… the life of kings

I have, perhaps, been unfairly harsh in my criticism of season five.  Throughout these ten episodes The Wire has remained an extremely strong, at times brilliant, series.  To slam it for not being the series I wanted illustrates the pitfalls of any long running show.  At a certain point we must start measuring the series against itself rather than against whatever else is on.  Four years of genius have created quite a host of expectations in the audience and while the creators shouldn’t have simply tried to meet them, I would rather they had been thwarted in more interesting ways.  With that in mind, I’ll attempt to look at the series finale for what it is, rather than what it isn’t.

“-30-“ is a good but not great farewell to The Wire.  This series is built on cycles and the finale faced the difficult challenge of remaining true to that while still providing a sense of closure.  It succeeded, for the most part, by being less an ending than a changing of the guard; the old players move on while new ones take their place and so the game continues, even if this particular round is over.  The conclusion is satisfying, although there are parts of it that feel a little too neat, namely the 1:1 torch passing for nearly every character and McNulty’s murder case being wrapped up with a too-convenient ribbon.

I’ll begin with the ending and run through the various successions that happen for the major characters:

  • Carcetti becomes governor after having promised away half of every dollar he might otherwise have given to Baltimore.  The state’s new leader will prove no better than the last in aiding the city.  He’s also brought Rawls with him, ensuring that police mismanagement can spread to a greater scale.
  • Nerese Campbell, a member of the old Royce camp, becomes mayor.  Key element of her power play?  Push Daniels out of the Commissioner’s chair.
  • Valcheck becomes the Commissioner and he’s not a replacement for Cedric, he’s a replacement for Burrell.
  • Cedric’s real successor comes in the form of Carver, a good Lieutenant with checkered past.
  • Sydnor takes McNulty’s place, instigating with Judge Phelan.  This is probably the weakest replacement of the bunch as, up until this season, Sydnor was never much of a rebel.
  • Flether replaces Gus at the Metro Desk, which may fit but I wasn’t particularly interested.
  • Michael steps in for Omar, the stickup boy with a heart of gold.
  • Dukie steps into Bubbles’ shoes as a soldier who’s just a little too smart to be living on the street.

With the possible exception of Syndor, the next generation fits organically into their new roles and continues The Wire’s themes of things never really changing and corruption inevitably rising at the top.  It’s about the only conclusion this series could really draw.

Much more problematic that than the torch passing is the resolution to the “Red Ribbon Killer” case.  We were told repeatedly throughout this season that the case would eventually be forgotten after McNulty stopped fabricating evidence.  While such an ending wouldn’t be particularly dramatic I think it would’ve worked better than a conveniently crazy copy cat arriving to take the fall.  We may have already seen this individual twice before, but that doesn’t make this resolution any less out of nowhere.  This series hasn’t shied away from the open-ended resolutions in the past and it’s a shame they felt the need for one with McNulty’s latest bit of shit-disturbing.

The Wire quickly grew beyond the fallout from McNulty’s instigating but that is where the series began and so it’s somewhat appropriate that be where it ends.  The game may be eternal and unchanging but drama occurs, at least in the short term, when individuals start breaking its rules.  Like any good rule-breaker, McNulty ends up digging his own grave and is pushed out the system he could never really live with anyway.  Five years of raging may not have wrought any substantive change on the machine, but that was never really the point.  McNulty helped us explore the system’s boundaries and so better understand it.  For the most part, the finale proudly wears it colours as more an exploration than a story and so succeeds as a farewell to the series.

Final Thoughts

Marlo’s become Stringer Bell in spite of himself, regulated to moving dirty money when he’d rather be on the street.  His final confrontation is evidence that he’s still more gangster than businessman and seems to suggest that he’ll inevitably find himself back in the game.  It’s yet another assertion that things don’t really change.

Speaking of Marlo’s final confrontation, it’s also evidence that Omar actually won the war between them.  Mr. Little’s legend has only grown since his death while the corner boys don’t know who Marlo is.

The stories about Omar’s death tie neatly into the season’s look at truth in reporting.  People would much rather believe a lie if it’s entertaining.

Seeing McNulty confront Scott regarding their mutual deception was an episode highlight.

Bubbles getting to come upstairs for dinner with his family was another highlight.  I really wish this story had received a bit more attention this year.

The last Barksdale standing is the one to gun down Cheese, and it happens just as he’s explaining what a dog eat dog world it is.  Does this prove his point or does it establish that loyalty does have a place in the game?

On Wednesday, some final thoughts on The Wire as a whole.

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