The Wire - Season 5
It's been several weeks since I saw the last episode of The Wire and it was a mistake not to write the review straight away. I'm afraid that's the problem with being a part-time rather than full-time TV critic. The review has been difficult to write as a result. I think adding to that is the sense that writing about Season Five is also like writing about the show as a whole. Hopefully what I come up with won't be too long and rambling and if it is then wait for the podcast when hopefully I can break things up with some nice clips from the show.
I strongly recommend you check out my reviews or podcasts for Seasons 1 through 4 before reading this but that's up to you...
The Good: Season Five, as some of you warned me, was a different animal to Season Four. Looking back on it I think it's because Season Five was a lot more about Baltimore than it was about the individual characters. Where Season Four tugged at my heart because of the individual tragedies, Season Five was all about making it clear that those tragedies are caused by a system. A system which fails the individual time and time again.
Unlike the last two reviews where I have used my emotions as a way to analyse the show, I think this time it's more appropriate to judge the season on how well it made its point. And the answer is that it made it very well.
I'm not even from the United States, let alone anywhere like West Baltimore. So for me The Wire spoke to something wider then America. It spoke about the failure of human organization. It spoke to the failures present in our brand of democratic capitalism. Season Five made the point as strongly as it could that society was failing those who needed it. In this case the main example used was the homeless.
The homeless were a poignant subject of course, many of them mentally ill or damaged in other ways. But their plight can also be linked to the failure of education (Season 4) or the failure of industry (Season 2). One of the homeless was actually a former Sabotka stevedore to make this even clearer. So here we have a collection of the most vulnerable people, who have no stake in society and therefore no one to advocate for them and what happens to them? They get taken advantage of by everyone. Jimmy and Lester use them to try and solve their murders. Templeton used them to raise his profile as a reporter and his bosses used them to sell newspapers and win prizes. Mayor Carcetti uses them to campaign for Governor. Each of these institutions used the homeless to benefit themselves and did nothing to actually address the issues which made them homeless in the first place.
Let's look at each part of this in more detail and start with Jimmy and Lester. Here were two cops who were so frustrated with the limitations which the system placed on them that they decided to cheat. I will talk about the limitations of this story in "The Bad" but in general I thought it was very good. Yes it was a slight stretch to buy into two detectives risking their own freedom to take down Marlo Stanfield but it made the point about the system failing very effectively.
Remember that twenty two dead bodies have been found, clearly all murdered by the same people. Yet the investigation has been shelved because of the budget crisis. The question is asked, quite rightly, what if those bodies were white? What if those dead people weren't in the drug game but all ordinary citizens? Or important citizens? Would the investigation have been dropped then? It's important to remember that Jimmy and Lester are policemen. Their existence is based on catching bad guys and here is Marlo Stanfield clearly selling drugs and killing his enemies and they are told there is nothing you can do about it. That kind of impotence and prioritization is plausible enough for me to accept that men with egos like Jimmy and Lester would decide that they could outsmart everyone and find their own way to solve the cases.
What struck me as so wonderful about this dark satire was that I believed entirely in what happened next. No one fact-checked Jimmy. No one fact-checked Templeton when he started lying either. Why would they when the serial killer benefited them? Carcetti had the perfect issue to build his gubernatorial campaign around and the Baltimore Sun had a story which would sell papers and win them awards. It was in no ones interest to discover the truth. Suddenly the whole system was exposed for having no dignity at all. The moral clothing which police, politicians and press clothe their roles in was suddenly removed and they all just followed the lie to make their lives easier. The serial killer was a manufactured and clearly fake lie. However the reaction of those institutions to it tells you so much about how they are reacting to all the smaller endemic lies.
So to politics and not only did Mayor Carcetti eventually become Governor but all those below him were swept along too. Rawls kept his mouth shut and was promoted. Nerese became Mayor and the hack of all hacks Stan Valchek gets to become Police Commissioner. At a lower level we see Clay Davis escape corruption charges and both he and the retiring Burrell are assured by the Democratic Party machine that they will be taken care of no matter what.
A scene which spelt this corruption out was in episode five when Clay Davis is threatening to take people down with him if they don't help him beat his charges. Nerese tells him that he should take the prison time and bear the weight so that they can all continue on their way. It was pretty much exactly what Brianna told D'Angelo in Season One. The show didn't need to spell out this similarity, it was clear to anyone paying attention. The point about politics and drug dealing being so similar was powerfully made. And it wasn't about politicians being corrupt anymore than it was about drug dealers breaking the law. The point was that humans organize themselves in groups and clans that support one another and perpetuate the same dynamics over and over. The Wire is pointing out that our supposedly democratic institutions are functioning no differently than any gang does.
From the politicians to the press we saw the same problem. The bosses (in this case Whiting and Klebanow) took hold of their rising star (Scott Templeton) and ignored his corruption to aid their own position. Just like the politicians, the police and the drug dealers they understood what could and couldn't be proved. As long as Scott's stories passed a basic fact-check they weren't going to ask any more questions. This story too had some problems (which I will address in "The Bad") but overall I think the point was well made.
The most sophisticated scene at the Baltimore Sun came early on (episode two) where Whiting and Gus Haynes argue over how to write about the failure of Baltimore's school system. Gus points out (as we just saw in Season Four) that the problems with schools are complicated. They obviously touch on all sorts of things in society about how those children are conceived, housed, provided for etc. Then of course you have the problems with funding and curriculum and test scores and politics and so on. Gus wants to write the truth and point out what a tangled web it all is. But Whiting wants to simplify it all. He argues that if you write all the minutiae in a story then people won't read it because it's too complicated. He would prefer to just blame one thing in order to make that point well.
It's a fascinating argument because Whiting is making the right point for selling newspapers. Most people do lose interest in a problem which is so complicated and multi-faceted. Whereas Gus is clearly making a case for why a show like The Wire has to be made. Someone has to put all the pieces together to tell the whole story.
From police to politicians to press and finally back to the drug dealers. Marlo Stanfield shines through here as the final product of the Game. If you grow up with no family, no money, no education and no opportunity is this what will happen? All Marlo knows is Baltimore. All Marlo knows is drug dealing. All Marlo cares about is respect on the streets. There's something so desperately pathetic about the final shot of Marlo. Dressed in a fancy suit, with more money than he could ever spend he doesn't know what to do with himself. So he rushes two boys on a corner desperate for them to fear and respect him because that's all he thinks life has to offer. The drug culture created a man in Marlo who had no moral code except to win at all costs. Yet what he was winning was nothing and seemed to bring him no joy.
It's safe to say that The Wire made its point very well. To drive that home of course we got the final montage showing how our characters have all moved into new slots, replacing those who have left but perpetuating the same cycle all over again. I already mentioned Carcetti, Rawls, Nerese and Valchek all moving up. Then we had Carver becoming the new Daniels, Mike becoming the new Gus, Kima becoming the new Bunk, Sydnor becoming the new Jimmy, Dukie becoming the new Bubbs and Michael becoming the new Omar. Aside from Sydnor none of these moves seemed remotely manufactured to me. They all reacted to their situation as best they could and ended up not changing anything. Those who tried to change the system were all pushed out. Proposition Jo went the way of Stringer Bell after continuing the attempt to make drug dealing a more peaceful line of work. Lester, Jimmy and Daniels all joined Bunny Colvin in other professions after the police force refused to let them change anything about the way things were done.
The happy ending of the show was reserved for Bubbs who after years of struggling finally got a handle on his addiction and was invited up those stairs by his sister to be a part of the family again. Yet as lovely as it was to see Bubbs' life go in a positive direction, he was a cautionary tale. He was so utterly failed by the system that he had to fight incredibly hard to get his life back. We saw in Dukie how other people are heading straight down his path towards years of painful recovery because society hadn't found an adequate response to drugs yet.
What of Omar, our old friend the super-hero? The torturing and murder of his blind banker Butchie was one of the few really emotional scenes of the season for me. What made his death so utterly sad was that it was merely a warning to bring Omar back to Baltimore. If they had just shot Butchie in the leg the result would have been the same but that would have been too kind from Marlo's point of view. The gun fight between Chris, Snoop, Michael and co where Omar jumped off the balcony was typically tense and dramatic. I could have bought that Omar would be able to survive with no more than a broken ankle but I was pleased to read that this was based on actual feats of endurance that the producers witnessed in their time working with police. In the end though I knew Omar was going to die. How could there be a happy ending for him in this show? The fact that he was killed by a child (Kennard who had once wanted to play Omar in a childhood game of make-believe) made the point about the corrosive nature of the drug Game in a new and horrible way. Those hoppers are all potential Marlo's in waiting.
There's so much more I could write but I think I have pointed out the major strengths of the season. Just to add:
- I liked that Bunk lectured Jimmy throughout the season about what a terrible risk he was taking.
- I thought Clay Davis was fantastic in practically every scene he was in. At times his grandstanding can look a little hammy but it was worth it for those moments when we saw him privately grimacing or scared for his future. Clay wriggled off his charges of course because of local politics getting in the way of justice.
- I loved seeing Burrell cut loose and point out that Mayor's always come interfering with police work and make the Commissioner job impossible.
- The one group who continue to flourish in Baltimore are the drug lawyers of course. Levy actually laughs with delight at the thought of all the money he will earn representing Marlo Stanfield. I guess all those dead bodies and ruined lives are someone else's problem huh?
- I loved the irony that Herc too benefits from being a screw up in everything he did. He managed to both make the case against Marlo (by giving Carver the cell number) and then ruin it (by telling Levy that the police had a wire tap up).
- I enjoyed seeing the FBI do an accurate psychological profile of Jimmy when analyzing the serial killer's behavior.
- I thought Jimmy played his guilt well over abducting the homeless man. The scene where he stood looking at him eating his sandwich drove home that there really were limits to how far he was willing to go with this charade. The Wire was never afraid to show someone doing something horrific even with (sort of) laudable goals in mind.
- Carcetti's aid Norman was the only one wise enough to laugh at the mess Jimmy and Scott's lies had created. I liked that a lot.
- Although it felt rushed in terms of his development it was still tragic to see Dukie try to swindle Prez for some money. What was even sadder was that Prez knew what was going on but gave him the money anyway in the hopes that it would help. So sad.
- Finally good to see Cheese take a bullet from Slim Charles. I guess he was portrayed as a pretty unredeemable ass hole too.
The Bad: Season Five of The Wire suffered for being only ten episodes long. Season Four felt epic at thirteen in length and the difference between the two was clear. Both Jimmy and Scott's lies came very quickly in the story arc and so felt more manufactured than would have been ideal.
It was always going to be tough to accept that Jimmy and particularly Lester would take such risks with their fraud. We did learn in episode one that a year had passed since the end of season four but it was difficult to simulate that time having passed. Jimmy went from sober and loyal to the worst kind of adulterous alcoholic in the blink of an eye from our point of view. It was also difficult to entirely buy their frustration with not catching Marlo considering the patience both men had shown before. Lester spent a decade minding his own business in the pawn shop and of course Jimmy spent three seasons chasing Stringer Bell before he finally got his man. At the same time that Lester was supposed to be feeling robbed of catching Marlo he was involved in putting Clay Davis on the stand. If there had been more time perhaps Clay escaping his charges could have been the moment that pushed Lester over the edge and into Jimmy's arms.
Similarly Scott Templeton was portrayed as a grasping ass-hole in a way that no other character has been on The Wire. The show just didn't have the time to examine Scott's life and show the grey areas which might have led him to begin making up stories to further his own career. As it was he was simply presented as the kind of corrupt individual which any other TV show might put forward. I found it easy to forgive these lapses because of the time constraints placed on the show.
The Unknown: What I found harder to forgive was Jimmy getting his own mock wake in the bar in the season finale. I found it odd that the police department would toast Jimmy and Lester for their behavior. They had almost brought everyone into disrepute and probably been responsible for the final two homeless murders. If you assume that many of the other police didn't know the reasons why they were leaving the department then I found it odd that Jimmy would get a mock wake. Surely the wake was a special occasion saved for men who died on the job? Perhaps I just don't understand police culture well enough.
Best Moment: Again this was hard to choose. I will go for Jimmy interfering with the crime scene (much to Bunk's disgust) in episode two. I was very shocked and had no idea what he was up to. I felt this was another in a long line of great simple TV scenes. The sanctity of a crime scene isn't something the show preached about. It was just something fairly obvious in a show focused on police work. To see that norm suddenly violated was shocking. It was yet another reminder of what real drama is. It has nothing to do with mindless shock value; it has everything to do with clear motivations and expectations.
Conclusion: For me Season Five was when David Simon and co pulled back the puppets to reveal fully what they were saying about Baltimore. When Jimmy and Lester's plan came together I looked at more as a brilliant satire that exposed the system than I did a plan by two fictional characters. Where Season Four managed to get my emotions fully involved, Season Five had my brain doing the same. From a strict TV critic point of view I suppose Season Four was better. But in no way did I find Season Five a disappointment. Season Five was the real conclusion to the show. Season Five put the full stop on things. Season Five said "Now you've seen all the problems, here is why no one is trying to fix them."
In Alan Sepinwall's final interview with Simon (http://sepinwall.blogspot.com/2008/03/wire-david-simon-q.html) the point was well made that the real story over at the Baltimore Sun was what was not being reported. The news of Prop Jo's death, the news of Omar's death and the news of Marlo's rise to prominence were all completely ignored. The realities of daily life for so many people were receiving no news coverage. It was the final part of why the system was failing, the watchdogs were all asleep.
This of course brings me to the original question I brought with me to watching The Wire. Is it the best TV show ever made as many have claimed? My answer is yes but a qualified yes.
There are some things which The Wire did better than I have ever seen another show do.
- Telling a complete story. I don't feel like there were any hanging threads from The Wire which is an extraordinary thing.
- Telling a satisfying story. I feel no disappointment or regret over the stories I saw unfold. They all feel like they finished as they should have. Again an extraordinary thing for a TV show.
- The logic in the show was better than I have seen anywhere else. The details almost always added up.
- The depth of the universe within the show was as good as any I have seen. I had no trouble suspending my disbelief and imagining that this was a real place.
- The use of minor characters was exceptional (with superb casting). It amused me no end to see Clay Davis and his limo driver play such a big role in season five. I remember their role in season one so clearly where they were just a hint of where Avon's drug money ended up around town.
- The show was exceptionally even handed with its presentation of the lives of these characters. Aside from obvious villains (Cheese, Levy, Marlo, Clay) I would say that everyone was presented as a character with flaws and strengths. Omar was a killer, the Bunk an adulterer and so on.
But then again there are things where The Wire, somewhat deliberately, failed when compared to other great TV shows
- One of the great joys of TV is seeing one episode stand out amongst others. A great 40-minute story can be utterly compelling. The Wire chose to tell its story with a strict chronological integrity and a Baltimore-eyed view of things. So we moved inexorably from one scene to another, never pausing for very long on one particular story. This means that the season four finale aside I don't think of individual episodes as particularly memorable.
- As a consequence of this the show chose not to elevate one character above the others. This meant we didn't get the kind of bond with any one character and the detailed emotional journey which can be such an enjoyable experience.
- Another consequence of this approach was that the show rarely milked scenes for the emotional impact they might have had. While ultimately this was a vital part of the show's approach it also denied certain scenes (particularly in seasons one and two) the resonance that they might have had.
The Wire set out to make a point and most shows don't. The show benefitted hugely from that because it feels like we got to see someone's vision executed as they would have wanted it to be.
If someone asks me now what the best TV show ever is I will respond that it is The Wire. However I will also endeavor to explain that The Wire isn't like other TV shows. Most people tend to think of TV as a medium for soap opera. By that I mean they tune in to dramas, however serious they are, for the next development. They watch TV shows for a new story each time.
The Wire was telling just one story over its whole run. There was almost no attempt to be kind to viewers. There was no attempt to ease them into things or help their memories for who characters were and what role they played in the system. The show wasn't created with viewing figures or commercial breaks in mind. By playing with different rules the show was able to achieve more than shows which were restricted by more demanding networks and audiences.
I'm very grateful for The Wire though. It is now my Exhibit A in my argument that TV can be as good a medium as any other for telling stories. I enjoyed the ride tremendously, I learnt a lot and despite only being in my life for four months so far, I already miss it.