In a weekly 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 now for its remastered rerelease in widescreen HD. Find previous entries here.
This week: Season Five, Episodes 6-10
The awful newspaper editors who eat up so much of The Wire’s final season’s screentime exist for a single purpose: to be wrong about everything. In this they have some company during these final episodes: Steintorf, Mayor Carcetti’s reliably amoral advisor; Nerese Campbell, the cutthroat politician who’s always willing to support the worst possible people; and of course Scott Templeton, the fabulist reporter who’s about as multidimensional as the paper his bullshit is printed on. They even have an opposite number in Gus, the stalwart city desk editor who, like Mary Poppins, is practically perfect in every way. (The bit where he instinctively tells Scott that his one story that is real “feels real” is my personal favorite; he tells the truth even when he doesn’t know it’s the truth.) Nothing these characters do will surprise, nothing they say will enlighten, nothing built around them will entertain. Narratively and dramatically, they’re as inert as noble gases.
But James Whiting, the newspaper’s suspender-clad windbag of an executive editor, did say one thing worth taking to heart as we close the books on The Wire, even though the intention was just the opposite: “If you leave everything in, soon you’ve got nothing.” If we were to enumerate all of the series’ virtues, and all of its final season’s vices, we’d be here all goddamn day. But if we focus on just a few, the parts may stand in for the whole.
So let’s brush past the predictability of the Baltimore Sun storyline, which ended the only way it could have: righteousness punished, malfeasance rewarded. And let’s be equally cursory with the crimes of Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon, both of whom are brilliant enough that they should have been able to see the gaping holes and glaring flaws in their “fake serial killer/illegal wiretap/real policework” plan coming from a mile away: wasted efforts, diverted resources, tainted evidence, copycat killers, a target too smart to be fooled by their shenanigans for very long, blowback bad enough to burn any friend or colleague caught in the blast radius. That two of Season Five’s three major storylines (the cops, the newspaper, and the criminals) were misbegotten morality plays with all the sophistication of a CBS cop show should be uncontroversial, as should the verdict such a ratio of chaff to wheat forces us to render on the season at large.
Instead, let’s focus on the stuff that bears scrutiny, starting with that third link in the chain. Time has dimmed my outrage over the unceremonious execution of Omar Little and the scott-free escape of Marlo Stanfield from all charges, at least on their own terms. In actor Jamie Hector’s Marlo, The Wire boasts one of the finest villain performances of all time, in any medium — as hard and sharp and cold and glittering and flawless as a diamond. When he finally does explode, raging in his holding cell when he finds out Omar had been mocking him in the streets prior to his death, the catharsis is breathtaking: “My name is my name!” he shouts, with the lethal pride of Lucifer telling God “I will not serve.” It makes emotional sense that the rules of the world would warp around that kind of malice, relegating Michael K. Williams’s Omar, himself an all-time great antihero, to his shaggy-dog-joke punchline of a death.
These events, though, become far more irksome when viewed in the context of the show’s mile-wide sentimental streak. David Simon has publicly scoffed at audience members foolish enough to believe that “Omar is supposed to go down in a blaze of glory,” but that’s exactly what he provided for his beloved Stringer Bell when he threw the show’s equivalents of Batman and the Punisher at the guy. Characters as wide-ranging as Bodie Broadus, Snoop Pearson, and Frank Sobotka received similarly stirring send-offs. On the flipside, neither Avon nor Stringer nor Proposition Joe were afforded the same “tough luck, folks, sometimes crime pays” fate Simon awarded Marlo.
Sheeeeit, you don’t even need to be dead for The Wire to toast you at your funeral. Take Jimmy McNulty’s fake wake at the Irish cop bar. After an entire season dedicated to showing what an egomaniacal, destructive piece of shit he is, all is forgiven and forgotten in the loving Pogues-soundtracked embrace of his fellow police. Clearly that love extended to the show itself, which was never more self-indulgent than it was in that scene (though that final, sappy million-stories-in-the-naked-city musical montage is a close second).
What’s more, Jimmy’s granted a weird sort of life after death in the form of Detective Sydnor. Our last glimpse of the Major Crimes Unit’s most loyal, least developed soldier is of him in the offices of Judge Phelan, recreating the exact same dynamic Phelan had with McNulty when Jimmy went around the bosses to bring his info on Avon Barksdale directly to the judge back in the pilot. The exact same thing happens to Michael, who becomes a stick-up artist preying on drug dealers alongside a handsome male partner as if he’s Omar reborn. Even Duquan could be seen as a redux of Bubbles, a junkie with a sweet spirit and a sense of hustle, when he starts shooting heroin out of nowhere in the final episode. (That’s a development many viewers feel as a gutpunch; to me, it’s so unearned and manipulative it’s just a cheap shot.) In the comics biz, we call these kinds of characters “legacy heroes.” A show with enough of a soft spot for the likes of Omar and McNulty to make new Silver Age versions of them after destroying the originals has no high horse to ride.
The bitch of it is that even with all its problems, Season Five shows signs of greatness. “Late Editions,” its penultimate episode, is one of the show’s finest hours. Everything seems to hit here, and hit hard. Carcetti’s devolution to a stat-juking sellout is completed, and given vicious voice in a cameo from Bunny Colvin, who responds to his “my hands were tied” horseshit with a stunningly hopeless statement: “Well, I guess, Mr. Mayor, there’s nothing to be done.” Michael sees his impending execution coming and shoots Snoop in the show’s single quietest, most intimate scene of violence. Then he says goodbye to his brother and his best friend for a life on the lam, unable even to remember happier times, let alone recreate them. Carver and Kima bond over the need to sometimes rat your out-of-control colleagues out, revealing themselves to be the good police Jimmy and Lester fancy themselves to be.
Even the weak stuff strengthens up. Now that Lester’s team has cracked Marlo’s code and traced his minions to the main stem of their supply, the cat-and-mouse games become as exciting to watch as they ever were. And the half-assed newspaper storyline delivers — and provides all-too-relevant insight in this, the era of Brian Williams’s six-month suspension — when suspicious editor Gus tracks down the veteran who lost his hands in the story that Scott embellished. “You lie about combat,” the vet tells him, “because you weren’t there.” His point, that the misinformation came not from the combat-tested source but the middleman reporter relaying the story to the world, could well be a credo for the entire show, at least when it isn’t indulging in the same too-perfect prettification of stories that it’s decrying.
Nor do the season’s problems prevent it from being beautiful to look at. The final episode alone contains two of the series’ most visually striking scenes: First, Bubbles and his sponsor Walon sit in the park at night, discussing the article that’s been written about him, the glow of the lamplight illuminating them like they’re characters in a painting by a Dutch master. Later, after he’s sprung from jail to begin his new career as a legitimate businessman, Marlo is regaled with tales of fortune and glory by the corrupt developer Andy Krawczyk as they gaze through a window at the harbor, the humming blue light of the night giving a scene that must already feel strange to a soldier like Marlo an almost science-fictional surreality. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of Season Five’s visual achievements. Just for example, when I think of Templeton’s evening under the underpass with the homeless, or Bunk interviewing Michael’s mom while standing in her open front door, or Sydnor giving the secret anti-Barksdale squad their assignments in the parking lot, I’m not sure any show has ever done a better job of capturing the warm electric indigo glow of the early summer evening.
If only that kind of acuity had extended beyond the visual plane. Just as there are all kinds of ways to shoot a city at night, there are any number of paths the show could have taken to explore the effects of a bad newspaper on community that relies on it, or how detectives simultaneously facing devastating departmental cutbacks and the most vicious criminal of their careers might cut corners to get their job done. Why take the most heavyhanded, hamfisted approach every time? When all those shades of blue are available, why paint in black and white?
Since these are the concluding episodes of the series, it follows they serve as a conclusion, one that the show is drawing about its own subjects. We can draw one in turn: didacticism and sentimentality, Season Five’s twin problematic poles, are the series’ overall weaknesses as well. Even at its best, which is as good as TV has ever ever ever gotten, The Wire never leaves you thinking “wow, I don’t know what to think.” It does the work for you, rather than trusting that work to be done in the ephemeral space where author, intentionality, art, and audience all interact, creating something unpredictable and unique and exponential. “We’re building something here,” Lester said all the way back in Season One. “And all the pieces matter.” But art is not casework. The piece that makes a perfect fit is a fine, fine thing. But it means less than the missing piece, left for us to picture on our own.