Chronology, Class, and the Mise-en-scène of The Wire

I recently began to watch The Wire for the first time.  The series is one of the most discussed in academia, and I and a few other budding media scholars decided we had to rectify our lack of knowledge of the show.  The catch-up plan was part entertainment and part edification. Though I didn’t begin watching completely ignorant of the narrative and setting, I spent much of the first season questioning when the action takes place.  Only after a reference to September 11 did I fully accept that it was set during the early 2000s.  To my eye, much of the mise-en-scène–especially female costumes and hair–seemed straight out of the mid-1990s.  Most clearly, the character of Asst. State’s Attorney Rhonda Pearlman looked like she was styled as if she were Dana Scully‘s sister.

Season 1 Rhonda

The X-Files's Scully

Maybe the style of women-of-authority hasn’t changed much in the years between these two shots, but I think it runs deeper than that.  The ostensible time-lag on The Wire may be another element of the show’s much-heralded realism, but I think it also speaks to the show’s portrayal of class both within and of the city of Baltimore.

The sense of lagging chronology is explicitly discussed on the show in the first season, with police officers complaining about having to fill out paperwork on typewriters (though this apparently still occurs) and discussing why the drug dealers use beepers instead of cell phones.  Despite these explanations of the use of old technology, its presence still adds to my sense of time displacement.  The computers used for the wiretaps in the first season are massive and clunky, looking more like my old Windows-97-running desktop than what I’d imagine law enforcement to have. But, I think that may be the point.  The Baltimore police is embattled and the group investigating the Barksdale drug ring even more so.  Each police officer and piece of technology on the detail has been fought for and begrudgingly won from the higher-ups in the department.  They are given the least-valued people and equipment as a marker of the investigation’s low status.

I could swear I played the Oregon Trail on that computer

Beyond the costuming and props, some of the camera shots from the first season also seem rather mid-nineties.  Perhaps it is David Simon’s Homicide influence or someone just thought it would look cool, but the first season featured a few cuts from shots framed in a more standard television-realist mode to feed from a nearby surveillance camera.  While Simon attributes this style to wanting to convey the panoptical oppression of the wire, it’s a method I associate more with 1990s television procedurals that were still fighting for the attribution of realism.  Moreover, I don’t entirely buy Simon’s interpretation of the surveillance shots because so much of the first season deals with how little the police actually know about Barksdale and how difficult it is to obtain even that information.  Despite the presence–and highlighting through cinematography–of surveillance equipment, there is no real sense of police omnipresence among the criminals. The panopticon isn’t at work in Baltimore.

Bodie can break the surveillance camera in broad daylight because he has no fear of authoritarian consequences from the video watchers.  He knows the camera isn’t actually linked to any kind of police power.

The security cameras so highlighted seem obsolete, as if they were established in order to create the panoptical gaze often attributed to CCTV but without any follow-through of punishment.  In addition to the time-lag corresponding with bureaucratic status, the technology, fashion, and camera shots seemingly from a bygone decade give the viewer the sense that the mid-nineties didn’t make it to Baltimore until 2002, which inherently places the city as a whole in a lower class than other American cities.

Pookie, Bodie, D'Angelo, and Wallace: keeping warm never goes out of style

Of course, discussing class on The Wire is inextricably linked to race, and as such I must examine my own expectations and biases.  While much of my musings on fashion focuses on white women because that is the fashion genealogy I know, I found fewer male costume choices as examples of a classism-tinged temporal lag.  The time-markers for the black male characters often corresponded to clothing branding–such as Sean John, RocaWear, Phat Farm, and the like–that fit with a very specific time in the early 2000s, but in terms of cut and style of wear, I am unable to see changes as I can with women’s wear.  Maybe I can’t see it because I don’t know it, or maybe there is less chronological dissonance the styles of The Wire‘s black drug dealers because their image is so tied to a lower class that their style choices fit with the lower-class portrayal of Baltimore.  While I know that Beadie’s look from the second season (below) is dated because I lived through the time when the stick-straight flipped-out hair was “in” and I may have owned a similar sweater tank top in the 1990s, I simply don’t have the cultural memory or knowledge to place D’Angelo’s, Bodie’s, or Wallace’s dress (above) in a specific point of the last two decades.

Oh, Beadie

Baltimore, as a city, is often portrayed as dying, and many of the establishing shots of the first two series are of boarded-up, condemned, and abandoned buildings.  Most of the police homes we see are lower-middle-class, and their investigations in the first two seasons center on the projects and the docks without straying too far from those class barriers.  Though I’m only a few episodes into the third season, that seems about to change with the advent of the “political” season.  But the groundwork has been laid.  As The Wire moves beyond the lower classes in narrative, so too do they appear to move beyond the 1990s in mise-en-scène.  The technology is newer and the clothing is more time-appropriate.

From season 3, episode 2: Rhonda looks like she works in the 21st century as does the laptop

Yet this movement supports my argument that the time-lag presented by the mise-en-scène of the early seasons links to Baltimore’s lower class both as a characteristic of the city as a whole and as a segment of its people surrounding the investigation.

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4 responses to “Chronology, Class, and the Mise-en-scène of The Wire

  1. Jessie Edwards

    Hi, I’m here via Christine Becker’s link. Interesting notes! That comparison of Perlman and Scully is striking. I am so fascinated in the ways The Wire is tangled up in truth-claims but I hadn’t even thought of the role of fashion!

    I think that that seeing that mis en scene in a 4:3 frame really dates the show as well. By season 5 they were consciously choosing 4:3 SD, for consistency, but also because for Simon that ratio feels more “real”. That’s counter-intuitive to me and I wonder if the realism-value of 4:3 is linked to the kind of TV naturalism Simon was involved in in the nineties.

    • Charlotte Howell

      Hi Jessie! Great point about the aspect ratio; I hadn’t thought of that! I think it might be linked to his work in the nineties but also may link back to his idea of presenting a kind of panoptical vision. The 4:3 ratio is similar to the look of those surveillance camera shots he includes, perhaps trying to subtly fold in the “regular” shots into the feel of surveillance.

  2. Interesting observations. However I believe that Wee Bey’s reminder to D’Angelo about talking business in the car shows that the panopticon is indeed at work in Baltimore. The Barksdales carry out their operations very carefully (like using codes and beepers, using runners to conduct drug transactions) because they are aware the technology exists to observe them and they must assume that they are being watched at any time.

    • Charlotte Howell

      Hi Brett! Thanks for the visit and the comment. While I agree that the Barksdale crew is aware of the level of surveillance they are under at any given time, I never get the feeling that they actually fear it. They understand the panopticon as-is and have figured out ways to avoid its gaze. It wasn’t until the incident with Keema brought the police down on them in full force did they seem anything but confident that they–or at least Barksdale and his generals–would get away from the police cleanly. Fear of punishment didn’t seem to hold the same power that it should in the panopticon, at least as I interpret the concept.

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