The Tragic Flaw Of Grantland’s Wire Bracket

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“Much of our modern theater seems rooted in the Shakespearean discovery of the modern mind. [The Wire is] stealing instead from an earlier, less-traveled construct—the Greeks—lifting our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality. The modern mind—particularly those of us in the West—finds such fatalism ancient and discomfiting, I think. We are a pretty self-actualized, self-worshipping crowd of postmoderns and the idea … we’re still fated by indifferent gods, feels to us antiquated and superstitious. We don’t accept our gods on such terms anymore.

“But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason. In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millennium, so to speak. Because so much of television is about providing catharsis and redemption and the triumph of character, a drama in which postmodern institutions trump individuality and morality and justice seems different in some ways, I think.”

—David Simon, creator of The Wire, from an interview with The Believer

So Grantland, in their continuing efforts to create an alchemical reaction between sports and popular culture, have started a March Madness-style tournament of characters in The Wire to determine, well, I don’t know, who’s the most awesome, I guess. As you can see from the link, they’ve thought a good amount about this and it’s not my intention to ruin anyone’s fun. If people want to make up dumb polls and play them out, you have to let them play. Got to. This America, man.

But as soon as I saw this, something about it struck me as being massively misguided, and this comes from a guy who once had every animal-themed band name square off and fight. It’s not that I think The Wire is too good for this, that fiction should stay away from sports; I could, after all, see a bracket in which detectives from Phillip Marlowe to Dale Cooper to Horatio Caine (YEEEEAAAHHHHH!!!!) square off. Detectives are, after all, in the same line of work, attempting to accomplish more or less the same ends. That’s the first place where this bracket goes awry: the characters in The Wire (aside from a few exceptions like Marlo and Avon) are not after the same things, at least not in an immediate sense. Comparing a matchup between McNulty and Stringer Bell to a matchup between Duke and UNC only makes sense is Duke is trying to dismantle the NCAA itself.

To conceive of these characters as somehow in direct competition with one another is to mistake a genuine drama for reality television. The way character arcs intersect and collide with one another in The Wire is part of what makes it so compelling in the first place. Beefs turn into alliances out of shared goals (consider Omar and Brother Mouzone), people in power create monsters they can’t control (think of the way Valchek’s crusade empowers the detail), characters’ best trait are also their downfall (how McNulty’s dogged competitiveness makes him both “real police” and a terrible husband).

That last point relates directly to the epigraph to this post, where creator David Simon talks about the connection of the series to Greek tragedy. The classic idea of the tragic flaw runs through the heart of The Wire and it’s yet another reason why having these characters compete in a tournament cheapens them. This bracket idea leads to people arguing about who’s harder, Avon or Stringer, when in the actual narrative fabric of the show, these two characters both strengthen and weaken each other at different points. Stringer’s entrepreneurial streak helps them succeed once Avon’s street-level tactics have gotten them to a place of power. But then these same traits turn on them, threatening the empire they’ve built.

This is where it starts to get really weird, though, because the same thing that shortchanges these characters in a tournament is the same thing that creates meaning in an actual bracket-style tournament like March Madness. Many teams (like characters in a story) are flawed in ways that are also strengths, and running into a buzzsaw of an opponent who matches up just right can be their downfall. Teams predicated on offense run their opponents out of the gym until they run into a team that slows them down. Methodical half-court teams get countered by swarming defenses. But this similarity to classical narrative structures in a tournament is actually why this whole Smacketology thing is backwards.

What we love in March Madness are the storylines, the upsets, the Cinderellas. But those narratives are created by the structure of the tournament being imposed on a set of “characters” with the same goal. The tournament is seeded, the bracket is set, and then we watch as teams overcome their seed or live up to it. A structure is built around them and then we revel as they upend it. It’s a common narrative in Western culture: the triumph of the underdog. It’s in “Die Hard,” in “The Seven Samurai,” in “Oliver Twist,” in “Annie.”

But it’s not in The Wire. The characters in The Wire don’t overcome. As Simon says, “[T]hose characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed.” This is perhaps nowhere more movingly illustrated within the series than when D’Angelo Barksdale is being interrogated towards the end of the first season:

“Y’all don’t understand, man. Y’all don’t get it. I grew up in this shit … All my people, man. My father, my uncles, my cousins: It’s just what we do. You just live this shit until you can’t breathe no more. I swear to God, I was courtside for eight months and I was freer in jail then I was at home.”

The characters who do achieve some measure of personal victory in The Wire often do so quietly, whether it’s Cutty or Bubbles. And yet they’re the ones who will be shortchanged in a contest that pits them against more cold-blooded characters like Omar and Marlo. Yes, Marlo is, in some sense, “the last man standing,” but his final scene hardly feels like a victory. As each season ends and we enter the carousel of images from across Baltimore, the inescapable conclusion is that these characters are trapped in a narrative that keeps repeating itself, that keeps chewing them up and spitting them out.

Bracket tournaments (and all sports playoffs, really) generate their most compelling narratives through upsets, through the disruption of order. We crave it as viewers and part of what made The Wire such an achievement was its refusal to give us that. As Grantland’s Smacketology proceeds, we’re sure to see just such upsets and those upsets will offer the winner a measure of transcendence that the series itself would never afford them from within its structure. This is the disservice that Grantland is doing to these characters. Because in the world of The Wire, as Prez says, “No one wins. One side just loses more slowly.”

Seth Carstens