I’m not one for sweeping statements, but here’s one: The Wire is the greatest show on TV. Not just now. Ever. During its five year run, it sketched a complex portrait of Baltimore with fictional stories illuminating the real social and bureaucratic forces that make our cities work, or just as often, not work. Creator David Simon and his writing/producing partner, Ed Burns, worked and lived in many of those bureaucracies: the police department, the school system, and the newspaper, the new focal center for the fifth and final season. They aren’t shy about telling us how and why the system is broken, and what it costs.
As with each previous season, the old stories are woven into the new, and this season the new are the reverberations from budget cuts at The Baltimore Sun (from reduced news coverage to slipshod reporting of that which does get covered) and a crack-brained scheme from wild card Detective McNulty (Dominic West) to pry money out of the city. The money earmarked for the police by the Mayor has been drained by the floundering school system, which had been starved and neglected and fallen in debt thanks to previous administrations (see Season Four). What better way to loosen up the city purse-strings than a big, headline-grabbing serial killer story, even if the whole thing is a fiction brainstormed by McNulty on impulse and retrofitted into a conspiracy by Detective Lester Freaman (Clarke Peters), perhaps the most gifted and brilliant detective in the department. He builds cases and pieces together evidence like a master puzzlemaker, and he and McNulty concoct a lie so big, with such far-reaching implications, that the city can’t risk the truth getting out. Certainly not the ambitious and irresponsible junior reporter (Tom McCarthy) who inadvertently contributes to the conspiracy by adding his own fictional details to the story, suspicious embellishments that glory-hungry editors are willing to let through without scrutiny. “We have to more with less,” proclaims its managing editor. “You don’t do more with less, you do less with less,” complains the newroom’s voice of reason and bearer of standards, City Editor Augustus ‘Gus’ Haynes (Clark Johnson, of Simon’s Homicide), and so they do, but with splashier headlines.
Simon, a former reporter with The Baltimore Sun himself, is especially critical of what he sees as the media’s dereliction of responsibility as the community’s watchdog and his insistence comes with a noticeable loss of nuance in that particular story, but the scope of the show remains just as ambitious and rich. The writing is the best on television (the season features scripts co-written by authors Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and George P. Pelecanos) and the writing and construction has a beautiful symmetry as the show comes to a close. It doesn’t have the neat poetic drama of the “Dickensian” narrative (as the paper’s editors like to call it), merely a changing of the guard, with irony and poetic justice, rewards and punishments, guilty who go free and innocents who flounder. Yet for all the incompetence and corruption that keeps percolating to the top, so there are good cops, good editors, honorable folks who take the places of those burned out by the system that resisted all efforts to change it. The show ends with a system that perpetuates itself – a system reproduced in microcosm in everything from city politics to the school system to the drug hierarchy of the streets to the newspaper to, of course, the legal system – a people that continue to struggle against it even as others give in. To complete the symmetry, co-star Clark Johnson, who directed the show’s debut episodes, returns to direct the 90-minute series finale, which appropriately enough features a spirited wake.