Let’s Not Pretend ‘The Wire’ Has Great Major Female Characters, Or, Expanding The Golden Age Of TV


Credit: HBO

I love The Wire, but it’s exceptionally strange to me to claim that the show is in some way better than Breaking Bad because it does better by its female characters, as Rebecca Nicholson does here:

It’s easy to argue that Breaking Bad is about a masculine world because high-level crystal meth dealers are likely to be men, and that, therefore, its female characters could only be secondary. That doesn’t hold up. To return to that TV trinity – with its third slot up for grabs – The Sopranos was about organised criminals, almost all of whom were men, but it still managed to include some of the fullest female characters in the history of television. The slow unfurling of Carmela Soprano’s conscience and complicity was a subtle, essential part of the story, rolled out over the entire run, daring to be morally complex, making her sympathetic and not, often in the same instance. Adriana, Dr Melfi, Meadow, Janice – they were all embedded in the show, because the storylines were driven by them, too. The Wire, that other novelistic, macho drama about crime, managed to weight itself favourably with women. Snoop, Beadie and Kima weren’t women in a man’s world; they were people in a terrible world, just like everyone else. Mad Men, which I would argue is richer, better written and less heavy-handed than Breaking Bad, maintains Betty, Joan and Peggy as, essentially, co-leads, and even Sally Draper became a surprising frontrunner in season six.

It seems like Nicholson’s fallen into the idea, so popular among the Walt-worshipping fans of the show who Vince Gilligan has dismissed as misogynist, that Skyler is a bad character because she gets in Walt’s way, or that she’s morally compromised. She writes that “Walt’s wife Skyler is written as a nag and a bore. A recent article on the TV/film website AV Club, The Case Against Breaking Bad, pointed out that if she is supposed to act as the moral centre of the show, then that is a failure, because she is almost entirely unsympathetic.”

But even if you believe that Skyler is not morally uncompromised, she’s got more screen time and more agency, and makes more genuinely important decisions at more points, than most of the women in The Wire combined. You don’t have to like the decisions Skyler makes in tackling her husband’s cancer treatments, kicking him out when she finds out that he manufactures and deals drugs, deciding to help him launder money, handling her relationship with her boss, Ted, faking suicidal ideation to get Walt out of the house until she can be convinced her children can be safe, or rejoining a criminal enterprise. But they are her choices, and Breaking Bad takes them, her moral compromises, her worldview, and her fears seriously and as a major subject of the show. Skyler is an uncomfortable audience surrogate precisely because her relationship with Walter White echoes our own: she’s unable to break away from him, but unlike us, she takes the direct risk of telling Walt what she is and telling him she’s willing to incur harm to oppose him. She exists within the world that Walter White’s created, but she explores it and strains against it, rather than acquiescing quietly. By this season, Walt is trying to fit back into the life that Skyler wants.

Snoop, Beadie, and Kima–not to mention Rhonda Pearlman, Elena McNulty, and Brianna Barksdale–are all supporting characters, in both narrative and literal ways to the men whose stories are at the center of The Wire. Snoop’s a soldier in Marlo Stanfield’s organization, important in service to his story, and as an illustration of what happens to children who are failed by their families, and by Baltimore’s social services and educational institutions. Beadie acts an opportunity for homicide cops to look cool and competent, a surrogate for us to feel sympathy for Frank Sobotka, and as an incentive for McNulty to get his life together, but her experience isn’t of interest to the show outside these contexts. Kima’s story is a facsimile of McNulty’s, and her major moral act doesn’t come until the final season. Rhonda Pearlman exists as an example that some talented people with integrity can do good work and rise even within broken institutions. Elena McNulty is an illustration of McNulty’s brokenness. And Brianna Barksdale is inherently less interesting to The Wire than the women who marginalize and deceive her, Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell.

None of this makes The Wire a bad show. It’s an excellent show about policing, about drug organizations, and about school, and it’s excellent because it produces deeply humane portraits of those institutions and the people who work within them that upset our conventional understanding of them and the cultural cliches that surround them. But its excellence is not in the realm of depicting women’s lives and actions and exploring their inner worlds because that isn’t its project. And that its achievements lie elsewhere doesn’t make it a lesser television program, just as the fact that Oz and Orange Is The New Black are better shows for focusing narrowly on different kinds of so-called correctional institutions than they might have been if they went broad but shallow and tried to depict the entirety of the American prison experience. Breaking Bad is different from The Wire in any number of ways, among them its much smaller cast and lens on the world of both drug production and policing–can you imagine the backstories David Simon would have given Leonel and Marco Salamanca?–and excellent for totally different reasons.

All of which is a reminder that we’d be better off with a greater diversity of characters and stories of all kinds in our television. I don’t need all of my television to have a strong, complex, warm, sometimes morally compromised female character, or to be perfectly balanced by race, gender, sexual orientation and ability. What I do need is more willingness–by viewers and television distributors alike–to acknowledge that the presence of a male anti-hero is not necessary to make a television show great, and more willingness to plumb small worlds deeply, especially if they’re ones with which we’re unfamiliar, or which we wrongly think we’re familiar. There’s more than one way to write a Great American novel or television show, and more than one kind of Great American life.