Ten years ago today, The Wire ended. But how many people really watched the Baltimore epic’s series finale on March 8, 2008? “We finished with our worst numbers,” creator David Simon has said. It became very common around 2011 to hear people casually call The Wire the greatest show in TV history, and now it’s more common to hear someone say (usually embarrassed, sometimes exasperated) that they still haven’t gotten around to watching the show.
The first four seasons of The Wire are still great, better than anything you’re convincing yourself to watch this week. The fifth season of The Wire has a stranger reputation. I revisited it late last year for the first time since 2008. (The rewatch was unplanned; my betrothed had never watched the fifth season, and we got sucked into a binge after randomly watching the premiere on HBO Go.) Its main fault is still its most obvious: A new plot thread about the decline of print journalism feels preachy like The Wire never did. The lying reporter Scott Templeton (Tom McCarthy) is, I think, the only truly irredeemable character the show ever conjured up, his villainy so telegraphed and so clearly symbolic. There are mass murderers on The Wire with more virtues than Templeton. (McCarthy was clearly so disturbed by the role that he performed elaborate print-journalist penance and directed Spotlight.)
But a decade later, the fifth season of The Wire looks better, or at least more purposefully weird. Simon’s work is strenuously realist. Over the past decade, he’s kept practicing his particular journalist-panorama mode of drama, offering densely-detailed American stories like Generation Kill, Show Me a Hero, the rambling but intoxicating Tremé, and now The Deuce. Season 5 of The Wire is something else. It’s about as close as Simon’s work comes to self-aware commentary, almost satire. In the early seasons, protagonist McNulty (Dominic West) was a driving force in solving some great mystery. In season 5, McNulty returns as a curious con man, creating an impossible mystery to bend the system towards his will.
The problem is money, and the fact that nobody has it. Released just as the Recession was starting to become miserably Great, The Wire‘s final season begins with everyone struggling for funds. The newspaper’s got cutbacks, and there’s no money for cops’ overtime. Mayor Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) is drumming up support for a run for Governor, but how’s his campaign supposed to raise money when he doesn’t have a defining issue? (One defining bleak joke of The Wire was always how drug dealing was often the city’s only effectively-run industry.)
One of Carcetti’s advisors, Odell Watkins (Frederick Strother), is confused about Carcetti’s ambitions. “Doesn’t this seem a little thin to you? Running for Governor two years into a four year term.”
Carcetti’s chief of staff, Michael Steintorf (Neil Huff), has a savvy response ready. “Everything’s thin,” he explains. “The whole world shine s— and calls it gold.”
Steintorf probably wouldn’t make anyone’s list of the top 25 (or even 50) Wire characters. Many of the most colorful figures in the show’s pantheon are sidelined in the fifth season. Bunk (Wendell Pierce) spends a lot of the season frowning towards Jimmy. Bubbles (Andre Royo) has a gradual arc that only really becomes clear in episode 10. Omar (Michael K. Williams) is gone, and then he’s back, and then he’s gone again, dispatched with a brutal pointlessness that feels even more shocking today, in an era when every minor Walking Dead death gets a two-episode sendoff and a handshake from Chris Hardwick.
Enjoying The Wire‘s fifth season means understanding that its a season about the Steintorfs who run the world: Functionaries in a system built on white lies and public-facing fantasies. McNulty hates the Steintorfs of the world, but his brilliant and ruinous decision in season 5 is to become one. Requiring money for a big drug investigation, he conjures up a phony serial killer. He’s not hurting anyone. Homeless bodies wind up in the morgue all the time, dead from exposure or illness or the high cost of living nowhere. He jukes a couple corpses, makes the deaths look connected. But it’s not enough, and that’s when he brings in Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters). Lester was always The Wire‘s most classical image of crimesolving cleverness, with a steady passion for law that suggested something Sherlockian. So what he tells McNulty is hilarious, surprising, and disturbing only when you overthink it:
If you want to do it right, a straight-up strangle’s not enough…Sensationalize it. Give the killer some f—ed up fantasy. Something bad, real bad. It’s got to grip the hearts and minds, give the people what they want from a serial killer.
“Give the people what they want from a serial killer.” Season 5 came out in what now looks like a rare dry spell in America’s serial killer fascination—right smack dab between the ’90s vogue for Lecter-ish fetish killers and sudden-onset dead-girl fixation of 2010s TV. But in 2008, Dexter was already a growing hit, and Bones was investigating the Lecter-ish Gormagon, and Criminal Minds was doing what it’s been doing ever since. The slippery quality of The Wire‘s fifth season is how the cops we love most spend a season cooking up a plotline from a much dumber cop show than The Wire. Lester and McNulty effectively cook the evidence to make it look like some shadowy serial killer is sexually, fatally preying upon the homeless of the city. This fake story gets big headlines.
Templeton, already a fake journalist, gets more headlines when he makes up his own half of the story. But Carcetti starts riffing on the serial killer, too, giving a passionate speech about the homeless problem, a problem that (in the show’s vision) no one cares about until there’s a serial killer:
This speech is moving, if you ignore the context. It’s off the cuff, almost improvised. You can feel that Carcetti believes it, and also that he hasn’t really thought about it—that he’s as upset with homelessness as anyone should be, that he thinks about it as little as most people do.
His passion is a big hit. And suddenly, “Homelessness” is the kind of meme that even someone like Steintorf can notice. Carcetti seems to build his whole gubernatorial campaign around the issue—and on the promise that he will “solve” the problem. But in this context, “solve” just means “catch the serial killer,” not “figure out an effective method for fixing our capitalist system.” In The Wire‘s vision, the people watching at home don’t want a major societal problem fixed. They just want a plot point resolved.
“The bigger the lie, the more they believe.” That’s Bunk, in the opening scene of the fifth season. He’s just pulled an old policeman’s conjuring trick. Interrogating a young man accused of murderer, he pretends that a printer is a lie detector, a ludicrous gag that actually leads the young man to admit his crime. This scene plays out like a knowing parody of all those well-funded cop show, where the scientific investigators have infinite resource, infinite overtime, personal-theater-sized screens doing cool digital-effects detail work on every murder they investigate. On The Wire, the best the cops can do is hover around an old copy machine, and hope the guy they’re interrogating watches lots of TV and was failed by the education system.
In 2018, you hear a lot about “fake news,” especially from the people who benefit from fake news. It’s really not a new idea—look up “The Great Moon Hoax”—and whenever The Wire tries to address the problems of the journalism industry head-on, it can feel reductive. But ten years later, newspapers have only declined further. And the greater meaning of season 5 has never been more clear. At a certain point, everyone becomes Scott Templeton. Everyone’s creating fake news, juking reality the way that law-enforcement managers would juke the stats in earlier seasons.
“Who gives a damn if we fake a couple of murders that we’re never gonna solve, huh?” Lester says. “The dead men don’t care. No one cares.” I never noticed this line before, and now it sounds like the real bleak thesis of The Wire‘s final season. You expect malicious lies from some people—ambitious politicians, corporations with something to hide, anyone engaged in an illegal activity like drug dealing or collusion with a foreign government. But the saddest thing about The Wire‘s final season is how it suggests that even the good guys have given up on truth. Some aspect of the crusade for justice has gone meta. Goodness itself now just a counter-spin on badness. The very foundation of the battle for Baltimore’s soul now depends on “a lie agreed upon,” to borrow a sainted phrase from HBO’s Deadwood. Heroism needs its own fake news
The show knows this, though it can’t make McNulty a full bad guy. “We’re trapped in the same lie,” he tells Templeton in the finale. “Only difference is, I know why I did it. F— if I can figure out what it gets you in the end.”
It’s meant to be a minor bit of redemption for the always-troubled McNulty: He’s bad, sure, but not Templeton bad. And then McNulty is off the force, him and Lester sold out by their honest-cop allies, positive images of way-less-corrupted law enforcement. But now there’s a hollowness to this redemptive optimism, and it’s less convincing that McNulty was doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. Ten years later, you wonder if his reasons ever mattered, if every McNulty is a Templeton who best-case-scenario might become a Carcetti, everyone at every level trapped in lies, the only real hope left now finding that one magical lie that almost sounds true.