The fifth season of The Wire was, in dramatic/aesthetic terms, its most problematic; its high-speed movement was jarring for those accustomed to the show's traditionally leisurely pace, its focus in the supposedly central newsroom scenes was practically a red herring (more on that in a moment), and its central plot, the single thread that structured the year - McNulty's mad scheme to take down Marlo and reform the police department 'quietly' from within - vaulted the show into a realm of bleakly absurd comedy that left some viewers wondering whether creator David Simon had gone a little ways 'round the bend himself. But in the end, even if Year Five didn't quite attain the operatic heights of Year Four (The School, Simon's and cocreator Ed Burns's best work) or the rise and fall of Stringer Bell (whose machinations structured the show's first three seasons), it was as good as The Wire - which is to say, a strong closing to what is almost certainly the greatest dramatic achievement in the history of television.
That the fifth season has been so widely criticized is not a surprise to me. But as usual, most of the criticisms of this year turn out to have been wrongheaded, to have missed the polemical and poetic points of the series. If that surprises you then I have two pieces of advice. First, go watch the final season of The Sopranos, one of the other great achievements in TV history, which made a sustained, brutal assault on the viewing habits of its bloodthirsty, sentimental audience, and which is to an extent relevant to a discussion of The Wire, the least Shakespearian of the great TV shows of our era. Second, read this post, which is as much about the reception of the show as about its form or polemical claims.
Actually do the second one first. The Sopranos takes longer.
The evaluative claim here, in a nutshell, goes something like this. Season Five of The Wire was true to the tone and thematic concerns of the show's first fifty episodes, funnier than before, neither more nor less cynical about its beloved Baltimore than before, and no less generous or broad-brush with its characters than before; David Simon has said that it was in broad terms an inquiry into the inability of the news media to deal with the realities of the drug war, the plight of the underclass in the face of unfettered capitalism as a social program, and the corruption and ossification of contemporary social/political institutions (the show's ongoing concerns), but the clever structural conceit of Season Five was that the content of the newsroom scenes was of secondary importance. While viewers worried about what Big Awful Event would befall each character, and fans and reviewers (I hesitate to use the word 'critics') alike muttered about pleasure and overt content and their own overloaded narcissistic or vicarious identifications, Season Five constituted the show's most damning critique of the American way of life. More than any previous season, S5 lampooned the viewing habits of its audience, and more than ever insisted that while they were not hopeful about our ability to change our world, the writers of The Wire refused to cater to the fantasies of the show's viewers. As David Simon has put it, he writes not for the average reader but for his subjects, hoping to provide them with representations that they themselves would recognize.
Note, however, that he doesn't necessarily expect them to like what they see.
Not necessarily the news
Journalists and wannabes (how many of these folks have ever done investigative journalism? e.g. Does Ann Friedman realize that according to Simon the Sun did in fact recommend a known fabricator for the Pulitzer?) complained about the newsroom scenes of Season Five all year; either it didn't feel like a real newsroom, or it felt like one but didn't matter, or why did it make such a big deal out of this fabricator when there were blogs to talk about, or why was nothing happening, etc., etc., etc. In retrospect - and this should've been clear from about midseason - the seeming irrelevance of Templeton's fabrications, the pettiness of the prize-driven editorial culture, the obviousness of the personal grudges on display, were precisely the problem...or rather, its negative image. Ultimately, the lightly-fictionalized Baltimore Sun managed to miss every big story that occurred in Seasons Four and Five: Carcetti's sickening slide from almost-idealist to Royce 2.0, McNulty's fabrication, the courthouse leak, the New Deal co-op and Marlo's ascension to citywide kingpin, even the death of a stickup boy known to the entire inner city, the maneuvering of Rawls/Daniels/Burrell at the top of the police department, the crippling of that same department by budget cuts and bad personnel management and cynical political shuffling...and more generally the depredations to which the city's most vulnerable residents (the poor and working-class, the homeless, et al.) are daily subject. The newspaper's wrongheaded coverage of the 'homeless crisis' isn't bad because it's bad, but because it makes it impossible to do honest coverage of a whole slew of interlocking social crises.
That's why the cynicism of the Zorzi character (played with an eerie verisimilitude by Sun political reporter and Wire writer Bill Zorzi) at the 'We caught Marlo' press conference bothered me. He's jaded enough that even though he sees through the nonsense Carcetti's peddling, he continues to report what he's told, whether by his own bosses or by the City Hall folks who spin him around. The character is clearly meant as an avatar of old-fashioned rubber-meets-the-road beat reporting, a storehouse of wisdom, but we only see him as jester. But the fifth season's most precise attack on the Sun - Simon's observation that by jettisoning its stable of veterans, who command enormous reserves of community goodwill and local knowledge, the paper is removing its best link to the society it's supposed to be serving - is strengthened by this lopsided presentation. We see genuine community-minded or adversarial reporting at the beginning and end of Season Five (check out the newspaper honcho spiking the story on segregation at U. of Maryland in the first staff meeting of the season), and even the fabulist Templeton produces a strong story at one point, but beyond that, the newspaper is practically impotent, in spite of the awesome professionalism and reliability of its veteran workers. This is the key to the category mistake seemingly at the heart of many viewers' experiences with Season Five: it's strange to see the Sun storyline not make a stroneer judgment on whether its workers are good at what they do, not link Templeton's fabrications more organically to the culture of the newsroom at large, unless you realize that increasingly, what the newspaper does, does not matter.
As Simon put it in a recent (superbly conducted) interview with Alan Sepinwall:
What I'm loving, it makes me warm all over, is that a lot of the obsession of journalists in the evaluating -- I think (Brian) Lowry mentioned it, you mentioned, a couple of others mentioned it as being fundamental to the story -- (isn't that theme) but whether Whiting is as big an asshole as Valchek, "Is Gus more of a hero than Colvin?," "Do they have to put suspenders on that guy?," "I can't believe any editor would say that," "Why would Alma drive all the way over there?" I'm loving it. It's this onanistic, self-obsessed world of journalism -- which is the problem. In their heart of hearts, the guys who are running my newspaper and a lot of newspapers, they now cede the territory, the moral and essential territory, of whether we're asserting for our society, our city, our community.
This was a story about a newspaper that now -- on some fundamental basis -- fails to cover its city substantively, and guess what -- between out-of-town ownership, carpetbagging editors, the emphasis on impact journalism or Prize-culture journalism and, of course, the economic preamble that is the arrival of the internet and the resulting loss of revenue and staff, there are a fuck of a lot of newspapers that are failing to cover their cities substantively. That is the last piece in the Wire puzzle: If you think anyone will be paying attention to anything you encountered in the first four seasons of this show, think again.
The bigger the lie
[Update: I took out the derisive 'movie critic MZS' line, as I'd managed to overgo sense there, out of defensiveness - Seitz has in fact done his share of reporting beyond his consistently thoughtful work as a film critic, and he's quick to remind that a number of his House Next Door colleagues have as well. I suspect I was taking out vestigial irritation about his occasional preciousness as a film reviewer (he's so loudly wrong about the supposed virtues of the risible Miami Vice film that it makes my head spin) and responding badly to what I read as posturing in his comments on the show's newsroom materials. Those comments have generally been spot-on; I protested too much, and hereby flog my little mea with this great big culpa.]
TV critics responded coolly to the newsroom scenes, with few exceptions (Sepinwall and his collaborator Matt Zoller Seitz were two of the show's more perceptive critics, though MZS has indulged in a little bit of journalistic defensiveness at his online home, largely in defense of a strong reading of these scenes). But this is in part because they themselves are implicated in the critique mounted by those scenes. 'The bigger the lie, the more they believe' was one of the year's mottos; Gus and his compatriots may make an effort to report on life as they know it, but the essential truth of the show, the claim on which it stands or falls as a work of journalistic fiction - that America is silently at war with its underclass in the guise of the fraudulent, deadly 'drug war' - is too awesome for the show's guardians of community knowledge to understand or report on. And for the most part, the show's louder critics have concerned themselves with whether the onscreen journalists' storyline has been 'believable.' The truly unbelievable thing is that David Simon and his fellow writers, alone in the world of mainstream entertainment, were making these polemical points about the damage done to American cities at every level. Leave aside the question of whether the average TV critic knows the first thing about dramatic writing, directing, acting, or production; the show hammered home its political and cultural arguments for sixty hours, and its most implausible claims have been the ones not made up (Hamsterdam was really tried in a limited way, Templeton is largely based on one guy, the 'real Omar' appeared in the show, etc.). The most cartoonish aspect of Season Five, McNulty's fake serial killer, has raised far more eyebrows than Hamsterdam, even though - as Simon points out - it's theoretically much, much easier to swallow McNulty's under-the-radar bureaucratic maneuver than to accept the fantastic quasi-military operation of Hamsterdam.
So why the complaints? I think they're more to do with narcissistic breast-beating and threats to personal identification than with aesthetics. The jokey tone of some of McNulty's maneuvers, or the obviousness of Templeton's shittiness, made it difficult for viewers to tell whether they were supposed to stand with respect to the show: was it a comedy now? Are all bets off? Isn't this a 'realistic' show? Was I wrong about what I was seeing all this time? No question is scarier than that last (ask the Modernists and their great contemporary avatar, Thomas Pynchon), and viewers were resistant to realizing that Simon was playing a trick in S5, however straightforward.
Oh god baby don't stop, I'm almost there, I'm...blogging...
Then there's the blog issue: there's more chatter about The Wire on blogs than ever before, in part because Simon pays no attention at all to the triumphalist narratives of new media power that so captivate the relentlessly self-pleasuring brigade of blog 'journalists' and 'media critics.' The caricature of the 'mainstream media' that's emerged from the last six or seven years of blog conversations was simply cast aside in this year's Wire story; Simon believes in the power of a well-funded independent press, and in doing more with more, but the blog-journo ethic, to the extent such a thing really exists, boils down to 'do more with less,' a notion Simon rightly derides as stupid and shortsighted. The dilettantism and recreational involvement in reporting that S5 lampooned are versions of blog discourses' shortcomings (most 'media critic' and news-aggregator sites simply pre-chew your food, but those fools read the same newspapers you do - or worse, the ones you subscribe to and don't read). One of the great dangers of the fannish online discussion of current events (visible and hidden) is that bloggers - i.e. diarists - tell you not what to know but how to feel about it. And that's true of lazy TV critics as well. While you don't need someone to type out a synopsis of a given episode that's nearly as long as its script, you also don't need pre-digested news reports; instead of spending four hours reading eight discussions of one article, you could spend two hours reading ten articles - and have two hours to think things over, or play with your kids, or, hell, just take a walk down your street.
'Just be with people,' Gus tells young reporter Mike Fletcher. But that runs counter to the instant-commentary vibe of popular TV 'criticism,' and especially of blogging. Consider 'liveblogging' for a second: what newspapers would be if Satan were managing editor. Total observation, devoid of thought. 'News reporting' no deeper than stock symbols rolling by at the bottom of your TV screen.
Everything that has an end has a beginning
Another simpleminded criticism of the show has been the complaint that S5's habit of revisiting old stories, and of tying the fates of new characters to the ends of their forerunners, is 'cheap' or 'cheesy' or 'unbelievable' (there's that word again). While too-neat resolutions are always suspect, the right response to these criticisms is disdain and dismissal of lazy cynicism. Here's the rundown, if you missed it: Fletcher is Gus, Mike is Omar, Dukie is Bubbles, Sydnor is McNulty, Carcetti is Royce, Carver is Daniels, and Kima is Bunk. Plus throw this in: Avon made Marlo, Levy made Herc, and for extra points Chris might just be Wee-Bay.
How tacky is that shit?
Except it's not, not by a long shot. The show's bold statement of purpose - this is what life really is - has always had a darker, scarier rider attached, namely: ...and you'll never guess how we got here. Simon concurs with David Chase's assessment that TV stories are largely escapist nonsense, that life is essentially tragic; he's a dark existentialist (there's no God in The Wire, not by a long shot) and the show is committed to the proposition that even though we sometimes find redemption (like Mr Prezbo, Cutty, Bunny, and [gloriously] Bubbles), there's no such thing as salvation. The difference between the two concepts is the difference between luck and work - and yeah, even work takes some luck. The odds are against his characters, and if you watch who's smiling and who's fucked in the finale's triumphant musical montage, you'll see that they're all victims and beneficiaries of chance intersecting with commitment. 'Deserve got nothing to do with it' says Snoop, quoting the movie Unforgiven. But the outcomes of the various storylines are less important than the humanity displayed (or lacked) during the events of the series. The stories don't really end, is the thing; The Wire is all about The Game, played at great expense to individuals. From an institutional standpoint nothing at all has changed when episode 60 comes to a close; the city remains a tapestry of individual stories, but the political facts are as they were.
Which is to say, Simon knows that as much as we love Bubbles, he's not the only clever (ex-)junkie in Baltimore - just as Daniels is neither the first nor the last would-be reformer to miss his shot at power because of badly timed principles, and Omar isn't the only guy ever to jump from a third-floor window, and Carcetti isn't the only Baltimore mayor ever to fall headfirst into lies and give up all his campaign promises at the first whiff of more power.
So let's open our eyes, shall we? The naysayers aren't really worried about the 'cheesiness' of Sydnor walking McNulty's path, nor of Fletcher taking Gus's job, nor of Kima and Bunk sharing wisecracks over a bloody corpse.
They're worried, I think, because they can't deal with a nasty truth, the very nastiest: forget that Michael is now Omar, and remember that Omar was once Michael, or someone like him. And Gus was once Fletcher. And Daniels used to be something like Carver, and Bubbles had Dukie's smile, and Royce dreamed of the same reforms Carcetti promised, and Bunk once made Kima's choices and mistakes, and Avon and Marlo probably ran from the same security guard at Toys'R'Us. Our heroes - and equally importantly, our villains - are not special. They are not unique. We can't make a story about them and thereby eliminate the danger they pose, nor make immortal their achievements. In other words, much as we'd like these characters to be safe as characters, to live by dramatic rules instead of the rules of The Game, they're only human beings.
For a nation raised on comic books and pulp novels, and adventure films and stories of One Man Died To Save Everyone - starting, we might add, with a certain 'Greatest Story Ever Told' - for a nation, in other words, high on its own fumes, that's a hard pill to swallow. And the cynicism of 'fuck America' types is only an inversion of the same exceptionalist argument; if you think America is worst instead of greatest among nations, you're still believing in the ladder of creation. You're still playing the stats game.
And what does David Simon think of the stats game?
'There ain't no back in the day. Ain't no nostalgia to this shit here.'
I don't want to get away from Season Five for too long; the fact remains that it felt a little different from the foregoing, mainly because it moved so quickly - at 10.5 episodes rather than 12 or 13, it condensed its side plots to make room for the oversized central black comedies (McNulty and Templeton). But it's important to situate the usual complaints about the show in the context of its formal risk-taking and the brutality of its subject matter. Without the verbal flash of Deadwood, or the Who Will They Whack Next deadpools among Sopranos fans, The Wire always ran the risk of offending its viewers - but it turns out it also ran the risk of its viewers simply missing the point(s). Nice as it was to get a sendoff for Jimmy McNulty (Landsman's loving tribute at Kavanagh's - and remember too its ironic counterpart, the FBI profiler's take on McNulty as a high-functioning self-destructive alcoholic), the show dared to make him small in the end, to keep his personal achievements from mattering much in the long run. And Omar - a footnote! Killed by a goddamn kid in a convenience store! Forget the overwrought angst of 'No one here gets out alive,' David Simon's show asked whether 'alive' was anything like what its viewers thought it was.
But let's stick to the latest for a second. How were the lines? As good as they've ever been, maybe better - both on the page and onscreen. Marlo's fiery jailhouse speech, McNulty's confession to Beadie, Rawls wondering whether McNulty killed the homeless men himself, Landsman's elegy, Bubbles's magnificent speech ('Ain't no shame holding on to grief, as long as you make room for other things' - the single best line in the five-year run of the show), Gus's directive to Fletcher ('be with people'), Kima's lovely 'goodnight moon' speech (lifted by Richard Price from his novel Clockers!), the farewell to Cheese ('That was for Joe.' 'This sentimental motherfucker just cost us money!'), every single line from Isaiah Whitlock Jr. as Clay Davis (including the mother of all 'sheeeeeeeeeeit's)...as great as the fall of Stringer Bell was, as perfect as the slow insinuations of Season Four were, S5 gave us both more laugh-out-loud moments than any of the show's other stories and as much pure heartbreak as its other arcs. Lester goes out quietly, McNulty to god-knows-what; Templeton gets his Pulitzer; Carcetti's wife sees her husband become a monster; Kima reconnects with Elijah; Nicky Sobotka reminds us of how far he fell (and a crucial government witness is hustled off the TV screen by irritated cops); Prez sees that he couldn't save Dukie; and Dukie...
...and then there are Dukie, Michael, Namond, and Randy. God almighty. The show turned over its hole cards and revisited the four 'Boys of Summer' this year, reminding us that (1) all four lads have got chops in front of the camera, and (2) as diverting as the power games on The Wire are, their greatest cost is to lives not yet fully lived. And crucially: grounding the dark satire of Season Five in those four boys' ongoing stories, embodying the principle that once we're making a goddamn five-season TV show about a problem, the problem is probably too deeply entrenched for a TV audience to do a thing about it - time has gone by, a generation lost. By coming back to the boys' stories in the context of McNulty and Templeton's lies, Simon darkened the (nominal) grownups' stories - and broadened the children's.
How were the images? Easy: watch the final episode, with its two gorgeous montages of Baltimore (not only the raucous closer but the lovely silent sequence about 2/3 of the way through the episode). The direction on The Wire was never flashy, but it was always top-flight. And the acting was, as ever, superb - most of the cast was never better. By every standard of technique and craftsmanship, the series went out on top.
Facts, fictions, fantasies, and some Spider-Man shit right there
I didn't mind the thinness of the newsroom scenes; I suspect that as a journalist himself, Simon let his own personal concerns and grudges take center stage, but those concerns are important first- and second-hand (fabulists and prize-hungry editors erode trust in the news media; that erosion of trust further marginalizes and imperils the independent press, drawing careerists, creating a 'buyer's market' of sorts). Besides, as I hope I've at least in part shown, Simon used the newsroom scenes in part as an ironic counterpoint to the enormity of what else went on during the yearlong arc; the lie was big enough for everyone to believe it, even (it seems) the near-saintly Gus. Remember, Gus didn't know who Prop Joe was, nor Omar; the bigger deal happened almost in passing, as his veteran staffers disappeared. The issue wasn't fabrication, it was the environment in which fabrication was possible, and the 'thin' treatment of the newsroom story early on was meant to embody the denuded intellectual and communitarian environment. Templeton rushed in to fill a vacuum; the problems were problems before he arrived. And no, Simon didn't do a great job explaining what those problems are; but then if you believe America's armchair 'media critics,' they're not terribly important - newspapers should be jettisoned anyhow.
Suffice it to say that Simon made a bold argument, in Season Five, about the causes of fabrication and laziness by journalists, their effects on newspaper culture, and the political ramifications of journalistic failure. One of the crucial facts of S5 isn't just that Daniels is deliberately misquoted, which sabotages his rise to the Commissioner's seat - it's that City Council President Nerese Campbell, among others, knows he didn't say the words attributed to him, and doens't do anything about it. She's part of the journalistic environment Simon portrayed in Season Five, as well as the political environment he's so harshly criticized through the show. The elements of the argument are clear, particularly in retrospect, and his claims are evaluated easily enough on the merits. As for whether they make good art: I was on the edge of my seat for ten weeks, and the newsroom scenes added to that tension. Gus didn't fall far but he fell, unjustly; Templeton rose, unjustly, and even a moment of sudden humanity (his stomach ache) didn't stop him from his undeserved Pulitzer; Alma suffered most of all, too young to have seen better days at the paper, too good to take the easy way out (or rather, in). A good old-fashioned Wire story and no mistake.
So could the outlandish aspects of Season Five really have happened? Oh yes, yes they could. Not the most outlandish though, probably not: McNulty's serial killer stretches credibility. But then Hamsterdam couldn't have happened without someone finding out, either. And remember, while The Wire is ethically and intentionally a work of great narrative journalism, it has all the freedom that comes with being fiction: as Simon puts it, his WGA membership card says he gets to make shit up. At the same time, you can't help going a little crazy when young bloods like the WireTAP crew (see the tiresome link above - so much money spent on so much college education with so little critical upshot) complain about how Simon isn't showing what politics is really like, nor what newsrooms are really like. Leave aside the question of whether The American Prospect and similar boutique magazines are really hard news outlets in the same sense as the Baltimore Sun (sidebar: they're not), and leave aside whether any blogger, anywhere, ever, has known anything about Baltimore politics. Simon knows his shit. Zorzi too - politics beat, Baltimore Sun, decade plus - and Ed Burns (I think he might have been a cop for a week or something), and the other gnarled old guys writing the show. If the show is making simplifications of foreshortening or being a little literary or even appealing to authority, it's because it's a story, made-up, and the guys telling it are authorities. Sorry to burst anyone's bubble.
(Take a beat to read this interview of Simon, by the badly overmatched Heather Havrilesky.)
I hardly remember where I started - been working on this post for hours now. Well, that's how it goes.
It was better than you've heard. It wasn't just probably the best ever; it's also maybe the bravest, the darkest, the most singular - a genre show that carried a message that raised it far beyond its genre, not just a great cop show, but a cop show that wanted to be the last cop show. The farthest-reaching analysis of an American city in, maybe, any artistic or journalistic medium. No, seriously. Did it shortchange its characters? No - it aimed for a different sort of storytelling than the self-centered mode we're used to, and let its characters serve its stories, and if that was confusing or disturbing, well...confused and disturbed aren't the worst things we've been. (I know because I saw it on The Wire.)
The fact that The Wire improved steadily throughout its first four seasons is incredible; the fact that it then did something it had never even tried before, and succeeded (to my eye), is just ridiculous. This was a golden age of television; I think it's over. I cried to see Tony Soprano in that diner, waiting for his daughter; I cried to see Al Swearengen wiping up Jen's blood, refusing to tell Johnny something pretty. I didn't cry during last night's finale of The Wire; a city is too big a thing to let go of.
There'll be more to say - yeah - but not just now.