Welcome to new contributing editor Darren Grem! Darren is working on a PhD in History from the University of Georgia. His dissertation: ""The Blessings of Business: Christian Entrepreneurs and the Politics and Culture of Sunbelt America." Darren also has extensive interests in religion and music and religion and popular culture generally. His first contribution concerns HBO's much-acclaimed series The Wire. The show hasn't captured the same national obsession as, say, The Sopranos, but some have argued that this may go down as the best dramatic series in television history. Anyway, welcome to Darren, and we look foward to more provocative contributions such as his thoughts on The Wire, and religion, below.
“Way Down in the Hole”: Finding Religion in The Wire’s America
Darren E. Grem
University of Georgia
At first glance, HBO’s cop/crime drama The Wire seems to have nothing to do with religion. Created and produced by David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun beat reporter, the show explores the political, economic, and cultural landscape of the contemporary American metropolis. This isn’t new territory for Simon. He has dealt with the subject throughout most of his career and repeatedly used the city of Baltimore to do it. Simon’s 1991 book Homicide showed Baltimore from the perspective of the city’s homicide unit, as did the ‘90s network television series of the same name. His 1997 book The Corner – which he co-wrote with Ed Burns, another of the show’s producers – looked at everyday life among the users and dealers of West Baltimore and inspired an Emmy-winning miniseries that aired in 2000.
The Wire revisits many of the themes raised by Simon’s previous work, but it dramatizes them, one at a time, season by season. Season one examines the complexities of the much-touted “war on drugs.” Season two, according to Simon, serves as "a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class." Looking at city hall politics and drug legalization, season three reflects “on the nature of reform and reformers, and whether there is any possibility that political processes, long calcified, can mitigate against the forces currently arrayed against individuals." All in all, the result is one of the most tightly written and thematically mature shows on television.
Fundamentally, The Wire is about failing institutions. As such, religious institutions seem only tangentially important, if at all, in the lives depicted onscreen. Places of worship are rarely shown and, when shown, they are like fossils, providing hints of one-time vibrant religious communities, now extinguished by the urban crisis (or, more likely, exported to the suburbs along with everything else). For instance, in season one a detective unit uses an abandoned church tower to conduct surveillance on a West Baltimore drug organization. Young black dealers, some no more than eleven or twelve years old, sling heroin and cocaine in the courtyard, completely unaware that the church’s spire might have once been of importance in their community.
In season two, a dockworkers’ union chief donates a new set of stained glass windows – depicting diligent stevedores – to the neighborhood church. This sets off a personal and petulant feud with an east-side major, who wanted his own stained glass tribute to the city’s Polish police officers installed. Though both men exhibit a certain loyalty to the church, it would be a stretch to call it devotion. They want their life’s work monumentalized by their generosity, and their religion is a means to that end. In season three, Cutty, an ex-con just out of the joint, turns to a black minister for help. Cutty had tried to make ends meet as a day laborer but became disillusioned about his long-term prospects. When the minister informs Cutty that the church has little to offer him other than help with getting a GED, Cutty walks out on the minister and heads back to the street life. Eventually, Cutty leaves both the drug trade and day labor behind and finds direction in trying to set up a boxing gym for youth in the neighborhood. His salvation, however, comes only after dedicating himself to his mission (and after getting the minister’s assistance in pushing the paperwork past the downtown bureaucracy and persuading his former drug boss to donate equipment to the gym). The institution of the church, struggling itself in a community changed, can help only those who help themselves. Even then, that’s often a dicey affair.
Other religious and quasi-religious sentiments cameo at various points in the show. The dealers respect a weekly Sunday morning truce, on the principle that violence should not be done while people are trying to pray. A stick-up artist named Omar lives by a strict code of ethics, vowing never to hurt “civilians.” Still, he stands at the ready with his trademark shotgun for those in “the game” who need “to get got.” Brother Mouzone is a feared hit man from New York City, a devout Muslim who acknowledges that he is “at peace with my God,” despite his history of brutality. An addict named Bubbles finds brief solace with Narcotics Anonymous, until the wiles of heroin and the winds of circumstance lure him back to the shooting galleries. Aside from these allusions, however, religion has little obvious role in the drama at hand. It is in the background, often peripheral and fleeting. For the most part, all that’s left in West Baltimore, is “the game,” where as Omar observes, “It's play or get played. That simple.”
According to Simon, The Wire explores “the very simple idea that, in this Postmodern world of ours, human beings – all of us – are worth less.” Since religious institutions have historically provided answers to human inquiries about value and worth, it’s not surprising that in The Wire’s landscape religious institutions do not bring straight answers any more readily than the other institutions of urban life. Yet, it’s not because religious institutions have been beaten out by in a freewheeling religious market, where the privilege of preference directs how much religion you want in your life (maybe that’s the case in the other-world of suburban Baltimore). Rather, in the Baltimore of detectives, dealers, and dope fiends, the course of history has left people to their own devices to maintain faith and find meaning.
And, as the show’s theme song implies, that’s often an uphill battle:
When you walk through the garden
You gotta watch your back
Well I beg your pardon
Walk the straight and narrow track
If you walk with Jesus
He's gonna save your soul
You gotta keep the devil
Way down in the hole
He's got the fire and the fury at his command
Well you don't have to worry
If you hold on to Jesus hand
We'll all be safe from Satan
When the thunder rolls
Just gotta help me keep the devil
Way down in the hole
All the angels sing about Jesus' mighty sword
And they'll shield you with their wings
And keep you close to the Lord
Don't pay heed to temptation
For his hands are so cold
You gotta help me keep the devil
Way down in the hole
I think shows like The Wire are necessary viewing for those interested in contemporary religious life because they remind us that, despite the seeming secularity of it all, the post-modern, post-industrial American metropolis is still a religious landscape. Religious cultures and institutions are created, maintained, and killed off every day in a manufactured environment that thrives off the untidy ironies of modern American history. As The Wire quietly and effectively demonstrates, the view from way down in the hole teaches us that the presence – and absence – of religious cultures and institutions are symptoms of deeper shifts in American life, shifts that determine who ultimately has value in our society and who does not.
During one particularly memorable scene, Bubbles rides along with detective Jimmy McNulty to the suburbs beyond the city limits. They go to a soccer game, where McNulty introduces Bubbles to his ex-wife (who, out of disgust and bewilderment at McNulty’s choice in associates, refuses to shake Bubbles’s hand). Later, as McNulty drives them both back to West Baltimore, Bubbles peers out their unmarked cruiser at the boarded-up storefronts, the darkened alleys, the teenage slingers, and the homeless addicts. Bubbles comments off-hand, “Thin line between heaven and here.”
Those “thin lines” are the story of modern America, from New York City and Chicago to the Sunbelt booster-lands of Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston. They exist in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Baltimore, and countless other cities and small towns in between. As Simon illustrates, the lines have been drawn in terms of race and class but also in terms of value and worth. How religious institutions and cultures help to draw, confirm, and challenge those lines should direct our looks at the world that The Wire portrays, a world far too like our own.
 I have yet to watch season four, but I hear it uses Baltimore’s public schools as a setting for examining the role of education in the contemporary city. When asked about the fourth season’s thematic focus, co-producer Ed Burns replied, “it's not about education as you're thinking about education. Everybody is going to get educated. It's just a question of where. Some people get educated in the classroom, some people get educated in a boxing gym; some people get educated on a corner.” The season may or may not have anything to say about how churches or other religious institutions are educational as well, but I’ll have to wait until it comes out on Netflix to see. Read the interview with Burns at http://www.hbo.com/thewire/interviews/ed_burns.shtml
 Written by Tom Waits. The Blind Boys of Alabama performs the tune during season one, Waits during season two, and The Neville Brothers during season three. DoMaJe – a vocal group composed of five Baltimore teenagers – sings season four’s version of it.