The serialized television series we love are seemingly destined to break our hearts. Because of the open-ended nature of U.S. television shows, series are usually destined to last for as long as they’re successful, regardless of where the story is. This would unthinkable in books or movies; we would outraged by a book that ended in the second act or a movie that was twice as long as it needed to be just because people liked it or didn’t like it. It’s very rare for a serialized TV series to avoid either being short-circuited or stretched well past its creative tipping point; in fact, many have argued that two of HBO’s greatest shows, The Sopranos and Deadwood, were overextended and incomplete, respectively. It’s a little like McNulty’s homeless murders: Once you turn the tap on, it can be an ugly business to turn it off.
So say this for The Wire: It’s about as complete a vision as you’ll ever encounter on television. You could argue that a few more episodes might have tied things together more thoroughly and deliberately—to my mind, the journalism subplot could have been handled less hastily, but I’ll get to that in a bit—but the final episode of The Wire felt like a proper ending and one with very few question marks. In that sense, it was pretty much the opposite of the (brilliant) Sopranos finale. Ending the show with a “life goes on” montage may feel like an inelegant coda, when something more particular, like the “Snotboogie” speech that opened the series, might have been more affecting. But it honors all the characters, and, better still, keeps us from puzzling in frustration over unresolved storylines and the many blind alleys that serialized shows tend to take us down. Through a lot of careful, dazzlingly Byzantine plotting, David Simon and his writers have closed the book on the greatest drama in television history, and have done it with all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted. Many shows don’t get that opportunity, so a big thanks to HBO for allowing this ratings-plagued series the chance to go out on its own terms.
I’m really not sure how best to wrap-up this supersized episode to a massive season, so let’s look at the Sun and homeless murders subplots separately, even though they’re connected:
1. The Sun. I haven’t said as much here, because I wanted to see how things would play out, but I’ve struggled with this subplot all season and the finale went out with a big sigh. The Wire has expanded its scope every season, but if you think about the journalism angle in comparison with, say, the docks in Season Two or the schools in Season Four, it looks awfully feeble. There’s no emotional resonance to it, and very little in the way of nuance in the newsroom; if you’re working for the Sun, you’re either a beleaguered old-school scribe who’s marginalized for wanting to do things right (Gus, Bill Zorzi, Roger Twigg, those ancient eagle-eyed copy editors who know the proper usage of the word “evacuated”) or fatuous, simple-minded, prize-grubbing twits who care more about getting ahead than getting the story right (Whiting, Klebanow). The rest are just cub reporters who are destined to fall into one category or another—Alma, who’s ultimately punished for casting her lot with Gus; Templeton, who lies his way to an award (and maybe that Post or Times job he so desperately covets); or Fletcher, who quietly executes the one act of journalism that speaks to what’s going on in the city.
Much has been written about Simon’s own history at the Sun, particularly his long-standing grudge against William Marimow and John Carroll, the Whiting and Klebanow types who ran the Sun during the tail end of Simon’s 12 year run at the paper. It’s pointless to note that Marimow and Carroll are both highly respected and accomplished in the journalism world, with many Pulitzers to their credit, especially given Simon’s contempt for the brand of journalism that’s focused on winning awards rather than serving the city. And it’s slightly less pointless to note that Carroll, at the end of a five-year run at top editor at the Los Angeles Times, resigned the position rather than acquiesce to the severe staff cutbacks demanded by the Tribune Company. But it’s definitely fair to say that Simon never extended these straw men the same nuance and empathy that he did any other character in the Wire’s rich history; Whiting and Klebanow are boobs, plain and simple, and guys like them are hastening the demise of the Fourth Estate.
I’m also not entirely convinced that Templeton gets off scot-free, though that’s a little more understandable given what happens in the other realms of the show. Exposing Templeton as a liar would be as damaging to the Sun as it would be to the city government or the Police Department: If they were to pull on the many loose threads that hold Templeton’s stories together, that would totally undermine weeks of potential prize-winning coverage of the homeless situation in Baltimore, and break the sacred trust that readers are supposed to have with their newspaper. And yet… are we really supposed to believe that Gus, with the mountain of evidence he has against Templeton, would be dismissed so easily. If there’s one thing that journalists of all stripes despise, it’s a fabricator (with plagiarists a close second), and it seems a bit of a stretch to expect senior editors at a major newspaper—even boobs like Whiting and Klebanow—to flat-out dismiss charges brought by a seasoned city editor against a greenhorn reporter. Yes, Templeton is their boy and he’s brought a lot of attention to a struggling paper, but it stretches credulity a bit to think that such sins would be explained away as part of Gus’ “personal” problems with Templeton.
That said, there were many good things about the Sun subplot that might be overlooked. For one, I think the show offers a window into the modern newsroom that’s more convincing than anything I can recall on TV or in the movies. All of the “more with less” problems Simon and company point out are totally legitimate: It’s a joke to believe that a paper functions more “efficiently” with fewer people, when in reality, stories are going to get missed. It’s also worth noting that the people subject to buyouts—men and women who have been around for awhile and have had their salaries grow (or “bloat,” if you will) accordingly—are usually the most valuable. It takes a long time for a Roger Twigg-type to get solid inside sources to work for stories, and even a young go-getter like Alma will have to work a long time to shore up contacts. The show also captured the demoralized tenor—and to oft-hilarious effect, the gallows humor—of the newsroom, too. And above all, Simon and company make the same point about the Fourth Estate that they do about every other institution in the city: That they’re not serving the people properly and that their mistakes (and corruption) can have a devastating ripple effect on the powerless.
2. The homeless murders. To the positive, I thought this subplot worked out brilliantly and can stand proud next to Hamsterdam as a masterpiece of outlandish tragicomic proportions. The basis for McNulty’s grand fiction was something surprising and full of ironies: Where other characters lie and regularly for personal gain, McNulty lies simply to get the resources that should already be available to a functioning police department. It’s simply unjust to allow Marlo Stanfield and his crew to go free because the city needs to pump money into a broken education system or a charade of a trial against Clay Davis. And at the beginning of “30,” we get the hilarious spectacle of Carcetti trying to comprehend what’s been done to him. It’s not just that the homeless murders were a sham, which would be embarrassing enough. It’s the reason behind the sham that’s truly humiliating, because it so clearly exposes Carcetti’s status as “the weak-ass mayor of a broke-ass city.” McNulty isn’t going the Clay Davis route and funneling the extra cash to a bank account in the Caribbean; he just wants to close a case, and moreover, make the department function in the way that many politicians have promised, but none can deliver.
I’ll cherish the many hilarious moments drummed up by the homeless murders: McNulty desecrating that first homeless man’s body as Bunk looks on in horror; the utter apathy that greets his fake serial killer when he first tries to run it past Homicide; McNulty and Templeton’s compatible fictions coming together in the Sun conference room; the FBI profile; the wealth of Bunk reaction shots; and so on… Season Five may not be the best season of The Wire—I’d follows conventional wisdom and say Four, followed by Two—but I think it may be the funniest. Some critics completely missed the absurdist tone of the homeless murders plot, which is a bit baffling when you consider that this is the series that brought us Hamsterdam. Oh well, their loss.
But more so than even Hamsterdam, the homeless murders scheme was a bad idea that had tragic reverberations, too. For starters, it really didn’t accomplish what it was intended to accomplish: The wire tap afforded by the extra money landed Marlo and crew behind bars, as hoped, but it couldn’t keep them there because it was easily exposed as illegal. And if the city didn’t have so much on Levy, it would have fallen apart to an even more serious degree. As it is, Marlo goes free and Chris gets sent up the river, which probably would have happened anyway based on Bunk’s hard-nosed police work (Though the labwork on the incriminating DNA evidence was McNulty-sponsored.) McNulty’s scheme also results in two more bodies from a copycat killer—a loon who’s railroaded into taking responsibility for the others, too—as well as a lot of wasted man-hours and a ripple effect that he doesn’t even realize. You can easily see how the homeless murders nonsense trickles down to say, Dukie, who is left to “the outdoors” forever as a result of a series of events stemming from it. (And man, how devastating were those scenes with Dukie and Prezbo? Prezbo sees the situation clearly—he’s no longer the naïf that he was when he started the job—and yet he arranges to give Dukie the money anyway, knowing with near-certainty that the kid is lost to the streets forever.)
The main effect of the homeless murders, though, is to get us right back where we started: In a system so paralyzed by corruption that even the good-intentioned, principled people within it cannot function. The massive cover-up of the murders in City Hall and at the Sun might seem outlandish, but it’s all been worked out to where everyone has to bottle up: If Rawls doesn’t talk, he gets a plum job at the statehouse. If Daniels decides to blab, then he takes down his lover and his ex-wife, and he loses his shot at being Police Commissioner. The Stanfield case can’t go to trial or else the dirt behind an illegal tap and a non-existent “source of information” gets exposed, and maybe more with a little digging. And I’ve already gotten into what Templeton’s fantasies might have cost the Sun. The whole plot has been ingeniously devised to maintain the status quo, and ensure that the system remains broken indefinitely.
You could say that the cyclical nature of the show is a bit too neatly drawn: Michael is the new Omar, Leandor is the new McNulty, Dukie is the new Sherrod (and later in life, the new Bubbles), Kenard is the new Marlo, Slim is the new Prop Joe, and so on… And yet all these developments have been carefully planned and subtly executed, and we’re left in the end with a show that has let us see every cog in the great machine. I’d submit that no movie would have the time to do this, and no television show has had the ambition and the vision to lay it all out for us. For that, I’ll always view The Wire with gratitude and awe.
• Be sure to check out my interview with Simon tomorrow and Kyle Ryan’s interview with Michael K. Williams (a.k.a. “Omar”) on Tuesday. The Simon interview only scratches the surface—I’d have needed four or five hours to go as deep as I’d have liked—but the scratches are pretty deep. The man speaks in essays (and pretty much reduced yours truly to an inarticulate puddle of goo).
• Boy, I’d be lying to you if I said it didn’t feel good to see Cheese get his. And I don’t know if I’ve laughed harder this season than at the line that follows: “That sentimental motherfucker just cost us money.”
• What a brilliant ending for Marlo. There’s just no way the guy can leave “the game” behind him and become a businessman, despite his “been there, done that” posing. The spectacle of him bullying those kids off the corner revealed just what a narrow thinker he’s been from the beginning. He knows no more about getting from Baltimore to the rest of the world than Dukie and Cutty. All he knows is “the game” and his wounded pride, and he sets about restoring it in an expensive suit.
• It was also nice to see redemptive endings for Bubbles and McNulty, perhaps the two main heroes of the show. The groundwork for Bubbles’ ascension had been laid all season, but it really seemed right up to the final episode that McNulty was going to jail or worse. The fake-out Irish wake was particularly enjoyable for me to watch, given the message-board trolls falsely trumpeting McNulty’s suicide, but circumstances conspire quite logically to leave him in a good place in the end. Now that he’s not doing real police work, Jimmy can save his marriage and set about being a decent guy—or at least less a sonofabitch than before.
• There was a lot of complaining last week about Kima ratting out McNulty and Lester. I’m surprised to see so many people bothered by her decision not to close rank, and I was gratified that McNulty and Lester themselves were ultimately understanding about Kima’s actions. Well-intentioned as it was, the homeless murders scheme was the height of madness and it was up to a conscientious cop like Kima to blow the whistle. She shouldn’t be condemned for it, unless you want to condemn Randy for snitching, too.
• Thanks everybody for keeping the boards so lively this season. In addition to your usual insights on the finale and the season as a whole, I’d love to hear your favorite Wire moments, too.