Tuesday, February 19, 2008


The Wire Season 5: Eps. 51-56

BLOGGER'S NOTE: Spoilers lie below, so don't venture further unless you've seen the first six episodes of season five or don't care if you know what's happened.

By Edward Copeland
Thanks to a friend who still has HBO here and the ability to videotape it, I've seen the first six episodes of The Wire's final season. This post won't be like last season's recaps, but I thought I'd share what I think so far.

There is a risk that inevitably comes with being routinely called the best of something. Look how common it is for first-time viewers of Citizen Kane to think it's not that great.

In a way, David Simon's great HBO series The Wire has become a victim of its own high expectations, especially since each season seemed to build on top what had come before. Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, season four's excellence (perhaps the most sustained season of a TV series in terms of quality ever) may have made it a bit inevitable that season five would suffer by comparison.

Don't get me wrong: The Wire still is among the best TV has to offer, but having seen all but the final four episodes of its last season, I see more things that aren't working than things that are.

Season five picks up about two years after the events of season four as Baltimore Mayor Thomas Carcetti still has his sights on the Maryland gubernatorial race but he's been hit by a budget and school crisis that has led him to make brutal cutbacks to the police department. There is no longer overtime for the cops and the Major Crimes Unit reunited in the season four finale to take down drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield has been dismantled once again, sending McNulty back to the homicide department and to the bottle as well.

This is one of the things that struck me as underdeveloped. McNulty was making such great strides to be on the straight-and-narrow thanks to his relationship with Officer Beatrice Russell, that his fall from grace seems puzzling. Even worse, the scheme he develops to keep the investigation going into all the bodies Marlo's people had left in abandoned rowhouses seems a bit over-the-top for a series that has focused on being painfully real.
He dreams up a serial killer preying on homeless men (with the help of Lester Freamon) to keep the pursuit of Marlo going. This strand also brings in yet another cast of characters and a new setting into the crowded landscape of The Wire: a fictionalized version of The Baltimore Sun newspaper.

While it is great to see Homicide veteran Clark Johnson in the role of city editor Gus Haynes, the newspaper scenes seem as if they belong in another series. (Speaking of Homicide, they crib a little from things used in that series, including using the department copier as a lie detector test to fool a suspect and McNulty hunting for which department car a set of keys match.)

Since season 5 is a short one (only 10 episodes long), it's eating up a lot of screen time for a show that literally is overflowing with characters who come back from the past. It reminds me of some of those Woody Allen films like Shadows and Fog, where there are so many names in the cast, you have a hard time spotting them all. Is that Kate Nelligan in the window? Say, could that be Nick Sobotka heckling Carcetti? Don't blink or you'll miss young Randy Wagstaff. Here comes Avon Barksdale again.

While I love this element of The Wire, dumping in the Sun characters on top of everything else deprives the characters we have known of screen time. Granted, I do recognize a lot of things in the newspaper scenes. I can recall many a time I've stood with co-workers glancing at far-away smoke out the office window. On the other hand, if only newspapers still existed where line editors took such an interest in the use of language in a reporter's story instead of dumping all the problems on the copy desk for them to fix.

With only four episodes left, I wonder how they can get to any sort of satisfying wrapup for such a great series. Still, many of the other elements are great. Watching the potential fall of state Sen. Clay Davis is fun. He even lets out a "sheeeet" with more syllables than usual.

Then there are other characters we haven't seen at all. I for one would like to know how Namond is doing living with the Colvins. Is Prez making any progress in teaching? If they are going to tell us, it's going to be in the final four episodes. Finally, I do have to say, "Say it ain't so, Joe." It was sad to see the great Robert F. Chew's character of Proposition Joe fall to Marlo's power grab. Chew's role, which started out so small, really filled out the screen (in more ways the one) every time he was on. At least it's the final season, but I miss Prop Joe already.

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