John Gray:

Simon has acknowledged the influence on the series of ancient tragedians such as Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus. Like the Greek dramatists he shows humans enacting fates they cannot escape. As Simon put it in a 2007 interview with Nick Hornby, he lifted his thematic stance “wholesale” from the Greeks, aiming “to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality. The idea that… we’re still fated by indifferent gods, feels to us antiquated and superstitious… But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts… In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalised, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millennium, so to speak.”

In ancient Greek tragedy the protagonists were shown as the playthings of the gods. Human actions were scripted by powers beyond human control or comprehension. In The Wire, human beings go to their ruin because of what they and others have unknowingly done. In some interpretations, this is the true meaning of Greek tragedy: the arbitrary meddling of capricious deities in human affairs is a metaphor for the fact that human beings neither understand nor truly determine their own actions. Whether or not the classical Greek dramatists understood tragedy in this fashion, it is hard to imagine a world view more subversive of 21st-century pieties and hopes.

…Steiner’s analysis helps clarify why The Wire is so challenging. In rejecting theism, modern meliorists have not renounced the hope of redemption. Instead they have transposed a Christian narrative into a succession of political projects. Whether it is a fantasy of market freedom or one in which the market is abolished, modern politics is haunted by myths of redemption. In the prevailing anti-tragic world view, human institutions are the result of human action and can therefore be altered by human decision.

The lives that are shown in The Wire confound this seemingly obvious inference. What is done cannot be undone; history cannot be repealed by human will. The workings of necessity that have shaped the past will also shape the future. Serious politics accepts this fact. Redemptive politics only magnifies the waste of life: the drug war, which is supposed to deliver society from the evil of addiction, exposes millions to violence and chronic insecurity. Failing or refusing to accept tragedy, politics has become a theatre of the absurd.

In denying us the comfort of redemption, The Wire re-connects us with reality. When it shows human lives ending in a lack of meaning, the series confronts us with the absurd in its most pitiful form. When it shows human beings joking, cursing and carrying on despite this absurdity, it achieves something like the liberating catharsis that Nietzsche imagined being produced by ancient Greek drama. The struggles we share with the protagonists are not deviations from some ideal version of humanity that will someday come into being. Intractable conflict goes with being human. In one way or another, practically everything in current media culture is escapist in intention or effect. In astonishing contrast, The Wire returns us to ourselves.