In Season 1, Bubbles and Johnny go to an NA meeting (court-ordered, for Johnny), and Bubbles picks up a 24-hour “desire” keychain, an outward symbol of an addict’s desire to try to stay clean for one day. Of course, Bubbles had fixed that morning and he would again that night, but you could see in his eyes a glimmer of that desire, of wanting a different life for himself. We saw that look again later in the season, when he sits in the park clean waiting for Kima, watching the kids and the birds in the trees and trying to ignore the dealers down the block taunting him.
I didn’t get a lot out of that 12-step meeting scene back then, since I was still an active drunk and had a pretty high degree of contempt for anything like AA. The fact that they passed out so few keychains for people with a year or more of sobriety, I felt was Simon’s way of saying “look how ineffectual and pathetic these meetings are”. Only after sitting in a bunch of meetings myself did it occur to me that if you have 10 people in a room, even if they each have decades of sobriety, the statistical probability that any one of them is celebrating an annual “birthday” at that particular meeting is around 1 in 36.
As Season 5 progresses, though, it is clear to me that Simon is using the sickness of addiction and the drama of “The Program” as a metaphor for the larger story arc of the inherent sickness in our society.
There’s a preamble read at the beginning of most AA meetings called “How It Works”, a segment taken from the Alcoholics Anonymous “Big Book” that summarizes, well, how the program works. The very first paragraph contains this ominous warning:
Those who do not recover are people who will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty.
Season 5 is this warning writ large; not about individuals, but about American society as a whole.
We see Bubbles finally get up and share in the meeting, and he tells a few funny anecdotes, junkalogues about “the junkie lean”, even made-up tales about kids hanging Christmas ornaments on him when he was on the nod in the winter. But he doesn’t dig deep, he doesn’t share anything important; nothing about losing Johnny, or losing Sherrod in the botched hot-shot scheme, or losing his son KeShawn, or losing his whole sense of where he fits in society if he’s not a junky. Kima tells him in Season 1, “What the fuck am I gonna do with a clean informant? Did you ever think about that?” Even the police don’t have use for a Bubbles that ain’t using. And that bitch addiction wants to kill him, and he won’t turn and face the bitch, because she’s big and scary and complicated. So he tells funny stories, he entertains, and he pretends that he accomplished something for his sobriety. Happens all the time in 12-step meetings. I’ve done it myself a few times.
And we see the exact same thing in the newsroom. Every effort to talk about the problems of the city in a deep and holistic manner…that you can’t just talk about messed up schools without talking about corruption, about drugs, about unemployment and welfare and the economic conditions that these kids grow up in…gets shot down in favor of “something positively Dickensian”. Management at the paper does not want to face the bitch, because she’s big and scary and complicated, and writing about her doesn’t win Pulitzers or drive up subscriber revenue. So they tell tales, they entertain, and they pretend that this accomplishes something for society.
In the same meeting we see the junky mom sharing, and she digs a little deeper. She’s willing to look at the bitch out of the corner of her eye, at least, and keep an eye on her. But later we see her slapping her kid in the church soup kitchen, and we realize that there are places in her own soul that she doesn’t want to go yet either. “Getting clean is the easy part,” says Walon in Season 1. “Life is the hard part.”
And junky girl talks about how “all the things I said I was never gonna do, I was just making a list of all the things that I ended up doing.” Which brings us to McNulty. If I could text search the DVDs I’d probably be able to find a quote from McNulty ridiculing the idea of tampering with a murder scene. It’s just not worth it. Real police don’t need to do it. Real police solve cold cold cases by keeping their eyes open until they find a bullet in a refrigerator door. Even if he’s never said it, you know it’s in his nature. Yet now McNulty is falsifying an entire homicide scenario out of one dead body, tampering majorly with evidence, doing the things he would never do. Doing whatever it takes to get his way. Self-will run riot, as they say in the program. Even Bunk is appalled.
It’s easy to draw analogies between McNulty’s alcoholism and the dope fiends in the projects, but that’s too easy.
12 Step programs put forth the idea that drinking and using are just symptoms of a deeper malady, an insanity, a spiritual sickness in your core that must be addressed to get sober and then maintained through constant vigilance to stay sober. We see this on an individual basis with all the dope fiends on the show. It’s true about myself as well.
With that in mind, what Simon is telling us is that the drug user and the drug trade are just symptoms. The bad schools and poverty and corrupt politicians and ass-kissing newspaper editors are just symptoms. The real story, the real problem that needs to be addressed is an insane America, a country with a spiritual sickness based on self-interest. A country that is constitutionally incapable of being honest with itself, infected with a destructive muscular form of capitalism as cultural self-will run riot. And until we are ready to turn and face that bitch, look her squarely in the eye, take responsibility for our own actions that made her what she is, and make amends, then we will keep picking up that next drink, keep putting out that new package or dropping another body, keep covering our asses to keep our careers, keep telling that one next lie, that one entertaining story to distract us from the scary bitch that we have created.
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