By Andrew Johnston
"... the life of kings."----H. L. Mencken
The moment it was announced that the Baltimore Sun would factor into the final season of The Wire, it should have been obvious that the series would end with an episode called "-30-". In addition to being the slug used inside the business to mark the end of a news article (Wikipedia tells us it's an Arabic-numeral conversion of "XXX", which was used to signify the end of telegrams during the Civil War), it's also the name of a 1959 film directed by and starring Jack Webb that I've never seen but which, according to one of my journalism-school instructors (a very Gus Haynes-like guy, come to think of it) is a bottomless trove of sentimental clichés about the newspaper trade--and a film that reporters love to watch in large groups mock the bejeezus out of when they're all liquored up.
Some people, I dare say, will claim that The Wire's final episode offers as unrealistic a picture of the news biz as Webb's movie, and I'll admit that basically none of the Sun action worked for me at all. That being the case, I was relieved and pleasantly surprised that the Sun played a relatively small role in the episode when both the title and the opening quote (from the paper's most celebrated alumnus, speaking about his profession) invoke the world of journalism. For the most part, "-30-" is devoted to resolving the story of McNulty's fake serial killer and to the business of steering the characters toward the rest of their lives, and it succeeds admirably at both.
It didn't occur to me until my second time through the episode, but one of the main reasons why "-30-" works so well is its narrow focus: With most of the Omar/Marlo/Snoop/Chris plot business out of the way, the satirical tone that David Simon has been aiming for all season in McNulty's plot came across more clearly than ever before. I'm really glad: Several weeks ago, I predicted that McNulty would more or less skate as a matter of bureaucratic necessity, but the seemingly-universal consensus that the story could only end with McNulty going to jail had left me worried that the ending I predicted would be one it'd be hard for Simon to sell to the audience. Clearing the decks accomplishes this, in addition to giving the whole episode a welcome sense of cohesion by ensuring that what's left of the Marlo plot is more tightly connected to the other stories than everything involving his gang has been thus far this season. Indeed, the only stuff that really feels extraneous are the scenes featuring Bubbles, Michael and Dukie, which, while very fine, largely revisit the territory covered in last week's episode and make many of the same points, often less elegantly. While I liked the relaxed pace of "-30-", there's little doubt that it could easily have been converted into a regular-length episode without losing much of its substance.
The episode gets rolling with one of Aiden Gillien's funniest-ever scenes—which, given the number of spectacular tantrums we've seen Carcetti pitch since he's been on the show, is saying a lot. Between episodes, Rawls, Norman Wilson and Mike Steintorf were apparently clued in to the truth by Daniels and Pearlman, sparing us a bunch of potentially repetitive scenes and increasing the impact of Carcetti's reaction by cutting right to it. The scene is only slightly marred by a detour into the dreaded land of the Overclose (something that happens three or four times in the episode) when Wilson observes that McNulty was doing the same thing that Carcetti's team was by using the homeless issue to (hopefully) vault him to Annapolis. Like Rawls, intriguingly, Wilson seems convinced that the scam was all about the OT and not about putting away Marlo.
Be that as it may, Carcetti having posed for the cameras with the drugs and money seized last week is, more than anything, what motivates the cover-up: Having nothing come of the bust would not only keep Carcetti from becoming governor but it would make him a national laughing stock to boot (at least that's how it seems as the episode begins—ultimately, the bust basically does go up in smoke and Carcetti emerges just fine).
Daniels knows that McNulty and Freamon are good police, but despite his years of experience with them, he's not at all inclined to cut them slack over the scam. It seems pretty clear this is because the scam genuinely offends his sense of decency. Pearlman, however, is only really incensed when it becomes clear how much she stands to lose if the truth comes out. When she crosses paths with Lester, however, she doesn't have the chance to blow her stack at him before he lets her know that Gary DiPasquale has copped to being the courthouse rat. I thought DiPasquale surrendered to Lester a little too easily, which—like the lack of other plausible suspects who could have been behind the leak—made this aspect of the plot feel a little undercooked.
The cover-up finally clicks into place when Steintorf and Rawls have a conversation setting up what Wilson calls a "road to Damascus" moment for Rawls. I'm sure I can't be the only Wire fan who thought Steintorf would prevail by letting Rawls he's seen him in gay bars; indeed, we see Rawls checking out a woman at the beginning of their conversation, presumably as a knee-jerk ass-covering maneuver. Instead, Steintorf offers to broker Rawls' appointment as the head of Maryland's state police if he'll play along. Since Rawls is no dummy, he swiftly agrees—doing so not only ensures his future but also guarantees that Daniels, and not he, will take the fall if everything goes south.
I couldn't help being amused by Dukie's encounter with Marcia Donnelly, the assistant principal of his old school, since I had something similar happen to me in high school—as a kid, you don't realize just how many students people like her deal with, so it's easy to assume you'll be recognized when you go back to your old school, and it can be confusing and disappointing when you're not. While she doesn't recognize Dukie, that's not a problem when Prez makes his farewell appearance. To my surprise, I had a muted, mixed response to seeing him—it's hard to tell if he's become a good teacher since season four, or if he's just turned into someone who knows how the system works and has resigned himself to it. If the latter is the case, he's not so jaded that he's unwilling to give Dukie the money he asks for.
I was dearly hoping that Dukie would sign up for the GED course for real, and hugely disappointed when he didn't. I might not have responded that way on my first viewing had I been watching the episode on a bigger TV—the set I watched it on made it hard to see the wear and tear on his face. After Prez drops him off and his boss, amazed at Dukie's success, observes that "teacher must love your black ass", I of course knew Dukie was doomed (he withholds $150, but it's pretty frakking obvious that money ain't going toward the course). By the way, I hope Simon's excessive symbolism w/r/t Dukie's new employer and companion is a coincidence or accident: Not only is he a junkman, but he owns a goddamn horse!
When Templeton makes his attempt at extending the serial killer's run, setting up the confrontation in which McNulty cops to being the one who called him, Matt and I (we watched the episode together) both found ourselves wondering if the episode was going to into a realm of satire even darker than we thought possible by having McNulty frame the reporter for the non-murders. Certainly, that would completely cement the Alan Sepinwall school of thought about McNulty having crossed into bad guy territory when he shanghaied the homeless man to Richmond. Personally, I would have been delighted if Simon had gone there—it would have given Templeton his just desserts (in a manner, granted, that would be grossly disproportionate to his sins), and it would have been a huge display of creative balls. When it first occurred to me that McNulty might escape unpunished because everyone above him has so much to lose, I envisioned the level of satire being ratched up to the Network level, and having McNulty railroad Templeton would have fit with that perfectly. Instead, it's the copycat killer who gets framed—though not really, since he did kill two people. Although McNulty has their blood on his hands (assuming they wouldn't have died if the hoax wasn't in effect), the resolution is a bit on the tidy side—and, unfortunately, it allows for the heavy-handed final resolution of the Sun plot.
Almost everything about the end of the Sun story left me dubious and frustrated. As we discussed the episode afterwards, Matt said that Gus getting punished for his accusations against Templeton is the kind of thing that happens in the real world all the time. Presumably he wasn't fired because his union would have raised a stink; still, demoting him to the copy desk seems like a punishment better suited to the military or to high school than to the professional world. Obviously, Gus's claims would instantly be proven true if a powerful figure outside the paper who'd been burned was willing to step forward. Conveniently, Daniels and McNulty have both been forced to resign at this point (and the city official who came off as being smarter than he is thanks to Templeton certainly wouldn't dis him), so apart from the homeless veteran, the only people with reason to suspect Templeton all work at the paper.
What this means, then, is that every single person we've met who's on Gus' side and who has doubts about Templeton—including the Metro, Regional Affairs and State editors, who are all at least Gus' equal on the masthead and some of whom may be above him on the food chain—every single one of them is a wuss who's so scared of losing his or her job that they're willing to let Gus take the fall. This isn't an implausible scenario, but it does conflict with the established characterizations of a number of Sun characters, most notably Regional Affairs editor Rebecca Corbett. In my decade-plus as a professional journalist, I've seen a lot of people compromise their principles in order to stay employed, but never have I seen so many people compromise so much. At the risk of seeming terminally naïve, I have to ask if things are really that much worse in the newspaper world than they are in the magazine biz (and now that I've raised the question, I'm sure more than one person will provide evidence in the comments below that yes, things are that bad). The story obviously ended the way it did because of the point that Simon (pictured above in a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Hitchcock-style cameo this episode) wanted to make. Surely, after the episode is over, Alma's going to write her way out of Carroll County, Gus will triumphantly reclaim his old job, and Whiting, Klebanow and Templeton will all have to make like Janet Cooke and return their prizes...right? My desperate longing for that to be so just proves how good Simon is at creating believable characters of a sort you don't often see on TV; much of that believability is based on observations Simon could only make if he was the kind of reporter whose excellence this season sentimentalizes.
A one-hour cut of "-30-" probably wouldn't have room for as many Maury Levy scenes, and I really wish we'd gotten more of him throughout the series after seeing him prove his smarts by deducing what's wrong with the case against Marlo. While he's fundamentally a scumbag and we've seen him salivating over the billable hours he can rack up when his clients do dumb things, he's a straight shooter insofar as we've never seen him proactively rip off his clients. When he takes Marlo to meet the room full of power brokers, I initially assumed he was going to do Marlo what Clay Davis did to Stringer Bell, but his conduct in the scene left me convinced that he was legitimately trying to help Marlo invest his money. Levy doesn't need to rip off Marlo: As he points out to Herc, having gotten Marlo off the hook is going to guarantee him more new business than he can handle, and there's never going to be a shortage of dealers in Baltimore—as Cheese points out to Slim Charles et al., it's the kind of town where anyone who sells drugs and doesn't have $900,000 lying around basically has to be a complete idiot (and was it just me or was Cheese's final exit, in the middle of a pretentious speech, reminiscent of Samuel L. Jackson's death scene in Deep Blue Sea?).
Of the scenes wrapping up plots that were already basically wrapped up last week, Marlo's coda was the only one that felt both interesting and necessary. After learning in "Late Editions" that Omar was calling him out, he felt a burning need to assert his alpha-dog bona fides, and while he's surely relieved to have skated, being forced out of the game is a very bitter pill for him to swallow. At that cocktail party with Levy, he's uncomfortable as hell and can instantly see it's a world he'll never belong to. When he goes onto the street looking for a fight and confronts the corner boys trading stories about Omar (his death has now been mythologized to the level of the gunfight at the OK Corral), he's further emasculated when they dismiss him as a pussy because he's wearing a suit. When Marlo asks "Do you know who I am?", it's clear that nothing is more important to him than responding to Omar's use of his name, even though Omar's out of the picture. When Chris shot Prop Joe a few weeks ago, Matt observed that the look on Marlo's face was akin to a kid torturing an animal who thinking "that's interesting—I didn't think it'd react that way", and when Marlo sustains a bloody arm wound and shows no sign of pain, he reacts similarly—as if he's thinking "that's interesting—I didn't think it'd feel like this." (On the subject of Omar's death, even as the myth of his theatrical demise grows, we see detective Michael Crutchfield taking Kenard into custody for the shooting. Obviously Kenard is too young to serve serious time, but the case is nonetheless officially closed and the ID of Omar's killer is a matter of public record, at least unless Kenard's age causes the file to be sealed. I don't think it's a stretch to speculate that people on the street would dismiss the truth as a conspiracy theory if they heard it).
Much of the last 20 minutes was unapologetic fan service, which in this case was by no means a bad thing. McNulty isn't as original or complex a character as Omar, D'Angelo Barksdale and other creations of Simon's, but thanks to Dominic West's charisma, he's become one of the most memorable and engaging characters in the history of the medium, and Jay Landsman's speech at the "wake" is a wonderful tribute to him, one which truly captures everything that makes McNulty the rogue we love. The wake revealed that with 30 years on the force, Lester 's going to get his pension, while McNulty, with just 13 years under his belt, has no such luck. I've assumed Lester to presently be in his mid-50s (Clarke Peters will shortly turn 56), and his tenure together with his age bolster my belief that he's a college graduate, which I suspect would have been rare for any rookie cop in the mid-'70s regardless of race. Dominic West is 39 this year, and if that's McNulty's age too, I think it's safe to assume that after high school, he might have spent time in the military and then fucked around for a few years before joining the force. If he continued his education past high school, I'm inclined to believe he either got a two-year community college degree or went to a less-than-great four-year school and dropped out.
The long concluding sequence veered into oversell territory again with Michael's stick up scene, though that may be excusable since his transformation into the "new Omar" was less telegraphed than Dukie's metamorphosis into the Bubbles of his generation. Still, something about it seemed almost comic-booky, as if Omar's mantle was something that gets passed around like the superhero IDs that get passed from one generation to the next in the DC Universe (I've long since lost track of how many DC heroes have used the name Starman, for instance), which seems ever so slightly to make Omar seem less unique. Similarly, Dukie's shooting-up scene in the montage retroactively stole some power from his heartbreaking final exchange with Michael last week.
Bubbles' final scenes also felt a little redundant after his stunning turn at the NA podium last week, but upon further reflection they do offer some substance—it was moving to see him sit down at the dinner table with his sister and niece after all the shit his sis has made him eat, and we also got a better sense of his physical transformation. Andre Royo looks fantastic with the short 'fro he sports here, and his body language also vividly expresses how far Bubs has come. I also really liked his last scene with Walon, in which they contemplate the quote from Kafka, a writer neither of them has actually read. And while I'm sure there must be an example from an earlier season that's slipping my mind, I almost wonder if the scene was the first time that we've actually seen someone chowing down on a crab on this set-in-Maryland series.
Throughout the montage it was hard not to be reminded of the end of Season Three, when Simon took a shot at wrapping things up so as to provide closure in the event of a premature cancellation. Apart from the examples cited above, Simon is about as generous with the happy endings as he was then: Carcetti becomes governor, Rawls gets to lead the state police, Lester gets to enjoy a peaceful retirement with Shardene (who I was thrilled to see again), McNulty appears to settle down with Beadie, Ricardo Hendrix and Slim Charles take over the connect (and presumably revert to a business model akin to the New Day Co-Op), Pearlman rises to the bench, Nerese Campbell becomes mayor...and, best of all, Stan Valcek becomes the commissioner of police. The sequence also features the return of Wee-Bay, who appears to hit it off famously in prison with Chris, the member of Marlo's organization who takes the hardest blow (by the way, earlier in the episode there's a bit of a continuity error with Chris's previous bust—Levy says it happened in 2004, which would put it during season three, not Season Four).
The sequence reprises Blind Boys of Alabama's cover of Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole" that played under the opening credits of Season One. It's interesting to think about the song in the context of this final montage as opposed to the series' traditionally downbeat credits sequences. I've been a big Waits fan since high school and purchased Franks Wild Years (the album that introduced "Way Down in the Hole") the week it was released in 1987, less than a month before I first left home for college. Even so, I never got around to properly figuring out the story behind the song cycle (billed on the album as "un operachi romantico in two acts"), which originated as a Steppenwolf Theater production directed by Gary Sinise that ran in Chicago and off-Broadway in New York in the summer of 1986.
It turns out that "Way Down in the Hole" was an outtake from the play, a song that never found its way into the musical-theater piece and got shoehorned onto the album. In the program book for the concert tour which followed the release of the album (the tour more or less documented in Big Time), Waits offered the flimsiest context for the song: "Checkerboard Lounge gospel. Here, Frank has thrown in with a berserk evangelist." At the amazingly thorough website The Tom Waits Library, the annotated lyrics to each song are accompanied by a list of known covers. Most of the songs on Franks Wild Years can claim five or six recorded covers; "Way Down in the Hole" has 22 and counting.
It's not hard to see why it's been so enduring: The fearsome energy of Waits' original studio version lets it work for secular listeners as a slam-bang snapshot of a world on the brink, the particulars of the words reach out to an entirely different audience. The lyrics—unvarnished Pentecostal propaganda, an appeal to embrace Jesus or suffer the consequences, to live clean or else—have an appeal that crosses racial and class boundaries. Many of the covers listed are by Christian artists, a large portion of them African-American.
The Wire's cultural mash-ups have been both surprising and convincing (what other show would devise circumstances in which a bunch of black men would sing the Pogues?), and the series' bona fides with African-American viewers have probably done a lot to turn the Waits song into a gospel standard. The imagery that accompanies it here, however, is much different from what we usually get in the show's opening credits. Superficially, the montage can be read as saying "...and so life goes on for the characters you've been following over five seasons." But when images of happiness—Lester and Shardene's domestic bliss, for example—are cheek by jowl with Herc's further descent into corruption and Carcetti's ascent on the basis of untold lies, the lyrics' of Waits song lend the montage a different cast. It becomes more like the one that ended The Sopranos' second season, which intercut scenes of seedy porn stores and street corner addicts with Tony's lavish graduation bash for Meadow. We may like knowing that Lester went unpunished and Daniels and Pearlman's relationship survived the scandal and that their careers continued to flourish; as characters, they are more sympathetic than not, and therefore, to an extent, our surrogates, the people we root for. But you know what? Like Carcetti, Rawls and everyone else, they paid heed to temptation and failed to walk the straight and narrow track (to paraphrase the lyrics), so they're all going to hell (Bubbles, of course, earns a bye as the only one who actually follows the advice of the lyrics).
The sequence flirts with self-indulgence until the very end, when it shifts gears from scenes of Wire characters to shots of average Baltimore people living their daily lives. It's one of the few times in the series when Baltimore comes across as a thriving organism rather than a dying one, and I'd be lying if I didn't say I found it rather exhilarating. As the episode ended, I told Matt that I was sure the haters would compare the last half hour to The Return of the King and say that Simon, like Peter Jackson, served up a few endings too many (for the record, I've always defended Jackson on this count). Only when I took a break for a grocery run in the middle of writing this column did it occur to me that McNulty's final line ("Let's go home") is not far off from the very last line of The Lord of the Rings both on page and onscreen, delivered by Sam Gamgee ("Well, I'm back"). The 150 miles from Baltimore to Richmond are a hell of a lot less than the trek from the Shire to Mordor, and McNulty, unlike Sam, has one last leg of the journey in front of him as The Wire ends. Still, those shots of ordinary people at the end of the long montage represent one of the few times on the series when Baltimore is presented as a place that someone could legitimately miss and could honestly look forward to seeing again. That, more than the muckraking and social commentary, could be the one thing about The Wire that tells us the most about who David Simon really is._____________________________
As of the end of the preceding paragraph, this column was scraping up against the 3500-word mark, and there are still plenty of observations about the episode that I haven't gotten around to making yet. So as not to exhaust the patience of my readers—and so that I don't stay up all night writing another 3500 words—I'm going to bring this to a close. I'd like to thank everyone who's been reading my recaps all season, especially those who've taken part in the discussions in the blog comments here. In addition to calling me out on errors I have no excuse for, you have provided endless food for thought. Your lively comments also forced me to make sure I brought my "A" game every time I sat down at the keyboard and made me feel like a schmuck when I didn't. I'd also like to thank Keith Uhlich for the peerless technical assistance he's provided on all my recapping endeavors at The House Next Door,
as well as the people at HBO who have done so much to make my job and my recapping duties a hell of a lot easier than they might be otherwise. It should also go without saying that I'd like to thank David Simon, Richard Price, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and everyone else who's written an episode of The Wire
for creating such a brilliant piece of collaborative art. Last, but most certainly not least, I'd like to thank Matt for inviting me to write weekly columns about a landmark show's final season.Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.
Recaps of The Wire,
The Sopranos and many other series are collected in the sidebar of this site's main page. To read Andrew Dignan's detailed analysis of the opening credits sequences of Seasons One through Four, click here. To read a transcript of Andrew, Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall debating the relative merits of
The Sopranos and
Deadwood, click here