The Wire – season five

cast: Dominic West, Andre Royo, Wendell Pierce, and Deirdre Lovejoy

creator: David Simon

630 minutes (tbc) 2007
widescreen 16:9
Warner DVD Region 2 retail
[released 22 September]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont

If the fourth season of The Wire was all about highlighting the numerous ways in which the system makes things worse, then season five is most definitely about the part we all play in the perpetuation of that system and, as a result, it is a more intimate affair than the previous couple of seasons. However, despite (as ever) being full of wonderful ideas and some genuinely moving performances, the fifth season of The Wire is a frustratingly uneven affair with a number of storylines failing to completely gel as the writers move away from the realism of the earlier seasons to explore a more abstract set of ideas.

Having swept into power with a mandate for change and strengthening the police department, Carcetti discovers that, due to creative accounting, the public school system is effectively looking at bankruptcy. Conscious immediately of his chances of becoming governor, Carcetti decides not to lay off teachers and begins a series of brutal cuts in police funding, stripping resources to the bone and banning overtime. Under such pressures police morale collapses and the investigation into Marlo Stansfield with it.

Sent back to homicide and unable to work a proper case, McNulty starts to come apart psychologically and returns to booze and sleazy late-night dalliances. Convinced that Marlo can be taken down with one last push, McNulty decides to manufacture a serial killer in the hope of shaking loose some funding for a proper investigation. His initial attempts are unsuccessful until a reporter catches wind of the story and starts making things up too. Soon the pair have created a moral panic and McNulty is signing overtime slips on half the investigations in Baltimore. But still Marlo does not slip up, prompting McNulty to raise the stakes again and again until everyone, including Mayor Carcetti, have a vested interest in the killer being a real problem.

The central theme of the fifth season of The Wire is the individual roles that we all play in perpetuating a corrupt system. It does this by taking some of the key progressive and reforming characters from the previous series and letting them have some power. Daniels, once a lowly lieutenant, has been made deputy commissioner and the crusading council member Tommy Carcetti is now mayor. Even rogue detective McNulty has been returned to the prestigious homicide squad without a stain on his character and with significant ‘suction’ and credibility with the powers that be. However, it is easy to be progressive and liberal when you have no power, as liberalism is, at least partially, about redistributing power towards the ‘have-nots’. By putting many of its protagonists in positions of authority, The Wire sets about testing their character by seeing how they will act once they become ‘haves’. The drama explores this by putting the characters through a series of dilemmas where they are tempted to compromise their principles and place their own interests ahead of those of others’.

Initially, the sacrifices are small and said to be for the greater good: by going back on his promise to strengthen the police, the mayor has a chance of becoming governor thereby replacing a corrupt republican and by diverting resources from other cases, McNulty has a chance to take down the great evil that is Marlo Stansfield. However, compromises and betrayals start small and once you start moving your ethical boundaries, you discover that they are really quite plastic. So, by the end of the series, the mayor is demanding that his senior police officers lie about the crime statistics (the precise propensity that he hated in his predecessor) while a prosecuting attorney blackmails a lawyer.

The Wire compares generations of characters and suggests that the older and corrupt power elites were not always crooks and parasites, instead it is quite possible that they started out compromising their principles and bending the odd law for the best possible reasons. However, as one lie leads to another and another, it rapidly becomes difficult to keep track of where the boundaries between good and evil actually are and so you focus upon something more obvious; your own best interest.

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If season four of The Wire attacked the system, season five reminds us that in the words of the punk band Crass “systems aren’t just made of bricks, they’re mostly made of people” and the people that those systems are made of are people exactly like us. In effect, The Wire shows us why the system is the way it is.

In The Wire, power does not corrupt. Indeed, the web of interests and political debts is so complex in any institution that being moral is as likely to destroy, as it is to elevate you. However, once you have attained power you must deal with people that are corrupt and this involves being expedient. In effect, this means that any position of power is a meat-grinder for any ethical code. Regardless of the principles you may or may not have when you enter power, it is clear that you cannot keep a hold of those principles if you want to stay in power. This fact is what made Mayor Royce and Commissioner Burrell so utterly corrupt and it threatens to engulf the seemingly progressive younger men and women that fought their way to the top in the first four seasons. This is the choice that is ultimately put to Daniels and McNulty at the end of the series; give the bosses what they want and you will stay where you are, but fail to do so and you will be destroyed.

This political fact is nicely played out in the season’s second strand, which deals with the media. The newspaper business, The Wire suggests, is just as corrupt as any government institution. The prizes that once awarded excellence can now be gamed by expedient editors and journalists and the institutions of journalism themselves have turned into gigantic pyramid schemes devoted to furthering the personal interests of the people at the top of the pile and while a moral person may rise to the top (Gus Haynes is the city desk editor at the start of the series) they cannot hope to stay there is they want to keep their hands clean. This fifth season does not work as well as the previous two.

The third and fourth seasons were amazingly ambitious in their decision to pull back from crime to look at wider social problems. The social problems they examined were concrete and could be examined directly in an almost journalistic fashion as writers drew on their real-world experiences to show the problems with the policing and school systems. The Wire‘s long-standing commitment to social realism gave the third and fourth series an almost journalistic quality and an astonishingly insightful aura of truth. When it was announced that season five would explore the media, it was widely assumed that the producers would follow the same formula and get the series’ creator David Simon to write up his experiences at the Baltimore Sun. However, this is not what season five is all about.

Instead of exploring concrete issues, season five focuses on more abstract moral failings. These cannot be ‘written up’ in the same journalistic manner. Instead, they require characters and themes to be used to illustrate the abstractions. This has moved The Wire away from its roots in social realism. For example, the sections on the media do not deal with the Internet or the role of advertising or even political interference by owners upon the editorial process, it simply deals with a story of moral compromise and how a lie can sometimes be so big that it needs to be treated as truth. The media is not the subject of the fifth season of The Wire; the media is a tool for the writers. Additionally, McNulty, in faking a serial killer, must utterly transgress the rules of good policing and, before long, he commands so much press and political attention that he winds up running a ‘police department’ within the police department to the point where a fellow detective calls him ‘boss’. This is so over-the-top that it moves away from the small lies and betrayals of real life and into the para-realistic (to use a term coined by the author Sarah Monette) realms of conspiracy theorists and fantasists such as The West Wing‘s Aaron Sorkin.

Predictably, this makes the fifth season a rather frustrating watch as the sense that you are watching something true and fully engaged with the world evaporates as the season goes on, and the failure to go after the media in any detail looms large over the show given the success of the writers’ attacks on the way the school systems are run. Because this new form of storytelling clashes with our expectations of The Wire as well as the still journalistic and realistic subplots involving Bubbles, Dukie, or Carver, season five’s main two storylines never completely bed down. Indeed, the season improves dramatically once both of these plot arcs are played out and The Wire deals with the far more realistic-feeling attempts to deal with the fallout. This means that while season five feels like a step down from the success of the fourth, The Wire still ends on a high with two powerful and flawless episodes, including the feature-length series’ finale.

Ironically, the failings of season five are due to The Wire sacrificing its unrelenting engagement with the real world on the altar of telling a story. From a critical point of view, to engage with season four of The Wire is to engage with the real world (which explains why I explored it through the lens of political theory). However, to engage with season five is to engage with a more traditional story. Indeed, with its multiple moral quandaries and people stepping outside the law with the best of intentions, the fifth season of The Wire is actually quite thematically close to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). I say this shift of emphasis is ironic as it is the exact same shift that pushes the corrupt journalist Scott Templeton into outright falsification. The move away from journalistic ethics is prompted by a desire to ‘tell the truth’ regardless of the facts and the fifth season of The Wire shows a similar desire to move away from ‘the real’ and towards ‘the truth’ as defined by the authors. To a certain extent this is only a matter of degree as all drama is a lie and all drama is a conceit but the first four seasons of The Wire move from dramatic truth to literal truth and season five dramatically reverses that decision in a somewhat jarring manner.

However, this is a minor quibble and, having looked at a few reviews, I think that I am the only person to pick up on this shift in emphasis so it may not bother you in the least. You may even prefer season five’s desire to return to telling stories about crime. This is still brilliantly written and acted drama. I just think that it marks a failure on the part of the writers to live up to their own absurdly high standards.