That’s all, folks! Show’s over. The end of the most ambitious TV drama in American history. The Wire wasn’t popular – far more people have heard of it than have actually watched it – and it didn’t change the face of TV drama as The Sopranos or Curb Your Enthusiasm did, but few small-screen folk have the balls and brains to attempt something as risky, as complex and as far-reaching as David Simon’s über-telly show.
“There’s a lot of impulse that says, ‘Do what you’ve done before and what’s worked’,” Simon growls on his final episode commentary. “A lot of TV is based on that. The thing I’m most proud of is that we took a chainsaw to the show between seasons...”
The Wire never sat back and enjoyed what it had achieved. Simon and co (and that ‘co’ includes writers like George Pelecanos, arguably America’s best urban crime novelist today) were always looking to stretch the show in different ways. After an opening season which broke the mould by focusing on the Baltimore drug dealers as much as the cops investigating them, you’d have expected season two to offer up more of the same. It did, but only after stirring the plight of the blue-collar working class into the mix, with a storyline about corruption and smuggling on the docks.
Season three spun in politics, digging into the mayoral campaign of an ambitious young political hack; before season four added in the education system, looking at how kids ended up dealing and dying on the streets. Story threads were never abandoned, they were just twisted in different directions and constantly, constantly built upon. At one level The Wire is the tale of alcoholic, womanising bastard policeman McNulty (Dominic West), the closest thing the series has to a hero figure, on another it’s a model of a battered city in crisis.
The shorter-than-usual season five (Simon was offered 13 episodes, but only needed 10 to tell the story) takes things a step further, folding the media into the mix. A former journalist on The Baltimore Sun, Simon has acid views when it comes to the way newspapers are being asset-stripped and degraded, and the manner in which the news is reported. The Wire’s final season gives us vengeance and ambition-driven mayhem among the dealers, falsified police evidence intended to win funds to fight them and political pushing as the mayor uses the fake crimes in his campaign for governor. But we also get the way the newspaper struggles to cover all this, with an unscrupulous reporter claiming to be in contact with a make-believe killer. “That’s the joke inherent in this final series – all the good stories don’t get written,” says Simon.
It’d be easy to read all of the above and think that The Wire is humourless or even preachy. It isn’t. Dark wit slices through it all, as do some brilliant performances. Dominic West’s battered and dangerous McNulty is far removed from maverick-cop cliché, but it’s the authenticity in all the other performances that help shape a glimpse into a world that feels irresistibly real. The Wire also drop-kicks telly conventions. Major characters die with face-slapping suddenness and easy moral pay-offs just don’t happen.
Oh, and forget each episode having a story arc. They simply don’t. The arcs that matter span entire seasons or – as Simon grew more ambitious – even longer. When you watch the first series back to back, it feels like a 13-hour long movie. Watch seasons three through five and you’re basically sitting through one 35-hour storyline.
Absorb the whole thing from start to finish. Just don’t expect any neat endings. As Simon says as he watches the final minutes, “Everything’s got to be cyclical. That’s the nature of the tragedy: it just keeps going on...”