“We have to do more with less.” These are the most inspiring words that Baltimore Sun executive editor James Whiting (Sam Freed) can offer to his paper’s staff as they face more cutbacks and buyouts, stripping their resources to the bone. So begins the fifth and final season of David Simon’s critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire. Doing “more with less” is what this season is all about, as cutbacks have crippled virtually every institution in the city. In fact, things are so bad that Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) is left stranded with a defective vehicle and is forced to go to a crime scene by bus.
The Wire has always been much more than another “cop show”; it’s less about cops and robbers than about the way cops and robbers, doctors and lawyers, reporters and politicians all fit into the grander scheme of things. The city of Baltimore and, more specifically, the institutions that turn the city’s wheels are the real subjects of the series. Simon’s sprawling vision is not unlike that of documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, whose films attempt to create an uninflected and omniscient view of American institutions by showing, through casual observation, how they do or do not work. Over The Wire’s four previous seasons we’ve watched how each institution affects the others in ways both direct and indirect. It’s like observing the workings of an anthill, with no moralizing over which ant is more worthy than another. This has always been a hallmark of Simon’s work going back to his previous series, Homicide: Life on the Street. While most other crime dramas live in a world of clear-cut morality, The Wire stands outside of it. Seen from a distance, the city’s workings seem cosmically absurd and beyond human intervention.
While previous seasons focused on education, reform, race and class, these final 10 episodes look at the city through the eyes of the media, represented here by a fictional version of the very real Baltimore Sun. Ethics are the order of the day and the main series arc takes ambitious reporter Scott Templeton (Tom McCarthy) to a particularly questionable area. But what is most interesting is not the obvious ethical dilemma itself, but rather the presentation of the media as an insatiable monster that demands to be fed bigger headlines and more sensational stories. The competition from the Internet and declining ad revenue are shown to have created a system where ethics are more easily compromised to feed the beast.
Simon and his writing partner Ed Burns are smart enough to find a bigger theme at the core, the idea that no one really cares unless their hearts and minds are engaged. In the case of the media, this influences them to bury certain stories while sucking the blood dry of others. In the case of the Police Department, this influences which cases get the most attention. Detective McNulty finds that no one in the Police Department cares about his investigation until his colleague Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) reminds him that he has to “sensationalize” his case and “give the people what they want” if he is to get their attention. With the entire city barely functioning from cutbacks, it becomes clear that doing more with less will force many to commit desperate acts.
Like the joke at the beginning of Amazon Women on the Moon, the series features “Lots of Actors,” all of them fantastic. They are given very well crafted material to work with and each of them has made a strong impression throughout all 4 seasons. For fans of the show, there’s plenty of screen time for Bubbles, Bunk Moreland, Clay Davis, Cheese, Snoop, Marlo, Herc, Prop Joe and Omar. But new this season is the character of Sun city editor Augustus Haynes played by sometime Wire director Clark Johnson. Augustus is the fifth season’s moral conscience, a man of strong ethical beliefs surrounded by those who see ethics as yesterday’s news. Johnson plays Augustus as a soft-spoken man who chooses his words carefully. He’s riveting in the role, balancing his strong physical presence with a much more sensitive, subtle and quiet demeanor. Too bad it took four seasons for him to join the cast.
Without the sensational aspects of shows like The Sopranos, and Simon’s iron resolve to be true to his characters and stories in their sheer size and complexity, The Wire has never managed to reach a large audience. Mischievously, Simon seems to have seen this final season as an opportunity to allow his characters to voice his own reasons for telling the story the way he has during the past five years. Lester Freamon’s advice on getting the public’s attention could be seen as Simon’s way of commenting on the fact that The Wire never used such cheap tactics. Arguing against his executive editor’s interest in depicting the lives of the city’s children as “Dickensian,” Augustus Haynes declares: “If you want to look at who these kids really are, you have to look at the parenting or lack of it in the city, the drug culture, the economics of these neighborhoods. It’s like you’re up on the corner of a roof and you’re showing some people how a couple shingles came loose. Meanwhile, a hurricane wrecked the rest of the damn house.”
The Wire has never reduced its stories to a soundbite and this season is no different. Which is why, five seasons in, the series is not going to find much of a new audience now. But Simon can rest assured that he’s created something unique that will last well beyond the confines of its prime time ratings prison. As Augustus Haynes says while pondering which story will get the front page, “I’m interested in what’s true.” The Wire is as true as television gets.