The most obvious and important way in which The Wire functions as a cyberpunk story hides in plain sight. The show’s title refers to a slang term (amongst both police and criminals) for a secret surveillance recording device. Across the plot, “the wire” is what literally and figuratively connects the divergent characters from all walks of life in Baltimore. The show debuted to low ratings and was almost cancelled, but eventually found an audience, mostly amongst white transplants to major urban centers, and black long-time residents of the same cities.
The 2000s were the decade during which the hyper-acceleration of gentrification increased in American cities, for the first time in decades bringing well-off whites into the same residential spaces as the working-class urban blacks whom their parents had fled from following the post-MLK riots and banning of explicit racial segregation codes in real estate. But during this decade, as these two groups began to once again inhabit the same neighborhoods, they usually continued to maintain utterly separate parallel existences. Proto-gentrifying whites in the 2000s were often intrigued by the mysteries of what the “natives” were up to on their newfound blocks, and of course were not privy to as to how and why there were occasional gun battles raging outside their windows. And why exactly were those guys in the puffy jackets standing on the corner for 12 hours at a stretch? The Wire helped it all make sense to this audience, and for its working-class black audience, the show offered one of the more realistic depictions of the modern urban drug game, as well as answers to mysteries such as where the drugs came from, and how the political structure profited from it in a variety of different ways.
Exploring the connections and interactions between disparate groups is at the core of cyberpunk, and it is exactly what makes The Wire so fascinating and popular.
The Wire is rightfully mentioned in most discussions surrounding the all-time best TV dramas, but rarely (if ever) because of its status as a classic cyberpunk story. That changes now. The series could easily sit alongside the creations of William Gibson, Ridley Scott, or Mike Pondsmith. Cyberpunk stories tend to be urban, technological, dystopian, and sometimes, but not always, apocalyptic, nihilistic, violent, and highly critical of late stage capitalism. The Wire is also all of these things, just with a bit less rain-drenched neon.
Like many good cyberpunk stories, The Wire remains ambiguous when identifying a central hero for the narrative. The show uses a large sprawling cast and a storyline that does not focus on any one character for a prolonged period of time. The absence of a main character makes it difficult for audiences to overly identify with any particular character, which is usually one of the main ways by which audiences come to see a character as the story’s hero.
Jimmy McNulty anchors the show’s first season, and he is a central figure in the last season of the show as well, but it would be a tremendous moral stretch to argue that he should be viewed as the “hero” of the show. He is a profound alcoholic, dangerously irresponsible, and although gifted at certain aspects of police work, McNulty also botches several key cases through sloppy police-work and his willingness to flagrantly break the law and procedure in order to “get” his target(s). McNulty is likable, but inherently flawed, and virtually all of the show’s characters are portrayed in similarly ambiguous terms.
For example, consider Omar, a favorite character of both President Obama and this author. Omar can be considered an antihero at best, as he’s a violent armed robber of violent armed drug dealers. Despite or perhaps because of Omar’s “code,” his actions lead him and his crew to engage in multiple shootouts in densely populated urban environments. Not only does at least one civilian child get shot and killed by a stray bullet fired during one of these shootouts, but every one of Omar’s robberies puts innocents at mortal risk and lowers the quality of life in these already struggling neighborhoods.
No character in The Wire is without serious legitimate fault, or not morally compromised. And the show does not pretend that it’s possible for individuals to effect systemic change. At best, individuals can make small individual choices to help other individuals, such as when Bunny Colvin adopted Namond Brice. Although this was a noble act which probably saved Namond’s life, it could do nothing for all the other endangered kids. The ultimate futility of individuals trying to change gargantuan systems is at the core of The Wire’s message, as well as the cyberpunk genre.
The pager coding system designed for poor, semi-literate, lower-level teenage drug dealers is the greatest example of “high tech meeting low life” that I have ever seen in any story, precisely because of its basis in real life. We are conditioned to associate the cyberpunk genre with edgy characters with cybernetic implants, mohawks, dyed hair, and punk rock fashion aesthetic. But scratching beneath the surface of appearances reveals that The Wire is profoundly cyberpunk, just in a real-life way (IRL) that is more grounded than sci-fi action stories, but perhaps even more ruthless and cold.
The impoverished characters of the show lead lives that are just as precarious and on the margins of society as any slum dweller or wasteland scavenger in cyberpunk movies. They all live in communities that have been chewed up and spit out by the rapaciousness of late stage post-industrial capitalism. We are already living in a cyberpunk world, but a curious feature of our delusional infosphere is how it fools us into not realizing this truth.