Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Wire's Final Season and the Story Everyone Missed

Well now, it's been a week since The Wire's final episode and a certain calm has descended, leaving a little less agita and a little more reflection. A moment for one last question:

That wasn't too vicious, was it?

Sure there was a fabulist and, yeah, he snatched the big prize. Couldn't resist, sorry. That was a bit beyond the historical reality; at the historical Baltimore Sun, he was a mere Pulitzer finalist. And okay, the city editor, the honorable fellow, the one for whom journalism was an ethos, he got slapped down and thrown to the copy desk. We did that, too, because hey, to criticize such a newsroom culture did indeed carry those risks in Baltimore.

But the fifth-season story arc began with a wonderful bit of adversarial reporting on deadline -- good, clean newspapering it was. And at the end there, that other fellow wrote a very sincere narrative about a very real and genuine soul. Righteous journalism that makes a good reporter get up in the morning.

* Email
* Print
* Comments

Buzz up!on Yahoo!

True, the top editor had to get up on a desk amid the deluge of the internet and the declines in circulation and advertising. And yeah, he gave the more-with-less talk to maintain morale and it rang a hollow because at this point, buyout upon buyout, the grey ladies are down to bone already. But he was sincere in his grief. He hated closing those foreign bureaus and cutting back further in the newsroom. But what can you do? The suits in Chicago are running scared.

All in all, the last season of The Wire wasn't that cruel a portrayal, was it? There was some love in there for the ink-stained wretches. A few funny lines, too. Tell me you didn't laugh at the burnt-doll harem in the photog's trunk. C'mon, it's okay to smile.

Ah, fuck it, who's kidding whom?

It was way worse than you thought. Any of you -- save for a couple sharp journos who were able to stand back just far enough to realize what the real critique was. Lowry got it, and tellingly, he used to work for the L.A. Times but is now a step or two removed from a metropolitan daily, writing for Variety. And a couple of others at alternative weeklies figured it out - again, perhaps, because they're less vested than everyone at the big, vulnerable dailies.

But the rest of you blessed, scribbling souls? Not so much as an offhand reference, and that goes not just for the journalists displeased enough with our newspaper tale, but for the larger number of commentators and critics who thought we did swell. No one went near the theme; everyone stayed dead-center and literal, oblivious to the big-ass elephant in our mythical newsroom.

Let's be clear, though. I'm actually rigorous about letting criticism of the show stand without arguing back. I'll rant a bit about journalism, or the drug war or any other issue that I rub up against. But if you didn't enjoy The Wire this season, then let's concede for purposes of this little note that you are correct. We sucked. The writing was a train wreck, the characterization limp, the acting and plotting, shameful and shameless both. Jumped that shark in high-topped Nikes, we did.

Okay, I don't actually agree, but neither would I argue. We said what we wanted to say and now everyone else is entitled to talk back without some counterbitch finding them. So let's happily concede that all criticism stands and get to the real fun.

Because the thing I can't leave alone, the thing that makes me giddy as a schoolgirl is this: Whatever else I am -- a traitorous apostate to newsprint, the angriest hack in television, a kicker of small dogs -- you must acknowledge that I am now, also, the newly crowded King of Meta. That's right. I am your new lord sovereign of buried, latent, subtextual argument. I dragged it past sarcasm, past cynicism, and all the way to balls-out snide. Crown me up and kneel, ya bitches.

Here's what happened in season five of The Wire when almost no one -- among the working press, at least -- was looking:

Our newspaper missed every major story.

The mayor, who came in promising reform, is instead forcing his police department to once again cook the stats to create the illusion that crime is going down. Uncovered.

The school system has been teaching test questions to improve No Child Left Behind scores, and to protect the mayor politically and to validate a system that is failing to properly educate city children. No expose published.

Key investigations and prosecutions are undercut or abandoned by the political machinations of police officials, prosecutors and political figures. Departmental priorities make high-level drug investigation prohibitive.

Not the news that's fit to print.

Drug wars, territorial disputes, and the assassination of the city's largest drug importer manage to produce a brief inside the metro section that refers only to the slaying of a second-hand appliance store owner.

Par for the course.

That was the critique. With the exception of the good journalism that bookended the story arc -- which is, of course, representative of the fact that there are still newspaper folk in Baltimore and elsewhere struggling mightily to do the job -- the season amounted to ten hours of a newspaper that is no longer intimately aware of its city.

And here comes the meta:

In Baltimore, where over the last twenty years Times Mirror and the Tribune Company have combined to reduce the newsroom by forty percent, all of the above stories pretty much happened. A mayor was elected governor while his police commanders made aggravated assaults and robberies disappear. School principals in Baltimore and elsewhere in Maryland were obliged to teach test questions to pump scores at the expense of meaningful curricula. Politicians then took credit for the limited gains that were, of course, unsustainable as the students aged into middle school. Politically sensitive casework was butchered or pursued selectively by political interests and departmental indifference. Notable killings and machinations in the drug world were the talk of the streets.

And yes, in real life, there wasn't much written about such in my city. Amid buyout after buyout, the Baltimore Sun conceded much of its institutional memory, its beat structure, its ability to penetrate municipal institutions and report qualitatively on substantive issues in a way that explains not just the symptomatic problems of the city, but the root causes of those problems.

The Sun began doing so in the 1990s -- before the internet, before the Tribune Company did its worst -- when beat reporting and any serious, systemic examination of issues was eschewed in favor of "impact" journalism, special projects and Pulitzer sniffing. It continued doing so into the present decade as the Tribune Company followed the Times-Mirror buyouts with even more ruthless abandon. And now, with the economic vise that is the internet tight around her, The Sun - like so many once-worthy regional newspapers -- is fighting for relevance and readers.

It's admittedly easy enough, if you are writing a fictional television show, to sit in a diner booth or on a bar stool with a police lieutenant or an assistant principal, an assistant state's attorney or a political functionary and have them tell you the good dirt, knowing as they do that fiction is a safe abstraction. Fiction makes everyone comfortable and talkative; journalism -- good, probing journalism -- is a much harder, much more rigorous task. It is time-consuming, expensive, deliberate and demanding.

It would not have been easy for a veteran police reporter to pull all the police reports in the Southwestern District and find out just how robberies fell so dramatically, to track each individual report through staff review and find out how many were unfounded and for what reason, or to develop a stationhouse source who could tell you about how many reports went unwritten on the major's orders, or even further -- to talk to people in that district who tried to report armed robberies and instead found themselves threatened with warrant checks or accused of drug involvement or otherwise intimidated into dropping the matter.

It would be hard for a committed education reporter to acquire the curriculum of a city middle school and compare it to what children were taught before No Child Left Behind reduced teaching to rote repetition, or to track a rise in the third-grade test scores into the fifth or seventh grade and thereby demonstrate how temporal and false the gains actually were. And to get teachers talking, even on background, about their anger and frustration at this flummery?

That kind of trust comes slow.

But absent that kind of reporting, we will all soon enough live in cities and towns where politicians and bureaucrats gambol freely without worry, where it is never a risk to shine shit and call it gold. A good newspaper covers its city and acquires not just the quantitative account of a day's events, but the qualitative truth and meaning behind those events. A great newspaper does this routinely on a multitude of issues, across its entire region.

Such a newspaper was not chronicled on The Wire. There were still good journalists in our make-believe newsroom, and they did some good work -- just as there are still such souls in Baltimore and every city laboring in similar fashion and to similar result. But there used to be more of them. And they covered more ground, and they knew the terrain in a way that they no longer do.

I confess I thought that journalism was still self-aware enough to get it, that enough collective consciousness of the craft's highest calling remained, that reporters still worried about what their newspapers were missing.

We certainly expected more attention from the media. Write a television story arc about the betrayal of the working class, the fraud of the drug war or the lie of No Child Left Behind and you can't get off the entertainment pages. Maybe an education magazine writes a column on inncr-city curricula, or a libertarian website revisits the idea of drug decriminalization.

But suggest that high-end American newspapers have been gutted by out-of-town ownership, besieged by the internet and preoccupied by a prize culture that validates small-trick and self-limiting "impact," rather than seriously evaluating problems? Now you've got the full attention of the media.

We are grateful for ink. Always.

But for all of it to amount to a forest-and-tree farce? To argue about whether Whiting is more venal or one-dimensional than Valchek? To debate whether Gus Haynes is more of a hero than Bunny Colvin? To wonder whether anyone would be disciplined for cursing in a newsroom, or why they made the top editor wear those suspenders, or whether it was a cliché to have a fabricator driving the overt plot? To argue about whether the drama had become arch or unsubtle? And to studiously avoid any sustained discussion about whether the depicted newspaper is, in all respects, capturing the meaningful narrative of the depicted city? And whether that is an accurate critique?

When we were beating the story out, Bill Zorzi wondered whether -- in the final episode -- it might be necessary for Gus Haynes to vocalize the theme, to turn to Alma or Luxenberg or some other character and say, "We're so thin, and we waste what little resources we have left on the wrong things. I wonder what's happening in this city that we don't know about. I wonder what we're missing?"

But no, show don't tell is the rule. To have the city editor saying such things would have been, well, arch. And unsubtle. As it is, I argued, any good journalist will -- if he or she loves the business -- follow this story and wince at the stories systematically missed, the undiscovered and unreported tales of the city known to viewers for four seasons. As wounded and onanistic and self-absorbed as the profession has become, there are still plenty of people for whom that matters above all.

So I talked Zorzi down on that one.

My bad, Bill. My bad.

David Simon, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun for thirteen years, is the executive producer of HBO's The Wire. The drama's final season, depicting a Baltimore newspaper, concluded last week.

LECTURES: Journalists and the Public Square (David Simon)

Knight Chair in Media and Religion Diane Winston presents a discussion with David Simon, creator and executive producer of the highly-acclaimed HBO series The Wire. Simon is a former Baltimore Sun reporter whose television portrayal of journalism today is sparking active debate. Simon will show clips from the program and take questions from the audience. Reception follows discussion. This event is cosponsored by the USC Gould School of Law.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Wire - Bodie's Final Moments

The final moments of Bodie, taken from episode 50 of the Wire: "Final Grades." One of the best episodes of TV I've ever watched.

Marlo, Chris, Cheese and Monk in lockup

The Wire -- Stringer & Avon

Avon and Stringer reminiscing.

Bunk Chides Omar

Bunk confronts Omar about Tosha's death, how the game has changed, and how the kids glorify him. One of the great bench scenes The Wire always has.

The Wire: All Due Respect -- television at its finest

"That small, wrinkled-ass paper bag allowed the corner boys to have their drink in peace, and gave us permission to go. and do. police work...the kind of police work that's actually worth the effort. That's worth actually taking a bullet...

There's never been a paper bag for drugs. Until now."

Arguably one of the greatest moments in the history of American television, this speech by Major Colvin ("Bunny") of Baltimore's Western District is a stellar example of how The Wire puts 99% of television to shame.

The Wire - McNulty and Bunk, the famous crime scene

They investigate a crime scene only using the word fuck.

Where the fuck is Wallace??

Greatest scene in television history. DeAngelo Barksdale questions Stringer Bell on the whereabouts of his friend Wallace

Sepinwall on TV: The Wire unplugged

Sepinwall on TV: The Wire unplugged
Posted by Alan Sepinwall March 09, 2008 6:19AM
At the end of last week's episode of "The Wire" -- arguably the greatest episode of inarguably the greatest drama in TV history -- two 15-year-old boys, Dukie (Jermaine Crawford) and Michael (Tristan Wilds) sat in a car together, their lives in ruins. Michael was a killer several times over and now a hunted man by the drug crew that made him so. Dukie, born into then abandoned by a family of junkies, was about to go live with junkies again, his other options for residence and guardians seemingly exhausted.

As the two boys contemplated their awful futures, Dukie smiled and brought up a silly story from the previous summer, when they and their friends decided to fight back against neighborhood bullies by throwing urine-filled balloons at them.

"That was a day," Dukie said, trying to hold onto his childhood for one more moment. "You bought me ice cream off the truck. You remember, Mike?"

Michael, his childhood long since abandoned, closed his eyes in pain and said, "I don't."

But we did.

What made that scene so powerful -- what makes so many "Wire" scenes so moving -- was how it built on things that had happened before, sometimes long before. We saw the balloon fight that Dukie describes, we saw how young and innocent the boys and their friends were and the long chain of terrible events that led them to this moment where Dukie desperately wants to cling to that memory and Michael is so far gone he can't even remember it. (Or doesn't want to.)

One of the series' main characters, and perhaps its most symbolic creative figure, is Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), a marginalized detective who, while no one is paying him any mind, repeatedly builds miraculous cases out of nothing simply by being slow and steady and seeing how everything's connected. As Lester said in an early episode, "We're building something here, detective. We're building it from scratch. All the pieces matter."

All the pieces on "The Wire" matter, which is why the show was so brilliant, and why its small fanbase will mourn its loss after the final episode ends tonight around 10:35. (As soon as it ends, go to for a review of the finale and an extensive Q&A with "Wire" creator David Simon.) Every character, every moment, is important in some way, and if it doesn't seem so at first, just take a cue from Lester and be patient until you can see the whole picture.

Before the series' finale, let's look back at some -- but by no means all -- of the greatest moments in "Wire" history (with YouTube links where available) and how they either paid off a long way in the future or were paying off earlier set-ups.

"The king stay the king." (Season 1, episode 3)

D'Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.), a middle manager in his uncle Avon's drug empire, spots teenage slingers Wallace (Michael B. Jordan) and Bodie (J.D. Williams) using a chess set to play checkers and decides to school them on chess. He compares the pieces to members of their drug organization -- his uncle is the king, for instance -- and notes that the three of them are a lot like pawns.

Wallace asks how you get to be the king, and D'Angelo says the king is always the king, and the best a pawn can do is to somehow make it to the other end and become the queen. But "the pawns, man, in the game, they get capped quick. They be out the game early."

It's all connected: First Wallace, then D'Angelo, and eventually Bodie are murdered, not by cops or rival drug crews, but on orders of their own leadership, who had deemed each pawn expendable. (Wallace's death, by the way, leads to one of the best scenes in the series, as an incarcerated D'Angelo loudly demands to know where Wallace is.)

"*¢&%" (Season 1, episode 5)

Cops Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) visit an old crime scene and figure out exactly what happened while uttering nothing but variations on the F-word.

It's all connected: Not only is this a classic, hilarious example of the series showing how effectively people can communicate without words (on "The Wire," the most important messages are often sent in code, or left unsaid), but it establishes how tight the two partners are. In season five, when Bunk loudly protests McNulty's mad decision to invent a fake serial killer and trick the department into paying for a different investigation, we recognize just how extreme Jimmy's behavior is.

"There's never been a paper bag for drugs -- until now." (Season 3, episode 2)

Police district commander Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom), fed up with the damage the War on Drugs has done to the department, tells his troops the story of the early days of Baltimore's open container laws. Cops couldn't waste time that could be spent on real police work busting everyone drinking beer on the sidewalk, but they also couldn't let people openly break the law in front of them. A crisis was brewing, until some wino got the brilliant idea to put his bottle inside a paper bag, which gave him plausible deniability and the cops the license to do real police work.

It's all connected: Bunny's paper bag turns out to be Hamsterdam, a designated group of otherwise-abandoned blocks where he allows all the drug dealers to work unmolested, provided they keep to that area and aren't violent. Hamsterdam dramatically reduces the crime rate and improves the local quality of life, but it's such a radical break from the status quo -- the entrenched institutions that are the series' real villain -- that the program is shut down and Bunny is fired.

"How far we done fell." (Season 3, episode 6)

After larger-than-life stick-up artist Omar (Michael K. Williams) gets into a shoot-out with the Barksdale/Bell crew with multiple fatalities, Bunk comes to the crime scene to find a group of little kids enthusiastically re-enacting the firefight. Later, Bunk tears into Omar about the scene, insisting that, for all of Omar's talk of having a moral code and working outside the drug game, he's still part of the ongoing cycle of violence, another criminal for the kids to aspire to be.

It's all connected: One of the kids Bunk was watching --the one who yells out, "My turn to be Omar!" -- is Kenard (Thuliso Dingwall), a pint-sized corner kid who, two seasons later, will shoot and kill Omar simply because the opportunity presented itself.

"Us." (Season 3, episode 11)

Avon and partner Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) stand on the balcony of Avon's new waterfront condo, reminiscing about their childhood days running afoul of the law in this neighborhood. Each has betrayed the other -- Avon has set up Stringer to be killed by Omar, while Stringer has given the cops info that will lead to Avon's arrest -- but neither realizes the other has, as well.

It's all connected: The tension between Avon's desire to be a classic gangster and Stringer's to become a legitimate businessman was a running thread throughout the first three seasons and climaxed in this grand, subtext-laden scene. Stringer would wind up dead, Avon in prison.

"This is a tomb. Lex is in there." (Season 4, episode 11)

Lester and Bunk, on the search for Lex, a murder suspect believed to be a murder victim himself, silently go through a block of vacant row houses, and as Lester takes note of the different nails used to board up various houses, he realizes that Lex's body is inside one of those houses -- and that drug enforcers Chris Partlow (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and Snoop (Felicia Pearson) have created many similar tombs.

It's all connected: The first episode of that season established that Chris and Snoop were killing and hiding people in the vacants to keep police from noticing the body count, and Lester spent several episodes trying to figure out why there seemed to be no casualties from the rise of Chris and Snoop's boss, Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector). By having Lester go down so many dead-ends for so long -- and by having so many other characters find out about the vacants without telling the cops -- the writers made Lester's moment of discovery feel epic.

"You gonna help, huh?" (Season 4, episode 12)

Randy (Maestro Harrell) -- one of Dukie and Michael's friends from the balloon fight -- is facing a return to a nightmarish group home after his foster mother was critically injured by a firebomb, the result of Randy talking to the cops about Lex's murder. Sgt. Carver (Seth Gilliam), the cop who sent Randy down the road to ruin, visits him in the hospital waiting room and offers to help him. Randy doesn't respond at first, and as Carver makes the long walk down the hallway, Randy begins screaming (à la D'Angelo's "Where's Wallace?"), "You gonna look out for me, Sgt. Carver? Do you mean it? You gonna look out for me?"

It's all connected: The show meticulously detailed the long list of all the things that had to go wrong for Randy to wind up in this terrible situation. The following season, while Bunk is reinvestigating Lex's murder, he visits Randy at the group home and we find that this once-sweet boy with the omnipresent smile has, to survive, become another stone-faced thug.

"My name is my name!" (Season 5, episode 9)

Marlo finds out that before Omar died, he was conducting a street-level PR campaign accusing Marlo of being a coward for refusing to fight him directly over the death of Omar's friend Butchie. Chris tries to calm him down, but Marlo explodes, insisting that they get the word out that he's not afraid to fight any man, any time.

It's all connected: Over three seasons, Marlo had been written and played as a man of intense mystery and control: no wasted emotions or speech and few apparent hints of a personality. When he lost control at hearing the Omar news, we finally realized just how much effort went into that control, and how dangerous he would be without it.

"Around the way, they call me Bubbles." (Season 5, episode 9)

Recovering junkie Bubbles (Andre Royo) celebrates the anniversary of his sobriety at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, telling the story of a recent moment where he desperately wanted to get high but resisted the temptation. He then talks about the death -- largely Bubbs' fault -- of Sherrod, a teenage boy he took care of on the streets, and says he's finally made peace with it: "Ain't no shame in holding onto grief, as long as you make room for other things, too."

It's all connected: The show had spent five seasons chronicling Bubbles' progress toward this moment, from a failed attempt to get clean in season one to the nightmarish circumstances that led to Sherrod's death, and even Bubbs' struggle to feel he deserved to escape the corners. "Wire" characters rarely get the fate they deserve, but Bubbs did.

"The Wire" (Tonight at 9 on HBO) The critically acclaimed drama wraps up its five-year run as City Hall decides what to do about McNulty and Lester's fake serial killer and Levy and Pearlman try to get the better of each other on Marlo's case.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at or 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, N.J. 07102-1200.

COMMENTS (4)Post a comment
Posted by bjergy on 03/09/08 at 10:56AM

One of my favorite moments was in Season Four. McNulty picks Bodie up from holding and offers to take him to lunch (a move that would seal his fate). In the conversation they have in the park, Bodie finally comes to realize how wasted the game was even though its all he knows. The scene then rolls into his final showdown on his corner.

I know a lot of people never forgave Bodie for killing Wallace. And because of it, this scene never had the emotional weight for them as other characters in the show. I understand your feelings and won't ask you to suddenly change your mind. I would just ask you to rewatch the scene and see another brilliant dialog between two great characters.

Bodie's death scene is just one of many accurate death scenes the Wire has shown us. It sickening.

The game is rigged.
Inappropriate? Alert us.
Post a comment
Posted by sanders0811 on 03/09/08 at 11:22AM

Five more classic "The Wire" scenes

1. Brother Mouzone and Omar's stand off in the alleyway.

2. Bubbles breaking down in Walon's arms whilst in hospital.

3. Stringer revealing to Avon that D'Angelo's death was indeed no suicide.

4. Ziggy's rampage in Double G's electrical shop.

5. "Fuzzy Dunlop" being thrown down the street to Herc and Carv's absolute horror.

The list could go on. The Wire is quite simply the greatest television series in history.
Inappropriate? Alert us.
Post a comment
Posted by stooge9 on 03/09/08 at 1:22PM

From episode 34 (Season 3, "Slapstick"):

Coming off the previous episode where Prez, Freamon's most unlikely protege, made Bodie's cell phone and helped crack open the case against the Barksdale crew. It seems the cops are about to close their proverbial "always one step behind" position in their continual chase to bring down Avon and Stringer. And it was all due to Prez, who just might have found his niche and re-invented himself as a detective.

Then, stepping out for Chinese, he and McNulty respond to a radio call of gun shots fired, McNulty jumps out to persue by foot. And by the time he gets to Prez again, Prez has shot and killed another under cover policeman.

The bottom falls out for Prez, with undercurrents of racial motives. And I felt like I was just punched in the gut. Same way I would feel when Michael drops off Dukie in the last episode. It can only take moments to unravel months, if not years, of hard work for these characters. And it extremely moving to watch it happen.

Another Wire moment I will always remember was the wake for Ray Cole. Landsman's speech, uniting the room in somewhat gloomy recognition of the fraternity of their occupation, prompting Freamon to yell: "Just play the f*****g song!" Transcendent.

Again, Alan, thanks for this write-up, as we prepare for our own Wake in regards to life after the Wire.
Inappropriate? Alert us.
Post a comment
Posted by TLH on 03/09/08 at 7:00PM

Some of my favorite moments from this historical show.

Season 2: Vondas and The Greek and preparing to escape the clutches of the police and Vondas observes that all Nick knows is his name, but "My name is not my name." The Greek points out that all they know of him is 'The Greek', but, of course "I am not even Greek."

Season 1: Kima's refusal to follow Bunk's "fat fingering" the photo of Wee-Bay and telling her that her ID would play better in court. Kima's inflexible honesty forces her to respond "Sometimes you've just got to play it hard." This sets the stage for her decision to turn McNulty in during season 5 when she learns of his manipulation of the system to get Marlo.

Season 2: Nick's soliloquy on the merry-go-round in the park after Ziggy has been arrested for murder reminiscing about Ziggy's life before it was destroyed by their alignment with the Greeks.

Season 2: Beady's confrontation with Frank where she asks him to turn himself in, telling him that he's "better than the people he got in bed with." They both had tears streaming down their faces, and although in some sense Beady had betrayed Frank, he doesn't hold it against her.

Season 4: Dukie's abortive attempt to start a new year at a new school. You know right there that the lack of familiarity is more important to him than finishing school, and he will probably be doomed for this decision.

Many, many other truly great moments.

The Wire Clip: Bodie and Poot Kill Wallace Season 1

Stringer puts in the word to have Wallace killed, Boadie and Poot step up and carry it out. Wallace shoulda just stayed out the game.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Wire - Season 1, Playing Chess

D'Angelo teaches Wallace and Bodie how to play chess. Season 1 of the Wire.