Part of this is being convinced, as a viewer on the sofa, that in a different environment you might end up doing things you consider really immoral now. It’s not like The Wire is the only fiction that does this, but it does it really well, and it does help us to feel a little less smug.
It's about how institutions have an effect on individuals, and how ... whether you're a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge [or] lawyer, you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you've committed to.
But what I really like is the sense that, if you’ve part of a dysfunctional institution, what the hell are you supposed to do? The police department in The Wire does not function well. If a death looks like it could have been an accident, they look the other way on evidence to the contrary. People in prominent positions are there because they only care about advancement and pursue that goal by doing deals with people like them and being pretty ruthless. I don’t wanna overstate the diabolicalness of these people, but that’s the flavour.
A persistent problem is the trade off between arresting low level drug dealers now and patiently building towards catching the top guys (or the simple trade off between focusing on murders or drug violations). The few passionate people often defy their bosses by resisting the gimmicky and tend to get shipped off to dead end jobs. It’s not like the good cop in Batman who just gets made fun of. Principled detectives are effectively fired.
Are good guys supposed to refuse to compromise their integrity? But that means they can’t do anything to improve things. And you can do more higher up, so maybe it’s best to play the game for years before you jump into action to clean things up. I guess it’s pretty uncontroversial that some level of playing the game while doing what you can at the margins to improve things is what they should be doing, but if it involves being dishonest and deceit (which it would) you have been morally compromised! It involves disconnecting yourself from feedback on your own actions; if trying to undermine and change the institution you’re a part of is good, then it’s tempting to see any reaction as validation of your actions. And it’s really hard for an outsider to judge who the good people are because the rules of good conduct are not at all transparent.
Good institutions are ones where success and general moral rules line up well. Most institutions are not like this, so it’s difficult to be moral.