Eugoogly / Time of the Season: S5 of The Wire
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 10, 2008
Yeah, might be one or two spoilers ahead
It wasn’t going to be like The Sopranos. No matter what you expected from the series finale of The Wire, the one thing everyone seemed to sense was that it wouldn’t be nearly as maddening, hard to read or (arguably) brilliant as Tony, Carmela, AJ and Meadow eating onion rings in a diner. That just wasn’t David Simon’s style–though it’s probably the less commercial show of the two, The Wire was in essence a more conventional series than The Sopranos–just like you wouldn’t have episodes where McNulty kills one of his relatives, or entire episodes based around characters’ dreams, you wouldn’t have a series finale that ended in a ellipsis. The Sopranos was often purposefully ambiguous, but The Wire was always a show that had something to say. Regardless of what the finale was, you knew that it would feel like a finale.
But before we start talking about the finale, let’s size up Season Five a bit. It seems likely to me that Season Five will go down as the weakest thusfar, with its only real competition coming from S2, which continues to polarize audiences in its feeling of separation from the themes and characters of the other four seasons. And I agree-it’s the worst season of The Wire yet.
A lot of the blame for this can be attributed to the focus on the news room, which while introducing one of the show’s better characters in Gus Haynes (played, of course, by the inimitable Clark Johnson), never really developed the sense of urgency that the subplots of other seasons possessed. Yeah, OK, so it’s a hard world for journalists, and tightening of costs puts pressure on writers which causes them to resort to desperate measures which ends up making ethics increasingly stringent. Fair enough, but this is The Wire, a show where characters are actually killed in practically every episode. So the stakes don’t exactly feel too high when we’re talking about the death of journalistic integrity as opposed to the death of, y’know, people. It was well-handled, but it felt ultimately inconsequential.
(One side note I will say in this plot’s defense: It did a great job of illustrating why Journalists cheat. Most actual news writers will talk about how realistic the newsroom stuff is, and I can’t really comment on that, but as a Journalism student, I can say that the show got spot on why the straight up journalistic process can be so frustrating. The scene where Gus gets Templeton to go out and interview a bunch of homeless people, they give him absolute shit to work with, and after a day of increasingly useless interviews, he just makes up his own stuff. That’s journalism–you interview a dozen people just hoping that they say what you already want to write, they probably don’t, and you’re stuck trying to squeeze square pegs into round holes for a whole article. Not saying I condone his actions, or that I’d act similarly–actually, I wouldn’t act at all, since I pretty much don’t plan on doing legit Journalism ever again, largely for these reasons–but I doubt there’s a journalist alive that doesn’t feel the temptation to do what Templeton did on a regular basis, and this season did a great job showing why.)
Anyway, that wasn’t even the main problem of this season. The real issue was the lack of an emotional connection to work with. Season one had the tragedies of Wallace and D’Angelo, two had the Sobotka family drama, three had the dissolution of Stringer and Avon, four had all them kids, and five…well, we were still rooting for Michael and Dookie, we wanted Bubs to get let out of the basement, and we wanted to see Omar take down Marlo, sure. But none of those plotlines were given enough attention or enough focus to hang an entire season on–they were supporting plots, not the driving drama of the season.
Instead, we got Jimmy McNulty the Serial Killer. I don’t think this plot was as much of a misstep as some–really, it was McNulty and Lester’s equivalent of Hamsterdam, a couple characters (and Simon, by proxy) experiment with what happens when, as Pearlman puts it, they start “coloring outside the lines”. And while it was a little ridiculous at times, and while I don’t believe for a second that Lester would have let himself ever get suckered in to a plot with such a high potential for failure, it was an interesting “what if?” as McNulty realizes that making a police department care about a serial killer (or indeed, even notice its existence) is harder than he thought, and then getting them to calm down from the mania afterwards is even harder. If nothing else, the plot was worth it for the scene where McNulty and Greggs hear the FBI’s profile of the serial killer and their description (loner, alcoholic, problem with authority) nails McNulty to a tee (“They’re not far off,” he comments).
But with all the things I liked about this plot, it just didn’t carry the emotional weight of the main arcs of the first four seasons. I mean, I wanted to see Lester and McNulty get away with it, but given the fall McNulty has (re-)experienced since the Changed Man of S4, I also kinda wanted to see him get his comeuppance for treating Beadie like shit, fucking over his partners, and just generally having no regard for anyone or anything besides himself and his personal vendetta (“Marlo doesn’t get to win, we get to win!”) It arguably made his character richer, but it meant I didn’t have half the investment in his project that I did in Bunny’s innovations.
To offset the lack of emotional connection here, the show needed to have more going on in the streets. In 3 or 4, even if you didn’t find stuff like Hamsterdam or Carcetti’s run for Mayor particularly riveting, you still had Avon and Stringer, or Bode revolting against Marlo’s reign of tyranny, or Omar waging war against whoever had tried to kill him or his people that week. This season, though, all we really had left were Marlo, Chris and Snoop–three of the show’s all-time great characters, no doubt, but none whose success you were particularly anxious to see. Michael’s battle with soullessness was occasionally brilliant, and for a while we had the tantalizing prospect of an Omar-Marlo showdown, but the latter ended too early and the former wasn’t given enough time to be a primary arc.
So, the weakest season of The Wire? Almost certainly. But I don’t mean that to sound nearly as much like a knock as it probably does. TV does not get better than Seasons Three or Four of this show–it just doesn’t, and I question if it ever will–and to expect the show to continue to play on that level…well, if anyone could do it, it’d be The Wire, but Memphis couldn’t stay perfect, the Patriots couldn’t stay perfect, and The Wire couldn’t quite do it either. Honestly, though, I felt like after the way S4 ended–as complete a season of TV that could possibly be produced–that anything afterwards would just be a bonus, a sort of coda after the grand finale of 4. And so that’s how I approach this season–a solid bonus track, not quite up to par with the rest of the LP, but with occasional moments of brilliance that remind you of how amazing the whole album is. And I just don’t think it’d be fair to have expected anything more.
With all this in mind, my take on the finale is that it was exactly what the season, and in turn, the show, deserved. Like I said before, this wasn’t going to be the Sopranos finale, and indeed, it won’t be–it’s not the kind of episode that people are going to be talking about for years to come, not the kind of episode that sparks up a seemingly ceaseless series of blog debates, not the kind of episode that’ll make you question your entire conception of the series and fill your head for days afterwards. What it was is exactly what it needed to be–a neat ending to all the main plots of the season, a brief look into the future, and a summation of what the series was about in the first place.
And I gotta say, even though most people (including myself) seemed to be predicting a gloom and doom finale for The Wire‘s final act, I left “-30-” with a strange feeling of optimism. Sure, there was minorly some soul-crushing stuff in there–Carcetti officially succumbing to puppet status, Valchek stepping in as Commish over Daniels’ forced retirement, and of course, Dookie’s descent into full-fledged junkiedom among them. But I expected it to be a finale strewn with deaths and ruined lives, and aside from Dookie’s miserbale fate, you didn’t really get too much of that.
In fact, there were a handful of moments so joyous that made me literally squeal with glee. Pearlman and Daniels winking at each other from across the courtroom bench. Marlo taking about 1/16th the time it took Avon to conclude that the straight life wasn’t for him, and ditching his bishness man outfit for a white tee. Levy pinching Herc’s cheek and deeming him mishpacha. And, best of all, Slim Charles interrupting Cheese in the middle of his best Tony Montana rant with a bullet to the head–possibly the biggest SHIT YEAH moment in the entire series. These were some beautiful scenes, and they made me so relieved that Simon didn’t just try to bully his loyal subjects with Truth in the series’ last 90 minutes on earth–we’ve had plenty of that over five seasons, it’s nice to know that there’s room for hope as well.
Actually, at times it felt like the show let up a little too much, especially in the case of McNulty. Over the first three-quarters of this season, McNulty fucked up about as he’s ever fucked up in the history of the show (which, needless to say, is a pretty high fuck-up density), yet at the end of the line, not only does he not end up dead or in prison, he gets to keep his job, his cop friends and even his long-suffering girlfriend, the worst consequence being a transfer to a realtively inconsequential unit. For a guy that invented a serial killer, and even inspired a few real-life killings, that seems like a pretty light punishment (not to mention that his conflict-free reconciliation scene with Greggs, whose diming on him and Lester could’ve very well ended up landing ’em in the slammer, felt like one of the finale’s several “Oh shit, we only have thirty minutes left? Better wrap this one up quick” scenes).
Ultimately, though, the pervading feeling leaving the finale was one of satisfaction. Seeing the capable but not quite sociopathic Slim Charles take over the connect while Marlo goes back to low-level grindin’, seeing Bubs sit down to family dinner with his sister and her kid, even seeing Chris find his prison soulmate in Wee Bay–it all just felt sort of right, the perfect epilogue. Plus, one thing this season has been great with is in ensuring that all the old faces make at least one final appearances, and with Pres’s cameo (Dookie hits him up for drug money, effectively burning the last bridge he had left), we’ve now seen from just about all of ’em. What more could you really want from a final episode (or a final season, for that matter)?
Ironically, though, with all the differences between this finale and the Sopranos ending, the message of the two is ultimately the same–life goes on. The Sopranos showed it by demonstrating how though Tony Soprano had escaped a close call, he wasn’t out of the woods yet and likely never would be, always wondering whether that shady-looking guy going to the bathroom while you’re eating will come back with a gun and blow your head off. The Wire shows it by demonstrating how everything is cyclical, how Sydnor’s experience in Special Crimes lead to his overambition and ultimately his becoming the new McNulty, how Dookie’s lack of options have him becoming the new Bubbles, and how Michael’s alienation from his family and outlaw status on the streets have him becoming the new Omar (how I didn’t see this one coming I have no idea, but man am I glad I didn’t–awesome). The cops still care primarily about their stats, the politicians still care primarily about getting re-elected, and ain’t nobody gonna stop the hustlers from hustlin’ and the ‘yos from ‘yoin’. Shit in Bodymore, Murdaland is the same as it ever was.
“-30-” is not one of the Great Wire Episodes. Indeed, it even pales in comparison slightly to “Late Editions,” the previous episode, which felt far more like the season’s climax (Simon always did blow his show’s Big Moments in the season’s pentultimate episodes). And it’s definitely not the best Wire finale–that’s “Final Grades,” the S4 finale, a front-runner for not only my favorite Wire episode but a top fiver for any TV episode ever. But like the season on the whole, it’s hard to complain. In a world where most brilliant but challenging TV shows are lucky to get a full season, we were blessed to get four full, uncompromised, virtually flawless seasons of this show, and to get another season on top of that is a veritable godsend. The fact that S5 was often brilliant, and never less than thoroughly compelling television…well, it’s almost too much to ask for.
Thanks for the memories, guys.
R.I.P. The Wire, 2002-2008