People understand themselves better than the social fabric; and to see themselves on the screen, performing their daily actions—remembering that to see oneself gives one the sense of being unlike oneself—like hearing one’s own voice on the radio—can help them to fill up a void, a lack of knowledge of reality.
—Cesare Zavattini, “Some Ideas on the Cinema” (1953) **
Towards the end of The Wire‘s final episode, Cheese Wagstaff (Method Man) admonishes the remaining members of the co-op for their inability to let go of Proposition Joe’s (Robert F. Chew) recent murder. “There ain’t no back in the day, nigger” he growls, “Ain’t no nostalgia to this shit here.” Seconds later Cheese is shot in the head by Slim Charles (Anwan Glover), Joe’s loyal right hand man.
What are we to make of this moment? Are the problems we have seen unfold over the last five seasons of The Wire—in Baltimore’s streets, on the docks, in city hall, in the public school system and finally, in the media—the result of the city’s refusal to learn from the past, or from its inability to engage with the reality of the present?
I use the term “reality” loosely. As any fan of The Wire knows, its reality is a delicate web composed of doctored crime stats and inflated student test scores (all to raise the profiles of politicians during election years), as well as news stories judged on their “Dickensian” qualities, and “dirty” money that has been laundered in the clear blue waters of the Caribbean. Despite this season’s oft-repeated line, “It is what it is,” the world of contemporary Baltimore, or of any major city for that matter, is a conflation of well executed lies. And, as Bunk so thoughtfully points out, the lies are like a war, “Easy to get in, hell to get out.”
No lie was more egregious this season than the homeless serial killer story. It danced dangerously close to jumping the shark, but I was initially willing to swallow the outlandish reasoning: if lies like falsified statistics and the “war on drugs” killed quality police work, then perhaps another lie—a big, messy, highly amoral lie—could bring it back to life. While the homeless serial killer ruse did open up a flood of funding and manpower, allowing some real police work, it ended in catastrophe: not only did Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) go free, but two innocent men lost their lives due to copycat murders.
Given this tragic turn of events, it is difficult, even impossible, to believe that the flawed but ultimately moral Freamon (Clarke Peters) could enter his twilight years blissfully whittling dollhouse furniture and making love to his wife, as the series’ closing montage would have us believe. And Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West): selfish, egotistical, incapable of committing to sobriety, women or his own children, his only redeeming quality has been that he is, as Jay Landsman (Delaney Williams) proclaims during a mock wake, “natural police.” Had the series concluded with McNulty agreeing to go to jail so that Marlo would also be incarcerated, or with McNulty drinking himself into oblivion in an Ikea-furnished bachelor pad, the character would have stayed true to his only ideal—give every case your all and if that fails, get very, very drunk.
Instead, the episode concludes with McNulty locating the homeless man he kidnapped earlier and taking him “home” to the bosom of Baltimore. McNulty wears an air of satisfaction on his face in the series’ final shots, as if he has forgiven himself for his failures. But I have not. My standards for McNulty are too high.
Here is my second complaint, one widely shared among fans of the show: given The Wire‘s emphasis on the differences between appearance and reality—between greasing the wheels and gumming up the works, between lying to uncover the truth and telling the truth to cover up other, more sensational lies—Season Five’s focus on the media made sense. And yet, the characters populating the Baltimore Sun‘s crowded, fluorescent-lit news floor had, by the end of the season, become little more than ciphers, two-dimensional placeholders in a well-worn narrative: the gruff but genuine city editor, Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson), pitted against the unscrupulous, self-serving novice, Scott Templeton (Tom McCarthy). By season’s end, Templeton, executive editor Whiting (Sam Freed), and managing editor Klebanow (David Costabile) had become a trifecta of villains so baroque that I half expected to find them twisting their mustaches and cackling as they tied Alma (Michelle Paress) to a set of train tracks.
There is nothing inherently wrong with characters who are genuine bad guys or genuine fools, but The Wire tends to relegate such characters (like Maurice Levy [Michael Kostroff]) to the sidelines of the story. Templeton lies in order to get ahead, but as a major character in Season Five, he was increasingly implausible.
Such reduction to familiar types and easy targets suggests that David Simon, like Slim, is stuck in the past. Nostalgia for the “good old days,” for the time when nephews didn’t kill their uncles for a bigger slice of the pavement and when real newspaper reporters like Gus (and Simon) wanted to “see something new everyday,” may have tarnished Simon’s otherwise nuanced approach to character and plot. Then again, Gus, who might be called a “natural newspaperman,” retains his position at the Sun, despite its decision to support Templeton’s lies in a bid for a Pulitzer. This was Gus’ first step towards giving up the Sun he knew in the past. Here, the loss of nostalgia is something to be mourned.
But the finale also supports Cheese’s view that romanticizing the past is useless, an indulgence of dreamers and the middle classes, of those with the power to steer clear of Baltimore’s endlessly moving wheels. In this respect, the finale lives up to the smart, challenging work of the series as a whole. Bubbles (Andre Royo), who spent the last five seasons clinging to the edges of society, has finally achieved sobriety and stability. This accomplishment is marked by a human-interest piece in the Sun, detailing his struggles. When he expresses his misgivings about seeing the glowing piece in print, his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, Walon (Steve Earle), assumes it’s because Bubbles is loathe to see his checkered past on the front page of the city newspaper. But Bubbles explains that he is more embarrassed by the praise: “Plenty of motherfuckers wake up every day and not get high. Man making me sound special for doing what the fuck I need to be doing.” Sobriety has taught Bubbles that sobriety is nothing special, that the cruel, beautiful Baltimore machine continues to grind blindly forward, whether he is high or not. Bubbles has taken stock of his past but is now committed to functioning in the present—to dealing with the reality of now.
The 90-minute finale closes with a series of snapshots of Baltimore “in the now.” Though Omar (Michael K. Williams), the quasi-mythical urban cowboy, died ingloriously at the hands of a street punk, Michael (Tristan Wilds) has effortlessly stepped into his oversized shoes. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) is moral enough to give up his new position as police commissioner, but not enough to expose Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) or Rawls (John Doman) and sacrifice a lucrative career as a trial lawyer. Marlo has sold his crown, but the Greeks have found plenty of new Marlos willing to muck around in the dirt and the blood of the streets for them. Anna has lost her job while Templeton has won a Pulitzer. Finally, though we see the open doorway that invites Bubbles, after so many years of painful betrayals, back into the life of his distrustful sister, we remember how Duquan’s (Jermaine Crawford) Bubbles-like street mentor, Arraber (Reggie A. Green), congratulated him earlier in the episode for perpetrating the first of what is sure to be a long line of painful betrayals. “Teacher must love your black ass,” he said, as Duquan handed him a roll of cash swindled from his former teacher, Roland “Prezbo” Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost).
Finding ourselves at the end of this series we might ask: what was the point of these sometimes hopeful but often tragic stories? What purpose did they serve? When Mike Fletcher (Brandon Young), the sympathetic young Sun reporter, first explains to Bubbles what will appear in the article he’s writing about him, Bubbles asks a similar question, “What good is a story like that?” Fletcher explains, “People will read about it, think about it, maybe see things different.” Fletcher’s words are simple and idealistic, and they describe the primary achievement of The Wire.
The television screen is not a mirror or a window. And this show doesn’t offer “real life” or “the truth.” But the complexly rendered stories of the The Wire‘s do reveal truths about crime, racism, sexism, corruption, greed, and pain. Perhaps, by watching and thinking about these stories, The Wire‘s engaged fans, like Fletcher’s ideal reader, can begin to “see things different.” Cesar Zavattini writes, “It is not the concern of an artist to propound solutions. It is enough, and quite a lot, I should say, to make an audience feel the need, the urgency, for them.” Such urgency is the legacy of this great television series.
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** Zavattini, Cesare. “Some Ideas on the Cinema.” Vittorio de Sica: Contemporary Perspectives. Eds. Howard Curle and Stephen Snyder (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000: 50-61).