Sadly, the most passionate and persuasive argument in recent years against the current disposition of the government's stance in the so-called "War on Drugs" came not from a think tank armed with stats and big ideas or a celebrity eager for a cause, but from a TV show. The third season of The Wire, which aired on HBO in late 2004, continued its sprawling and justifiably lauded Dickensian crawl through its web of stories centering on the inner Baltimore drug trade -- following, with an unusual focus to detail and character, both the gangs fighting for territory and the cops of a major case unit assigned to busting up their organizations. But where the show became more than just an abnormally well-made, balanced, and realistic law and order drama (and there's no need here to heap more praise on the show than already has been done), and became something entirely different, was in the fourth episode, "Amsterdam."
Police major "Bunny" Colvin (previously a supporting player on the show), desperate to see some improvement in his crime-ridden West Baltimore district and tired of watching his cops waste all their time busting street corner dealers to no larger effect, institutes a new policy: If all drug dealers move to three designated zones in the district and sell there, they will not be arrested. In effect, he legalizes the drug trade in a large part of an American city. The cops don't get it, the drug-dealing kids don't either, as it throws into question the entire reality of their limited universe where the kids sell drugs, occasionally they get hassled or arrested, but everything goes on without change; as one of the dealers says, "Why you got to go and fuck with the program?"
The point being made here by the two creative forces behind The Wire -- investigative reporter David Simon and veteran detective Ed Burns, both of whom know this territory better than almost anyone -- is quite simple: the drug trade has atomized vast and forgotten swaths of American cities, like West Baltimore, and decades of simplistic, head-knocking, "tough on crime" enforcement has made zero difference. So, take a page out of Amsterdam's book, where a blind eye is turned to the drug traffic in certain designated areas, and see if you can at least make some poor neighborhoods normal again by ridding them of turf-battling drug gangs.
Colvin -- a strange kind of revolutionary -- gives a speech using the "brown paper bag" analogy Simon introduced in his book The Corner: Men drinking on the street will carry their liquor in a brown paper bag -- the cops know it's liquor but don't arrest them for public drinking because the men are at least making an attempt at hiding the bottle. It's the same with pushing drug dealing to what Colvin calls the "free zones"; it's a civil truce. Call it legalization, call it a truce, call it dealing with reality, Simon's point is that drugs will be dealt, and the more you can keep the trade itself from ruining the social fabric of already distressed neighborhoods, the better. And if you can weave this message into a thrilling hour-long crime drama, all the better.
As for what the remainder of this season dealt with, it would be futile to go into much discussion of that, since The Wire's storylines rival Tolstoy's in their complexity. Suffice it to say that one must watch the show as one reads a book, starting at the beginning of season three -- even with that "previously, on The Wire" intro which HBO prefaces its shows with -- is next to useless. For those who have already been watching, of primary importance is that the show's quality remains undimmed. Simon's writing staff has been beefed up by the addition of top-shelf novelists like Richard Price (Clockers) and George Pelecanos (The Night Gardener), who bring some welcome flourishes of both character-driven realism and pulp crime drama to the proceedings. A few of the show's more central characters get their arcs reversed, with the classically rogueish cop McNulty (a wonderfully snarky Dominic West) coming to a crisis of self-destruction, and striving criminal mastermind Stringer Bell (the iconic and contemplative Idris Elba) finding himself stuck between worlds, too street for the business world and too thoughtful for the street. And although several long-running characters continue to pop up -- like free-range gunslingers Omar (Michael K. Williams) and Brother Mouzone (Michael Potts), and Bubbles (Andre Royo), the junkie who serves as the closest thing The Wire has to a chorus -- story is always sublimated to the overarching themes, with the focus never straying far from Simon's central conceit of the American city in crisis, and what to do about it.
The Wire has cast a sardonic eye on the efficacy of current drug law enforcement since the beginning. In the very first episode, a detective who just used the term "War on Drugs" gets a quick schooling from another detective on why the term just doesn't apply, with the world-wearied quip, "Wars end." By presenting an idea for how one might, if not win a war that has done so much damage to American cities and the economically disadvantaged, then at least call an honorable truce, the show became not just the best show currently on television, but also possibly the most important.
Anyone else see Charlie Brown's shirt?