The Wire bible: Examining David Simon's first draft

The 79-page 'bible' for the first season of The Wire appeared online recently. It contains David SImon's outline of what the series would be about and how it would work, brief descriptions of the main characters and a complete scene-by-scene breakdown of the whole season. Simon writes: "The reward for the viewer, who has been lured all this way by a well-constructed police show, is not the simple gratification of hearing the handcuffs click. Instead the conclusion is something that Euripides or O'Neill might recognise: an America, at every level at war with itself."

The synopsis is very close to the final version but there are some significant differences. First of all in length. The series is nine episodes long, four fewer than the show that finally aired. Crucially, the extra episodes were used to slow the pace down, rather than to add more plot.

The Wire - Bible

It's essential reading if you're a fan of the show but it takes a while to get through so let me give you some of the highlights.

[In case it isn't obvious, I should point out that what follows contains some pretty major spoilers for series one of The Wire.]

Names and characters

The first difference you'll notice is in the names. There are several differences. McNulty is McArdle, Lester Freamon is Lester Weeks, Rhonda Pearlman is Janelle Pearlman, Avon Barksdale is Aaron Barksdale and Stringer Bell is Stringy Bell. All changes sound better to me but perhaps I just prefer what I'm used to.

It's not just the names that are unfamiliar - some characters have significant differences. Herc is a steroid addict, for starters, while Santangelo, who figures more in this draft than he does in the screened series, has a gambling problem. Bubbles is 60 and dies from AIDS in the final episode.

Some of the characteristics of Barksdale and Bell were swapped around between outline and screen. It's Barksdale who fancies himself as a property investor and is cultivating political contacts. Bell is a decade older than his boss - they no longer came up together - and he is less polished and more thuggish than Barksdale.

I think Simon was smart to change that. The tension between Barksdale and Bell, the latter smarter than his boss but not street-smart enough, is crucial to how the first three seasons unfold. That tension is compounded by the fact that the two are childhood friends, something that gives enormous resonance to the double betrayal at the end of series three.

Missing in action

There is a lot less of Freamon and Bunk in Simon's original. Though Freamon still surprises his colleagues by turning out to be real police, he loses his lead role on the wire to McArdle and it is Daniels who does some of the financial investigation.

Bunk drinks far less with McArdle than he does with McNulty and is ditched altogether from the now-classic crime scene investigation out in the County. In the final version, of course, McNulty and Bunk piece together the entire crime using only variations on the word fuck. In the draft, McArdle schools Greggs in the art of murder investigation. Another change for the better from Simon.

We don't see Cheryl, Greggs' girlfriend, even once. In fact we don't see much of the home lives of our characters at all.

Finally, there's no Pryzbylewski. It's Greggs who cracks the dealers' payphone code and its Herc and Carver together with a couple of unnamed cops who start a late-night riot in the projects.

How the plot unfolds

The big shock compared to the final version of season one is the death of Greggs halfway through. It's especially shocking because the draft centres much more on her and McArdle, who do most of the work of the detail themselves.

The circumstances in which Greggs is killed are similar to those which result in her being shot in the finished series. She is undercover in a drugs sting that goes wrong. In the draft she winds up at Orlando's where D'Angelo identifies her. The dealers attempt to get her out of the club but she fights back and is killed.

This is perhaps the only thing in the draft that is stronger than what made it to screen. Greggs is a great character and it would be a shame to lose her for later series but her death in the draft is much more powerful than the shooting in the final version. Still, if she'd died in season one we would have lost her "goodnight feens" scene in season five, which is one of my favourites.

Greggs's death galvanises the investigation and allows the unit to turn D'Angelo, who feels guilty at his role in her death. D'Angelo, wearing a wire, is sent to get evidence on Barksdale and Bell. However, the dealers are tipped-off and the unit gets nothing.

In fact, at every turn the dealers seem to be ahead of them. They discover that Santangelo has been tipping off Bell. He needed the cash to service his gambling debts. I think Simon was smart to ditch this. We've seen it before and it's not the kind of corruption that The Wire seeks to document. The snitching plot that replaces it - Carver keeping the chief posted on the investigation - fits far better: it's corruption for professional, rather than financial, ends.

As in the final version, the money leads to a senator, though this time it's Dawkins rather than Davis, and the bosses are displeased. They derail the political side of the investigation by arresting Herc for buying steroids. Herc is kicked off the force and the parts of the investigation that he worked on are deemed tainted.

The series closes with D'Angelo in hiding in Atlanta, having testified against Barksdale and Bell.

The conclusion

It's a fascinating read, not least because the vision for what The Wire would be was clearly in place from the outset. What they changed was, almost without exception, changed for the better and the addition of four extra episodes allowed them to add depth.

And thank god they didn't kill off Bubbles.