“There you go. Givin’ a fuck when it ain’t your turn to give a fuck.”—The Bunk
All good things come to an end. Everyone knows that cliché is true, or at least nods knowingly when it’s invoked. That doesn’t make it necessarily any easier to deal with that conclusion when it comes around, though. In the same sense, everyone knows it’s better for TV series to close up before things take a turn for the worse, when the desire for more seasons eclipses the need for those seasons.
The Wire: The Complete Fifth Season
US DVD: 18 Aug 2008
This doesn’t mean, though, when a series that could be the single best piece of televised drama ever broadcast decides it’s time to close up shop, that one wants to see it go. It’s a great thing to go out on top, a beautiful thing. But knowing that fact doesn’t quell the petulant little inner voice that is shouting, “What’s going to happen to Bubbles? What happens next?”
The dense mythology of HBO’s The Wire, painstakingly created over five novelistic seasons, has enough drama packed inside to be easily spun out for the next five, ten, 15 years. With each season creating a new clutch of characters and concerns, each of which are then seamlessly woven into the existing plotlines, the show built such a deep reservoir of stories and faces that the temptation for creator David Simon to keep the show going past its natural endpoint must have been fierce. That said, given that The Wirewas lucky enough to have survived being cancelled due to its stubbornly un-Sopranos-like ratings, Simon may well have just been happy to have gotten as much out of the network as he did.
Since season five was the last time Simon would likely be able to tell his Baltimore stories, garnered over years’ worth of reporting from there, he starts off nicely by recycling one of the greater moments from his 1991 book Homicide. Detective “Bunk” Moreland (Wendell Pierce) is questioning a young murder suspect, making out that the kid’s buddy in the next interrogation room is giving up everything. To further rattle him, Bunk takes the confused kid over to the Xerox machine (which he’s clearly never seen before) and has him put his hand on it. Telling the kid that the Xerox can determine whether he’s lying, Bunk asks his name and address.
To each question, out pops a sheet of paper on which they’d printed “true”. When asked whether he took part in the shooting, the Xerox prints out another sheet calling him a lair, pushing the kid to promptly give up his accomplice. Replying to an onlooker baffled that such a simpleton’s trick (which, again, was actually used by real Baltimore homicide cops) could work, one of Bunk’s fellow detectives explains: “Americans are a stupid people, by and large. We pretty much believe what we’re told.”
It’s that unquestioning bovine stupidity which Simon is ultimately addressing in this season. Just as previous seasons were modeled around particular institutions of the modern American city—respectively: the drug trade, vanishing blue-collar jobs, incestuous local politics, and collapsing city schools—this one comes with its own theme of dysfunctional failure: the collapse of mainstream media and a complacent, complicit public. To do that, Simon throws another basketful of characters into the mix, only this time they’re a motley mix of stoop-backed and sallow-faced ink-wretches covering the city from their perch at the Baltimore Sun.
This is a clever move, first allowing Simon to sound off on one of his favorite themes (expounded upon elsewhere but never before on his show), namely the evisceration of daily newspapers by out-of-town corporate owners whose yes-men managers blithely implore their staff to “do more with less” while slashing staff. Secondly, setting much of the season in a (convincingly well recreated) newsroom gives Simon another bullpen in which to dispense a continuous stream of literate, obscene word play.
Much of that dialogue is provided courtesy of wizened city editor Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson), who chastens one writer for being a “Tom Wolfe wannabe” and fights to uphold professional standards in the face of managerial bullying for sensationalistic “Dickensian” pap. Like the squadrooms and halls of government in which much of the rest of the show is played out, Simon staffs the foreground with crackerjack actors (not a slouch here) while populating the background with and throwing cameos to the real people who inspired the actors’ portrayals. It’s a typically generous move for a writer who is as celebrated for his sweeping empathy (the hallmark of great reporters) as he is for his scathing criticism.
When these episodes first aired, some critics who took issue with Simon’s take, claiming sour grapes from an embittered prima donna who just wanted to settle scores. One can easily find issue with Simon’s characterizations at the Sun, the villains are broad caricatures of indolent management and self-abetting liars (particularly the Stephen Glass-like Scott Templeton), while the heroes like Haynes (whose character should be studied and worshipped in every journalism school across the land) are simply the salt of the earth.
However, watching these episodes again on DVD mere months after their original airing, when newspaper after newspaper across the country has continued to cut staff and demand that their people do “more with less”, Simon’s vituperation seems less an alarm call than an elegy for something that has already passed. The season seems less to mourn what is passed than to point the way towards the future.
As the too-few and often inexperienced Sun reporters chase phantoms (experienced reporters cost more money), they miss every one of the stories happening in the rest of the show, vividly showing how one can usually only do less with less. Who knows? Years from now, people may watch the whipcrack newsroom tumult of season five with the same sort of nostalgia that people now reserve for things like His Girl Friday and All the President’s Men.
What may not seem so surprising to those future viewers, however—who may also wonder at the strange dearth of extra features for such a lauded show; a few audio commentaries and only two rather thin promo pieces—is what the show depicts happening in the rest of Baltimore, barring an urban policy renaissance. As the Sun grinds itself into irrelevance, the show’s primary storyline continues, after some time delay, from the end of season four.
Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector, further honing his alien chill) is consolidating his position in the Baltimore drug hierarchy and the homicide detectives are still running down leads on the nearly two dozen victims of Marlo’s gunsels found in abandoned buildings. This scenario plays out against the backdrop of political infighting, with the fresh-faced mayor (Aidan Gillen, passionately cynical) starving the police department of funding in order to plug the school’s budget gaps, and thus hamstringing any possibility for long-term investigative work that will bring Marlo down.
The same desperation haunting the resource-poor Sun drives the police, too. This leads to a mirroring of lies wherein a detective falsifies evidence to create the appearance of a serial killer (hoping to push City Hall to kick down more funding), while a reporter eager for bylines and buzz starts making up quotes and whole stories, ultimately feeding into the false serial killer story. The reporters and cops even make the same stinging complaints: “Some day I want to know what it’s like to work for a real police department/newspaper.”
But, none of the above even scratches the surface of what makes The Wire‘s last season reverberate so powerfully with viewers who have followed these characters for years and identified with their humanity as they would with characters out of the world’s greatest literature. There’s the addict who talks in a meeting of her inner addict’s urges, and how “that bitch wants to kill me”. An at-wits’-end Dukie (Jermaine Crawford), one of the schoolboys from season four who is stuck in the streets and playing the drug game whether he wants to or not, asking, “How do you get from here to the real world?”
And there’s more. Kingpin Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew, nothing short of brilliant) playing all sides of every angle like a Shakespearean operator. The reporter eating his cottage cheese lunch and muttering, “Fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck.” A bar full of police in a soaring, full-throated singalong of the Pogues’ “Body of an American”. Those dark streets of boarded-up buildings and the barnacle-like scrum of dealers lurking outside. A whole teeming world of perfectly flawed humanity that just gets richer the more one digs into it.
The Wire concludes much as it has with previous seasons, montages that catch us up with the dozens of major and minor characters, and show the city’s life, endlessly playing out. Simon resists the urge or perceived need for a great summing up and the show ends more gracefully without it. In the final episode, Simon has one dealer pointedly say, “Ain’t no nostalgia to this shit here. There’s just the street and the game and what happens here today.”
That line could be read as definitively ruling out any chance of the rumored standalone film. Given the near-perfection of what Simon has already accomplished, that would probably be the smart move. But that doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it.