Wednesday, 4 February 2009

The Wire: Season 5

The fifth and final season of The Wire is given the task of wrapping up all the loose ends from previous seasons and also to give space to a new storyline element, that of the media. With the police, criminals, politicians, working class and teachers already covered, moving into the newspapers is the logical next port of call, especially since many of the show's writers cut their teeth as journalists at one time or another.

Thanks to the efforts of the ever-redoubtable defence attorney Maurice Levy, Marlo Stanfield and his crew have avoided jail time, despite being linked to 22 bodies discovered in vacant housing in Baltimore. New mayor Tommy Carcetti wants the murders solved, so the Major Crimes Unit has been reconstituted with most of the old team back in play: Kima, Freamon, McNulty and Sydnor. Meanwhile, Herc has been forced to leave the police and is now working for Levy as a private investigator, and Omar is enjoying a holiday life down in the Caribbean, having apparently left behind the game for good. Unfortunately, Carcetti has inherited a massive education budget deficit from his predecessor and is forced to divert substantial financial resources away from the police to the schools. The Major Crimes Unit is disbanded, and even the street cops find their vehicle maintenance funding being pulled. With the police off his back, Marlo's consolidation of control over the city's drug trade suddenly ramps up to a new and dangerous level and he vows to settle his score with Omar.

With bodies dropping but no funds available to investigate them, McNulty comes up with a scheme to get attention and resources back to the police force but, needless to say, it backfires spectacularly. At the same time, the Baltimore Sun is facing cutbacks but an ambitious young reporter, Scott Templeton, finds unorthodox means of finding new stories that please the bosses but annoy his editor.

The final season of The Wire has a lot of ground to cover, as the police force's attempts to take down Marlo hit a brick wall and a new case rapidly rises to prominence, whilst a whole new facet of the city is explored through the newspaper. Simultaneously, many subplots running from the previous season continue to be explored, such as the continuing trials of the former schoolchildren from Prez's class (although only Dukie and Michael have a lot of screen time this season, Namond and Randy being reduced to cameos) and Marlo's attempt to dispose of the last barrier between him and total control of the city's drug trade. As a result a lot of other storylines fall behind. Carver and Herc appear a lot less than before (although when they do appear, they have some important things to contribute to the show's ending), Prez only has a brief cameo and the school storyline is pretty much abandoned. Cutty also only has a brief appearance, although given that his rehabilitation arc through Seasons 3 and 4 is pretty much complete that is more understandable.

The name of the game this year is resolution. McNulty and Freamon are out for Marlo's blood and plan to bring down his organisation and put him in jail at any cost, and the extraordinary (and increasingly illegal) lengths they go to achieve that are breathtaking. Having played the system for four seasons prior without much to show for it, the two police officers are at breaking point, which isn't surprising. We also see Carcetti, the wonder boy who wanted clean stats and a new dawn for his city, being driven down by the system into the same morass of murky compromises and grey morality that blighted his predecessor. The newspaper storyline is nicely handled, and encapsulates the idea of people trying to do the right thing and getting beaten back for it whilst those who ride and exploit the system can succeed. It's a very cynical view of the world, although one that seems to be depressingly backed up by reality.

But inbetween the cracks there are rays of light. Michael has been put through the wringer in the show's last two seasons and done some very bad things, but towards the end he comes to the realisation that he is in the game but not a gang player, which leads to a very logical end point for him, whilst Bubbles' traumas over the years finally lead him down the path of redemption. It would have been easy for the writers to have had Bubbles rehabilitate at the end of Season 1, but making his journey much longer and more painful before the possibility of a happy ending presents itself results in a more satisfying resolution.

The series ends by showing us the hard-won victories the forces of law and order have achieved, but elsewhere many of the villains are still at large with blood on their hands. Some of the 'good guys' are left broken, or homeless, or without their jobs, or as drug addicts. But some people get what's coming to them, and the series ends with a long, lingering shot of Baltimore, a crime-addled, bankrupt city where the people are just struggling to survive day by day. It was this city, which stands in for pretty much any city in America, that was the real star of the show. David Simon and his writers, directors and actors are to be commended by giving us the definitive portrait of the American city in the 21st Century, and that portrait is not a positive or a happy one. But it has a ring of truth and authenticity to it that no other cop or lawyer show has ever achieved.

Season 5 of the The Wire (*****) is a fitting end-point to the series, and a fine capstone to one of the greatest TV shows of all time. Storylines and mysteries stretching back to Season 1 are resolved satisfyingly, but no easy answers are given and the ending is anything but neat. The season is available on DVD in the UK and USA, and as part of the complete series box set (UK, USA).


Anonymous said...

"Baltimore, a crime-addled, bankrupt city where the people are just struggling to survive day by day."

It (and many other US cities sure are) but its no surprise being they are heavily leftist Democrat cities...

Adam Whitehead said...

You mean, as opposed to rightist Republican-governed cities which are beacons of light and law and order like San Diego and Dallas? ;-)

THE WIRE isn't very sympathetic to politicians in general, and certainly the Democrat Tommy Carcetti is given a very rough ride particularly in Season 5, but I think it does succeed in pinpointing the problems experienced by modern American mid-level cities like Baltimore are systemic rather than the result of any particular political philosophy. Something I wished they had raised in the show was a comparison with the way New York's crime rate was slashed shortly before Season 1 began, and perhaps a better explanation of why the same tactics were not applicable to Baltimore (although the theme of the police force being chronically underfunded has been present throughout).

Craig said...

This is the greatest television show I've ever seen. Ever since it ended there's been a hole in my television watching that yearns for fulfillment. How did this never win an Emmy? Politics, maybe?