The cause of gods and demons


One last post about Season Four…

Since I re-watched all of it in the space of a few days recently, I’ve been musing further about it in relation to the upcoming season. Something I didn’t really fully appreciate during the original airings is how the rigid laws of mathematics serve as a motif, a theme within the larger theme of education. It’s no coincidence that Pryzbylewski teaches math. We repeatedly see Prez and his kids working with numerical relationships, geometry, fractions, and most ironically, probability.


Number is the ruler of forms and ideas, and the cause of gods and demons.

David Simon:

“We’ve basically taken the idea of Greek tragedy and applied it to the modern city-state.” He went on, “What we were trying to do was take the notion of Greek tragedy, of fated and doomed people, and instead of these Olympian gods, indifferent, venal, selfish, hurling lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason—instead of those guys whipping it on Oedipus or Achilles, it’s the postmodern institutions . . . those are the indifferent gods.”


I feel old. I been out there since I was thirteen. I ain’t never fucked up a count, never stole off a package, never did some shit that I wasn’t told to do. I been straight up. But what come back? You think if I get jammed up on some shit they be like “A’ight, yeah. Bodie been there. Bodie hang tough. We got his paid lawyer, we got the bail.” They want me to stand with them, right? But where the fuck they at when they supposed to stand with us? I mean, when shit goes bad, and there’s hell to pay, where they at? This game is rigged, man. We like them little bitches on the chess board.

One of the oh-so-appealing S4 protagonists, the industrious and bright Randy, appears to have mastered the science of figuring the odds, yet he’s tragically unaware of how vulnerable he really is, how little his intelligence and drive are really worth in the big picture, how the odds are stacked against his survival. But we knew. We knew when we met our four boys that statistically, it was impossible that all of them would survive intact. If Stringer Bell couldn’t make it out alive, what chance did Randy Wagstaff have?

And the bigger players are also shown struggling with and exploiting the known constants, moving the chess pieces, dividing the pie. Following Stringer and Avon’s mutual betrayals and the implosion of the Barksdale operation, Marlo expands into the vacuum and monopolizes the empty set of the West Side. After much persuasion, Prop Joe finally brings him into the Co-Op (per Renaldo, the “coop”). Shortly thereafter Omar, who “likes it simple,” discovers that the chickens have come home to the coop, all their eggs in one basket, and it’s “muy bueno, baby,” as he manages to rob every drug dealer in town in one heist.

The same thing, manipulation of the parts of a whole, is played out in the mayoral election as the percentages shift back and forth between the three candidates. Later, after Carcetti’s been elected, we sit with him through meeting after meeting as the various pieces of the finite city budget are tinkered with in a vain effort to pay for everything he’s promised the public during his campaign. We see he’s already broken an age-old rule: don’t let your mouth write no check your tail can’t cash.

Omar and the other characters who respect the rules, like Colvin, Lester, Daniels, and Bunk — even if it’s only their own personal codes — usually at least manage to survive on their own terms, even if they don’t win the larger game. Carcetti obviously has a lot to learn in this regard, as his impulses tend to get the better of him, such as when he walks out of the governor’s office leaving 54 million for the schools on the table because he’s too proud, so concerned with his own political future that he ignores the numbers, the reality of the education deficit. This will undoubtedly come back to bite him — and the whole city — in the ass: the last we see of him during the finale montage, he’s sitting exhausted and frazzled in yet another meeting, a pie chart showing the education deficit circled in red hanging over his head.

Sure it’s true that The Wire’s always been about numbers, votes, money, weight, stats, the all-important count, but the S4 classroom functioned as a play within a play, placing a heavier than usual emphasis on “the ruler of forms and ideas,” in actuality, the nature of reality.

All the more relevant given that Season 5 is about perception versus reality, about words used in the service of corporate and institutional agendas trying to meet their bottom line. Or to quote Simon, “just how far you can go on a lie.”

It’s about the people who are supposed to be monitoring all this and sounding the alarm—the journalists. The newsroom I worked in had four hundred and fifty people. Now it’s got three hundred. Management says, ‘We have to do more with less.’ That’s the bullshit of bean counters who care only about the bottom line. You do less with less.”



  1. Interesting thoughts, and yet another layer I hadn’t noticed before. I’m wondering if there’s a quibble here, though — in every municipality I’ve lived in, the financial workings of city government and city schools are entirely separate. So a financial crisis in one wouldn’t necessarily lead to one in the other. Never lived in Baltimore, however; maybe it’s different.

  2. All the circular symbols in the opening credit sequence and episode references (the roving ring, for example) relate to the math theme, too.

    Maybe math is the reason most of the actors from “The Wire” appeared on CBS’ “Numb3rs” last season. 😉

  3. I’d thought about the ring too, Jim, which also parallels Omar’s line to Marlo about money not having any owners, just spenders. And from the S4 dvd comments, we know the ring will continue to play a part, right?

    (Off to look at the opening credits)

  4. Nancy, re your quibble, maybe that’ s why they threw in that bit of exposition where Carcetti blames the school board, but then Narese explains to him that the Council has final oversight over the school budget.

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  7. […] streets must face. There are certain things that probably aren’t going to happen. And the probabilities are not glossed over on any level by the show writers. I also like seeing the numbers presented to me directly. […]

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