From 1983 to 1995, David Simon worked as a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, an experience that has fueled two of the most significant procedurals in TV history: Homicide: Life On The Streets, a groundbreaking NBC series based on Simon's book Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, and HBO's The Wire, an ambitious look at Baltimore's crumbling institutions. In 2000, he and frequent collaborator Ed Burns also adapted their book The Corner: A Year In The Life Of An Inner-City Neighborhood into an acclaimed miniseries, again for HBO. For the fifth and final season of The Wire, Simon recently spoke to The A.V. Club about winding things down, the state of American journalism, what Greek tragedy means in today's America, and what's next on his docket. [Spoiler notes: This interview addresses the series finale, plus a crucial plot development in the current season's eighth episode.]
The A.V. Club: Wrapping up a series like The Wire seems a little like McNulty's homeless-murders scheme, in that once the tap has been turned on, the thing takes on a life of its own, and it's hard to stop. How difficult was it to bring the series to a satisfactory end?
David Simon: It was not particularly difficult. That sounds flippant, but we had planned the last two story arcs as early as the middle of season three, and we actually referenced some of them. We didn't know they might be the last two, and we didn't know in which order, and we didn't know everything that would happen to every character, but we knew the themes that we were going to pursue in seasons four and five as early as season two. It was just a matter of getting the hours, which was not a problem in any way. It was a good problem. We did the same thing we always do. We'd get in a room, put some butcher paper on the wall, and start beating out plotlines and characters and figuring out where everyone was supposed to go. Listen, this is just my opinion, but I think when you get to the end, everything we put into play was there for a purpose. And we said exactly what we intended to say. I know it may not be what other people wanted to hear, but it was exactly what we intended to say. We'd known that for a while.
AVC: Were you satisfied with the amount of time you had? Would you have wanted more episodes?
DS: I've heard people speculating, and the truth is, when HBO said to me, "Can you do it in eight episodes?" early on in the season, I said, "No, there's no way to accomplish what we want to do in eight." I knew I didn't need 13. We had become a 12-episode show except for season four, and the only reason season four had a 13th episode was because we had to fill in some of the political backstory. Originally, we intended to play the election as a separate political piece between seasons three and four; that was not approved, so we needed to squeeze a little more politics into the season-four story, in terms of the election and the run-up to the election. So we were looking at 12. I said "I can't do eight," and they said, "Can you try to beat it out in 10?" I said I'd try, and they said if it didn't work, it didn't work. So we started beating it out in 10, and it became clear that it could work. Ultimately, it came pretty close to working, but halfway through the season, I realized we were backing up a little bit, and I asked for an extra half-hour on the last one. It's a 90-minute episode. If I had needed an extra hour, I'm fairly convinced I could've asked [HBO President] Carolyn Strauss for it, and if I needed an extra two, I think I could've gotten it at that point.
I made a good-faith commitment to try to do it in 10. There's obviously limited production budget at any studio, and they also happened to have given me seven hours of an Iraq miniseries [the upcoming Generation Kill] in the same year. There's a lot of priority going around. There are a lot of other priorities that have nothing to do with me. If I'd needed the 12, I think I could have gotten the 12. If I had had the extra, would I have used it on the main story that you see? Probably not. We had what we needed of those stories.
I wouldn't have done more of the major plotlines. There would have been more of… With another half-hour, I probably could have managed to run Cutty's story through… That's the stuff that we had to make a choice about. Part of that was, "Should we run a Cutty story, or has he reached that point of redemption that is appropriate for the character, and is there more to say about Cutty? Or is he at the place he should be at the end of this run? And is Prez at the place he should be?" That was the other story. We decided we'd said what we needed to about those characters and about those environments, and that we were gilding the lily. If we had been insistent about extending the story to all of the limbs of the tree, so to speak, I don't think HBO would have denied us. I've read a lot of angst over, "HBO didn't give him enough time, and it felt rushed." I think people thought it felt rushed because everybody knew it was the last 10! Every single episode, everyone realized, "They can only do this. They're not going to have room for that. I want them to do this, I want to see more of this guy. I want to see the kids more." That's my guess. Maybe it felt rushed because it was rushed, but we didn't feel that pressure when we were beating it out.
AVC: You don't necessarily have to tie a bow on every single storyline.
DS: That's not The Wire's way. I feel like we said what we wanted to say about every single storyline, and to carry it further would have been a loss. If people are missing scenes they think should be there, okay.
AVC: On the journalism angle… We know about guys like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, who were eventually caught and exposed as fabricators. Scott Templeton, at the end of the show, wins a prize. Are you suggesting that there are many Blair and Glass types working in newspapers today?
DS: I worked at the Baltimore Sun, and there were three reporters in the time that I was there who ran afoul of fabrication. Not plagiarism, that's a whole other ball of wax. They were heartbreaking. Two of them were people who made up things that were so minor and so cosmetic that it was a tragedy, almost a cry for help. It was almost divorced of ambition. They weren't making up big things, they were making up a quote in an obituary, things like that. One of them was fired. One of them made up a quote from a New York Times reporter that was supposedly said at a press conference he attended, and when the Times reporter complained that she had never said this, he suggested that it was a joke, that he wrote it as sarcasm. Incredibly, he kept his job. Then again, he was married to one of the AMEs [Assistant Managing Editors].
The other guy made up a series of stories out of whole cloth, with anonymous leads. The entire newsroom became aware of the problem, and three stories were retracted in full, and various people went in to the editors, some people who had the courage of speaking out against somebody who was favored as a rising star. It had no effect. After the third story was retracted, they slipped that piece out of the file for their Pulitzer submission. They took that headline out, and submitted the rest for a Pulitzer. It was very cynical. Now you could say that the Baltimore Sun was a problematic place, but I can name more people than that. If you start with Janet Cooke, if you go to Blair and [Rick] Bragg—and Bragg had a problem as well that was fairly commonly known in the newsroom.
Rick Bragg… whenever they went for the quote of the most homespun guy leaning against the oak tree in Meridian, Mississippi, the photographers could never find him. It was common knowledge in the Times newsroom for years. There was Stephen Glass. My wife [Laura Lippman] is an ex-journalist who worked at The Sun, she of course knows the stories of all three guys that worked at The Sun. But she also worked at the San Antonio Light; they had a guy who was making it up, and they knew it. He got caught several times, and he later went on to work for Sports Illustrated. If you ask a journalist who worked in a newsroom for any length of time, six to eight years, any point where you could call him a veteran, they will tell you a story of a fabricator.
Are most journalists fabricators? Of course not. Most are conscientious and aggressive and sincere, and they find fabrication appalling. But tellingly, 60 percent of Americans believe that reporters routinely make up stuff. I think that's because these things have almost become a cliché. And every time one is found, there are questions much like the one you just phrased to me: "Do you really think it's a problem?" Of course I do. Journalism is a shrinking pond, and personal ambition is rooted in the very act of reporting and writing. It's naturally there. You can't get rid of it. And the desire to get to the biggest possible pond and do the most notable work is profound. Are some people going to cheat? Yeah. By the way, we forgot Jack Kelley at USA Today. I can keep coming up with 'em. Never mind Janet Cooke, the granddaddy of 'em all, who did win a Pulitzer and was caught only belatedly.
Listen, you just said, "Do you think people could get away with it?" Yes. As long as you don't do anything too outrageous. If you do something too outrageous, eventually you're gonna get caught. As long as there's some incentive… There's a huge institutional incentive against self-examination at newspapers, and if you look at how the editors behaved at The Sun, at The Times, at The Post with Janet Cooke, at The New Republic with Glass, at USA Today… There is an absolute consistency with the environment in which a fabricator went as far as they did. It's that they were not held to the same rigorous standards of the newsroom, because they were regarded as special cases and uniquely valuable. And their work was not held up to the same rigorous attention. When people started to complain and people started to cite things against Kelley or Blair or Bragg or Cooke, the response institutionally was almost exactly the same: "People are complaining because they're jealous, or they don't like the play the guy's getting." It's always the same. The critics are always the problem; it's in their heads. That happened at The Sun, too. Of course it's a problem. Is it the only problem? No. But you know what? The Wire didn't say that this year.
AVC: To shift to another part of the show… what sort of tone were you trying to strike with the homeless-murders subplot? It initially seems like absurdist comedy, but then, like a lot of things on the show, it eventually curdles into tragedy.
DS: Right. I think it had the same mixture of tragedy and comedy that the destruction of Frank Sobotka had. The investigation of Frank Sobotka… there are real issues at stake. There's a can full of dead women. There are real issues of horror and tragedy to be reckoned with, and yet the investigation begins because a very petulant asshole of a police major can't get his stained-glass window in the right part of St. Ignatius. The investigation begins incompetently, then eventually morphs into something that matters. And when we did "Hamsterdam," which is as improbable a story as you could do… This conspiracy of McNulty and Freamon requires the complicity of two or three people at most, in knowing all of it. But legalizing drugs in a district like the Western… The Western has 150 cops. When you're making fun of police commanders and politicians and school superintendents, it's all fun and games. If at any moment you're going to do anything in the same tonality involving journalists, look out! It's gonna be a different dynamic. I thought there were elements of Dr. Strangelove meets police procedural in the origins of that storyline, but it becomes very practical and serious fairly quickly. And it spins out of control, as bad ideas always do. That was the point. The point was not to preserve the heroism of cops that people like, or to regurgitate previous themes, but to address ourselves to the ideas of truth and fiction. That's what this was about. If it worked, it worked. If it didn't, it didn't. We liked it.
AVC: David Chase often expressed frustration with the way people perceived The Sopranos in later seasons. He seemed to go out of his way to make Tony Soprano as repugnant as possible. Obviously a character like Omar is more anti-hero than villain, but was the manner in which he died a similar sort of statement? Do you ever think about the characters in relation to how viewers might see them?
DC: We didn't kill Omar because viewers liked Omar. Neither did we let him live because viewers liked Omar. It was beyond petition. We weren't being nasty to viewers, and we weren't being solicitous of viewers. We were serving the story. I don't know what else to say. If people didn't realize after this many seasons of The Wire that they were watching a Greek tragedy, writ across a modern American city… And if they thought that there were going to be redemptions and [awarding] of the Fates, they need to get up with their Medea and Antigone and their Oedipus. I don't know what else to say.
AVC: How did you conceive of Omar? Until he died, he seemed like such a mythical, larger-than-life figure. And the manner in which he died brought him back down to earth. Is that a crazy statement to make?
DS: It's not a crazy statement to make, it's not a crazy story to tell. It's been told for thousands of years. It's like Achilles, pretty strong guy, pretty good story. You know the story, right? He was dipped in the river Styx, somebody held him by his ankle, he wasn't completely dipped, he finally takes an arrow in the exact wrong place. The idea of the protagonist being fated to a particular end and to having certain vulnerabilities inherent in his person… And the idea of hubris! You're dealing with classical form. And people are very comfortable in the modern world with the Shakespearean, and certainly a lot of the post-Shakespearean, in that it deals with the very modern notion of protagonists struggling against themselves, against the external world, but very much in control of their own destinies. Their choices matter, and their choices can ensure a better outcome. They are affecting their own future when they assert for their own future. That is Hamlet. That is [Eugene] O'Neill. That is [Anton] Chekhov. There's an awful lot of dramatic tradition that's rooted in that ideal. The notion that there would be gods up on the hill who might be all-controlling and all-manipulative and all-emotional when it comes to determining people's fates seems extremely antiquated and superstitious—and an affront to human dignity.
The Wire made the argument, from its first season, that the modern world is becoming increasingly indifferent to individual catharsis and individual dignity, and human beings are worth less. Every day, human beings are worth less. That's the triumph of capitalism. The money gets made, and the fewer people we need to make that money… I come from a city where 47 percent of the African-American males are out of work. They're not needed. We've constructed an economic model that doesn't need a lot of human beings. It doesn't need as many as it once did for certain people to attain wealth. In a world like that, the old superstitions start to seem less superstitious. The idea that these massive institutions—school systems and police departments and drug trades and political entities and newspapers—might actually become utterly unfeeling to the people they're supposed to serve and the people who serve them seems to me to be the paradigm of the 20th century, and I think it's going to continue.
That's why the Greek tragedy was employed as a dramatic device. At least for the writers, it speaks to something that is not only latent in the modern world, but is becoming predominant in the modern world. And that's what The Wire was about. You're asking me why Omar died and who he was. He was a man. And he arrayed himself against a variety of forces. Was he heroic at points? Yeah. The plays I'm talking about are full of heroes.
AVC: Reading his death as a Shakespearean tragedy, it seems like it came on faster as a result of him breaking his code by breaking his promise to Bunk. That doesn't play into what you were talking about.
DS: His code was that when Butchie was murdered, the way he was murdered, he had to come back. You don't break that code. He came back, and I think at every point that he went into battle, the warrior spirit is that at any given moment your life might be ceded.
AVC: Which superseded anything he might have said to Bunk about "no more bodies."
DS: He was full of that in seasons one and two when he said, "Play or get played." He made that promise to Bunk before he felt the obligation to avenge Butchie. Did he break a promise? Did he lie? There are codes and there are codes, aren't there? If you want to look at it like he broke his code, okay. I see somebody who was engaged in a life of rebellion against stated forces of his world, and that's a hard way to live. Let me misquote, because I'm not quoting exactly: Camus, in The Myth Of Sisyphus, said something to this effect: "Rebelling against an injustice where you are certain to fail is absurd. But to not rebel against an injustice where you are certain to fail is also absurd. Only one choice offers the opportunity for dignity." I think that's inherent in a lot of the stuff we're talking about. I think people feel that way a little bit about Omar, and that's why he had some appeal.
AVC: You've been unusually active in seeking out and occasionally responding to discussion about the show. Has the reaction of critics and fans ever influenced the show itself, if only to thwart their expectations?
DS: Nope. I disagree with your premise. I've not been unusually active. Where would you think I'm unusually active?
AVC: You've responded to criticism, appearing on message boards about the show. Just recently you appeared on a site called The House Next Door.
DS: Do I use my computer and sometimes get on the Internet? Sometimes I do. If you look at what I put on The House Next Door, I believe I was answering a specific question that somebody had posed about a point of confusion in the plot. I don't think I was answering criticism at all. Was there a moment I answered criticism?
AVC: You did say something about not wanting to claim ownership of someone else's opinion.
DS: Somebody noticed that Richard Price had reused a piece from Clockers, and I think I was basically defending Richard Price from any suggestion that he was lazy, saying "Look, we asked him to do this." That's me being honorable with another writer. Let me recount for you my positions on the Internet; they're limited enough that I know them. I got on the Slate site—I actually [posted on] an off-campus site [Ubiquitous Marketing], because somehow I found the Slate discussion on somebody else's site, and thought I was on Slate. I went on the Slate site because this gentleman, David Plotz… I met him at a wedding, and his wife, who was lovely, and he was a nice guy, a seemingly nice guy. And we talked about journalism. It was a bunch of journalists [at the table]. We talked for a while about why you get out and why you stay in, and I certainly own my own story—how I got to The Sun, how I got hired there, what I did, and why I left. If you were to call me and interview me, or if you were to cite any number of other public places I've told that story, I would've had no problem with it.
[Plotz] decided to quote dinner conversation that he had with me, where he didn't identify himself as a reporter and where I didn't know I was speaking on the record. And I'm somebody who has written two long tomes of narrative journalism about people, all of whom have been named, dozens of names, and not one of them would tell you that I did anything other than walk up to them and let them know that I was a reporter and writing a book. So if you look at what I wrote, I didn't get on there to defend the show, I got on there to pointedly say, "Why are you quoting dinner conversation?" That's where I became quite angry. That's a violation of the ethic that I know exists among professional reporters. You state, "I'm working now. What you say is on the record." The fact that I'm sharing a bottle of wine with you at a wedding—you're not working. Or if you are working, you better say so. And when I raised this with him privately, he apologized. Not at first, but then his wife said, "You're absolutely right." And then he apologized, and that ended it.
If you read it, you'll find that the show will either stand or fall on its merits. But I was very offended at the cannibalization of my private life. The only thing where I might've answered criticism is even funnier. New York Magazine, on that Vulture [blog], had a thing about the evacuation, and they called the HBO spokesman and said, "We want to write something about how 'evacuation' can be used two ways. Will you ask David if he has a comment?" They called and asked for comment, and I text-messaged my comment to their specific question to [HBO spokesman] Diego [Aldana], and he texted it to them, and they put it on as if I'd posted it to their website. Like I hadn't responded to their question, but I'd been trolling around on the Internet and decided to respond. When in fact they had called and asked for comment. I tell you all these long-winded stories, because it's interesting what the meta-narrative becomes. The only other place that I posted… If you've seen me post anywhere else, it's usually to compliment the quality of discussion on the show, and not to defend the show or to try and mute an argument. But to thank people, or to get on and say, "He didn't say that," to explain one little fact that people are confused about—that's me helping, and maybe I shouldn't even do that. It's interesting what the meta-narrative became. It became "the fire and fury of David Simon," to quote somebody, that I'm on the Internet raging.
AVC: I'm familiar with all three of the postings you mentioned, and I also visit the media-news website Romanesko, which sort of amplifies it. My perception of you being active comes from all of that.
DS: I did write pieces about my history in journalism, but that has nothing to do with me defending the show. I wrote a piece in the Post. It's amazing, the degree to which the ad hominem becomes the narrative. Is it any wonder that our political system is as fucked-up as it is? I'm the biggest son of a bitch in the world. I'm the angriest man in town. [Sarcastically.] Who gives a fuck? I'm all of those things. But ultimately, the work either stands on its own or it doesn't. And through the vast disarray of the Internet, you're not going to find me defending it vigorously anywhere. It's just true. You'll never get anyone actually parsing it to notice that. The meta-narrative is what it is.
AVC: You had to know that this subplot about the world of journalism would invite a certain amount of navel-gazing.
DS: You think? Is there anything journalists love to write about more than themselves? I don't think there's any other subject that excites them as much.
AVC: It's a beat they have covered.
DS: About as well as they cover anything else. There's a reason that in that middle episode, I put that line in from the judge about "Never mess with people that are buying ink by the barrelful."
AVC: What can you say about your new miniseries?
DS: It's a seven-part miniseries based on Evan Wright's book Generation Kill. It's the story of a recon Marine who led the first Marine division toward Baghdad over the five-week period of the invasion. It's a story about young men and war and how war transforms them. It is, I think, among the best war reporting I've ever read. I would grant it the same status as Michael Herr's Dispatches or Mike Kelly's Martyrs' Day. I think it's very good war reporting. HBO bought the book and they asked me to do it. I've not been to Iraq, I've not been to war, so I was very careful to write it in conjunction with Evan Wright himself, to have him in the room with myself and Ed Burns while we worked on the script. And to have some of the recon marines who were characters in the book come to Africa with us and help us make the miniseries.
AVC: It's told from the perspective of an embedded reporter?
DS: The main characters are Marines, though the embedded reporter is a character. I would say the main characters are the Marines in the Humvee he was riding in.
AVC: You were shooting in Africa. Were you out of your comfort zone?
DS: No, there were a lot of good people trying to help us make a good movie, and they did. Or at least I hope they did; we're still cutting it. It seems to be coming together nicely. I'm excited about it. I guess it was outside of Baltimore! [Laughs.] If my comfort zone was Baltimore, I guess I was outside it.
AVC: You're outside of crime, too.
DS: Yeah, I wouldn't have written this without Evan in the room. I wouldn't have dared. It would have felt arrogant and assuming for me to write something this intimate about Marines that I only knew from the pages of his book. So I asked for his help and contributions, and his contributions are essential. We've tried as much as possible to present the non-fiction account. I've tried to be as careful with his book as I was with my own when I did The Corner. I felt a particular fealty to his story because it's true. All this discussion we've had about choices on The Wire—why'd you do this, why'd you do that—choices are much more practical and small when you're dealing with a real story. It's about execution, it's not about content.