Judge Adam Arseneau walks the straight and narrow track
Our reviews of The Wire: The Complete First Season (published January 5th, 2005), The Wire: The Complete Third Season (published August 8th, 2006), The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season (published January 9th, 2008), and The Wire: The Complete Series (published December 17th, 2008) are also available.
Read between the lines.
And so we draw to a close on The Wire, perhaps the finest bit of dramatic narrative ever put forth by HBO. Critically lauded, it never quite had the audience it deserved, but now finally complete on DVD, it should hopefully find the viewers that so eluded it during broadcast. By which I mean the following: go get all five seasons on DVD right now, or I'll send a shotgun-toting thug to your house. Don't make me ask twice.
Facts of the Case
In The Wire: The Complete Fifth Season, Marlo Stanfield and his drug organization continue to exert control over the streets of Baltimore, despite non-stop police supervision and surveillance by the Major Crimes Unit. Reeling from the education financial crisis, the Mayor's Office has cut police funding to the bone, putting the kibosh on overtime pay, cruiser repairs, and every other non-necessity. Frustrated, overworked, and underpaid, the police are nearing revolt. Even worse, despite the recovery of dozens of cadavers from condemned buildings, the police have yet to make any headway into prosecuting Stanfield for the crime. With an ever-tightening budget, the investigation has gone cold, and the prosecutor's office seems more interested in pursuing the prosecution of Senator Clay Davis on corruption charges than solving murders.
When Mayor Carcetti lowers the boom on the Major Crimes Unit, the investigation into the bodies effectively ends. The team is reassigned, and McNulty is sent back to homicide, where he soon reverts to old behavior—drinking, womanizing, and thinking of ways to screw the higher-ups. Meanwhile, the sudden absence of police looking into his business allows Stanfield to expand his empire even further, as he attempts to court away Prop Joe's drug connections and cement a direct relationship with The Greeks.
As McNulty's life self-destructs, he lashes out in desperation, fabricating evidence at the scene of a crime in order to get attention. He figures the more people paying attention to crime in Baltimore, the more funding his department can receive, so that the cops can go back to doing honest work. His partner Bunk is mortified at his friend's actions, and disassociates himself from McNulty and his plan.
But McNulty's plan soon gets attention from the most wanted and unwanted of sources: The Baltimore Sun. An ambitious and morally flexible reporter, Scott Templeton, soon picks up on the story, and begins pushing it to the front page, despite the hesitation of his senior editor Gus Haynes. As the newspaper is forced to deal with its own cutbacks and diminishing readership, it needs a hot story as much as McNulty needs the attention. Cutback after cutback has prevented the paper from reporting on a number of key stories affecting the citizens of Baltimore, but now suddenly, a story! Slowly, horribly, the lie takes on legs…
As final seasons go, there are two distinct types in serialized television: the kind where producers and writers have no idea the proverbial axe is falling and the show simply ends at an arbitrary point, and the kind of finale where everyone knows exactly how much time they have left to wrap things up. The Wire: The Complete Fifth Season is the latter. Creators David Simon and Ed Burns knew exactly how much left they had to say in their magnum opus Baltimore drama, and had to beg HBO for one final season to tell their tale. Despite massive critical acclaim and a passionate fan base, ratings for The Wire have always been disproportionately low. While the network always supported the show and lauded its brilliance, after four seasons of decreasing viewership, its patience seemingly wore thin; HBO opted not to give the show the standard 12 or 13 episodes, cramming the final season down into an even 10.
Undaunted, The Wire: The Complete Fifth Season attempts not only to wrap up its own narrative yarns, but tries to be a bookend to all previous seasons and outstanding storylines and plot threads. This is an extremely lofty endeavor made more difficult by the shortened season. In addition, the season adds one more element of exploration into the mix: the media. Just as past seasons explored the troubled school system in Baltimore, the political system, and crumbling unions, we now get a thorough shakedown of media proliferation and manipulation throughout Baltimore, showing how the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality skews the public away from meaningful news, and how ever-growing financial cutbacks in journalism force its writers to do "more with less." If ever there was a central theme running through the currents of The Wire, it is this tenet: the constant need to do more with less. Of course, it is a contradiction—you can only do less with less. And so the city of Baltimore spirals ever-downward, chewing up and spitting out those who oppose the system in all its various forms.
One thing especially noticeable in this season, especially compared to earlier episodes, is the transparency of its issues. The Wire: The Complete Fifth Season tackles its issues with the subtlety of a head butt. There is less moral ambiguity this time around, less gray area—McNulty and his wild stunt pretty much put an end to that. Instead, we get a very angry, very compressed, very bitter wind-down of every errant plot thread and character into one gigantic hurricane of self-destruction. By the end, large portions of the cast are either dead or completely destroyed; those that do survive eventually go back to their old habits. The storm is weathered and Baltimore wakes up to another day, ready to repeat again until the mountains fall into the sea. We get closure on the vast majority of the cast, but it is not always the kind of closure we want to see for them. Fate deals its hand out with an evil kind of randomness in The Wire; bad characters get rewarded, good ones get punished, and hey, that's Baltimore for you.
As much as I would love to spend the next seven weeks writing a detailed deconstruction about every character and subplot in The Wire, my editor would probably cut it out anyway. Still, one cannot discuss this season without talking about McNulty, the series' pariah/resident ass, as he delivers his swan song knockout blow to the city of Baltimore in a fiery stream of anger and resentment. Seduced by the air of change, he rejoins the Major Case Unit, but soon becomes disillusioned by a string of budgetary crises plaguing the city and endless broken promises. Broke, angst-filled, and miserable, he destroys his own personal life in a plume of ignited Jameson whisky, and he puts in motion a sequence of events unlike any stunt ever attempted before. What starts off as a drunken lashing-out against a broken-down police department soon escalates into a full citywide epidemic of reform and change, hinging around a hastily executed lie. It is the ultimate game-changing maneuver, acting as both a magnet and a lightning rod to the inherent corruption eating away at the city of Baltimore. All at once, the sins of the city are put in front of the media eye, and those in power are desperate to conceal the rot. As solutions go, this is the equivalent of dropping a nuclear bomb on an ant colony. As McNulty and Freamon attempt to keep the charade going, anarchy rapidly descends. His actions are outrageous, unbelievable, and completely insane—the perfect finale to an embittered character. He remains as always the oddly sympathetic @#$%-up.
The fates of two other characters—Omar and Bubbles—are worth noting. Omar has long been held as the heart and soul of the show, representing its moral center in all its complete inexorable glory—a stickup man who robs drug dealers. The man has a code, and it often runs in conflict with the world around him, but he exists in almost a bubble of invincibility, as if somehow immune to the sucking effects of the black hole of Baltimore. Others would try to fight the system and be destroyed; Omar existed outside it entirely, immune to its effects. Well, until this season. His fate cannot be discussed in detail here, as it is integral to the story and must remain a mystery, but one cannot ignore the implications. On the other hand, we have Bubbles, a gentle and caring soul who has been beaten, tortured, wrung, and humiliated for the last four seasons in a seemingly neverending spiral of despair. His tale in Season Five is one of the true beacons of hope in an otherwise morally adrift tale; no fans of the show will make it through The Wire: The Complete Fifth Season with dry eyes, I assure you. With a show this complex and brutal to its characters, one must take the small victories when they can. Perhaps maybe, just maybe, things will work out okay for Bubbles—and that is a good thing indeed.
Even here, we cannot escape the primary tenet of The Wire: the more things change, the more they stay the same. As one character gets propped up, another gets torn down. For every drug dealer arrested, a new one takes their place. For every unworthy and corrupt politician who advances up the ranks, a young idealist slowly gets his spirit crushed. A new day dawns, and things just repeat again and again. People who try and effect change simply become squishy things to lubricate the gears of the ever-moving machine, ground up and spit out. The show ends without any clear exceptions to this hard rule; perhaps tomorrow, someone may figure out how to break the cycle, but it won't happen on our watch. The magic of the show and the writing, of course, is that despite having our hopes dashed year after year, we still remain oddly optimistic about Baltimore and its future prospects. Hope, as always, springs eternal.
From a technical perspective, this set suffers from many of the same ghastly flaws as The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season, a malaise of excessive anti-aliasing and excessive compression artifacts. Black levels look better this time around, and the picture is nowhere near the jumbly mess it was in Season Four, but neither is it as good as it was in the first three seasons. We never did get an acceptable answer as to why the show took a quality dive in between Season Three and Season Four, and I guess we never will. The 5.1 audio presentation thankfully retains its excellence, giving a reserved, well-balanced, and clean performance. Low-end performance is marginal, but given the lack of score and the total environmental presentation, it feels accurate.
Extras are also on par with previous offerings; we get commentary with creator David Simon and various cast and crew on six episodes; "The Wire: The Last Word," a documentary exploring the role of the media in Season Five; and a solid piece called "The Wire Odyssey," a retrospective of the first four seasons. Each feature runs about 30 minutes. A noticeable omission in this set are the small commercial-sized teasers HBO advertised for Season Five, showing us a young Omar, a young Prop Joe, and the initial meeting of McNulty and Bunk. These were nifty, and had some pretty strong allusions as to the fates of these particular characters. It is a shame to see these missing here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Wire might be the best show television has produced in the last decade, but one cannot escape the feeling that something is amiss in The Wire: The Complete Season Five. There is so much to wrap up, so many plot points to summarize, so many characters to eulogize and pay attention to that a measly 10 episodes struggles to capture it all. Previous seasons were worlds upon themselves; they featured reoccurring characters, but the stories were self-contained, with a start and a finish. In Season Five, the story is less clear—it feels more like the writers were trying to take the overlapping points of the past four seasons and cram them into a super finale where everything connected. This feels forced, almost artificially so. There is no subtlety this time around, probably because there simply was no any time for it. Instead, plot points whip past like bullets in a mad fury of descending chaos.
And then suddenly, this whole media element of Season Five gets thrown in the mix. In the midst of all this chaos, suddenly we have a whole slew of new characters and new storylines centering on the slow, inexorable corruption of American media—a worthy subject for exploration, but there simply isn't enough attention paid here to make this new arc a worthwhile addition to the canon. Had they introduced characters like Haynes and Templeton back in Season Four, covering Mayor Carcetti's rise to power, perhaps viewers would feel much more connected to these new faces. As it stands, so much of Season Five feels compressed, as if writers were trying to make connections between errant ideas and characters where none were originally envisioned to exist. The finale is a nonstop spin of comeuppance and coincidences that leaves viewers dazed.
Bit of a double-edged sword, really. Having produced four of the most rock-solid seasons of serialized drama in recent memory, The Wire sets its own bar pretty darn high.
An imperfect close to a near-perfect television epic, The Wire: The Complete Fifth Season serves as a satisfying bookend to a magnificent and groundbreaking series, tying up more loose ends than a seamstress. When criticized solely upon individual merits, these 10 episodes are not the strongest the show has ever created, but all good things must come to an end in some way or form. Life is imperfect, and The Wire is nothing if not a reflection of our world, warts and all.
To summarize with an Omar quote: indeed. Not guilty.
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