to preserve a way of life for other hard-working family men? Are those who enable the infrastructure of the drug trade any less culpable than those who package and distribute it? And just as the corner boys are a creation of circumstance and their environment, we can’t help but sympathize with Frank Sobotka’s (Chris Bauer) fall from grace, as it is a by-product of a society that prizes economy and speed over honest labor and professional know-how.

For this second season, the targets are now predominantly middle-aged Polish-Americans and shadowy Turks (amusingly enough, the head Turk, played by Bill Raymond, is referred to as “the Greek”) with a decidedly different set of rituals and cultural norms. For a show where both the cops and dealers often take pride in being from Baltimore’s west side, season two finds us across town on the east, never far removed from the Atlantic and the ports at Patapsco.

Embold- ened by the success of the first season, the credits begin with a graphic match right out of the gate, cutting between the digital frequency wave of a sound modulator and a large piece of rope securing a boat to a dock. In contrast to the darkened corners and night-time crime scenes—many of which are imported from the season-one credits—most of the shots in this sequence are in plain daylight. This is partly a concession to reality as stevedores don’t off-load ships at night. But the sunlit frankness of these images has a metaphoric aspect: it speaks to the impunity with which these men bend the law. Like the old joke about a television falling off a truck (an image that serves as a bedrock for criminal activity on The Sopranos), losing a few shipments among the stacks is an almost condoned form of larceny. It is only when a personal grudge forces the hand of the Special Crimes Unit to investigate that this ethical onion unpeels itself. To score the season-two credits, the producers chose Waits’ original recorded version of “Way Down In The Hole.” This announces that season two will have different themes, a different feel, and a down-and-dirty sleaziness that can only be summoned via electric guitar and a voice which, to quote Gary Graff’s Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, sounds “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months and then taken outside and run over with a car.”

The “sexiness” that was distinctly absent from season one is introduced in literal form: a come- hither look from an attractive blonde; cherry-red polish being applied to a woman’s delicate nails; a man’s hand unzipping a woman’s jacket in a seductive downward motion; the faces of European prostitutes staring up from confiscated passports. The Wire has never played coy about sex, particularly McNulty and Bunk’s (Wendell Pierce) frequent games of one-upsmanship through sexual conquest. But season two, which revolves around a cargo container full of dead prostitutes, delves into more carnal matters. (In one memorable scene, McNulty goes undercover at a brothel, is forced to stall for time until reinforcements arrive, and ends up having to fill perhaps the most creative “wounded in the line of duty” form in history.)

Look beyond the sequence’s sexual imagery and you discover the overriding theme of season two: personal encumbrances that bring about downfall. The events of this season are put into motion because of Major Stanislaus Valchek’s (Al Brown) unwaver- ing animosity towards Sobotka. Sobotka’s death is a direct result of his trying to save the life of his wayward son Ziggy (James Ransone). The come-hither blonde is the girlfriend of Sobotka’s nephew Nicky (Pablo Schreiber) who is desperate to start a new life and so becomes embroiled in lucrative criminal activities. The hand unzipping the jacket belongs to Stringer Bell. The jacket belongs to the girlfriend of Avon’s nephew, D’Angelo (Larry Gilliard Jr.). Sweet-natured and loyal, D’Angelo rots in jail to protect his uncle. When his resolution waivers, Stringer orders the young man killed, unbeknownst to Avon. Stringer rationalizes his deceit as a move to protect Avon’s interests, but the fact that he’s secretly involved with D’Angelo’s woman certainly motivates him as well. (Incidentally, the image of Stringer unzipping the jacket will be repeated in the credits of Season Three, when the chickens come home to roost and Stringer pays the price for his actions.)

The opening sequence also draws a clear parallel between drug abuse and alco- holism, cutting from a recycled image of a drug hand-off to a shot being poured in a dank bar. Just as the crimes of the union are considered more socially acceptable than pushing drugs, the credits introduce the idea that getting hammered at the local pub is merely the condoned flip-side of pushing off in an abandoned building. Alchoholism is its own special form of societal ill, arguably destroying more lives than drug abuse ever will, yet while we look down our nose at Bubbles (Andre Royo) and his ilk, scrambling to score and drooling on themselves in a haze, The Wire repeatedly gives us supposed authority figures puking all over themselves in public, getting behind the wheel while under the influence, and abandoning their better judgement while soused. McNulty, in particular, finds himself a slave to his addiction, and is unable to come to terms with his life until he learns to put the bottle down.


“He’s got the fire and the fury
at his command.
Well you don’t have to worry
if you hold on to Jesus hand.”

Season Three of The Wire reminds us that there are people out there more formidable than Mediterranean smugglers and more duplicitious than West Baltimore drug dealers: bureaucrats.

An easy joke, granted; but this is, after all, the season where the mighty Stringer Bell gets scammed out of $250,000 by a plump huckster in an expensive suit, and all he can do is glower and pout. In this season, both cops and criminals angling for legitimacy butt heads with an institution (local government) and learn, in so many words, that you can’t fight City Hall. The Neville Brothers perform the theme song’s third incarnation. It’s a far more up-tempo rendition than the previous two, but it’s also more boisterous and spiritual, employing a call and response technique that makes it seem as if the words are being sung between a church choir and its congregation.

Season Three focuses on the idea of improving the community, with several creative variations on what exactly entails said community. Certainly mayoral candidate Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) thinks he can make Baltimore a better place, using a platform of improved crime statistics to siphon off voters from Mayor Clarence V. Royce’s (Glynn Turman) strong black voting base. Season Three gives us the aforementioned “Hamsterdam,” a safe haven for competing corner boys to sell their wares, with the police merely serving as impartial referees. We also meet Deacon, a religious figure who genuinely wants to make a difference in the community, and starts by helping former convict Dennis “Cutty” Wise (Chad L. Coleman) open a boxing gym/community center (this plotline is made especially poignant by the casting of Melvin Williams, ex-drug dealer and the inspiration for Avon Barksdale, in the Deacon role). Even Stringer Bell becomes an advocate of civic behavior by creating “the co-op,” a regular gathering of Baltimore’s drug barons in a hotel conference room. With its polite discussions and written minutes, it resembles nothing so much as a sales convention—which, in a sense, it is.

Beginning with the destruc- tion of the housing towers early in season three, we can see change happening all around the characters, and it is represented in the credits as well via images of blueprints, construction sites, and ground-breaking ceremonies. Yet just as prevalent is the sight of money changing hands. Real estate and development, like drug dealing, is a lucrative business that often unfolds on the wrong side of the law. In Season Three, the cops go after targets that rank higher on the social pyramid than Avon and Stringer, and find it just as hard to make their case.

Continuing a theme from season two’s opening is the inclusion of sex. While one could cynically see this as trying to once again make for provocative images (replacing explosions with strippers) I see it more as acknowledging the seduction that often precedes the fall. The strippers are hired out for parties; their sexual favors are a form of currency meant to seduce susceptible would-be soldiers like “Cutty.” But Cutty’s not the only one letting himself be seduced; Stringer is entranced by the lucrative world of legitimate business, desperate to free himself from the same world that Avon violently clings to. Marlo Stanfield (Jaime Hector), the young and ambitious drug dealer who takes over the West Side in Avon’s absence, makes a rare tactical mistake when he allows himself to be seduced by a young woman working as an assassin. Even Tommy Carcetti, a white man in a town that isn’t, is tantalized by an opportunity to unseat an acting mayor, a seemingly impossible political maneuver we later learn is only meant as a stepping stone to the governor’s mansion. But as it turns out, Tommy can’t keep it in his pants, either: as Henry Kissinger once observed, power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Carcetti attempts to usurp Mayor Royce by lowering crime numbers, but the Baltimore police department responds to his mandate not by making quality arrests, but by gaming the numbers, under-reporting more grievous crimes and prosecuting minor offenders more aggressively. While the brass bang the podium, demanding results, the rank and file are thrown into harm’s way for the sake of imaginary numbers.

A couple of moments in the Season Three credits confirm The Wire’s disdainful attitude towards “the numbers.” We see Valcheck walking in silhouette against a Power Point presentation of crime trends, unable to raise an eye to the impossible marching orders laid down by COMSTAT. This is followed by the shot of a lonely binder of statistics and paperwork, its spine uncreased. The Wire clearly distinguishes between the meticulous, far-ranging work done by the Special Crimes Unit, who build quality cases against high-value targets, and the superficial, grab-and-cuff police work preferred by officials whose Q-ratings depend on flashy stats.


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