Tuesday, March 11, 2008

THE WIRE: The Finale

Sunday night marked the series finale of The Wire on HBO. It did not disappoint. They compressed a tremendous amount of action into 90 minutes and tightly, nicely and neatly tied up the story line that had been building all season, but that had really begun 5 seasons ago. There were times this year, I must admit, where I felt that the show had jumped the shark. The whole serial killer story line didn't ring entirely true nor did the fact that McNulty and Freamon could work the system as they did -- though after the plan was hatched and had matured over a couple of episodes it became more plausible.

Last night's episode tied it all together. It ended as I anticipated it had to -- a systematic effort of butt-covering, deal-making and political machinations. It played true and validated the entire season (the whole series, really). Much of what I read about prior to this season said it was all about the media, newspapers in particular. The media, and the Baltimore Sun in particular, played a much larger role in this season and it helped to round out the portrayal of the power-players in the modern urban environment.

Whether depicting street level dealing, working class woe or faltering schools THE WIRE was always about "The System." The way The System works is ugly, and THE WIRE shone a bright light right up its backside. The show never delivered the expected -- in terms of mass-media-entertainment-consumer expectations -- resolution because that would been neither real nor logical. The creators once said in an interview that the logic of the story must be played out; and, it was each week, and brutally so. Favorite characters got done -- both at the business end of a gun and by The System.

THE WIRE was a show with a POV -- it was angry, it pulled no punches and it didn't always tell you what you wanted to hear. Unlike most shows it didn't lionize one political party over another; it didn't offer bromides that everyone and everything will be OK if you believe in yourself; it did not get behind one solution over another. It was a show that was descriptive rather prescriptive. As show creator David Simon mentioned in a letter on HBO, dated 10 March, 2008:

We tried to be entertaining, but in no way did we want to be mistaken for entertainment. We tried to provoke, to critique and debate and rant a bit. We wanted an argument. We think a few good arguments are needed still, that there is much more to be said and it is entirely likely that there are better ideas than the ones we offered. But nothing happens unless the shit is stirred. That, for us, was job one.

The problems that grip Baltimore, as depicted in THE WIRE, are the problems that afflict many American cities. The problems appear intractable given the self-sustaining nature of The System and the human beings who comprise it. To truly clean up The System and make things right, would compel the players to give up much of what they have striven for -- corners, donations, stars on collars, literary prizes. Each of these things translate into power, and power is the name of the game within both the world defined by THE WIRE and ours.*

Dealers deal. Police police. Lawyers lawyer. Politicians politic. Media reports. Each feeds off of the others, and requires the others to survive. The System is a system because it perpetuates itself. There will always be someone to fill a void created by the departure of another -- whether mortal, or merely physical. That is why, in the coda, as the theme song played and McNulty gazed out on the Baltimore skyline, Daniels stood as a Public Defender, Pearlman sat in judge's robes, Michael became a stick-up boy, Dookie tightened the strap and loaded his spike, Slim Charles sat with The Greeks, and Bubs . . . Bubs sat at the table with his sister and her child to eat (the only happy ending in the series).**

The episodes always started with a quote and from what I can observe and recall the previous 59 quotes came from the episode itself. The finale's quote came from Baltimore's own H.L. Mencken:

"... the life of kings."

It seems that Mencken is a fitting a patron saint for this show that laid bare the structures of power, money, ambition and ultimately human weakness that shape and mold the modern, American, urban experience. THE WIRE told the story of a great American city, and the people who live in it honestly, openly and with great verve. The characters were human, fallible and venal but they were not all bad even when they were monstrous. They characters knew and played their role in The System, even when it required them to be their worst. Baltimore is any city, and the people who occupy The System live in every city, and the people who stand by and watch live in every city. Never before, and perhaps never again, will we, the TV-watching-public witness such an honest depiction of ourselves.

*See Peggy Noonan's column last week for a related view on power.

**The show synopsis on HBO.com contains a similar litany, I wrote this before I read that -- I was looking for the quote on the wall of the Sun offices that appears when Gus & Alma are speaking as Alma clears out for Carroll County. This may be over-think, but my academic background compels me to credit sources/mention similarities to the thought of others, even on my unread blog.

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