The one thing I’m asking of you guys, the one thing I ask above all, is that you bring me clean numbers.
— Mayor Carcetti (Aidan Gillen)
In the fifth and final season of The Wire, former reporter David Simon is bringing his indictment of American capitalism full circle. Previous seasons have damned the systematic corruption and ineptitude of American politics, education, and criminal justice. The new season, as has been much publicized, targets the American newspaper.
The season began with Baltimore on the brink of bankruptcy. The city cops hadn’t had been paid officially in weeks, largely because Mayor Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) diverted funds to the schools. His campaign promised to improve the city’s failing schools; he now needs the numbers to keep up his own approval rating. A 15% jump in third grade test scores (revealed in the second episode, “Unconfirmed Reports”) justifies, in his calculation, starving the police department. Abstract concepts like law and order resist quantification.
Still, the police department does produce numbers, and these have betrayed the mayor’s campaign pledges. Deputy Commissioner Valchek (Al Brown), in a secret meeting with the mayor, revealed that Police Commissioner Burrell (Frankie R. Faison) cooked the yearly crime statistics. Valchek told Carcetti, “Here you’re promising a double-digit drop, and he gives you a four percent bump for two quarters in a row.” The trouble is, these numbers — cooked or not — no longer have an epistemic value, they don’t refer to any external reality. The violent crime statistics don’t represent dead bodies; they’ve become markers, elements in deals. In this exchange, Valchek revealed the commissioner’s deception in order to gain a better pension for himself. Later, confronting Burrell, Carcetti felt he had leverage. If Burrell came up with “clean numbers,” the mayor could accept the bad news as a result of cost-cutting. And if Burrell tried to curry favor by offering still more palatable stats, Carcetti would have cause to fire him. Burrell stuck by his dirty numbers, and Carcetti moved to replace him.
While those in the corridors of power lied and bent the records, the front line actors faced real losses. With suspension of the major crimes unit (brought on by lack of funding), Detectives McNulty (Dominic West) and Greggs (Sonja Sohn) were sent back to homicide, leaving behind multiple open murders tied to drug kingpin Marlo Stansfield (Jamie Hector). Their investigation — an expensive one requiring wiretaps, surveillance, and overtime pay — was put on hold. And yet the department, at the urging of City Hall, found the money to investigate Senator Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.). His indictment and “perp walk,” after all, would translate into the right kind of numbers: political points. Colonel Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) phrased it this way: “So, one thieving politician trumps 22 dead bodies. Good to know.”
McNulty — as is his habit — was less sanguine. “Fuck the fucking numbers already,” he exclaimed. “The fucking numbers destroyed this fucking department.” For him, the numbers mean something: lives lost. Predictably and paradoxically, he can’t get the money to pursue those murders without citing numbers. In a pique, he began his own number-bending project. Using the bodies of recently deceased homeless, he “created” a serial killer. Those numbers, he thought, would get the bosses’ attention. But when he leaked the story to the Baltimore Sun, the result was a brief mention in the metro section followed by the city’s collective yawn. Homeless people don’t count. They don’t vote.
And they don’t buy newspapers. The Sun is facing its own numbers showdown. Citing demands from the paper’s owners in Chicago, new executive editor James C. Whiting III (Sam Freed) told his employees to “find ways to do more with less.” Circulation numbers had dropped, he said, advertising revenue was drying up. He revealed a new round of buyouts, in which veteran reporters would be replaced by greenhorns. As longtime reporter Bruce Twigg (Bruce Kirkpatrick) put it, “Apparently they can hire one and a half 20-somethings for what it costs to keep me in print.” Economics über alles: in the board room and the news room, in city hall and on the street.
The values Simon so admires in his characters — passion, loyalty, commitment — have no numerical representation. “This is the hard part,” McNulty said, speaking of his career-minded colleagues, content to draw paychecks, keep their numbers in line, and punch out on time. “Getting these guys to give a shit.”