Movie Reviews

Half-Ass TV Review: The Wire – A Post Mortem (Apr 1)

The final episode of The Wire wasn’t greeted with the same publicity as last year’s Sopranos finale. Nor was it met with the same controversy after it was over. But for the loyal fans it was a gripping, frustrating, and occasionally heartwarming end to the best series on television.

An uncompromising drama about Baltimore’s drug war, The Wire never played it safe – neither in subject matter nor story structure. It detailed the ins and outs of a police investigation in minute detail, and showed us all about how a heroin distribution network works. Fan-favorite characters would disappear from the series for long stretches because they didn’t play a role in the story being told. Dominic West, whose McNulty was the focal point of the series up until that point, is almost entirely absent from Season Four. I can’t think of another series that has ever done that for any reason, short of contract difficulties or movie opportunities.

The ten episodes of Season Five were an especially extraordinary accomplishment, as they involved a massive cast of characters, bringing some form of closure to so many of the characters we’d watched for years. Other than Brother Mouzone, every important character from the four previous seasons appeared in some form or another. Not all of them got the endings they deserved, either. Some good people came to bad ends, and some people who earned punishment walked away scot-free.

The most frustrating thing is that the series didn’t need to end. The Wire wasn’t the finite story of a single individual or group of individuals. Oz ended because the individual arcs came to their logical, violent ends. Six Feet Under couldn’t continue when the Fishers went their separate ways. You could argue that The Sopranos didn’t need to end, but once it was established that the Soprano family, for all their talk, was incapable of change, there was a logical conclusion. The Wire was a story about a culture, bigger than any of its characters. And what we saw in the finale was that the culture would continue.

Every season, The Wire used the Tom Waits song “Way Down in the Hole” as its theme song. But each season was a different cover version. That’s The Wire in a nutshell. The singers change, but the song remains the same. Bringing down Avon Barksdale didn’t crush his drug syndicate. Marlo Stanfield stepped in to fill the void. And when Stanfield left the life, Slim Charles rose to the top. Whether it’s Omar or Michael running stick-ups, somebody’s going to be taking those risks. And if it isn’t McNulty giving a damn when it’s not his turn, it’ll be Griggs and Sydnor. I know that makes it sound repetitive, but The Wire was anything but. It’s the players who make all the difference. Stanfield didn’t run his business the way Barksdale did, and Slim Charles won’t emulate either. Sydnor’s going to defy the bosses in order to get justice just like McNulty, only he doesn’t have the same self-destructive tendencies. As long as the drug culture exists, as long as there’s a schism between the bosses and their subordinates, as long as flawed people are capable of greatness, there are stories for The Wire.

The final season was an occasionally maddening experience. After cleaning up and getting his life together, Detective McNulty returned to his old ways. Drinking and cheating, it was horrifying to see him fall apart all over again. And then, pushed to his limit and frustrated at cuts in the department, he created a serial killer. By faking evidence and manipulating bodies, he had the city afraid of killer who molested and murdered the homeless. And when Freamon, the moral compass of the series, went along with it, it was devastating. True, they funneled the extra resources into Freamon’s off-the-books pursuit of Marlo Stanfield, but it just went to show what an honest man will stoop to when pushed to his limit.

In the parallel story of The Baltimore Sun, reporter Scott Templeton spent the season lying, creating his own quotes, and fabricating news stories out of whole cloth. Seen through the eyes of a veteran reporter like Gus Haynes (and by extension, longtime crime reporter and series creator David Simon), Templeton was more loathsome than any dealer or drug fiend we’d come across. Watching honorable people stymied as they tried to expose him was frustrating and painful, and seeing him win a Pulitzer Prize in the final montage provoked rage and frustration.

And those were only two of the myriad stories that weaved through the season. Charismatic thief Omar Little died the most senseless death in a series known for senseless deaths. Teenage Dukey, who gradually came to realize his potential last season, ends up as a junkie, destroying the trust of the one person who believed in him. The politics of the police department’s power structure destroyed many a good man. Proposition Joe, a dealer intent on bringing order to the criminal community, was murdered by somebody he’d grown to trust. And then there was Bubbles. We met him in Season One as a homeless junkie, and for five seasons he’s fought his way back to sobriety, backslid, and fought back again. In the end, Bubbles did something that McNulty never could: He beat his demons. Andre Royo deserves ever Emmy he can get his hands on for his portrayal of a man who’s seen the absolute darkest parts of himself and still manages to push on. The brief scene of Bubbles sitting down to dinner with his sister and his family, to me, made it all worth it. All the careers that were ruined, all the incompetents who were rewarded, none of it mattered next to that man who reclaimed his life and found his dignity.

Maybe that’s the message, in the end. In a world of failure and deceit and violence, it’s possible for somebody to overcome the odds. In the world of The Wire, nobody is truly lost until they decide to be.

There are so many characters I don’t have room to mention. It seems almost offensive not to acknowledge the rock-steady Bunk, or Carver, whose slow maturation from sloppy detective to respected officer is another of the series’ success stories. Daniels and Herc, Cutty and Bunny Colvin, they all lived in this world, lived and breathed in a way that few fictional characters ever do.

As the story of The Wire ends, as David Simon’s Baltimore and all its inhabitants move on into stories that we’ll never see, I can only quote Detective Griggs, as she and her toddler son stare out the window into a world that most of us can only imagine:

Good night moon. Good night stars. Good night po-po’s. Good night fiends. Good night hoppers. Good night hustlers. Good night scammers. Good night to everybody. Good night to one and all.”

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