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The Wire is famously acclaimed for refusing to make trite distinctions between good and bad. Drug dealers are shrewd businessmen; children aren’t merely innocents; cops are the problem as much as the solution. But series creator David Simon has always made it clear who he wants you to root for: You just have to listen for the R&B music.
If Proposition Joe, who runs the East Baltimore drug trade, is getting serious about cutting a deal, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes or something similarly soulful is usually playing in the background of his repair shop. Heading out for his morning jog, former drug-trade soldier Cutty slaps on a pair of headphones, cranks up Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up,” and tunes out a universe of electioneering bullshit on primary day. When we learn how Mayor Tommy Carcetti’s right-hand man, Norman Wilson, really feels about his boss, he’s sitting at a bar where Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” is playing. In the world of The Wire, the last remaining moral tethers in a deeply dysfunctional city aren’t police, prisons, or schools—they’re Philadelphia International, Curtom, and Hi.
Not everybody in those particular scenes is earning an honest living, but the music is there to bolster the idea that what they’re doing, in its own way, is honest work. And The Wire is about, more than any one thing, work. Plenty of shows are set in workplaces, but The Wire is exceptionally obsessed with how business gets done, from office politics (showing up to work on time, disrespecting your boss) to macroeconomics (acquiring government funds, supply-chain management). The broken system that fucks up hard work is Simon’s chosen enemy, and if he’s completely uninterested in who’s good and who’s bad, his Baltimore still has an ethical order: It’s rich with people who you might call Wire-good and Wire-bad.
The Wire-good are defined by a moral code and a determination to get a job done: Detective Lester Freamon, stickup man Omar, and junkie/small-time businessman Bubbles are all driven by a sense of fairness, even if it’s a seemingly futile goal. (Bubbles spends the early portions of Season 4 insisting that his “intern,” a fellow addict named Sherrod, go back to middle school. “School is like work,” Bubbles tells him.) The Wire-bad—just about anybody in elected office or in a senior-management position in the Baltimore Police Department—are responsible for that futility. Police Commissioner Ervin Burrell, we learn early, is committed to keeping the broken system operating. Mayor Clarence Royce is too beholden to various interests to change the system; Carcetti, Royce’s successor, quickly learns that he’s equally hamstrung. As one of his mentors tells him, the job mainly involves receiving beautiful, shiny silver bowls from people, full of shit he has to eat.
The Wire-good/Wire-bad system is a simple but very effective organizing principle, one that has allowed Simon to vent his rage at civic and corporate selfishness without making his show feel like a blog screed. And it’s given him a breadth he wasn’t allowed in his reporting for the Baltimore Sun, or in two nonfiction books. The Wire is his scream therapy. “It is an angry show,” he’s written.
In the show’s fifth season, that anger has gotten the better of him. Much of his rage is focused on the media and the dwindling fortunes of newspapers. For the first time, though, his frustrations start to muck not just with the believability of his characters but with the rules of the peculiar social order he’s invented. One of the central arguments of The Wire has been that, despite various political and economic upheavals, despite all the futility in its world, characters stay relatively constant. Omar never points his shotgun at a citizen; Bubbles remains genial, self-sacrificing, and concerned with fair play regardless of whether he’s using; Freamon, who rode a soul-crushing job on the pawnshop detail for 13 years before earning a position worth his intelligence, takes his time and would rather fuss over dollhouse furniture than get involved in BPD administrative squabbles.
Simon has done serious damage to this premise this year in an effort to make his case against corporate media by giving money—or its lack—such character-morphing power. Money has always been short in The Wire—the angry God who made Simon’s Baltimore may well have first intoned “You’ll just have to do more with less” instead of “Let there be light.” But this time around financial concerns are strangely disproportionate, a wrecking ball that arbitrarily reshapes character. HBO has thus far only made seven of the season’s 10 episodes available to reviewers, and Simon may yet right the ship. But it’s thudding to a close, stuck in a stereotypically TV-like world it’s heroically avoided until now.
More With Less,” as it happens, is the title of this season’s first episode, and the phrase also announces the season’s central conflict. Staffers at both the Baltimore Sun and the BPD, we quickly learn, are told they’ll need to absorb budget cutbacks. There’ll be bureau closings and buyouts at the Sun; there’ll be no more overtime and court pay for the BPD. In both cases, managers tell their employees that they will have to do “more with less.” The David Simon who lives in the real world understands this demand for the bullshit that it is. “You don’t do more with less,” he told the New Yorker in a recent story about the show. “You do less with less, that’s why they call it less.”
On The Wire this year, though, a whole lot more gets done with all that less. Shortly after we learn that a fresh round of buyouts are coming to the Sun, the storyline focuses on reporter M. Scott Templeton, who returns from an assignment to write a scene piece about Opening Day at Camden Yards with a dodgy story about a black kid using a wheelchair after being shot a few years back. And not long after we learn that police won’t get paid for overtime, Det. Jimmy McNulty, who’s drinking again, begins tampering with crime scenes to suggest that a serial killer is on the loose in Baltimore. Doing so, he hopes, will dislodge funding to help solve the case of the 22 bodies that were discovered in abandoned rowhouses last season. But to make sure his story generates public pressure to turn the spigot back on, he needs the media, which is where Templeton—cynical, low-morale, ambitious Templeton—comes in.
As the season progresses, the financially weakened Sun is paired with the ethically challenged Templeton, and Simon couldn’t make his point any clearer if he bought a full-page ad in the Sun with just the words financial cutbacks destroy the moral integrity of newsrooms. Thing is, these plot turns involving Templeton and McNulty are simplistic cause-and-effect scenarios that are disloyal both to the real world of journalism and to the world of The Wire. They also make for some hackneyed gags that oversell the point of what a lack of money does to a person. McNulty has to walk all the way to the top of a parking garage to find the unmarked police car he’s been assigned. Once there, not only does the car have a flat, it’s playing Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.”(Clearly, this isn’t a Wire-good predicament.) McNulty pitches a fit that’s angrier than the one he threw at the end of Season 1, when the carefully assembled wiretap didn’t get him the convictions he hoped for. Not long after, he begins to conjure up his serial-killer scheme. After all, how can a detective who’s forced to take a bus to a crime scene possibly be expected to behave ethically? And how can a reporter at a paper that’s just lost its London bureau not feel compelled to make up sources?
To understand how wrong this is, it might help to look at something in The Wire that went extremely right: the demise of Stringer Bell. Bell got what was coming to him, but it was hard not to empathize with him, and to generate that sort of sympathy for a drug dealer in about three years of TV time is a Herculean feat. But The Wire spent that relatively brief time wisely, shadowing Bell’s transformation from a loyal lieutenant to Avon Barksdale to an interim CEO to a businessman who overreaches in attempting to alter his trade’s management structure. “Stringer Bell was killed,” Simon said in an HBO promotional feature about the show, “because he was trying to reform the drug trade, and the drug trade will not stand reform.”
It’s a great, big theme, one that required a lot of nuanced storytelling and acting—for a while there, Idris Elba was the luckiest actor on television. The great strength of that
arc was its understanding that people do change depending on how the economic winds are blowing, but that those changes take time. In The Wire’s world, a person who thinks he can affect a new persona in a hurry, just because of money, is a fool. Exhibit A: Ziggy Sobotka, Season 2’s ambitious but ill-fated would-be smuggling kingpin, who was always about 100 IQ points away from being any sort of businessman.
Money alone doesn’t cause problems in The Wire. And only a desperate person in the show’s world thinks money alone will fix it. In his last moments, Stringer attempts to pay off Omar and Brother Mouzone, the two men about to kill him: “What you niggers want, huh? Money? Is that it? ’Cause if it is, man, I could be a better friend to y’all alive.”
Omar’s response: “You still don’t get it, do you?”
And yet, in Season 5, the money plot beats its chest just like Ziggy did. Financial hardship—in City Hall, in the police department, in the schools, in the newsroom—is announced as an enormous problem early on, as if it somehow weren’t in the previous four seasons. The more-with-less mantra repeatedly echoes off the walls of the Western District police HQ and the Baltimore Sun. (Lt. Carver speaks for the mood of both here, sympathizing with his troops who groused through the morning roll call: “In the real world, we pay professionals. That’s why we call them pros.”)
Interestingly, this problem doesn’t infect Season 5’s arc about the drug trade. Marlo Stanfield, eager to take over Proposition Joe’s territory, attempts to make an end run and go directly to the East Coast suppliers, the Greeks. He drops off a suitcase full of dirty money and gets called out as a fool for it; over the next handful of episodes he’ll school himself in money laundering, erase some of his naiveté, and rethink how he could use his newfound skills to keep climbing the ladder. It’s easily the season’s most satisfying character arc.
But when it comes to the Sun, the plot is stuck in the improbable, and it’s hard not to see the problem as a function of Simon’s anger at corporate journalism. Even before Season 5, Simon was using his show to grouse about how corporate newspaper managers kneecapped journalists: the hardheaded, vicious captain who shut down the hardworking Major Crimes Unit is named Marimow, the name of a former Sun editor. The whacks keep coming in Season 5. During a planning meeting for a series of articles on education, Editor-in-Chief James C. Whiting III cautions against making the story too complicated—he wishes to avoid an “amorphous series detailing society’s ills” (which, of course, is how The Wire is often perceived).
Templeton, we learn, is the ingrate in this milieu. He’s sick of being stuck in a “shit news town” where even the biggest crime stories—like those 22 bodies that new drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield helped put in vacant rowhouses last season—“had no legs.” He tells this to young reporter Alma Gutierrez, a scribe so eager to learn and so game for legwork she’d surely be blasting Teddy Pendergrass from her cube if newsrooms would allow it. The same goes for City Editor Gus Haynes, who’s tut-tutted by Whiting when he suggests that the education series needs to address the interplay of drugs, crime, parents, and economics.
The financial changes at newspapers that The Wire describes are real, as anybody who works at a newspaper (including this one) can tell you. Fabricators in the newsroom are very real, too—high-profile frauds such as Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair are ample enough proof. (Various articles about this season have arrived at the consensus that the model for Templeton is Jim Haner, a former Sun reporter who, Simon has charged, changed quotes and fabricated scenes in his stories.)
What’s less realistic this time around—what’s much more TV-ish—are the simplistic cause-and-effect scenarios that Simon has whipped up to voice his frustration. Cooke, Glass, and Blair didn’t become fabricators because of budget cuts; journalists fake it, ultimately, because they crave the acclaim they believe they’ll receive for writing an eye-popping story that’s actually made up. Egos like those don’t need economic justifications; they just need the opportunity to get away with it. But Templeton’s whipping up fake but heartwarming tales is set directly against the gutting of the Sun newsroom. Take away the money and people will cast away their character, goes this very un-Simon plot point. Templeton isn’t Wire-bad. He’s Law & Order-bad.
As in every season, this one opens with a statement that’s meant to serve as an epigram for all the episodes to follow. It comes from Detective Edward Norris: “Americans are stupid people, by and large. We pretty much believe whatever we’re told.” True enough. For the first time, though, it’s the Wire viewer who’s subject to this manipulation.
So what if a good show stops being good? It happens all the time—jumptheshark.com exists precisely because it’s nearly axiomatic that every show ultimately fails itself. If bad reporter Scott Templeton is the Cousin Oliver of The Wire, what’s it matter?
The answer to that has to do with a couple of terms that tend to pop up a lot in reviews of The Wire: “Dickensian” and “social novel.” The former word is actually a critical part of the sixth episode of Season 5, “The Dickensian Aspect.” It refers to what Whiting wants in a series on homelessness—the small but affecting details that make for empathetic stories about the underclass. In truth, what the editor wants isn’t all that Dickensian—just something a little grittier than the paper’s usual coverage of the homeless. (Which is inept. Templeton wades into the homeless camps geekily, notebook in hand; another reporter heads straight to a soup kitchen, only to learn that there are in fact few homeless persons there.)
The Wire was designed to flip the sort of emotional switches that come from entering a realistic world—its pleasure derives from seeing the Wire-good enjoy some success in a dysfunctional world while knowing that those successes are usually brief and accidental. It’s the same work that the social novel does, and it’s a legacy that Simon wants his show to join. For the show’s third season, among those he hired as writers is Richard Price, whose 1993 novel Clockers is the model for a realistic story about the police and the drug trade. It is, as Simon’s written, “to the cocaine epidemic of the early 1990s as The Grapes of Wrath is to the Dust Bowl.”
Once upon a time the social novel had a value beyond its authenticity—it captured the attention of politicians, even occasionally affected genuine change. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration (though it did nothing practical for the wages and safety of meatpacking workers, who were Sinclair’s chief concern); The Grapes of Wrath caught the notice of president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who felt compelled to tell radio listeners about it in 1940: “I have read a book recently. It is called The Grapes of Wrath. There are 500,000 Americans that live in the covers of that book.”
David Simon is no fool—he knows that these are different times, and that The Wire has no potential to change drug policy, in the same way that his nonfiction books, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, did nothing about Baltimore’s crack epidemic and how it was policed. Indeed, the response to The Wire from then mayor Martin O’Malley was to suggest that the show was part of the problem. Asked to comment for the 2004 tie-in book, The Wire: Truth Be Told, he said the show “has branded us in the national and metropolitan eye in a way that is very counterproductive to growth, hope, violent-crime reduction, and poverty.”
There’s no single reason why the reputation of the social novel has declined—why in 1940 a sitting president would publicly recommend that his population learn about a failing economy and more than 60 years later a mayor would not only attack that idea but suggest it makes things worse. Maybe that kind of storytelling has become ineffectual for a lot of the reasons that The Wire itself has spent a lot of time richly detailing—economic decline, a Byzantine lawmaking system, an urge by the haves to strenuously separate themselves from the have-nots. But the rules of social-novel storytelling are the same for Dickens and Sinclair and Steinbeck and Price and Simon; the author still has an obligation to adhere to fact and to give the characters the necessary room to make their transformations believable. There’s a reason why these novels are all fat—and why The Wire needs multiseason arcs to get its story across; once you’ve confessed that humans don’t operate simplistically, you need a lot of room to explain how they really work.
Season 5’s mistakes—clunky plotting, false parallels, confused motivations—are violations of the realism the show promised. And without a solid rooting in truth, The Wire doesn’t just have a bad season—it betrays its own intentions. David Simon broke a contract, changed the rules without warning. In his world, that’s something only the Wire-bad are supposed to do.