To put it as bluntly as Cheese (Method Man) did shortly before getting shot in the head: ”Ain’t no nostalgia to this s— here.” The Baltimore drug dealer was talking about his unpredictable, dangerous business; we’re talking about the final episode of HBO’s The Wire and, now, its legacy.
The greatest show most of America wasn’t watching bowed out last week with little fanfare from its network, leaving us to celebrate it properly. It never sagged significantly in quality over five seasons. Its creator, David Simon, remained to The Wire’s surprisingly ebullient end one of the most bullheaded, contentious, funny, and visionary makers of television the medium has seen. He’s what they call an ”artist.” Look it up, Simon Cowell.
When all was said and done, two of the series’ most cherished characters met opposite ends: The scarred killer Omar (Michael Kenneth Williams) died a spectacularly banal death, shot by a little boy while buying cigarettes; the emotionally scarred Bubbles (Andre Royo) maintained his sobriety and was rewarded with acceptance from his family and an admiring profile in The Baltimore Sun. Some of the bad were rewarded (that weaselly Sun reporter won a Pulitzer); some of the good were laid low (Dominic West’s great-but-screwed-up cop Jimmy McNulty was forced into retirement). The finale, rather than opting for The Sopranos’ blank-screen ambiguity, said with forcefulness: Life is definitely not fair, but it’s well worth doing the hard work of living.
In exploring institutions such as local government and the public school system, The Wire insisted that no legitimate organization is any less prone to corruption and exploitation than illegal ones. Simon and his writers were making a statement that was a radical, rarely articulated one: Power is essentially evil.
From a showbiz point of view, one of The Wire’s most enduring triumphs will be that it put more — and a greater variety of — black faces in major roles than any dramatic series in TV history. Now we have to spend the next year or so seeing some of these excellent actors pop up in small roles in network television (Lance Reddick, The Wire’s police official Cedric Daniels, for example, has recently been on Lost), and we’ll feel a little of the despair they must experience, knowing that they’ll never get roles as juicy as their Wire ones.
Certainly The Wire was the best show on the air during its five seasons, and can stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the greatest achievements in series television: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos, The Honeymooners, and Seinfeld, among others. And now that it has completed its run, it can be watched forever after in the manner of a work of literature, fulfilling the comparisons from all those reviewers. Just take any one of the fat, season-long DVD collections, each about as thick as your average Balzac novel (the usual Wire literary comparison, Charles Dickens, tended to gas on longer than Simon and company did). We can spend a few nights with each ”chapter,” diving into a universe most of us will never experience. For which we can be thankful and grateful on a couple of levels.