So Many Characters, Yet So Little Resolution
After all these years, all those dead bodies and so many criminal contortions of the law, the wiretap in “The Wire” didn’t bring the bad guys to justice.
Technology and good intentions couldn’t win out in Sunday night’s finale of “The Wire.” The best and most dyspeptic police drama on television would never conclude with a triumph of good over evil. Victories were few, and Pyrrhic.
Truth flickered here and there, but never really came to light. Some people received their comeuppance, but most didn’t. Police work faltered and recouped — a tattered, tainted form of justice was meted out, sort of. Some people were killed or worse. (Alma, an honest reporter at The Baltimore Sun, was exiled to the Carroll County bureau.) A few deserving people came out ahead, or at least even, but nothing really changed: the drug trade thrives and the system in Baltimore drifts on, corrupt and self-sustaining, held together by convenience and a lie too big to bring down.
David Simon did not end his series the way “The Sopranos” came to a close, in a frozen tableau of ambiguity. “The Wire” went out the way it came in five seasons ago, not so much tying up loose ends, though it did, as meticulously proving that there is no end. For every major character who died or moved on, a new incarnation sprang up. And the most poignant was probably Michael, the young protégé of Marlo, the drug kingpin. The boy killed as he was told, but he questioned the logic and the fairness of each hit. When he realized he was the next target, Michael turned not into the next Marlo, but the spitting image of his boss’s nemesis, Omar, a hunted man turned rogue hunter, preying on drug dealers with a shotgun under his coat.
Which doesn’t mean there wasn’t a happy ending or two. Thanks to the same illegal wiretap that first got him into trouble, Marlo walked, but it turned out he didn’t have far to go. Throughout this season and last it was never quite clear whether Marlo — the most enigmatic of drug dealers — was the true heir to Stringer Bell, the dealer turned businessman, or to Avon Barksdale, the dealer who couldn’t leave the streets.
In the finale Marlo walked out of a meeting of real estate developers and found himself back on a corner, confronted by minor hoodlums, no longer really welcome even there. And that was a vindication for Omar, whose Ahab-sized obsession to punish Marlo rose from the grave: Omar died goading Marlo to come back down to the street, and Marlo finally did, only to be taunted by corner boys loyal to Omar’s legacy.
“The Wire” was always a tale of symmetry and disparity. In each season the unfairness and corruption of the streets was mirrored in a different layer of society — the police, the port, City Hall, the schools and the media. All along, individuals who tried to live up to their personal responsibilities were crushed by a vast, entangled system jerry-built to duck accountability.
Detective Jimmy McNulty created the hoax to make the collar, and it cost him his job only because he felt compelled to come clean. In the final episode his successor was anointed in a scene that pointedly echoed the first episode of the first season. Then a newcomer to the homicide squad, McNulty revealed his insubordinate streak by complaining to Judge Daniel Phelan about murky doings in the police department. On Sunday night viewers watched young Detective Leander Sydnor complain to the same judge about the murky doings he witnessed in the department, and the detective didn’t even see the half of it.
Even the smartest, most truth-seeking characters never fathomed the full picture. Gus, the clear-eyed, honorable city editor, couldn’t steer his self-deluded bosses at The Baltimore Sun away from a bum story, one that was mostly made up by Scott Templeton, the rat reporter. Gus was the first to suspect that Scott fabricated quotations and facts, but even Gus never guessed that the entire serial-killer story was a hoax, invented by McNulty to force City Hall to override budget cuts and provide the cars and man-hours that he and Detective Lester Freamon, the detective in love with his wiretap, needed to get Marlo.
“Maybe you win a Pulitzer with this stuff,” Gus warns his boss, “and maybe you have to give it back.” But the odds were stacked in management’s favor. Corruption within the newsroom was entwined with the scams and lies of City Hall and the police department. As Norman, the mayor’s cynical adviser, put it, “everybody is getting what they need behind some make-believe.”
There were so many characters, all richly drawn, and none of them got the last laugh, not even Norman, who saw the dark humor in everything. When the mayor and his men learn that the serial-killer story they pumped up for political gain was invented by their own detectives, they were aghast and ashen. Norman was tickled. “It has a certain charm to it,” he said. “They manufactured an issue to get paid, and we manufactured an issue to get you elected governor.” Norman added that he almost wished he was still a reporter at the newspaper so that he could write an exposé of the mess; little did he know that The Baltimore Sun propped up the lie.
Every happy ending came with a sad coda: Bubbles, the former addict and pariah, was at long last invited up the basement stairs to share a family meal in his sister’s dining room. But, of course, young, lost Duquan took his place on the street, injecting the same drugs it took Bubbles much of his life to overcome.
“The Wire” ended at just the right time: too soon. And it’s not that Mr. Simon’s series was the only intelligent drama on television. The difference is that most smart shows try to dazzle viewers with what they don’t know: “House” on Fox throws out the rarest diseases and most far-fetched diagnostic tools to update Sherlock Holmes and “Numb3rs” on CBS twists every crime to fit an advanced mathematical formula.
“The Wire” worked with primary sources that anybody could grasp if they looked closely out the window on the train from New York to Washington. It’s the same view of Baltimore — abandoned row houses, gutted factories and bullet-pocked store fronts — that McNulty takes in when he parks his car and looks down at the city from afar.
“It is what it is,” is what McNulty and others would say to end a conversation. “The Wire” was what it was, and that was a lot.