In a new column, Sean T. Collins examines several episodes of HBO’s award-winning drama The Wire at a time to figure out what made it such a groundbreaking show. Whether you’re a fan of the original, or haven’t seen an episode but are still lying to your friends at parties to save face, this is your chance to catch up on the show just in time for its remastered rerelease on December 26th. Find previous entries here.
Jimmy McNulty steals a newspaper. Jimmy McNulty sees a front-page story naming Cedric Daniels, the commanding officer who rescued him from harbor patrol and helped him make the case of his career, the heir apparent to the Commissioner of the entire Baltimore PD. Jimmy McNulty flips past it to find the story he planted about the fake serial killer he concocted. In this moment, Jimmy McNulty is The Wire Season Five. And The Wire Season Five is bad.
The Wire’s fifth season pursues parallel plots in which narcissists make up elaborate lies in order circumnavigate institutional obstacles set in place by financial contractions. On the cop side, McNulty invents a sexualized slayer of homeless men to drum up funding for the Marlo Stanfield investigation from a police department that newly minted Mayor Carcetti is stiffing for long-term political advantage. In the scope-expansion slot previously occupied by the dockworkers, the Carcetti campaign, and the school system, Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Templeton creates sources and quotes from whole cloth to score better bylines and burnish his resume in a newsroom beset by cutbacks. Largely because fo these storylines, Season Five has a reputation for being not just the show’s worst, but one of prestige drama’s worst, so bad it undercuts the series’ achievement overall. This is a reputation it deserves.
Upon revisiting these episodes for the first time since they aired, a prospect I greeted the way I approach cleaning the gunk out of my kitchen-sink drain, I half expected to emerge with a radical reevaluation, akin to how some critics now describe the serial-killer and newsroom storylines as satire of institutional dysfunction that makes the season one of the show’s best. To be blunt, no fucking way. Largely abandoned to his own devices by his writing partner and sounding board Ed Burns, who recognized the newsroom storyline as the personal matter it was, David Simon was subsequently abandoned by his own gifts — for nuance, for empathy, for characters who, while shaped by the system in which they are a part, never merely take the shape of that system, like allegorical figures in a hackneyed editorial cartoon. Point-making, score-settling, nose-tweaking: not the stuff of great drama, very much the stuff of this season.
The fish rots from the head, and arguably the season’s most fundamental problem is with its reemergent leading man. Having returned from happy exile walking the beat in the Western District to work the Stanfield case for the Major Crimes Unit, Jimmy McNulty returns from the periphery of the narrative to be revealed as a backslider who’s been backslid by the time we catch up with him again. The professional fulfillment he found in getting to know a neighborhood and improve its lot in increments as a patrolman? The sobriety we saw tested time and again throughout Season Four, only for him to reject every offered drink with a sincere smile? The happiness he found in the home and arms of Beadie Russell, caring for her and her kids and his own kids and even his ex-wife like a man at peace with himself at last? Out the fucking window. Why? Because that’s how dang unfair it is of the BPD to keep good police from doing good policework, as the department does when Carcetti forces it to shutter the Stanfield investigation? Because the show’s making some statement about how it’s impossible for people to effect positive change? In the immortal words of Cedric Daniels, “This…is bullshit!”
The Wire is far from alone among New Golden Age heavyweights in exploring the challenges that face troubled people’s attempts to change for the better. The Sopranos showed Tony and his cohorts try time and again to be less selfish, only to succumb to the old, bad habits that, in their unhappiness, they saw as offering the cold comfort of familiarity. Mad Men showed Don Draper make a break from his lying, cheating past with a new wife and a new life. That relationship had problems of its own, but they were problems of its own, not identical in quality and quantity to the ones that had bedeviled his first marriage; just because Don didn’t become perfect doesn’t mean he didn’t change at all. Deadwood saw almost all of its major players gradually set some of their frontier self-interest aside for the good of their community’s common goal; that show was about people changing and taking their lumps for it. Only The Wire spent a season both demonstrating and stating outright that its main character had changed, really and truly and happily, only to completely undo that change one season later just to toss extra grist into the drama mill. You wanna make a show about how hard that kind of change is to make? Fine. Just don’t spend an entire season showing us it can be done first. (Don’t even get me started on what this development does to Beadie, a fascinating, fleshed-out working-class character who came into her own during the Sobotka investigation only to be reduced to a stock long-suffering wife cliché to serve Jimmy’s storyline.)
McNulty’s thoughtless personal behavior is infuriating, but his reckless professional behavior is insulting. A McNulty who cuts corners, defies his superiors, and burns bridges in order to make a case is, well, McNulty, and always has been. He’s a brash asshole. What he’s not, though, is stupid, and his serial-killer scheme is as dumb as a pillowcase full of doorknobs. Rather than use his open line to the Sun to provide damaging leaks about how the investigation into the 22 row-house murders has been shuttered — keep in mind that press leaks about egregious murders had been used to great effect long before we set foot inside a newsroom on this show — he instead starts pinning dead homeless people on an imaginary serial killer because that will, somehow, provide him with the resources to finish the investigation. Did he get this plan from the underpants gnomes? A jerry-rigged, inadmissible wiretap hardly seems worth the inevitable fallout when institutional pressure is brought to bear on catching a killer it’s impossible to catch. His showy drinking on the job and his constant taunting of his horrified partner Bunk Moreland are equally out of character, even for McNulty at his previous worst.
Poor Lester Freamon gets done even dirtier. Suddenly a man who sat patiently in the property unit for 13 years and four months rather than play department politics can’t wait for the next fiscal year. Suddenly a man who nearly came to blows with McNulty during Season Three over Jimmy’s ingratitude and insubordination is right there alongside him in both. Suddenly the man who memorably told Jimmy a great case won’t give him a good life is feeding his belief in exactly that trade-off, while even his ex-wife Elena is begging him to focus on the stuff that matters. Suddenly the smartest detective in Baltimore is on board with the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. You can hear the dramaturgical bellyflop all the way up the Patapsco.
At least with these characters, we can remember what they once were. The reporters and editors of the Baltimore Sun are only ever what they are right now, and that ain’t much at all. Interviews with David Simon have made it depressingly clear that the Sun storyline is straight-up revenge against his hated bosses and colleagues from his time at the paper, right down to one-to-one correspondences between characters and actual people he’ll call out on the record, lines lifted directly from their emails, you name it. The insipid, officious shit played by Breaking Bad’s David Costabile, for example, is based on editor Bill Marimow, who already had a namesake on the show in the form of Lieutenant Marimow, the officer sent in to stifle Major Crimes last season. You’d think that would be enough! Like the ambitious but lazy young fabulist Scott Templeton, the editors are mustache-twirling villains, inert presences in the story and on the screen. The Wire stacks the deck less against actual mass murderers than it does against characters based on people who pissed David Simon off at work.
The good guy in this storyline is hardly an improvement, mostly because he’s just that: The Good Guy. Played by actor-director Clark Johnson, editor Gus Haynes is a secular saint, a hard-nosed, foul-mouthed newshound with a heart of gold who knows every angle, keeps an eye out for the whole story while still obsessing over every word choice, wakes up in the middle of the night in a panic over screwing up boring stats in an article, gives credit for a story he broke to a reporter instead, instinctively senses that Scott is a bullshit artist, razzes the one-dimensional suspenders-wearing blowhard executive editor and his quisling managing editor in meetings, and — most importantly — calls for precisely the kind of big-picture context in reporting about complex issues that The Wire has been making the case for by example since day one. Gus has a great line during a conversation about Baltimore legend John Waters, warning “let’s not confuse the auteur with his art,” but too bad. The only way Gus could be more of a Marty Stu is if Simon played him himself. As with the villains, you know exactly what you’ll get from Gus every time you see him. Every moment we spend with the newsroom gang is a wasted moment.
Which is such a goddamn loss, because this short 10-episode season needs every moment it can get. In many ways, Season Five really does feel like the culmination of all that’s come before. Marlo makes his move, contacting the Greek and killing Proposition Joe to become the King of All Baltimore. Carcetti completes his sacrifice of the city on the altar of his political ambition, crushing the police department with budget cuts at precisely the time Marlo reaches his zenith. Daniels completes his long strange trip to the top of the food chain while compromised and corrupt figures like Ervin Burrell and Clay Davis take a fall. On a smaller scale, Carver and Herc find peace with their divergent paths, Michael and Duquan struggle with theirs, and Bubbles battles his shame in order to stay sober. Finally, mythically, Omar is forced out of retirement to take a suicide run against Marlo, who grows more skin-crawlingly cruel with each episode. All of these stories feel a long time coming, all of them are meticulously built up and compellingly executed.
And all of them are shunted aside for huge chunks of airtime by Jimmy drinking Jameson out of the bottle while strangling corpses, or by the shithead editor overusing pet phrases because that’s an easy way to make him look like an idiot. (Say “more with less” one more time, The Wire Season Five! I dare you! I double dare you!) Maybe this would all be less exasperating if it weren’t the immediate successor to the end of Season Four, one of the finest runs of TV the art form has ever produced. Maybe, in its final season, The Wire really is the victim of its own success. Its excess, though, is what really pulled the trigger.