The epitaph to “The Wire,” HBO’s blistering five-season chronicle of urban decay, was delivered by Cheese (rapper Method Man) in what amounted to his last words as he brandished a gun at a fellow drug dealer: “Ain’t no nostalgia. There’s just the street and the game (selling narcotics) and what happened here today.”
His gruff statement also happens to describe Sunday’s final episode. “The Wire” made no attempt to fashion an emotional farewell. It simply ran out the string. And by adopting that uncompromising stance, by refusing to look either backward or forward, the series’ denouement stood in stark contrast to the typical TV ending.
There have traditionally been two tactics used by shows to frame their final chapters. The most popular and tidy approach is to tie up the plotlines and send your characters off to face a brave new tomorrow.
This strategy is a proven crowd-pleaser, as evidenced by the record-setting finales of “The Fugitive” and “M(ASTERICK)A(ASTERICK)S(ASTERICK)H.” In 1967, 72 percent of all television viewers tuned in to see Dr. Richard Kimble’s showdown with the one-armed man. In 1983, 77 percent of the country enlisted to see how the Korean War ended for Hawkeye and BJ.
There are a couple of wrinkles on this formula. Many other popular series, from “Leave It to Beaver” to “Falcon Crest,” sought to make their conclusions tearjerkers. And who could forget the group hug at the end of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”?
A far trickier and often less satisfying route is to put a jolting twist at the end of the road. Some of the shows opting for surreal finales include “The Prisoner,” “Seinfeld,” “Roseanne,” “Dallas,” “The X-Files,” “Twin Peaks,” and “Joan of Arcadia.”
All of these programs were looking for exit strategies that stayed true to their narrative premise, even if they bent it for dramatic or comic effect.
Then there is the second category of series closer: the shows that pulled the rug out from under their loyal fans.
The earliest example of this may be the finale of the kids’ show “Howdy Doody” in 1960, when the formerly mute clown Clarabelle addressed the camera. “St. Elsewhere” went out with a shock in 1988: All those hospital high jinks had actually taken place in the imagination of an autistic child.
To this day, the biggest mindblower in TV history remains the conclusion of “Newhart” in 1990, when the protagonist wakes up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from a previous sitcom, and marvels over the vivid dream he just had.
All of the examples cited so far were broadcast on network television. Because “The Wire” was produced for pay cable, it operated with markedly different expectations and rules.
Like other HBO series, it had far more artistic license and creative freedom. The finales of “Six Feet Under” (which flashed forward nearly a century) and “The Sopranos” (with its famously ambiguous blackout) were anything but conventional.
“The Wire” likewise followed the beat of its own drum machine, right until the end. No false hopes, no concocted resolutions, no omniscient hints of what the future holds.
Cheese would no doubt have approved of the way Sunday’s episode stayed rooted in the present, content to work through the latest scandal to hit Baltimore: the big lie of the homeless serial killer.
In other words, the show functioned superbly as a season finale without taking on any of the pretensions of a series finale. Yet some fans found it to be a very gratifying capstone, loaded with subtle resolutions and emphatic messages.
“While I loved the `Sopranos’ finale, I really appreciated how the last `Wire’ went the exact opposite route,” says Alan Sepinwall, the TV critic for the Newark Star-Ledger, via e-mail. “You got closure on `everything,’ except maybe what Marlo and McNulty are going to do with the rest of their lives. You see everyone’s fate.
“You see some characters step into roles vacated by others (Bubbles gets clean just as Dukie becomes a junkie. Michael replaces Omar), and you see in the ascendance of hacks like Carcetti and Rawls and especially, new police commissioner Valchek, that nothing is ever really going to get better, because the system’s too busy protecting itself to improve itself.”
About the only nod to TV convention that “The Wire” allowed itself was that last-minute montage when McNulty pulled over on the shoulder as he drove the catatonic homeless guy from Richmond, where he had dumped him, back to Baltimore. (Talk about moving deck chairs on the Titanic.)
Even that last lingering look at the city’s streets was too sentimental for some critics.
“I thought the music video felt tacked on and not very authentic,” says Aaron Barnhart, TV critic for the Kansas City Star (Templeton’s former shop!), via e-mail. “The show literally comes to a halt as McNulty pulls over to the side of the freeway to look at Baltimore and provide the contrived moment for playing the video. In the video we see a number of storylines fast-forwarded to unsatisfying conclusions. The prevaricator wins a Pulitzer. O’Malley - oops, I mean Carcetti - is elected governor. And that Hallmark Hall of Fame moment with Bubbles sitting down with his sister ... yecch.”
Obviously, like all good art, “The Wire” sparked strong reactions even as it provided us with new ways to look at the world. But did it deliver a cogent final statement?
We’ll let the show’s creator, David Simon, have the last word. Via e-mail from Los Angeles, he writes, “We said exactly what we intended about an American city, its problems, and whether it can address, or even recognize, those problems. How viewers regard the content is up to them.”