The Beloved Spouse and I finished Season Two of The Wire tonight; it’s our third or fourth time through. Season Two is my favorite for several reasons. The plots dovetail fluidly, the morality play of trying to do right by doing wrong, and the stark honesty of showing what happens when nominally straight people get in over their heads. Mostly, it takes me home.
I grew up near Pittsburgh about the time the mills passed the point of no return. There was a small mill in my town, a larger one directly across the river, and New Kensington once made most of the world’s aluminum. My father didn’t work in the mill, though he did work for a while at Alcoa’s Technical Center, at the time the largest metallurgical laboratory in the world. My grandfather worked in the aluminum mill; a grandfather-in-law lost three fingers there. One uncle worked at Alcoa’s powder plant, was laid off, worked again, laid off again, over a period of many years. Things were different then. Getting laid off meant, “Things are slow. We’ll bring you back then they pick up.” Now it means, “Get the fuck out.”
I was old enough to understand what was happening, though I missed the worst effects by not yet being in the workforce. Jobs were leaving in droves when I graduated high school. By the time I graduated college, they were gone, and so was I, to the army. They were hiring.
Now I’m a father with a grown daughter and spent a year out of work in the early aughts, proving high tech jobs aren’t recession-proof. I got by on a decent severance and the proceeds of a house sale, and before the year was out I gained an appreciation for two things: good times don’t have to last forever, and bad times don’t have to end. The fact that mine did didn’t blind me to how lucky I was.
What resonates so well with Season Two of The Wire is empathy. I felt for the kids in Season Four and for Bunny Colvin’s frustration in Season Three, but I don’t know any drug addicts or dealers, don’t spend time with people who live near those corners. I know Frank Sobotka and Horse Face. I went to school with Nick and Ziggy. Thirty years—now forty—didn’t change what makes them recognizable.
I’d like to think I wouldn’t make the same decisions Frank Sobotka made, but, then, Frank didn’t wake up one day and decide to become a criminal. Times were hard, the only life he and his friends had ever known was falling apart, and he found himself in a position to do something about it. The camel got its nose into the tent an inch at a time while Frank refused to ask himself the questions that would have destroyed the foundation of his rationalizations.
Where was the tipping point? Well before the dead prostitutes were found, certainly, but was there a bright line he had to cross, knowing as he stepped across it he was now a criminal and there was no going back? Of course not. Frank never thought of himself as a criminal until it came apart, and, as he said to his lawyer near the end, he had to get clean. Piece by piece he sold his soul until at the end it wasn’t his anymore, though its core may have been as pure as ever.
More than the other seasons, more than any fiction I can think of, Season Two of The Wire makes me wonder if I would have come out differently in Frank’s situation. Can I say I’d have a better moral compass, or would I lack the balls to do what I felt needed to be done and face the consequences later?
This is why Season Two gets to me the way it does, on multiple levels, and what I’d like to evoke some day in the Penns River novels. I haven’t yet. But that’s what I’m working toward.