Wednesday, June 3, 2009
The Wire is a series that, to be honest, never should have made it on the air. It's plodding and episodic, with no central character to unify the seasons and storylines. It operates on a thematic level as opposed to a personal one, preventing the audience from forming strong bonds with any of the endless sea of characters. So, if five seasons seems like a short run for what has been rightly hailed by many as the greatest series in television history, just be thankful that HBO continued to fund it despite its stubborn refusal to attract the ratings it deserved. It might also be a good thing that the show ended when it did, as the final season of The Wire suffers a noticeable dip in quality that could have heralded a decline had it secured more seasons. A word of caution: I've attempted to keep spoilers to a minimum for my reviews of The Wire, as I've never cared more about letting people go in knowing as little as possible. But I simply cannot describe the final season and how it comments on the show as a whole without discussing the many twists and turns and deaths and arrests.
The previous season of The Wire ended on its most quietly devastating note yet, and it set up an inevitable collapse of a system beyond repair. Mayor Carcetti discovered just how deep into the shit he'd gotten himself, stumbling through the books only to find a $54 million deficit in the school system that had been glossed over and growing for years. Already dealing with budget cutbacks and a fresh, expensive investigation of the dozens of bodies strewn throughout the city by Chris and Snoop, Carcetti had no choice but to address the situation, kowtowing to the Republican governor for the money to salvage the situation while jeopardizing his own plans to run in the next gubernatorial election. While Bunny Colvin convinced Wee-Bay to turn over custody of Namond, all the other children continued their downward spiral into street life and ignorance.
The fifth season picks up 15 months after Carcetti assumed the Mayorship, and Baltimore is closer to self-immolation than ever. Fixing the school's massive deficit forced the local government to take accept massive cutbacks. As a result, the police can no longer afford a Major Crimes Unit, so Daniels must dissolve the unit and suspend the investigation of the bodies found in the vacants. McNulty, who had only just cleaned himself in order to reapply to MCU, is devastated: he spent all of last season on the beat to turn his life around, and this is what he gets for the trouble.
Unfortunately, Simon and co. are only working with ten episodes this season, which doesn't give the writers a great deal of time to completely deal with the mountain of issues, not to mention move forward. Every season of The Wire introduces a new element of urban life (not to mention a boatload of new characters), and this time around we delve into the role of the media. As with the government jobs, The Baltimore Sun is facing cutbacks of its own as it must contend with fewer and fewer subscriptions due to the availability of free news that the internet offers. Season 4 collected every thread of the series to show us how the system was slowly choking the life out of America, and Simon is using the media and its effect on people to demonstrate how we allow the system to continue.
Now, normally, the writers manage to flesh out the new additions, giving them all pasts, quirks, something unique that made them endearing or contemptible, and sometimes both. Hell, we only got one season with the stevedores and the Sobotkas remain some of the more memorable characters of the series. But as a result of the shortened episode order, as well as some inexcusably weak writing, the majority of the Sun reporters barely come across as two-dimensional, spouting out little nuggets of writing advice or praising any article that might generate some buzz. As opposed to the multi-layered characters of old, Simon shoehorns the various journalists working at the Sun into one of three categories: old-school, intrepid reporters and editors who could recite you Strunk & White's The Elements of Style by rote, who know everything about journalistic ethics and who find themselves increasingly at odds with the reader-hungry management (Jay Spry, Roger Twigg); sensationalist halfwits who will run any piece of potential gold in an instant without bothering to check its credibility (James Whiting, Thomas Klebanow); and finally, fresh-faced newcomers who will eventually fall into one of the previous tropes (Alma Gutierrez, Scott Templeton).
Simon's tenure at The Baltimore Sun gave him the anecdotes and experience to write the novel that Paul Attanasio turned into Homicide: Life on the Street and, later, inspired Simon himself to create this. It's inseparable from his vision for the series, which makes it in many ways the newsroom the perfect place for the show's coda. But Simon also brings old grudges and affections to his immaculately constructed set, going so far as using the real names for many of the more flatteringly portrayed journalists. He bases Whiting and Klebanow on former Sun editors John Carroll and Bill Marimow, both of whom, according to that bastion of scholastic integrity, Wikipedia, David Simon loathes. They want to be the paper with a Pulitzer Prize winner, and they always praise nonsense like the "Dickensian aspect" of articles as opposed to relevancy. And Simon puts a bit of himself, of course, into Gus Haynes, who should be on the short list of great journalistic heroes in entertainment alongside the dramatized versions of Woodward and Bernstein and Lowell Bergman. He's the kind of editor every paper would love to have: supportive, helpful, but not without an ability to find the stories that will sell.
Templeton, on the other hand, represents everything that disillusioned Simon in the field. An ambitious writer with flowery, fancified prose, Templeton is in the game solely for the Pulitzer and whatever promotion he can get. The first story we see him write is an innocuous one: he reports on a food poisoning and spruces up the piece to make it more interesting. Before long, he's inventing entire articles, magically coming up with the juiciest quote to end all quotes that just so happens to come from an anonymous source, no matter how public the subject might be.
Ironically, the one thing on which Templeton reports (more or less) honestly is itself a fabrication. As cops start losing overtime pay and they must let even more cases go unsolved, McNulty concocts a plan: when he and Bunk examine a homeless man who died of an overdose, Jimmy strangles the corpse to make it look like a murder. As a horrified Bunk looks on, McNulty explains his idea: there's a serial killer in Baltimore killing the homeless, and the city will need as many police as it can get to capture him. He even wraps a red ribbon around the stiff's wrist to link the "murder" to another corpse found a few months back. When Bunk tells Lester Freamon about McNulty's plan to dissuade his partner, he is flabbergasted when Freamon suggests ways to ensure the "killer" will get press.
For a show that built its foundation upon stark realism and sociological metaphors, the Serial Killer storyline takes the show so close to pure absurdity that it nearly buckles under the weight of incredulity. It smacks of the sort of gimmick that lesser crime procedurals use to drum up ratings, and maybe that's what Simon was trying to do. Lord knows The Wire hung on by its nails from day one, so perhaps he was going for broke to get someone besides the critics to watch the damn thing. But as the lie gets bigger and bigger, McNulty and Freamon must resort to increasingly insane lengths to keep the department and the city in the dark, to the point that I began to fear that they would end up killing someone.
The killer story frustrated me endlessly, and I began to wonder if David Simon had simply lost his mind. Then I got into the final episodes, and something clicked: while the characters have only aged 15 months, they're playing out the long-term consequences of the fourth season. It's a sort of flash-forward to America's apocalypse, where cover-ups, lies and complacency have set up a delicate house of cards that at last crumbles. While the idea of the police fabricating a serial killer simply doesn't work, and it hurt that a character who had come as far as McNulty could be so casually kicked back down the moral ladder, picking Jimmy and Lester to corrupt was the smartest move they could have made with a bad situation. No one else on the force was as dedicated as Jimmy and Lester: Jimmy, philandering alcoholic mess that he was, held onto police work because only the job kept him sane. Lester, on the other hand, had been there for decades, a brilliant detective who could spin gold from crap. These two had to be the ones to snap under the pressure, as anyone else would have brought scrutiny on the character and not the situation.
Nevertheless, the plan does garner media attention...eventually. If there is a plus side to McNulty's arc, it's that Simon quite clearly understands how absurd he is, and he often plays it for pitch-black humor. He juxtaposes the police department's penchant for only tracking down the murderers of white and middle class citizens and the Sun's knowledge that only such stories will win any readers. The idea of some homeless people dying isn't going to send papers flying off newsstands, and Lester's solution of fabricating a sexual motive for the killer is downright hilarious. Templeton picks up the story and runs with it, garnering national attention and inspiring a frenzy. Carcetti himself is galvanized by the murders and begins to delivery genuinely impassioned speeches about our neglect of the homeless -- all while somehow piling the blame on the Republican governor, of course. And when someone tells him the truth in the finale, the horror on his face and the realization of its implications are some of the best expression comedy in years.
The increased police work and the authorized wiretaps (for the alleged killer) allow Freamon to put the heat back on Marlo. The most interesting aspect of the storyline comes when Daniels and Pearlman pull a loose thread and the whole thing unravels after Greggs finds out what's going on and rats out Jimmy and Lester. It all crumbles in the series finale, "-30-," which not only smooths out almost every flaw of the season but wraps up the show in the most fitting manner possible. Daniels and Pearlman realize how terrible McNulty's actions are, but the fact that he lied not for personal gain -- compared to Carcetti's grandstanding, Templeton's fabrications and Clay Davis' joke of a corruption trial -- is the real tragedy. And the good that the lie has done depends on keeping everything under the veil.
If the setup of the season took the system to its breaking point, the finale shows that the only way we can stave off utter destruction is to simply continue acting as if nothing's wrong. America can function with shattered equipment so long as the general public aren't allowed to know the truth. If Daniels doesn't shut his mouth, not only does he kill his chance to become Police Commissioner, he'll reveal that the massive, wildly successful bust of the Stanfield organization was acquired through an illegal wiretap. The "killings" drew attention to the horrific homeless problem, which could (though likely won't) have a positive outcome. At the Sun, Haynes exposes Templeton as a fraud, but Whiting and Klebanow are too busy preening themselves over the fact that Scott won a Pulitzer for his work, and Haynes gets demoted for trying to cause a stir. Just as Baltimore would collapse if the truth got out, such a massive scandal would ruin a struggling company that trades in printing facts. In some ways, the fifth season mirrors Alan Moore's Watchmen, with the serial killer fitting into the absurd plot device that the squid monster was in that story: it's horrible and immoral, but if anyone blows the whistle, it will be even worse.
Even though Simon manages to salvage the plot at the end, as usual the best parts of the season are the little moments. In the eighth episode, Omar, who returned to town after Marlo had Butchie tortured and murdered to lure his nemesis out of hiding, is shot and killed by little Kenard. For one thing, it's a nice callback, as Kenard is the one person on the street who never fled at the mere sight of Omar limping along with his makeshift crutch. Far more importantly, however, it destroys the legend of Omar Little in the most devastating way possible. Omar Little, along with Jimmy McNulty and Bubbles, held the series together; even when these characters weren't at the forefront of the story, they embodied the themes of the series as a whole. The visuals of The Wire were never its strong suit, but the most poignant moment of the entire series involves no words whatsoever: at the end of the episode, Omar's corpse sits in the morgue, impassively inspected by an examiner who notices that Omar's tag accidentally wound up on the wrong bag. He fixes the clerical error and goes about his way, and the legendary figure becomes nothing more than a forgotten body, not even mentioned in the paper due to space constraints.
Elsewhere, other tiny interactions demonstrate that the writers had not completely lost track of the tone of the show. In the finale, Dukie, now permanently on the streets working with a homeless arabber so he no longer has to deal, visits Prez, who is now a fully competent teacher who can easily exert his authority over students. Dukie tells his old teacher that he's applying to community college and a G.E.D. program (despite the fact that he's still of age to attend high school) and needs some money. Prez knows full well that his protegé is doomed, but he gives him the money anyway as a sort of parting gift. Michael works as a soldier for Marlo but questions Marlo's insanity, and finally he escapes when he kills Snoop before she can execute him. Marlo himself is revealed to be nothing more than a mindless goon when Levy bails him out of jail and tries to set him up in legitimate business (not unlike Stringer Bell); when he joyously beats on corner boys in a formal suit, all the notions of Marlo as a cold calculator à la Michael Corleone evaporate and we see nothing more than an unbalanced thug who only got ahead because he was crazier than everyone else.
The final moments of the last episode tie up the series in ways that only The Wire could: it does not offer us a happy, nor even a downbeat, ending but simply sets up the cycle to begin anew. Dukie becomes the new Sherrod, with the implication that he might one day grow into Bubbles; Michael fills Omar Little's shoes; Sydnor's rant to Judge Phelan perfectly mirrors McNulty's in the pilot. It actually reminded me of the Battlestar Galactica finale a bit, and it makes you wonder if the events of the series are the first iteration of the cycle of broken systems and denial or if it all took place in the middle of just another loop.
In a sense, this season indirectly predicted the economic collapse that occurred mere months after the show went off the air forever. We'd all labored under the delusion that the economy, though not exactly strong, was simply following its normal trend of rise and fall. Then all the companies couldn't keep their schemes and cover-ups secret any longer and the house of cards toppled. I'm not saying that David Simon saw it coming, but it's interesting to compare the two and to note that the real downfall was public awareness of the problem.
So, how does the final season of The Wire stack up to the rest? It lacks the in-depth, definitive focus on its areas of interest that made Seasons Two and Four so great -- I seem to have swung back from my "why don't the dockers show up in other seasons" minor backlash -- it brings up a topic as relevant and vital as homelessness and just sort of tells us that it's tragic (thanks David), and it makes the reality-stretching Hamsterdam look like a documentary compared to McNulty's ploy. But it also took a big leap, moving away from realism and into high-concept thematic examination. It painted a vision of America's end more horrifying than any nuclear war/zombie invasion you'd care to name. The Wire was less the greatest show ever made but indeed The Great American Novel. And like the other main contender for that title, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it loses steam at the end, by virtue of the fact that the themes introduced in the preceding chapters were simply too complex to be readily solved. Happily, the finale of The Wire is not the same copout that the last chapter of Huck Finn was, with a suitably bleak capper. But they leave us with a bit of hope: Bubbles, who struggled with sobriety for the entire series, finally opens up about Sherrod, reinforcing his desire to stay clean, and one of the honest young reporters tells the city his story. For some reason, that validated the whole shebang for me.