This year marks 15 years since David Simon’s blistering HBO crime drama The Wire first aired. Widely (and rightly) regarded as one of the greatest TV shows of all time, The Wire almost defies classification. Across its five seasons, the show grew beyond a gritty police procedural into something more, expanding its geographical, psychological and thematic scope to deliver a highly nuanced and well-realised discussion on (and indictment of) American society and its institutions. This culminated in the montage that rounded out the entire series – a note-perfect send-off that finally reveals who the true main character in The Wire was all along: the city of Baltimore itself.
What happens in The Wire‘s closing montage?
The final episode of The Wire, “–30–”, wraps with former Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) pulling his car over to the side of an overpass and gazing out over Baltimore. As he looks out over the city, we launch into a montage accompanied by The Blind Boys of Alabama’s cover of “Way Down In The Hole” – a callback to the Season 1 credits – which gives us a final, tantalising look at where our characters are headed.
A lot of what we see is pretty depressing. The drug trade remains as strong as ever on the street corners of impoverished neighbourhoods, and the police continue to wage the same ineffective war on drugs that they always have, oblivious to the real threats like untouchable crime boss The Greek (Bill Raymond). But then, why would anything change when senior police officers who are bureaucratic at best and incompetent at worst – such as Deputy Commissioner Rawls (John Doman) and Deputy Commissioner of Administration Valchek (Al Brown) – now occupy even more senior positions?
Rawls and Valchek aren’t the only ones reaping rewards they don’t deserve, either. Newly-elected Governor of Maryland, Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) has completed his metamorphosis from flawed yet idealistic rising star to amoral politician, and reporter Scott Templeton (Tom McCarthy) receives the Pulitzer Prize for his fabricated investigative efforts.
And as all these folks prosper, anybody who could make a difference, who could highlight and maybe even combat the city’s problems, is shunted to the sidelines. The fallout of this manifests itself on a very real level, as it leads kids like Dookie (Jermaine Crawford) and Michael (Tristan Wilds) to fall through the cracks. Dookie descends into the twilight world of heroin addiction, while Michael assumes the role of neighbourhood stick-up man left vacant by recently deceased fan favourite character Omar (Michael K. Williams).
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. Simon and co-writer Ed Burns are too smart to insist that life is only heartache and unhappy endings.
For starters, Lestor Freamon (Clarke Peters) seems to be enjoying retirement from the police force. Despite the acrimonious nature of his departure from the police force, he’s at peace with the idea of living out his days in the company of his girlfriend, making doll house furniture. There are also some worthwhile promotions, too. Assistant State’s Attorney Rhonda Pearlman (Deirdre Lovejoy) is now on the judge’s bench, and ousted Commissioner Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) has moved on to become a criminal defense lawyer – so at least there are still two decent (albeit flawed) people active in Baltimore’s judicial system.
Best of all, recovered addict Bubbles (Andre Royo) is allowed to come upstairs and join his family for dinner, a hard-earned victory that ranks up there with any of the major triumphs the series has to offer.
A city with its own character arc
These snapshots, while powerful on their own, fit together to paint a portrait of Baltimore that’s as vivid as any of The Wire‘s flesh and blood characters. As realised by Simon and Burns, the city even has a character arc – and it’s depressingly cyclical.
The show portrays Baltimore as the victim of an endless loop of crime and corruption deeply engrained within its dysfunctional institutions, a place where perpetual systemic failure makes it impossible to alter the dreary status quo. There’s always going to be someone becoming the next Bubbles or Omar, since the loop can’t be broken while greed, ambition, apathy and ignorance rule the day.
True, it’s possible for small victories on a personal level (like Bubbles’ redemption), and people like Pearlman and Daniels can still arguably make some difference working inside the system. However, this isn’t enough to appreciably shift the needle in Baltimore, and probably never will be – and so ultimately, The Wire‘s true main character is a tragic one.