Ah, Wire, We Hardly Knew Ye

(spoilers are deeper in, with a warning. read on, Jonathan.)

The greatest show on television is over. Under normal circumstances I’d be reflecting on this a year or so from now, when the season 5 DVD finally gets released. But after finishing season 4 I knew I wasn’t going to be able to wait, and so burned through the final season via bittorrented video files, watching them on the laptop.

In the penultimate episode, a guy in recovery at Walter Reed is talking about a fellow marine who visits him from time to time. The quote is something close to “He takes the Peter Pan bus down from Baltimore and walks a couple miles south on Georgia Avenue from Silver Spring.” Anyone who lives around here probably knows that 1) Peter Pan is the bus you take in these parts if Greyhound is a bit too expensive, and 2) Walter Reed is, in fact, off George Avenue, and that 3) it’s almost exactly 2 miles south of Silver Spring.

That’s what made The Wire so good. It had the audacity to root itself in a specific place and shoot for showing things the way they really are. Sure, it had its operatic moments — like the end of season 3, or everything about Omar up until season 5 — but just enough to make the show an actual drama and not just a brutal critique of institutional incompetence (public and private) and the ruin it wreaks on our society. Ask a cop: “Is that what urban police departments are really like?” Ask a civil servant: “Is that what city politics are really like?” Ask a drug dealer: “Is that what it’s really like on the street?” Yes, yes, yes. Closer, at any rate, than anything before, close enough to make other dramas covering the same subject matter seem awfully shallow by comparison.

In my social and media circles it feels like the show has been thoroughly overhyped of late, but when I bring it up with people I’m always surprised how many still haven’t heard about it. So suffice it to say: make some time to watch the whole thing, at some point in your life.

On to some spoiler-y though about the final season.

It was hard, starting out. I mean, you had to know coming off of season 4 that the “new day for Baltimore” wasn’t going to be all wine and daisies. But rather than observe that descent we jump right to the low point. Police funding in tatters, morale at an all-time low, Marlowe running rampant, the case against him on thin ice, Carcetti hanging low under the weight of bitter compromise. And it keeps getting worse.

No one has white gloves in The Wire, but there are characters it’s almost impossible not to like in spite of their flaws, chief among them McNulty and Omar. The writers seemed determined to burst viewers’ rosy conceptions of those two characters this season … almost maliciously so. McNulty sinks to his usual alcohol-drenched woes, but then, with his staged serial killer, enters the realm of the cringe-worthy. And Omar’s return to Baltimore for revenge is devoid of the brutal poetry with which he has been portrayed throughout the series. He is neither careful nor smart, and his death is ignominious; at the end of the day he has lost everything and caused the death of many of his loved ones. It’s not like I wanted Batman, but did have to be so bad?

After episode #8 I couldn’t imagine how things could come together satisfactorily — in total tragedy or otherwise. But by the end I think they had pulled it off. It was rushed, to be sure, and I wish they had a couple more episodes like the other seasons. But as soon as they brought down the arrests in Marlowe & Co. I realized that there was no way Carcetti could give any of that up, and that when the truth about the serial killer came out there would have to be a coverup. And, with the coverup, you get the cynicism of city politics, but you also get the blow against Marlowe to stick, at least in part. I think the ending I couldn’t bear would have been Marlowe remaining the king of the roost.

Structurally, I think adding the whole newspaper storyline was a mistake. There were already so many characters and plot arcs to keep track of. I would have loved to see more of some of the earlier characters who had only cameos this season or got dropped altogether. And the whole thrust of the newspaper story was, basically, about how the paper’s bureaucracy manages to reward mediocrity — indeed, outright falsity — and stifle and ultimately crush the real reporters. Same song, different instrument. Finally, I assumed ever since McNulty created his fake serial killer that the climax of the newspaper story arc would be somebody uncovering the facade and writing about it in the paper. It seems odd that that didn’t even come close to happening. All that said, the characters were all great and I’m sure the newsroom was portrayed with all the verisimilitude of the other aspects of the show. I’m not from that world but it was certainly exciting to see people giving a damn about language and about how to structure a piece of writing, and to see that sort of thing portrayed perfectly.

Bubbles: ah, Bubbles. At least somebody has everything come together for them. His final speech at the support group had my eyes welling up. Good for him.

Carcetti, right to the end, remained one of my favorite characters. One of the many triumphs of the show’s writers was the way that, in his whole journey from rising star to weighted-down mayor, even as he became compromised, disappointing and disappointed, even a little corrupt, he remained as committed and as intent on doing good as he ever was. It would have been too easy for him to simply devolve into your typical bad-boy politician, but instead he remains true to his core — gets even closer to his wife, for goodness’ sake — but time and again his hands are tied just enough that he cannot do the right thing, as much as he wants to.

So the show is done, though there’s plenty of room for continuation. Daniels, Freamon, and McNulty are all off the force, and it would seem weird to continue without all 3 of them, but cycling major characters in and out is hardly unusual for the show. In general I’m all for ending on a high note rather than letting a show run on and on until it jumps the shark and becomes an embarrassment. But I don’t think The Wire ended on its best season, and yet it did leave me hungering for more … if they announced it wasn’t ending after all, I wouldn’t fret too much.