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Bang Bang

Just finished re-watching the excellent HBO series “The Wire,” five years on from its conclusion. It had me re-examining how readily we accept, and even embrace, cinematic violence. Violence in The Wire is both prevalent and plentiful, but it is nuanced. It’s difficult to imagine an equally effective version of the show without it.

Chris Partlow, Marlow Stanfield’s henchman and second in command, kills in introspectively brutal fashion, looking his victims in the eye when possible, and giving careful consideration to the moment after pulling the trigger. The one notable exception is when he ferociously beats Michael’s father to death with his bare fists, knowing he molested the boy and suggesting that Chris may have fallen victim to the same as a child. But his other murders are often near-surgical and with thought for the target. The execution of Proposition Joe midway through Season Five comes close to justifying the use of “.45 caliber” and “humane” in the same sentence. “Close your eyes,” Marlow gently instructs the fat man as Chris takes careful close-range aim, pointing the gun down at the back of his head. “Relax .. breathe easy.” Though a sympathetic character, we accept Prop Joe’s death as inevitable when it comes. It’s distasteful and saddening, but also part of the game. Chris is merely a functional extension of Marlow’s quietly determined ambition. There is no malice or affectation, only necessity. The same can’t be said, though, of the death of Joe’s nephew Cheese, who sells his uncle out carelessly.

Cheese is executed in similar fashion a few episodes later – a close range bullet to the side of his head courtesy of Slim Charles. But the effect of this scene is entirely different, and Charles’ decision to draw and fire is both impulsive and appropriate. Cheese is killed while in the middle of a thoughtless rant, with the simple explanation “that was for Joe.” When Slim is described immediately after as a “sentimental motherfucker” by an older member of the drug cooperative, it’s more than simple comic relief – it’s an accurate assessment. Unlike Joe’s killing, time is taken for a pull-back showing Cheese twitching slightly in postmortem neurological reflex. It’s the last real-time murder on the show, and the gratuitous cutaway shot not only emphasizes the vengeful act, it’s a darkly humorous nod both to the violent nature of the series and the dimensions of real violence. When this stuff happens in life it’s without benefit of writer or second take, and is anything but cinematic. Finality and brutal reality always trump context.

How, then, do we process the violence in a show like The Wire? It’s a circular argument – are we a violent society as result of violent depictions, or are such depictions reflection of who we are? And why are violent films so popular? I’d argue that there is a cathartic effect inherent to cinematic violence unavailable to most of us in real life. It seems more justifiable in The Godfather, Goodfellas, or Unforgiven, where it adds to the narrative and dramatic intent. In this sense it isn’t the graphic nature of the depiction that’s important, but how it fits. Personalizing violence, as in The Wire, could be argued less damaging than the pulling back from it in lesser productions. Yet I can also understand the stance of those unable to watch it under any circumstance, even within the context of quality work. As the kid Dukie remarks in The Wire, observing the corpse of one of Chris Partlow’s victims locked away in an abandoned row house, “There ain’t no special dead. There’s just dead.”

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