Though most of your favorite characters are back, the series' fifth season turns its focus to examining the role of the local newspaper in the city's decline
Dominic West, The Wire
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”The Wire” premiere recap: Meet the press

To those of you who are new to The Wire this fifth and final season, welcome and good luck. You little lambs have no idea how 10 episodes of this show can wring you inside out to the point where you will want to talk about nothing else for the next few months. (If you’re not going to shell out the 50-some smackers for the show’s box set, read this most excellent recap of what you’ve missed the previous four seasons.) And a hearty welcome back to the faithful few who have been hanging out on these Baltimore corners for a while now. Each time a character appeared on screen for the first time during last night’s premiere, I found myself cheering as if I’d run into an old friend. Bunk! Lester! Daniels! My shattered Dukie and beloved Bubbles!

Fans of the show are outraged that The Wire has never been given its just ratings or awards. Good to see, though, as evidenced by the opening scene, that David Simon and company aren’t going to start pandering now in the hopes of expanding their audience. Bunk used a tried-and-true method to break one of his punk suspects, convincing the kid that the Xerox machine was a state-of-the-art lie detector. ”Americans are a stupid people by and large,” Bunk’s partner told a rookie detective. ”We pretty much believe whatever we’re told.” ”The bigger the lie, the more they believe,” said Bunk. A tidy summation, perhaps, of our indifferent electorate, but more importantly the epigraph to last night’s zip of a show.

The cops had been led to believe that the new upstart mayor was going to follow through on his promise to fight crime in useful, meaningful ways. Nah, budget cuts are postponing overtime pay, killing morale, and shredding whatever dignity the badge has got left. Worst of all, the wire crew was disbanded by the end of the episode. All those months of tailing wily Marlo, the unexplained 22 bodies found rotting last season in row houses — that work is superfluous in this back-scratching dump of a bureaucracy.

Folks who’ve long made journalism their life’s work might say they’ve been brought up to believe that news matters, and the finding and publishing of it with dignity and precision is a worthwhile enterprise. With Simon’s lens turned from our nation’s moldy education system last season to the media this season, we went inside the warren of cubicles at The Baltimore Sun. Foreign bureaus are closing, layoffs and buyouts loom, and the boss man has a taste for hiring 23-year-olds who don’t know their Joseph Mitchell from their Jayson Blair. We met Gus Haynes (played with great swagger by Clark Johnson, also a director on the series), the city editor who walked in on two of his calcified colleagues casually marveling at smoke pluming from a building in East Baltimore. ”What kind of people stand around watching a fire?” Gus hissed at his sad excuse for colleagues as he stormed back into the newsroom. ”Shameful s— right here. Where else would you rather be, huh, kids?”

That’s the rub of this great group of interconnected people, I suppose. There is no place they’d all feel more at home than in their chosen venues. The cops, the good ones at least, need to be in the action. McNulty, finished with his buttoned-up routine of walking his beat and then walking home in a straight line to a good woman, is back to tomcatting around town. Poor Beadie (Amy Ryan), his earnest girlfriend, now has to leave the light on for a man who won’t be returning until sunrise. (She herself bought the lie that a man addicted to drink and drama could be tamed by her simple, decent life.)

Everyone at the newsroom can smell which way the tide is turning (except perhaps the fishy young feller who wants to ride a national story all the way to The New York Times), but the journeymen seem to thrive on the rhythm of the newsroom. Two victories came last night: The old guys scored a win when they smacked down an earnest reporter’s faulty prose. (”To evacuate a person is to give that person an enema.”) And Gus took it to the hoop when he spotted a shady real estate deal between City Hall and a strip-club owner, barked back at the council president, and still gave full credit to his nice shlub of a reporter.

NEXT: Still down on the corner

Even the corner has its own known routine and comforts. (Much love, Bodie!) Though (and I’ll cop early to being a yellow-bellied sentimentalist when it comes to this show, and I kick and scream and cry at every damn loss) seeing Michael and Dukie again about killed me. Both boys are bigger, and their voices have changed. Dukie seems to have permanently lost the earnest grin from Prez’s lunchroom study hall. He’s ill equipped for a life out on the streets, and Michael knows it, suggesting that his friend instead might just earn his pay by babysitting Michael’s kid brother. ”So I’ll be a nanny and shit?” said a betrayed Duquan. Michael suggested that Dukie do whatever he wants to with his day before Bug gets home from school. While the girl raised by network TV in me wants to believe this is great because now Dukie can return to school, the realist suspects that a dive into drug use can’t be far behind.

Which brings me to Bubbles, dear Bubbles, trying to get by one day at a time in his sister’s basement. He might be dealing with the biggest lie of all right now. (And I mean this only in the scope of this review about this character on this episode.) Bubbles is sober, and his life isn’t the better or richer for it. He’s living in a dank cellar, locked away from the joyful breakfast clatter of a regular life that’s still forever out of reach. Since his sister rightfully won’t leave him unattended in the house when she’s off at work, he has to troll the same streets each day sober and alone. Bubbles, hang in there. Damn you, Wire, keep him safe.

And because what saves The Wire from being unbearably grim is its terrific sense of humor, I’ll end with my favorite laugh of the night. Gus is in the newsroom, desperate for a front-page photo. He gets a scene of the fire, but there’s a charred doll’s head in the shot. ”I got a Barbie in the foreground,” he growls into the phone. ”Every fire photo he brings in there’s got to be some burnt doll somewhere in the debris!”

What did you all think? Are you a fan of Steve Earle’s version of the opening song? (I love Steve Earle but am still iffy on his take.) Which character that we didn’t get to see last night are you missing most? (Omar!) And will you pick Amy Ryan for Best Supporting Actress in your Oscar pool?

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The Wire
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