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“Final Grades” is revelatory for everyone but our great detectives.  They spend the episode hauling bodies out of the vacant houses but they don’t learn any more than almost everyone else (including the audience) didn’t already know.  MCU remains blissfully ignorant of how meaningless their work is to middle school children beneath them or to the politicians above them.  Good police work may finally be having its day in Baltimore, but that day may have come too late to make any difference.

Far worse than a city going to hell is the prospect of being raised in a city that already has.  Throughout this season we’ve seen the consequences of this played out through four boys as they deal with extreme poverty, child abuse, a criminal legacy, and the pitfalls of dealing with authority.  The real tragedy is not that the world has done irreparable damage to these kids, but that the system has failed at every opportunity to help them.

Now, at the end, we can see where the boys have ended up.  Michael has become a gangster, and one can’t help but think it was the right choice.  His abusive step-father has been dealt with and he now has a good home in which to raise his younger brother.  What’s more, he’s now able to look people in the eye.  It’s horrible that murder should be a young man’s only route to self-respect, but what other alternative did he have?  Cutty was the only one to really reach out to Michael, heroically so, but he was the wrong person to expect Michael to trust.  What’s more, what did he ever have to offer beyond vague assurances?  What the boy really needed was a community he could rely on and he found that in the Stanfield crew.

Duquan also ends up on the corner and it’s an even bigger step up for him.  We’ve seen him develop self respect and confidence under Prez’s wing this season, but that’s still not enough for him to be out on his own.  One man may indeed be able to make a difference for an “at risk” youth, but it takes more than a couple semester’s work.  The system can’t allow Dukie to remain under Prez, and he’s (understandably) not willing to be on his own again, so the drug trade is the logical alternative.  Where else but the corner can a Baltimore teenager ply some above-average intelligence?

Randy, raised in foster care and always eager to please authority, was the boy most closely tied to the system, and that’s what ends up burning him (pardon the pun).  His calling Carver on his BS reassurances was heartbreaking, but it’s got nothing on his telling Ellis not to feel bad; don’t feel bad that I’m going to be getting my ass kicked daily until I turn eighteen; don’t feel bad that neither the system nor the streets are able to take care of me; and don’t feel bad that it’s your fault.

Namond, surprisingly, is the only boy to get a truly happy ending.  Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t happen through the aid of the system, but through the kindness of individuals; a teacher generous enough to open his home and a father brave enough to let his son go.  The program that helped Namond is (of course) shut down, drilling home the fact that this is an isolated incident and not a sweeping change.

The ups and downs of the MCU really had no bearing on the lives of these kids.  Imagine if the unit hadn’t been gutted, if it had brought in a case against Marlo.  What difference would that have made?  Randy would still be a snitch, Duquan would still have no place in the world, and Michael would still be living with a child molester.  They may have an opportunity to bring that case in now, but it’s really only part of the equation.  As Colvin pointed out, it’s already too late to reach young men who are “deep in the game,” you need to target them when they’re younger.

The person in a position to actually ensure that the younger generation, or at least the one after it, need not rely on the support of gangs or the kindness of strangers, sells them out.  Carcetti’s betrayal is masterfully executed in that it’s of both the city and the audience.  I’ll admit to being taken in the first time I watched this season.  Tommy’s transformation over the course of the campaign seemed genuine and his commitment to doing the right thing was affirmed in his alliance with Daniels.  As it turns out, Carcetti’s commitment lasted only as long as it didn’t conflict with his ambitions.  Leaving the state’s money on the table keeps his bid for governor intact while undermining the improvements he’s promised the police department and nullifying his public works program; all to maintain the status in a system that’s failing its students.  Given how weak Carcetti’s commitment actually is, one has to think that the days of good police work will last only as long as they poll well.

Final Thoughts

Tommy’s wife and enabler tells him, “I’m sure you’ll do the right thing.”  I’m sure he’ll rationalize his ambition as for the greater good, just as he did in season three.

McNulty, sadly, rejoins MCU, thinking he can stay “away from himself” while doing real police work.  He might be able to… if the department were actually changing.

I was crushed the first time I watched this episode, thinking Bubbles was dead, then elated when we learned he was alive, then crushed again when we see him in the hospital.  This show rules.

Almost as heartbreaking as Randy reassuring Carver:  Randy thinking that $235 might be enough to bribe his way into foster care.

Cutty’s philandering got a semi-payoff in the form of him dating the nurse.  I still don’t really care.

More evidence that MCU is defined by “too little, too late:” that nail gun we’ve been following all season doesn’t even pay off as Herc’s nail has disappeared.

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