Press Conference. Rawls, Daniels, Burrell, Carcetti. THE WIRE: Aidan Gillen. photo: Paul Schiraldi (Paul Schiraldi)

Hot off "The Wire"

Whither McNulty? Does Marlo walk? Was that a surprise cameo? Join us as we discuss the series finale


Salon Staff
March 11, 2008 3:06AM (UTC)

Much of Salon's staff is obsessed with HBO's "The Wire" -- and we know many of you are, too. So we'll host a little debriefing session starting directly after each episode ends, continuing through the series finale. Our East Coast contributors will kick it off and our West Coasters will finish it, though we hope you'll have the final say in our letters thread, which we'll be reading and spotlighting the best posts throughout the following Monday.

Salon contributors will include: Heather Havrilesky, TV critic; Sarah Hepola, Life deputy editor; Alex Koppelman, staff writer; Kerry Lauerman, New York editorial director; Farhad Manjoo, senior writer; Laura Miller, senior writer; Joan Walsh, editor in chief.

BEWARE: Spoilers ahead!

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Havrilesky:"It does have a certain charm to it. They manufactured an issue to get paid. We manufactured an issue to get you elected governor. Everybody's gettin' what they need behind some make-believe." -- Norman Wilson

And so one elaborate game of make-believe ends, and another one begins. In that first scene of the finale, when Carcetti and Daniels and Rawls and Pearlman are all speechless, cringing and staring at their feet, and then Wilson cracks up? That's when we know that this last chapter may have a lighter ending than we expected. In fact, after a brutal season where it looked like everyone would be going straight to hell, our favorites have been largely spared: McNulty and Freamon retire and forgive Greggs, McNulty looks ready to be a good husband and an upstanding citizen again, now that he's no longer haunted by his work (I guess I was wrong about police work being his reason to live!), Carcetti is elected governor with that sleazy Rawls as his State Police Superintendent, Daniels leaves the force and becomes a lawyer again, Pearlman becomes a judge, Bubbles gets a job, stays clean, and joins his sister at the dinner table, and Donald gets a ride home to Baltimore with McNulty. Cut to the Baltimore skyline, and that smooth first-season theme song.

It's true that the kids on the street are facing a less promising fate, but hey, this is no Disney movie: Dukie is the new Bubbles, shooting up junk and hitting up a disappointed Prez for cash, and Michael is the new Omar, sticking up Vincent and his two men. But weren't you afraid that was Dukie, sprawled out dead on the pavement in that quick scene where Greggs and Bunk are back on the job? And isn't it a little tough to feel all that sad for Michael, since he could've just as easily ended up killed by Snoop or stuck working for Marlo indefinitely? Because we love Omar, we're privately thrilled to see Michael try to fill his shoes.

While there's something to be said for the freeze-frame ending of "The Sopranos," I love that David Simon and Ed Burns and the other writers delivered a truly satisfying, clear-cut finale. Even with Marlo out of jail, Levy continuing his evil deeds, Templeton winning prizes and Rawls riding Carcetti's bullshit train to the statehouse, anything less would feel like a lie. At least we got to see Cheese hit the ground, with even less fanfare than Omar.

I'm really going to miss this world and the unnervingly authentic characters who lived in it, from the most malevolent to the most kind-hearted. I'll miss greedy Stringer Bell and idealistic Bunny Colvin and earnest Bubs and world weary McNulty and courageous Omar. I feel lucky to have spent time in David Simon's Baltimore. We'll all feel even luckier if one day we stumble on another show with half of the intelligence, integrity, and soul of "The Wire."

Manjoo: I'm with you, Heather. This was a hell of show, and it was a hell of an ending, and I'll miss it much. Having every character fall back into other characters' old routines was a nice touch. In giving up the crown, is Marlo the new Stringer? Is Sydnor, in complaining to Judge Phelan about the brass, the new McNulty? And Kennard sure does look like he'll be the new Marlo, no? New players, but the game goes on.

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"The Wire"'s season-ending montages have always been my favorite scenes (but while we're at it, my favorite "Wire" sequence of all time was the bit near the end of Season 2 where Frank Sobotka marches to his fatal meeting with the Greeks; the music there, by Greek crooner Stelios Kazantzidis, is mesmerizing. Watch it here.)

This episode's montage was fine, even if not especially emotionally forceful and a tad too pat. That's how you wrap things up, I suppose. Bubbles finally getting to go up there with his sister, a scene that lasts on screen at most five seconds, was as nice as things were ever going to get in "The Wire." I'll take it. Also, too, Jay Landsman eulogizing McNulty; man, I love that fellow and his way with words.

But can we erase from our memories the entire Baltimore Sun storyline, pretend it never sullied an otherwise excellent show? In your interview with him, Heather, Simon defends the thing mightily. He puts forward a nice line -- that the real point of the newspaper sequence was to show that the paper misses every big story in the city. And sure, the show does suggest that here and there (though, interestingly, it's saintly Gus who often goofs -- he tells Alma to bury the Prop Joe story and to forget about Omar.)

But if that was really his argument, Simon might have played the point up in the show. Instead, what we get in "The Wire"'s portrayal of the Sun is a lot of screen time for Scott Templeton.

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This show means to convince you that the gravest problem facing American newspapers is reporters who make stuff up, and Pulitzer-hungry editors who protect them. That argument is plainly ridiculous: There are many forces arrayed against newspapers -- the Internet, TV, talk radio, Wall Street's expectations, shoddy management -- but if no fabulist had ever gotten near a newsroom, the press would still face a dire future.

In the end the entire Sun story feels out of place with the rest of the show. When "The Wire" strayed into the ports and the schools, we saw those worlds connect with the show's larger plot and its theme. But the Sun is nearly divorced from everything else on "The Wire" (nearly: we do get the front-page piece on Bubbles, and there's that delicious showdown between Templeton and McNulty).

So that's David Simon's point: Once-great city newspapers no longer have much of anything to do with the cities they cover. Thanks, but that's not exactly news to anyone.

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Miller: Farhad! I'm so thrilled that someone else shares my favorite sequence from "The Wire," the final walk of Frank Sobotka! For me, Sobotka was the most perfect tragic figure in the entire series, because everything he did was for entirely noble reasons (to preserve the brotherhood of the stevedores and to protect his men and their families) and yet it destroyed him, and his idiot son (how great a character was Ziggy?) and still the union went down.

The biggest problem with the Sun story for me was not its lack of verisimilitude but its lack of moral nuance. All of the show's great characters had this -- if they were "bad guys", you might still admire their courage (Snoop) or drive (Stringer), and if they were "good guys," they were always deeply flawed, too. But Scott and the fawning higher-ups had no redeeming qualities, and Gus was a saint. Ultimately, they just were never that interesting.

I loved this ending, for not being a "fuck you" to the audience, even though I never cared enough about "The Sopranos" to mind about the black-out. It was a salt-of-the-earth, newspaperman's ending, one that acknowledges that we want to know how this, that and the other turned out, and Simon & Co. doesn't get all snooty about our desire for old-fashioned closure. The two big question marks are, of course, McNulty and Marlo. I watched with Sarah, and we debated whether Jimmy would turn P.I. or (wouldn't you love this?) reporter. Well, that last option is a long shot, I guess, after what he's seen of the sausage-making in the person of Scott. Marlo, I'm guessing, will be scooped up by the cops sooner or later, as Rhonda promised. He can't be the new Stringer Bell; he can't stay in a room long enough for that. Stringer was a born CEO who just happened to get born into the ghetto, but Marlo is a warlord. Let me ask you, though: if Marlo can't get the game out of his system (and after banking a cool fortune, too), why should we expect McNulty to stay away?

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It's not a happy ending, though, is it? Just one that pulls far back enough to invite a weary acceptance. There's a new McNulty and a new Omar and a new Bubbles. Nothing has changed, really. I think the most sublime (if pitch black) comedy the series has ever exhibited comes when Cheese is making that speech about "There ain't no back in the day. Ain't no nostalgia. Just the street and the game" -- spelling out the theme of the entire series -- and then BLAM! And all anyone cares about is that the co-op is short $900,000! In some ways, that's the real ending of this magnificent, uncompromising piece.

Lauerman: No, it's not a happy ending. I was prepared for a more light-hearted finale because I'd read Heather's interview with Simon first, but that brief shot of Dukie shooting up – with the junkman's horse standing witness like some sort of specter – came as a real blow. What amazes me about "The Wire" is that it has always managed to be riveting without pandering to our expectations – or uniquely American expectations, as you pointed out last year, Laura -- through happy endings or flashy finishes that are self-consciously bleak. This was a really satisfying way to wrap things up precisely because the writers had the integrity to follow the story through to its logical conclusions – fan hopes be damned.

I suspect I'll be a minority here, but I ultimately embraced the Sun storyline – and not (OK, not just) because I fear being one of those defensive media types Simon refers to who just don't get it. I actually think Simon's utter disillusionment with newspapers is pretty crucial to understanding "The Wire." He felt The Sun couldn't (or wouldn’t) really grapple with his city's issues, so he created a parallel Baltimore of his own, fictionalizing – but also exposing -- the core corruptions he believes animates it all. His key newspaper critique is that local papers, when they had those big profit margins, could've become "essential and so vibrant and so necessary to understanding the world well that you couldn't do without it." Who can disagree? They could've, and they blew it. "The Wire" is his indictment: Here are all these important and engrossing stories you missed by taking a cheaper but ultimately self-defeating route instead.

I guess that's why it's not surprising to me that the Sun's story line was so harsh (lacking the "moral nuance" Laura mentions) and ends on the least hopeful note possible: Every bad guy wins (that's a Pulitzer that Templeton's supposed to be winning) and all the good guys lose, with Gus demoted to the copy desk, and Alma sent to the sticks. I don't think the show suggests that fabricators are the real threat to newspapers, Farhad. I think it makes the case that a management more interested in personal gain than serving its public usually surrenders its integrity along the way – not unlike every other bureaucracy the show picked apart in the last five years.

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Wow, five years! What a run. Update -- Simon cameo: Thanks to sharp-eyed letter-writer brokenfixd for catching a Hitchcockian cameo by David Simon in the finale. It lasted but a few seconds, but we found it (left) about an hour into the show.

Hepola: I do wonder what the future holds for Jimmy McNulty. "Let's go home," he says, the final words of the show, but home isn't exactly an easy place for someone like McNulty. It's as difficult and dangerous as Baltimore itself. We hope he leaves his demons in the office desk drawer, along with the Jameson. We hope, like Heather says, "he's ready to become a good husband and an upstanding citizen." But we have seen too much of his damage to be certain he could free himself so quickly. I see Beadie spending a lot of nights alone, waiting for the phone to ring, watching a door that does not open. That's not a tragic end; but it's not altogether a happy one, either. I guess everyone gets a little of both.

You know, I never could watch "The Sopranos." It was too cartoonish for me. And so what drew me to "The Wire" from the beginning was its commitment to authenticity. It was the real deal. "The Wire" taught me about street life, about politics, about inner-city schools -- and, of course, about the murder police. Television is a land of fantasy, of soft and fuzzy details. But "The Wire" checked and doublechecked its facts; it gave a shit about getting the story right, and it dared to be a show respected by the people whose lives it was depicting. Meanwhile, on "House," someone's eyeball popped out of an anus.

Often, when it comes time to write these posts, I feel frustratingly unprepared, undecided. I don't want to critique the show as much as I want to live with it, think on it, let it sink in. And that is perhaps the greatest compliment I could give to David Simon. That in a medium designed for snap judgment, he created a show you wanted to slow down and analyze. "Listen carefully," the show instructed us from the beginning. Good lord, we did.

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Koppelman: Well, obviously I agree that it wasn't a happy ending. But I'm surprised that I'm the first to comment on the whole worldview of this episode, how dark it was, how fundamentally pessimistic about the world.

There are only a few people who come out of it entirely untainted with their own brand of evil -- even Daniels, who takes an admirable stand on the stats, is unwilling to do what he knows to be the right thing and take down McNulty and Freamon. Of course there's his past, too. And Pearlman; her actions were tainted, just like what she was covering up, if arguably not to the same level. So now she's a judge. Carcetti played right to his usual level of scum, and gets rewarded with the state house, of course. (And what I couldn't help thinking during the fake wake scene, and outside when Greggs tells Freamon and McNulty what she did, was that somehow two of the few people who do come out looking good after all is said and done are Freamon and McNulty. What the hell?)

And what was really depressing to me about all of this was what a friend said to me as we watched: She couldn't think of any of these people as actually doing evil, because it all seemed so natural. They were all just doing their jobs. This is such a dark vision of how the city works; the various lying and manipulating is just the real and natural way of doing things, and then the cycle starts again with Sydnor in the judge's office acting just like an aspiring McNulty. That this time around all of it was completely believable doesn't exactly make me -- especially as a Baltimore native, though I doubt we're unique in any of this -- think good thoughts about the future of the city.

I don't know exactly which side I come down on about The Sun plotline, but I think I'll side with Kerry here. I sort of agree with Farhad that Templeton got too much screen time considering the point they were apparently really trying to make -- and I wonder how much of that was personal for Simon -- but I think Kerry's right: Templeton is written as a symptom, not a cause.

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Finally, I agree with Heather about the ending, it really was nice to know where just about everyone ends up, but I did think there was just too much damn montage; it felt pretentious. I stopped counting at some point, but it really felt like we got treated to about a dozen montages before the end of the final one. A truly, truly minor complaint in what was altogether a wonderful ending, though.

Walsh:Yes, Heather, I enjoyed Norman setting up the finale that way: "Everybody's gettin' what they need behind some make-believe." I was prepared for a lot of what unfolded: Carcetti elected governor, Narese the mayor, Rawls the state police commissioner, even Templeton winning the Pulitzer (no, I didn't see Valcheck being commissioner!). But it did seem exceptionally bleak, and cynical, for all of them to get paid while Marlo walks and Dukie winds up a homeless junkie. It was some comfort that McNulty and Freamon got to walk away rather than wind up "in bracelets" as a briefly panicked McNulty fantasized early on. And Bubbles was a happy ending we couldn't have thought he or we deserved, since as Snoop told us, "deserve got nothin' to do with it."

I realize I'm having trouble writing this wrap at least partly because I don't want to -- I don't want it to be over! I want to keep talking about it with all of you. But while I think David Simon did a great job with the ending montage, there are still so many questions: What did others think about the scene with Levy and Herc? Is it just supposed to be obvious that Levy made sure Herc knew where to find Marlo's cell phone number to set up the whole thing? I'm still not sure.

I don't know what to think about McNulty either, Sarah. He seemed strangely liberated, right away, by getting caught, didn't he? He went home that night like a good husband and father and played "Trouble" with the kids! After Beadie's despairing lecture getting him to imagine his wake a few episodes ago, I was thrilled to get to attend his mock-wake, and so was he, everyone singing along with the Pogues. He seemed to agree with Greggs that she did the right thing: "Detective, if you think it needed doing, I guess it did." Home comes up over and over in the episode: "I'm going home," he says when called out to report on another Templeton scam, then it's "Let's go home" at the end to Donald/Larry. I'm hoping home is with Beadie, but clearly Simon left it open. It's hard to imagine McNulty finding home and solace.

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While it was great to see Daniels end the show with some integrity, was anyone else disappointed in Pearlman? In that early scene where Daniels is seething when it's clear Carcetti wants to cover it all up, talking about going to the governor, she was a cringing coward, convinced she'd be fired. "This was my career, this is everything….Everything I worked for all those years, in that courthouse. Please." She's no Greggs or Bunk, but I expected a little better. And I know it wasn't her doing, but she cut a depressingly weak deal with Levy, letting Marlo walk.

I was also sad to see the bad guys unambiguously win in the Baltimore Sun subplot, especially once Gus got his fight on and Alma joined him. They had the goods on Templeton; I found it hard to believe they'd be shoved aside so aggressively. But that's Simon's vision of journalistic perfidy, and who am I to argue with him? (I watched tonight's finale with our old friend Bill Wyman, by the way, who caught Simon's sentimental cameo as a Sun reporter immediately.)

But Laura's right, the best scene was the one in which Cheese gets his head blown off after making his speech summing up the whole five seasons -- "There ain't no back in the day. Ain't no nostalgia. Just the street and the game" -- and the others just start squabbling about how they're gonna make up the $900,000 they need to take over Marlo's business, while Cheese's fingers are still twitching as he dies on the street. Slim Charles explains he did it to avenge Prop Joe, and the only reply is, "That sentimental motherfucker just cost us money." This sentimental motherfucker is sad to say goodbye to this show -- and to taking it apart with all of you on Sunday nights this season. What should we do next: a nightly wrap of "In Treatment?"


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