Updated: Aug 30
Editor’s Note: Last week, in the first installment of her series on the formal qualities of narrative and addiction, guest blogger Anne Moore talked about how both literary and psychotropic engagements invite us to the pleasures– and terrors– of delaying closure. Her example was Wilkie Collins’ 1868 novel The Moonstone. Today she fast forwards about 150 years to find similar structuring principles at work in the HBO series The Wire.
This is Your Brain on Serials
In a comment on last week’s post, Luke Walden asked if Victorian readers experienced the same kind of shame over bingeing on serials that we do—the short answer is yes, as demonstrated by Thomas Arnold’s 1837 anti-serial sermon that essentially boils down to the same argument my parents used about television: serial fiction rots your brain. At the same time, I’m less certain that Victorian serial fans had as conflicted a relationship with addictive reading as we postmodern readers do. In the intervening 150 years since the publication of The Moonstone, it’s become impossible to think of addiction without simultaneously thinking of its structural twin, recovery. The disease model of alcoholism allows for a both/and way of thinking about addiction: the figure of the “recovering addict,” who is simultaneously temperate and addicted.
On the level of narrative, this opens up new ways of thinking about the high associated with what Wilkie Collins calls “detective-fever.” The Moonstone allows the reader to revel in the pleasures of addicted reading, but the best postmodern serialized detective stories simultaneously highlight and undermine the pleasures associated with addictive reading. The best example of this dynamic is the universally acclaimed HBO series The Wire. A cop show that is simultaneously a portrait of a city decimated by the War on Drugs, The Wire follows the large-scale, institutional consequences of detective work, and makes it clear that the “payoff” of dope on the table is a PR tool for authority figures, not actually a victory. This is not to say that the show is not invested in the pleasures of detection—the highest praise that the show’s cops give is that someone is “good police,” able to see connections that others would miss, and willing to do the work to unearth those connections. The show’s simultaneous investment in the powerful pleasures of detection and the knowledge that these pleasures are illusory and even dangerous ultimately emphasizes the drug-like power of easy solutions.
In its preoccupation with troubling the pleasure associated with the “high” of detective work, The Wire uses the serial form to argue for an understanding of addiction that is always paired with the possibility of recovery. Although The Wire does offer solutions to the cases that occupy its detectives (the identity of a murderer or the machinations of a drug trafficker, for instance), those solutions are positioned as beginnings of new lines of inquiry, rather than the final object of the narrative. The open questions that drive the reader thus become more focused on character than plot, and not just the specific characters, but also the “character” of Baltimore and its constitutive institutions. In this way, the momentum of the narrative opens into more directions than just forward—the “resolution” promised by closure is explicitly figured as illusory.
Fine Line between Thinking and Drinking
The parallel between addiction and detection is foregrounded with particular force in The Wire since the cases themselves focus on the drug trade and the central detective character, Jimmy McNulty, is himself an alcoholic. Moreover, McNulty’s drive to solve crimes is explicitly linked to his addiction: as he gets drawn further into different cases, his alcoholism spins more and more out of control. His obsessive focus on a particular crime does not distract him from his alcoholism—instead, his preoccupation with a moment of payoff (offered by either alcohol or detection) is presented as one in a series of compulsive behaviors, all of which are mutually supportive. In this way, his character follows a definition of addiction that is deeply influenced by recovery culture: addiction is a set of behaviors that can be attached to anything from food to emotions to money to (of course) detective work. When McNulty chases the high offered by solutions, he is also, simultaneously, chasing the high offered by alcohol.
This broader definition of addiction is perhaps made most clear by McNulty’s changing role in the show’s final two seasons. After Avon Barksdale, the drug dealer whom McNulty has spent the first three seasons chasing is finally arrested with little chance of release, McNulty voluntarily takes a demotion to the position of a neighborhood beat cop, thus shifting his focus away from the ends-oriented work of detection. Not coincidentally, he also quits drinking and settles into a cozy domestic routine with a new girlfriend. During this period of sobriety, he nearly vanishes from the narrative, only briefly appearing in 9 of the season’s 13 episodes, and remaining peripheral to the season’s central plot. His return to a starring role in the series makes the link between addiction and detection impossible to deny; it begins with a conversation with this girlfriend about how “this time will be different,” and the next time we see him nine months later, he’s calling her drunk from a bar, about to go home with a women he just met, and (most shockingly), inventing a serial killer and staging murder scenes in an attempt to redirect funds toward the case he’s attempting to solve. This broad definition of “relapse” explicitly frames alcoholism and detection as linked behaviors that work within a larger pattern of addiction.
Through the depiction of relapse as an unsurprising outcome of McNulty’s return to detective work, The Wire encourages its readers to invest themselves in the pleasures of detection while simultaneously subverting those same pleasures. As much as McNulty’s decline encourages readers to problematize the thrill of detection, the show itself is still famously “addictive,” and watching McNulty at work is one its main appeals. The fact that “good police” work at solving murders unavoidably links The Wire to a long series of detective stories, and like those other narratives, the show takes pleasure in the search for decisive outcomes, apparent not least in the bawdy humor of McNulty and his partner’s detective work. At the same time, the narrative continually bounces back and forth between the focus on an ever-retreating point of closure exemplified by McNulty’s active alcoholism, and a mode of reading that is more centered on small moments of pleasure which provide their own reward, unrelated to any mystery’s endgame.
You Happy Now, Bitch?
For instance, when a minor character enters a local gay bar, there is a brief cutaway to the other patrons, one of whom is McNulty’s nemesis Lieutenant Rawls. In a standard police drama or a soap opera, this would begin a new story line featuring Rawls’s tormented status as a closeted police bureaucrat, but instead the moment is never alluded to again. The pleasure of recognition merely deepens the fictive world, opening up possible narrative pathways which the viewer is free to speculate on or leave behind. By the fifth season, these moments are even more frequent—a dockworker from the second season makes a brief appearance as a homeless person in the background, another fired dockworker harasses the mayor at a public appearance, and a junkie from the first season resurfaces at an NA meeting. The fictive world has grown too expansive to be successfully “tied up” by any closing gesture. There’s simply too much information to process, and reading thus becomes a nomadic, wandering process instead of the movement toward masterful retrospective knowledge that typically characterizes the detective genre. Only by detaching these specific moments from the show’s endgame, by reading “one day at a time,” can the reader appreciate these disconnected moments of pleasure.