It’s sometimes easy to talk about The Wire as a cynical show—cynical about institutional malaise, cynical about the motivations of city leaders and other important decision-makers, cynical about how society’s ills perpetuate themselves ad infinitum. But never let it be said that the show’s pessimism is so all-consuming as to lack compassion and heart; on the contrary, The Wire is a modern tragedy, and episodes like tonight’s devastating hour bring home just how much David Simon and his writers care about the people who wriggle under society’s thumb. If its world were populated entirely by scoundrels looking to get ahead—the Carcettis, Marlos, Clay Davises, Levys, and Templetons, for a start—then I doubt the show would have that great an impact. But it’s really about how the greed and corruption of those in power trickle down to the little guy: Innocent middle-school boys who never had a chance, the junkies whose lives are ruined by the drug trade, and everyday citizens who rely on the good reporting to expose tyranny and give them an accurate picture of the world around them. The Wire is a show about institutional failure, to be sure, but it’s above all a show about people, and is thus never as cynical as it seems.
So let’s start with Bubbles. At the end of Season Four, he was left to a fate worse than death, a junkie having to live with his role in the accidental death of his closest companion. This season, he’s been clawing his way back, though the struggle has brought some low and painful moments: He lives in his sister’s basement, but can’t stay there during the day and isn’t allowed upstairs, for fear that he’ll pawn her possessions for drug money. He’s been in recovery, but still seems extremely vulnerable to relapse, in part because he hasn’t been able to grapple with what happened with Sherrod. He came away clean from an AIDS test, but took the news as a cosmic injustice, feeling like he deserved the affliction. It’s very hard to see how a guy like Bubbles could muster the strength to pick himself off the floor at all, but he was a survivor in the streets and he’s a survivor now.
How sweet was it to see Bubbles (pardon me, “Reginald”) celebrate his anniversary, even though his “people” are not yet ready to turn out and support him? And though it’s a very meta device—commenting as it does on the show’s willingness to shine a light on personal stories—I also like that the cub reporter is there to listen to his story. It amplifies it, makes it important as a cautionary tale, and somehow gives Bubbles’ life a sliver of purpose and redemption. And his speech to the group is perfectly measured, well-observed and moving without dipping into cliché or sentiment. His conclusion, “Ain’t no shame in holding onto grief, as long as you make room for other things, too,” seems very wise and progressive.
And then there are the boys, who are fast becoming men before their time. We’ve already gotten a glimpse of Randy, who has basically been forced to accept his hardscrabble surroundings at the group home; and now there’s Namond, easily the most “troubled” of the bunch, delivering an oratory about AIDS in Africa at an event prestigious enough for the mayor to claim victory on education. Here’s what those improved third-grade test scores get you, apparently. Fate dealt Namond an improbably strong hand, and an ironic one, too, given that it’s his failings as a student that brought him to Bunny, who otherwise would have never made his acquaintance. The point being that most children will succeed if put in a position to do so; others don’t have a chance.
In Season Five, we’re left with Michael and Dukie, two of the less fortunate. Last season, Michael had to sell his soul to expel an abusive man from his life, and it was Chris Partlow, who sees much of himself in Michael, who took it. Michael has been a good friend to Dukie, serving as his only muscle protecting him from the corner kids, but fate again has stepped in, driven a wedge between the two, and sent them hurtling toward almost certain tragedy. And with the show’s “everything matters” credo, we can probably place the blame on McNulty if we’d like: After all, it’s his homeless murders scheme that led to the illegal wire tap that leads to the police’s “source of information” that leads to Marlo concluding that no one in his inner circle could know and ordering a hit out on Michael, who hasn’t played the good soldier. Amazing how the trickle-down effect works on this show.
The penultimate episode of every season tends to be where things pay off, and “”Late Editions” brings the hammer down good. The street-savvy Michael knows that Snoop is putting the drop on him, and even though he cleverly turns the tables on her, he’s now forever the target of the city’s most powerful drug kingpin and is resigned to live in the shadows. That leaves us with two absolutely heartbreaking scenes: Michael and Dukie dropping Bug (and a box full of cash) off at a relative’s house in the suburbs, each committed to giving the younger boy opportunities that have evaporated for them. From there, we watch Michael say goodbye to Dukie, who now loses his guardian and has to turn to a far less promising companion in a Bubbles-like junkie who trades in scrap metal. Their exchange is just a beautiful piece of writing—courtesy of George Pelecanos, the last of three straight crime fiction ringers (Richard Price and Dennis Lehane are the others) bringing us home. Of course we as viewers remember the “piss balloons” that introduced us to the boys, but you can forgive Michael for forgetting. Such innocent times seem like another life ago.
Much more in the bullet points…
• How great was it to see Marlo and the gang finally taken down? “A good day for the good guys” indeed. I especially loved Lester’s wordless exchange with the cuffed Marlo—just a look at him, a look at the clock, and a catlike grin.
• Marlo lives! We’ve never gotten much emotion from the mirthless, stone-faced Marlo, but for a guy this devoted to “The Game,” street cred means everything. Omar clearly had the right idea to skulk around the Western, calling Marlo a punk and asking him to step up 2 the streets; had Marlo’s lieutenants not wisely kept this information from their leader, maybe Omar gets the confrontation he desires.
• My favorite minor character this season—the cranky, seen-it-all court reporter played by former newsman and Wire writer Bill Zorzi—gets off another good one in the mayor’s press conference hailing the drug bust. As Carcetti ticks off the usual pandering platitudes, Zorzi whispers “Don’t forget the communities.”
• Gus collects more evidence that Templeton is a fabricator, but he’s not in on the Pulitzer meeting that will win the paper a prize for public service, largely because of Templeton’s scoops. What does it matter if he comes to the brass with the embellished Marine story, the cooked anonymous quote about Daniels’ backstabbing ways, or whatever else he and his cohort dig up? It’s much easier to chalk up Gus’ suspicions as professional jealousy.
• Lester succeeds in squeezing information out of Clay Davis, who’s willing to give it up despite his strong suspicion that Lester doesn’t have a hand to play. Is Clay growing a conscience all of the sudden?
• The jig is up on McNulty’s red ball. Fallout to come...