Monday, March 10, 2008

The Wire: '-30-' (5x10)

The Wire ends with an episode that does an admirable job of bringing everything full circle, of returning to the feel of season one, and setting up a cyclical world, in which younger characters rise to fill the place of the fallen. Halfway through the episode, I wasn’t feeling the finality, it seemed like more of a season finale than a series finale, but the last half, starting with that scenic Baltimore montage, brought everything back to the feel the show had when it began.

But, is that a good thing? I really liked the episode, but I don’t think it matches what happened last week, or the season finales of previous years. The biggest issue is the mixed emotions produced by the fates of our various characters. Things turn out okay for most people, but at this point, do they deserve that? Does it give me any joy for the various police people to get promoted or let off the hook for their actions? Compared to the devastating emotional impact of ‘Mission Accomplished’ or ‘Final Grades,’ this finale didn’t quite hit me. But, it might have been too much to end the show on a down note like that, if life goes on, the bad is mixed with the good, and ultimately it all normals out.

The biggest question at the opening is what can they do about the serial killer. It’s in no one’s interest for the truth to be exposed, but is there some intrinsic value to the truth? That’s what Daniels believes, but he’s quickly turned away. If one arc in the episode really frustrates me, it’s Daniels’. He had so much fire at first, but he chooses to just roll over in the end. I can understand the desire to protect Rhonda and Marla, but surely he could have played things better.

Nerese may have some dirt on him, but he holds the ultimate trump card, the fact that Carcetti covered up the serial killer. I guess he doesn’t want to play dirty like they do, but isn’t the fate of Baltimore worth some mess? Is it better to let Valchek take over than to do whatever he can to get the truth out there? I do love having Valchek take over, it’s a perfect callback moment, but I felt like Daniels was more responsible than that.

Carcetti and his team, Steintorf in particular, have lost any sense of trying to do well. I never bought into Carcetti’s “new day,” the man sold himself out with Hamsterdam, and this latest cover up is arguably the more justifiable evil. The truth doesn’t bring those people back to life, and it would destroy the coalition Carcetti has built. But, doesn’t anyone even consider that people have the right to know the truth?

I think that’s the implicit tragedy of the season as a whole. At this point, no one thinks about the intrinsic value of events or the effect on those involved, the homeless, the weakest among us, are just a pawn used in the power games of the newspaper, government and police. They are an issue when it’s convenient for them to be an issue, when they’re no longer in the media focus, nobody will care. Simon has said that’s the point of the newspaper storyline, that what really matters gets no coverage, and it’s an extremely valid point, but not one that’s as emotionally affecting as what we saw in seasons three and four.

If there’s one fumble in this episode, I’d argue it’s the out of nowhere appearance of a real killer. The Scott ‘gray van’ scene was a great little piece, upping the tension and disrupting McNulty’s rediscovered suburban happiness. McNulty just wants the serial killer to go away, but it keeps coming back to haunt him. I like the way he now has to deal with the ‘bullshit’ he’s created, the same bullshit wasting his time is what he’s had the whole force chasing for weeks now.

But, having a real copycat killer just makes things too simple. It brings home the pain McNulty has caused, but it also makes it easy for everything to go away. The guy even confesses to all the murders! He’s the perfect out for everyone involved, so perfect he seems like a Scott Templeton invention. I can understand why they had this happen, it would be dramatically unsatisfying to have the murders stretching on into the future with no particular conclusion in sight, but it makes it too easy to close everything out.

What could have been interesting, and made the newspaper story more relevant to the season as a whole, would have been to Scott tell Gus it was McNulty who called him, leading Gus to piece everything together. Then, he would come into the same conflict with his bosses as McNulty, over whether it makes sense to undermine everything they’ve been reporting for the past few months. If changing public policy gets a Pulitzer, surely exposing police corruption on this wide a scale would be something they’d want to do? Arguably, the reason Simon didn’t go in a direction like this is because he didn’t want to vindicate the practices of the Sun, or have the paper make an actual change.

Much of the episode is about what doesn’t happen, people who take the easy out instead of trying to disrupt things. It’s all about backroom deals, and ‘carrying the weight.’ It makes sense, we’ve seen many seasons of drug dealers bargaining down sentences, taking the fall for their lieutenants. McNulty, Freamon, Daniels, Rhonda, they all do the same, get absolved of their crimes to help the bosses.

If the early part of the season provided a spotlight for Clay Davis, this episode gives Levy his moment in the sun, and shows why he’s the guy you want in your corner. He skillfully deals with Rhonda to free Marlo, aided by his right hand man, Herc. Herc is such a bastard, and pretty much cements it here. Over the course of the series, all he’s wanted is recognition, people to compliment him for what he’s done. Back in season two, there’s the moment where the MCU forgets that he and Carver are watching a house. This is the ultimate slight. Incidents like the camera, like ‘Fuzzy Dunlop,’ the mayorial blowjob, it’s all about getting attention, getting his stripes. That brisket from Levy is the equivalent of the stripes, and Herc is happy to sell out his police buddies for that commendation.

Perhaps the saddest scene in the whole episode is Dukie’s awkward shakedown of Prez. Prez knows he’s using, just looking at him, you can see the same sort of marks that scar Bubbles’ face. He’s spinning the same kind of story we heard from Bubbles in year one, the old I just need to hold this bit of money to get something, then I can get clean, get things together. The tragedy is we’ve seen what this did to Bubbles, just how long it took him to get back to the point where he can climb the stairs and eat dinner with his family.

For Dukie, Prez is basically the only contact he’s got left, the only person he knows, and after this, he’s gone. Prez himself is in a curious position. He’s much more in control of the school environment, not the awkward guy we saw in the fourth season, but is that at the cost of his caring? Is Prez going to reach out for kids like Dukie, or is he just going to go through the motions like the other teachers at the school. I particularly like how Miss Donnelly doesn’t particularly remember Dukie. She’s seen so many kids like him, they blur in her mind.

The obvious interpretation of events is that Dukie has become the new Bubbles. He’s a charismatic, nice guy, who got caught up in bad things. But, I see it more as Dukie becoming the new Sherrod. He doesn’t have even the minimal support network that Bubbles did, no sister to go to. I can’t see him living that long. If there is one Wire sequel project I’d love to see, it’d be five years later, Michael and Dukie meet on the street and reflect on what they’ve become.

The Dukie arc is the biggest downer in the series. Everyone else finds a kind of happiness, or achievement, even if it comes at the cost of their values. Dukie has become what he ran away from in his first days on the show. The one major question I’ve got about him and Michael is, do they know what happened to Namond? Does Namond ever think back on them? He saw Donut in “Final Grades,” but I’m thinking Colvin won’t let Namond go back to the streets where they are. It’s smart by Colvin, but I’d have still loved to see that reunion.

I think part of what made the finale a bit underwhelming for me is the fact that it was never the police stories that made the show great, it was mostly the stuff on the streets, Hamsterdam, the Barksdales and Cutty in season three, the kids, Snoop and Chris and Colvin’s school project in season four. That’s not to say the police stuff wasn’t good, it just felt more intellectually interesting than the emotionally visceral street level storylines. In this episode, we don’t actually get that much street activity. There’s the shots of familiar landmarks in the montages, but most of the action takes place in the offices, not with the people.

Our final moment in the gangster world is the absolutely fantastic scene where the co-op reforms to buy the connect and Cheese gets popped. I love Method Man as Cheese, he’s got a wild energy, and the juxtaposition of his speech about no nostalgia with Charles killing him for Joe is great. Clearly there is history on the street, people remember the Barksdales, people remember Prop Joe, but memories don’t hold power. The Greeks don’t care who’s putting out the product as long as someone’s putting it out there. Rick and Slim take over the connect, life goes on.

The more interesting loose thread out of the drug story is Marlo’s fate, a fate worse than death or imprisonment, life as…a normal person. Marlo in the suit had me gasp, it’s such a bizarre place to see the character, basically becoming what Stringer was. The shot of the harbor echoed Stringer and Avon’s view during their final conversation.

Possibly the best scene of the entire episode was Marlo confronting the kids on the street corner. The reason I loved it was the slightly surreal feel, like Marlo had wandered into a parallel dimension. It sounds like a dream, Marlo is wearing a suit, and has just come from a business meeting. He wanders onto the street, his corner, but no one knows his name. It was his reputation he valued most, the only time we see him reaching for affection is in season four, when he hands out money on the streets to win the affection of the kids.

The sad irony is that Omar, his greatest foe, has outlived him, his legend continues to grow, while Marlo is already forgotten. The reason for that is that Omar was an original, a self made man who built his reputation over years of work. Early in the season, I talked a lot about the idea of Omar as the embodiment of chaos, and chaos is always going to be more alluring than order. Omar the man may have been broken down to a hobbling wreck by the end, but the legend only grows, fending off ten guys from New York with his AK before getting taken down.

If ever David Simon wanted to satisfy The Wire fanbase, he only has to make a Legends of Omar movie, in which various kids reimagine Omar’s death in a series of increasingly over the top ways. I’d always equated Omar with Buffy’s Spike, a guy who came onto the show and had such powerful energy, he owned every scene he was in. But, I think he’s really more like Wolverine. When Claremont wrote X-Men, he kept Wolverine to a minimum, and used his defiant energy as a contrast to the order imposed by people like Scott and Xavier. The character worked best when he stayed on an Earth bound level. Things flailed when we saw him actually doing the sort of things the kids talk about Omar doing here, and I’m thankful that Simon only took Omar so far over the top in stories, not in the reality of the series. But, I can still dream about my Omar versus a hundred AK-47 wielding ninjas series, right?

What will become of Marlo? That’s one of the biggest questions at the end of the series. My guess is he’ll get pulled back into the game and eventually wind up in jail. He’s like Avon in season three, given a chance for a totally legit life of easy money and luxury, but he doesn’t want that. He wants his name to be on the streets, his rep to be legendary, and you don’t get that by building a condo. Either way, it was a great end for the character.

Continuing with the cyclical theme, we get Michael as the new Omar, holding his own double barreled shotgun. Last week, I was pretty uncertain about what would happen to Michael, could he just walk away from the game? Was he going to go after Marlo? I remember him telling Bug that he’d have more money for their aunt, so clearly he was going to be doing something violent. I feel like Bug is the justification Michael uses for what he’s doing, he has to get this money so that Bug can have a good life, can get out of the troubled world Michael finds himself in.

The Omar parallel was perhaps a bit heavy handed, but when you’ve got to spell out the rest of a character’s life, it’s probably not the time for subtlety. A question that lingers for me is why Michael felt he had to abandon Dukie. I can understand the desire to not get him killed by Marlo, but wasn’t he aware that Dukie would find a worse fate alone with the junkman? Maybe he didn’t want Dukie to see what he’d become, a murderer. He knew that Dukie didn’t have what it takes to run in that world, and eventually Dukie would get shot by someone who wanted to get at Michael. But, to abandon him like he did, it still stings.

The one character on the streets who got an essentially happy ending was Bubbles. He’s now a Sun coverboy, and perhaps it was that story that finally got him up the stairs to his sister’s table. That one moment made up for a lot of the darkness elsewhere in the episode, and provides a great conclusion to his arc. The guy’s been through so much, and that moment is totally earned. At the beginning of this season, it was frustrating to see a Bubbles who had lost so much of his spirit, but in the end, he’s back to how he was, only clean and healthy. I only wish we could have had one more scene with him and Kima, or at least a moment where she sees the newspaper article about him and smiles.

Speaking of the newspaper, the Bubbles story was easily the most effective use of them during the season. I suppose that might play into Simon’s point, that we’re only emotionally attached to the good journalism, but I still feel like doing a story where the point is the story we’re telling isn’t the story that matters is a bit too conceptual to work on an emotional or narrative level. The story resolved itself well enough, but I still didn’t get any sort of emotional charge out of it, maybe drama is an artificial construct, maybe it’s ‘too TV’ for Simon, but this story just wasn’t particularly exciting or affecting in the way the rest of the show has been, and nothing in this episode justified its strong prominence in this season.

This leaves us with the police side of things. In the end, everyone but Kima sacrifices their morality for the sake of convenience, to protect others, or simply because that’s how it’s done. But, issues with the overall resolution aside, the last few scenes were all pretty great, particularly the pub funeral for McNulty.

This season saw the return of ‘McNutty,’ McNulty’s troubled, alcohol fueled trouble making self. The funeral is about laying that guy to rest. McNulty has one final moment with the guys, is happy there, and then walks away. It’s a major contrast to what Beattie said his wake would be like, the people he knew at work are in a lot of ways his family, they care about and love him in their own way, but he also knows that staying in that world isn’t healthy. He doesn’t begrudge Kima for what she did, that was inevitable, and in some ways I think he’s happy it happened. He is now free to move on, he can’t return to the force even if he wants to.

So many people were expecting a sad end for McNulty, but I don’t think he really deserved it. He did some bad things, but, much like Colvin, he was a character who always tried to act in a way that would make things better. He looked outside the system for solutions, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. In an episode where so many people accept things as the way they are, give up on the real substantive change in favor of personal gain, it’s refreshing to see someone who was willing to put himself on the line to do real police work. So many of the higher ups assume that McNulty acted solely to get himself the OT money, they can’t even conceive that he’d have a real stake in solving crimes and improving the streets. And, like Bunny, he has to take a fall for what he did.

Midway through the season, I was really frustrated with McNulty, on the border of disliking him, but in the end, I have a lot of respect for what he and Lester did. They succeeded in getting Marlo out of the game, was that really worthwhile? Maybe not, another kingpin will rise to replace him, but Marlo had such a short temper, such an easy trigger finger, maybe the next guy will do a better job of abiding by the implicit no bodies, no hassle rule. They did what they could to change things, the system ultimately ate them up and shat them out, but I think the episode kind of vindicates their scheme.

And, after all these years, Shardene finally returns. I wasn’t sure if she and Lester were still together, but clearly they are, and she still has a lot of love for him. That final moment, where he makes dollhouse furniture with her feels like peace in the same way the wonderful silent scene of Beattie resting her head on McNulty’s shoulder does. Beattie once again feels safe with him, feels safe letting her kids get attached to him, and with him off the force, the good McNulty should prevail.

The other ‘good cops’ generally get what they deserve. Carver moves up the ranks, thanks to his good police work, not dirty dealings, and Daniels gets to groom a potential successor before leaving the department in the incapable hands of Valchek. I’d have liked to see more of Carver this season, but his arc reached its climax with the failure to save Randy last season. When he tells Herc, it all matters, at the beginning of this season, that’s the years of experience talking. He learned those lessons and changed, Herc didn’t. If there’s one hope left in the police force, it’s Carver.

Kim and Bunk will go on doing what they do, investigating murders the right way. They aren’t going to change the system in the way McNulty did, but they’re testaments to the fact that the system can do good, if people are more concerned about doing their job than scheming for a promotion. I think Simon’s real issue is with people like Rawls, who are forever trying to get to the next level instead of doing good where they are.

And, that pretty much sums up Carcetti too. At this point, he is willing to sacrifice everything to become governor, and we don’t even hear him talking about the good he’ll do once he’s there. It’s become an end itself, the fa├žade is dropped, he serves only himself. He wins in the end because Carcetti offers exactly what people want to hear from a politician, he speaks in fiery words about change and a better world, but behind closed doors, serves only himself. If you want to offer a potentially cautionary tale about Barack Obama, Carcetti would be the perfect example. I don’t know what Obama is like in private, but if you can rise from state senator to presidential candidate in eight years, it’s clear there’s some ambition there. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, but in Carcetti’s case, it’s clearly backed up only by self gratification, not a real desire to help people.

Among the many characters who fail to step up in this episode is Norman, who laughs at the homeless serial killer instead of trying to get Carcetti to really to something good. His arc has been essentially implicit, but didn’t he use to try to do good? Maybe he’s become so used to Carcetti doing the wrong thing that he’s given up, or maybe he too is drunk on the thought that Carcetti could be governor, but I think the decision to cripple the opposition voice has made the Carcetti scenes less compelling. No moment in this episode matches Carcetti’s decision to forgo the state funding for schools at the end of last season. Of course, since Carcetti always does the wrong thing, there wouldn’t be much tension there either way.

I’m not thrilled with the choice of song for the closing montage. While it’s nice to bring it full circle to season one, the song lacks the emotional, propulsive power of other closing montage choices. Plus, after hearing the versions of the song used in seasons three and four, the season one version pales in comparison. And, unlike most seasons, where the action builds right up to the end, and resolution is left to the montage, we know where most of these people end up. Still, it was nice to see everyone one more time, to know that Kenard gets picked up by the police, and that life generally goes on.

The decision to show so many random shots of Baltimore takes away from the reality of the narrative world, but also brings back some of the feel of season one. The show has gotten more and more ‘comfortable,’ it’s got its own world, we know that world and accept it. But, seeing these random faces and unfamiliar corners makes it clear that this is a real city, not just a place on a TV show. It was great to see the terrace from season one and the ports from year two again.

The final moment would probably sound pretty surreal if you’d describe it before seeing the season. McNulty and a homeless guy drive back to Baltimore, but in context, it feels right. McNulty tries to absolve for his sins, and at least help out this one guy. The city may be fucked up in many ways, but it’s still home, for him and Larry.

As an end for the five year story, I think it’s appropriate, but in some ways, it narrows the show down a bit to fit all the characters into roles people were playing in season one. I appreciate the symmetry, but the show had expanded so much, it feels a bit reductive to have Sydnor playing McNulty, Dukie as Bubbles, etc. It almost feels like the intervening years never happened, maybe that was the point, to show that in the long term, we’ll all just filling the same roles, moving through the same system, but didn’t anyone make a mark?

That’s part of what I loved so much about the Stringer and Colvin characters. They broke out of the mold, and created new institutions. They both ‘died’ for it in their own way, but no one came along to take over for them.

In the grand pantheon of series finales, this one reminded me most of The Sopranos, or its first 59 minutes, pre Journey part. Both episodes were about getting things back to normal after the trauma of the season, of people returning to old patterns and finding a way to go on living with some kind of happiness. Yes, there’s some down endings, but on the whole, both were pretty upbeat finales. And, I think there’s a reason no one talks about anything other than the last scene in The Sopranos finale, the rest was pretty much what you’d expect, and even though this wasn’t exactly as I predicted stuff would occur, it felt like I thought it would feel. There weren’t any moments that killed me in the way Colvin’s silent treatment of Carcetti, the Bubbles NA speech or Michael and Dukie’s split last episode did. People may say that it’s always the penultimate episode that brings the fireworks, but looking back at ‘Final Grades,’ it’s clear that wasn’t the case.

So, in the end, one of the greatest series of all time goes out with a really strong, but not exceptional finale. I’m happy with the ending, but I don’t think anyone will rank it with the series’ finest hours. But, that’s largely due to its message. I don’t like to see characters I respected compromise everything, and that’s what we see repeatedly here.

I suppose that’s the ultimate tragedy of the episode, the fact that it’s so easy for everyone to believe the lie. And, that’s certainly a relevant message for our times. Everybody votes for war in Iraq because it works for them politically, they think it’ll be a quick, easy political jolt, but it becomes it’s own sprawling beast, and careers are made because people refuse to speak out. Nobody wants to admit just how bad things are, and in the end, they benefit from it. But, watching that final montage, know that Carcetti’s governorship, Rhonda’s judge position, Nerese as mayor, it’s all built on lies, and it’s the people on the streets who suffer, the ones who are left behind after the election ends and the call for change leads only to stasis.

If nothing else, this show is important because it pointed out that the urban poor don’t just disappear when that issue is no longer in the news, that drugs don’t go away because the ‘war’ on them isn’t front and center anymore. If you want to see this show’s relevance, just think about all the people who’ve suffered here, all the institutional failures and then compare that to what this year’s presidential candidates are talking about, tax cuts for the rich and an inordinate amount of money to make America ‘safer.’ We don’t need terrorists to kill us, there’s thousands of people dying on the streets of America’s cities everyday while we spend two trillion dollars to kill people on the streets of Iraq. Well, at least that war will give us Simon’s next project, the much anticipated Generation Kill.

And, finally, no matter my feelings on this episode, I want to thank everyone involved in this show for giving us one of the most intelligent, emotionally powerful pieces of art ever created. Much respect to David Simon, Ed Burns, Idris Elba, Andre Royo, Robert Wisdom, Dominic West, George Pelecanos, Joe Chapelle, Seth Gilliam, Wendell Pierce, Wood Harris, Robert Chew and everyone else involved in the show. It was a masterpiece.


Anonymous said...

A question that lingers for me is why Michael felt he had to abandon Dukie.

I think this reflects his core nature. I’ve always seen Michael as a hybrid of Omar L and Marlo (note the anagram). The sequence with the rings passing back and forth among them last season was a metaphor. While Michael is Omar’s successor as the new stick-up kid in B-more, he shares Marlo’s temperament. It’s this similarity that first attracted Marlo to him. He saw a part of himself in the boy. Like Marlo, Michael wasn’t made to play the son. He is a hard child who never took any hand-outs. He is clinical, practical and unsentimental. Michael telling Dukie that he couldn’t remember the piss balloons was a defining moment. As Cheese would say, “There ain't no back in the day. Ain't no nostalgia…” Michael abandoned Dukie and never looked back. He also abruptly ended his friendship with Namond. He is emotionally disconnected.

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