Friday, February 15, 2008

When the Trains-a-comin'

Simon uses images of train tracks and train horns frequently throughout all seasons of the wire. I think its an interesting choice of metaphors in both a literary and historical sense.

In his book on the history of Chicago, Nature's Metropolis, William Cronon argues that railroads themselves partially made Chicago the largest Midwest city. Chicago was the eastern terminus of many western railroad systems and the western terminus of many eastern railroad systems. In Cronon's "birds-eye" view of Chicago, railroads were gigantic symbols of capital. For Cronon: "At the most abstract level, the railroads' hierarchies of corporate wealth and managerial power respresentated a vast new concentration of capital... As perceived by those who ran it, a railroad was a pool of capital designed to make more capital." (1) More than this, railroads represented the industrialization and pooling of capital that was to build the great cities, bring culture together, "progress" into a new American Century, etc. For 19th Century Progressives, railroads were the iron knight in shining armor to haul America (and its wheat) into a new world economy.

With the collapse of this industrial order, highlighted so poignantly in season 2, comes the collapse of the inner city. There are no longer jobs to be had and children like Dukie don't know where to turn if not to the drug trade. Nicky Sebotka knows that his son will never become a stevedore because that job, like the dinosaurs and his union, is no longer found in Baltimore.

Train horns are often utilized at important moments in the show. The standoff between Omar and Brother Mouzone is a good example. In this case, the train horn fills the silence, seems to push the moment to climax, and adds to the many western film elements in the scene (stylistically this is a wild west gun fight at high noon (or one held at midnight in Baltimore). Trains are a major symbol in the western film genre as well. They symbolize the coming of the east and changes to western society, particularly the lawless independence mythologized in the cowboy. I will certainly talk further about my theories on Simon's elements of the western film genre in a future post.

Besides these examples, trains seem to represent an unavoidable fate for the characters. The train is coming and Baltimore is left standing in the tracks. The train tracks is indeed a common place for McNulty-Bunk drinking sessions, and these often involve complaining about what is ru(i)nning their life and job. The point in this instance is that they, like a boxcar, are not in control of where they are going in their career or life.

These are only a few ideas on the use of trains and transportation in the Wire. I'm sure ideas in this post will be added to or modified in the future. One point of this blog, I guess.

As far as this season goes... one certainly gets a sense that the train is indeed a-comin' though I don't think many are going to make it off the tracks.

(1) William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton. 1991), 81.

1 comment:

virgotex said...

Nice work.

In 56, the only whistle I noticed was during Lester and McNulty's late night meet.

I'm always interested in how the story is broken, the sequencing of the threads.

So we have in that DARK scene between our two conspirators: McNulty's indignation over the principle of the thing, how the "assholes" won't give them what they need. They "have to" (are forced by circumstances) to go get another body.

The next scene between the two of them, in the cold hard light of day, following interim scenes of Lester's following the Marlo thread but pushing aside the Clay Davis case, and McNulty's statue soliloqy and the fruitless DOA scene, and now McNulty's playing the witholding asshole to Lester's request.

As much as I'd like to hold faith with Lester's morality and sanity, he's not acknowledging that McNulty is by this point, delusional. Lester should know better.

It's a question of degree with the two of them. McNulty's lost all perspective while Lester has some major blind spots, or at least appears to. We seen Lester call McNulty on his shit before, back in S3 when he told him to get a life, so at that point, he could read McNulty. Now, it appears he's lost perspective.