"It ain't a side of a story,
it's just a lie"—Terry
In "Clarifications", one of the most seismic events of The Wire's entire run—you know what I'm talking about—is treated surprisingly casually and accorded less build-up than the deaths of a zillion other characters over the years. Perhaps more than any other incident this season, the death of Omar calls attention to the delicate balancing act David Simon has assigned himself.
Other HBO series that have been allowed to run their full course—Six Feet Under and The Sopranos—also generally featured season-long story arcs, but theirs were customarily looser than those on The Wire, making it easier for creators to provide closure on several seasons of continuity while simultaneously wrapping up the business at hand. The extent to which the fake serial killer plot has polarized The Wire's fan base suggests that even if Simon has a satisfying ending to the current story up his sleeve, some fans will complain that he didn't pay enough attention to resolving the big picture. On the other hand, if the final two episodes dwell heavily on tying up loose ends and escorting characters to their final fates while ending the current story arc in a somewhat perfunctory manner, half the audience could walk away feeling as if they'd spent a whole season having their chains jerked.
When commentators compared The Wire to fiction, they often pick the sprawling, society-spanning novels of Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope as their reference points. But the technique of giving each season its own theme has a more immediate antecedent, series crime fiction, and it may be useful to look at The Wire through that lens. The shift in tone between Season Five and its predecessors has attracted a lot of criticism, but such shifts are fairly common between volumes of, say, Ed McBain's 87th Precinct mysteries (where the vibe could be more serious or less depending on which regular cast served as a given book's protagonist) or George Pelecanos' Dimitri Karras/Marcus Clay novels, where the atmosphere fluctuated depending on the year the novel was set and how old the characters were at the time (this is also the case with Walter Moseley's Easy Rawlins mysteries). Of course, none of the above examples have as much inter-series continuity as The Wire. Simon may not be venturing into unexplored territory as The Wire closes, but he is trying to do the sort of alpha/omega reconciliation that can make or break the reputation of a writer—or a series.
"Clarifications" is concerned first and foremost with resolving the story at hand, and at that level it's surely one of the season's best episodes. But there are also lots of character florishes that subtly point toward the series' ultimate resolution, making it an episode worth reappraising after we see how everything finally plays out.
Despite the earnest intentions behind McNulty's scam, he's often appeared to be having the time of his life as he manufactures evidence and dupes his bosses. This week, however, the chickens come home to roost. So far, we've mostly seen him dealing with peers and subordinates during his investigation, never having to deal with anyone who ranks higher than Jay Landsman, who has never seemed terribly concerned with the particulars of murders as long as the clearance rate is high enough to keep him out of trouble. As the episode begins, McNulty is being grilled by the full departmental brass, including Rawls and Daniels, and it's soon clear the heat may be more than he can take. "I'm all for a little kinky shit every now and then...", says Rawls, whose colleagues might not laugh so hard at the wisecrack if they knew of the bars he frequents. Rawls is an asshole no matter how you slice it, but the scene also reminds us that he's a damn good cop and, potentially, a more effective commissioner than Daniels might be. Baltimore's black power brokers would balk at a white commissioner, we've been told more than once, but incumbency is a strong weapon, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him hold onto the job as the series ends—though of course it all depends on how and when he learns the truth about McNulty, and what he chooses to do about it.
The frustration that Dukie displayed when asking Cutty how to escape his situation has solidified into rigid determination, as we learn when we see him doggedly looking for work. Dukie's visit to a sneaker store leads to the return of a familiar face: Bodie's old running mate Poot, who claims to have gone straight because he just got tired of life on the corners (he conveniently neglects to mention that he's done time in Jessup since his last appearance). Poot says he'd like to help Dukie but couldn't hire him even if there was an opening because he's just too young for the job, then hilariously suggests that Dukie resume slinging rock until he's old enough for legit employment. That might deter a lesser kid, but Dukie keeps forging on until he gets what could be the lowest-level gig in town, helping an old-school junkman who collects scrap metal in a horse-drawn cart. As we saw with the end of Season Three and with Namond's fate at the end of Season Four, Simon isn't above handing out happy endings when he feels like it, and I sure as heck hope Dukie survives Episode 60 with his dignity intact—if not, his perseverance could end up seeming an exercise in audience manipulation rather than an example of a determination we would all do well to emulate.
It's been fascinating to see (and attempt to predict) how various characters respond to McNulty's ruse when they learn the truth about it. I was sure he was going to spill the beans to Carver when he approaches him at the Western for help getting the manpower Lester needs to go after Marlo. Certainly, Carver is among those I'd expect to react the most negatively to the hoax. If the ruse ends the careers of McNulty, Freamon and others (as seems very likely), at least there's a competent crop of successors waiting in the wings. We've already seen Carver display strong leadership this season, but it was a treat to see Syndor in action as a field general. He's clearly turning into the cop that Lester could have been if he hadn't been exiled to the pawn show division for all those years. In any event, given the well-documented parallels between Kima and McNulty, I didn't expect her to react quite so vehemently to the truth, though I suppose her famous diligence should have tipped me off. Lester's indulgence counts for a lot, but with Bunk, Kima and Beadie all lined up against him, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see McNulty pull the plug on his scam early in the next episode and then spend the remainder of the series trying to get the genie back in the bottle.
Tommy Carcetti is usually portrayed as a pretty sharp guy, but it was colossally stupid of him to only visit white politicians in Prince George's County, and even dumber of Norman Wilson to have let him do so: According to Wikipedia, the population of PG County was 62.7% African American as of 2005, and with a percentage like that you can be sure that black folks have been the dominant ethnic group there for many years now. It's a mistake that would have been inconceivable in real life but which makes sense as a plot device to force Carcetti into bed with Clay Davis and Nerese Campbell. The payoff is one of my favorite Wire moments ever: Carcetti telling Davis, "It scares me to think what damage you could do with two votes on the liquor board." Davis laughs his ass off in response, but the mayor obviously wasn't kidding.
I'm going to skip over the issue of the intriguing scene in which Lester Freamon blackmails Davis—as well as, basically, everything that goes down at the Sun—because so much of it is setup for the last two episodes and is relatively hard to evaluate independently. This leaves us, of course, with the most discussion-worthy element of the episode, the death of Omar Little. There are many thematic ways to interpret his unglamorous death, including the possibility that it's a critique, a la David Chase, of audience bloodlust. I don't think that's the case: For all its grit, The Wire has always been much more inclined than The Sopranos to give viewers what they want. As noted in this comments thread, his death evokes the killings of Jesse James and "Wild" Bill Hickok in ways that speak to the underlying nature of the entire series.
At first, I was a little annoyed that Omar's death slipped through the cracks at the Sun in the same way that the killings of Prop Joe and Hungry Man did—yeah, I thought, we get it, the point's been made: the folks at the Sun, even Gus, have no clue what's really happening in Baltimore. Upon further reflection, this made me realize something interesting: Simon admirably resisted the temptation to add a stand-in for himself to the fictional Sun staff—if he had, there would have been a reporter who knew full well what Omar's death meant (in the behind-the-scenes book The Wire: Truth Be Told, Simon described the struggle he experienced when he fought his bosses—successfully—to be allowed to publish an obituary for the real-life Bubbles). The episode ends with a curious scene in which the medical examiner switches the tag on Omar's body with that of another corpse (which sort of looks like it could be the body of prosecutor Gary DiPasquale). The scene plays as if the ME isn't quite sure that the body is Omar's and is trying to verify his ID somehow; as I pointed out in a comment predating this recap, the tag clearly gives Omar's age as 47, a flat-out impossibility that contradicts the statement earlier in the episode that he's supposed to be 34. It could just have been a production goof (one exacerbated by how long the director let the shot linger), but I couldn't help thinking about what deeper meaning there could be to the authorities having contradictory info about Omar on file.
The first thing that came to mind is the possibility that the contradiction is supposed to indicate Omar's metamorphosis from a man into a legend, a transformation made obvious long ago when we saw kids arguing for the right to "be" him in their game of cops and robbers (or vigilantes and dealers, rather). We haven't seen much evidence yet of Prop Joe undergoing a similar transformation, but it's not hard to see it happening if Marlo's business strategies inspire nostalgia for a more peaceful time. Over the course of The Wire's run, as we've seen the destructive effects of "progress" on the urban middle class in all manner of ways, the series has been described by many as a eulogy for a dying way of life.
But what Simon could be doing—which sounds very similar but isn't quite the same thing—is illustrating the process by which the present becomes history and history becomes myth. Much as the culture of the camp on Deadwood is so different from our own as to make that series sometimes seem like it took place on another planet rather than merely in another time period, the Baltimore of 2002-08 is going to seem so different to the Marylanders of 2064 as to appear legitimately alien. Calling The Wire an elegy implies that the passage of everything it depicts is worthy of mourning, and that's clearly not the case. Simon's brand of storytelling is so close up that this might take a few years to become apparent, but The Wire just might be the equivalent of a series that, by focusing on forgotten people and mundane events, illustrates how the decadent prerevolutionary French state began turning into the unrecognizable industrial nation that it had become by the end of the 20th century.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.