About the only good news in Baltimore is that test scores for third graders are up 15 points. This being The Wire, even that good news is tainted last season's brutal foray into the city's school system made clear that those numbers are mere props for politicians. Everywhere else it's worse, especially among the underfunded police force: Overtime pay has vanished, cops take buses to crime scenes, the investigation into those 22 bodies sealed up in West Side houses last season has been suspended. Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) is dangerously close to being branded as ''just a weak-ass mayor of a broke-ass city.''
The fifth and final season of David Simon's peerlessly acted, stunningly scripted, revolutionary drama of 1,000 moving parts kicks off Jan. 6, and Baltimore is undergoing a changing of the guard with the new generation even more unworthy than the last. Carcetti makes decisions not as a dutiful mayor, but as a gubernatorial hopeful. Drug dealer Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) the guy responsible for those 22 bodies is consolidating power ruthlessly and without discipline. ''Marlo's an a--hole,'' snarls Det. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West). ''He does not get to win, we get to win.'' McNulty's worthy adversary, semi-legit gangster Stringer Bell, has been killed, and here's the detective back in Homicide, back on the sauce, trying to scrape up pocket change to nail punks like Marlo. He reeks of anger and disdain. And Jameson.
Bubs, Bunk, Omar they all resurface too. If there's one problem with The Wire, it's that, five seasons in, too many beautifully realized characters fight for too little room a gem of a complaint to have. Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, has chosen to (dis)favor the media this round, and he's replicated a newsroom as desperately faulty as any of The Wire's other institutions. The Sun is also suffering from entitled upstarts: A budget crisis has management winnowing those with decent salaries smarter, veteran reporters. Old-school city editor Gus (Homicide's Clark Johnson) finds himself saddled with the paper's callow new golden boy Scott Templeton (Year of the Dog's Tom McCarthy), a flimsy reporter as hollowly ambitious and shortsighted as Marlo.
From the police station to city hall to the newspapers to the street, it's clear nobody will get a ''New Day in Baltimore.'' Everyone seems only more stuck in his or her own intertwined, culpable role. Episode 7 ends with cop Kima (Sonja Sohn) holding her son at a windowsill, as they say goodnight to the moon and the ''po-po...hoppers...hustlers...scammers'' of Baltimore. The triumph of The Wire is that, as Kima whispers these words, they don't sound cynical. They sound like a benediction for this yelping creation of David Simon, and a good wish for the hard struggle of cities. A