If you’re scandalized by the fact that… ah, you read the disclaimer on my Sopranos post. I finished the last season of The Wire last night, and looking back, there’s simply nothing like it on TV or in the movies. I realize that the cool people of the world who subscribe to HBO saw the end of this series months ago, but I’ve never pretended to be cool.
Where Sopranos left me tired, The Wire always leaves me sad. The series has no discernible old-Hollywood hero figures and not too many characters with great reserves of moral courage, but the world of The Wire is such a brutal place that you cheer for the flawed and sometimes wretched characters who sometimes venture to take a stand and try to make something happen.
David Simon has said in several interviews that he draws the philosophical form of his Baltimore from Greek tragedy. In both worlds, inhuman forces, more powerful than even the most heroic woman or man, want what they want, and any mortal who challenges them faces destruction. The Greeks called them gods; we moderns call them Capitalism and bureaucracy. Like Sophocles and Aeschylus, Simon sets before the viewer certain trespassers who challenge the reign of the gods over the realms of the human world and allows the audience to watch the gods tear them apart. A city detective tries to fight the culture of meaningless crime statistics and ends up ruining his career. A union boss tries to stop the disappearance of the blue-collar living-wage jobs from the ports and ends up drowning himself in the world of the international drug trade. A drug dealer, having read Adam Smith, tries to turn the drug trade itself into a Free Market and falls victim to the brutal true nature of Capitalism. A school teacher tries to educate junior high kids to live good lives in the world, only to see one ripped away by the drug gangs, another by the foster care system, another still by the school system’s budget cuts. And those are just a handful of the tragic figures who try to impose reason and goodness on a world ruled by irrational and immoral forces.
That said, the Prometheus figures are at once believably flawed and genuinely moral, making for real moments of emotional power as the world washes over them. Beyond that, some of the scenes are so funny (largely because of their situation in such a grave world) that I still sometimes laugh out loud when I think on them.
Season five, I have to admit, lost something, largely because the writers took so much of the ten episodes’ time playing “Where are they now” with the first four seasons’ characters, giving some ten-second cameos and others two-episode cameos but never really incorporating them into the grand narrative. Nonetheless, considered as a five-season project, The Wire is simply the best writing that’s hit any screen in the last twenty years. If anyone can think of an exception, please let me know what it is.