Giants and Titans

Deadwood and The Wire do Institutionalism

Police, schoolteachers, elevator inspectors, freemasons, Clean Water Action, MADD: society is built on organizations designed to improve the lot of some people, and occasionally (but rarely) all people, through direct influence on events. These institutions might be official apparati of government or special interests of the few. Our entire lives are spent negotiating among these non-human monoliths, these giants and titans.

Institutionalism is, as the name suggests, the study of institutions as political or economic actors upon history and current events. Although there are as many flavors of institutionalism as there are pantheons in the ancient world, they share a view of institutions as hierarchical and guided by purposes usually beyond the influence of any one individual. Some institutionalists have argued that institutions are often purposefully guided by rational individuals achieving goals for the best and sometimes noblest of reasons. Others claim that institutions are instead enslaved by their bylaws, rarely achieving their stated goals in favor of the business of busy-ness. There’s plenty of subtle gradation here, but the extremes are clear: rationality vs. mindless bureaucracy, progression vs. random behavior, astronauts vs. cavemen.

Dramatizing these two sides are Deadwood and The Wire, T.V. shows pushing television towards the artistry of literature. These shows are mirror images of each other, with breathtaking similarities borne of great plotting and writing, and vastly different messages about what lurks in the hearts of men, let alone the role of institutions in uplift and desolation.

Deadwood, for all its profanity and unflinching darkness, is the starry-eyed romantic, pointing to a bond over shared purpose and a growing sense of community within the world of liars, murderers, and hopelessly self-interested bastards. Their feet are stuck in the horseshit and muck that coats the thoroughfare, but the citizens of Deadwood are trying to rise above and become better people.

On The Wire, on the other hand, everything is fucked from the top-down and bottom-up, and the guys in the middle — the loose affiliates, true believers, and stone professionals — get squeezed all the way. The community institutions that the citizens of Deadwood have fought and bled to create have become, in The Wire’s universe of perpetual corruption, the very institutions crumbling our civil society to dust.

Let’s start with the rosy beginnings.

Deadwood, as has been covered at length in many articles, is the more theatrical show, with characters monologuing at will and both concealing and revealing their true intentions with the floweriest language this side of Middlemarch. The institutions of Deadwood have been profound in their infancy, as one might feel when seeing green shoots gently forcing their way up through craggy, inhospitable terrain.

The show began in a theoretical — though all too possible — state of nature. The camp was in Indian territory, beyond the laws of the weakened United States, still in recovery from the brutal Civil War. The historical Deadwood, South Dakota camp was a place that claimed to see a murder daily. This is the Deadwood that we first experience, where the power in camp rests in the hand of one Al Swearengen, a pimp and saloon owner who slits, with impunity, any throats that dare swallow between him and the accumulation of money. Life in the first-season Deadwood is Hobbesian: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

The only institution in town is the oldest one, the primitive impulse of strong versus weak. To appease and stave off outside influences of power, the moneyed interests in Deadwood create a sham government, with mostly ceremonial offices handed out like so many pork barrels. The real authority remains, for the most part, in Swearengen’s hands. Most of the citizens — “hoopleheads,” as Al calls them — are inconsequential. Al is the Leviathan, the absolute ruler who personifies the community, but even he isn’t immune to the change on the wind. At the end of the season, Swearengen willingly names the relatively upstanding (and uncorrupted) Seth Bullock the sheriff of the town. For whatever reason, the (mostly) right man is taking the job for the (mostly) right reasons. Al has met his opposite and, from their union, the town will be realized. Thesis + antithesis = synthesis.

Season two reminds us from the start that Deadwood was still close to the state of nature. The nascent institutions of government aren’t real yet; they’re just random decisions made by self-styled power-brokers over a treat of canned peaches. The personalities of the men were still larger than their creations. This is illustrated in no uncertain terms in the first episode of the second season, where Bullock removes his badge and battles Swearengen viciously in the thoroughfare in broad daylight. Swearengen gets the upper hand and makes ready to kill Bullock (unfairly, it should be said, to preserve Al’s reputation), but is stopped by the unexpected arrival of Bullock’s wife and child. Swearengen later claims that the appearance of the child unmanned him (that is, kept him from slitting Bullock’s throat when his chips were down), but the truth, as it often is, is more complex than this. Although Swearengen has childhood abandonment issues, the outcome is more interesting than his psychology (and don’t get me wrong, that’s plenty interesting): Swearengen has acted in the best interest of someone else, contrary to his own self-interest. He considers this a lack of manhood at this point, but it’s only a childish image of manhood that he has lost.

Swearingen’s real transformation comes with his near-death experience from kidney stones, and it should be said that in a T.V. show full of profound revelations, somehow the passing of a kidney stone is the greatest of them. Al strains like a mother in difficult birth, attended by his allies. Upon passing the damned stone (“gleets,” they call them), Al collapses on the bed with his closest confidantes — a whore, a cold-blooded murderer, an alcoholic doctor known for digging up bodies for research — in one of the most beautiful tableaus this side of The Last Supper.

Al regains his weakness to discover that the town is falling apart without him. The magnate George Hearst has been buying out every gold claim in town through his proxy, even to the point of encouraging fratricide to further his interests. Al has been virtually a king in the town, an institution unto himself, but with his attention elsewhere, everything he’s worked to build is threatened. He realizes, maybe not consciously at first, that the town needs to be a real community. His short-term self-interest is nothing without a place for him to thrive, and that place cannot thrive on his will alone. The town is bigger than him. If he doesn’t want to lose everything he cares about, Al has to stop thinking like a crook and start thinking like a civic leader.

Fortunately, Swearengen is the best chess player who’s probably never touched a board. Every day of his life is a practice in strategy with ultimate stakes, and he’s capable of adapting to the needs of his burgeoning civil society. The remainder of Season 2 is a demonstration of master strategy, as Al adapts to the imminent arrival of George Hearst, one of the richest and most powerful men in America, all while negotiating Deadwood’s entry into the Dakota Territory (rather than Montana) by delegating power outward to the community. Sure, Al does most of the work himself, but he makes it clear that the community itself is the goal, and these institutions they arbitrarily created in the previous season are genuine organizations of the community, with all due respect and privileges.

Giving up power is not something that the Swearengen of Season One would readily agree to, but the Swearengen of Season Two is a changed man. Al’s Leviathan is gradually giving way to John Locke’s social contract, which is exactly the transformation that the founding fathers of the U.S. had to make to create the institutions of democracy in this country. Kings consolidate power, which makes for a predetermined unity among the people but low stakes for the pawns, and sometimes causes those kings to lose their heads — literally. Democratic institutions spread power, which leads to disunity of purpose among people, but higher stakes in the institutions. Even as Deadwood’s social contract takes shape, the town still has enough Hobbesian consolidation of power that not even the female owner of the town bank can get invited to the meeting of elders in Season Three, but on the other hand, the king’s head is no longer an inviting target to forces from outside. Fingers of influence are more enticing.

In Season Three, George Hearst comes to town and tries to reconsolidate power with himself as Leviathan. Unfortunately for him (and, indeed, for many thugs who have attempted their own coup d’etats within the last century or so), once the democratic institutions have come to exist and power has been spread, the reconstitution of a single power figure is near impossible. Hearst’s megalomaniacal desire to control the camp draws the Deadwood residents together, with men who appeared to be lifelong enemies in prior seasons joining purposes to defeat the outside threat to their community.

This community, these institutions that have brought Deadwood together as equals before the law, is better realized than ever. An election, signifying the consent of the governed, is held, and the citizens of Deadwood try their damnedest to prevent Hearst from gaming the outcome. Their collective response to the Hearst threat is significantly different from their individual plans for violence: the town powers-that-be vote to publish a letter that subtly rebukes Hearst. This mildness and neutral treatment of civic discourse is a sign that Deadwood is growing up. It has embraced (partially, at least) the neutral, less bloodthirsty system of democratic institutions.

Of course, the problem with the Lockean social contract model, and with democracy and its institutions, is that it is hardly an effective answer to brutal threats from outsiders. Deliberation and consensus are about fairness and civility, not action and defense. Democracy can almost always be touched by unexpected savagery, and sometimes that savagery leads to bloody consequences. In the end of Season Three, George Hearst, the great threat from outside, is mostly triumphant, having gamed the election, bought the remaining independent gold claim, and taken pounds and pounds of flesh.

An inability to move quickly is not the worst pitfall of democratic institutions, as documented in the environment of professional neglect and goal avoidance on The Wire. Where Deadwood pursues the promise of a less savage future through some of the darkest and most sublime characters to appear on the small screen, The Wire demonstrates the savage now with characters who are neither dark nor light, nor sublime nor ridiculous, but just as real as you and me, which is almost too complex for T.V.

The Wire looks through the lens of civic institutions at the dark heart of democracy. In the first season, the real villains aren’t the drug dealers or cops too quick to use their guns, but the guys at the top quietly using performance measures and incentives to manipulate their underlings into doing their will and covering their asses. The Barksdale detail’s raison d’etre — the reason we have a show to watch — is to keep the Homicide unit’s annual clearance rate down and make the Chief of Detectives look good. It may be irony, folks, but it’s also the way that governments do things.

As in the real world, other bureaucratic Big Bads that wreak havoc on the lives of The Wire’s professionals include departmental fiefdoms, interdepartmental miscommunications, and averseness to risk. In the first season, other departments regard the Barksdale detail as a way of unloading unwanted personnel. Mid-level managers have to call in favors to get competent workers to get the job done. Someone doesn’t bother to check records when processing some guy. Like a world of George Hearsts, almost everyone is out for their own self-interest, the community and consequences be damned.

These institutional shortcomings are not limited to the police. In the Barksdale drug organization, hierarchy is as rigid as in the police and any system-bucking rewarded just as harshly. In the dock unions, Frank Sobotka takes on all the power and risk of playing Leviathan with his union’s interest (with, it should be said, the best of intentions, and bless his fictional soul for it), and loses his head. Mayor Royce considers endorsing a risky move from the police where one of their mid-level brass has essentially legalized drugs in his area — a good example of The Wire’s perfect situations where the guy you can’t stand supports the idea that is right and good for reasons of his own — but gets burned badly for his consideration.

Interestingly, The Street has created its own democratic institution, one that apparently works, within the last two seasons: the New Day Co-op, in which most of Baltimore’s big drug dealers agree to bulk-purchase product, exchange information, and share legal services, in an attempt to cut down on turf-related murders and the accompanying police scrutiny. This impressive organization is the brainchild of Stringer Bell, the Barksdale crew’s chief lieutenant and criminal mastermind, now dead at the hands of men he tried to unsuccessfully manipulate in his rise to the top.

Despite the urban setting and bureaucratic Big Bads, the wild west with all of its Hobbesian implications is never far from The Wire’s writers’ minds. The show has prominently quoted The Wild Bunch in both the language of The Street and The Department. Bodie, a mid-level and competent drug dealer, and Bunk, a mid-level and competent police, are the prime Wild Bunch quoters, although not the exclusive ones, and it seems likely that the writers associate Pike and the Bunch with professionalism and honor, of all things.

The Wire has dealt with several groups trapped by civic institutions: The Street (including the drug traffic trade and the underclass it feeds on), The Law (the police department), The Hall (Baltimore city government), The Port (representing the last gasp of the 20th century working class) and now The School, as The Wire tackles educational institutions and the failings of education policy. Here, the education system is the sad synthesis of all the other institutions: a form of control for the underclass, a political institution bound by rigid, sometimes nonsensical rules, and a relic of the civic hopes of an earlier time. The terrible part of this is that the children whose lives are dramatized for our pleasure and edification weekly are mostly full of hope, despite the squalor and desperation of their lives. The Wire doesn’t do happy endings.

But that’s not true. Endings are neither happy nor unhappy, and they rarely exist in life, because we are all in media res until we die, and even then, our works sometimes outlive us. Even in the shadow of our dark gods and titans, we have love and hope and the promise of a better future to guide us. McNulty, the purported lead of The Wire, quits his doggish, alcoholic ways for a chance at love. Lester, for all we know, is still shacked up with the dancer from Season One. Carcetti wins the election (which is something he wanted, but may not be something that he can handle). Cutty realizes that he’s no longer a thug and becomes a positive influence on the lives of children. Prez is a halfway decent teacher. This is the real world, baby.

Ultimately, that’s the message of The Wire: you can be crushed by society or you can focus on more important things. The promises made to us, both individually (when we were children) and as a people (when our nation was young), have been broken. Human nature rewards selfishness and punishes altruism and competence. That’s bleak, huh? Well, this isn’t an essay about humor and warmth, but it would be wrong to leave readers with the impression that The Wire is (in the words of another High Hat contributor) homework. It’s usually funny, it’s light in the face of oppressive odds, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable drama. The same could be said of its cousin Deadwood.

Man makes institutions, but Man can be destroyed by institutions. Although institutions can change, they rarely do, and when they do, they are lightning fast, so get with the times. When you kick against the pricks, they kick back. When you find something that makes you happy, you should go for it, even if it makes you a little more dull. Society may try, but it will not improve you. These are issues usually too deep for T.V., but there they are on Deadwood and The Wire. T.V., like literature, lies like truth.