Throughout the fifth and final season of HBO's groundbreaking drama, The Wire, we've featured an ongoing discussion of the series with TAP Online writers. This week, we chat about episode ten -- the final episode of the season and the series. (If you haven't been reading, you can catch up on our discussions of episodes one, two and three, episodes four, five and six, and episodes seven, eight and nine.) --The Editors
Ann Friedman: Well, now that it's all wrapped up with a neat little bow, I have to say that the series finale was a bit of a letdown -- especially after those phenomenal episodes eight and nine.
We all know how jaded David Simon is about the state of journalism, but it seemed completely unrealistic that, presented with the evidence, the higher-ups at the paper would turn their heads and ignore Templeton's plagiarism. Their defense of Templeton made sense up until this last episode -- until Gus presumably laid out all the evidence. But even with a Pulitzer on the line, I find it pretty unbelievable that they would just let it all stand. I know they're enemy No. 1 to Simon, but come on. And screwing Alma over just seemed excessive.
I thought the overt parallel scenes at the end of the episode were too heavy-handed. Sidnor repeating, line for line, McNulty's initial conversation with Judge Phelan from season one? Michael aping Omar's stickup boy routine? Bunk and Kima playing out the old Bunk/McNulty dynamic? Dukie as the new Bubs? It's not that these scenes are unbelievable -- on the contrary. But, especially given the way the sequence was shot and edited, it all felt a bit overdone. And speaking of overdone, what was with the series of postcard shots of Baltimore? Yikes.
That said, I really liked the scene where Marlo reprises Stringer Bell's attempts to be a straight businessman. His humiliating confrontation with the corner boys was particularly good. It appears he ended up with a fate worse than (or just as bad as) the years he was about to get in prison.
Spencer Ackerman: I'm just going to say it: the finale was perfect. I'll spot David Simon a couple of indulgences in terms of one-for-one substitutions. They're a) fun for the viewers -- Ann, I simply don't believe that you didn't get a chill up your spine when you saw Michael rob Rim Source II with a shotgun -- and b) in support of the main point that Nothing Ever Changes. Cedric Daniels has to give up the commissionership because if he doesn't, he'll end up in a rear-guard battle with City Hall over who eats the illegal wiretap -- a battle that will ruin Ronnie, Marla, and others, and prevent him from actually making the changes he wants to make -- and all for, at the end of the day, pride masquerading as principle. In season one, Marla looks out at the rigged game and tells Cedric, "You cannot lose if you do not play." Cedric finally agreed. It's a good life outside the game. But the game goes on.
Same goes for Templeton's Pulitzer. Yes, it's realistic that frauds don't get caught, and more realistic still that the power-hungry or reputation-crazed protect the frauds, or choose not to believe the evidence demonstrating their fraudulence. Was credulity a little strained? Sure. But let's draw a parallel for a moment.
In 1986, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons launch a 12-issue comic book called Watchmen. Up until Watchmen, super hero comic books are fairly straight-forward morality tales. Watchmen is too sprawling and complex to describe here, but suffice it to say that its lesson -- completely unfamiliar in comic books up to this point -- is that being yourself to be a super hero is indicative of a very deep-seated pathology. It is universally acclaimed as the dawn of comic-book realism, and rightfully so. How does it end? With the teleportation of a giant genetically-engineered monster that destroys New York City.
The point is that a show as groundbreaking, revolutionary and multidimensional as The Wire can afford, as Ronnie puts it, to occasionally color outside the lines, especially if the ultimate portrait is as vivid, powerful and true as what David Simon has presented.
Ezra Klein: Putting aside the newsroom for a second, I also appreciated the finale. Though there were various subplots that needed resolution, the series itself wasn't working towards any kind of finish. Baltimore, after all, goes on -- as do its people, and its pathologies, and its poverty -- even if David Simon's creation doesn't. Given that, all the finale could not disappoint. And it didn't disappoint.
Take the threads separately. The newsroom was undeniably the weakest. Templeton is not only victorious, but a Pulitzer-prize winner? Alma is kicked into Siberia? Gus is demoted to copy? If Templeton's stories could indeed unravel, then Gus could have simply helped them come apart. If the editors were really the Machiavellian careerists Simon portrayed them as, they would have eagerly tossed Templeton under the bus. Instead, the facts of the plot's outcome almost point towards the opposite interpretation: That Gus really didn't have the goods; that Templeton's work was basically solid, if a bit embellished; and that the series on the homeless actually achieved a bit of transcendence. In that light, Gus's trajectory is, oddly, a perfect parallel of Simon's actual experience: He's so blinded by his own vendetta, so certain that the evidence he's amassed and the slights he's recorded amount to a damning case, that he lays out his argument and assumes everyone will gape in shock and horror, but in reality, few are actually convinced.
The serial killer subplot, however, ended more successfully. The whole thing was a farce, to be sure, but its resolution was folded effectively into The Wire's broader exploration of broken institutions and the incentives that pervert would be reformers. The exposure of McNulty's deception helped show how corrupted every character had become. Carcetti, of course, is corrupted by his hunt for power. Rawls by his ache for advancement. But even Daniels -- Daniels the pure and the good -- is corrupted, as he can't harm the careers of those he loves. Indeed, the final montage suggests that he may have used a bit of his leverage to help secure Pearlman a judgeship.
And then there's Marlo. The whole of The Wire was summed up in his slightly panicked escape from the highrise party, his visceral need to go back to the corner he knew so well, to find meaning and recognition in the only realm he knows how to dominate. Watching Marlo wander weak and awed through the crowd of businessmen and influentials was a powerful reminder of how few options he ever really had. At the end of the day, he may have money, but he's got no education, no white collar savvy, and no respect in the wider world. Levy will bleed him dry and toss him back to the streets. Watching Marlo, it was hard not to think of Bodie going to Philadelphia to pick up some product and muttering to himself, "damn, why would anyone ever want to leave Baltimore?" If you can't imagine why you'd ever want to escape a broken and destroyed landscape like inner city Baltimore, the odds are pretty damn good that you won't. And if your fate, then, is to be forever trapped on the corners, than you will fight for recognition and meaning and importance in the only way you know how. Viciously. Just as the politicians do, just as the police commissioners do, just as the editors do. You'll use guns, of course, not press conferences and Pulitzers, but the motivation will be the same. It's all the same game. At the end of the day, we all want our corners. It's just that Marlo's corner and Carcetti's corner are in very different zip codes, and dominance requires a different set of tricks.
Matt Yglesias: On the parallels, I liked the Sidnor scene but wasn't thrilled with the Michael one. Sidnor was played as something stylized and symbolic -- the literal repetition of an earlier scene. Michael by contrast seemed a little leaden -- like maybe he should have had some token differences, used a pistol instead of a shotgun, I dunno.
Re: Templeton, I'm basically with Spencer.
Still, loose ends ... Carcetti's running for governor on this bullshit -- where's the GOP incumbent and his buddy in the US Attorney's office sniffing around the massive cover-up at the heart of his campaign? And maybe Gus or Alma wants to sell the story to The Washington Post?
But whatever. The heart of the story is on the streets and the Marlo arc wound up doing what I thought it couldn't, and really adding something to what we saw in the rise and fall of Stringer and Avon.
Ezra Klein: To make a follow-up point on that, the scene of Chris hanging with Wee-bey in prison was powerful, and so was Avon's willingness to deal with Marlo. Both were reminders that, whatever our feelings, the Stanfield gang was just the successor to the Barksdale organization. Simon made us love Avon and Stringer with a ferocity equal to our hatred for Marlo. And so it was easy to forget that they laid down their bodies, that they had their enforcers. Marlo's men tortured and killed Butchie, but Stringer personally oversaw not only the torture of Omar's lover and partner Brandon, but the mutilation and public display of his corpse. Avon recognized their basic equivalence, as did Wee-bey, as did Simon.
Sam Rosenfeld: Matt said that "the Marlo arc wound up doing what I thought it couldn't, and really adding something to what we saw in the rise and fall of Stringer and Avon." It's true, and I will ask because it hasn't been mentioned yet, did anyone else gasp and laugh out loud like I did at Slim Charles's prompt dispatching of that tin-pot would-be kingpin Cheese? It was priceless. Cheese gets himself a thrilling little monologue of nihilist gangster bravado that goes on long enough for you to think "is this the fate of the streets? Do the likes of Cheese take over?" But no, of course not. There are standards to this game!
The variations and gradations that Simon and co. have managed to explore in their typologies of gangsterism over these five seasons -- traditionalists of the Avon/Joe/Charles variety, aspirational game-beyond-the-gamers like Bell, the spooky sociopathy of Marlo -- have been truly remarkable.
Matt Yglesias: Indeed, amidst the nihilism of the cops/politics/newspaper plots, it's actually on the streets that we see some redemptive virtue as the pendulum swings away from Marlo's "kill kill kill" approach and back toward a decent gangster like Slim Charles. It's not exactly the triumph of good over evil, but at least of civilized conduct over unchecked brutality.
Ezra Klein: Moreover, didn't it seem like Marlo, in the end, had fulfilled Prop Joe and Stringer's dream? After all, Joe controlled the co-op by controlling access to the supplier. Marlo, by selling that access for a price so high that the dealers had to band together to buy it, created a coalition of equals. To get with the Greek, they actually had to become a cooperative organization. The co-op is no longer just a grievance board -- it's actually a business partnership.
Sam Rosenfeld: On an aesthetic note -- great to see them revive the Blind Boys of Alabama's terrific cover of "Down in the Hole" (the theme from season one) for the closing montage. It remains my favorite of the five versions, though Steve Earle's slightly electroed entry this season was also great. In fact, let's rank 'em! I've never been able to muster others' enthusiasm for the Tom Waits original, so I'd rank the season theme songs from best to worst thusly: 1,5,3,2,4. Anyone else?
Spencer Ackerman: I think I'm your opposite, Sam. I love Tom Waits' version on season two the best, followed by whoever sings four. (God, that coda! "Keep/ in the hole/ down/ in the hole...") Steve Earle next with season five -- I guess the electro'd elements were supposed to conjure up a 1980s version of a newsroom teletype -- which I would have ranked higher had he made it the sort of raucous, barely-held-together guitar anthem that appears on his work with his old backing band the Dukes. Blind Boys of Alabama from season one next, with the Neville Brothers "meh" version from season three bringing up the rear like a fiending Arabber.
Ann Friedman: One more thing about the newsroom plot: I found it incredibly frustrating that Simon and the other writers chose not to write a scene where Gus shows the contents of his file on Templeton to the higher-ups. I don't necessarily need a happy ending -- with Gus vindicated and Alma promoted and Templeton fired -- but I would really have liked to have seen that confrontation. I waited all season for it, in fact. I know that putting everything out there and holding the audience's hand isn't The Wire's style, and in some cases, like the fact that they never reveal the misdeeds in Daniels' past, I don't mind. Maybe it's being a journalist, but I just wanted to see with my own eyes the managing editor and the publisher shoot down Gus's evidence of Templeton's fabrications. But maybe I'm being too greedy. After all, the scene where McNulty confronts Templeton at the police department served the same function, to a certain degree. The two fabricators, alone in a room together, bound by their mutual lie. I suppose that scene managed to scratch my itch to see Templeton slapped on the wrist or worse. The look on Templeton's face-- truly priceless.
Those complaints aside, I think this final episode justified the newspaper subplot to a certain degree. After all, without a season's worth of scenes about how the newspaper is falling down on the job, it might be hard to believe that the story of McNulty's major fabrication wouldn't slip out of the oh-so-leaky Baltimore police department and mayor's office. As the season was written, it was completely believable that no reporter would ever sniff out the story. Who's cultivating sources? Where are the beat reporters? If someone in the police department wanted to leak the story, would they even know who to call at the paper?
Kay Steiger: I'm with Sam and agree that season one's version of "Down in the Hole" is more meaningful to me than any of the other seasons (although season four comes close).
Overall, I was pretty pleased with the series finale. It wasn't, as Spencer said, perfect, but I think that Simon and the other writers did what they could with the resources they had. I would have of course preferred to have seen the dénouement played out, but the montage generally gave us an idea of what was going to happen to this expansive cast of characters. As we've discussed before, the writers were only given 10 episodes to finish off one of the most complicated and realistic plots in television history. As has often been echoed, the writers were asked to "do more with less."
On the newspaper subplot, I'm basically with Ann on this one. (I'm sure that Simon, if reading this would cry, but it's fiction! Don't they get that they're crying about a fabricator not getting caught in fiction?) Although I think the newspaper subplot, however disappointing, fits well into the overall theme.
In the end, as Ezra says, it's all in the game, and the game is rigged. Marlo, as much as he would like to become Stringer Bell, lacks the savvy and the know-how with those upper-class schmucks to really accomplish the legitimate business. Marlo, like so many others on the show, is trapped by his past. Just the same, Dukie couldn't really become anything other than a drug addict, with no family and no friends to help him. The most heartbreaking scene in this last episode for me was when Prezbo took a long look at Dukie and decided that he was probably already too far gone to help. It's almost as if he already suspected what he saw when he dropped the teenager off: Dukie was already well on his way to becoming a junkie. Furthermore, the scene where all the dealers come together to broker a deal -- as Ezra said, a true cooperative business partnership, we see that the game plays on.
There's a thread to pull on here. At first, Simon, Burns, and the other writers made us believe that real justice can be done by doing real po-lice work. After all, we couldn't help but feel victorious when the Barksdale case went down, and we were all encouraged enough by the serial killer plot because it might help Lester bring Marlo down. By showing that the game goes on, even with the kingpin out and real police work back up, it goes to show that there really isn't hope. It doesn't matter whether the police waste their time with corner pickings or if they do long, investigative career-making cases. Hell, it doesn't even matter if the newspaper reports the shit out of the corruption surrounding it. In the end, the writers have clearly said, the game still goes on.
I suspect this has something to do with the opinion piece that the writers published in Time last week that declared the drug war essentially a huge waste. And I'm inclined to agree with them on this. Certainly all the law enforcement has put too many people in prison. But the solution the Wire writers proposed was a rather simplistic one: Just stop pursuing all drug crime. That's probably an extreme reading of what they said, but not too far off, given they all pledged to acquit anyone they ever encountered as a juror with a drug crime.
As we've all seen thanks to Simon, et al's fantastic narrative, things are more complicated than they look. Certainly cracking down on drug crime is disastrous, but taking a lesson from Hamsterdam, so is letting it fester. The answer lies somewhere in the middle. I think that's the discussion we ought to be having, not whether the last episode of The Wire did justice to the fictional -- or not so fictional -- world that the show's writers created.
Matt Yglesias: Following up on Kay's points, I'm not sure what we're supposed to make about Daniels' self-righteous belief in the power of clean stats and good policing. On the one hand, this is such a major theme of the show that you kind of have to believe that, yes, they are telling us that a well-run police department could fix the city. On the other hand, Daniels' faith in this concept seems badly undercut by the extent to which the game is rigged in a much bigger sense -- the Greek is protected by the FBI, the drug laws are unenforceable, kids coming from shattered, impoverished backgrounds don't have a shot at much of anything, etc.
Daniels is gone in the end, of course, but it's interesting how many characters -- Sidnor, Kima, Carver, Bunk -- are left in play with a real sense that good policing can make a difference. You're left with Herc, McNulty, Daniels, and Freamon (who memorably remarked back in season three that "the job will not save you") as counterpoints but that's still a lot of faith and optimism for a show that's so lacking in faith and optimism. In the political system, by contrast, Simon sees no possibility of redemption. Not even change around the margin. Carcetti's contention that putting a Democrat in Annapolis would do a lot to help Baltimore is massively self-serving, but putting my political pundit hat on it's also almost certainly true (similarly, one might add that 2007 is the first year that a substantial number of politicians representing African-American constituencies wield powerful chairman's gavels in the House of Representatives, but it's unlikely to be the last).
The utter bleakness of Simon's vision about this stuff makes for compelling drama (his analogies to Greek tragedy aren't far off) but the morning after when I step out onto the streets of a city where the murder rate is less than half of what it was ten years ago to go write and think about American politics, I just don't believe it.
Sam Rosenfeld: It's very true that the War on Drugs' effect of eroding sound policing practices and an effective institutional police culture has been a key theme throughout the show; taken on its own terms, it's an important and well-dramatized insight, but the implication that Simon and co. have always seemed to be making that it's the key to inner-city violence or the urban crisis writ large is indeed uncharacteristically dewy-eyed. As for the fact that this show has had the somewhat odd luck of portraying the still-all-too-real problems of American cities during an era when these issues haven't loomed very large politically and when, indeed, national violent crime rates have been far lower than they were 15 and 20 years ago, one thing perhaps worth noting is Baltimore exceptionalism in this regard: I don't have numbers in front of me, but it's my understanding that Baltimore never partook in the great 1990s crime drop to any significant degree, which really does set it apart from most of the rest of the country.
Matt Yglesias: Right. The Baltimore murder drop in the 1990s was much smaller than what you saw in other cities, and in the 21st century it's bounced up and down rather than continuing to fall as in many other cities. This is, obviously, an important fact about Baltimore that Simon uses to his advantage. But it's important for readers in the real world to understand that this reflects some specific policy failures on the part of the relevant officials and not the sort of "the game is rigged" metaphysical problem that Simon portrays. Pragmatic reformist liberalism would make a shitty television show compared to Simon's apocalyptic radical/reactionary vision, but it's much better politics and public policy.
Ezra Klein: Which brings up an interesting point. One of my readers said to me, "You know, it's only you big media types that hate the newsroom stuff. I thought it was decent. It's not the best plotline ever, but it wasn't. that. bad." But it was that bad! Maybe it wasn't unpleasant to watch, but it was fundamentally misleading as to the problems and pressures assailing the modern newspaper. Many of us media types know that because we work in newsrooms, so it was more annoying because it broke with our general trust in The Wire's intellectual honesty and reportorial accuracy.
Similarly, a lot of the political stuff rang hollow to me because, well, I know a lot about politics. I thought it significantly better than the newsroom angles (in part because patterning a story off a close read of Martin O'Malley's political career is obviously going to work better than patterning a story off of people who pissed you off at your last job), but it fell flat fairly frequently. Politicians are craven, but it really would be better for the social safety net to have a Democrat in the governor's mansion. The Wire implied that that wasn't true, but it never made the case.
Indeed, it was the stuff that I knew precisely the least about that seemed most compelling. Now, it may be that The Wire was simply weaker on the stuff I knew about than the stuff I didn't know about. But, as Matt points out, good policing does appear able to make a difference. And some folks certainly are able to escape poverty. And crime has fallen dramatically since the early-'90s. And police departments clearly have been reformed in various cities. And on, and on. I'd be interested to know how crime experts and urban poverty researchers felt about the show. The newsroom story was savvy and cynical and plausible and informative to folks who didn't know newsrooms, but because lots of reporters watch The Wire and talk about it publicly, it was generally trashed as inaccurate. The other stories could have been savvy and cynical and plausible and informative to folks who didn't know those worlds, but similarly problematic. That wouldn't stop The Wire from having been great television, but so far as folks have taken it as a graduate level seminar on the problems of the modern city, it may be worth thinking through. Some publicity-hungry university press should really commission a book of essays on the subject.
Kay Steiger: I also wanted to bring up one other thing that bothered me: They attributed to McNulty the summary montage of what happens to all characters. I'm sort of wondering why they chose to funnel this through him when they could have left it freestanding. McNulty wasn't the main character in the story. They really pushed this point when he pretty much disappeared last season, so it was really confusing to me to attribute everything to him in the end. My colleague said she wishes she'd seen more of the street. That's after all, the strength of the show.
Sam Rosenfeld: This may be getting a bit off the rails and digressive, but Matt, your general point about Simon's "the game is rigged" radical pessimism concerning the prospects of piecemeal reform is correct, but that actually runs counter to his apparently sincere belief in the specific and special importance of good policing; probably this is because I'm the son of a criminologist, but explaining American crime mainly in terms of policing policies rather than more expansive issues actually does strike me as naive. Like, it's the whole system, man!