It’s my pleasure, dear readers, to welcome you to The House Next Door’s coverage of the final season of The Wire. Having been asked to recap the conclusion of perhaps the most substantial TV drama ever (only The Sopranos comes close) is a privilege—the equivalent of writing, in the Victorian era, weekly assessments of the closing installments of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities or Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? as they were serialized. The Wire is not an easy show to write about in this context. I’ve seen two-thirds of this season’s episodes, and unlike many other serialized dramas, episode-to-episode continuity on this one is so tight that it becomes hard to separate one chapter from the next. Rest assured that I’ll avoid all spoilers for as-yet-unaired episodes in my recaps and will keep my focus on the installment at hand. Any speculation about future events will be just that.
Notwithstanding the numerous references to Chris and Snoop’s accumulated corpses having been discovered “last year” in the abandoned rowhouses, it’s pretty clear that about 15 months have passed since season four ended with “Final Grades”, in which the discovery of the bodies in late December 2006 took the air out of an apparent decline in the city’s murder rate. “More With Less” begins in March, 2008, under ironic circumstances—the shoddy state of Baltimore’s schools, documented in great detail in season four, has led Baltimore’s mayor, Tommy Carcetti, to divert every possible cent toward education, leaving the police department gasping for air.
While The Wire has a long history of presenting us with sympathetic criminals—Proposition Joe, Stringer Bell, D’Angelo Barksdale and so on—there has never been a doubt that, at the end of the day, it’s the police who are generally in the right. Series creator David Simon challenges this belief in the opening scene by having Bunk Moreland, Ed Norris and Jay Landsman, three of the most consistently engaging cops, extract a confession via the sort of underhanded tactics that Simon documented in his book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, but which were seldom used on the TV version because they would have made it hard to root for Frank Pendleton, Tim Bayliss et al. Indeed, Simon goes so far as to have Bunk paraphrase Adolf Hitler, who wrote in Mein Kampf that:
“The great masses of the people in the very bottom of their hearts tend to be corrupted rather than consciously and purposely evil, and that, therefore, in view of the primitive simplicity of their minds they more easily fall a victim to a big lie than to a little one…Such a falsehood will never enter their heads and they will not be able to believe in the possibility of such monstrous effrontery and infamous misrepresentation in others.”
It’s a scene that’s as chilling as it is entertaining, though it also features one of The Wire’s rare diversions into the realm of the “overclose”: Norris’ statement that “Americans are a stupid people by and large—we pretty much believe whatever we’re told”, an observation that also echoes the Führer. However, Simon isn’t attempting to demonize the cops—if he was, the perp who “Professor” Landsman hooks up to the copier wouldn’t be such a dullard. Given the role that the media plays in this season, Bunk and Norris’ observations serve as a declaration of a theme that we can expect to see reflected in all of the season’s storylines.
Also entertaining yet depressing is the return of Jimmy McNulty’s alcoholic “McNutty” persona, which has given us some of the series’s funniest and most memorable moments (such as the vice sting mentioned by Dozerman, which took place during the second season). McNulty’s return to uniform duty (and his decision to shack up with Beady) at the end of season three seemed like a sincere conversion, but I don’t think McNulty’s tumble from the wagon represents creative backsliding on Simon’s part (or an attempt to placate fans who complained about McNulty’s diminished role during Season Four): The bureaucratic obstacles he faces in his quest to bring Marlo, Chris and Snoop to justice could drive anyone to drink.
On a similar note, while it’s ostensibly a positive development to see that Bubbles is now clean and sober—and has apparently been so for more than a year—his circumstances are hardly uplifting. He’s living with a sister who still doesn’t trust him, and he faces temptation on every corner he passes on his way home at night. While The Wire is one of the most plot-dense series, the secret to its success is the ease with which it enables us to think of the characters as real people. Bubbles, having been based on a real-life addict and stoolie by the same name, has always been especially vivid (for which the astonishing Andre Royo deserves as much credit as Simon and his fellow writers), and the grim particulars of his situation make it hard to celebrate his sobriety as a triumph. No reference is made to Bubbles having accidentally killed Sherrod with the hot shot last season, but it’s clear that the only reason Bubs is staying clean is because of the massive guilt he feels for having accidentally taken the life of his protégé.
Quite nearly as disheartening are the glimpses we catch of Michael and Dukie, who have apparently been absorbed into Marlo’s drug business past the point of no return (though Michael is obviously shielding Dukie to the best of his ability). Despite his tutelage under Marlo, Chris and Snoop, Michael still has traces of a soul, and it will be very interesting to see how he chooses to play the game—he’s clearly smarter than Marlo (who’s no dummy, but whose intelligence definitely has its limits), and at this point he could grow up to be a nonviolent, negotiation-oriented player a la Prop Joe or String as easily as he could fit the ruthless mold of Marlo or Avon Barksdale.
Marlo may be more inclined to use lethal force than Prop Joe, but he’s still all business, as we see when he pulls a fast one on one of his retail dealers to get a better split for himself, as well as when he dupes the cops into thinking he’s having a tryst at a motel when he’s in fact attending a meeting of Prop Joe’s co-op. Indeed, Marlo may be taking on more business than he can handle—in addition to running the west side and obviously plotting to replace Prop Joe as Baltimore’s top wholesaler (hence Chris’s trip to the courthouse to look up the file on Sergei Malatov, the Russian McNulty put away in season two, who has ties to Joe’s supplier, “the Greek”), he still has to avoid the investigation into Chris and Snoop’s murder spree. And then there’s the little matter of seeking revenge on Omar.
What Marlo doesn’t have the perspective to realize is how close he is to complete victory: With the two forces that are ostensibly intended to be the most powerful defenders of the public interest—law enforcement and the local press—both reeling from budget cuts, he’s like a fox scoping out a henhouse that he has no way of realizing is unguarded. His actions at the co-op meeting suggest that while he’s on the verge of attaining massive power, he has absolutely no clue how to use that power effectively. If he makes a premature attempt at controlling the game without a mentor or consiglieri as canny as Joe, String or Butchie in his corner, Marlo stands an excellent chance of becoming his own worst enemy.
Each season of The Wire has introduced us to a different Baltimore institution, and for the final season Simon has chosen the Sun, where he spent twelve years as a reporter. Our POV character is city editor Gus Haynes, played by Clark Johnson, who was so brilliant on Homicide as detective Meldrick Lewis. Johnson has had an illustrious career as a TV director in the years since Homicide ended its run (in addition to having helmed the very first episode of The Wire in 2002, he also directed the series finale), and it’s a treat to see him act again. The strong parallels between the situations at police HQ and at the Sun offices make it clear that Simon has an almost evangelical belief in the press as a guardian of the public, and the picture he paints of the current state of the industry is by no means a pretty one. Every time the paper tries to save money by, say, making do without a transit reporter, it takes a step further away from its mission to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”, as an industry maxim puts it. Newspapering is about the kind of fleet-footed analysis that exposes the city council president’s quid pro quo with the drug dealer/titty bar impressario at the last second. Unfortunately, defending the public interest isn’t customarily a path to bigtime profitability, as we see when the Sun’s head honcho mandates that any coverage of race at the University of Maryland should reach a predetermined conclusion (intriguingly, the scene represents a thinly-veiled jab at legendary newspaperman Gene Roberts, who, like the “Gene Robbins” referred to in the episode, is a former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer who is presently a professor of journalism at U-Md.).
Although Haynes only turns up at the episode’s halfway point, his blend of cynicism and passion and his commitment to his profession instantly establish him as a classic Wire character, and it’s a constant joy to see him interact with the remaining Sun lifers who have yet to take buyouts (many of whom, I understand, are played by former Sun colleagues of Simon’s, much as officers such as Western District commander Dennis Mello are played by former real life Baltimore cops). Simon has said that once season five of The Wire has concluded, he’ll have said all he has to say about Baltimore, law enforcement and every other subject the series has touched on. It’s too bad he feels that way, as a series built around Haynes would pretty much instantly become the best-ever TV drama about the newspaper world, leaving Lou Grant et al. far behind in the dust. Still, ten episodes involving the fictionalized Sun are much better than nothing, and by weaving the press into his grand urban tapestry, Simon ensures that the richest portrait of city life in the medium’s history is now all the more complete.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.