Are You Good With It? : A Review of The Wire, Season Five


I have been procrastinating on this final The Wire review for a long time now. I finished the season about a week after I wrote the Season Four review, and I’ve just been doing nothing ever since. The problem is that I genuinely don’t know what to say that hasn’t already been said by others about this season—or that I haven’t already said about the glorious masterpiece that is The Wire as a whole. But I guess the only honest thing to do is to write what I feel, so that’s what I’m going to do here.

First off, I have read and heard that many folks consider Season Five to be the worst—or, I guess, the least good. It’s not that it’s bad, but rather that it’s shorter and seems rushed. However, the storyline didn’t feel rushed to me. I think, deep down, that the reason people tend to like this season the least is because it takes our two genius detectives / “natural police” (Freamon and McNulty) and makes them cross a line that few of us would be willing to cross. Morally, they fall apart. Like Colvin in Season Three, the two of them see that the system is not working—the changes that Carcetti promised are unable to come to fruition despite his desires, since money is not readily available and Carcetti refuses to suck up to the state governor due to his own political ambitions down the road. Instead, sensing growing discontent among voters, Carcetti presses for crime reduction (read: stat manipulation… just like his predecessor) even while gutting the police budget. So what I’m saying is that the system is broken and McNulty and Freamon cannot get the help they need to catch the biggest threat in the city—Marlo Stanfield. And so McNulty decides to tamper with crime scenes and dead bodies in order to make up a fake serial killer situation. The ploy works, allowing him to receive a bunch of resources hitherto unattainable (since Carcetti has to show the public that he’s doing something about this serious crime issue), and McNulty sets Freamon up on an illegal wiretap on Marlo Stanfield. Almost all the bad stuff that happens in this season can be traced back to that one decision, and so it makes McNulty out to be the author of this season’s tragedies.

Okay. Now that the background is finished, I can get on with my point. This season is about tearing down our heroes. In my estimation, the only person who comes through this season totally unscathed (except, perhaps, for Pryzbylewski—though there is a certain necessary hardness that he has had to adopt as an inner-city schoolteacher) is Bubbles. Other than Bubbles—who is dealing with demons from previous seasons—everyone sort of collapses in on themselves. Carver might be one of the season’s saints, but in previous seasons he covered up for Colvin by moving a freaking body from a crime scene. Now that he’s in charge, he acts morally—but this involves breaking the very police loyalty code that protected him when he did his immoral stuff earlier on. Kima goes to the bosses about McNulty and Freamon, but she’s utterly conflicted about it and is herself an adulteress (as shown in Season Three). What I’m saying is that this season really shows that there are no real “good guys” in the world of The Wire—which makes us uncomfortable because there are no real “good guys” in the real world either. It hits too close to home.

Elsewhere in the city, we see the rise and eventual fall of Marlo Stanfield’s organization. That scene at the end where Marlo has been released from prison and basically given free reign provided that he abstains from gang-related activity, and Levy has taken him to some important-people meeting in order to get his money straight and start working on the white-collar side of things, and then Marlo just leaves surreptitiously and ends up on a corner in an expensive suit, asking local gangbangers if they know who he is and then fighting them off barehanded when faced with a loaded gun… Yeah, that scene is incredible. And it’s one of the major themes of this season—the idea that the cycles of violence and crime are unending and perhaps unpreventable. Marlo will end up back in prison, it is implied, because he can’t stay away. After Omar is killed by some random hopper of little consequence, Michael ends the season by stealing from a Marlo drug crew—which hints, to me, that he is taking up the mantle as the next “Omar.” Duquan, jettisoned by Michael after the latter kills Snoop, winds up a junkie like his parents. Freamon and McNulty are released from the force after their stunt—just like Colvin—which is supposed to show that the status quo will be maintained. What they did was illegal and immoral, but they did it because nothing else was working. And now the city is back to that same old “stats game.”

I lied a bit earlier, I think. Perhaps there is another character, besides Bubbles, who breaks from the cycle in which he is trapped. Namond Brice—son of Wee-Bey and de facto adopted son of Major Colvin—is shown speaking at a debate. He’s becoming the kind of kid that Colvin thought he could become. But this came through extensive one-on-one time between Colvin and Namond, coupled with a more stable home life. Sadly, I think one of the points that this season makes is that the kind of change necessary to fully rehabilitate a kid born into crime-culture is literally unattainable by public systems. They can help, but what is required is that one-on-one time—and a lot of it. Even then, you save one kid in hundreds.

I also lied earlier by saying that I didn’t think the show was rushed. On second thought, the newspaper stuff—the fact that the one reporter is making stuff up but no one cares because everyone is pursuing a nice juicy Pulitzer—does seem to wrap up a bit too quickly. I wasn’t a huge fan of that stuff because, knowing David Simon’s background as a reporter, it all seemed too personal. Like, it felt like the issues weren’t as fleshed out and nuanced as the rest of the series’, because Simon had probably seen that kind of stuff go on and was very much against it. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it seemed more black-and-white / good-guy-versus-bad-guy than anything else in the show, which jarred me a bit.

And now I’ll talk about the positive. This series is utterly well-written. I’m getting my wife caught up on it—we’re currently on the finale of Season Three—and I’m seeing nuances and foreshadowing and just incredibly complex detail that I didn’t catch the first time around because I was too concerned with having things to say about the plot of each season. Everything seems so inevitable now that I know how it ends. It almost feels like I was stupid for not seeing any of it coming—and that is the mark of a solid script, in my opinion. Each and every scene is the result of the writers asking themselves “therefore… what happens?” and “however…. does something else happen because of that?” I am being totally honest when I say that this is the best writing that I’ve ever seen in a dramatic t.v. show. The only series that comes close, in my opinion, is Arrested Development, and I find it impossible to judge the quality of writing across such clearly distinct and almost opposing genre boundaries. But maybe my choice of those two for G.O.A.T. status is because I just really enjoy content that points out and embraces the absurdity of our world. My favorite scene of Season Five, besides the Marlo scene I mentioned earlier, occurs toward the end when Slim Charles shoots Cheese. It’s my favorite because it is so absurd. I like Slim Charles as a character—but only when I let myself forget what he really is. He masks Cheese’s murder as some kind of honor thing, like a payback for Cheese ultimately causing the death of Proposition Joe. But as much as Slim would like to think he’s got some kind of moral high ground (think back to Season Three and his admonishment of some of his muscle after they try to violate the “Sunday truce”), this is a man who partnered with a ruthless Avon Barksdale and did nothing while the sociopath Marlo Stanfield ravaged the city. Slim was the head of Barksdale’s muscle, no doubt carrying out multiple murders over the course of his “career.” So it’s a weird “honor among thieves” kind of thing.

I’ve left out so many characters and storylines, but I think this shorter review is probably best. The only thing I can say about The Wire, really, is that you should watch it. I’ve just finished it and I’m currently rewatching it with my wife. I have plans to watch it again once my wife has finished it, this time with a friend who has never seen an episode.

Yes, it really is good enough to warrant multiple watch-throughs. But it will leave you looking at the world around you and asking, like Kima to Carver, “are you good with it?” Maybe that’s what we need to be asking. Maybe without shows like this—shows that make you take a long, hard look at the problems our society faces—there will be no progress.


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