“The Wire” as Cyberpunk Noir

Aerial view of Baltimore inner harbor at night
“The Greek” watches over all

“The Wire” is rightfully mentioned in most discussions of the all-time best TV dramas, but hardly anyone else has noticed that it’s a cyberpunk story. It could easily be argued that it’s the most cyberpunk story ever, more so than anything ever created by William Gibson, Ridley Scott, or Mike Pondsmith. The cyberpunk genre of literature, film, and video games was spawned in the 1980s and is succinctly described as stories centered around “low life and high tech”. Cyberpunk stories tend to be urban, technological, dystopian but not necessarily 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 any good cyberpunk story, The Wire is profoundly ambiguous about identifying a central hero for the narrative. The show takes this a bit further by using a large sprawling cast and storyline that does not focus on any one character for a prolonged period of time, much less the entire series. 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. McNulty is the anchor of the show’s first season, and a central figure in part of the last season, but it would be a tremendous moral stretch to argue that he should legitimately be viewed as the show’s hero. He is a profound alcoholic, dangerously irresponsible, and although gifted at certain aspects of police work, McNulty also botches several key cases through sloppy policework and willingness to flagrantly break the law and procedure in order to “get” his target(s). Audiences may identify with and view any character on the show as a hero, but virtually all of the characters can also be criticized and viewed as villains or something in-between. For example, many (including President Obama) view Omar as a hero, or at least their favorite character, and I also have a lot of love for this character. But viewing Omar as a hero would require overlooking the fact that 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.

Omar Little, stick up artist extraordinaire


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