When “The Wire” began five seasons and a lifetime of innocence ago, it opened with a scenario that said everything about the beautiful, piercingly honest pain we were in for.
A homicide cop, working on his own time, innocently tells a judge about a drug boss who is a big killer but under the radar. The judge wants to know more, so he calls police brass.
The police commissioner is ticked - not about the murders, he doesn’t care - but because he’s embarrassed to be asked questions he can’t answer.
That flows down the chain. When it hits the homicide chief, he is livid because the commander, too, is embarrassed. He sets out to punish the cop.
That cop, of course, was Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), and if there ever was a character who should heed a core warning of this booming, brilliant series, it is McNulty.
That warning, in fact, comes in the show’s theme song: “When you walk in the garden, you better watch your back.”
Because if you don’t - as so many real people, and all of “The Wire’s” characters can confirm - you will be crushed by ego, ambition and greed; by bureaucracies and systems scarred and immobilized after years of self-serving choices, and most of all, by the simple capriciousness of life.
HBO’s “The Wire” ends its run Sunday night (at 9 EST) with 90-plus minutes of virtuosity. The finale is a righteous, satisfying tour through the Baltimore and people we met, and through the complex story that’s five seasons long.
And it will remind fans that throughout its run, “The Wire” was unsurpassed by anything on TV - ever - in its depth, storytelling, wisdom, wit and sheer, searing honesty.
Creator David Simon and his crew of powerful writers poke through the rubble of American cities and institutions. It dissected politics, cops, unions, schools, bureaucracies (both in government and on the streets), and, this season, newspapers.
But “The Wire” is not just sterile analysis. It’s a show alive with humanity and every human foible and strength. Even more, it broke so many rules of television, and we’re the better for it.
It bluntly showed African-Americans as textured, complete people, sometimes noble, sometimes selfish, sometimes evil, sometimes unsure, just like people of every other race. It gave an authentic look at the other urban America, the side we’d rather not see, in its hopelessness, neglect and decay.
It also bluntly showed what it’s like to be in any part of a real city, where cops, teachers, laborers and - even - the boys selling drugs on the corners get irrational pressure to perform, to make their bosses look good, to, as one person says, color inside the lines. Woe to anyone - cop, teacher or corner boy - who reaches too far, asks questions or tries to change. And woe to them all, sometimes, just for being in the wrong place.
How many good men and women fell because of chance, or carelessness or someone else’s mistake? Baltimore’s docks got crushed by the political need for a shiny waterfront. Politicians or corporate bosses drained the cops, the newspaper, the schools, then told them to “do more with less,” though all anyone could do with less is less. And the collateral damage was wide and unpredictable.
Yet, through all that, “The Wire” stayed wildly entertaining. Its careful, intricate plotting; lively, subtle humor, and stellar writing and acting was mesmerizing. Even more, what made “The Wire” something to come back to, and something we’ll miss dearly, is its deep, kind soul.
“The Wire” has been described as a novel on TV, as classic literature, and, by Simon himself, as a simple act of journalism. All of those work. But, to me, it’s an epic poem. As harsh and relentlessly unsentimental as this show is, as inevitably tragic as the characters are, there’s always been a romantic view at the show’s core - not of what is, but of what should be.
And it’s powered by great language, lines that reverberate with truth. One that still rings came from McNulty and told everything about his star-crossed attempt to outrun the system with a fake serial killer.
“You start to tell a story, you think you’re a hero, and then when you get done talking ...” he said, fading off. It’s the tale of so many lives.
Sunday night’s finale is a rewarding conclusion to the “The Wire’s” long story. It’s filled with emotion - frustration, anger, resignation, a little satisfaction, and one soaring, triumphant moment.
But unlike on so many shows, none of this is manipulated by music or sudden turns of character. It all comes hard-earned, because we know these people, know their flaws, know them like we know our own lives. They echo parts of our lives.
I will miss these people on “The Wire,” maybe more than the characters on any show I’ve known, and that’s why this series belongs on any short list of the best shows ever on TV. And shame on Emmy voters for missing that.
When it’s done, the lessons of the Wire are forceful and profound. None echo louder on and off the screen than an explanation (borrowed from Clint Eastwood and “The Unforgiven”) by Snoop, just before she checked her hair and waited to get shot.
Who wins, who loses, who lives and who dies? “Deserve got nuthin’ to do with it,” she said.