Review: The Wire, Season 5 (Simon, 2008)

Still from the show The Wire, Season 5

Awww, no more episodes of The Wire left for us. Curiously, though, I didn’t get the sense of withdrawal that usually settles upon me when I finish a show I’ve grown fond of. Perhaps it’s because it ends with more of a sense of closure, or perhaps it’s because the characters aren’t what I’m most attached to in the series.

Shorter than the others by a few episodes, season 5 departs from politics and schools for a peek into the Baltimore Sun, a publication that show creator David Simon used to write for. And, of course, the final season continues its focus on the police department and the street gangs, with all our old favorite thugs (the ones who are still alive anyway) making an appearance.

The show picks up again a few months into the reign of the new Mayor. Remember how at the end of last season I mentioned that awful sense of hope at Carcetti’s election and the dread of waiting for the other shoe to drop? Well, drop it does, and with a crushing thud. In the first episode, signs of budgetary deficiencies and low morale plaster the police department, clouding even the purposeful Major Crimes unit. Freamon’s detail is pursuing Marlo Stanfield with all guns blazing (er, figuratively): wire taps are on, surveillance units up–the usual Lester methodology. Unfortunately, even the newly anointed Major Daniels can’t protect them from the city’s financial crisis; Major Crimes is disbanded, and Stanfield’s crew, which had at least been held in check by the police’s ongoing investigation, resumes its former tactics.

You can only imagine what kind of disillusionment such a move might produce in our beloved maverick, Jimmy McNulty. In this season, the desperate detective colors further out of the lines than he ever has before in his quest to bring down his target. His plan borders on the psychotic, the web of improprieties growing so thick that viewers can’t help but adopt the incredulous disgust of Bunk Moreland, at first the only one privy to McNulty’s harebrained scheme. Still, without need for much persuasion, McNulty manages to recruit Freamon to his project, and the two veteran renegades embark down a road from which there’s no return.

McNulty soon discovers that his old tactics, which made such a splash in season 1, aren’t going to cut it anymore. Upping the ante, he goes to the press, the only instrument that can put pressure on someone as important as the Mayor. In reaching out to the Sun, luckily or unluckily, McNulty is confronted with his doppelganger in the form of the conniving and ambitious young journalist Scott Templeton (Thomas McCarthy). The collision of these two produces a maelstrom of lies that renders the season almost painful to watch. (We did indeed shut off our iPad mid-episode once, out of indignation.) As the episodes tick on, we can’t help but wonder how the writers could possibly resolve such a mess in the few remaining hours left. And yet they do, with much less nastiness than we could have imagined.

It might have been a weak season, as one of my friends claimed. Certainly some parts seem a little too incredible. I wondered, too, about the neatness with which everything is tied up. But ultimately I decided that I was at peace with it. I needed the closure that Simon provides, and he gives it not without a healthy dose of realism, and that bittersweet cocktail of cynicism and optimism that has been the hallmark of The Wire since its beginning. And if each character gets only a brushstroke here or there, I’m fine with that, too. After all, this is not a character-driven show, as I’ve said before–it’s an ensemble, a milieu. It is Baltimore itself who is the show’s central character, and it is she, and Simon’s cross-cutting vision of her, that I will miss the most.

But The Wire is also about more than Baltimore. Looking back on the whole series, I am fascinated by how relevant its subject matter still is. In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations and concerns about privacy, wire-tapping is front and center in the news like it never was when the show first aired. And what about police brutality and (in)efficacy, spotlighted now by recent events in Ferguson and New York City and countless other places? The technology may have gotten stale, but the issues have not. I’m not the only one to have connected the dots. HBO launched its marathon of the newly remastered HD version of The Wire on December 26th, and I believe those episodes are now also available on HBOGo. Check it out if you’re feeling nostalgic, or if you’re the rare person who hasn’t yet seen the show.