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Tapping the 'Wire'

Bodie (JD Williams) in The Wire's Season Four finale

The Wire's season-ending musical montage was a culmination, in many ways, of a season filled with musical meaning.

It's a funny thing about HBO's The Wire -- I never want it to end, but I'm always satisfied when it does. There's nearly always a definitive conclusion to each episode of the crime drama, some powerful moment that effectively sums up the mood of that week's multi-level action while leaving the door open for the next storyline. Most often, it involves a character staring blankly into Baltimore's urban decay, attempting to make sense of what's just happened. It's less of a cliffhanger and more of a natural stopping point. In most cases, it's a welcome moment of calm following what is typically an exhausting viewing experience.

So as I watched "Final Grades", the Season Four-ending closer, I had one question: How are they going to end this one? The finale presented a unique challenge; so much had happened, so many new stories were developing, that the final scene would be faced with the difficult task of tying up loose ends while setting the stage for a ridiculously highly anticipated fifth season (which apparently will focus on the impact that journalism can have in an urban environment, drawing on creator David Simon's experiences as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun -- it should be an interesting year for press reviews). As the episode began to crawl past its usual duration of an hour, my expectations for the ending grew higher and higher. Several times, I braced for the whispering cymbals of Blake Leyh's "The Fall" that signal the credits are about to roll, but they didn't come. My only worry as the minutes ticked by was that the show's writers, who thus far had shown themselves to be masters of pacing and subtlety (or, as subtle as you can be when half your characters end up dead), would attempt to tie things up too neatly, or too quickly. In short, I feared a montage.

I've always had a love/hate relationship with musical montages. At times, a quick run-through of many events set to music can work perfectly within the context of a show or movie; describing all my favorite montages would be a whole column in itself, and would certainly include Goodfellas ("Layla"), Office Space ("Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta") , and, of course, The Karate Kid ("You're the Best"). But too many things can go wrong for a montage to be a wise choice -- just check out any Fox show (minus Family Guy) for examples of how not to do it. Apart from song choice, it's hard to define exactly what makes a bad montage, but to borrow from former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's opinion on hard-core pornography, "I know it when I see it". Except when it comes to Scrubs, of course; I'm still on the fence about Zach Braff's episode-ending soliloquies set to indie rock. Thankfully, Comedy Central and Superstation WGN are airing roughly eight episodes per day -- sometimes at the same time -- to help me quickly resolve that quandary.

I had a legitimate reason to be afraid that my current favorite TV show was about to devolve into something that someone could call "poignant" down the line. I couldn't take it. But then, it happened: at around minute 75 of the gory episode, right after we witnessed eighth-grader Michael Lee transform from old-acting boy into full-fledged man by carrying out his first hit (I'll call that shocking moment the Baltimore Bar Mitzvah), the show shifted from its usual stable of street sounds to a decidedly un-organic soundtrack. And guess what? It gave me goosebumps.

The song was "I Walk on Gilded Splinters". It's one of my favorite Dr. John songs, and while I was disappointed that a Paul Weller cover was used instead of the original, the guitar-heavy, measured mood of this version definitely fit the somber stories unfolding onscreen. Besides, The Wire has made a habit of using different versions of songs to great effect. Each season has featured a different version of Tom Waits's "Way Down in the Hole" as its opening theme, performed, in order, by the Blind Boys of Alabama, Waits himself, the Neville Brothers, and, this year, NoMaJe, a group of Baltimore middle school students (tactfully chosen for Season Four's focus on Edward Tilghman Middle School). While I'll always prefer the original to the others, the varied moods of the seasons -- and the different storylines, which allow viewers to pick up the show at the beginning of any season with relative ease -- almost require the change. A show that attempts to spotlight the views of traditionally conflicting, if connected, camps ("The Law", "The Street", "The Hall", and "The School") can't properly exist under one theme.

Simon has expressed a desire to keep music in the show "diegetic", meaning that the music has to be connected to the scene in some way -- whether blasting from the stereo in a car drug dealer Marlo Stanfield is riding in, playing in a bar while cops Bunk and McNulty suck down a few beers, or emanating from the packed ballroom at Mayor Carcetti's victory rally. This isn't a hard and fast rule -- Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" is an unexpected accompaniment to Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski's first days as a schoolteacher, for example -- but Leyh, the show's musical supervisor, has used the technique to admirable effect. He seems to have a keen sense of the way sounds interact with place, a relationship that goes beyond the singular Baltimore patois that has most casual Wire viewers pining for subtitles.

When Marlo instructs hired guns Chris and Snoop to get rid of the New Yorkers who have been invading his turf, the two debate how to identify the Yankees. Chris's solution: ask them "a Baltimore question, something a New York nigga won't know. Something about club music." When Snoop claims ignorance of names like Young Leek, Kid Swift, and Mark Clark, Chris is indignant, showing real pride in his hometown sound -- for him, it's a direct connection to the city itself. "You ain't right, girl. The average Baltimore nigga know all that shit. They don't listen to that shit up in New York. They listen to some bullshit up in New York." (I wonder how Method Man, who plays Eastside drug lieutenant Cheese, felt about this dig at his city's tastes.) This conversation, and the interaction immediately following it where Snoop nearly shoots a man in the head because she thinks he has the wrong answer to her "Baltimore question", is a vivid demonstration of how much it really means when some artist reps a certain locale. Even in this age of globalization, music can be hugely place-specific. In this situation, it becomes the ultimate social currency -- know the music or die.

The musical conversation that occurs between eighth-grader Namond Brice and his teacher Howard Colvin in Colvin's car is another example of this important relationship. Namond and two of his peers are going to dinner at Ruth's Chris Steak House as a reward for winning a class competition. On the way to the restaurant, Namond is proud to voice his appreciation for the song on the car radio, Billie Holiday's "I Cover the Waterfront". He happily notes Colvin's surprise, saying "you be thinking I'm all ghetto and then I flip it, mess your mind all up". In his voice, there's the hope that his receptiveness to jazz proves him to be more than just a corner boy. Music is used as a status symbol throughout the season, and it's no mistake that when Namond dines at Colvin's home during the next episode, Solomon Burke's "Got to Get You Off My Mind" is playing in the background -- a stark contrast to the hip-hop Namond is used to. Namond seems to be aware of this divide, and on what side of it he usually falls. On the way home from the restaurant, when he and the rest of the kids are feeling particularly vulnerable after an awkward interaction in a world they're not familiar with or comfortable in, he defiantly cranks up Three 6 Mafia's "Poppin' My Collar". Colvin's subsequent protests are less a reaction to the music itself, and more to what it represents; that Namond has responded to the difficult situation by burrowing back into the world he knows and shutting out any discussions of what's outside it.

Sometimes, the interplay between sound and place is much more subtle. It could be the way common terms like "WMD" and "pandemic" are used on the corner as crack "brands". Or how Kimmy, the co-conspirator of urban Robin Hood Omar Little, serenades a guard with a come-hither rendition of Salt n' Pepa's "Get Up Everybody". While the song is confrontational to begin with, Kimmy's use of it as distraction during a robbery of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of heroin illustrates the often huge gap between what music means on stage and what it means on the street.

The season-ending montage was a culmination, in many ways, of a season filled with musical meaning -- perhaps it was this reason that prompted HBO to add music information to the episode guides on its website for the first time this year. The choice of "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" couldn't have been more appropriate, though some might suggest that a coke-rap song of the type critics are currently fawning over would make just as much sense (is it mere coincidence that artists like the Clipse are seeing their albums rise to the top of everyone's year-end lists just as positive reviews of The Wire double?). But there's something about the meditative chanting -- "kon kon the kiddy kon kon" -- and cryptic lyrics of the tune that amplifies the intensity of the disturbing events unfolding onscreen. The original defined Mac Rebennack's rebirth as voodoo artist Dr. John, and the song's tribal significance remains, this time serving as a soundtrack for the emotional and physical shifts in the lives of the season's main characters.

The song's title itself is an apt characterization for the show. Everyone in The Wire confronts "gilded splinters" on a daily basis -- those things that can look appealing on the outside but are in fact broken within, whether that refers to the Baltimore Police Department's juked stats or the tenuous success of drug dealers who can be taken out at any moment. Though a full breakdown of the lyrical content is unnecessary -- only two of the original verses are actually used, the rest replaced by further chanting -- and possibly foolish (can anyone really understand what Dr. John meant by "yellow belt of choison"?), it seems fairly obvious that the song was chosen because of its tense, menacing theme. Suffice to say, as the fourth season closes, many of the show's characters are truly "at the end of dey rope".

The season doesn't quite end there, though. The actual final scene belongs to Namond, who's now been taken in by Colvin following the approval of his inmate father. He stands on his new doorstep in his new neighborhood, still adjusting to his very different family life. There's an eerie silence permeating the scene, something like a quiet concert hall immediately following the end of a particularly energetic encore -- a mix of recuperation and melancholy. Just as Namond is about to head inside, his old buddy Donut pulls up in front of the house in yet another stolen SUV, bumping Mullyman's "The Life, the Hood, the Streets". For a second, I think maybe the montage was just a hiccup -- this story could pick up again and keep on for another hour, at least. But Donut just grins at Namond and drives away, his words and his music a reminder of the past. Namond watches him go, turning an eye toward his new surroundings, a bastion of relative calm in what has been a very tumultuous time; it's a look that sees a possible future without forgetting all that has happened. The cymbals creep in as the credits begin to roll. The Wire has mastered what seemed to be an impossible ending.

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