City Paper is not for tourists
If the season and series finale of The Wire teaches us anything, it’s that anybody can get out of a bad scrape relatively intact. (Spoilers aplenty follow.) Marlo Stanfield can get fingered for the murders in the vacants and walk away a free man. Scott Templeton can spin many column inches of horseshit about a nonexistent serial killer and win a Pulitzer. And David Simon can hobble his franchise by airing out his old newsroom grievances and still close up shop with an episode that not only deliberately evokes the themes of season one, episode one, but recaptures some of its spirit, too.
My complaints about what’s gone wrong in season five still pretty much hold: I think that Simon had to abandon much of his best thinking about labor, economy, and cities to take his whacks at what happened to his old employer, the Baltimore Sun. A brief exchange in the final episode shows how he painted himself into a corner. After Templeton’s colleague Alma Guttierez registers a complaint about his fakery, she’s banished to a suburban bureau. Just as she’s cleaned out her desk, she runs into editor Gus Haynes. Why did Templeton do it? she asks him. Because Templeton’s a needy, attention-hungry, arrogant, immoral jerkwad? Nah. “Look around you,” Haynes opines—the Sun is dying, and making a noise about yourself in a big way may be an ambitious reporter’s ticket out. I still don’t buy this, in the same way I never bought the idea that Lester Freamon, a detective who knows BPD’s bureaucracy better than anyone, would be quick to sign up for McNulty’s fake-serial-killer shenanigans.
Making all this work as a story arc led to some hacky bits, like the scene in episode eight where the feds give McNulty a profile of this imaginary serial killer and it turns out to be a perfect description of McNulty himself. But as groan-worthy as that plot point was, there were some great turns in the show’s final episodes: Clay Davis’ proclamations outside the courthouse where he was let off the hook (hoisting a copy of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, he mispronounces both “Aeschylus” and “Prometheus”); Omar’s arbitrary murder; Dukie’s slow decline as Michael is forced to abandon him.
Which is to say the season got better as the story shaded farther away from the Sun plot. The first seven episodes were sent to critics with a note from Simon, offering some guidance to reviewers: “[T]he newspaper arc will be a more intriguing and meaningful journey for viewers if they do not know, in advance, exactly how or why Detective McNulty or Reporter Templeton bend and violate the ethics of their respective professions, or how they ultimately are used by each other as a result,” it reads in part. “A lot rides on viewers discovering this symbiosis in real time rather than anticipating it with foreknowledge.” Before dropping disc one into my DVD player, this seemed like a reasonable enough request on Simon’s part to avoid spoilers getting out there; by disc four it felt very much like Simon’s attempt to insulate himself from complaints about the weakest idea that’s ever appeared in his journalism or in his fictions. Luckily, toward the end the show is back to first principles—how bureaucracy preserves power, how power neglects need, how hard work can maybe be a way out, but how, increasingly, that’s a big damn maybe.
Which reminds me: What happened to Cutty?