Monday, August 10, 2009

The Idea of the Hero

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, one of David Foster Wallace's colleagues at Pomona, recalled this about DFW:

He was, in fact, extremely fond of The Wire -- he stopped me in the hall one day last year and said, look, I really want to sit down and pick your brain about this, because I'm really developing the conviction that the best writing being done in America today is being done for The Wire. Am I crazy to think that?

I just finished watching Season One of The Wire (I know, where have I been?). I binged on it, in fact: thirteen episodes in four days.

I can see why Wallace was so impressed, of course. In one sense, The Wire seems to embody what Wallace was attempting in Infinite Jest: a multilayered portrait of a huge cast of characters at a variety of socioeconomic levels.

I was also thinking about the show in relation to the essay that Hal Incandenza, in IJ, writes for his Introduction to Entertainment Studies course. The essay, as you may recall, compares Chief Steve McGarrett of Hawaii Five-0 and Captain Frank Furillo of Hill Street Blues, suggesting that they are "useful for seeing how our North American idea of the hero changed" from the 1970s to the 1980s.

McGarrett, Hal argues, "is a classically modern hero of action." His cases are one-dimensional puzzles with clear solutions, and he characteristically homes in on the truth with single-minded clarity.

Furillo, on the other hand, "is a bureaucrat, and his heroism is bureaucratic, with a genius for navigating cluttered fields." He handles multiple cases at a time while fending off distractions from colleagues and family members. He is "what used to be designated a 'post'-modern hero"—a "heroic part of the herd, responsible for all of what he is part of, responsible to everyone, his lonely face as placid under pressure as a cow's face."

(Incidentally, David Lipsky's Rolling Stone piece, published shortly after his suicide, quotes Wallace saying that Hill Street Blues "was a really important show to me.")

"But what comes next?" Hal asks at the end of his essay. Hal predicts that we await "the hero of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines." (This unsupported conclusion gets Hal's grade knocked down to a B/B+.)

Arguably, that's what Don Gately becomes in the final couple hundred pages of IJ, but what about The Wire? How do this show and its heroes fit into the evolution that Hal sketches in his seventh-grade essay?

Granted, I've only watched the first season, and I've never seen a single episode of Hill Street, but it seems to me that The Wire's innovation is that it moves away from the idea of a single hero and toward the idea of a team. We may be tempted to see Jimmy McNulty as the McGarrett/Furillo figure early on (more Furillo than McGarrett), but gradually the other cops gain complexity and importance—Greggs, Daniels, Freamon, even Pryzbylewski. It's a cluttered field that's being navigated by a web of characters, all of whom are influencing each other and constantly revising the nature of the field itself.

And it's not just the cops, of course; the show also develops the complex humanity of the drug dealers—D'Angelo Barksdale, Stringer Bell, Boadie, etc.—and of strippers and addicts and more. Over and over again, the show takes character who seem peripheral extras (figurants, as they're called in IJ), and turns them into important, deep characters. It hurts us, for example, when sixteen-year-old Wallace gets shot.

In fact, the show complicates the notion of the hero, dramatizing the moral failings even of "real police" like Bunk and Jimmy, the redeeming moments for cops who seem seriously flawed (e.g., Rawls and Herc), the dawning compassion and awareness in a killer like D'Angelo, the moral code of the bandit Omar, and the struggles of a junkie like Bubbles (who I found much more compelling, incidentally, than IJ's junkie Poor Tony).

The notion of heroism is embodied not in a single character, but rather in a kind of free-floating and malleable ideal—"real police," for instance, or "the code" that Omar says a man must live by. It's a question of meaning. Is it worth it? Jimmy wonders after Greggs gets shot up. Is it worth it? Greggs wonders as she considers her girlfriend's wish that she quit police work. Are we still police? the cops ask themselves after collaborating with the cold-blooded killer Omar.

There's self-interest and careerism on one side, "real police" and a "code" on the other. But given the implacability of the drug trade and the pervasiveness of the corruption, the show challenges the idea that the heroic work of "real police" actually makes much of a difference at all. And is it worth it if it breaks your girlfriend's heart, or if your family falls apart in the meantime?

It's a Sisyphean project, "real police" work, in an existentialist world. McNulty, Daniels, Herc, Greggs, Freamon and others have to create meaning for themselves, live by a code of their own devising, and one which they may not even fully understand (as in Greggs's story of why she wanted to be a cop—"Here ya go, rook."). And, importantly, they create this meaning not as heroic lonely faces in an anonymous herd, but as fallible teammates who develop deep and real relationships with each other.

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